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.
I love this picture of excited young Footscray fans. camping out the night before the 1961 grand final. I can't help thinking they were lucky, though, that their vehicle, festooned with flags and banners, was not a DeLorean, able to catapult them forward to the 2016 future, and a glimpse of the Dogs' fortunes in the 55 years that lay between.
At the optimistic moment in which their exuberant celebrations were captured, the team from the west were about to compete in their second grand final in seven years. Their captain-coach was the man many say was the greatest footballer of all time, EJ Whitten. These buoyant fans, with their sign reading 'Bulldogs for Premiers 1961', would have expected good times to keep rolling in; they would have been astonished to learn about the barren years their team was about to endure.
That there would be no more flags, in 1961 or thereafter.
Not even one grand final appearance.
In stark contrast, during that same period, the Hawthorn team who were about to defeat us for their first ever flag, would go on to win 12 more.
The festive group, hunkered down in their sleeping bags - though it appears very little sleeping would be done - would have been dismayed to learn it would be 24 long years before the Dogs even returned to the MCG to feature in a final. (We lost two in the '70s in the miserable grey concrete surrounds of Arctic Park).
The Hawks - by then with five premiership cups glittering in their trophy cabinet - awaited us once again.
The year was 1985. It was the first time, since I started going to matches as a four-year-old, that I'd seen our team in a final. When the Footscray boys ran out onto the famous ground to a tremendous roar, I saw people weeping. Whether with joy that this day had finally come, or sadness that it had taken so long, it was impossible to say.
There were tears of a different kind when the Hawks demolished us by a humiliating 93 points.
Now here in the 2016 semi-final, the formidable might and power of the Hawks, who've won the last three flags and dominated the competition since the '70s, is on display. There's no pretence this is a neutral venue. Brown and gold flags circle the arena; footage on the big screen shows their many recent triumphs, on a loop.
Together the Dogs' fans have marched from Federation Square to the 'G, a place for us of great pain and few triumphs. The mood as thousands of us walk along is both joyful and tense. We've floated on air since last week's magnificent win. But we worry - we're extremely good at worrying - if that victory was our grand final, a match our battered team psyched ourselves up for. We fear - because we're also very used to being afraid - that we may not find that same determination and belief yet again, taking on this powerhouse opponent.
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.