I haven’t ever met Bob Murphy.
But one day last year I was at a Carlton coffee shop. I looked out the window and saw him sitting outside. His beloved Arthur, the family Dachshund who’s featured in Bob’s columns, was with him, waiting hopefully for a morsel from his master.
It wasn't all that long since Bob had done his knee. No decision on whether he would play on had yet been announced. To my mind he looked sad, reflective, but for all I knew he may have just been annoyed that his coffee was taking too long to arrive.
I hesitated as I left the café, wondering if I should speak to him, express my gratitude, empathy, support. Everything I thought of saying was trite, banal, and quite possibly intrusive. I’d leave Bob and Arthur to their quiet reflections without being interrupted by another gushing fan, I decided, and I walked past them in silence.
I did meet Matthew ‘Keith’ Boyd once, while he was still captain, at a supporters’ breakfast function. Knowing his famous commitment to training, I half expected to be fixed with that stern expression and challenged about whether I was actually 100 % committed to the team (I was scoffing a croissant at the time). But Keith was warm and unexpectedly funny, talking about the birth of his daughter only a few weeks earlier, sharing laughs with myself and my sister-in-law about sleep deprivation and the tribulations of new parenthood.
Of course I’ve received messages, letters even, from both of these two captains, thanking me for that automatic renewal of membership which confirms (sometimes condemns) me as a Bulldog For Life. (Cynics claim it’s not actually them, it's just the marketing department. People really try to bring you down sometimes).
I got one from Ryan Griffen too. Make of that what you will.
We don’t really know the players with whom we journey through matches and seasons, but we’re attached to them and they matter to us more than they can know. Each week our fate rests on their on-field actions and deeds. We will be uplifted, or disappointed, depending on their decision to pass instead of shoot for goal, a milli-second flinch of hesitation and fear as a thundering pack bears down on them, whether they can extract something from their exhausted bodies to make an extra lunge for a tackle, their composure or anxiety or state of fatigue as they take a last quarter shot at goal.
They are actors and entertainers, villains and heroes, in our weekly drama. They are our idols whose wondrous deeds make us inordinately proud; their stuff-ups, mistakes or failings are ours as well.
They are a family to us, yet many of us will never exchange a word with them. We paint pictures of them, invent narratives in our minds. We scan the faces of our new recruits, players number #999 (Young, Lewis) and #1000 (Patrick Lipinski, yet to be nicknamed). Will they be 200-game players for us, made of the right stuff, as we instantly knew when a raw and gangly Marcus Bontempelli graced the field? Will one of them line up for a vital shot in a preliminary final with minutes to go and deliver us either more heartache or joy of the purest kind? Is there someone else, yet to wear our colours, who will be the other kind of player, a Libba The First, a Daniel Cross or indeed a Matthew Boyd, taking us by surprise, overcoming shortcomings and maximising their potential through sheer grit and burning ambition?
The glimpses we get through the media are usually bland; we get inklings but far from the full picture from how they play on the field. Shane Biggs on his Instagram account plays the role of team prankster; last week he irreverently photo-shopped the faces of our two distinguished retirees onto a picture of elderly men with pipes and cloth caps sitting in a suburban park. Yet who would have thought that this apparently laid-back character, a Sydney reject and far from a household name, would trap the ball, again and again, in our forward line in a critical passage in the last quarter of the grand final, his unbelievable tackling and multiple pressure acts ensuring that longed-for cup would finally be ours?
And who would have foreseen that Tom Boyd, with his movie star looks, imposing and athletic frame would be having his struggles with the black dog, unimagined by those of us on the perimeter: a struggle that may have been brought on, paradoxically, by our over-the-top investment in him in more ways than one?
We don’t really know any of them, and we don’t know what they think of us, the loyal, capricious, fickle, irrational fans, as they sign autographs or oblige us with a selfie, as we clap and cheer or sigh with disappointment or make disparaging comments over the fence or, increasingly, online.
But when we hear they are retiring, there’s a lump in our throats, an ache in our hearts. We watch the videos where, with a balance of pathos and humour to their teammates, they announce their retirement. I have a secret wish to be there, silent and invisible in a corner just as I've been silent and invisible as over countless seasons, one more person in the crowd. Just by my unseen presence, conveying somehow what they’ve meant to us.
But because the fans can't all mill inside those training rooms, silent or otherwise, part of the inner sanctum, we do the next best thing. The only thing fans can ever do really. We head off to their last games. To celebrate. To mourn.
It’s, weirdly, a Hawthorn ‘home’ game. At the stadium we’ve reluctantly accepted as our own, we sit far from our so-called 'Bulldog for Life' seats, displaced high up in the stadium. The brown and gold branding is everywhere, the premiership-glutted fans outnumber us two to one.
