After the loss to St Kilda the reviews were brutal.
There was a lack of intensity, dare and passion all across the ground. Skills were deplorable. The team looked old, slow and even unfit. If there was a new game plan to address our defensive woes, as hinted at by club communications, it was nowhere in evidence. Unless leaving opposition players unattended 15 metres from goal was something we'd been practising.
We were headed for bottom four; with challenging games ahead, we could easily have zero wins in our first five matches. It was our worst loss under Bevo. It was maybe our worst loss, ever.
But, enough of what the Libba Sisters had to say.
Soon the football experts began a pile-on, scathing in their assessments of Luke Beveridge and our players, and writing us off for the season.
The effect on me was immediate. A 360-degree turnabout in my views almost gave me whiplash. How dare those idiotic morons sneer at my club, my Bulldogs FAMILY!! They were a bunch of know-nothing nincompoops, motivated by hatred of the western suburbs!! They had never forgiven us for the fact that in 2016 we'd won the GREATEST premiership of all time!!!
My lack of rationality (and Trump-ian exclamation marks and capitals) didn't concern me at all; in fact it was comforting in its extremity. Passion, rather than objectivity or even consistency, is part of the package; for our club more than most. If I'd only been interested in jumping on the Bulldogs' glory train when we were travelling well, I'd have seen less than a quarter of games in my lifetime. Whole seasons would have sailed fruitlessly by. The Western Bulldogs, nee Footscray Football Club, have always been family, not a mere sporting enterprise to me. Just like family, unconditional support was required, more than ever in difficult and testing times.
We drew on that clannish togetherness more than ever when news of the worst kind trickled through. Our young star in the making, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, had been racially abused by a spectator at the Saints match. My heart was heavy; the fact of our loss was now trivial, meaningless, in comparison. How can this happen in 2023? it is baffling, sickening.
There was barely controlled anger in the voice of The Bont, as he fronted the media to condemn the hatefulness. And Jamarra's mother Alice was eloquent, and heartbreaking with her words:
'Its venomous tone, a reflection of hate. A reminder of how far we still have to go, it’s our fate.
'We won’t give in, we won’t back down. We’ll stand up tall and never let our spirits drown. For we know that love will always triumph over hate.'
There was love aplenty when much better news was announced: another Indigenous boy, Arthur Jones, would make his debut. I'd been captivated by Arty since seeing his exuberantly over-the-top celebration with family and friends when he was drafted. Watching his team-mates celebrate the news of his inclusion, seeing Our Boys united and together after a tough week, I felt a sense of calm and optimism return. The fears earlier in the week - of a 10-goal thumping and a certain former premiership player of ours kissing his new Brisbane jumper as he ran into an open goal - faded into the background.
In fact by the time the Libba Sisters took our seats, sporting our brand new Arty Jones badges, belief in Our Boys was back.
We'd decided not to boo the player we now frostily called Josh Dunkley (nicknames such as "Dunks" are only for family members after all). Our connection to him had already waned two years earlier when he wanted out. He'd been professional while he played out the contract he wanted to break, I grudgingly conceded, but irrationally that was what annoyed me further - that every time he ran out for us, he was fulfilling a merely professional role. Or motivated by the need to build Brand Dunks.
Now Josh Dunkley has left our club where he'd become a premiership player, his mates and brothers, for a better business opportunity. Well, I wouldn't lower myself to boo him, but maybe I wouldn't exactly be sorry if he had a little hamstring tweak in the first minutes. Or was crunched just a little too hard in a fair but ferocious tackle. Or missed a simple shot at goal at a critical moment, to cost his new franchise, sorry, team, the game. Yes, welcome to the petty inner world of the Bulldog Tragician, concerned enough with worthy causes and social justice in her everyday life, but quite capable of harbouring such thoughts when there has been any slight against her Bulldogs Family.
The Thursday night crowd was sparse and disappointing, but you felt somehow the ones who were there were of a certain ilk and determination. Maybe they had been barracking for the Dogs long enough to know that with the footy world against us, Bevo Our Saviour and his - Our - Boys were likely to be at their best.
From the first centre bounce a different Bulldogs mindset was on display. The highly-rated Brisbane midfield were going to be harassed, niggled, outworked all night. And the crowd didn't seem that small once we realised that our team were up to the challenge.
We roared our approval when Arty Jones (advertised as 71 kg, but surely this is a misprint) effected a tackle that led to Jamarra's first goal. We stood, numbly trying to convey our love and support, when Jamarra lifted his guernsey to show his black skin to the crowd in a recreation of the famous Nicky Winmar gesture. And when Arty almost kicked a goal, we rose from our seats; it was endearing to see Bont, from the bench, also leap up in boyish celebration.
We marvelled at every action of our magnificent captain, who kept sweeping imperiously out of the centre and used his imposing frame to bring down Lions players foolish enough to dare to get past him.
It probably wasn't just the Tragician who noted with smug satisfaction that when in the third quarter Bont charged out of the centre bouncing the ball with breathtaking skill (Libba formed a human shield to give our hero space) ... the mere mortal flailing desperately behind attempting to catch him was Joshua Dunkley.
Our performance was gritty rather than polished, but when the match was in the balance in a tense last quarter, there were moments of brilliance which showed our 0-2 start hasn't represented what our team is capable of. Tim English soared on the last line of defence to steady our nerves, while Aaron Naughton, the best contested mark I've seen for the Dogs, floated above a scrum of players to cleanly grab a ball in a magnificent pack mark.
Gratifying though the win was, those of us there knew we'd been part of something bigger than four points banked. We'd seen a 20-year-old make an emphatic stand against the ugliness of racism. It's a moment that will reverberate for decades. Yet it was heart-rending, hearing Marra's voice shake with emotion as he spoke about the effect of the abuse; if he ever seemed to struggle, it must have helped that standing resolutely beside him was our skipper, his self-described 'older brother.'
Our players shared the photo of Marra which will become iconic on their social media accounts. None was more eloquent and poignant than that of reborn defender Josh Bruce. He simply said: "My f*ing boy."
We'd seen our Bulldogs family at its best, proud, fierce and united. Standing for something greater than football.
Our players were cordial towards their former teammate Josh Dunkley at the end of the match. Is he still family to them? a respected but distant former team-mate? just another opponent in the business of footy? I realise I'll never quite know, any more than I can really define what my own concept of a Bulldogs family means, in an era where contracts are easily discarded, where so many players are at their second and third clubs, and where 18-year-olds like Arty are sent 1000 kilometres away to begin their footballing journey.
Still, I'm proud when Marra says the support he'd received within the club had been incredible. We are not just a club, he says, but a family.
Meanwhile our team are having a hard time getting the baby of the family, Arty, off the arena. Like exasperated but fond older brothers, they stand by while he does a lengthy victory lap. Afterwards, he is interviewed by his housemate (can you imagine?) Cody Weightman, both of them fizzing with energy. Arty's still euphoric; he's living out his dream.
And then for no apparent reason except that footy is still about joy, Cody actually piggybacks Arty off the ground. (I guess those 71 kilograms make it an easy assignment).
My mind keeps turning back to Marra, who has now played 25 games. It doesn't seem that long ago that he made his debut. I feel emotional, sad, angry and proud when I remember the words I wrote back then in the euphoria of seeing his career begin, and which are now for Arty too:
'May you never encounter the ugliness of racism. May you make your family, community and our club proud. There's a whole army of us now walking beside you on your journey. I doubt the word 'workmanlike' will be ever used about you, and something tells me your career is likely to be more than enthralling.'
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.