It's late in the last quarter. At last the Dogs stop-start season has re-ignited, with a stirring performance that makes me realise even more keenly what’s been missing for sizeable chunks of 2017. That manic pressure, combined with fast ball movement and the right balance of risk to reward, have returned.
But those neighbours of ours from the more glamorous side of the Maribyrnong - let’s be honest, they’ve never been good friends - are throwing everything at us.
The ball is kicked into their wide-open forward line. Our hearts sink as we see Joe Daniher, who’s already dominated the match with six goals, galloping towards the ball. Loping alongside him with equal determination, and an equally bad moustache, is Zaine Cordy. ‘In-Zaine’ is conceding seven centimetres and three years on his star opponent.
The outcome of this contest may well decide the match and determine each team’s season.
The Daniher family are football royalty: the Cordy dynasty is, well, perhaps a less celebrated pedigree. The uncles and fathers of Joe and Zaine played alongside and against each other in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Joe arrived as a new messiah at the Essendon Football Club where his father, three uncles and a brother had already played with distinction and sprinklings of premiership glory; Zaine slipped into our footy ranks with a lot less fanfare.
The main thing I recall about his arrival is hoping he would play alongside his gangly brother Ayce, just so I could say that I had seen the A to Z of Cordys. Such were the lowly aspirations of a Bulldog Tragician, back in the day.
Ayce’s career never quite fired. Heart-breaking injury followed heart-breaking injury for the young man who proudly donned his father’s not-so-famous (except for those of us who’d seen Brian's brave and resolute performances in the '80s) number 49. On the rare occasions Ayce strung a couple of senior games together you could see glimpses of promise, raw – it has to be said, very raw - potential. As is the fate of many oversized players, Ayce's mistakes were more glaring; his failure to clunk the ball even more mystifying. I guess it’s hard to be unobtrusively ineffectual when you’re 201 centimeters.
Ayce's kid brother Zaine became a premiership player aged just 19. Stunningly, his nine games for 2016 included those four precious finals, where he played as a forward. That Cordy rawness that he shared with his brother was accompanied by a ruthless glint in the eye and a competitive edge that perhaps - we never saw enough to know - his gentler, amiable sibling never had. Zaine's been playing down back this season and as elder statesmen of our defence Bob Murphy, Matthew Boyd and Dale Morris battle injury, their careers now moving towards a different end of the spectrum, 'In-Zaine' has begun assuming more responsibility in an inexperienced backline.
That responsibility is put to the test as the ball hurtles towards Joe and Zaine. We hold our collective breath, fearing, hoping. Joe is well-placed to take another mark, to wheel around with his super athleticism and drive the red-and-black into attack. Zaine doesn't want that to happen any more than all of us fans who helplessly watch the moment unfold. His big fist comes over the top of Joe. The ball sails away. Danger has been averted.
Zaine's actions didn't make the later highlight reel. But we all rise to our feet, applauding him, knowing how much it mattered.
I hadn't been confident about this match, not one little bit. I wasn't convinced by our win against Gold Coast - we've unfortunately seen some of these false dawns before in 2017. Mix in my passionate dislike of the 'Bombres' with the vital importance of a win to our 2017 premiership defence, and I found myself in some vintage Bulldog Tragician territory. Not only did the two 130+ point thrashings in the 80s begin lurking in my consciousness (the Cordy brothers and at least one Daniher brother certainly featured); soon I was getting revved up about the fact that Essendon, it was rumoured, opposed our very admission to the VFL back in 1924! Even though - or perhaps because - we'd just beaten them for the title of Champions of Victoria, when we were VFA premiers and they'd been VFL premiers! What a dastardly mob!
I envisaged how it would play out: the dread sight of scarf-waving, ungracious Essendonites mocking us as they, of all AFL fans, know so well how to do. Some of their brutish thugs (is Dean Wallis still playing?) would rough up our smallest guys, 'Celeb' Daniel or Toby McLean. And I could just see that bloke with the shocking hairstyle, Hale Cooker, ruffling the hair, making snide comments, getting right in the face and intimidating Young, Lewis.
I was perhaps a little overwrought. In my defence, this was Essendon after all.
My pre-emptive anguish was fortunately unnecessary. There was something free-spirited about Our Boys again; a rebirth, at last, of the zest that had been strangely extinguished since our premiership. JJ showed that he may not be our best player, but perhaps he's our most important. Some of Bob Murphy's adroitness, his lightness of step, returned. The Bont was a colossus, magnificently imposing his will in the fiercest heat of the contest. Those sons of guns, Hunter, Libba and Wally: is it my imagination or had that antipathy towards the Dons seeped down through the generations? because there was, surely, an added intensity in their efforts, an extra edge to their emotion as we steadfastly saw off the Dons' challenge and nailed a 30-point win.
