The week of tears
It's Grand Final Week, and our Western Bulldogs' story has captured Melbourne. It's a dream that has swept and carried all neutral fans in a tidal wave of emotion and good will. There's hardly a mention of our opponents, the worthy but dull Sydney Swans.
We're a fable, an allegory, the good guys who everyone wants to win.
Our tale, our quest, are the very definition of 'quixotic.' I know because I looked it up in the dictionary:
Caught up in the romance of noble deeds and the pursuit of unreachable goals; idealistic without regard to practicality.
And yet in this happiest of weeks, all I can do is cry.
I shed tears, whenever I saw the words 'Bulldogs' and 'Grand Final' in the same sentence. And without the usual qualifying words, 1961 or 1954. Or 'never'.
Tears, whenever I view again the incredibly moving footage of our fans during the last, desperately tense minutes of the Preliminary Final against the Acronyms. I recognise myself in every frame.
Unable to watch, having to watch.
Unable to hope, but needing to hope.
Tears, when I see pictures of the Bulldogs' logo being painted on the MCG turf, or the famous arena lit up with our colours - at last - in the build-up to that match, the party from which we have been excluded for so long.
And finally it's Grand Final Eve. We, our beloved but luckless club with the most patient of fans, will be proudly on display in the Parade. That happy celebration, that window of opportunity when for both clubs, everything is still magically possible.
Making my way to meet the Other Libber Sister and set off for the big occasion, tears fall again as I drive down Barkly Street, seeing the African restaurants in Barkly Street, flying our colours, displaying their 'WOOF WOOF' signs. Footscray, the suburb where my father was born, has become unrecognisable to me these days, vibrantly multicultural, unexpectedly hip. In fact, the street in which Dad grew up was even spruiked by real estate agents recently as having a 'Paris end' (which may perplex those who've ever visited the Champs-Elysees).
Houses in the suburb everyone used to scorn and deride now sell for a million bucks.
And the new generation of young professionals, who've brought soy lattes and avocado smash to trendy cafe menus, now call West Footscray, where my parents married and I myself was christened (all in the right Catholic order of course, in case you're wondering) - WeFo.
The Libbers are catching the train from West Footscray. Even Metro have entered into the spirit, blaring out our song from the speakers as we do battle with the Myki machine. The platform sparkles with our red, white and blue colours: there are faded, hand-knitted scarves and retro bomber jackets from the 80s dragged out from cupboards and worn with pride. There's a resurgence, I feel, of the fierce Footscray and western suburbs' parochialism that I'd thought might have disappeared in our more urbane and cosmopolitan city.
I see craggy faces who look like they've been through a lot, and faces from many places across the sea who've made the west their home. Babies are asleep nestled in their mothers' arms. Children aren't the only ones wearing face-paint, tri-coloured wigs, red white and blue nail art and hats with badges.
When I turn my face to hide those treacherous tears again, I see the Olympic Tyres and Rubber factory - or what's left of it now that it's been converted to sleek new apartments. Here, both my parents and grandparents once worked. When I was granted the long-awaited privilege of attending games when I was four, we often waved to my grandfather, in his grey dust-coat, who was the gateman there, as we headed to the game.
Our tribes gather
We all alight at Parliament station. There's a happy confusion about where to go, the best place to see the parade. Because we've never been here, any of us, before.
Our vantage point, when we find it, allows the petite Libber Sisters a reasonable chance to glimpse Our Boys. I get talking to the man next to me, a newcomer from the Phillipines, here on a visitors's visa. He's looking around, bemused and puzzled by us, decked out in all of our mysterious tribal gear. I struggle to explain it to him, our joyous excitement, the meaning of what is - or so they say - a game.
It won't make any sense to the young Filipino, but part of the answer is visible across the tram tracks, where a sign is held aloft by a man in our colours.
'Here to represent parents, aunts, uncles and cousins who've passed away since 1961.' 1961. That far-away day when last a Bulldogs' team made a grand final.
The parade is boisterous and fun. Members of the army band are wearing Bulldogs' scarves over their army fatigues. We're polite in our applause for Patrick Dangerfield, the Swans' players, and even the umpires (because you never know).
We cheer loudest, of course, for our convoy. Bevo Our Saviour, Bob Murphy and Easton Wood are crammed into the first car, where only two seats should be, because Bob's name is not on the car. It's a statement that Bob is part of this journey, every bit of the way.
I study Our Boys' faces to see if they're relaxed. Matthew 'Keith' Boyd looks tense; we expect no less of our driven, competitive, hard-nosed former captain. There's an expression of starry-eyed innocence on the face of 19-year-old Josh Dunkley, whose 17 games so far have included three consecutive finals victories, and who's about to play in the grand final which eluded all our five 300-game veterans. The Bont, much more of a seasoned professional than Josh at just 20, tells reporters he's 'keeping it simple' and 'enjoying the moment.' And such is his relaxed composure that of course, we believe him, because it was The Bont who said: 'Why not us?' and then played more than his part to make this day real.
