On Friday, the day our flag was to be unfurled, a familiar tune floated out from my radio. Mark Seymour was performing an acoustic version of the Hunter and Collectors’ iconic song: ‘The holy grail.’
With just the songwriter and his guitar, I heard the song anew. Without those dominating horns, and played at a slower tempo, it was no longer an anthem of triumph and conquest. It was melancholy, wistful, poignant. A tale of yearning and survival, struggle and failure.
I’ve read that it’s actually about Napoleon’s ill-fated attempt to invade Russia. But over time, renditions of ‘The Holy Grail’ have become unavoidably associated with hackneyed Grand Final pre-match entertainment.
And up until 2016, that link was a melancholy one for Dogs’ fans, as we watched enviously from the sidelines, year after year.
I was more likely to snap the TV off in irritation whenever its opening chords rang out (it didn’t help that I knew it would soon be followed by its inevitable sidekick: ‘Up there Cazaly’). I would suddenly decide the garden urgently needed weeding, or that the untidy state of the sock drawer could not be tolerated a moment longer.
Seeing club after club enjoy an occasion that seemed locked away from us forevermore, I became (you may find this hard to believe) mean-spirited and unsporting. When Collingwood was ascendant in the 2010 grand final re-match, a Magpie-supporting friend kept sending me updates that —childishly — I didn’t really want to hear. My answers became increasingly terse and insincere.
‘Eddie has left his seat to go down to the boundary!!!’
I’m at Bunnings.
But now, all of us who have spent our lifetimes ‘trying to get our hands, on the holy grail’, are about to see our history-busting team unfurl the flag. I’ve been curious about what it’s going to mean for us, now that it’s moved from remote fairytale to actuality. Pursuing a premiership cup after so many years had all the elements of a medieval myth. That holy grail glittered all the more tantalisingly because we’d never known it, never come close. Maybe we’re about to discover that we’ve imbued the idea of a premiership with magical and mystical powers that aren’t actually there. Maybe it won’t transform us as much as we think.
After all, you could say it’s just a silver cup. And yet we all lined up to get photos, to touch it with reverence.
And now, on Friday night, the flag is being borne around the ground like a sacred relic. You could see it as just a triangle of fabric. But it feels like every one of our dreams and heartaches and joys and sorrows have been stitched into it.
It’s being carried by the former champions, those who really did shed blood for it; the people who’ve been custodians of our club; the fans who’ve often just simply endured.
Yes, it’s just a triangle of fabric. But it’s got words on it that we’d almost given up hoping to see.
They are simple, but still thrilling. AFL Premiers. 2016.
Early on, the premiership euphoria seems to have dazzled our team as well. It’s a slow start, and the Swans canter away from us early in the first quarter. But our faith and belief have a different complexion since Bevo (Our Saviour) came along. We trust that the uncharacteristic clearance deficit will soon be overhauled. We expect our team to work its way through the fumbles, some early signs that the cogs aren’t moving smoothly yet.
A couple of recruits help us back into the match. A new-ish bloke wearing number two gets a lot of attention. We’re loud in our approval of his every possession. We feel that our love for our captain is helping him glide, as only he can, smoothly across the turf.
There’s a quintessential Bob moment. He sidesteps a helplessly flailing Swans player with the adroitness of a matador. Bob alone has seen a possibility that none of us have in the crowded forward line: the Bont on a lead. Bob’s kick travels with the perfect weight and trajectory towards the Bont. The crowd seem to breathe out all at the same time, remembering then that Bob is more than a nostalgic feel-good story, the bloke that missed the flag. His exquisite skills are going to add another layer to this already wonderful team.
Another new recruit takes some getting used to. There’s a ripple of laughter when someone says: ‘Two things tonight I thought I’d never see. A Bulldogs’ flag. And me cheering for Cloke.’
But the former Magpie benefits from an ironclad rule in footy fan-dom – that once a player dons our colours, any former views of his merits or otherwise must be immediately cast aside. Under this maxim, Barry Hall instantly transformed from a footy ogre to a loveable, definitely misunderstood, Bulldog hero when he joined our ranks. His previous transgressions were swiftly explained away. The bloke was a gentle giant. Probably the victim of AFL conspiracies or just a series of bad camera angles.
The Big Bad Bustling One came to our club in 2010 to deliver us a flag. He was supposed to be the strong marking forward that we needed, who’d get us over a line we couldn’t cross in 2008 and 2009.
That wasn’t quite how the script played out. Big Trav’s role will be different. He won’t be a lone saviour, but his strong presence and his pack marking are what will free up Jake ‘the Lair’ Stringer (in fine fettle on Friday night) and fellow Bendigo citizen Stewart Crameri to use their pace and creativity around the field.
We had the game firmly in our keeping at three-quarter time. There was a mood of calm confidence in the crowd that would have been unthinkable just a few short months ago, when we’d have been shuffling nervously and mentally calculating whether we could ‘hold on’ if we had the lead.
And then Buddy Franklin split the game open. We, and the Bulldogs defence, looked hypnotised, as the superstar went on a one-person rampage. It was almost possible to feel awe at his gifts, almost possible to be detached enough to admire the brilliance with which he single-handedly took a sledgehammer to our lead. (I did say ‘almost.’)
‘Calm confidence’ no longer quite described our emotions, but neither was there the blind panic that a Bulldogs’ team surrendering of a match-winning margin would previously have induced. We’ve seen these boys and men before. We know that they have a will to win, more formidable and indomitable than any others we’ve known.
So as the stadium begins to rock with the urgency of this marvellous and high-quality battle, we still think Our Boys can prevail.
Their intensity lifts. Their willingness to allow the Swans a centimetre of space evaporates. In the tightest of clinches we note, with relief, two men are part of an epic struggle to make sure there’s not another Swans goal scored.
One of them is a former scrapper who’s learnt to fly. Liam Picken.
The other who is a superstar who knows how to scrap. Marcus Bontempelli.
The ball is cleared out of defence with multiple acts of desperation. Our challenge now, with us two points down, is to create a scoring opportunity ourselves, as so many of our foot soldiers had headed down the other end to thwart the Swans’ attack.
There’s a chain of possessions. It seems impossible, but Liam Picken has formed the last link. We can’t begin to fathom how his lungs must be bursting as he charges onto the ball. He launches a kick towards our vacant goal square. Another Bulldog has run the length of the ground too. From where we are sitting, Liam’s kick to him appears destined to fall short, as the player – none other than The Bont – has a Swan in hot pursuit in this thrilling foot race. The Bont, with his go-go-gadget arms plucks it from the Swan’s grasp like a piece of fruit. We have the lead. We won’t let it go.
Our fans begin to drift from the ground. We pause, as we always do, to watch our team sing their song - our song - on the TV monitors. Looking around, I realise I don’t have to ask any more what the premiership has given us. It’s just sheer joy.
Somewhere, deep within Etihad stadium, the premiership flag is being carefully wrapped up, folded away, ready to be transported down Footscray Road, where it will join that one from 54. They will flutter together in that notorious tricky wind, at the ground that’s been our home for more than 130 years.
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.