One day when my children were young, we were visiting friends. Embarrassingly, as we were eating, ants began to march across their dinner table. While we diplomatically ignored it, my youngest son exclaimed: 'Look there's some ants!'
Into the awkward silence he added, with the artlessness of a three-year-old: 'Mummy calls them by their first name. Bloody ants!'
He's travelling through Europe at present, but as I contemplated, with some degree of gloom, our prospects against the Cats this week I realised some things hadn't changed. I definitely call Selwood and Dangerfield by the first name of 'bloody' whenever I think - make that fume - about their irritating skills, their cocksure talents, their endless capacity to run rampant against a team wearing red, white and blue, whatever the venue, whatever the occasion.
As for 'bloody Geelong': they've thrashed us when we were ordinary. They've thrashed us when we were under the illusion - until we came up against the men from Kardinia Park - that we were pretty good.
By some miserable quirk of fate we've played more finals against the Cats - ten - than any other team. In one year alone, 1992, they demoralised us with two ten-goal finals drubbings. Yes, with the way finals were then set up, we played them twice in the same finals series, losing on each occasion (you've got to admire our consistency) by 60 plus points.
I don't like paying squillions to sit in their taxpayer-funded stadium. I irrationally resent that once they broke their premiership hoodoo, they - unlike us - went on to create a dynasty. And there's the fact, which surely can't be overlooked, that their coach is a Scott brother.
I don't like bloody Geelong very much at all.
There are no signs that Friday night's game will depart from the hackneyed 'Geelong-handing-out-a hiding' script. We're fielding, yet again, an extremely young team. Our injury woes show no sign of clearing. The Cats are top four contenders, fresh from the bye. Their midfield still glitters with stars.
It's unclear how Our Boys will respond to last week's loss. Our season is down the drain. I'm worried that the last gasp errors, and Bevo's uncharacteristic fire and brimstone reaction, may have demoralised them, eroding the confidence of a group that are unsettled, have not yet had a chance to gell and work together.
The match falls on my birthday. Many would say there must surely be better things to do on your birthday than sit and watch Our Boys, who've now lost five on the trot, get mauled again by our bogey team. Some would point out that it's likely we will yet again endure a ten-goal loss, that to venture out on the coldest day so far this year, only to see the smug countenances of Bloody Selwood and co, and the 'We are Geelong' music blaring out, is a form of self-inflicted torture.
Such people actually make a lot of sense. Yet still, I know I have to be there.
Because - you never know - it's possible, theoretically possible, is all I'm saying - Our Boys might be so inspired, if news filters through about my attendance - that they could feel so motivated by my commitment, my tenacity, my sheer selfless heroism - that they could play out of their skins and WIN.
(I'm not saying it's likely, by any means. It's just a random thought, to throw out there into the universe).
Our team takes the field, running past some lit torches. I'm not sure if these are an oblique tribute for my birthday or just a way to keep us all warm.
I anxiously scan the Cats' lineup, looking for confirmation that Mackie, Scarlett and Enright have definitely retired; I wouldn't rule out them returning for a one-match frolic against us. I don't see them, but in the backline there is a Harry, and a dazzling newcomer called Narkle. And initially, I think there's even a Kardashian; disappointingly, it turns out it's Kolodjashnij. And Gary 'Voldemort' Ablett - a footballer I've never warmed to - is out there too, part of their so-called Holy Trinity. Their midfield cupboard is overflowing; ours, wrecked by injury, is threadbare.
Lin Jong is a late change into the team...so late that he had to borrow Shane Biggs' jumper, though I guess it could be part of a cunning strategy to bamboozle the opposition. The game hasn't been going long before he is dumped in a brutal tackle. We see almost immediately that Lin's shoulder - the one that probably cost him the chance to be a premiership Bulldog - has been injured. Our team's appalling bad luck continues. But for Lin himself - well, it is devastation beyond imagining.
Our Boys make a terrific start. I can't believe the transformation that's come on over the past couple of weeks. We're playing free-flowing footy, but we're just as good in locking down the contest. We've finally rid ourselves of the slow ball movement, the plodding entries into a stagnant forward line. We even kick straight. At last the painfully inexperienced group are developing a chemistry; it's reassuring to glance into the backline and see the sizeable figure of Marcus Adams in our defence, alongside the ever-reliable Dale Morris. Geelong still seem able to score more easily. But at least, if we lose this match, it won't be from the lack of effort.
