When I was younger, I used to occasionally dream of playing for the Bulldogs.
I don’t mean ‘dream’ in the sense of ‘aspired’ or ‘hoped’. I mean that when I was fast asleep in the middle of the night, mysteriously I found myself out on the field with the Dogs. I wasn’t an early visionary playing in the women’s league either. No, I was running around aimlessly in the middle of a football field alongside huge and hulking men wearing red, white and blue.
In dreams we can glide through walls, possess supernatural powers, and achieve impossible deeds. I’m not sure what this reveals about my psychological wellbeing, but unfortunately in my dreams, as I trotted around in a state of agitated bewilderment, I was every bit as untalented, non-athletic, clueless - and most of all short - as I am in my actual daily life.
My dreams didn’t involve me soaring majestically for marks, or bouncing the ball as I sped towards an open goal, urged on by the rapturous cheers of the crowd. My dreaming mind even bypassed any preliminary bits, such as a solemn jumper presentation, or me bursting triumphantly through the banner. I didn’t dream myself into the midst of the pre-match huddle, joining my team-mates in menacing snarls or doing whatever they do in there. My role didn’t even extend to running in for congratulatory pats after a goal was scored (obviously not by me): ‘Great stuff Jonno!’, or doing a reassuring ruffle of the hair to lift the spirits of any under-performing team-mates. Neither was I a covert on-field strategist, masterminding team tactics: ‘How about I lead over this way as a decoy to give you plenty of room, Granty?’ (Actually, I believe I would have called him Mr Grant).
No, none of this took place in the dead of the night within the Tragician dream-world. Instead, it played out as it would have in real life. I ran around like the proverbial headless chook, aware that a match was being played around me but with no concept of how to be part of it. If the ball accidentally came my way I experienced pure terror as the thundering hooves — make that boots — of players drew near. I knew I would fumble it, that if by some miracle I grabbed it before the herd of players descended upon me, my kicking distance of approximately three metres would do little to advance the Bulldog cause.
But I’d like one thing to be clear. I was trying. Trying extremely hard.
I thought of those dreams, actually more akin to nightmares, on Easter Sunday, when ‘Celeb’ Daniel found himself pitted against one of those Eagles' gorillas (Lycett? Darling? Why do they all look the same?); as Bailey Dailey got bumped off the ball by a first gamer; as ugly floating kicks into the forward line seemed to assume that Luke Dahlaus had the same marking capacity as those Eagles gorillas; as Eagles players found acres of space while for us the ground had shrunk to the size of a squash court. Lin Jong with his cut to the forehead, sustained by friendly fire with Tim English, wasn’t the only one seeing doubles of the Eagles players. Our forward line may not have contained one panic-stricken Bulldog Tragician, but the circling seagulls which inhabited the frequently vacant territory were only marginally less likely to score a Bulldogs goal.
Our Boys looked just as baffled as us in the crowd about what was going wrong; how the effortless chemistry of 2015 and 2016, the sense of fun, their oversized determination, the largeness of their ambitions, had faded into hesitation, a variation of the dread feeling of the Tragician dream: that catastrophe, not opportunities, lurked every time the ball came our way. I’m sure of one thing, though some keyboard warriors would disagree. They were trying. Trying very hard.
The crowd on Sunday was bemused, incredulous, and mainly subdued, confused rather than belligerent. The mood may not be so resigned next week, when we face our cross-town rivals the unlovable Bombres, and a certain player who used to play for us wearing number nine. I’m just praying, though not confident, there won't be too many situations where ‘Celeb’ Daniel is one-out with Joe Daniher.
Our Dogs are currently on the bottom of the ladder, with a miserable percentage of 47%. However the benefit of being a Bulldog Tragician is that there is always – always — a memory of an even worse time in which to wallow, or draw strength, depending on your point of view. In 1996 we opened our season with an 87-point thumping by Brisbane (they weren’t even yet the Lions), and then backed it up with a humiliating 131-point thrashing (this is not a typo) by North Melbourne. So many losses (and wins for that matter) have been scrambled together in my brain, yet the mournful silence of the train ride home to the western suburbs after that display is lodged deep in my memory. And yet I fronted up again, one of the paltry crowd who saw us break through next week for a victory, albeit against the remnants of a forlorn Fitzroy team playing its last ever season. I was there for almost all of the games of that lamentable season, our last as 'Footscray', when crowds dwindled down as low as 8000. Our very survival as a club teetered, not for the first time, and our cries of 'Come on boys!' had a forlorn and plaintive air.
We didn't know, then, that four of the young men toiling through that dreary season would play more than 300 games for us. We could never have anticipated that this bedraggled group would finish the next year a top four side, in fact be premiership contenders over the next three consecutive years.
Any more than we would have thought, in the euphoria of the 2016 premiership, that 18 months late, our club could find itself adrift at the bottom of the ladder. The flag, Bevo Our Saviour acknowledge after Sunday's loss, now 'seems like a lifetime away'.
For Bevo the coach with the Midas touch, this is foreign terrain. With a quarter of our list unavailable due to injury, even a callup for the Tragician doesn't seem that far-fetched (GULP!).
Aside from the obvious fact that not even half of our premiership team were able to be selected last week, Bevo will also be dealing with the question of why confidence, form - and perhaps desire - has ebbed away so quickly among the remaining premiership players. Countless theories of what’s gone wrong are being debated, the most popular one being that our club, downtrodden for so long, hasn’t been able to handle the lightning bolt of success in 2016; the other, which brings on a red mist of rage in me, being that we were just ‘lucky’ because of the newly introduced bye.
None but those on the inside can know what happens before Our Boys run out on the ground: who’s got a niggle, who’s battling stuff in their personal lives, or whether the magic connection, the spirit and resilience of the 2016 group, has faded away.
And maybe there are times that even for the master coach, father figure and mentor, these questions are beyond his control, just as mysterious and intangible to him as they are to us.
For I keep thinking of him in those last two agonising minutes of The Preliminary Final That Will Always Be Remembered. There was footage of Bevo in the coaching box, during those excruciating moments when every toe-poke, every bump, every tap of the ball forward, meant the difference between more heartbreak for our club or the breaking of the magic spell that had kept us away from the Grand Final for so many years.
Just as we the fans could do nothing bar scream our heads off, unable to change the script, direct their actions and decisions, Bevo too was a spectator, phone dangling uselessly in his hand, muttering the same words as us as he implored them to just hang on: 'Come on boys.'
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.