The more things change
Scene 1: Round 4 2016. Docklands stadium: Bulldogs vs Carlton.
It was the week after Bob Murphy did his knee. We were still in shock, forlorn and preoccupied, grieving for him as a member of our Bulldogs' family, and of course its implications for our season. The bright hopes for 2016 had been obliterated in the dreadful, fateful moments Bob fell to the turf. Without our talisman, the Dogs could surely not win a flag this year. (The Bulldog Tragician even voiced the melodramatic, and as history would show, deluded view: she was no longer even hoping for a flag in 2016, if Bob couldn't be part of it).
It was a home game for Carlton. Yes, far from their glittering Princes Park heyday, those Old Dark Navy Blues were now just another struggling Docklands tenant. Just the week before, they'd suffered the ignominy of a nine-goal thrashing by competition upstarts, the Gold Coast Suns. They were last, and winless, on the ladder: even their old foes Essendon, doing penance for their drug scandal misdemeanors, have registered a win.
I rolled my eyes when, despite this abysmal recent history, the Blues took the field with their customary hubris. Weird cartoon characters brandished replicas of those 16 premiership cups. I bristled with memories of their arrogance as a club, the many times they'd triumphed against us. Their money, their scorn for the rules (exemplified by John Elliott), their entitlement. I was unable to separate, in my mind, the ragtag bunch of losers currently taking the field, from the club which had always purchased - quite literally - the best talent money could buy.
I was agitated, of course, fearing the Dogs would contrive to lose one of the few 'easy' games of the season. At one point, when we were several goals up... but still, in my view, precariously positioned (for me this usually means within 15 goals) ....a Carlton player lined up for an easy shot of goal. Next to me, a Blues supporter (how few there were that night!) noticed my angst and leant over in my direction. "He's going to miss it, you know", he said. When seconds later, his prediction came true, he smiled sadly. I recognised, then, not the class enemy of old, but another fellow sufferer; still there, supporting his team, even when hope has gone, and success light years away in both directions.
Libba Sister Two nearly levitated off her seat in surprise when, uncharacteristically, I initiated a polite conversation with the Blues' fan. I even sympathised with their plight. It was going to be a long hard year, the Blues fan wistfully acknowledged. 'Just so long as we beat Essendon, that's the one thing I couldn't stand.'
At some point of the match, while the Dogs somewhat perfunctorily got the job done and registered a six-goal win, he slipped quietly away. I didn't really notice his departure though; my brief moments of empathy with his pain were gone. I was thinking and hoping about the chances of OUR team, and hopes for next week, and the week after that.
Scene two. Some time in November, 2021
The red, white and blue streamers and signage have long since been removed from my home and disappeared from all the western suburbs' cafes. Victorians are staggering out of the longest, hardest lockdown of all. The domination of COVID in our everyday lives has at least been a distraction, from everything that occurred after THAT moment in the third quarter of the Grand Final. You know the one. When our momentum appeared irrepressible. When Bont was about to win a Norm Smith. When we could barely sit still on our locked-down living rooms.
I'd tried very hard to forget the quarter and a half after that. So when I received a call from a typically perky and upbeat marketing person from our club, I was ill-prepared.
The conversation, it's fair to say, didn't go all that well.
Perky Marketing Girl: Have you got over the disappointment of the Grand Final yet?
Bulldog Tragician: (unable to utter any words but emits a weird kind of strangulated half-laugh, that could have meant anything)
Perky Marketing Girl: (gamely sticks to her script despite my bizarre and unsatisfactory response) Still, we had a great year, didn't we?
Bulldog Tragician: (lengthy pause while considering whether it is possible that 40 horrific minutes can obliterate the joyful moments of an entire year). Yes. I mean, I think so. Yep. Sure.
PMG: (note of desperation now appearing): Still...everyone I've spoken to says they're really happy for Melbourne!
WHOA THERE, perky marketing girl!! Whoa there! You've gone way, way too far!
My reaction was instant, visceral. I blurted it out before I really had time to think.