The big screens are showing the epic deeds of Luke Hodge, who’s had experiences our Bob never got to know, of leading his team out and playing a blinder on more than one grand final day.
And Keith - well, he might concede that Hodge had skills he could not match, but you sense he would refuse to yield anything in any comparison of the fierceness of their competitive spirits.
About the match, I have few thoughts. I don’t expect us to win, and that’s no longer the ‘Danny from Droop St’ fatalism, It's clear-eyed reality of where we are and where we deserve to be. I only want to say goodbye, but here up so far from the action, it’s hard to feel close, hard to feel connected to the two men who we've watched for so many years.
But, with the game largely forgettable, my thoughts do wander to the last two times we played the Hawks. In the Round three 2016 match we were leading with 90 seconds to play. The ball spun from a pack; Bob was caught one out with two men in brown and gold. In slow motion, it seemed, he twisted and did his knee. The Dogs lost the match. At that wrenching moment 2016 was, it seemed, gone forever.
The more recent time we played the Hawks was last year's semi-final. We'd come off the bravest, most gallant of wins against West Coast in Perth, and now had to back up against the winners of the last three premierships. As we ran rampant over them in the third quarter, a new narrative was surely being written. We all sensed it when The Bont effortlessly out bodied and outmarked Luke Hodge. The new tyro versus the old warrior. Yes, that was the story of the night. The Dogs' trajectory was on the up and up; the Hawks was on the wane.
Yet here in 2017, it's not the story at all. Team 11 on the ladder is playing team 12. The skills confirm it if nothing else. The Bont looks lame, exhausted, a young guy who has carried too much of our load. Seven of his premiership team-mates are missing. The ball doesn't sing for Bont tonight.
But Boyd and Murphy each play individually grand games. Keith reminds us of his All-Australian form of last year, intercepting, reading the game, directing and choreographing alongside our other magnificent 30-something Dale Morris. If it wasn’t Keith you’d almost accuse him of showboating when he launches an exquisite kick, one that Dougie Hawkins would have been proud of, spinning inevitably into the arms of his leading skipper.
Bob doesn’t look tired and leg-weary as he often has this season. There’s that lightness of foot, that acceleration. He kicks a long goal after receiving Boyd's pass. Maybe he’s playing, not with the echoes of the Bulldogs’ sorrowful past or his own missed opportunities, but with the inner childlike wonder of his seven-year-old self.
The Dogs lift in the last quarter, after falling behind because of the usual 2017 hallmarks of sloppy disposal and that infinitesimal drop in 2016 intensity. We start coming at the Hawks strongly. You know where this well-spring of extra effort has come from, and it’s not the tiny chink of possibility that we will play finals. It's to send our heroes off as they deserve to be, as winners.
But shots are sprayed. The wrong decisions are made. Bob himself gallops forward, taking bounces, apparently about to score an uplifting, emotional goal.
The shot goes out on the full.
The match, and this year where nothing has gone right, are over.
We're on the wrong side of the ground to really see the reactions of the three veterans. From our vantage point Hodge, Boyd and Murphy are tiny specks. They're hoisted on their team-mates' shoulders, a ritual that always makes me think how primitive and tribal sport is at its essence, a step back to gladiators and warriors.
Over the next few days I watch some of the footage of the farewells that we couldn't really catch at the time. I see that Bob and Keith were interviewed out on the ground by Brad Johnson. Bob is characteristically droll; he says our future will be bright, now that some of the 'dead wood' has been cleared. But Keith is fighting tears, his voice thick with emotion.
Three captains standing there together: an astounding 966 games between them. They dreamt of big things together, in our agonising unsuccessful campaigns of 08-10. Jonno had seen even more heartache, debuting aged just 18 years and five days old in 1994; over his brilliant career, he played 21 finals for only six wins.
Three captains ... yet only one ends his career with a premiership medallion in his keeping.
These men were not only champions; they wrote a new Bulldog story. They set standards for our club. And they stayed loyal; they were that increasing rarity, one-club-players. I can't recall one drawn out contract negotiation, no theatrical roadshows or media circus about whether Jono, Bob, or Keith would stay or leave. They were the best of men, role models we were always proud of, no matter where our club was on the ladder, humble in victory, dignified in defeat. I can barely remember a time without them.
Alongside my sorrow as I watch them, there's a fear, a worry. What will our club stand for? what will we be without them?
