Footy sorrow, footy joy
We’re packed into the train home from Etihad like sardines, after our loss to the Eagles.
The metaphors come thick and fast. Our season resembles the halting stop-start of the train, lurching erratically around. And the crowded carriage is every bit as congested as the Bulldogs' forward line of late.
As we all absorb the loss and try and make sense of our struggles, our mediocre form, the expressions of the Dogs' fans around me are perplexed, resigned, bewildered, philosophical, Some are heartened by a last gasp fightback in which we nearly pinched the game. Some are troubled, not just that it didn’t come off, but that it was ever required in the first place.
Me? I’m all of the above.
Missing the finals altogether is no longer just an imagined catastrophe. It’s now more likely than not. And there’s little chance for some deep breaths and a reset. Not with our dreaded enemies from the Preliminary Final That Must Not be Named, and the Preliminary Final That Wasn’t Very Good either, eagerly awaiting us over at their scarily formidable home turf.
Somehow, our club hasn't quite been able to navigate the post-premiership world. The reasons are just as elusive, as complex, as the fact that we ever won that premiership in the first place.
Yet I’d been upbeat, even confident before this match. I thought I’d detected that we were ‘back’ in our win against Brad Scott’s mob. I wasn’t all that troubled by the fact that we’d failed to go on with the big percentage (and morale) boosting that seemed likely at stages; it was annoying, rather than concerning, that we’d let our lead slip, had to (again) hang on for grim death. (Okay, there’d been an umpiring furore in which the hand of Brad Scott could be clearly seen but as you can imagine, I'd never be so childish as to theorise that the officiators would now just cravenly succumb to such a ridiculous controversy).
And our side would be strengthened by the inclusion of Bob. After four weeks on the sidelines, it would be great to see our captain glide smoothly around the arena, propel us forward with creative attacks. His very presence on the field would remind his teammates that footy life is short, chances at glory few.
And as an added bonus, having to keep Bob in check would mean less opportunity for the Eagles players to concentrate on the latest craze: harassing, bullying, and knocking JJ to the ground. (Didn’t we lose a preliminary final after a free kick was awarded to Nick Riewoldt for just this kind of harassment? – or that’s the kind of question I’d be asking, if I hadn’t moved on from being a rabid conspiracy theorist).
The stars were aligning still further - Eagles’ spearhead and Bulldog BogeyMan Josh Kennedy, blessedly, would be missing; the Eagles, poor travelers at the best of times, also had a long injury list. Yes, it was time for the Dogs to post an emphatic victory in which MICA personnel did not need to be on standby in the excruciating last minutes. Time to remind the footy world that we are the REIGNING premiers, climb a few spots back into our rightful place in the eight, and put paid once and for all to those rumours, those insidious whisperings of internal dissent, tensions, schisms, friendships torn asunder in our Bulldog family. (Wow - I hadn’t thought through the consequences, when in a recent blog I revealed that the Libba Sisters used to have petty squabbles over which music to play in our Deer Park bedroom. Who knew that such murmurings of in-fighting – her favouring Abba, me firmly in the Joni Mitchell faction - would spread so quickly, prompt such outlandish speculation?)
Now, wedged in the train beneath several armpits (such is the lot of being a petite Libba Sister) I feel mainly…melancholy. Not only do my optimistic reasonings seem a lifetime ago. So too does a much more euphoric train ride in October 2016, where moments of blissful reverie were broken up by energetic versions of ‘Sons of the west’, as we journeyed back to Footscray from the MCG, still teary-eyed, still in awe of what we’d just been part of.
Memories of the game I’ve just seen are mainly ones best left quickly behind. Head-in-hand groans about the miskicks, the wrong choices, the one handball too many, the faltering, laborious, BMac era, attempts at forward entries. There hasn’t been even one game this year, whether a win or now, an equal amount of losses, where there has been undiluted enjoyment.
Where had it come from, this grinding, dour approach, the grimness that has descended like a cloud on our effervescent Men of Mayhem? How is it that a player with the sublime talent of Jake the Lair can have a mere three touches by half-time, none of which I can even recall? When did our game style suddenly become so easily, transparently pulled apart, so that week after week other teams canter away with the ball while we are reduced to helpless lunges at their speedy shadows?