BT: No. Afraid not. I don't feel happy for them at all.
I can't remember how the conversation ended apart from some dazed, disbelieving laughter from the Perky Marketing Girl, though it probably involved me parting with some money.
Afterwards though there was some soul-searching as I struggled with a vague sense of embarrassment at my response. Was this really me? Was I really such a petty, mean-spirited kind of individual?
My thoughts meandered around in a typically Tragician way as I grappled to understand my ungenerous emotions.
I decided I could be, indeed was, happy for individual Demons supporters I knew, whose sufferings over the years had been immense. (Never as bad as ours, however; that goes without saying.) But after all, that end to suffering had come at our expense. It meant pain, even humiliation for our club; those terrible moments when the players slumped on the ground, and Bont had to compose himself to make a gracious speech. In their joy was our misery.
And let's face it, the Dees might have had recent misery, but prior to 2021, had already had a highly respectable12 premierships. That's 10 more than our own measly total, in case any readers here have forgotten! It was final proof: they didn't need ME to feel happy for them as well! I was well within my rights to feel aggrieved, that with grand finals and premierships being so rare for our club, this one had slipped through our fingers!
And there's another inescapable fact. Their story is not our story; their hardships, their missed opportunities, their own beloved icons, are not mine, and I understand them as little as they would understand ours. (It's perhaps best that I don't even begin discussing the topic of whether the MFC players were quite as sporting or humble in their victory as I would have liked).
So there were two lessons I drew from my reactions to the Grand Final loss.
One is that the deep wellspring of Tragician thinking has successfully survived past the 2016 premiership.
The second is that despite decades of practice, the Bulldog Tragician is simply not a very good loser.
Scene 3: Docklands, Round 2, 2022. The Bulldogs are taking on Carlton.
'Lord ain't it strange...after changes upon changes, we are more or less the same...after changes, we are more or less the same.' ( "The Boxer", Simon and Garfunkel)
Since 2016, when Our Boys won the flag, the Blues have mainly continued to be easy-beats of the competition. Their decline as a powerhouse since their last flag in 1995 has been catastrophic. They hadn't won a single wooden spoon throughout their long history until 2002; since then they've made up for lost time, winning more spoons than any other club in the 21st century, including an ignominious 2018 when they won just two games.
These figures don't bring on any gloating, however, as we head to the match. Ominously - and unfortunately, in my view - the Blues are now a team on the rise. Our Boys, on the other hand, last week lost the surprisingly subdued grand final rematch. (You will not be surprised to know that unlike those countless Bulldog' fans who'd allegedly told the Perky Marketing Girl about being so happy the Dees won a flag, I strategically delayed our entry to the 'G to ensure we didn't see them hoisting their flag aloft).
I'd wondered how the 2021 shellacking might affect our club. The answers, on last week's rather flat showing, remained a concern.
We are back, finally, at our familiar seats at Docklands, after a two-year hiatus. We catch up on news, on grandchildren born, of health updates, with our neighbours with whom we've sat for so many years now. We shake our heads seeing the small children who came to matches as toddlers now transformed into teenagers that block my view if they sit in front of me.
Our club has in the past week been in the news for unwelcome reasons. Luke Beveridge's infamous press conference tirade towards that Fox journo had even featured on Media Watch. (It says something about Australia that it led the episode, ahead of an item on the courageous Russian journalist who's been 'detained' because she paraded a 'No war' sign on live TV).
His behaviour, though, was hard to defend, among even our most parochial fans. In other words, even the Bulldog Tragician admitted that Bevo had crossed the line.
It's a long time ago now, that he came to us, hailed for his emotional intelligence, barnstorming us into a new era, accessible and personable. He jogs past us, on his way up to his coaching eyrie. He is still warmly applauded by the fans... he may be careworn, a little paranoid, with a truly bad moustache, but is still - and always - Our Saviour.