Learning to fly
We make the same trip from West Footscray station the next day, our treasured grand final tickets in hand. Those pesky tears are back as I see a family group on our platform, posing for a photo with their grandmother, who is frail but beaming, sitting in a wheelchair decorated with our colours.
As we walk towards the 'G, I realise I've barely given a thought to the actual game, to the thorny question of who will match up with a certain Lance Franklin, the dilemma of how we will match up with the Swans' tough, experienced mid-field, how we will stack up against opponents who've been here many times before.
There's been a turning point that I can't begin to understand, in the strength of my faith and belief in our team. I've been more nervous, more anxious and apprehensive before many a humdrum home- and-away match. Instead, I'm floating along, excited and joyful. I may even, like the relaxed and affable Bont, be enjoying the moment.
I feel like I did as a child when the training wheels came off my first bike, and I took off down the street, giddy with excitement and even executing an adventurous wave in the directionof my brothers and sister.
Yes, it's true. With me barely noticing, Tragician-thinking, the weight and ghosts of failure and disappointment have somehow ebbed away, and with it the wall of defensive pessimism designed to keep me safe from dangerous hope and flights of premiership fancy.
When did this transformation occur and who can be blamed? Perhaps it was when Bevo Our Saviour announced, after awful injuries in the same match to Mitch Wallis and Jack Redpath seemed to have scuppered our season, that his team had not lost their faith in their ability to win a flag. And then Our Boys backed up what could have been just empty talk, with a defiant display of gallantry and courage as our undermanned team took on the Cats the following week and all but pinched the match, even as two more men went down with apparently season-ending injuries.
Maybe the killer blow to the old fatalism came when we headed to Perth, not given a snowball's chance in hell of winning, and defied the doubters with an outstanding win. Or when we stormed past the Three-Peaters in front of nearly 90,000 fans, our unafraid and undaunted Men of Mayhem.
Perhaps Tragician thinking finally got thrown out of the (car) window as we all, as though hypnotised, jumped in our cars and journeyed up the Hume, a convey of daydream believers following Our Boys wherever they were about to go.
The win that night not only smashed that preliminary final hoodoo out of the park; it cemented a magical partnership between us and our team, a circle of belief and togetherness.
The cynics, of course, have gloomily - some I suspect gleefully - predicted this will be our downfall. That far too many expressions of delirious happiness - too much celebration that we're just IN THE GRAND FINAL, having not achieved 'anything' - or so they say - will make our team complacent.
Whereas I think the opposite. Team and fans are in parallel. Our joy is now sweeping our team irresistibly along, even as their deeds are transforming the fans' mindset after decades of disappointment.
When Our Boys run out on the 'G, lifted and carried on our wall of sound, I know that if we lose, it will not be the result of too much celebrating or the great footy crime of 'getting ahead of ourselves', or because our players have embraced the week and worn wide smiles instead of attempting stern 'it's just another game' blank stares.
I don't know if they are quite ready - whether our team, lacking even one player with grand final experience, can match our opponents, who have played in four of the past 11 grand finals. Yet still, I can't quite fathom my own sense of calm as I rise to my feet with thousands of other true Bulldog believers, applauding and cheering our team, breaking through the banner and onto the MCG.
The ghosts recede
It's early in the frenetic last quarter. We'd gone into the final break seven points up. Thirty minutes lie ahead, 30 minutes in which the 44 men out there will run and strive and push through barriers of pain and exhaustion. (I'm glad, later on, that I didn't hear at that point a Bruce McAvaney's statistic which says that we're in the box seat: only once, in the past 32 years, has a team come from behind to win a premiership.)
Amid the frantic action, time somehow freezes for a moment. Many of us notice, with a strange and prescient shiver, the numbers on the scoreboard.
54 and 61.
The match has been tense, pulsating. Our brand of footy has stood up brilliantly in a brutal, gripping contest. Our Boys have never looked overawed, never stepped away from the way we've played in the past two years, since Bevo Our Saviour took over and, well, saved us, such a short but very long time ago.
Our players' faces had locked onto Bevo's, in the final, three-quarter time address. They were faces of men who wanted to win, more than they feared to lose.
The Usual Suspects have been instrumental in getting us our lead. The veterans, the backline stalwarts Boyd and Morris, have been brave, unflinching and committed leaders. Dahlhaus and Macrae have been dynamos in the midfield. The father-sons, Libber and Hunter, are grabbing with every tackle, every touch, the opportunity their dads, spectators in the crowd, never got to taste. The Bont has not been prolific, yet each one of his intersections with the game is poetic, opening up space and angles and opportunities that only the truly great can see.