I watch footage, too, of the 1000th player to don our colours. Not so many months ago, Patrick Lipinski was just like me (well, a little bit more talented and athletic): a starry-eyed fan bedecked in red, white and blue, celebrating our fairytale premiership. On Friday night he experienced what Bob says are the best moments in footy:
'The two minutes before you run out to play, walking up the race, I just don't think you get that in any other place — a deep sense of brotherhood and clan.'
Now, unlike me, he has sat in the inner sanctum. Wearing the number 27 on his back, the 19-year-old listened to Bevo's tribute to Bob and Keith:
They made footy big again.
The Bont was one of those who carried Bob off the field. Bont once described how Bob, a non-combatant in the 2016 finals series, had placed just a question mark on the whiteboard in the build up to that stunning West Coast match:
The question he was asking was simple - how good could we be?
I also come across a photo from Friday night which makes me smile, and realise my worries about what our club will stand for now are unfounded. Bob's daughter Frankie, wearing her dad's number two, has run up to The Bont. She is being swung exuberantly around, as kids love to do, by our champion in the number four.
The hunger game
You know the drill.
The Libba Sisters were, of course, on the couch. In the Rising Sun apartments, across the road from the Whitten oval. Just as we were for the loss to West Coast. And the loss to the despised Acronyms.
Those lucky spots on the couch – it's fair to say they're not proving all that lucky in 2017.
We were feeling nervous and apprehensive, even though the Tragician had boldly declared after the premiership victory, that the battle between hope and dread, optimism and fear - the hallmark of Bulldogs supporting experience - had been decisively, conclusively, won.
That Tragician. She sure can speak a lot of drivel.
All week I’d cringed at every mention of Ye Olde Kardinia Park Hoodoo. Grimaced at the parade of gloomy statistics about just how long it’s been since we beat our bogey team. Broken out in clammy sweats with each new article highlighting Geelong’s dismal tackling, the fact that they'd never lost more than three games in a row since 2006, the spotlight that was being shone upon Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield.
I was nervous and apprehensive that in a year where we’ve struggled to get our best players out on the field, we’d made so many changes.
Nervous and apprehensive that ten of our premiership players are missing – and most worryingly, some of them were omitted for reasons of form, not forced on us by injury.
Nervous and apprehensive that the media, by harping constantly on Geelong’s so-called lack of fire and physicality, were providing motivation and ammunition for a team that have never exactly needed it against us.
Mainly ... I was just nervous and apprehensive.
I was succumbing to that old style, defeatist, loser mentality, not befitting of the 2016 premiers.
That's why I double-checked the Geelong team-sheet, just to reassure myself that those tormentors of so many matches past: Corey Enright, Jimmy Bartel, Billy Brownless, Gary Ablett (Senior, let alone Junior) – even Peter Riccardi (I once saw him winking, I repeat winking, to some mates in the crowd as he and his fellow Cats were demolishing us with ridiculous ease. And I still bear a grudge) – were not surprise selections.
Once that was established, our match-day experience went something like this:
Libba One: Our Boys are switched on. That's the best start we've had in ages. We've even kicked straight.
We’ve really locked down well on Corey Enright too. He’s been completely unsighted!
Libba Two: The Cats have thrown a whole lot of things at us, but we’ve withstood the challenge.
Sure, Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield have been getting it a bit. They’ll probably get tired for the rest of the match.
Libba One: That was unbelievable. Unbelievably bad.
We didn’t even touch the footy. There’s no way we can come back from this.
Didn’t Geelong thrash us by 10 goals around this time last year? I can feel it in my bones – we’re in for a repeat.
Libba Two: Pass the chocolate.
Three quarter time
Libba One: I knew we'd come back! What a team! What self-belief! You can never write these boys off! We're the premiers, remember!
Libba Two: (massive eye-roll).
Libba one: I’m really REALLY sick of being beaten by Geelong. Bloody Selwood.
Libba two: I’m really REALLY sick of being beaten by Geelong. Bloody Dangerfield.
There were questionable umpiring decisions of course, but I’ve never been one to harbor grudges for years and years, or go childishly on, and on, and on, about them. That sort of person might point out that Bob Murphy’s “holding the ball” when he actually KICKED the thing, was just exactly like a spectacularly awful decision in the ’09 preliminary, against Ryan Hargrave, if I recall rightly. (Nobody is fooled - I recall it with crystal clarity). But hypothetically, IF I were one to harp about the umpiring and never let go of these horrendous injustices, even after we've won a flag, that’s the sort of thing I’d be banging on about.
Friday night was the first time I’ve seen Bevo (Our Saviour) looking genuinely dejected after a loss. And there was something in Our Boys’ reaction that made me uneasy. Bewilderment, annoyance at what’s going wrong. A weariness, that week after week, hungry challengers are fired up to the max, ready to knock us off our pedestal; and even when one is despatched, another lurks in the wings.
