The Fever Dream
Believe it or not, I've actually seen us win at Kardinia Park (or whatever they call it these days: my preference is TFS for Taxpayer-Funded Stadium).
It was 2003. The surprising thing about pulling off this rare feat was that it was in a year we added to our stellar collection of wooden spoons. In fact we only won three games for the year; astonishingly enough this included defeating the Cats twice.
Geelong's team that day contained many of the players who'd form the nucleus of the great era which was yet to dawn. Our team included luminaries such as Daniel Bandy and Patrick Bowden, a few ageing remnants from our tilts in the '90s, and some newish players who would go on to find Geelong an insurmountable hurdle in the years 2008-2010.
There was also an unheralded rookie called Matthew Boyd, wearing number 42 and playing his fifth game.
Still, as someone famous once said, we've all passed a lot of water since those days.
I used to have a grudging admiration for the achievements of the Geelong dynasty later that decade. Now I've allowed myself to wallow in just the grudging.
About that benighted ground, where we can just about pencil in the loss of four points each year, yet where, in an unfairly lopsided fixture, Collingwood, Essendon, Carlton and Richmond never have to play.
About my well-known antipathy towards anything Scott-brother-related; now that Petulant Brad has departed, all my angst can be directed squarely at Morose Chris, who's added a George Hamilton-style tan to reasons to dislike him.
About how they're always able to attract and top up with blue-chip talent - with one new addition being among my (admittedly bulging) all time list of Most Detestable: 'Jezza' Cameron, no less.
About the air of entitlement that hangs over their players, who are genuinely astonished if ever a free is paid against them.
About why they can't just bottom out, rebuild and stop annoying me so much.
As a counterpoint, however, I remind myself the Bulldogs have won a premiership more recently than the Cats.
That's all I've got.
In contrast to the 2003 clash which had little riding on it, in this 2021 match there is much at stake. The Cats are scratching at our top two spot on the ladder. We need a win for our credibility as a top four aspirant, having failed tests against Richmond and Melbourne.
It must be time, at last, to rid ourselves of the TFS monkey.
Fortunately, even if I wanted to, I was unable to purchase an exorbitantly priced seat at the stadium. It saved me from being condemned to watch most of the match on the scoreboard anyway given the weird shape of the ground. COVID restrictions mean 7000 of their supporters are allowed at the match, and only 200 of ours - I guess it preserves the usual ratio between the two clubs' attendance even without a pandemic.
The Libba Sisters are far from sorry that instead of huddling in the cold surrounded by Feral Cats, we'll be watching the clash on the couch. Settling into our accustomed positions, we don't really talk about what we expect, or hope for, on this wintry Friday night. At this ground, against this opponent, anything, sadly, is possible.
In the first quarter, though, we begin giving each other those silent nods of acknowledgement. Our Boys are 'on.'
Their execution isn't always matching the intent. Blessed with the Docklands stadium roof, we play less outdoor footy than most, which means we don't handle the wet and slippery conditions cleanly. But there is no doubt of their endeavour, no sign of that curious flatness which marred our game against the Dees.
By the third quarter, our hopes have gone beyond just a 'let's not capitulate' low bottom line. Our engine room purrs into life. Jackson Macrae, Tom Liberatore and The Bont rip the ball from the centre time and again. Our efforts are often kamikaze, our delivery to the forward line haphazard, but our intensity, our will, can't be faulted. And there are enough moments of brilliance - Josh Bruce's superb 50 metre goal on the run from the boundary, the Bont's brilliant snap - for us to be in the match up to our eyeballs. We've lost our wonderful forward, the Astro-Naut, but maybe in these conditions, it's not as big a loss as it might normally be, much though I mourn the loss of his exhilarating leaps in his retro long-sleeved guernsey
The Cats, however, are always in touch. Of course they are. Their goals somehow seem easier, more methodical, more calmly crafted and less energy-sapping than ours.
But early in the last quarter I murmur the words: 'I think we can do this.' Libba Sister Two nods in silent agreement. We miss some sitters, but our efforts, our desperation, our focus, are magnificent. They will - surely - be rewarded.