The more Unusual Suspects have got us here too. Another father-son, 19-year-old 'In-Zaine' Cordy in his eleventh game, has laid bruising tackles as a defensive forward and kicked a critical goal. Twenty-three year old Joel Hamling, cut from Geelong's list without ever playing a game and who's struggled to cement his spot in our team, has eclipsed one of the AFL's biggest names, 'Buddy' Franklin, who stands half a head taller than him and is almost 20 kilos heavier. Tom Boyd, who'd dropped a chest mark early in the match, has grown minute by minute, dragging down epic marks, competing brilliantly in the ruck, nailing a difficult goal when pressed against the boundary.
Not one contest has been shirked by Our Boys. Not one tackle that could be made has been missed. No opportunity for a desperate lunge, or to fling their bodies into pack after pack, has gone astray.
Now, after peppering the goals in the first five minutes, here stand our team, the Western Bulldogs, with those momentous numbers 54 and 61 sending a silent message - of what, we still don't know - as the shadows begin to fall across the MCG.
Franklin marks and then slots a goal; our margin is now only a point. There's pandemonium everywhere, an enormous din rocking the stadium, and yet inside the Tragician that preternatural calm as I await what we'll do next and who will bring us our next goal. Somehow, I know now - because these are our 2016 Bulldogs - that a goal will come.
The man to drive it out of the centre is Clay Smith, the human wrecking ball. The man who will work in a telephone box to squeeze the ball out is the quiet but steely-eyed Jackson Macrae. The man who will take that ball and fling it to his boot for a goal in a millisecond of time is Jake (the Lair) Stringer.
I don't realise until I watch the replay later, that the Swans actually came at us again, goaled and drew the margin back to a point. Because for some inexplicable reason The Tragician - who has certainly been known to be in an agony of doubt and Danny from Droop Street fatalism in home-and-away matches even if we're 30 points up with five minutes to go - believes from the moment of Jake's goal that the premiership is ours.
We are full of run, driving forward relentlessly, our history-busting team who've travelled interstate twice, already played three taxing finals, and came from behind in a ferocious preliminary final. In a superb, never to be forgotten, passage in our forward pocket, Shane Biggs intervenes again and again to trap the ball or get a fingernail to it; he re-enters the fray so frequently in 15 seconds of the most suffocating pressure that you'd imagine he'd been cloned.
There is simply no way the ball is going to get out of our forward half, no matter how the Swans try and crash through. It becomes inevitable, that the ball will spill free. Liam Picken is charging onto it, goaling to put us seven points up.
We have even more momentum, as JJ charges forward, his kick, carried forth on a tidal wave of our roars, surely the sealer. And yet the goal is overturned on the flimsiest of evidence, without even a token protest from the Swans' defenders that it had been touched.
The dreary, fatalistic 19th century novelist Thomas Hardy, who I've often accused of writing the narrative of our Bulldogs' history of misfortune, could have been cranking up the levers again. This could have been a 1997 'Libber Goal That Was Called A Point' moment. A Shane McInerney 2009 'I'll get into the game and award Riewoldt a dubious free kick' twist. A sign from the universe, another moment to be endlessly recounted in the roll-call of Bulldogs' hardluck stories and injustices.
And yet, though we slump back, outraged and disbelieving, into our seats, the thought that this could halt our momentum doesn't occur to me. Almost immediately, from the resulting kick-out when the 'goal' is over-ruled, Jordan Roughead, who's overcome bleeding in his eye to be out there, takes a crucial strong mark. There are more scrambles, but it's still absolutely impossible for the Swans to break our will, or create a second of space that isn't filled with red white and blue men of fanatical commitment.
It's emblematic, when Buddy tries to burst through the centre in one last desperate Swans' foray, that the man who will lunge for him and bring him crashing down to earth like a towering oak tree is our Dale Morris. Tom Boyd pounces on the loose ball and launches it towards goal from outside 50. Thomas Hardy has lost his vice-like grip on our story; there's no fickle, random bounce to wreck our dreams. The Dogs can't and won't be stopped from here.
The siren releases 62 years of pain. 62 years that we've survived with brittle humour, resignation and sometimes just grim commitment. So many times, we've believed that this day would never come. We've learnt, painfully, to accept that such joy, such elation, will never await the likes of us. We've blocked out, when we can, the fantasy of how this moment might look. We've watched the wild celebrations at home, snapping off the TV in irritation, wondering if we can endure another year of heartache and disappointment.Now we're seeing Chris Grant and Rohan Smith, the faces of the 1997 heartache, embracing and shedding a tear, this time of joy, out there in the same spot. And now we're listening to Our Boys' names being called out, as each of them takes to the stage and becomes premiership immortals.