When did our players become so plodding, so … slow? Were we always so appallingly unskilled, with it only masked by our frenzied endeavor and quick movement from the stoppages?
And where, I wonder, is the Bontempelli smirk, as he prowls restlessly along the boundary line when it’s his turn to be interchanged, somehow no longer the carefree young man who asked ‘why not us?’, but looking for the first time I can recall as though right now footy is a burden, a frustrating game that serves up heartache much more often than joy?
Last year when adversity and misfortune piled up, Bevo responded to a media question, about whether Our Boys could still win the flag, by saying: ‘You try telling them they can’t.’
Where has that gone, that daring sense that footy was full of magic possibilities, the sheer joy of the unknown that was ahead, the infectious joy in playing with each other, the energy and self-belief that couldn’t be suppressed?
There are some who criticized Jake the Lair for an over-the-top celebration when he kicked a typically freakish goal to bring us within a point of the Weagles. I was not among their number, for surely that exuberance, that thrill, is what has mysteriously gone missing. And even if it is at first manufactured, artificial or not really befitting the stage of the game: isn’t that what needs to be urgently recaptured now that 2017 is rapidly flowing down the gurgler?
There’s a growing school of thought, that our premiership was a ‘fluke.’ We were only ever a seventh placed team: so this attempt to somehow cram our premiership narrative back into a retrospective box goes. We were an ordinary outfit who just managed to peak at the right time. We were handed a preposterous advantage by that week of the bye. Average, indeed mediocre, players somehow played ‘above themselves’, whatever this mysterious concept might mean. And lastly, of course, given an armchair ride by the umpires.
These prosaic, pedestrian explanations; they are like people trying to use mere words to describe a rainbow. They don’t do justice to the largeness of Our Boys’ dreams. They bring out all my western suburbs’ defiance, an anger that what at the time everyone said was the best footy story of all time must somehow now be reduced, re-written with a tedious overlay of retrospective facts and figures instead of romance and whimsy.
It doesn’t match the feeling. Of those of us that were there.
Sure, perhaps they – we – partied afterwards like there was no tomorrow. How could they - and we - not? Maybe that’s why the mood in the carriage doesn’t have that sharpness, that irrational anger and sense of us ‘being let down’ that used to accompany any defeat. There are rueful smiles, little headshakes about where we are at, not even any diatribes about umpiring that may have been (I said MAY have been) atrocious.
The train lurches into Footscray. We don’t so much as alight as tumble out of the carriage like those overloaded clown cars at the circus.
The station’s rather swish these days. As a teenager in the 1950s my dad used to sell The Sporting Globe on Saturday afternoons on this very platform. If the Dogs had won he’d be ambushed and his stock of papers immediately gobbled up, with quite a few cheerful fans waving away any change. If they lost he’d be left with a pile unsold and inky hands from the freshly printed papers. Dad wouldn't have been inundated on this day, that's for sure.
I know somehow that all my internal monologue and philosophical ramblings are designed to keep me from unwelcome thoughts, but they can’t be kept at bay much longer. I’m trying not to think about our trio of 30-somethings, of the implications if this year, as seems likely, is a bust.
Of Dale Morris, surely our club's best-ever defender, the unobtrusive, selfless star who could have been a deserving Norm Smith medallist for his multiple acts of heroism on grand final day: of his out-of-character fumbles today, his mistimed punches.
And our flinty Matthew Boyd, a few games adrift of the 300-game milestone; now his famously competitive spirit is being channelled at Footscray. The ultimate professional is playing for the reserves, our former captain just another hopeful waiting to see if his name appears on the team-sheet.
And our captain and heartbeat Bob? Well, the idea that Bob endured weeks and months of rehab and pain, and may never achieve his premiership dream - that's really not something I want to process right now.
Maybe it's best to just whip myself into an irrational yet somehow enjoyable frenzy about those umpires. Haven't they heard of the advantage rule, taking Jack Macrae's goal off him? and then one of them even knocked over Mitch Honeychurch and prevented him from getting a goal for God's sake! The only surprise was that the ump, having removed our player from the contest, didn't go onto mark it (a la Peter Carey) and then handball it smartly off to that player, number three for the Eagles - you may have noticed him, he seemed to get the ball rather a lot!! yes, umpiring conspiracies are much more comforting than thinking about Bob, and Dale, and 'Keith', footy immortality, and footy joy and footy sorrow.
