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 the couch: the day Jake debuted
To be or not to be…
At the ground when your team gets a pummelling…or watching from the safety and anonymous comfort of your couch?
Advantages of being at the game are the camaraderie and shared anguish of fellow sufferers, and there's always the possibility of a memorable, humorous comment by aforesaid fellow sufferers to leaven the gloom.
Being at the ground, you can at least see the patterns of play and, depending on your strength of character, make an optimistic appraisal of what that seemingly aimless kick was trying to achieve. (It may have looked to all the world like a grubber that went five metres, but perhaps being there, you would appreciate it was actually an audacious attempt to hit one of our forwards on the chest; it was just unfortunate that it hit an ankle and went out of bounds on the full).
There were, however, quite a few reasons to be thankful not to be at the match this week: it was cold. It was wet. It was in Adelaide. We sucked.
All things considered, being on the couch was the better option. But when you lose, it can be agony.
Watching more than an hour of footy where we only score a point seems even more prolonged and dreary on television (and of course, you have helpful commentators, happy to update us, minute by painful minute, at just how long it’s been since the Dogs stirred the goal umpire into action). The close-in camera-work only highlights what's becoming already the story of this season: that we are, at best, grinders who painfully accrue possessions, but seem to have lost sight of the fact that these possessions should result in a goal.
In fact, we could scrap the in-depth Monday statistical analysis, frame-by-frame video review, and GPS data and stick to what Bulldog Tragician observed: Our whole team seemed to be always around the ball. And when it came out, we didn’t have anyone to kick it to.
It reminded me of an under-9 football match that my son played at Hoppers Crossing. Anchored on the last line of the forward line of a losing team for 95 per cent of the game, any expectation that the ball would come his way had long since evaporated. When it finally did dribble ever so slowly in his direction (pursued, rather comically, by 30 or so muddy teammates and opponents) he’d forgotten that this was a possibility, and was, instead, engaged in some delicate blind-turning and pretend baulking of an imaginary opponent.
Despite our enthusiastic yells of encouragement, my son was unable to switch onto the idea that there was a real, live possibility of scoring a goal. The Dogs on Sunday were very much of that ilk. When I saw Liam Jones fall over in the goal square trying to evade an opponent that wasn’t actually there, my son’s efforts came vividly to mind.
But there was something else going on yesterday, and it's the reason that despite our dismal efforts I still wish I’d been there - the debut of Jake Stringer. I don’t remember a young recruit whose arrival has been so eagerly anticipated at the club, maybe because he’s what we’ve been crying out for over so many years, even when we were at our peak in 2008-10: a forward.
His fellow debutant Jackson Macrae looks skinny, wide-eyed and baby-faced. I'm reminded of Bob Murphy’s quip at his own expense, that in photos when he was drafted he looks as though he hasn’t yet gone through puberty. His skills remind me of Bob’s too, elegant and precise. There are promising signs in a lovely snap for goal. But a lot of the time he looks a bit lost, as you’d expect from an 18 year old first-gamer thrust into a slogging, grim contest.
But Jake, the man-child, has a body made for footy. He looks poised; he isn’t afraid, straight after his first mark, to play on immediately and curl the ball around his body to a team-mate. Something about him makes him look as though he’s the real deal.
There have been many false messiahs for the Dogs, many great white hopes that look the goods before fading into trivia questions.
Our last champion forward, Chris Grant, snuck under the radar in his first ever game, as low key and unassuming as he was throughout a wonderful career. Fans were rustling through Footy Records, trying to find out more about this scrawny kid from Daylesford. He was 17, kicked four goals, and just kept marking the ball. Martin Flanagan called him, beautifully, ‘the boy with the solemn hands.’
It was a game against St Kilda, the first, emotional match at our ground since the failed merger. Just like Sunday, the Dogs got thrashed.
Chris went on to play 341 games for us and a goodly proportion of them were the best I’ve ever seen from a player in the red, white and blue. I was there that day to see a champion make his debut.
My son, (the little boy from the Hoppers Crossing match), was at the Adelaide match yesterday. He ended up cold, wet, frustrated and dis-heartened, but maybe one day he’ll be able to say he was there the day Jake Stringer played his first ever game.
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.