In the watery Ballarat sunshine, Our Boys have tenaciously held on for a hard-fought win. Patches of scintillating footy were interspersed with struggles, mistakes and lapses. The toll of injury and illness which has severely battered our team remains evident. And, I sense, the team still hasn't recovered fully from the devastating blow to our psyche of the 2021 Grand Final loss.
Neither has the Bulldog Tragician.
But for the first time this year, we've notched up two consecutive wins, while the injury list finally begins to shrink. Five wins, five losses - all of those losses could so easily have gone the other way.
I'm feeling cautious optimism, watching Our Boys gather near the race, celebrating the win and the 200-game milestone of Adam Treloar.
Aaron Naughton is one of those who hoist Adam onto his shoulders. The Astro-Naut had lived up to his nickname in a brilliant first half. Is there a more exhilarating sight than Aaron on song, where clumps of players in packs merely form a launching pad for him to soar, sometimes so high that he can mark the ball on his chest? You can hear, now, a distinctive sound from the crowd as we anticipate his flight, gasping when he lands safely with the ball in his mitts. Aaron hasn't lost the exuberance of kids when they first fall in love with footy; oblivious of whiteboard strategies and concepts of running patterns, zones and angles, wanting only to take speckies and kick goals.
Aaron has a swagger. Only he could really pull off the white headband look. In fact, he has just about become the Tragician's second favourite player. (If you're in any doubt about the identity of the first, allow me to welcome you to your first visit to the Tragician Blog).
It's hardly a surprise to see the other man carrying Adam off the ground. The bromance between Adam Treloar and Josh Dunkley has been ostentatious. (At times a little 'cringe', as I believe younger members of our community might say). Yet the curious fact is that neither of these Bromance Buddies wanted to play with us at the end of the 2020 season.
Adam was unceremoniously cut from the Magpies' list, and has made no secret of the devastation and pain of being forced out. He speaks often about his ongoing love for his former teammates in black and white, the club as a whole, and its supporters. This didn't stop those famously parochial fans booing Adam in his first match in our colours against them, weird even by their standards since his departure was so far from his own choosing.
But later in that same match, as Adam stood on the wing, a slow rumble of noise built. Collingwood and Bulldogs fans were joining together to clap and cheer him. It was like a protective circle of thanks and goodwill. His new clan and his old clan joining together. A rare and precious moment of care and appreciation.
Coincidentally enough, at the same time as Adam was forced out, his future best mate Josh Dunkley wanted to jettison his contract with us, making a big play to join the Bombres. The reasons were perplexing and obscure to those of us outside the inner sanctum; undoubtedly a huge paycheck was part of the picture, but there were other vague whisperings. Of a loss of love for our club. Disappointment in things that went on inside the covid bubble. And perhaps more understandably, a desire to get more midfield minutes. And (sigh) to not play in the ruck.
Many things were strange and depressing about all of this - to me at least - but none more so than him informing several team-mates of his intention to defect while they were away on holidays. Vice-captain of the club at the time, he was delivering this blow to his skipper, and some of the other best mates with whom he went out into battle on the field every week.
Our club held firm: Dunkley, our youngest premiership player, remained a Dog. For the fans - or perhaps just this one - there was some sort of fracturing in our bond with him, a feeling of distance or caution replacing the usual blind loyalty and clannish protectiveness that we feel for 'Our Boys.' I noticed that, strangely, I now called him Josh Dunkley rather than Dunks, adopting a business-like and detached attitude to him without quite realising why.
I guess we'll never really know what the emotions were, how things played out, or what conversations were held when Josh returned to the club for the first training session. His performances certainly did not show any signs of 'checking out' or a reduction in the fanatical attack on the ball for which Josh is known. Nor did his team-mates show any signs of shunning him for his attempt to leave behind their 'brotherhood' or the implied criticisms or disillusionment that led him to that point.
Despite outdated 'playing for the jumper' rhetoric, the players' connections to the clubs they play for are complex and multi-stranded in comparison to the simple and unequivocal loyalty we like to believe in. Last week, Adam Treloar played a blinder against his old club. Pre-match he embraced his former team-mates and friends. Then he set out to clinically destroy their finals hopes and shore up the hopes of his new one. While afterwards, as he received his Robert Rose medal for best afield, he again expressed his love for those he'd left behind - or had chosen to leave him behind.
In the same match a former Bulldog was a solid contributor for the Pies; mercifully he was not booed by our fans. A teenage Patrick Lipinski had attended the 2016 Grand Final decked out in red white and blue; he then fulfilled his dream by being drafted to play alongside those he'd idolised from afar.