I don't think we're complacent. But there's a little edge that's been lost. The hunger isn't as acute. It's not sustained over entire matches, by all players, in every quarter, every week.
The last two years have been a journey, an exploration of how good we can be. Losses just pointed to where we needed to improve. Now there's frustration, even boredom, at having to absorb – again! - the painful lesson, that footy is hard, that success is precious but oh so rare. That to win another premiership, the mountain has to be climbed all over again; you don’t get to start half way up.This rather obvious fact hadn’t somehow percolated into my consciousness. I’m not quite sure why. I guess I haven't had much experience in this whole Post Premiership mindset.
But my thoughts, spinning around in the wake of the dispiriting loss, make me unaccountably tired.
I think about The Bont, brutally crunched several times during the match, getting up just a little more slowly and gingerly each time. It was a rarity, a game where our star had little impact. Next week and the week after, he will have to do it all over again. His name is the one circled on each opponents’ whiteboard. His body is the one that each opposition player hopes to slam into the turf at every opportunity. His influence is the one that every other team is most desperate to curb.
I think about Murph, the oldest man on the field, trying to create a last-minute spark by setting off on a dash into the forward line, hearing the thundering footsteps of Tom Hawkins behind him, feeling the indignity of the Cats' fans triumphant roar. Moments like that - they weren't quite what motivated him as he embarked on the grind of rehabilitation, the slow journey back to fitness and confidence.
I think about Libba (the Second) and Toby McLean and Fletcher Roberts and Shane Biggs and Zaine Cordy, trundling around at Footscray in front of a couple of thousand people for a pedestrian VFL encounter, wondering where the magic has gone. Wondering if they still have the fire. Remembering what it took. Unsure, right at the moment, whether they can pay that price again.
I think about ‘Matthew’ Keith Boyd. His preparation has been limited, his form not reaching the heights of last year’s All-Australian performances. The internet has begun to buzz as armchair critics circle, agreeing that he’s played one year too long. He’s ‘slowed up’. He’s making errors. Our valiant former skipper, the man whose tiny toe-poke to JJ in the preliminary final was just as vital, just as magnificent, as the chain of play to which it led, is already being ruthlessly written off, by our own fans no less. It’s a heartbreak to me whenever this speculation begins, accompanied by those inevitable words: ‘He’s been a great servant of the club. But...’
I think about those words, too. Of all the meanings and implications. It's a strange concept. 'A servant’ of a club.
I think about Mitch Wallis. The boy destined to succeed, with his distinguished footy pedigree, his leadership qualities, the boy who requested, demanded, the famous number three jumper, who was an important part of our 2015-16 rise. The boy who broke his leg horrendously last August, who had to sit in the MCG grandstand watching his team-mates living out his dream.
Mitch was our best player in his comeback match on Friday night. He was at the bottom of packs. He didn’t shy away from the bruises, the physicality, the slippery turf, the parochial crowd, the never-ending relentless of getting to one contest...and then the next.
For his team-mates, the road ahead over the next three months probably feels right now as though it's strewn with boulders. It might be hard to remember the scent of warm summer grass, the thrill of finals footy; the obstacles might be looming larger than the destination. Mitch won't be seeing those hindrances; the rewards, after what he's been through, must seem close enough to touch.
The getting of wisdom
In the euphoric weeks and months that followed our second premiership I was convinced that my barracking experience had been changed forever.
I visualized myself, calm and unflustered by whatever unfolded in season 2017. Perhaps I might even become one of those good sports who politely applauds a piece of opposition good play.
Childish superstitions about lucky badges and scarves would be banished.
I’d greet setbacks or mistakes, whether from Our Boys or the umpires, with the Zen-like serenity of the Dalai Lama (though for obvious reasons I wouldn’t be donning those robes, which veer a little too much in the direction of orange for my liking).
It was unclear in my imaginings whether this expected state of tranquility would be reached because after the extraordinary events of 2016:
And when, after trailing all day, we finally hit the lead, that footy phenomenon, that distortion of time that means a mere eight remaining minutes lasted a complete eternity (I don’t care what Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking has to say) was as excruciating as ever.
Our elation when the siren rang out and we’d held on with sheer grit was – in that micro-second at least - as joyous as it was in the 2016 finals.
As fierce and powerful as it ever was in some of those wretched seasons when a win only signified that we’d staved off another wooden spoon.
Sadly, my forecast that our premiership would mean a seismic shift in my "matchday experience" was, like many of my predictions, ludicrously inaccurate (I'm still trying to forget my tearful declaration upon the retirement of Daniel Cross that I would never love another player in the number four as much as him).
