Last summer I was driving down Barkly Street near the Whitten Oval and spotted some teenage boys, wearing Bulldogs paraphernalia, out for a stroll. My first thought was how good it was to see local youths proud to be out in the red, white and blue, a sign of our recent successes. It was very different to my own childhood; even though my alma mater (the prestigious St Peter Chanel, Deer Park) was about as far west as you could then go, kids displaying allegiance to the battling Footscray team were few and far between. It could even get you beaten up in the schoolyard.
Then I did a double-take. There was something vaguely familiar about those kids. Were they - could they actually be? - some of our new recruits? Surely they were too young, with their spindly legs and pimply faces, to take the field, being niggled, monstered, bashed and punched by thugs like Harry Himmel-whatever-his-name-is and Toby Greene? (in fact, let's just say the whole Acronyms team).
Soon after, my sense of time passing was again turned on its head. I was disoriented by the news that Libba The Second had become a father. It wasn't that, so much, that disturbed my equilibrium, but the fact that it means that his feisty, competitive father is now a grandfather to little Oscar. (What it means for the Libba Sisters is too complex to untangle). And then, this week, we learnt that Mitch Wallis had also become a dad. I couldn't come to terms with the idea that Wallis & Libba Seniors, whose debuts I remembered clearly, whose careers I'd followed so closely, were now dandling the new generation from their (somewhat arthritic) knees.
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.
The week of tears
It's Grand Final Week, and our Western Bulldogs' story has captured Melbourne. It's a dream that has swept and carried all neutral fans in a tidal wave of emotion and good will. There's hardly a mention of our opponents, the worthy but dull Sydney Swans.
We're a fable, an allegory, the good guys who everyone wants to win.
Our tale, our quest, are the very definition of 'quixotic.' I know because I looked it up in the dictionary:
Caught up in the romance of noble deeds and the pursuit of unreachable goals; idealistic without regard to practicality.
And yet in this happiest of weeks, all I can do is cry.
I shed tears, whenever I saw the words 'Bulldogs' and 'Grand Final' in the same sentence. And without the usual qualifying words, 1961 or 1954. Or 'never'.
Tears, whenever I view again the incredibly moving footage of our fans during the last, desperately tense minutes of the Preliminary Final against the Acronyms. I recognise myself in every frame.
Unable to watch, having to watch.
Unable to hope, but needing to hope.
Tears, when I see pictures of the Bulldogs' logo being painted on the MCG turf, or the famous arena lit up with our colours - at last - in the build-up to that match, the party from which we have been excluded for so long.
And finally it's Grand Final Eve. We, our beloved but luckless club with the most patient of fans, will be proudly on display in the Parade. That happy celebration, that window of opportunity when for both clubs, everything is still magically possible.
Making my way to meet the Other Libber Sister and set off for the big occasion, tears fall again as I drive down Barkly Street, seeing the African restaurants in Barkly Street, flying our colours, displaying their 'WOOF WOOF' signs. Footscray, the suburb where my father was born, has become unrecognisable to me these days, vibrantly multicultural, unexpectedly hip. In fact, the street in which Dad grew up was even spruiked by real estate agents recently as having a 'Paris end' (which may perplex those who've ever visited the Champs-Elysees).
Houses in the suburb everyone used to scorn and deride now sell for a million bucks.
And the new generation of young professionals, who've brought soy lattes and avocado smash to trendy cafe menus, now call West Footscray, where my parents married and I myself was christened (all in the right Catholic order of course, in case you're wondering) - WeFo.
The Libbers are catching the train from West Footscray. Even Metro have entered into the spirit, blaring out our song from the speakers as we do battle with the Myki machine. The platform sparkles with our red, white and blue colours: there are faded, hand-knitted scarves and retro bomber jackets from the 80s dragged out from cupboards and worn with pride. There's a resurgence, I feel, of the fierce Footscray and western suburbs' parochialism that I'd thought might have disappeared in our more urbane and cosmopolitan city.
I see craggy faces who look like they've been through a lot, and faces from many places across the sea who've made the west their home. Babies are asleep nestled in their mothers' arms. Children aren't the only ones wearing face-paint, tri-coloured wigs, red white and blue nail art and hats with badges.
When I turn my face to hide those treacherous tears again, I see the Olympic Tyres and Rubber factory - or what's left of it now that it's been converted to sleek new apartments. Here, both my parents and grandparents once worked. When I was granted the long-awaited privilege of attending games when I was four, we often waved to my grandfather, in his grey dust-coat, who was the gateman there, as we headed to the 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.