All of the above was written before this week's news about Tom Boyd who, we have learnt, is now taking a break to deal with clinical depression.
I've been thinking - a lot - about our euphoria when he announced he was coming to our club. We were punch-drunk from the Ryan Griffen defection; ready to feverishly embrace Tom as our new saviour. Not knowing or thinking of him as an individual, we were just elated about the fact that he'd joined US rather than one of the glamorous cashed up clubs; the bonus detail that we'd delivered a good old western suburbs 'up yours' to the footy world and the Orange-Clad Acronyms; the lift it gave our battered and bruised club, in one of our darkest hours, just to be able to trumpet the news, to commandeer the headlines for reasons other than the ignominious departure of a captain. While the cynics scoffed at the size of his contract and the pros and cons of the Bulldogs' uncharacteristically brazen gesture, Tom became the face of our marketing campaigns; we seized on him, club and supporters alike, as the symbol of a new era.
Tom Boyd was just 19 years old.
I've been thinking, too, about our relationship with the players, that strange bond we have with them and yet how little we know them. This is what I wrote last year at one point:
Quaint as it may seem in an era of fans re-badged as stakeholders, and ham-fisted gimmicks to enhance our 'match-day experience', the club and the players are so much a part of our lives that we too have our own sense of loss and sadness at what they're enduring.
While as fans we are outside the inner sanctum, it's not far-fetched to say that watching the pain of those injured and close to them - their pain both physical and mental - brings us our own measure of grief and mourning. Because as the carriers of our dream, the living representatives of our 130+ -year old club, we are connected and invested in them - even though we may have never spoken a word to any of them, or our contact might never have extended beyond a high five along the boundary line.
We know so little of what it's like to be Tom Boyd right now, no matter how earnest and sincere our fumbling wishes for him to be 'get better' are.
But I find myself thinking, again and again, of him rucking all through the GWS final against the man-mountain Mumford after Roughy got injured.
And that moment in the grand final, that moment when we knew it was won, when he wheeled around after the ball spilt free from Dale Morris' giant tackle on Franklin, and roosted the ball towards goal. The ball bounced just inches from the goal-line as we, who'd all risen from our seats, barely able to breathe, waited for an eternity to see which way it, and the match, would go: towards another fickle, sorrowful disappointment, or the culmination of more than six decades of yearning.
Tom raised his arms; the picture is one of those that has become iconic. In that precious instant it somehow felt like the playing out of an ancient myth, one man, one Hercules holding up the sky. A sky which was the weight of all those disappointments we'd collectively endured.
Tom Boyd is now a premiership immortal. We the fans, outside the club bubble, can only wish, and hope, that he will, simply, become well. We are comforted that he has the support of two of the wisest and most empathetic men in footy, his captain and coach. With their help we hope we'll see him again very soon, recapturing the sense of what we often forget, that footy is a game: a wonderful, infuriating but most of all joyful and beautiful game.
As usual, it was Bob who said it best.
The final on Thursday night, he said, would be all about belief.
"We don't have to manufacture it," Bob said. "It's already there."
My own belief, I know, is a more fragile thing. Too many times it has been trampled in the dust, exposed ruthlessly in finals on the big stage, in the big moment. Too many times there's been heartbreak. Too many times, the Dogs' teams in which we've placed our dreams have not been up to the task.
I've been there for all of those preliminary final losses, including, and since, 1985. Some were devastating, some were humiliating. I've seen our hopes dissolve like a cruel mirage before our eyes. I've watched again and again as our champion players, who gave their all to try and achieve the ultimate success, are chaired off the ground, waving bravely to us the fans, who must move on and transfer our faith to a new bunch of promising kids, a new wave of bright young talent.
And yet at some magical moment in the 2015 fairytale I made a conscious decision to jump on that rollercoaster ride again. I strapped myself in, eyes scrunched half-shut, doubt and fear banished - if not fully, as firmly away as any battle-scarred Bulldogs fan can ever manage. I signed over, again, my peace of mind to a bunch of blokes running around a football field. For who could resist this new breed's enthusiasm, their joy in playing beside each other, their talent, their determination to write a new narrative for our club?
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.