I’ve failed to appreciate, it seems, that the extremes of joy and angst are simply integral to the barracking experience when you follow a club, successful or otherwise. I’d thought the nature of those highs and lows was unique to us as Dogs’ supporters, an over-the-top intensity borne from our many - er - non-victories.
But maybe the emotional rollercoaster, within a game, a quarter, a season, doesn’t vary as much as you’d think, whether you’re a Hawthorn supporter punch-drunk on premiership success, or a Richmond fan dealing with years of disappointment. Our identity is so closely intertwined with our team - that irrational sense of belonging and ownership of performances whether good or bad - that the joy of winning, or the sting of defeat - never really change.
And for us Dogs' supporters, now we’ve seen how marvellous those highs can be, we watch our performances with extra hope, higher expectations, yet extra vulnerability. We’re hyper-vigilant to the idea that we might slip back to mediocrity. Already, it's difficult and quite unbearable to imagine returning to ineptitude. We're nowhere near ready to accept that it might be some other team's turn this September, or graciously concede that at some point in the footy cycle, hard times will inevitably come again.
There's another difference in our perceptions now. Before, all our performances used to be viewed through the prism of the failures. That often distorted a straightforward appreciation of the gifts of any one crop of players, and made impossible any sensible and philosophical response to the cycle of footy fortune. We anxiously assessed each player, each new group that showed promise through a lens where we asked, hoped, prayed: could these be the chosen ones? If they won or lost a close game, we saw it as having extra meaning, a portent, a harbinger of things to come – as well as a reflection of everything that had gone before it.
Simultaneously a message from the universe that our history was incapable of being turned around. And yet somehow caused by all those failures past.
These thoughts, which are not tranquil, serene, or zen-like, are in my mind at various stages of our match on Saturday. Especially at a critical point in the third quarter, when The Bont took a strong contested mark 40 metres out from goal. As he lined up for a shot which was critical given our recent goalkicking yips, I had a flashback to May 2016, recalling a hotly contested match against that team which features so prominently in the well-stocked Tragician Hall of Infamy: the Adelaide Crows.
In that 2016 game, we'd held the lead all day but were in danger of capitulating in the last quarter (cue, of course, flashbacks to The Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named), when The Bont took a mark in our forward line. I recall feeling as though the story this young group was going to write - whether of a team known for fragility, or one of uncommon resilience and strength - was now resting in The Bont’s over-sized hands. He had missed two gettable shots in a 2015 final, one that we'd narrowly lost (more ghastly flashbacks) against those same opponents. If he sprayed this one as well, and we lamely surrendered our lead, you just knew that our fans would have reacted with over-the-top despair. However unfairly, we’d somehow link it with all those other misses by Bulldogs’ players past. It would confirm our deep-seated fear, that our lamentable record in really big games would go on to taint generation after generation.
If this seems melodramatic, even by my standards, my reaction when The Bont (bless) DID NOT miss, was equally hysterical. I was sure our champ had drawn a line in the sand, made a statement that the Bad Old Days were gone. At last – at LAST!! - we had the cool calm champion with a steely inner belief, one who was not afraid of pressure, who in fact ate pressure for breakfast (did I mention my reaction was melodramatic and hysterical?)
Yet as 2016 progressed, and time after time we won those close games we inevitably used to lose, I felt sure I'd been right. Kicking that goal had created, I believed, a butterfly effect. It had achieved something momentous, something that magically (I was vague on the actual technicalities) transformed us into a team where Jackson Macrae could kick THAT clutch goal in the 2016 preliminary final. Where his team-mates, legs aching, lungs bursting, could then find a way to withstand the excruciating pressure of those last few minutes. Where the next week they could carry all our dreams on their shoulders and deliver us that flag.
Yes, all this - and more - was the result of that kick by The Bont in May 2016!
But here we are, on a wintry night in 2017, playing the Tigers. The Bont, again, is lining up for goal. We'd made another slow start. There had been countless, frustrating disposal errors, and early on, Our Boys hadn't matched the run, dare and commitment of our opponents. Now, we're bridging the gap, but we badly need, expect, Bont to again show his mettle and nail a not particularly difficult shot at goal.
But ... The Bont misses. The crowd groans, gives a restless, panicky shuffle. I feel that familiar elevator ride lurch in my stomach. I recall, superstitiously, that earlier in the match, he'd also sprayed a handball, an unthinkable event for one of his extraordinary gifts.
So if The Bont’s goal in 2016 was a pivotal, season-defining moment (gulp) – then what does this miss mean?