None of us are surprised when Bevo gives Bob his medal. I am fiercely proud that our club is not going to give into the macho nonsense that only those who have sweated on the field this day are worthy. I'm grateful that both these men have the bigness of heart and the imagination to understand the meaning of this moment.
That Bevo would instinctively understand that it needed to be done.
And that Murph would take it, pushed forward to the stage and kissed and hugged by his team-mates who love him, so that he can lift the cup with our courageous, high-flying captain Easton Superman Wood.
Instead of being a forlorn and tragic figure on the sidelines, Bob runs around with the players. He lifts his match day attire to show us that underneath, he's wearing his jumper. It's so very Bob, and we laugh and cheer and we cry because he knows what this moment means for us just as we know what this moment means to him.
We're queueing to get into the Whitten Oval, a long line of daydream believers. It's a long wait. But no fans have ever been more practised in the art of patience.
The statue of EJ outside our western suburbs' ground, our home for 130 years, is decked out with red white and blue ribbons and a scarf. It's the scene of countless photos as we wait to get into our home and applaud our 2016 premiership heroes.
I listen, as the queue snakes around this ground, to snatches of conversation. Pubs in Footscray apparently ran out of beer last night; scandalously, locals were forced to consume spirits.
I see a family group behind me and we hug like old friends. Which we are now, because they'd sat behind us at the grand final, and even their oldest family member began to exchange jubilant high fives with the Libber Sisters every time Our Boys scored a goal.
Now, finally, we make it inside the ground. We're standing, thousands upon thousands of us, on the turf trod by EJ and Charlie Sutton and the men of '61.
A young West Footscray rover once ran on this ground as well. He was a 'natural' with a 'brilliant future', according to the local paper at the time, who never made the seniors after he broke his ankle cycling home from training. This was my father, Frank. I feel his footsteps, here, on this very ground.
Our team will be making their rock-star appearance on the balcony. They'll be appearing in what used to be the John Gent stand, where I'd sit with my mother when I first began coming to games as a child, where I fell in love with this game and this club.
All around me are stories I feel are mine, generations gathered together who've waited for this day, fans who've mainly known pity or derision, people with whom I've shared a weary glance after yet another horrid loss, people now with wet eyes and what I call the 'premiership croak'. We've all lost our voices from too much cheering and singing. We're about to do it all over again.
Our team appear on the balcony, just as gloriously shabby and hungover and bleary-eyed as we'd hoped and expected. Do they know what they've done for us, the joy and gratitude we feel, that they've finally erased that terrible ache? Do they know the things our fans have been through, the people who stood silently crying at this very ground 27 years ago because our team had been unceremoniously dumped from the competition, and then reached deep into their pockets and rattled tins? Knowing that this club meant something essential to them. Knowing that it could not, and must not, disappear.
Bevo is asked whether he is a Jedi, to bring this miracle about in only his second season. He says the players are Jedis, that the force was with them, no doubt.
The Bont is told that the Bulldogs' shop has sold out of his number four. He pauses for a second, as though to consider whether modesty might be a diplomatic and expected response. And then our Mr Perfect gives the perfect answer.
'Well, they'd better order in some more.'
The famous or infamous Whitten Oval gale is blowing hard, but there's sun. Of course there's sun, as we sing the song and the cup is displayed, again,and again.
I look around, and realise that tectonic plates have shifted underneath our club and its story, and shattered the very reason for the Tragician blog.
Because now the 97 Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named, and the 98 Preliminary Final That Wasn't Very Good Either, don't hurt any more, superseded by the fresher and more wonderful memory of The 2016 Preliminary Final Where Our Boys Believed. The recurring nightmare of our preliminary finals losses and chokes and self-inflicted implosions will be soothed by the memory of Jackson Macrae, nailing the goal with ice cold composure, the goal that has brought us here, to these moments of celebration.
Stories of premierships and grand finals will no longer just quaint snatches of long-ago footage, with men wearing hats allowed to sit inside the boundary, though a grand final is being played. Alongside sepia pictures and the treasured reminiscences of old men, we can now draw upon the legends of 22 new heroes. Joining those fabled men of 54 and 61 are the boys of 2016, whose progress we've followed and debated and discussed from their very first games, whose tribulations and frustrations we've witnessed and shared, whose stories and setbacks and relentless self-belief have now entered our dreaming. They will be remembered, now. Forever.
And that haunting image of Rohan Smith pounding the turf in humiliation and despair in 97 has been replaced by the wondrous sight of Easton Wood, a snow angel atop the red white and blue confetti that floated from the 2016 premiership dais.
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.