At half time, we are one goal up, and my questions about whether the team will be scarred, or motivated, by last week's loss, have been answered. Our Boys form a close huddle in the middle before they leave the arena. Addressing them in animated style is the guy whose mistake in last week's loss has been endlessly analysed, the guy some say will not be at our club next year. His team-mates seem to be hanging on Mitch Wallis's every word. (I can't be sure, of course, but it's quite possible there was some mention of my birthday, just to provide the troops with that extra sense of urgency).
The team trots off, a united, determined group with a galaxy of stories. Three teenagers; ten others including our captain Bont who aren't yet 23. A bloke who couldn't get a game for Carlton. Rookies who've toiled away, wondering if they'd ever get this chance; highly rated draft picks who've been criticised and derided for not immediately delivering on inflated expectations. A heroic veteran, the only 'survivor' from the last time we beat the Cats, way back in 2009.
And inside the rooms is a luckless footballer who can't return to the field, who's broken his collarbone for the second time, who lost all of season 2017 after he ruptured his ACL, who's only been able to patch together 58 games in the seven years he's been at our club. Who's now facing more time on the sidelines, and an uncertain future after that.
The motley group have absorbed whatever Wally exhorted them to do; they come out breathing fire in the third quarter. There's a storm of goals, even some electrifying 2016-style footy where the ball gets swept down the ground, players overlapping, men sprinting hard to make an option for their team-mate. It's hard to believe Geelong will be able to withstand our intensity. But, of course, being Geelong, they do. In fact, it's depressing, how it is so easy for them to strike back. The treetrunk legs of Patrick Dangerfield aren't troubled by the prospect of a kick outside 50, after the three-quarter time siren. He inevitably converts. The Cats, older, stronger, more experienced than the Saltwater Lads, are two points ahead with one quarter to play. Maybe we've fired our best shot.
The Cats are fresh from the bye; we'd given everything, and then some, in our match against North. We have been down a rotation since early in the match. A valiant loss tonight will still draw praise, still bring optimism at the future ahead. But that's too far away for Our Boys' thinking; in fact, they aren't thinking that at all.
The way the goals come in the last quarter is in itself a portrait of the new energy centres in our team. There are two exquisite, opportunistic goals from Little Red. There is a 'Jake Who?' scissor kick goal from the guy who polarised our fans earlier in the year like no other since Nathan Eagleton: that Carlton reject, Billy Gowers. He's rewarding the coaches' faith. He's earning our respect, even our love, converting us with his bristling energy, his enthusiasm, his care for his team-mates, his increasing footy smarts.
We have a ten-point lead, but in the stands, our nerves are jangling. It's impossible not to have flashbacks to last week's disaster. The boys look more composed in their approach, but still as the clock runs down under two minutes, so much - and not just the sight of a scowling and petulant Scott twin in the coaching box - is identical to what transpired against North.
The tension could have blasted off the Etihad roof.
'They'd need to score two goals within 48 seconds,' the Other Libba Sister says. She means it to be consoling, but almost instantly, the light glints off 'Voldemort's' bald pate as he speeds through from absolutely nowhere for a goal.
The arena seems to ripple with our simultaneous emotions, as the ball is bounced with 30 seconds to go and us clinging to our lead.
Get it out of the centre boys. PLEASE just get it out of the centre boys!
There's a free - you knew there would be - to Selwood. There's a scrambled kick into their forward line. Everything unfolds in slow motion. Despite half our team being in the backline Harry Taylor cleanly marks the ball.
The words that spill from my mouth are not: 'Bloody hell.'
Years of Tragician agony mean I am in no doubt that he will go back and steer the ball nonchalantly through the big sticks, and heartbreak will be ours for the second week in a row. I was there - of course I was - for the hideous moment in a 1994 final when Billy Brownless kicked a goal after the siren to snatch a win; I've long been haunted by Sandy Roberts' famous shriek: 'Billy you are KING of Geelong!!!'
It's like a punch in the stomach, knowing that ignominious scenario is about to be repeated. There's despair, the worst kind of despair, as the siren sounds and we know Harry's kick will decide the match. My niece is crying. We are all, instantly, bereft, grieving in anticipation, knowing the embarrassment, the recriminations, the agonising post-mortem to come.