There was an obligatory thuggish brute moment of course, when the supremely unlikeable Brendon Goddard decided to mash Toby McLean's head into the turf. But Bont was there, standing toe-to-toe in support of his team-mate. And as our players mobbed Toby when he goaled from the resultant free and let Goddard know all about it, there amongst them was 18-year-old Lewis Young. With his irrepressible enthusiasm he had earlier thwarted a certain goal from that Hale Cooker. It doesn't seem coincidental that since his debut we haven't lost a match.
As we left the stadium, our song ringing in our ears, I spied a very tall individual with the distinctive Cordy toothiness. Ayce: delisted by the Bulldogs at the end of 2014; student of medicine; wearer of the number 49 Bulldogs guernsey for five seasons and 27 matches; and now just a face in the crowd (well, towering over the crowd actually). He looks animated, relaxed, another Bulldogs fan who's enjoyed the win, chatting with friends.
I find myself remembering one of Ayce's 27 matches. For true connoisseurs of the Tragician Blog, it's known as the Birthday Match. Yes, in that grim season of 2013, on the very night of my birthday, instead of living it up at a swanky restaurant, I instead nobly elected to trot along to the MCG. It was a freezing Saturday night; our opponent was Melbourne, who'd recently been dubbed an embarrassment to the competition. We weren't setting the world on fire with, but were considered certainties (except by the Bulldog Tragician) to triumph over the Melbourne rabble.
Naturally we lost. It was a defeat that was ignominious even by 2013's abysmal standards.
After trailing all evening, the Dogs did mount a surprising last quarter comeback. (The greatest surprise was actually that any of us Bulldogs' fans were still there to see it. I suspect many of us were too cold to move). Amid this belated flurry of activity, Ayce took a strong mark. A couple of rows ahead of us, a middle-aged woman leapt to her feet to wildly applaud him; she jumped with exuberant joy when he slotted a goal. I wasn't sure this achievement after a modest evening warranted such celebrations until I realised that the man sitting next to her, smiling at her antics, was Brian Cordy. His parents had no doubt witnessed the travails Ayce had gone through with his fragile body; knew, as only families do, the heartaches and disappointments, the hospitalisations, the setbacks, the self-doubt and depression; heard the snide comments, seen the venomous posts on social media as their son, a first round selection who'd come to the club with high hopes, battled to carve out his career.
Sitting alongside his family was a teenager, even more spindly though not quite as tall as his sibling. Who could have known that a mere three years later it would be 'In-Zaine' who would run onto the MCG in October 2016; that the teenager would execute a massive tackle in the first quarter, and then kick the first Bulldog goal on grand final day for 62 years.
Timing, good fortune, some extra mongrel perhaps; such tiny little variables there are that separate Zaine the premiership player from his brother the also-ran. I wonder if these moments were bitter-sweet for Ayce, even as he celebrated, as a brother, a son, a life-long Bulldogs' fan and member of our Cordy dynasty.
Their mum, I imagine, would have been bursting with pride; yet I'm sure she would have been probably no less ecstatic, no less proud than when Ayce kicked his goal on that far-away day of June 29, 2013.
We’ve always feared losing to Essendon - because they were an arrogant, big powerful club. And they've beaten us so many - too many - times.
Our fear of losing to our mortal enemies across the Maribyrnong was of a different kind on Sunday. This time it was more to do with the fact that they are now a weak and enfeebled club - bottom of the ladder, in fact - one we were expected, and needed, to beat to shore up our position as high in the ladder as we can possibly get.
‘Weak and enfeebled’: they definitely weren't the words coming to mind - though ‘arrogant’, as always, remains apt - when before the game I heard that the Bombres have requested (and doubtless will receive) a Round One blockbuster fixture next year to ‘welcome back’ their suspended players.
You know: the ones whose club are unable to inform which drugs they were given, or reassure about the consequences for their health, both present and future. The young men who lost a year of their short playing lives, who are now branded as drug cheats, and betrayed by the club hierarchy they reasonably trusted to have their best interests at heart.
I'm not quite sure why this should surprise; the hubris of this club has always been breathtaking. Their chief executive, explaining why the club should be rewarded with a round one feature match, said ‘everyone would acknowledge’ they have been a special case this year. (He clearly hasn’t been in touch with The Tragician).
