(NOT) being there
In last week's win against Collingwood - magical and unexpected as it was - we had the illusion, or maybe it's a delusion, that our presence there played a role in the victory. That our increasingly hoarse cheers and manic barracking created some of the hothouse environment which helped to will 'Our' boys across the line. That our act of faith (or insanity as it at first appeared) in getting off our comfy couches and fronting up for what seemed certain defeat meant that we too played our role the sweetness of the win.
Wins like that lodge forever in our memories: something to reminisce about and savour as the years go past; the day Kolyniuk ran around Graeme Wright on the mark at the MCG in 1990; the night that Chris Grant swung onto his left boot and put us in front of the bombers in 2000; the night a young Adam Cooney ripped the ball out of the centre and drove us forward time and again in the last quarter of a match against Brisbane in 2005, announcing that a new era was about to begin. They're in the fabric of us, the collective memory shared by the community of Footscray/Western Bulldogs fans - even if they do mysteriously get embellished as time goes by. (I'm quite positive there were only 20 of us Dogs fans in the entire Princes Park stadium on the day of one of our famous, against the odds, victories against Carlton, yet seemingly thousands claim to have seen Bob Murphy, in his first ever game, with an endearing mix of concentration and terror on his 17 year old face, wobble through the winning goal. )
Whatever the outcome of Saturday's match against Port Adelaide - even if it had been another stirring, backs-to-the-wall victory - it would never have stood out in our memories, glowed like a nugget of gold amid the sameness and sometimes even monotony of season after season, match after match. For the simple reason that hardly any of us would have been there in person to share it, side by side among each other riding the tempo of the match, in what we imagine is in togetherness with our players, travelling with them through the rough, as well as the smooth, of individual quarters, games and seasons.
In fact, in the 10 minutes preceding last Saturday's match against Port Adelaide, my connection to the Dogs and their efforts, whether great or poor, could not have been more incomplete and distant. Having slipped the Melbourne winter for a short break in Far North Queensland, I'd just discovered, to my chagrin, that the match wasn't broadcast. We're supposed to be worshipping at the altar of the sacred national competition; given all the sacrifices a small club like ours has made in the name of this relentless (and hollow to many of us) expansion, I was miffed to say the least to see V8 racing and thugby were instead scheduled, and I had no hope of seeing the game live. Or even on delay.
There was a futile race against time as I switched my efforts into attempting to tune in over the internet. Soon my lack of technological know-how and inability to understand how a game was 'streamed' meant I gave up the ghost and resorted to text message updates from family members back in Melbourne. While better than nothing, it's fair to say that in their haste, these perhaps lacked precision. Did a shrieking message: "BONTI !!!!" mean that our young star had suffered a freak accident, handballed it straight to a Port Adelaide opponent, or taken the hanger of the century? (I later learnt that it was a magnificent goal). 'Oh no, poor Griff!' was also far from enlightening, and I was left bemused by this breathless and incoherent description: "I think roughy is playing with a shoulder again. Grant splattered most."
I tried to get slightly more clarity than these excitable but obtuse updates via Twitter. Griff, it turned out, had back spasms and had to be helped up the race. People I've never met, except through cyberspace, began sending me bits of information to complement the erratic family updates. But it was still a patchy, incomplete picture, out of time, out of synch, like bursts of static down a bad phone line with frequent 'I'm going through a tunnel' moments. It reminded me of the days when, not being the tallest of people, I attended matches at Kardinia Park wedged in among the standing room crowds. With limited visibility I had to have large segments of the game relayed to me by others. This, too, was far from reliable. A typical snippet: "Oh my GOD!!! Bubba Smith's down, I reckon Ablett got him behind play and Rohan's about to be stretchered off..he's not moving!" Just as I was prepared to lead a chorus of outraged boos and calls for Ablett to be banned for life or hopefully deported: "Oh, sorry, might have got that wrong. I think he just got a cramp. He's definitely up and moving. Ablett's not even near him, but he's just booted his 10th."
As I attempted to establish a 'personal hotspot' to improve my wifi connection and get clearer information on the game's progress, I couldn't help my mind travelling back to a rather different form of wireless connectivity. Namely that which used to boom out from the big teak-veneer combined radio and stereo unit that had pride of place in my grandparents' Housing Commission home in Braybrook. You'd hear the gravelly voices of 'the Captain and the Major', 'Harry Beitzel and Tommy Lahiff', or if you were unlucky, 3UZ and uninteresting horse races with only intermittent score updates on the fate of the Scray (often this was just as well). They were the soundtracks of our Saturday afternoons. While at the age of four I'd graduated to an important milestone and been granted the honour of being allowed to go to footy at the Western Oval, I wasn't permitted to go to the away games which in those simpler days were always and without exception on Saturday afternoons at 2.10 pm. Instead myself and what seemed like dozens of cousins were left to stay with my grandmother, who usually shooed us outside (though we were usually allowed to have Chocolate Royals mid-afternoon). I've written before about my grandmother's far from extensive, but handy enough, footballing knowledge:
She was Irish and would listen to the game on the radio, cooking up a storm for when the adults returned home. We’d run inside at what we thought must be half time. ‘How are we going Nanna?’ Her face would darken. ‘ Five goals down.’ Knowing this was insufficient, she would attempt some spite in her lilting brogue. ’The bloomin’ umpires are killing us!’ My grandmother never saw a game in her lifetime.
By half time in the Port Adelaide game, even the patched-together picture of the game was unfortunately clear enough. The text messages slowed down, became gloomy. 'It's getting ugly.' 'Wish it was over now.' With no real sense of whether we were just outclassed or playing poorly, but an ominous sense that it was a bit of both, I didn't feel too upset when my overworked phone sputtered out of battery life and I could retreat to the pool.
I still haven't seen Bonti's monster goal, or Griff's sad hobble up the race, supported by trainers, or Roughy's struggle to stay out on the field because we simply didn't have anyone else. I didn't share any of the few highs, but I also missed the many lows, and I do mean 'missed' them. I could be disappointed, but philosophical. So many injuries, six day break, tough assignment against the top team of the ladder. Didn't matter all that much, in the scheme of things, I guess.
This week, it will be different. In what I'm christening the Inaugural Bulldog Tragician Birthday Blockbuster (yes, it's my 'special day' on Sunday, just as it was last year when we crashed to an ignominious defeat against the Dees - I was there to 'celebrate' of course), I'm hoping to see at least one moment that might be a lasting treasure in the memory bank. I'm looking forward to seeing Honeychurch, Darley and Redpath at last make their debuts. It looks like Jake Stringer will be back with his swagger, and I'd like to see whether Lachie Hunter has regained that cheek and flair as he conjures up a miracle goal. I'll be involved in the performance, hoarse on Monday, back for better or worse on the supporting rollercoaster. I expect I'll spend large portions of the day frustrated, delirious, angry, delighted, amused and bemused, but best of all I'll be there.
Limber up for this ripsnorter of a match when teams 13 and 15 square off, by travelling back to my account of my birthday last year spent (of course) watching the Dogs lose an 'unloseable' match against Melbourne.
And I recommend a lovely, funny and poignant tale of choosing the Dogs as your footy team by Neil Anderson on the Footy Almanac: 'Sixty years is a long time in football.'
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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.