But a wall of Bulldogs has materialised behind the mark where Roarke Smith, in just his seventh game, is standing. They begin jumping around like marionettes. Thirty-five-year-old Dale Morris, 19-year-old lifelong Bulldogs fan Patrick Lipinski, our captain Bont, first-gamer Bradley Lynch. Tom Boyd, who has carried the ruck on his giant shoulders and played a massive game, isn't too tired or too cool to wave his arms around like a maniac. Someone is surely yelling: 'Chewy on your boot!' They're creating, with their enormous energy, their big hearts, a mysterious barrier that Harry T can't breach. The ball wobbles, veers lamely to the left. It's as though Bob Murphy is standing in the crowd operating a remote control device to steer it out of harm.
Can you believe it? Harry Taylor fails to make the distance!!
Our celebrations, in the stands, mirror our team's. We leap around, we hug, we are joyful, alongside them in their delight as we suffered with them last week in their dejection. We see Lin Jong come out, in his tracksuit, his broken wing tucked inside, a determined smile on his face; Brad Lynch, hearing what his latest injury is, plants a kiss on his cheek. Our Boys look as though they are just as dazzled, as surprised, as us...that we have vanquished Geelong at last.
We stay, everyone of us, until they go into the rooms. Then we wait.
We want to watch them sing our song.
Dale Morris, smiling like a kid, is interviewed. His desperate efforts on the last line had saved a goal, for the zillionth time in his career, during the frenetic last minutes. He says he doesn't have 'the ticker' for this sort of stuff any more. I never would have picked Dale Morris for a bare-faced liar.
As we file out, exhausted, elated, hoarse, and proud, our mood could not be more different than last week's devastation. To many, the blame for that loss lay squarely with one man, Mitch Wallis, who had kicked out on the full amid the chaos of that final minute.
Some argued that there were hundreds of other mistakes throughout the course of a match, and why should Mitch's error alone be singled out?
Others made a counter argument: that not all actions are the same throughout a game; an error in the first quarter can't be seen as equal to one in the most high-stakes moments of the match. A mistake, in the final moments, is so much worse, that line of thinking goes: because it reveals a crack under pressure, an inability to make the right decision when everything is on the line.
When Harry Taylor marked the ball, many hundreds of actions had already taken place over the previous 120 minutes and during four bruising quarters. Countless decisions were made; to centre a ball, to kick long, to handpass instead of kick, to shepherd, to take an opponent on. To punch or try to out-mark; to leave an opponent and run at one racing towards goal; to lead out in the forward line or wait for it to be crumbed. To run, even if you feel you cannot.
Coaches scanned the list, worked their whiteboards, made rotations, evaluated how the tide of play was flowing, decided who to clamp down on, who to back in for a centre square bounce or kick out.
The umpires blew their whistles, or called play on; video technicians made examinations, scrutinising the tiniest of millimetres to adjudicate a score.
The medical staff decided that Matt Suckling wasn't right to play, and pulled out a number 24 jumper for Lin Jong; he could have been watching the match safely from the grandstand, instead of his shoulder hitting the deck at the most vulnerable point when he was tackled.
Little Red's kick in the final quarter was a point until it mysteriously (the Bob Murphy theory's gaining traction) did a U-turn and became a goal.
So many actions, decisions, deflections, and yet this much was still true: Harry Taylor's kick was the only one that would really count, the only one that would determine whether we knew the pleasure or felt the pain.
I think about all these things as I make a cup of cocoa at home, finishing off my birthday in quite a genteel fashion for one who'd been screeching like a banshee for three hours solid.
Footy, I think. You've got to admit, it really is bloody fantastic.
2/7/2018 08:18:02 pm
Happy Birthday! What a way to celebrate, may you have many more (so I can enjoy your brilliant pieces of prose)
2/7/2018 09:18:35 pm
It was my birthday too! My husband splurged on seats down front that ended up being too close to the Geelong cheer section (although we weren’t the only Bulldogs fans in the section, I felt like I had to yell louder to balance out the cries of “kick it to Ablett!”, and “man up Geelong!”). I buried my head in my daughter’s shoulder because I couldn’t bear to watch that final kick, even though I could not have seen it anyway from our end of the field. The Geelong supporters were lined up at the edge, phones out, ready to capture their victory on film. My husband yelled at them to “get out of the way” and then I heard the roar and it wasn’t coming from around me. I asked “did we win?” Our song began to play over the loudspeakers while the Cats fans around us hastily left their seats.
3/7/2018 09:43:04 am
Yay! An extraordinary win -- good luck this week, bad luck last week, but the main thing is, the boys are back, baby!
3/7/2018 02:13:15 pm
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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.