Ode to the BullGods
We were therefore surprised, yet overjoyed, when the Bulldogs really did Come Out Snarling. We'd almost forgotten how sparkling our best could be; we'd seen it seldom in 2022. Bont was majestic. Our pressure reached 2016 Men of Mayhem levels. The Freo crowd were silent and subdued, while the small group of Bulldogs fans, who'd hung out a banner which said rather poignantly: 'We are here with you', were making a fearsome racket. The match was just about over at quarter time!
Sure, Freo would come at us, and regroup. That was a given. But give up a 41-point lead in a final? Even thinking of it (I was, of course) was the pre-2016 loser mentality that I've often claimed, unconvincingly, to have banished forever. Freo's charge, when it predictably arrived, made us tense, but with such a big lead, undoubtedly could be withstood. Their spirits would be broken, when Our Boys, who knew what finals success was like, steadied the ship. We waited for a Jordan Roughead moment, for someone, anyone really, to take control; to boldly declare a loss simply wouldn't happen on their watch.
We watched and we waited, as our lead was reeled in, as our goals dried up. We became too silent to cheer or barrack, as Our Boys laboured, as mistakes piled up, as a two-goal margin to the Dockers became totally insurmountable.
We were already dreading those labels that would be applied to our performance and had the ominous ring of old. Collapse. Capitulation.
I should have taken more notice when the song that came along straight after Daydream Believer was the Rolling Stones' classic:You can't always get what you want.
Our season was over. The match itself had encapsulated everything that was disappointing and frustrating in 2022. An inability to play four consistent quarters. A powerlessness whenever opponents, even those we ultimately defeated, streamed out of the middle and scored at will.
Now, instead of the busy chatter of finals excitement, unpalatable questions were asked: what went wrong, and why? And with us out early, a focus on horsetrading began with indecent haste. The first blow was predictable; Josh Dunkley announced that he wanted to be traded to Brisbane. Unlike on some other infamous occasions, this time we weren't shocked, blindsided, rocked to our foundations. It didn't mean we were happy about it all the same.
Some were sad, some were angry, many including the Tragician were both. There was a peculiar aspect related to Josh Dunkley the person colouring our views. He'd after all tried to break his contract two years before, which had already prepared us, weakened our connection to him. (The disapproving Libba Sisters had already stopped calling him Dunks, and always now called him with formal politeness Josh Dunkley - yes, a telling moment if ever there was one). There was the usual jarring realisation that players have very different investments in our club - wait, aren't they all brothers, jumping around joyously whenever a new player's debut is announced - rather than clinical professionals. It's somehow bewildering, that he could undoubtedly continue to play good footy with us, while engaged in discussions to leave. And there was something off, uncomfortable, about how the former BFF of Bont, current (ostentatiously so) BFF of Adam Treloar, now planned to leave them both behind; with mysterious references to disappointment with Bulldogs' culture (we immediately closed ranks at that idea: hmmm, Dayne Zorko, anyone?). There grew a growing conviction and annoyance that his decision was more about him building his own lucrative 'Brand.'
Many fans moved on quickly to an equally business-like footing. Analysing how the 'deal' could be done. Calculating what Dunkley is 'worth.' Adding up the trade points.
Some gave a brisk acknowledgement of what Josh Dunkley had meant to us, brief recognition that he was one of those rare individuals, a Bulldogs' premiership hero. But even those fans are not looking back or wallowing.
Leave that, instead, to the Bulldog Tragician. It's exactly these moments that I both dread and hate. Another mosaic in the 2016 wall has shattered, another domino has fallen. There could be a few other metaphors that I'm sure I could make if I just tried a bit harder.
Ostrich-like, I'd prayed for the 2016 players' glorious efforts to be forever frozen in time. Confusingly I also wanted us to somehow shoe-horn Bob Murphy, Jack Redpath and Mitch Wallis into the exact same line-up the following year when we went back-to-back, but logic's never been my strong point. Once that had been achieved I would hurriedly fast-forward to the prospect of a 10-year premiership reunion. Anything in between - them becoming injured, disappointing us either on-field or off, actually WANTING TO PLAY FOR ANOTHER CLUB - that wasn't really in the Tragician's preferred imaginings.
