The carousel of time
Last summer I was driving down Barkly Street near the Whitten Oval and spotted some teenage boys, wearing Bulldogs paraphernalia, out for a stroll. My first thought was how good it was to see local youths proud to be out in the red, white and blue, a sign of our recent successes. It was very different to my own childhood; even though my alma mater (the prestigious St Peter Chanel, Deer Park) was about as far west as you could then go, kids displaying allegiance to the battling Footscray team were few and far between. It could even get you beaten up in the schoolyard.
Then I did a double-take. There was something vaguely familiar about those kids. Were they - could they actually be? - some of our new recruits? Surely they were too young, with their spindly legs and pimply faces, to take the field, being niggled, monstered, bashed and punched by thugs like Harry Himmel-whatever-his-name-is and Toby Greene? (in fact, let's just say the whole Acronyms team).
Soon after, my sense of time passing was again turned on its head. I was disoriented by the news that Libba The Second had become a father. It wasn't that, so much, that disturbed my equilibrium, but the fact that it means that his feisty, competitive father is now a grandfather to little Oscar. (What it means for the Libba Sisters is too complex to untangle). And then, this week, we learnt that Mitch Wallis had also become a dad. I couldn't come to terms with the idea that Wallis & Libba Seniors, whose debuts I remembered clearly, whose careers I'd followed so closely, were now dandling the new generation from their (somewhat arthritic) knees.
I was still bewildered about how time was speeding past me when I drove to the new home of Libba Sister Two last Thursday night. She's no longer living in the Rising Sun apartment blocks, where five short years ago we sat together on the couch, watching us defeat the Swans.
The memory of that victory holds a special place in all our hearts. It was THE win; the one which made everyone sit up and take notice. Bob Murphy called it 'the best win ever'. I can still remember the look in the eyes of the stalwarts, Dale Morris, Matthew 'Keith' Boyd and Bob himself: they knew something special was brewing, that there'd be another crack at a flag. If their ageing bodies could just hold up...
Yes, it was a watershed, a glimpse of the talent, drive, and self-belief nurtured by Bevo Our Saviour, a taste of the rampaging, unafraid Men of Mayhem-style footy that would become our 2016 trademark.
Actually...some of the facts don't really fit that narrative.
Immediately after, we lost the next four games. And 16 months later when we lined up in the Grand Final, only 12 players from the 'watershed' victory took the field. Michael Talia, Nathan Hrovat, Koby Stevens, Ayce Cordy, Lukas Webb, Lin Jong, Mitch Honeychurch and Stewart Crameri: all these were among those who fell by the wayside.
Who could have known then, that Bob himself, starry-eyed and in love with the game that afternoon, dreaming of seeing just 'one more song', would be watching from the sidelines as Our - His - Boys fulfilled their destiny.
How quickly does the footy caravan move on - brutal, swift, relentless. Tonight, there are only three 'survivors' (Bont, JJ and Macrae) from that 'coming-of-age' 2015 encounter; yet again, the Western Bulldogs team is the most youthful of the round.
The two new fathers are playing this evening, alongside two other father-sons; Zaine Cordy, a premiership player at just 19, and Rhylee West (quite possibly the only player who has come back from the pre-season shorter). It's a moment for the romantics when all four Sons Of Guns combine together at one stage in a passage on the wing.
They're playing alongside our charismatic captain, who's putting on quite the masterclass. Over recent times I've been preoccupied by worrying about Bont; whether he is ready for the captaincy, how he's dealing with the pressure of being identified as susceptible to physical niggle (make that outright harassment). I've had a sense of regret that he's experiencing now the brutality and disappointments of footy, fearful that he could lose his sheer enjoyment of the game. Tonight, those fears are vanished; I can just revel in his artistry, his unique mix of grace and power. And yet when he flies for a breathtakingly courageous mark, I'm reminded that he's not that kid any more. His big frame smashes against his equally brave opponent; the Bont 2020 is quite the beast.
Playing as he did this night, there is surely no better player in the competition.