But last year he made the pragmatic, realistic decision that his footy career prospects were limited at our club, and slipped quietly away in an unobtrusive transfer to the Collingwood Football Club. Yet Pat still lives with Aaron Naughton; and after the match Bailey Smith ruefully acknowledged that his former team-mate, and still great friend, had hoodwinked him into hand-balling to him inside a pack.
Meanwhile there have been strange twists of fortunes (or should I say misfortunes) of the club that tried to poach Josh Dunkley. This year the Bombres (the Tragician's most despised club, if this REALLY is your first visit to this blog) have slid back to mediocrity after our club (smirk) turfed them out of the finals last year. This continues a remarkable streak where they have failed to win a final since 2004.
A recent mauling at the hands of the Swans has sparked a media storm questioning the commitment, desire and talent of the players. And after footage of their high-paid import Dylan Shiel being mocked, with no retaliation or even the most feeble push and shove by his team-mates, the Bombres' culture was called further into question.
Remarkably the ruthless club with 16 premierships now faces dark nights of the soul, their vitriolic fans loudly questioning - in a delicious irony if you've ever stood wedged in, vastly outnumbered and miserable on the Windy Hill terraces - why they should even bother attending and supporting this rabble! The solution advocated by some - Bring Back James Hird! - is an astonishing reminder that there is so much about the Don-the-Sash mob that I'll never even begin to understand.
Much of the red-and-black outrage has been directed at their captain Dyson Heppell. He has recently told critics of his good-guy persona to 'jam it' and defended the fact that post-defeat, he is seen smiling and joking with team-mates and opponents. He has failed to display the requisite degree of wretched despair.
Heppell has been ridiculed in a cruel video from an account called: 'We are Essington' which intercuts footage of his on-field bloopers with the stirring 'Captain! My captain!' scenes from Dead Poets Society.
Even the Tragician has stopped chortling by now, in fact I'm wincing with embarrassment and even pity. It gets me thinking about how club culture, brotherhood and loyalty are built - or more aptly in the case of the Bombres - brutally destroyed.
For Dyson Heppell, a lifelong Essendon supporter who worshipped James Hird as a child, became an unwitting victim of a chaotic and illegal supplements program, while he was a teenager in just his second year at the club.
His 'idol' was coach at the time.
Along with others, Dyson Heppell was eventually banned for a full year; a terrible toll, when he should have been in his prime as a 23-year-old. The 'drug cheat' stigma will be forever attached to his name.
Something cancerous entered their club, and I can't help but feel it is malignantly connected to the fact no-one rushed to the aid of Dylan Shiel. Doesn't it seem reasonable that the players, even those not directly involved in 'The Saga', may pull back a little? Why would they put on the line the bodies that their club was prepared to gamble with?
I wonder about how our team would have reacted if one of our players had been targeted in the way Dylan Shiel was. I may be just a tad biased, but I believe our club has a robust and thriving culture, nurtured by our empathetic coach, and built by outstanding men and one-club-players who have led our club over the same period when the red-and-black mob descended into the 'whatever-it-takes' darkness. We've been led by Chris Grant, Luke Darcy, Brad Johnson, Matthew Boyd, Bob Murphy and Easton Wood. (Yes I've left one out, but perhaps it proves my point, for the defection of Ryan Griffen rebounded mysteriously in ways that only strengthened our club and arguably caused a chain of events that led to the 2016 flag).
And now of course we have the latest in that series, Marcus Bontempelli. There would be no doubt that with him around the hackneyed phrase 'walking taller' actually means something. His leadership of our club, his care for his team-mates is natural and instinctive, authoritative without being pointlessly macho; The Bont learnt from the best.
In the country-footy-ground atmosphere of Ballarat we could hear the thwack of bodies and observe his greatness, even while clearly injury-hampered. We could see how slowly the Bont got up at times - yet hear his voice urging and organising his team. He somehow willed himself to drag down those last quarter marks and slot those goal that won us the game.
There would be at least one other Bulldog team-mate that you could always rely on to rush in and protect you in the clinches (even if it was, as it so often is, a skirmish that he himself had started). It's been a vintage year for our combative, cheeky, annoying - but to us always loveable Libba, recently pictured wearing a 'Honk for the Dogs' sign in Barkly Street. Maybe it was a result of losing a bet; maybe it showed that the frivolity so frowned upon by the critics of Dyson Heppell is alive and well at the Dogs; but there was something uniquely and mischievously Libba about it as well.
