Around this time last season such was the sad plight of the Bulldogs that I wrote a doleful post entitled: 'Will we ever win again?'
It was a legitimate question. The Dogs at that point were out and out putrid. Yet now that I look back at it, there was a certain noble simplicity to barracking for them at that time.
Instead of our club's eloquent motto 'cede nullis' (yield nothing) -you could be sure we would cede just about everything. Our task as fans was clear cut, if grim: most importantly, turn up each week; brace yourself each week for certain defeat; try and enjoy 'the kids'; and hang your scarf outside the car window in jubilation if you got within ten goals.
For survival in these bleak periods, Dogs' fans are accustomed to digging in, drawing upon our well-developed resilience, and tried and true strategies honed through other prolonged periods of misery; as recently as 2003 we only won three games for the season.
And just as players build strength and conditioning through several gruelling pre-seasons of dragging tyres up sand dunes, I reckon I've developed a reserve of fitness to sustain me through these hard times. After all, I stayed the course through the glorious 'Royce Hart Era', where in 1981 we only won two games. (Royce has left us one legacy, however; suspicious odours are always known as 'a royce hart' in our household).
While we may be well-placed to survive really lean periods, it's surprisingly tricky to manage emotions as things gradually trend upwards. Right now the Dogs and their fans are at the most trying stage of our rebuild (we no longer pretend it's a refresh) under Brendan McCartney. Expectations have risen; we've seen enough progress to become impatient, and have lost our stoicism about losing. Watching rapid improvement among some kids makes us more restless with those that are slower to develop; seeing a player show tantalizing glimpses of their talent and potential one week makes next week's puzzling slump back into mediocrity harder to take.
We're not yet good enough to be consistent and reliable; improvement is spasmodic and uneven. Losses somehow hurt even more again, as we realise steady, incremental improvement is not guaranteed, that there will be bad days, that we still have weaknesses in our list, and that our rivals at the bottom of the ladder are forever working just as hard to improve; their young talent may better or surpass our own.
This stage, where we are now occasionally even favourites to win games, is proving difficult for me to navigate.
With the hope of better times, it seems, comes inevitable disappointment - which sounds like something Barack Obama might have said (but may have actually been Guru Bob).
These conflicting emotions had an extra edge this week. Because we were playing the Blues - the Blue Baggers - the Blue Bloods - yeah, they not only have a lot of nicknames, but register right up there on my long list of clubs that I despise the most* (*list subject to change at short notice).
Let's recap for just a moment on the reasons to hate Carlton:
1. John Elliott, a caricature of a man, arrogantly described our club as 'tragic'.
2. Money, power, greed and ruthlessness are their hallmarks. Two of their recent presidents (Pratt and Elliott) have faced criminal charges.
3. After constantly brandishing their fat cheque-books to ensure success, when the playing field became just a bit more even, they resorted to salary cap cheating, and couldn't resist throwing away any vestiges of pride and decency, proceeding to tank to get draft picks.
4. The contemptible, sham, Visy environmental ambassadorship for Chris Judd that only a club like Carlton could even attempt, much less get away with. (I guess, though, his hammy might get a bit sore when he's packing up all those cardboard boxes).
5. Ian Collins. We all know why.
6. Peter Bosustow. 'The Buzz.' He took mark of the year one too many times for my liking.
7. Did I mention John Elliott calling our club 'tragic'?
My intense desire to beat Carlton, tempered with the knowledge of where we are at as a side, means there were some jarring internal monologues for the Tragician in the build-up as I sought to balance realism and optimism.
Optimist: the despicable Blues are on their knees. The papers are full of stories about what's wrong with them. This is a great chance to sink the boots into them.
Realist: every media outlet is doing in-depth analysis on what's wrong with them...it's bound to fire them up into a frenzy. Malthouse just loves a good ole 'backs-to-the-wall' scenario.
Optimist: Murphy and Gibbs have been under the pump for lack of leadership and not getting a kick. A great time to play them when they're completely out of form!
Realist: are you kidding??
Optimist: at least Waite isn't playing in the seniors, he usually destroys us!
Realist: looks at Carlton team selection announcement, buries head in hands.
Optimist: it shouldn't be about them. It should be about us. We and we alone control our destiny.
Realist: you've been falling for those BMac messages again, I take it?
Optimist: that young number four is making his debut; he's a champion in the making.
Realist: you still haven't learnt to pronounce his name, have you?
Regrettably, but unsurprisingly, in what the club website calls 'The White King Wash-up', I must sadly report that my old foe the Realist triumphed again. The Dogs did not come out, well-prepared, steely-eyed, ruthlessly primed to beat a desperate, down and out opposition; in a story only too familiar, our errors meant that we played those 'Bourgeois Blues' back into form.
Our team is not yet good enough to cover the losses in our defensive spine, the under-appreciated and ever-reliable Dale Morris, and his able lieutenant Jordon Roughead, both missing from injury. We can't get away with less than 100% efforts from the mid-field, or triumph when our field kicking and decision-making - lately much improved - began lurching again into dismal 2011 territory. And we couldn't take a trick with the men in green either, but that's, of course, a cheap excuse - far be it from me to fall back on this as a reason why we lost. (It might, just may, have had a bit to do with it. The umpires, perhaps, could have, just occasionally - only a suggestion, mind - appreciated that the exact same thing had happened to a Bulldogs player, as they'd just seen fit to adjudge as a free kick for the Bluebaggers. But I'm never one to quibble).
It may seem a faint consolation, but it's still true that with our poor start and missing defenders, this is a match the Dogs would have gone on to lose by 60+ points this time last year, degenerating into a feeble rabble. Yet in the last quarter, improbably enough considering how poorly we'd played, we were still threatening, still very much in the contest. We seemed, though, to be always just short of conjuring up that one crucial goal that could have delivered the Blues enough of a fright to push them into the mistakes that we had made all day, and give us the momentum and confidence that was lacking. But when Gia, instead of shooting for goal, attempted an ill-judged pass, our last effort spluttered to a stop; our afternoon was over. Soon their annoyingly triumphalist song was booming out and we were left - not shell shocked, because we're Dogs fans, and have seen many variations of this before - but to wonder whether recent signs of improvement have just been a mirage.
We are, after all, 15th on the ladder, with only two wins and already a poor percentage. (Optimist: we're only one game out of the eight!)
That ever-resilient, peskly Optimist (maybe those Royce Hart years did more good than I thought) is also dredging up the wisdom of Brendan McCartney for inspiration. I've heard him saying that just about the most reliable predictor of a result is the age and number of games played. It's worth remembering that our average age on Sunday was 24 years and 10 months, compared to the Geriatric Blues average of 26 and 3.
And as I watched, marvelling and envious, another classic match unfold between Geelong and Hawthorn on Easter Monday, and wondered despairingly if we could ever attain their skills, poise and competitiveness, I reminded myself that these teams also have many many more games under their belts than our Dogs (average age of Geelong, 26 years and seven months; Hawthorn, 25 years 11 months).
Last year our win against the Blues was greeted with joy because it was so unexpected; any loss that was not a thrashing would have made us happy. Now we rightly expect more, and fans are struggling to find the balance between our natural desire to see measurable improvement, and accepting the reality that we are still a very young side, with nine players on Sunday who have yet to play 50 games.
Maybe we'll have to fall back on the gentle musings of Michael Leunig to keep us patient on our journey; he's a born and bred Footscray supporter by the way.
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.