Around Bont the other 'kids' are more than all right. I haven't seen a 19-year-old as strong and tenacious as Bailey Smith...maybe he's what we thought The Long-Departed Lair Jake Stringer would turn out to be. The deeds of 205 cm Tim English, who covered more than ten kilometres on the night (I feel fatigued just thinking about it) are astonishing. And as Bont (all of 24-years-old himself) reminded the media afterwards, Tim is 'only 22 and still developing.'
We also had a debutant on the night. Maybe 18-year-old Louis Butler was one of those scrawny kids I saw outside the Whitten Oval. (I was reassured to read that the kid had prepared meticulously, leaving no stone unturned to ensure he meets required professional standards; in his little interview on the Bulldogs website he answered, as all aspiring AFL footballers must, that his favourite movie was: 'The Shawshank Redemption.' )
It's one of my favourite parts of the game, seeing new players, with their innocent joy about just being out there, their sense of wonder and adventure still intact. This time last year Louis was a schoolboy captaining Brighton Grammar, watching games on TV; now he's playing against 250-game player Josh Kennedy and joining in the scrum of players running to congratulate Bont on a huge goal, reaching up to ruffle his skipper's mane of sweaty hair.
It was a promising debut: Louis was neat, brave and composed. Yet mixed with my hopes for his future I felt a familiar pang of loss when I saw him run out for the first time. He is now the bearer of number 18, last worn by Fletcher Roberts in 51 games that could easily be described with lukewarm phrases like serviceable; last season Fletch was quietly, and with little apparent acrimony, delisted.
Other clubs didn't come knocking for our premiership full-back; at 26, his career as an AFL footballer is over. Few, but all those of us who were there, would remember that he had two kicks, and two marks, in the 2016 premiership team. And now Fletch works with homeless young people; he has a degree in psychology; and was recently made a life member of our club.
In more ways than one Fletch has left big shoes for Louis to fill.
Louis is of course, in one of those confusing rituals that I don't understand, doused with Gatorade after playing in his first win; after the injuries we'd suffered on the night, I was on tenterhooks fearing that several of our players would slip and collide with each other on the wet surface, rupturing multiple ligaments and developing career-ending concussions in some sort of cartoonish nightmare.
I kept thinking, the next day, about how fast the seasons spin by. At this rate, it will only be a blink of an eye before I see Oscar Liberatore and Charlotte Wallis debuting in the red, white and blue. I imagine myself drowning in nostalgia; telling tales of how I was there in 2000 won a famous night when Grandpa Tony Liberatore wrapped Scott Lucas in crunching tackles, making sure our arch rivals the Bombres did not go through the season undefeated.
I'll be reminiscing about the day in Perth when Grandad Steve Wallis split Brett Heady fairly down the middle with a brutal shirtfront, triggering a wild brawl and years of animosity between ourselves and the West Coast Eagles. But I'll be trying NOT to remember the day that Charlotte's dad Mitch suffered an agonising broken leg, and like Bob, missed playing in the 2016 premiership.
Maybe I'll be eagerly awaiting news about other additions to the dynasty, having heard on the grapevine promising reports of young Horatio and Hortense Cordy (they can't go back to names like Neil and Brian ever again I guess).
I'm drifting backwards as well as forward in time, thinking about the men who played in the 2015 'greatest win ever'; how some of them went on to be part of the 'greatest ever' premiership, but plenty didn't. Sorrowful that we never really got to say goodbye to Fletcher Roberts whose career was so much more than serviceable; hoping that footy and life is ...just...kind... to our new number 18 Louis Butler.
Drift back on the 'carousel of time' (a phrase from a Joni Mitchell song) to the 2015 blog post about the match against Sydney ... where we all began to believe.
Bont was playing just his 20th match, and Fletcher Roberts was playing his eighth.....
2/7/2020 08:15:02 pm
Great summary. Was at that 2015 win. It did feel like a game changer . To think only 3 of that team played in our last game...life does move fast. And Fletcher Roberts - a premiership player forever.
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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.