This week Terry Wallace, a former Bulldogs player and coach (I believe he also spent some time at Hawthorn) announced his retirement from footy media. In an interview marking the occasion he said his biggest regret was '30 minutes of footy that he could never get back.'
There was no need for any Bulldogs' fan under the age of 25 to puzzle over which 30 minutes 'Plough' was referring to. It was of course the infamous Preliminary Final that Must Not Be Named. The Dogs led all day, before collapsing ignominiously in the last quarter. In my memory our players transformed into immobile dummies around which the Crows ran rampant; I was surprised to learn later that we did generate six scoring shots - all points - to go down by two points. Memory tends to get distorted by pain.
Many fans say it no longer hurts any more, soothed by our triumph almost 20 years later, but I'm not one of them. It's my belief the nature of that failure - blowing a match-winning lead with barely a whimper - tainted other challenges we mounted. It not only denied us a shot at a flag in '97 but contributed to our appalling finals record in the years that followed.
So much can go wrong, be out of your control in any one season; when everything has gone right enough that you're 30 minutes from a grand final, it's a chance that should never be squandered.
And even if as supporters the 2016 flag erased that pain, could that really be so for the Men of '97? It's quite extraordinary to think that four of them went on to play 300 games for our club, yet never got to experience the premiership euphoria.
One of the magical and emotional elements of the 2016 campaign was the feeling that those champs of 97 were very much present, surrounding, maybe even (or so I fancied) gently cradling and supporting, our team on their crazy quest. They did so with open hearts, with none of the bitterness you might expect. Daniel Southern, who'd missed the 97 final with injury (if fit, could he have saved just ONE goal that day?) was in the rooms when we beat the Eagles in Perth. Plough said the last time he cried was the 2016 preliminary. Libba the First was a constant presence in TV coverage of the matches, riding every kick like a starstruck fan. Even Leon Cameron, who had a front row view of the '97 carnage as a 25-year-old defender, said that once we'd seen off his own club's chances, he'd barracked for a Bulldogs' victory.
And Luke Darcy, his voice shaking as he commentated the preliminary final, uttered those iconic words I can never hear without crying: 'I've been waiting all my life to say this: the Bulldogs are into a grand final!'
When the final siren went, with the Bulldogs premiers at last, Chris Grant and Rohan Smith stood on the sidelines watching Our Boys get their medals, on that same turf where surely their worst ever football memories were formed.
I think of them all, like in James Taylor's beautiful song Carolina in My Mind, as 'the holy host of others' standing round us.
I'm musing on these things as I wait for our match against the Dees to begin. It seems like everything's conspiring to catapult me back to 97. It's the Doug Nicholls round, and the pre-match vision shows highlights of the brilliant Indigenous player - and wrecker of Bulldogs' hopes in '97 and '98 - Andrew Mcleod.
Still with his trademark megawatt smile, panellist Brad Johnson muses: 'He really stitched us up in those finals; nothing we did worked on him.'
He sounds relaxed, like he'd made peace with it all; no sign of those painful recurring flashbacks of the Crows running amok, or all those other, unique and variable ways (we were inventive) the Dogs failed in the many finals Johno played in thereafter. Is that even possible?
Mitch Wallis spoke recently about coming to terms with his own experience of missing a premiership. From the way he's playing you can tell the pain of missing out in 2016 is now being channelled into an urgent mission; when the next premiership tilt comes around, Wally, now entering footy middle age at 27, will have done everything possible to ensure he'll be there.
Mitch looks fit and strong; not blessed with pace, he's transformed himself into a wily forward. He clunks marks he has no right to; he can't be budged when he wrestles himself into front position: he is our best kick for goal (sadly, this isn't much of a compliment); he's just about in All-Australian form.
I think about his back story; arriving at the club as a golden boy, son of a Bulldogs' legend, hailed as a future captain. A destiny interrupted by a sickening injury; he's spoken of the agony in the rooms as his boot and socks were cut off the leg that was broken in two places, while distressed teammates listened to his screams. He endured months of rehabilitation, setbacks where he was dropped...and all the while the Dogs moved further and further from the third flag which we thought, having banished the Preliminary Final Hoodoo, would be just around the corner.
Mitch's very future at our club was under question at one point when he mysteriously fell out of favour with Bevo; mysteriously because surely Mitch would always be sitting attentively up the front of team meetings (a model student alongside noted goody-two-shoes types like Dunkley and The Bont).
Mitch's dream isn't, can't, be over, whatever sensible and boringly pragmatic things he says about adjusting to the missed flag. But he'll never get back those minutes, just a milli-second of time really, when chased down in a tackle he somehow kicked and fractured his own leg. A tiny chasm of time and bad luck into which his premiership dream fell.
Wally's injury late in 2016 seemed, at the time, the final death-knell to dreams of a flag for the Bulldogs that year. Our injury list was mounting; Jack Redpath cruelly did his knee the same night, as the Bulldogs fell to lowly St Kilda. These blows were surely a brutal lesson: the footy gods, who'd never bestowed a smidgen of luck for our club, had other plans written for this new group.
Oddly enough, it was the very week that followed Mitch's injury that we first heard of the emergence of a new mantra among our bruised and depleted list; they were asking: 'Why not us?' I heard these naive and foolhardy words with a sense of horror. Yet when I looked for our battle-scarred veterans - 'Keith' Boyd, Dale Morris and Liam Picken - to put an end to this nonsense, I saw, with both hope and trepidation, that it was no use. They'd succumbed; they too had that far away look in their eyes.
Back in 2020, Wally is close to best on the ground as the Dogs notch up an important win; for now, we are in the eight. Foxtel returns its coverage to the Melbourne studio where Brad Johnson is - of course - beaming. (I remember Bob Murphy saying: 'Can anyone really be that happy all the time?'). The other commentators rib him about whether he'd like to join the boys in the team song; Johno, a Bulldogs' fan all his life, plays along with the joke.
Three hundred and sixty two times Brad proudly wore the red, white and blue guernsey. He played in 21 finals across a 16-year career. And just six of them were wins.
But on an April night in 2017 Johno was one of those carrying our cherished second premiership flag around the Docklands arena. Also present were men from 97: Libba, West, Smith and Grant.
And as I applauded them I was struck by two seemingly contradictory thoughts that were equally true; it could never really be their flag, and yet it was in every possible way their flag too.. belonging to the men of 97, and Murph and Wally...and all those others who were unrewarded, but never undeserving.
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.