And then the Bombres ran out onto the ground on Sunday: their banner, with no sense of irony, promoting the ‘James Hird Academy’ which - you can't script this - nurtures young talent. Let's hope that this doesn't include practices such as injecting young players with a drug, left over from a muscular dystrophy patient. (Just because - well - it was lying around. Could be interesting to see what it does).
Contrition, remorse, humility, are not in evidence. And yet it’s all too easy to envisage a Round One 2017 scenario where, fortified with a number one draft pick, the ‘Stand by Hird’ fans (many of whom have, as their season has dragged on, clearly elected to Stand By Their Couches instead) proudly march to the G, smugly deluded, perhaps with Paul Little and James Hird leading the way behind a 'Whatever it takes' banner.
But in the meantime, the repercussions of the drug saga linger for more than just Essendon alone. In the equivalent match last year we defeated the Bombres (pre-drug suspensions) by 87 points. Former Essendon player Stewart Crameri was best on ground, kicking seven goals. Which was more than the Bombres' entire team that day, as uncharitable and mean-spirited individuals may have pointed out at the time.
The impact of Crameri's absence on our club because of the WADA ban was only too apparent on Sunday. In fact it grows week by week, as our forward line regularly struggles to rack up a respectable score. There seem to be multiple factors in this; slow, ponderous ball movement which makes us yearn even more for Bob's breaking of the lines and imaginative vision. The dwindling stocks of on-ballers, meaning that younger, less experienced and often less skilled players are the ones driving, or rather scrambling, the ball forward. And the forward set-up itself, which continues to mystify; is it because of the poor delivery and slow ball movement that the forwards don't have the confidence to lead and demand the ball, or the other way around?
I felt strangely sad watching our undoubted bravery and commitment as we worked, with more determination than skill, to a 40-point victory. Nostalgically I wondered where the Men of Mayhem have gone (I guess that close to a dozen of them looking on from the grandstands answers that question) and why last year's carefree exuberance has been stifled (same answer).
I had to remind myself that despite some media romanticism of the brave young Bombres' plight, the team that was desperately youthful and inexperienced on Sunday was not the one donning the sash. More than half our team - in fact, staggeringly enough, 13 players - had played less than 50 games, compared to 10 in red and black. And they had five players who've clocked up more than 150 games, compared to just two Bulldogs in this category (the ever-reliable Matthew 'Keith' Boyd and Liam Picken).
One of the Bombres' veterans out there, playing his final game on Sunday was very familiar to us, of course. And as Adam Cooney, wearing red and black, waved his thanks to the Bulldogs' fans before whom he'd played more than 200 games, the combination of the poignancy of the moment, the flat and uninspired performance, and the horror of seeing another key player struck down by injury (this time Easton Wood) sent my thoughts drifting into some familiar, if unwelcome, territory. Of the dangerous assumptions that limitless chances to grab a flag from a talented group will always there for the taking.
We should know this better than most: there is no orderly queue of progress. The fact that we have finished towards the front of the 2016 line, expecting that it will soon be 'our turn', does not guarantee a smooth pathway to a flag. Too many hurdles and random factors, things we can control, and things we can't, await to trip us up.
Adam Cooney was a number one draft pick in 2003, a laconic character with a shock of wild red hair. He had elite skills and explosive pace. In 2006 I recall a tight match against Brisbane where his brilliant clearance work in the last quarter won us a crucial game that set us up for a finals berth. We were dazzled by the potential of 'Coons' and his two close mates: Farren Ray (the number four pick from the same draft) and Ryan Griffen. They were the new, unscarred, unafraid group that would drag us towards premiership glory, under second-year coach Rodney Eade (he was called Our Mastermind not Our Saviour. But the sentiments and expectations were the same).
With the shiver of apprehension and superstition which is the ever-present legacy of an Irish-Catholic upbringing, I wonder: did we have the same investment, the same belief that these were the ones, which we now place in the precocious talents of the 2016 group? Last week I said that we've never had a player like Marcus Bontempelli. But did I make the same proud boast about Adam Cooney, or for that matter Chris Grant, or all those other potential heroes that it's just too painful to remember?
We believe - because we must - that even if ( - I said IF -) 2016 isn't our year, a few tweaks to our game plan and a full and healthy list (for surely 2016 is an aberration?) will see that 62 year drought broken. But that same cold shiver - and the memory of how Cooney's career played out - tells me there are other, much less palatable, alternatives through which this group's future may unfold.