Not much at all, it turns out.
The Bont elevates his efforts still further. He lays crunching tackles, including a superb one on the rampaging Dusty Martin. He storms around the field; he is there in every stoppage. One moment he is mopping up in front of us, seconds later he is somehow there in the frenetic last two minutes, when Richmond launch their final assault on our precarious lead. I spot him gliding towards a pack from which it is only too possible someone in yellow and black will emerge to break our hearts.
I don’t know if I say it or think it - BONT!! – but I know he will judge the mark perfectly.
'What a mark, what a star,' the commentators say. We knew all that already, of course.
I drive various exhausted, but exhilarated family members home to their western suburbs outposts. Four red, white and blue scarves of varying vintages and condition fly proudly out the car windows. They remind me of the display of colours of medieval jousting tournaments.
When my passengers are all safely deposited home to watch the replays, I turn on the radio for the rest of my drive. A news bulletin is almost finishing.
'The reigning premiers have prevailed in a tight contest against Richmond,' the announcer says.
Sometimes, like now, those words still give me an unaccountable shiver of joy, of surprise, of delight.
The 'reigning premiers' - that's our team, you know - have notched up another win.
We're still getting used to it, this premiership feeling. Sixty one years of heartache were always behind us in the rear vision mirror. Now, there's a different view. Hungry challengers are snapping at our heels. Our wretched luck with injuries persists. We're not the heartwarming story of the battlers of the west any more. We're flying under the radar, drawing on that premiership experience to find ways to win. And our 2017 story seems to be emerging just fine.
I notice when I get home that my lucky scarf's a little the worse for wear, after a match-day incident which may have involved a hot jam donut. It probably won't do any harm to chuck it in the washing machine, even though I've been strangely reluctant to do so. Because, notwithstanding my attempts to become serene, calm and zen-like, it means something primitive to me, something those medieval jousters would understand, that I carried it with me for each epic final. Even though it's an inanimate object, it somehow must have absorbed the sounds and sights and tears of our premiership journey. Still, it would be irrational, illogical, to think it had anything to do with Dale Morris' brilliant tackle on Buddy Franklin, or Liam Picken's hanger, or Shane Biggs' desperate lunges and tackles in the last quarter of the grand final.
I decide to just give my scarf a minor spot scrub in the sink. You can't be too careful. Not when you've known so many years of non-victories.
On winning. And losing
I guess in retrospect there were some early, troubling signs.
Over-confidence. An air of invincibility. A smug sense that winning has become inevitable. A cavalier attitude, a failure to attend to those mundane, boring details that have been critical to our success.
Yes, you guessed it. It certainly didn't bode well when I arrived at my sister's apartment to watch us take on Freo, without my lucky scarf and Bonti badge.
The Libba Sisters, of course, have played a largely unacknowledged role in the Bulldogs' fairytale rise. (Not that I'd ever make a big deal of it, but it wouldn't hurt Bevo Our Saviour just once, surely, to admit he'd had some help via the Libbas' selfless contribution, our commitment to the premiership glory by always sitting in the same spot whenever we play interstate, with an incredible 100% success rate. I don't think it's overstating it to cast doubt on whether we'd have pulled off that amazing elimination final against the Eagles without this 'X' factor.)
Anyway, the Libbas are getting a little too accustomed to the Bulldogs' success. We wait for the first bounce, without any of the usual angst, perhaps verging on complacency in our confidence that Our Boys will have little difficulty bringing the four points home with them on the Red Eye.
There isn't the typical nervous tension, none of the usual jittery anxiety. I'm not even fretting about questions like who will play on Pavlich (it is another bad sign that I had to be reminded he'd retired). There's no sinking of the heart when the Purple-clad Ones run out and I'm startled again at just how stupendously tall Aaron Sandilands is; no wringing of the hands at how our rather depleted ruck stocks will go in countering the man-mountain. We're not even voicing our Danny-from-Droop-St suspicions that the always evil AFL have conspired to outlaw the third man up, just to thwart our success at this tactic, which would have been a handy ploy against the aforesaid man-mountain.
We've lost sight, in all of the premiership euphoria, of that painfully acquired knowledge from our years in the wilderness, which I once dubbed 'defensive pessimism'. We are no longer on high alert for factors that will inevitably presage a 'shock' (but not to us) defeat. We aren't restlessly checking off that list of things that in the past would have set the warning bells clanging:
The Bulldogs' slow start doesn't faze us as it should have. We are magnanimous in condescendingly acknowledging that the besieged outfit from Freo are having a red hot go. (Soon enough they'll be overtaken by the 2016 premiers).