Yet the years since the flag have somehow hurtled by. The dynasty which we thought - hoped - was just around the corner, once we broke through at last, has not eventuated. There are signs everywhere, of time moving on, of the premiership receding slowly into the ever more distant rear view mirror. Easton Wood is driven around in a car to farewell the fans; the Libba Sisters miss it because it takes so long to get into the ground with the COVID protocols. Bob Murphy has moved west to join Fremantle. 'I'm proud to be part of your gang,' he tells the fans in purple. 'There's something about this club I feel connected to.'
Transition, change, time passages: it must always be this way, I guess. But I still don't have to like it.
Nor do I like the new-look Blues. In fact I'd have to say I much preferred the 2018 version.
We are the older, more experienced team, but the Olde Dark Navy Blues bullock past us, scoring a goal within the first minute. They look stronger, faster, more composed with ball in hand. But more worryingly to the Tragician eye, they look ... hungrier. They just seem to want it more. We rally in the second half. But something is still awry, connections between the players, skill error; there are only flashes of our recognisable trademark style. We go down, by 12 points, and the questions left by 2021 still remain, haunting our always fragile psyches.
Scene 4: Defeated, dejected, Bulldogs' fans leave the ground. We lost.
Maybe this story could have ended, with me somehow encountering my 'mate' from 2016 as I left the arena. A philosophical Tragician, smiling ruefully at the twists and turns of footy fate, would congratulate him on the Blues' victory and their long-overdue emergence from the footy wilderness. After all, he was a man perhaps in his 30s. I could have admired and respected the fact that (unlike many of his fellow fans) he'd stuck with them through the miserable last two decades, and expressed my delight that his persistence through dark times looked like now being rewarded.
But, needless to say, no such noble gestures eventuated, and not just because six years later I can't even remember what he looked like. But an even greater obstacle existed: the hated Carlton song still ringing in my ears. It might be 2022, but it will always, always, be for me the anthem of the despised "Bourgeois Blues", the club of Sir Robert Menzies, George Harris, Richard Pratt, and John Elliott; the song of the club that tanked when times got tough and rorted the salary cap to get Visy 'ambassador' Chris Judd to their club. It was the song that echoed in our ears, on every miserable afternoon when the best team that money could buy, ground an assortment of inept Footscray teams into the Princes Park soil.
Class warfare and Melbourne tribalism have moved on, or so they say. It's just as likely that many Carlton fans are heading jubilantly home to Craigieburn or Sydenham rather than the leafy suburbs of Toorak and South Yarra. It's not as if I can still proudly claim my second home as my grandparents' Housing Commission house in Braybrook. It's a long time ago since I was a teenager going to Melbourne University, learning the hard way that being a girl from Deer Park was not quite the expected pedigree. The western suburbs have a different identity these days: the Bulldogs' heartland is now the place of hip Seddon, Yarraville and 'WeFo', with million dollar homes and BMWs in the driveways, and affluent professional residents who appreciate a good cafe latte or the finer points of a pinot from the Peninsula.
So it's probably not the case that right now, Bentleys, Jags and Rolls-Royces containing Carlton dignitaries are motoring away from the stadium, failing to swerve if they come across malnourished urchins (perhaps even chimney-sweeps) wearing ragged red, white and blue guernseys. (I can't be sure however).
Yet, as 'Dah-ta-dah-ta-dah' rings out (mockingly, to my ear) from the Docklands speakers, and the Carlton fans make sure to bellow it out in our direction, the old class-based rivalry lives on. The resurgence of Carlton will not be a feel-good story in the mind of the petty, mean-spirited Bulldog Tragician. After all, despite our relative success against them in the 21st century, the Bourgeois Blues have defeated us 151 times over the course of our respective histories: we've won just 57 times. I should have celebrated a bit harder on that April night in 2016. For in a complex and changing world the old enmity towards the arrogant Blue-baggers survives, refreshingly unscathed. I can't wait to beat them next time.
30/3/2022 10:41:19 am
Good to have you back, Trag. Now the year can really begin (those losses don't count).
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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.