Ask Mitch Wallis, who may be looking at 18 months out of the game, in the prime of his footy life, after his horrific broken leg.
Ask Jake Stringer, even with our massive injury toll banished to the VFL, struggling to regain his zest, the right balance between lair and selfishness. Burdened, perhaps, with too many expectations, too many Ablett-esque comparisons, too soon.
Ask Bob Murphy, who'd already been at the club seven years - imagine! - before Cooney & Co got us into a finals series. One that Bob missed, because he'd done a knee. The first knee, that is.
And now, those three great hopes of the 2006 group are finishing their football journeys at other clubs.
(Top) Adam Cooney, still in our colours, after the siren sounded in our heartbreaking 2009 preliminary final loss to St Kilda
Cooney's 250-game career has been a success by any measure; it brought him a Brownlow, four years of finals appearances, and All-Australian honours. It also delivered a bung knee which has brought him to retirement at only 30 years of age; he says from 2008 onwards (he was just 22 then) he was unable to even train.
Farren Ray is now at his third AFL club, offered a rookie spot at North Melbourne, where he has only been able to eke out one game. After moving from us to St Kilda, Farren at least played in three grand finals, but like Cooney is destined to retire without a flag. Ryan Griffen went on to captain our club, but left with bitterness and rancour, to play with a team that was in 2006 barely a bullet point in the AFL's corporate plan. His premiership dream with The Acronyms remains alive. Just not - as we once hoped - with us.
In fact, only one of Cooney's team-mates from that winning 2006 elimination final team lined up against him in Sunday's match. It was a bloke wearing number 42. Not Liam Picken however (our best afield on Sunday), but Matthew Boyd; no number one draft pick thoroughbred, but a rookie; maybe (I fondly hope) still wearing those blonde tips from his days as a Frankston reserves player. 'Keith' Boyd, perhaps a bit of a plodder compared to the more glamorous trio, was definitely not the one any of us would have picked as lasting the journey, if we'd been asked to put our predictions in a time capsule. We'd never have guessed that he would still be playing 10 years later, would captain our club, win a best and fairest and spend his twilight years re-born and maybe even playing career-best footy in a defensive role.
Looking back at the careers of Adam, Farren and Ryan, who all one way or another fell out of love with our club, makes me realise that Our Boys in fact never truly remain Our Boys - and not just in the sense that Adam Cooney's magnificently unkempt mane has disappeared, and a bald spot is now prominent.
Some of the class of 2016 won't make it. Some will find themselves on the wrong side of the end of season whiteboard, jigsaw pieces to be offloaded in the end-of-season horse-trading, or delisted: 'superfluous to requirements.' Some will never be able to overcome the frailty of their minds and bodies, the attrition of our brutal game, the ever-present consequences for individual and team of a wrong decision or poor game, the relentless scrutiny of the media and the desperation of the fans.
The Bulldogs' players formed a guard of honour for Cooney, the former player many knew well but others not at all. Our applause was warm and respectful towards our former champion. But he's no longer one of Our Boys and Our Club is Our Club, always. Our loyalties and affections, but most of all our hopes, have moved on. Now they are firmly placed in our newest number 17. Maybe the Dogs' biggest ever, boldest gamble for premiership success, the enigmatic Tom Boyd, who just his week turned 21.
There's a series of lovely videos on the club's website, showing the bond between players who've worn the same number. The latest features The Bont with Daniel Cross. Yep, I was the one who made the maudlin claim that i could never love another player as much as the ultimate team-man, the bravest of the brave, Daniel Cross. It turns out, of course, that wasn't quite true.
Despite being cut from the club after 210 games and playing on with Melbourne, Crossy is one of those rare players whose passion for our club matches the fans. I had an ache in my heart when he confided that he used to kiss his guernsey before each match. The Bont listened to him respectfully, taking in the words of his predecessor in number four, the man whose name he sees every day on his Whitten Oval locker, and saying:
It’s great to be able to catch up with past players who have worn the jumper to understand their level of love, care and compassion for the jumper because it makes wearing it even more worthwhile."
Marcus Bontempelli, still just 20 years old, will captain our club again this week. I feel that little shiver again, thinking about it, and imagining the silent message conveyed by all those names on the lockers that he and his team-mates see every day. Of not taking anything for granted. Of grabbing our 2016 opportunities - even if they seem to have been blighted by injury - and seize the day. We can never be sure when and if it will come again.
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.