Far from the madding crowd
After our Round 3 loss to the Hawks I revealed to the footy world - or at least the discerning readers of this blog - my theory on what’s been, well, dogging the Dogs for so many years.
I’d come to the realisation that the great novelist Thomas Hardy was somehow directing the scripts of the Western Bulldogs. Indeed the Footscray Football Club well before that. (He may have even been pulling the levers for the Prince Imperials way back in the 1880s for all I know).
Thomas Hardy is the author of novels such as Tess of the D’Urbevilles and (this was the clincher in establishing the link between a British novelist and the fate of an Australian rules football team) Far from the madding crowd.
To recap on my line of thinking: Ole Tom - though around any self-respecting footy club he'd be known as Tommo - specialises in ponderous co-incidences. A sense of impending doom hovers relentlessly. Even when a character appears to be on the brink of happiness, Ole Tom pulls out a few contrived and heavy-handed plot twists – an overheard conversation, a letter slipped under a door, the failure of Paul Hudson to shepherd for Chris Grant in September 1997, for example - all designed to ensure the continued misery of his characters.
Ole Tom can lay it on a bit thick, if truth be told. One of his characters, Jude the Obscure, is described as: the sort of man who was bound to ache a good deal before the fall of the curtain upon his unnecessary life should signify that all was well with him again.
That can mean only one thing. Jude the Obscure was definitely one of the anguished fans among the Bulldogs crowd in 1997, the fateful occasion of The Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named.
I reached for the Thomas Hardy Is Directing Our Future theory after Round three because - with only a minute to go - the Dogs were leading the Hawks. It had been a brave, spirited, tenacious performance, an announcement that we were serious contenders in 2016. Brilliant footy combined with a fanatical self-belief meant we'd weathered several challenges from the Three-Peaters.
But - just as a stirring victory for we, the truest of true believers, appeared inevitable - Ole Tom ratcheted up the tension.
The ball came spinning out of a pack towards a wide-open Hawthorn forward line. Our captain Bob Murphy was left one out against two Hawthorn players.
In slow motion, Bob went for the spoil.
In slow motion, Bob twisted his knee and fell to the turf.
In one of Ole Tom’s bleakest ever storylines, Bob’s injury was a torn ACL. It wrecked his knee, his season, and potentially his career. The Hawthorn player – was there ever any doubt? - kicked the goal as Bob was helped from the field. We looked on in stunned, disbelieving silence as we lost the match as well as our captain and heartbeat.
I wrote at the time:
I wish there was a time machine to take us back and wipe clean, forever, all the moments of Sunday's match that led to Bob trying to get around Luke Breust and spoil the ball as it spun into the Hawks' forward line. If only we could unravel all those countless actions, the kicks and handballs, the good and bad decisions, the goals and points, bounces and tackles, the random ricochet of the ball off hands or shins. If only we could undo the fateful moment on Sunday morning, when Easton Wood's troublesome hamstring twanged, and he was ruled out of the match. If Easton had been there, in those excruciating seconds when Bob was about to go down, he'd have been hurtling fearlessly across the turf, ready to support and protect his captain. He'd have jumped and flown and spoilt, and we'd never have known how close we'd come to the desolation of seeing Bob go down, and the terrible fear that we may not see him out there ever again.
You may be wondering why I’m dredging this up (though not if you’re a regular reader of the Tragician’s eccentric musings). Well, last weekend, a bizarre game of snakes and ladders was going on for finals’ positions.
And it occurred to me: imagine if we’d just won that Round three match against the Hawks - even if every other kick, handball, umpiring decision and wretched injury happened exactly the same way, in every single game, in 2016. WE would have been the ones perched in third spot. Our destiny, though Ole Tom would never actually allow this to happen, would have been securely in our own hands.
Instead we spent Round 23 riding the coat-tails of other clubs who could influence where we landed. We were reliant upon a series of unlikely results to ensure us a home final, even a double chance, despite the fact that our total of 15 wins would, in many seasons, have comfortably ensured a Top Four position.
Improbably, for all of us who endured The Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Namedand the ’98 Other Preliminary Final That Wasn’t Very Good Either, we had to actually barrack for the Adelaide Crows. Yes, our fortunes depended on the sound of that theme song, the stuff of nightmares and post tramatic stress disorder symptoms, ringing out triumphantly, at the end of the match. However, not for the first time, the Crows failed to fulfil their designated roles in a possible Bulldogs' fairytale
Shamelessly, we transferred our hopes onto North Melbourne. Sure, it was unpalatable at first, but before long I began uttering the words: ‘Go Boomer you little champ’ and ‘That’s another great spoil from Firrito.’ I was even prepared to emulate some theatrical gesticulations from Brad Scott and exclaim at regular intervals: ‘I can’t believe those moronic umpires missed that head-high tackle on Lindsay Thomas’.
