Last week in our match against Richmond, I was part of a community of thousands of Bulldogs' fans, sharing moments of anxiety, exhilaration, indignation, despair and ultimately joy. Waves of sound reverberated around the ground from our fans and theirs, groans of disapproval, whoops of delight. There were, to be sure, moments of quiet - but it was an expectant, humming quiet, the temporary lull as a player lined up for goal, or the ominous, hushed quiet of our fans as momentum shifted and we watched our lead whittled away.
This week, watching us play the Giants, there couldn't be more of a contrast. I'm solo on the couch, with only the moronic and inept Foxtel commentators for company (can they just learn our players' names? Please? Is that too much to ask?).
The dog has made herself scarce, subdued, settled on her cushion as far away from me as possible - she's seen how these scenarios play out too many times before. My partner, a footy non-believer, has also disappeared, muttering something about a quick trip to the supermarket, and failing to reappear until well after after the final siren.
Remote control in hand, I wonder why people would ever fear, or hope, that footy on TV could ever replace the atmosphere of being there at a match. Even before the game starts, I'm feeling bored and disengaged. My usual investment in my team's performance - the tension and anticipation - is missing. Naturally, I hope my Bulldogs will win, but it's with the same feeling of mild interest that I have when we're playing a meaningless pre-season practice match in Bendigo. Without my fellow sufferers - I mean fans - alongside me, sharing and amplifying my anxieties and hopes, it's much easier to view it, as some heretics do, as just a bunch of boofheads chasing a ball around a football field.
It doesn't help that our opponents are Great Western Sydney. Loyal fans of this blog (and I'd like to sincerely thank you both) will know that the Tragician is kind of sniffy about GWS. That's if you view as sniffy comments such as: 'meaningless franchise', 'artificial excuse for a footy club', 'soul-less parasites created like pieces on a chesspiece in an AFL strategy game'.
As you can see, I'm kind of indifferent to them.
It's not so much the team as what they seem to represent. A construct unconnected to a community; a club with no tradition or genuine base, yet which has received more than $200 million and countless draft concessions to give it an extraordinary advantage over perennial stragglers (naming no names, but like a certain team that hasn't won a flag for 60 years).
On the Footy Almanac site a GWS fan (let's not be childish, they do exist - I guess) attempted to strike up a sense of camaraderie and 'us against the world' rapport with me. She was drawing some sort of parallel between our clubs, both representing underdogs and battlers in the western suburbs. But it was this artless comment that made my eyeballs began to spin with all the glittering manic white line fever of a combination of Tony Liberatore, Daniel Southern and Rick Kennedy:
The Giants will also be grateful for the Doggies for one of our best players – Callan Ward. The Doggies gave us a ready made young leader and I’d hate to think where we’d be without him.
Fearing that her next rejoinder would be another enthusiastic and misguided attempt at bonding - maybe 'And just like you, we haven't won a flag this century!' - I hastily decamped from the debate.
Anyway, here are the Dogs - having nobly 'given' Callan Ward, just for fun, to today's orange-clad opponents - playing this week many, many miles away from our western suburbs' heartland. There's no deep-seated rivalry between us and GWS (it says something, doesn't it, that they're the first club to be known by an acronym), no long-held grudges, no simmering tensions or memories of past injustices, fateful umpiring interventions, or layers of football folklore to add an edge to the game - despite my Footy Almanac buddy's helpful attempts to connect our football experiences by our geographic locations in our cities.
The futiristically named venue - StarTrack Oval (what the hell?) - so far from the Whitten Oval got me thinking that in my childhood, football matches were the impetus for the rare occasions our family even left the western suburbs. Sure, you could have a big day out at the Melton Pool or maybe go to on an outing to Lerderderg Gorge, but the times when we travelled further afield were when the 'Scray were playing in exotic locations. Like Glenferrie Oval or Princes Park. Travelling to these grounds was the first time I can remember seeing leafy suburbs and wide tree-lined streets with imposing Victorian-era homes. Travelling to Princes Park and driving past Melbourne University might as well have been Oxford and Cambridge, such was its aura in my eyes with its gracious buildings, parkland and cafe precinct. At least for those of us who'd grown up in the flat, featureless western suburbs landscape, dotted with dingy factories and what I always thought of as the Deer Park emblem: the 'Purple Thistle'.
Of course, this was before VFL Park was built. We then ventured even further away from the familiar suburban compasses of Sunshine, Deer Park and Braybrook to - Waverley! In preparation for this epic cross-town trek, we used to make a day trip out of it and go to a pub en route for a counter meal, daringly ordering cutting-edge, sophisticated '70s cuisine... like hamsteaks and pineapple. (You think I'm making this up? our family occasionally - rarely, but sometimes - went to one of the Chinese restaurants in Barkly Street Footscray, but cautiously ordered the 'Australian' menu of T-bone steaks and fried eggs).
