When our team has a terrific win, we stand on the seats, belt out the song, fly scarves out car windows, and bask in the reflected glory of the victory.
Friends and workmates congratulate us afterwards. ‘Great effort by your boys!’ ‘Wow.. you guys played well on the weekend!’
‘Thanks,’ we say, as smugly as though we were the ones who stood in front of the thundering footsteps of Jonathan Brown, ran ourselves into exhaustion making position for a team-mate, or placed our heads over the ball in a milling pack.
Across town a day later, the Demons have a shocker. I didn't see it, but all agree their performance was insipid, spiritless, shameful. The fans leave in droves at three quarter time, but those that stay till the end gather near the race to abuse and boo the players and their coach.
Afterwards their captain Jack Grimes says ,''Walking off the ground, when you hear some of the stuff they're saying, you think, 'Fair enough'. It wasn't good enough what we dished up today. I'd be frustrated too if I was sitting there as a Melbourne supporter.''
A few years ago the Dogs were woeful in a match against Fremantle. At half time as the players trudged towards the race, already well out of the contest, there came a noise that I don’t recall hearing before at a Bulldogs’ match (except when directed, most legitimately of course, towards the umpires).
Bulldogs’ fans were booing the players for a perceived lack of effort.
I can still recall the startled expression on the face of Luke Darcy as he glanced towards the crowd and realised these most passive of supporters, conditioned to failure, were baying for blood. So many years, so many bad times, but this is the first - and I reckon only - time I ever heard the Bulldogs playing group whole-heartedly booed by most of their supporters.
Afterwards there was a vigorous debate on websites about whether the booing was justified. Is it a fair call to boo mediocrity, just as we acknowledge marvellous feats? Do fans, who shell out money to keep the team on the field (many of us have signed up ‘for life’) have the right to voice their disapproval of a crap performance? If you're a real fan, should you be philosophically taking the good with the bad?
In the case of the Melbourne fans last week, I wonder how the well-publicised tanking efforts have influenced that complicated relationship between fan and club. I can’t help think it has in some ways diminished their unspoken ‘contract’, the idea of hanging tough no matter what, to see their team over the past few years, deliberately trying to lose games.
In 1996 my team, playing as Footscray for the last time, lurched from crisis to crisis both on and off the field. A ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, ‘Year of the Dogs’, showed the season through the eyes of mother-and-daughter fans, Pat and Jenny Hodgson. Their love and loyalty for the team is poignant, the more so after regular thrashings of 100+ points. 'Poor darling boys', says Pat after one such hiding.
At one point, we see a training session of the besieged club at the Western Oval. It’s the depths of winter. The camera pans back to see Pat and Jenny, decked in their scarves, huddled under an umbrella in the pouring rain. They seem to be the only supporters there.
The players run past in a dis-spirited looking bunch. Pat leans over the fence to applaud them. ‘And they’ll get another clap,’ she says defiantly, presumably to the bemused cameraman.
I saw Jenny and Pat recently at a game at the MCG last year, a nondescript match around 16 years further on. There have been wonderful times and some heartbreak since then. I've never met them but I think I know where they stand on the issue of whether to boo or not boo their team, and what it takes to be a fan.
5/4/2013 08:00:14 am
The best fan I've heard - and you can hear him from any part of an empty VFA/VFL ground - is a Williamstown supporter in his 60s. Gary cheers his heart out, urges the boys on, tries to direct traffic ('Down this wing!' 'Fill the hole!' 'Block the lead!'). He never bags the Williamstown players and I don't think he bothers bagging umpires or the opposition. His support is whole-hearted and wholesome. No swearing, no bragging. Just full on fair-dinkum honest-to-goodness passion. And after the game he collects the rubbish and then rounds up the rubbish bins.
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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.