I didn't want to see the colder reality that has eventually played out. We've lost so many, already, of our 2016 'BullGods'. There are whispers that more of the dwindling band and not just Josh Dunkley might be on the way out, with uncertain futures as I write for Lachie Hunter, and our Norm Smith medallist JJ, and the man who only the Libba Sisters call 'Cordeaux.' In my stubborn refusal to let go of 2016 I've never sat back and really mourned their loss one-by-one, reflected on what each as individuals provided in those four weeks, that are full of so many bright and shining moments.
Some of those we've lost were expected, in the natural order of things, as even our durable premiership 30-somethings Matthew 'Keith' Boyd and Dale Morris could not have played forever. And while Dale Morris' stirring tackle on Buddy in the Grand Final must surely be immortalised in a Whitten Oval statue one day, there's also a place in my heart for that moment that the unflashy but driven 'Keith' poked his toe out from the congestion towards JJ, so that he could accelerate away and drive the ball towards Bont in one of those heart-stopping moments of the Preliminary Final.
Easton Wood, our captain who held the cup aloft, has now left too, a shadow of himself as he battled injuries in his last years; I prefer to remember him soaring brilliantly for mark after mark in the first quarter of that same final, and even more importantly, in that last desperate scrimmage where the ball went deep into the territory of those wearing orange, flying across the pack to kill the ball and save the match.
Alongside him in our blue collar defence were two of the more unheralded BullGods who departed quietly and inconspicuously: Fletcher Roberts, who only came in for that match, contributed just 9 workmanlike disposals in that preliminary final (but far more importantly his glamorous opponent 'Jezza' Cameron only mustered five), while Joel Hamling was another of those, not household names to anyone but us. Fletch and Joel played their roles; no forwards got off the leash on their watch; they were part of all those moments both perfect and imperfect in that thrilling four weeks.
We will remember, always, the mark from Tory Dickson, in the frantic final seconds of the prelim; how he coolly held onto the ball to eke out the time rather than blaze the ball forward as a myriad of other Bulldogs players over time might well have done. His point after the siren may be the most euphorically greeted behind in our history.
Of the BullGods who've left, though, it is part of our sadness that many were so young, could indeed still be playing. We could not have foreseen that we would lose Tom Boyd, whose astounding Grand Final performance came when he was just 21, and retired less than three years later. He would now be a player well in his prime; perhaps we feel his loss in a football sense less than others, watching with admiration his work educating us on depression, giving us a healthy counterbalance to the idea that playing footy must be quite simply any person's dream come true. Yet we will never forget him grabbing the ball which came loose after Dale's tackle, knowing that it will tumble through as perfectly as everything else he did that day.
The injury toll of our brutal game saw the early departure at just 25 years old of another premiership hero. Clay Smith had already overcome unthinkable challenges - three ruptured ACLs in a row - before his bullocking, crazy-brave finals performances. In the preliminary, it was not just his four goals, but a moment that still makes me shudder, when he used his body as a battering ram in the third quarter, laying an incredible bump to clear the path for a Caleb Daniel goal. We were barely hanging on by our finger nails at that point. I'm certain we could not have prevailed in the preliminary without him.
There are other BullGods, though, whose departures have left us with emotions complex, confused and far from straightforward. Jake 'The Lair' Stringer, ruthlessly cut from our list, for reasons which as they slowly became clear made us rethink our adulation, made us wonder what's behind these men who we really only know for their footballing talent. There was heaviness when he left, and then grim and morbid satisfaction in seeing him continue to squander his gifts in the colours of our despised opponent across the river. There was Luke Dahlhaus, beloved and energetic sprite in our forwardline, who never recovered his trademark grit after the monumental season of 2016, and with talk of a famous lack of 'motovation', transferred to the Cats where he was serviceable but never more.
There was Shane Biggs, perhaps the most enigmatic of all; a football journeyman and diamond in the rough who didn't seem to take the game seriously at all; yet with the Dogs just one point up in the last quarter of the grand final, he contributed the most manic and frenzied series of acts ever seen by any one individual to ever wear red, white and blue. He hunted, and trapped, the ball, again. And again. And again. Just two years later, aged 27, he retired. As though, having painted his great masterpiece, there was nothing left to say.