He's probably - ok, definitely - my equal second favourite player at the club!
Meanwhile, with a lump in my throat, I see a tweet from the Collingwood cheer squad.
Congratulations Adzy on 200 games today. The Magpie Army loves you. Thank you for taking care of him @westernbulldogs.
Beautiful, classy and elegant. And yes. We will.
When the Dogs took on the Pies last week I was on holidays, catching some sun, a couple of thousand kilometres away.
I was hoping against hope for one of those uneventful, comfortable, slightly dull wins. The type where our worst complaint is that we took our foot off the pedal in the last quarter. We should have been building percentage. Where, during the last quarter, the game well in our keeping, an earnest debate can begin: who should be in or out of the team for the next week based on form, instead of necessity as another injury strikes. Where we can even feign condescending admiration for the opposition's efforts. Some good kids there. That Darcy Moore looks a likely type, doesn't he.
Maybe even - but only if we've won by at least 15 goals - I'm looking forward to seeing that kid's career unfold.
Such indulgences are rarely the Bulldogs' lot. Certainly not in the second half of 2016. And so, inevitably, early in the third quarter we were struggling badly, down for the count. The weight of injuries, that perplexingly dire forward set-up, the absence of Dale Morris to marshall the defensive troops; all these things and more were painfully apparent. Jake "the Lair" (dictionary definition: "a flashy man who likes to show off") - was curiously ineffective. And all around the ground, we appear strangely subdued, bereft of answers.
We've seen these scenarios before, of course. The must-win game that we - don't. Bold club statements such as "Our destiny is now in our own hands" - striking terror, rather than hope, into the Bulldog faithful.
Yes, we've seen it before, over and over, but we didn't have Marcus Bontempelli then. We've had champions, plenty of them; for us, through long years of failure and disappointment, enjoying the singular gifts of individuals was our main consolation. But I'm not sure we've had someone like The Bont. Someone whose own indomitable will and competitiveness, allied with those freakish gifts, can single-handedly swing a game.
It may be a strange analogy; but he reminded me of those mothers who apparently finds the strength to lift a volkswagen to free their trapped children.
We've known it, we've sensed it, we've predicted a glorious career for The Bont, said proudly that he'll win a Brownlow one day, but even we didn't think it would be so soon. That he could be so great - so finished, complete - already.
Emboldened by the Bont's feats (of both varieties) in those flashy lime green shoes, everyone around him becomes inspired. Liam Picken, who has a particular relish in playing the Pies, locks down the dangerous Steele Sidebottom. The aftershocks of his crunching tackles shuddered through the stadium and could be felt even on the couch by an agitated Tragician in Far North Queensland.
And yet, though we bridge the three goal gap, we can't shake the Pies off. Far far away from my actual family, and my Bulldog family as well, the last quarter crawls by. It's a peculiar torture watching it on TV, the awful camera angles ensuring you have no idea whether it's going to be a Bulldog player who first lopes into the frame or several Magpies ready to link up smartly down the centre of the ground. You have no idea whether a desperate shanked kick was the best one of our players could do because of suffocating pressure, or whether he'd overlooked Bulldogs' team-mates leading purposefully into space. (This seemed unlikely given the way our forwards continually formed into a clump, but you never know).
We dominate, without impact; we lock down and fight and scrap time and again; our spirit, our effort, can't be faulted; we're ahead, still, and it's 30 seconds to go. We should be safe. (But - gulp - wasn't that the slither of time in which we were able to snatch the game from Sydney's clutches a few short/long weeks ago?)
There's a random free kick to the Pies, followed by another random free kick to the Pies. It's all too speedy even for the obligatory outrage, because the ball is being launched into the Collingwood forward line. Just the scenario in which promising young Darcy Moore could take one of his wretchedly promising marks, 30 metres out. But it's Bulldog hands, safe hands, those of Roughead and Boyd, that reach the ball first. They pump it forward and The Flashy Man Who Likes to Show Off, who'd looked a bit more his old self in the last quarter, takes a mark right on the siren.
We used to not know how to win; now it's as though we don't know how to lose.
Afterwards, I learn that this win has made history. It's the first time since 1946 we've beaten the Pies four times in a row. That's quite something, when you consider that in 153 matches against the Pies, we have won only 46 times.
I work out that our current 'streak' began in June 2014. And I'm almost instantly flooded with memories of that game. It's one of those that stands out from the rest, even though it should have been just a meaningless, mid-season, humdrum home and away match. Nothing of note was riding on it; hope of an improved year for the rebuilding Dogs had long since faded. We were well down the ladder, while the Pies were finals-bound. Our team was being mocked, trashed in the media; we were "irrelevant", a joke, the footy world agreed.