Maybe they would have been rewarded, if it was any other team, any other venue.
Toby McLean puts us in front. The Tragician had earlier been proclaiming his inclusion as a mistake. But as we jump to our feet, I swiftly change my tune; I always knew it would be another selection masterstroke from Bevo Our Saviour!
But... there are three minutes to go. Will we bottle up the play, clog the backline with every Bulldogs player? or will we keep pushing forward, trying to manufacture another goal, strike a final killer blow against these seasoned pros... who've been in this position, and escaped, so many times before?
We have no way of knowing which option to take. Instead, as fans, we enter what I call the fever dream. Only footy fans can understand it: a fugue state, those last few minutes of a match when you're in front and trying to hold on. Reality is both heightened and blurry. Time slows down and accelerates, warps, has no meaning. Mesmerised, hypnotised, barely able to breathe: the actions of those out there on the field are momentarily the very most important on the planet.
In the fever dream, we become inarticulate, unable to even barrack coherently. There's just snatches of agitated, racing thoughts, made worse by having no full perspective of the ground or the match context: 'Not there..oh...don't kick it...good boy...what...they can't ... they can't, can they??'
And somehow time for anticipatory grief, for all that's at stake.
Gary Rohan has the ball in his hands. He will kick for goal after the siren. In so many homes across Melbourne's west like ours, the last quarter din has fallen silent.
I try and imagine him duffing the kick and it slewing out of bounds on the full. I know it won't happen.
It doesn't happen.
The Libba Sisters scramble for the remote, but not in time to avoid the nauseating celebrations of the Solarium-faced One, not so morose now, rubbing further salt into the wounds of every Bulldogs fan.
We slowly, painfully, emerge from the fever dream.
There are the 'if onlies', of course. Surely a fit Astro-Naut would have clunked a crazy-brave mark in those last dying minutes as we struggled to fend off the insurgents. Our injured players, especially the Bromance Buddies, would have been so vital with their extra run in that last quarter. There were those costly misses; the fact that the Cats still had so much space in their forward line with seconds to go; the decisions players made under white-hot pressure. I can't criticise any one of them, for I can see how much our team tried, how much this loss - an after the siren kick is the absolutely worst way to lose - will sting.
And there's the sinking knowledge of what lies ahead; a trip to Perth, with another hungry, fresh challenger hoping to bring us down. A week in strict quarantine will strain Our Boys' physical and mental wellbeing. And now, 'Big Boys Month', as Damien Hardwick calls the gruelling month of July, is now just around the corner
I leave Libba Sister Two and drive home. There is roadwork everywhere, and I twice become lost. I swerve to avoid a fox, running stealthily across the grim shadows beneath the Westgate Bridge. In the semi-deserted streets, I pass knots of Bulldogs' fans clustered outside pubs, still dissecting the loss, emerging from their own fever dreams to lament the 'if-onlies'.
Finally at home, I try to understand what went wrong and what it will mean for our 2021 campaign. I see the footage of Joel Selwood, clawing at the face of Dailey Bailey (an 'ear massage' chortle the commentators, who love to maintain the myth of his courage) and in a separate incident, drawing blood as he steps back "accidentally" onto the calf of Taylor Duryea ('and he pokes him in the eye and then stands on his foot,' they titter) acts for which he will only be fined. There's one pithy statement on Twitter that captures my anger, defiance and heartbreak for our club. 'We'll kill these pricks in September.'
20/6/2021 07:09:05 pm
Such mixed feelings …so delighted to have you back but so gutting to be at another loss to the Cats…oh when will this curse lift?? Anyway your words are a salve to the pain …thank you!!
28/6/2021 12:25:51 pm
I don't know what it is about Geelong. Maybe just the dog-cat antipathy? Anyway, the win against the Eagles yesterday has soothed much of the angst, but I won't be satisfied until we beat them in a final - this year surely?
28/6/2021 10:06:26 am
God you are a great writer..
28/6/2021 12:27:05 pm
Well, that's an enormous and much appreciated comment. I still notice I find more to write about in the anguish of a loss than a win I guess old 'tragician' habits die hard. Thanks Joe.
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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.