It's hard though to explain or come to terms with the departure of Jordan Roughead, the quintessential good guy of impeccable character. He was the man who did what the 2022 version could not do, and stemmed a comeback in an elimination final in the west. The guy who dragged down a strong, match-saving mark in the suffocatingly tense moments of the Grand Final when an outrageous decision was made to overturn a JJ goal. It wasn't going to happen, another Bulldog hard luck story, not on Roughie's watch. Yet too soon we were watching him sing the Collingwood song, patting Jordan DeGoey on the bum; learning, in revelations painful and still baffling, that so stultifying had his footballing life become, that only leaving our club could preserve in him the desire to keep competing.
In our cobbled-together forward line the most consistently brilliant player was Liam Picken. Another of those unlikely heroes, his first goal in the elimination final steadied us when in time-honoured Bulldogs fashion we had had all the play and squandered untold chances. We rose out of our seats, electrified, when he leapt skywards in the Grand Final. 'Picken from behind! Picken from behind!' And it's the most crystal-clear image for most of us in the Grand Final, him streaming into kick the sealer in front of a sea of elated Bulldogs' fans: 'It's over. It's all over. The drought. The dam wall has busted. After 62 years.'
Yet now, Bob Murphy, the non-playing BullGod, sits in the Freo box, stony-faced and plotting our demise, aided and abetted by 'Keith' Boyd. And as the 2022 ebbs away, we only have left a handful of the fabled BullGods left. Bont of course, now leads our club as we always knew he would. For the moment, we have the irrepressible Libba, and the steely and professional Jackson Macrae. There is the man only the Libba Sisters call 'Cordeaux'...and Hunter, JJ and Daniel. And Toby McLean, who had the ball in his hands when the siren sounded in 2016, who has now seen footy life from another perspective, enduring two knee reconstructions.
My trip down memory lane has left me exhausted. As wrung out as though I too had even for one second put my body on the line like Clay Smith, or desperately made one smother after another like Shane Biggs, or flew higher than I had any right to fly like Liam Picken. I didn't know in those euphoric moments that our joy would be one day be mixed with a kind of - is it too much to call it - grief?... that their stories would move relentlessly on; because of course the men of 2016 would not, could not, remain static and constant in our memories.
It's been forever the case though. In the 1996 documentary 'Year of the Dogs' one of the last scenes shows The First Libba sitting on a bench after the season's final match. Typically bandaged and bloodied, he's talking about how that group, that bunch of team-mates, will never run out together in the exact same configuration again.
Yes, it's always been thus. It just seems more poignant, though, when a grand final group gradually disperses and fragments.
Yet my sadness is quickly eclipsed. I might have all the usual grumpiness that another year has been wasted and pedestrian, and I'll avert my eyes when Josh Dunkley is paraded in a Lions jumper, and meaningless words are uttered on both sides of thanks and regrets. But he and the other BullGods gave me memories that will last when such unedifying ones fade. Of the moment I saw OUR logo painted on the MCG in the Grand Final build up. Of the western suburbs, a sea of red, white and blue. Of the wall of sound that greeted their arrival onto the celebrated ground. Of the moment OUR Boys gathered on those benches for the traditional pre-match photo, and happily stuffed it up. And when I saw them organise themselves and make room for Bevo, and I somehow - me, the ultimate pessimist! - knew we were going to be ok.
I once tried - way back in the first year of writing this blog, in 2013 - to imagine any of those moments in a story I called Tomozz. It was about us making the Grand Final in (cue the spooky music) 2016. It was such an outlandish fantasy, and not just because the Dogs had finished a humble 15th on the ladder in another ho-hum year. After 60 years, to even make the Grand final was for just about every Bulldog fan something we tried to believe rather than genuinely thought could happen. It was such a stretch that my story came to an end as we fans stood to watch the national anthem, victory or defeat not yet assured; us actually winning the god-damn thing was even more ludicrous. Not really 'for the likes of us.'
Three years later our team delivered that dream in ways even more far-fetched than even I could possibly dare to have written. They were shooting stars, only appearing once. Which is why amid my anger and pettiness and grief and sorrow whenever one of them leaves us, I will always try to stop and give thanks for all that we are owed by every single one of those crazy-brave BullGods.
28/9/2022 10:29:34 pm
Brilliant, as always. Thank you.
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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.