I trudged up LaTrobe Street to the stadium that day, ready to meet three equally stoic family members, with a spirit of fortitude rather than alacrity. This is what I wrote as I saw with sadness the small, forlorn numbers of Dogs' fans who'd also come along on this Mission Impossible that day :
The sentiments I wanted to express seemed old-fashioned, trite and banal, yet they're what I believe. That you don't get to pick and choose when to barrack for your club, disappearing from their orbit in the bad years, only to reappear with suspiciously new scarves in better times. That going along every week in these hard times, even if it's an effort, form a protective fortress and a core of resilience (harden up, you young scallywags, I've been there for at least a dozen 100 point losses!) and will make our triumph one day (- it will happen one day - won't it? -) extra poignant and unbelievably sweet.
A few things happened that day. The Dogs won; a defiant, glorious, against-the-odds victory.
Libber (the Second) played a breathtakingly brilliant game. Thirteen clearances. Ten tackles.
And an 18-year-old kid called Marcus Bontempelli was pivotal in a tight last quarter. It was still weird to see his rangy form in the number four guernsey, which had been worn more than 200 times by our beloved Daniel Cross. The Bont (maybe we still called him Marcus then) was playing his sixth game; his initiation to the red white and blue had involved five previous losses. His game that day earned him a Rising Star nomination. Afterwards, he shared a memorable hug with his father.
I called my blog post that day: We came, we saw, we believed. And I wrote of the moment when the siren went:
We take a photo of the four of us, celebrating wildly, to capture forever the memory of the day that We Were There.
The importance of being there, the mystery of why fans of unsuccessful clubs endure - these thoughts, on which I often muse, were on my mind for another reason. Last week my blog on our win against the Kangaroos did not find favour with at least one North Melbourne supporter. A person called "Shinboner" (I'm not making this up) got in touch to remind me that North had won four flags in his/her lifetime (a point already made in my blog), and then launched that not-so-thorny, not-so-tough question:
How many flags in yours?
Yes, the Shinboner had me there. I have to confess that I did not need to consult wikipedia, do a google search or use the more old-fashioned method of counting my fingers to unearth the answer. I've never seen Our Boys win a flag, or even come close.
But as an evasive politician might say to a Tony Jones' grilling: I don't actually accept the premise of Shinboner's question at all.
While the heartache of our failures is raw and can't be denied, something more than a simple win-loss ratio is what connects a football team and its supporters. It's the 'something' that compelled us to be there on that June day in 2014.
A Bulldogs premiership - especially after an epic wait of at least 61 years (thanks for reminding me Shinboner) - will be precious indeed. But I imagine (that's all I can do) that a flag, mysteriously enough, won't drastically change anything essential about my feelings about our club, or even be the thing that sustains me when the wheel of footy fortune dumps us back down the ladder again one day.
We can make a choice to go to a well-reviewed movie or walk out of a disappointing restaurant. And yet we will stoically attend matches 'just because' where our team is certain to lose, where we know the outcome is likely to be depression, frustration and even anger. We front up during those interminable seasons where the writing was on the wall virtually from Round One. We can - and do - question our sanity, wonder exactly why we're wasting our 'leisure' time on something that is so frequently, well, unenjoyable.
I watch the Olympics, and a particular triumph, or painful loss, might move, inspire, or sadden me. But I haven't invested enough in these athletes' stories to really care for long whether they've swum a personal best. I haven't been there, silently conveying my support and empathy, when they battled debilitating injury or form slumps. Their story really isn't mine. Yet the Dogs', somehow, is.
I cheer on a favourite player at the tennis but when they lose my disappointment is fleeting. I accept, quite logically, that whether they win or lose has nothing to do with me, tells no meaningful story about the random unfairness of the universe, just that one player played better than the other on a particular day.
I watch the Dogs and layers of memory are always, always, there. They form a collage of sounds and sights and even, for those of us old enough to have attended the Western Oval, smells. The losses, the wins. The years of just being there.
Like all Dogs fans, I feel a sense of awe and slight disbelief that the day may come when we are part of the excited, nervous throng filing into the MCG. We visualise Our Boys lining up for the anthem, dare to dream we'll see Bob lifting the premiership cup. Those miserable days, the days of heartbreak, our failures, they won't be forgotten or swept aside in our joy, our tears when that happens; in fact somehow, they will be the point of it all.
My story: We came, we saw, we believe
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.