When these efforts came to nought I was too demoralised to throw my support behind the Magpies. I became resigned to the prospect that the Bulldogs’ predicted 16-win finish (for events in Perth, where we were to play the Dockers, had not yet begun to unfold) would be insufficient. And began to fret about just what carnage Josh Kennedy, Bulldog-Wrecker-Specialist, could do to our team.
Yet with minutes to go at the MCG, the Pies were on the verge of an amazing upset. They had snatched the lead from the Three-Peaters. For seconds, just seconds, there was a chink of time. A parallel universe in which the Dogs, for once, had a smidgin of luck.
Instead, a Melbourne reject in his first appearance for the Hawks broke out of the centre and launched a long kick.
Perhaps the ball would stand awkwardly on its point; maybe there would be a fickle bounce. The ball could have, perhaps, taken an unexpected 90-degree turn.
There could have been a random swirl of wind, a 1997-style goal umpire gaffe.
Something, anything, could have intervened, and yet as it sailed perfectly towards the goals we knew that this could be the only outcome, the perfect Thomas Hardy twist. Of course the wretched luck of the dying seconds of Round three would have a mirror image in Round 23. Of course, in the hundreds of games and thousands of quarters played throughout 2016, it would be the Hawks snatching this win and ripping the home final from our outstretched hands.
I turned my attention back to our match which was still playing out in Perth. It wasn't pretty. As we stumbled, fumbled, over-handballed and launched ragged forays into a forward line that was either empty or featured 'Celeb' Daniel as our sole marking target, it was impossible to believe we were the same daredevil team who blitzed Freo, so long ago in Round One.
That’s because we in actual fact were most certainly NOT the same team. Since that far away day eight other first choice players besides Murph are one way or other on the sidelines. And on Sunday, every single weakness in our armoury, our youth and inexperience, the lack of cohesion that comes from too much turnover of personnel, were alarmingly on display as we crashed to an ignominious defeat.
Now we face a final back in Perth, where our young and depleted team face one in red-hot form, at their own fortress, the aptly named House of Pain. I don't need to consult the record books to find out how many interstate finals our team has won over the years.
The knowledge that we were consigned to a cut-throat elimination final at the AFL's most formidable interstate venue - and in a further blow scheduled to play on a Thursday night when we were the team who'd already travelled furthest in Round 23 - well, it was hard to avoid that Thomas Hardy fatalism seep into my consciousness.
Our Boys will be playing in the most hostile of environments, far from the energy and enthusiasm of their home crowd. We like to feel that our efforts, our chants, our cheers, jeers and if necessary boos, will give them that extra edge, provide the impetus to keep running in a tight last quarter, to make one more leap, one more tackle. But this final will be played thousands of kilometres from all of us fans with whom they have shared a memorable 2016.
This blog has always been about the battle between hope and the dragging weight of our unsuccessful history; how the sadness and endless disappointments of our last 61 years continue to cast a giant shadow over our desire to believe this group will be different, every time a brighter future beckons.
Yet, despite everything, footy fans - especially Dogs fans - are built to endure. And against the odds, I find myself treasuring the thought of what Bevo Our Saviour said a few weeks ago, after the awful injuries of Wally and Redpath, when asked whether Our Boys still dreamt of winning a flag this year.
You try telling them they can't.
Slowly the despondency begins to lift. In defiance of whatever Ole Tom has in store, our thoughts swing back to optimism.
Our captain, Easton 'Superman' Wood is likely to return, ready to fly in the path of Josh Kennedy, time and again.
If we ditch those infernal white jumpers, we're a five goal-better side, too.
Jake the Lair has surely served his penance. With a point to prove, he could play a blinder.
If Libber the Second, he with the burning intensity of his dad, is somehow fit, his presence around those packs, his ferocious tackling - they're bound to make a difference, lift us even further.
What better way to smatter Bulldog fatalism to smithereens than somehow claiming a heroic win, one for the ages, in Perth?
I think of our performance against Geelong a few weeks ago, unexpected, gallant and brave.
The many matches this season where, even not at our best, we've somehow found a way to win.
The moment when 'Celeb', Bont and JJ combined, in the dying seconds of our match against the Swans, finding somehow an avenue to goal and a famous victory.
The expressions on those young faces as they huddle together pre-match or gather, locking their eyes on Bevo's as he rallies them at three quarter time.
I remember my words in Round Three, when we thought Bob's injury had ended not just his season but his career. It was more of a prayer than a statement. They're relevant right now too, as we prepare to face the Eagles.
Surely it can't end this way. Not even Ole Tom could be so cruel.
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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.