In 2013, the third ever instalment of the Bulldog Tragician blog posed a question: Cheers and jeers: what makes a fan?
I was still trying to decide the point of my fledgling blog (it was not an internationally acclaimed sensation at that point). It may have only been round three of that year, but I was astute enough to realise that I wasn't going to be chronicling a 2013 Bulldog premiership. I thought I'd better come up with another theme. Yet of course I'd always known what it would be about; that there wouldn't be too much about marks and kicks and stats and draft picks and 'qualitative sheen' (sorry Bevo). It would be about my bittersweet relationship with my perennially unlucky club, and the mysterious experience of being a fan.
The reason I posed my question was because there had been furious debate, after fed-up Melbourne fans had booed a less than glorious performance from their team, about whether this was acceptable. There were lots of intriguing questions bundled up in that debate. Are fans obliged to be loyal, no matter what? especially when that 'loyalty' can be an easily discarded concept, torn up very quickly from either player or club? Are we entitled to express anger if they perform poorly, just as we would switch off a movie that is boring or badly acted? In framing my answer, I thought of two supporters who typified the idea of commitment in good times, and extra commitment in the bad. I wrote:
In 1996 my team, playing as Footscray for the last time, lurched from crisis to crisis both on and off the field. A ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, ‘Year of the Dogs’, showed the season through the eyes of mother-and-daughter fans, Pat and Jenny Hodgson. Their love and loyalty for the team is poignant, the more so after regular thrashings of 100+ points. 'Poor darling boys', says Pat after one such hiding.
At one point, we see a training session of the besieged club at the Western Oval. It’s the depths of winter. The camera pans back to see Pat and Jenny, decked in their scarves, huddled under an umbrella in the pouring rain. They seem to be the only supporters there.
The players run past in a dis-spirited looking bunch. Pat leans over the fence to applaud them. ‘And they’ll get another clap,’ she says defiantly, presumably to the bemused cameraman.
I never met Pat and Jenny Hodgson, but there was another occasion when I shared a moment of silent kinship with them. Only three months after I penned the 'Cheers and jeers' blog, the Dogs put in one of their own less-than-glorious performances, on a wintry night at the G. Our opponent was that same supposedly inept Melbourne team that had attracted the footy world's scorn and derision; their fans had plenty to cheer about on this occasion. It was - of course it was - my birthday, and again, for reasons both masochistic and inexplicable, I was in attendance. After the Dogs succumbed meekly to the So-Called Laughing Stock, I wrote this:
We’re subdued as we leave the ground. How fitting that we encounter Pat and Jenny Hodgson, the die-hard mother and daughter fans from ‘Year of the Dogs.’ They’re still huddled under their blankets, their faces set in stoic resignation. They’ve seen it all before.
As have I.
Last week Pat Hodgson passed away. She'd lived to see her beloved Dogs win a second flag, though I'm of a mind to think that the lure of a premiership was never really the reason she'd been there under the umbrella on that atrociously wet evening.
On hearing of her passing, I remembered too when I'd seen the 'Year of the Dogs' documentary for the first time. It was playing at the cinema, in the spring of 1997. Memories of the wretched season it portrayed were long gone; the Dogs in just 12 months had risen from bottom of the ladder and amazingly had finished top four. In fact, the week before the documentary was released, the Dogs had unleashed a brilliant performance against Sydney, assuring our place in the 1997 preliminary final.
All that stood between us and a Grand Final were the Adelaide Crows and a man called Jarman.
Twenty years passed from the season portrayed 'Year of the dogs', and the night Jenny Hodgson was selected to walk around our Docklands home, holding a bit of the flag that had eluded us that year (and quite a few others in the interim). She was as much a part of it, as integral to the fabric of our club, as the footballing giants that walked around as well, John Schultz, Chris Grant, Tony Liberatore, Brad Johnson, Ted Whitten Jnr. Watching her, the words from the James Taylor song came into my mind: there was, truly, 'a holy host of others standing round her.'
I thought about Pat and Jenny again, at some point during our trouncing by Hawthorn. My sister silently showed me a Facebook post on her phone. A person - let's not call him a supporter - had posted, after one of our young rookies, in game number eight, had made an error: 'Why don't you F### off? I hope you do another knee!' Because yes, the player in question, aged just 21, has already had two knee reconstructions, and the poster, in his wrath, felt he was justified in wishing on him the heartache, the pain, the long-term impacts, the fear and uncertainty of enduring another.
Reading the post I felt that balance between my sometimes love-hate relationship with footy veer alarmingly towards hate. I even felt a mortification, as though one of my family had somehow been exposed as desecrating a war memorial. I thought of Pat Hodgson, her compassion, the sincerity of her barracking. Her words, her kindness to the players, whether they delight us and even more so when they disappoint us. Poor darling boys.
The poor darling boys were doing it tough in the second half of Saturday night. As the Hawthorn troops put their pedal to the metal our team, who had started brightly, simply had nothing more to give.