While I'm reminiscing, a game of footy has got underway. (Right - this is meant to be what the blog is about). It appears, though, that the Bulldogs' players concentration levels are just as skewiff as my own. With little sense of occasion and a lacklustre crowd, our first quarter is sluggish and uninspired. Tackles look half-hearted and are easily evaded; chases are given up after a couple of token steps. It's a lethargic effort.
I look for some signs of apoplectic, vein-popping rage from BMac. When the cameras pan to him, he's standing with a thoughtful, even benign, expression, in some sort of strange amateur-looking coaching box. There's no sign of a team of statisticians around him industriously working laptops to produce indicators of what's going wrong, no gesticulating assistants wildly arguing about what our next move could be, no signs of a Malthouse-style meltdown.
Though this is actually BMac's usual demeanour, it contributes to the sense that this is a match that doesn't really matter. Four points are just four points in a year like this where we probably won't win the premiership (I did say probably). I feel disappointment but not angst at the listless showing. But I do start to get riled watching the players slipping around on a ludicrously substandard surface, with sand churned up after every step. All the talk about professionalism and insistence that the players deserve a 'safe working environment' - and yet here they are regularly losing their feet or even worse, their feet get planted one way and then the other.
I'm particularly fearful for two players that have seen more than their fair share of heartbreak. I hold my breath whenever Shaun Higgins, with a traumatic history of foot and ankle injuries, goes near the footy on this unstable, shifting surface. But I begin to realise that I'm holding my breath a helluva lot, because Shaun, whose sublime talent has never been in question, is racking up possessions, and barely one of them is wasted. His smooth and elegant delivery reminds us of what a promising prospect he seemed only a few short years ago, recognised very early for his leadership qualities and captaincy potential. How valuable he could be to our team if his fragile body only holds up.
The second player that I'm watching with trepidation is Tom Williams. Tom is playing game 80 for the club; in contrast, three of the four players selected ahead of him in the 2004 draft (including team-mate and captain Ryan Griffen) have already played more than 180 games now, a statistic which shows the diabolical run of wretched bad luck this poor guy has had. I've often wondered what drives a player to still keep going in these circumstances, how Tom must have felt when year after year, large chunks of the season are spent in lonely rehabilitation, apart from your team-mates, wondering if the dreaded delisting is just around the corner.
Tom starts the match looking all at sea; it seems a cruel twist of fate that he's playing on Jonathan Patten, an enormous talent still with all a potentially brilliant career ahead of him, while Tom now seems to be playing for his career each week, the label 'journeyman' increasingly attached to his name. Then Dale Morris is subbed off; suddenly Williams must step up as the Grand Old Man of the backline. He rises superbly to the challenge, playing one of his best ever games for our club, while slowly we begin creeping our way into the contest, edging closer and closer.
We're surviving the GWS challenge and reining them in - for once, we're the older, more seasoned team. We begin swarming all over them in a burst of last quarter goals. And, now that I'm reassured that Higgins and Williams have survived another week, there's one young man I can relax and watch more closely - Jackson Macrae, who puts in yet another belter of a performance, seemingly in everything, winning his own ball, fiercely competitive, and still unnervingly babyfaced, in only his 17th game for us.
Jackson Macrae was selected by us at pick six in the 2012 draft. In an irony that would be lost on the GWS 'diehards', this selection was our compensation pick for losing Callan Ward, the wonderful young player who grew up in Spotswood and played his first 60 games with our club. He was touted as a future Bulldogs captain before being lured away for an inordinate amount of cash to join the fledgling club.
When the siren sounds, with the Dogs victorious, Callan gets some extra ruffles of the hair and affectionate pats on the head from his former teammates (who once described his defection as like seeing your little brother move out of home). Callan played a quiet game by his standards, touching the ball only 16 times. I'm surprised at how quickly my feelings towards him have shifted into indifference when his departure once seemed so heartbreaking, even sickening if I'm honest. The Dogs' caravan has moved on; now we're investing our hopes now on new young talent like Macrae. This 19 year old is ranked second in effective disposals in the entire competition - a great stat seeing he gets it so often (more than 30 times each game so far this year), and a particularly encouraging figure in a team where polish and skill haven't exactly been in endless supply of late.
The buzz is already around that he could be a future Bulldog captain.
A bit like Shaun Higgins.
A bit like Callan Ward.
The Dogs are a respectable 2-2 on the ladder. Next week we take on the Blues, and already I'm looking forward to it with anticipation, dread and a fervent desire to win - all the feverish emotions that were absent from Saturday's event at StarTrack Oval. Our antagonism to the Blue Bloods - and surely I speak for all my fellow Dogs' fans, as I doubt that the words 'I really don't mind Carlton' have ever been uttered by a true Doggies' loyalist - goes back a long, long way, built on more than a century of ill-feeling, humiliating defeats at Princes Park, occasional glorious and memorable triumph, and a staunch hatred for their arrogance and lack of humility in success. (They're not too good at failure either).
I guess four points aren't always just four points, after all.
Read my story: when Callan Ward left the Bulldogs
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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.