We can see Our Boys aren't switched on, and it would be good to see a bit more spark and energy. But they won't lose, just make heavy going of what should have been a percentage building exercise.
It's around the time that the words 'percentage building' float through my mind that I become perturbed. I'm supposed to be the Bulldog Tragician, for heaven's sake. I'm definitely losing my edge.
I should have been tuning into reality. This isn't just a slow start. There is an ominous listlessness. This isn't our usual daredevil, kamikaze chain of handpass Men of Mayhem style just occasionally not coming off. This is the wrong option being taken again and again.
The Libba Sisters' zen-like calm, the trance-like state in which we moved through the magical 2016 finals, is beginning to fray. Our conviction that Somebody (it will probably be Bont. It will definitely be Bont) will rescue us from this inertia, starts to crumble.
Firstly, in tried and true fashion, we respond to the situation by attempting, with little success, to dredge up some animosity towards the umpires. It's been a coincidence, of course, that since September 2016, we have not been so quick to find fault in the performance of the men in that horrid shade of green. Sure, we might have been perceived as having the better of the umpiring in recent times, but I've found myself patiently explaining that's because good teams, excellent teams, premiership-winning teams, are first to the ball, simply more desperate, and courageous.
(There's also, in my view, the fact they have got quite a few decades before the ledger is considered to be anywhere near squared).
The second sign that we are rattled, that we sense that we actually could lose, is when the Libbas begin to soothe our growing dismay by pouring scorn on the 'hairstyle choices' of the Freo players. (The Bont, because he is The Bont, is the only one able to pull off the man-bun look. This is just a rule of physics, or science, or something. Mess with it at your peril.)
By half-time, even though the Dogs had worked their way back into the contest, I find myself remembering (had I ever really forgotten?) everything I didn't like about losing, especially at an interstate venue. The frustration of watching dumb mistakes - they're bad enough the first time. I don't really need to see them slowed down and analysed in painstaking detail. The droning inanity of the commentators (especially when they're analysing those mistakes). The lack of context to explain why (maybe there actually isn't a reason) we persist in those blaze-away entries into the forward line, or the slow ball movement to a scrum of players inevitably featuring Aaron Sandilands.
The half time conversation between the Libbas shows that the tension is beginning to build.
Libba Sister One: Too much is being left to too few. I just don't think they're working hard enough. Some of those chases are being given up a bit too easily for my liking. I'm quite sure I could (just about) run faster than that!!
Libba Sister Two: You're dead right. By the way, the party pies will be ready in a few minutes.
Still, we think we will win. Because this is just what these blokes, our new Bulldog Breed, do. Ugly wins, close wins, thrilling wins, courageous wins, heart-stopping wins, wins when we looked done and dusted, wins achieved just through heart and courage.
So as we begin to assert our ascendancy in the third quarter, this one is being mentally filed away. It will be a regulation one, four points banked in a not very inspiring way, barely remembered by the season's end. A barrage of 50 metre entries have not yielded as many goals at they should have, and we should be leading by more than just 14 points, but we will get over the line. Maybe our not-so-brilliant performance will send up a red flag, though, remind Our Boys that hard work is still essential, that every team is vulnerable if they don't bring their very best effort (I can almost hear my schoolmarm-ish tone in the sadly unlikely event that I was invited to give them a motivational pep talk). Our troubling lack of intensity at key moments will give Bevo Our Saviour a bit of ammunition, to rev them up, to remind some of the stragglers that there are a couple of premiership players waiting in the wings, hungry for their spot. He will remind them of where we've come from. How far ahead there is still to go.
While I'm visualising these handy, valuable life lessons for Our Boys, I neglect to foresee - because that would have been what we feared in those Bad Old Pre-Premiership Days - that we would barely fire a shot while the team in purple, outdoing us in zest, hunger and ferocity (as well as the Bad Hairstyle Tally) will run all over the top of us.
The siren sounds. The Libbas' proud record of 100% success is in tatters. We hastily mute the dreaded Freo dirge. Our Boys, far from home, trudge slowly from the field.
It's our first loss since August 26, 2016, when curiously enough we'd lost to the same team, in much the same way. That loss didn't turn out out to mean anything in the scheme of things, yet at the time it seemed huge, momentous, condemning us to seventh spot on the ladder and a return to the same venue for a sudden-death final.