I thought how rarely if ever footy stories run in straight and predictable lines. For when in 2016 we overpowered them in the semi-final, a new era was hailed by one and all. The old, slow Three-Peater Hawks were finished! (Rumour has it that was exactly what the young and carefree Bulldogs, led by a feisty Liam Picken, had to say about our brown-and-gold opponents in the half-time brawl, from which we emerged energised, brimming with the supreme confidence of youth, to run over the top of them in our march towards the flag). We were the club of the future! they were of the past! (One of their supporters sitting near us, was in tears at the end of the night, but as there is nothing charitable I can say, I will only 'note it for the record.')
Jackson Macrae was best on the ground; The Bont was immense. But there had been plenty of moments that a win seemed beyond us. In the second quarter, the Hawks were out in front by 23 points. I wrote:
I feel the beginnings of a seed of doubt. We've flung everything in our arsenal at them, but against this opposition, perhaps it won't be enough. Sixteen of their team, after all, have played more than 100 games (we have just seven). Shaun Burgoyne alone has played in 33 finals - more than the total games of Josh Dunkley, 'Celeb' Daniel, 'In-Zaine' Cordy, Joel Hamling and Toby Mclean. The Hawks' lineup is studded with men whose legends will go on forever, men have played in four premierships, men with Norm Smith medals.
It's just before the moment that these excuses are crystallising in my mind (I once called them 'defensive pessimism') that we make another surge forward. Clay Smith marks the ball.
He lines up for the shot, perhaps 40 metres out. We know Clay has an ungainly, some would say ugly, kicking action - just as we know he has an enormous heart. But when we've imagined these clutch moments, these absolutely critical opportunities, we've envisaged The Bont or Jake, the supremely talented emerging superstars, with the ball in hand.
But this moment requires more than talent. It also requires a fanatical self-belief, an inner strength forged in the worst kind of adversity; traits on which Clay had to draw as he endured three knee reconstructions by the time he turned 22. These qualities enabled him to withstand the awful months of pain and doubt and dreary rehabilitation, to resist the temptation to give away the game that has been so cruel to him. He's the right man to take the shot, after all. We aren't really surprised when it sails right through.
Clay Smith announced his retirement this week. He is 25. He played just 55 games in a career wracked by injury, including that third ACL that the hate-filled Facebook poster was so keen to inflict upon another of our players.
Amid all the terrible luck that Clay experienced, there was just a smidgin of good fortune, for him and our team and us as fans. His battered body and iron held for those weeks in 2016 when we needed them most. Four of Clay's modest total of games were winning finals. In them Clay Smith alone laid an astonishing 38 tackles.
His preliminary final performance was brutal, epic, fierce, extraordinary. He bullocked his way to four goals, but it was another moment in which he featured that represented even more. We looked to be tiring; the Acronyms were ahead, pressing in the dying stages of the third quarter. An incredible, exhausting, gruelling series of acts willed the ball into our forward line - I still feel tired remembering them. Clay Smith used his body as a battering ram to knock Ryan Griffen off the ball. He was the last line in a chain of Bulldog desperation. That body, which had endured so much, cleared a path for 'Celeb' Daniel. And a famous Bulldog goal.
I think again, how footy doesn't run in strange, predictable lines, the surprises, the dramatic twists and unpredictable stories that are always around the corner, the real reason for the Tragician blog (I was only joking about the international acclaim). Silky players with three times Clay Smith's talents are not premiership players. Gifted athletes, men who could make the ball sing, players who danced lightly upon the turf, could not have done what the moment required, Clay Smith's act of such necessary ferocity.
Clay has written a story about his travails, just last week before he retired. My eyes misted over when I read how hard his injuries had been for his mum, who'd take time off from her job in the Patty's Pies factory to come and look after him, cleaning, cooking, even bathing him. He explained the circumstances of his third knee, often wrongly attributed to negligence by our medical team. He knew, and they knew, he'd done his knee, but said he could not damage it further, so he elected to return to the field.
I went back out and ran around for another 10 minutes. My teammate Mitch Honeychurch came up to me on the half-forward flank and asked if I was alright. I said, ‘Nup, I’ve done my ACL again. It’s gone’. He asked me what the hell I was doing and I said, ‘I can still run!’
In this game of attrition, Clay is now one of four premiership players that will not wear our colours again. It was expected. And yet I'm still stunned by the sense of loss.
And this weekend we take on those Dees again. A twilight match at the G in the bitter weeks of July, Melbourne apparent contenders rather than a Laughing Stock, us just limping to the end of a year that we can only wish to come quicker.
We learn that The Bont has appendicitis, the last of a list of 2018 misfortunes that could almost be comical. Almost.
Our team are so depleted that you wouldn't be surprised if the Libba Sisters get a call-up from Bevo Our Saviour, though my sister insists we will need to don 'Celeb' Daniel helmets.
Our chances of winning are slim. Probably as slim as the chance that a nuggety guy from Gippsland with no particular party tricks could be best on ground and drag us over the line in a torrid preliminary final. Still, it could get ugly, even with three 'Celeb Daniels' out there. But assuming that Bevo doesn't make that phone call, it's not going to be easy, travelling to the G, freezing our butts off to watch a contest that seems hopeless. Our Boys will need all the claps, all the encouragement they can get. After all I'm pretty sure Pat Hodgson never asked herself any deep and meaningful questions about why footy mattered, or what made her a fan. She just was one, the truest and best of them all.
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.