The coming of Jamarra
Patchy. Inconsistent. Prone to go missing on the big occasions. It's true: it wasn't much of a year for the Bulldog Tragician Blog.
In fairness, it was a forgettable enough season...if it weren't for the umpteen ways that it was extraordinary. I don't think I was the only one, who watched our matches with a certain detachment. The losses were mere irritants; they rarely cut deep, as they do when you've been riding every kick, mark or fumble; neither do I have a vivid sense of any of the wins, which have slipped remarkably quickly from my memory bank. Is it fair that I vaguely recall them as workmanlike rather than enthralling?
Actually, the strongest emotion I felt all season was when Richmond won the grand final. The Tigers have grabbed three of the last four flags since our 2016 premiership - the one that was going to change everything.
The Tigers in fact have what we conspicuously failed to do. After their breakthrough flag in 2017, success has built relentlessly upon success. In contrast, we're at risk of a new chapter in the Bulldogs' long story of sliding door opportunities missed, roads less travelled; one entitled: 'How we blew the chance of a Bulldog Dynasty.'
Bleak enough thoughts, but they were easily discarded during the grey drudgery of the Melbourne lockdown. When footy burst back into my consciousness again, it was however in the most unwelcome of ways. First, what seemed ludicrous speculation; then the headlines; then the confirmation. Another of the sadly decreasing number of premiership heroes wanted out. Josh Dunkley announced he wished to break his contract and leave our club. It got worse - his preferred destination was with our traditional foe the Bombres.
It was disillusioning, it was heartbreaking. It was tasteless and tacky too.
Unwelcome questions came thick and fast, the more so because, unlike the scenario of the Ryan Griffen defection, by any measure it's our club that now has the stronger future than Dunkley's pursuers: the once-proudly arrogant but now clueless (yet still arrogant) Bombres. And Josh Dunkley isn't a washed-up hack, or a known troublemaker, or a fringe player. In fact, isn't he one of the tight circle of 'good blokes' at the club, best friends with our captain, always running down the race right near Bont? What on earth has gone wrong since he signed a contract just last year in good faith? Was this a sign of a rumoured crack in the bromance between the players and Bevo Our Saviour? Or was this all as simple - and revolting - as just money?
For some fans, the lure of that eye-watering contract explained everything, and the only question became what advantages could be extracted from a deal.
Needless to say the Bulldog Tragician was not among these pragmatists.
I've never been able to warm to the idea of players as chess pieces and commodities; never been able to understand how simultaneously players are 'brothers', training together through broiling hot summers; claiming to be ready to suffer hits and injuries and run that extra yard for each other; and at the same time somehow just 'employees' cold-bloodedly assessing their financial prospects and making a career move - even if that involves putting on a new jumper and going into battle next time against those former 'brothers.'
It's that contradiction which made me cringe when Josh Bruce grabbed his jumper in this year's final against his former club: a shallow gesture when he's now donned three different sets of colours - 'love the one you're with', I guess. (I'll tactfully refrain from any comment about it being his only highlight of the afternoon - oops, too late). Another reminder that while as fans our love for the club is permanent and enduring, it's not so for the players - a reality that's both inevitable and deeply depressing.
Countless Bulldogs' fans kept paying their memberships this year through the hardships of lockdown. Yet a player already earning more than most of us, who with his team-mates avoided the worst of lockdown, living in in a parallel universe (a bubble in more ways than one), was all set to leave his mates. It felt like an insulting return for the loyalty we'd collectively shown.
I wasn't sure how to feel when our club eventually refused to trade him. Grim satisfaction that we wouldn't see our youngest ever premiership player donning that sash was probably the predominant emotion. And there was a ripple of fear: that we withstood this first raid but ruthlessly cashed-up suitors will come again. For Josh Dunkley, and (I'll talk in riddles here in case the Bombres recruiters are reading) his best friend as well.
For a little while at least, my cheers for Josh Dunkley will be muted. Another chink in the romance of footy has been eroded. (And I know my own hypocrisy in this; the tears when Daniel Cross was unceremoniously delisted, discarded despite the many occasions he'd literally risked his life for our club, dried with indecent haste as I began to celebrate the deeds of the young man who took his number four guernsey).
It was all very dispiriting, even as we Melburnians finally stumbled out of the tedium of lockdown. And yet, I struggled to resume my usual state of post-season indifference. There was this kid that everyone was talking about, you see....
He had an unusual name, touted as the next Buddy. (Wry smile and shake of the head from The Tragician - as if, after decades in this barracking caper, I'd fall for that sort of hyperbole).
An Indigenous young man, the first in his family to complete VCE. (Ok, I admit I'd begun turning to the back-pages of The Age a little more often rather than the front. I was just sick of reading about COVID and the maniac in the White House, that's all).
He revels in, rather than shies away from, the Buddy comparisons, borrows The Bont's jeans, has a megawatt smile, and a charming, naïve confidence. (Apparently we need to have some sort of complicated points strategy to draft him!! This is about all I understand, or need to understand, though I'm supremely confident, because the Bulldogs have always been good at points. Still: 'Don't blow it Bulldogs!. I've heard this kid is the new Buddy!")
He's ours! (When will Jamarra Ugle-Hagan badges be available at the club? )
He's the welcome counterpoint for the post-Josh-Dunkley disillusionment.
He's paraded in our red white and blue colours, a little skinny as the new recruits always are. Within hours he's emblazoned on marketing material, asked if he is daunted by being the number one pick, spoken of being as an Indigenous role model in a code with a fraught history in its dealings with our First Nations players.
Though I have a flicker of motherly anxiety for him, he copes well with all the hype. 'Marra' as we've begun to call him, is blessedly not yet schooled in the dour corporate-speak which has infected our game. Endearingly he doesn't yet see the need for modesty, or studiously bland pronouncements (rest assured, they will soon come) of 'just playing a role and earning the respect of The Boys'. He even - blasphemy! - artlessly calls his new skipper The Bont 'a good kid'.
Everything for Jamarra is gloriously possible. I'm imagining the buzz before his first game. We'll jump from our seats for his first touch, his first goal, his first speckie. Especially if they're all in the same passage of play.
We will invest all our ridiculous hopes in him. There could be a Rising Star award, a Sutton medal. A Brownlow. A Norm Smith. Multiple Norm Smiths!
We're picturing match-saving marks, a heroic run-down tackle in a grand final. I can see it in my mind's eye: an audacious banana kick-goal from the boundary to win us our third premiership!
And yet even as these fantasies unfurl, I know enough of the toll of our game, and how few fairytales actually come true, to feel a stab of fear, and a wish to protect Marra from the less carefree, more heartbreaking days that will surely come.
This is the romance of footy that those who see it as business will never understand: that many of us love and care for the players as people and not just for the success they may one day bring our club.
It's why fears battle with my hopes: praying Marra will never know the crushing despair of injury, hoping I don't have to witness, as I have so many times, that slow leaching away of the sheer love of the game. I want him to keep flying for those exhilarating speckies (even though I already foresee the day that grouchy commentators or stern coaches chide him for unrealistic attempts). I hope he never reads spiteful social media posts, or comes to feel it's an effort to turn up at the footy club; that he doesn't get frustrated when his exuberant game gets dissected forensically in those lengthy video reviews; that our club will nurture and harness, but never subdue, his immense natural talents. That his huge smile never dims.
Marra - 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.