So as I head home, vowing never to leave my scarf behind again and feeling that unaccountable irritability that a Dogs' loss generates, I begin wondering whether the loss will mean anything at all, or what that meaning is going to be. I'm trying to decode the looks on the players' faces when the game ended, what The Bont and Lachie Hunter who'd both put in extraordinary efforts were thinking, how much it hurt for them and their team-mates. That's always been the unfathomable question facing us this year, how much hunger the Dogs will retain after smashing through that wall of fate and history that had been impregnable for so long. Whether they will summon up again that indomitable drive, be prepared for the relentless hard work, how they'll deal with being the hunted. They've written a script of 'heartwarming fairytale'. But what's the one that awaits them - and us- now?
I drive home past the silent and empty Whitten Oval. My mind drifts to a quaint photo that I'd seen during the week. It was from the 1962 Footscray Advertiser. The article was about how Footscray fans 'long for a repeat' of the 54 heroics. It was eight years after that flag, and just one year after our second grand final appearance.
How long that 'longing' was about to stretch.
The balmy autumn weather has broken while we watched the match. As I reach the pinnacle of 'Mount Mistake' (a droll Footscray-ism, surely) I can't see, through driving rain, those words proudly wrapped around the Whitten Oval grandstands: Premiers 2016. Words that have brought tears to my eyes, of joy and crazy disbelief, whenever I see them.
I'm thinking about winning, and losing. We used to be so familiar with the latter, not so well-versed in dealing with the former. I often thought that if the Dogs ever finally triumphed, wins or losses in the years that followed wouldn't matter as much any more. I expected - (in reality I couldn't even conceptualise what it would be like) - that the exhilaration and joy would last me a lifetime. One flag, one solitary flag, would be enough. The future beyond that was just - a blank.
Of course, we were viewing winning and losing through the prism of decades of non-achievement, which coloured and exaggerated our reactions to each of these outcomes: over the top celebrations of wins, catastrophising the losses. But now we're in uncharted waters. I'm almost surprised at how much I disliked losing to Freo. I didn't really anticipate that winning doesn't dull our appetite for success; it's the other way round, it has made the losses more unpalatable and we hope - for our team as well as ourselves - harder to bear.
The holy grail
On Friday, the day our flag was to be unfurled, a familiar tune floated out from my radio. Mark Seymour was performing an acoustic version of the Hunter and Collectors’ iconic song: ‘The holy grail.’
With just the songwriter and his guitar, I heard the song anew. Without those dominating horns, and played at a slower tempo, it was no longer an anthem of triumph and conquest. It was melancholy, wistful, poignant. A tale of yearning and survival, struggle and failure.
I’ve read that it’s actually about Napoleon’s ill-fated attempt to invade Russia. But over time, renditions of ‘The Holy Grail’ have become unavoidably associated with hackneyed Grand Final pre-match entertainment.
And up until 2016, that link was a melancholy one for Dogs’ fans, as we watched enviously from the sidelines, year after year.
I was more likely to snap the TV off in irritation whenever its opening chords rang out (it didn’t help that I knew it would soon be followed by its inevitable sidekick: ‘Up there Cazaly’). I would suddenly decide the garden urgently needed weeding, or that the untidy state of the sock drawer could not be tolerated a moment longer.
Seeing club after club enjoy an occasion that seemed locked away from us forevermore, I became (you may find this hard to believe) mean-spirited and unsporting. When Collingwood was ascendant in the 2010 grand final re-match, a Magpie-supporting friend kept sending me updates that —childishly — I didn’t really want to hear. My answers became increasingly terse and insincere.
‘Eddie has left his seat to go down to the boundary!!!’
I’m at Bunnings.
But now, all of us who have spent our lifetimes ‘trying to get our hands, on the holy grail’, are about to see our history-busting team unfurl the flag. I’ve been curious about what it’s going to mean for us, now that it’s moved from remote fairytale to actuality. Pursuing a premiership cup after so many years had all the elements of a medieval myth. That holy grail glittered all the more tantalisingly because we’d never known it, never come close. Maybe we’re about to discover that we’ve imbued the idea of a premiership with magical and mystical powers that aren’t actually there. Maybe it won’t transform us as much as we think.
After all, you could say it’s just a silver cup. And yet we all lined up to get photos, to touch it with reverence.
And now, on Friday night, the flag is being borne around the ground like a sacred relic. You could see it as just a triangle of fabric. But it feels like every one of our dreams and heartaches and joys and sorrows have been stitched into it.
It’s being carried by the former champions, those who really did shed blood for it; the people who’ve been custodians of our club; the fans who’ve often just simply endured.
Yes, it’s just a triangle of fabric. But it’s got words on it that we’d almost given up hoping to see.
They are simple, but still thrilling. AFL Premiers. 2016.
About the Bulldog Tragician
The Tragician blog began in 2013 as a way of recording what it is like to barrack for a perennially unsuccessful team - the AFL team, the Western Bulldogs.