The path less travelled
Footy pathways meander; they are rarely a straight line. Setbacks follow progress; disappointments make the progress seem like a mirage.
And you can't always spot the forks in the road, the moments that matter, even when glancing back through the rear view mirror.
In 2011, the Dogs and Hawks were playing in a late season match at the MCG. The Dogs had had another wretched year; the Hawks were about to be finalists yet again. Up on the big screen, they were showing, pre-match, footage of another long-ago fork in the road. The year was 1961, and the Footscray team were leading the Hawks by nine points at half time in the Grand Final.
The Hawks, who had at that point never won a flag, were (unbelievable as this now seems) sentimental favourites. I found myself transfixed by those shadowy images and the sliding door scenario they seemed to represent.
Of course, that '61 team surrendered the lead in the second half, and we have never since returned to the MCG as grand finalists. I wrote at the time of my emotions watching the haunting scenes of our lost opportunity :
"It was Hawthorn’s first premiership. As they’re presented with the cup, Ted Whitten is beaming on the podium, energetically slapping the back of his Hawthorn counterpart, looking genuinely delighted that the Hawks, fellow strugglers at that point like the boys from the west, have finally joined the ranks of premiership-winning clubs.
"We watch the footage of the defeated 1961 Footscray team leaving the ground, mingling happily with their brown and gold rivals. My son says, ‘I guess they’re saying: there’s always next year, fellas!' "
I find myself wondering what significance the result in 61 had on the later histories of each of the competing clubs. If the 'Scray had maintained their half-time lead, would the chasm between our performances from that moment on have been so great? Maybe the loss tells us nothing, except that 18 blokes in Hawthorn jumpers played better than their Footscray counterparts on that September afternoon. (After all the Hawks did not immediately build on their era of awesome success, waiting another ten years before their next flag.)
But if the Dogs had emerged triumphant that day, would it have had some sort of butterfly-wing impact, affecting, intangibly, the psyche and culture of our club as the years went by - just as I remain convinced that the gut-wrenching failures of 97 and 98 had a malevolent impact on our 2008-10 era, making the burden of history seem too great, introducing doubts that successful clubs don't seem to have?
And how different would it be, growing up as one of those unbelievably lucky Hawthorn supporters, many of whom have seen 11 flags in their lifetime? And yet, surely, their joy at each of those flags can't have the same level of intensity and meaning as that long-awaited second flag would have for us.
I have to confess in my heart of hearts I somehow believe OUR supporting experience is nobler, grander, purer, because it has to draw upon something deep and profound.
Failure, or at least the struggle to break free from failure, is more inherently interesting than success. Though I can imagine the unbelievable joy of finally seeing a flag, I can't help but think that from that point on, with that epic quest finally attained, some of the magic of awaiting the fairytale ending would be lost. The barracking experience would revert, I'd guess, to a more normal level, and be just about what it actually is, a sport, logical factual discussions of recruitment, coaching, tactics, good players and bad - while so often for us Dogs fans, it's more like an act of faith and blind commitment. Those Hawks fans (poor blighted souls) have rarely had to wrestle with the great philosophical questions of why do we bother, never had to try to rationalise the irrational, because for them there is a straightforward relationship between investment (turn up as a fan) and reward (team will win, more often than not).
It's not a coincidence that two great footy stories have been woven around our suffering (I'm thinking of Martin Flanagan's Southern sky, Western Oval, and the magnificent documentary, Year of the Dogs). It's hard to imagine similar beauty in a gripping documentary about how the Hawks and their long-suffering fans survived the 'wilderness years' between 2008 and 2013.
Fortunately, or perhaps not, the Dogs' performance on Sunday reminds me that it will be a while before we get to test out my hypothesis about the noble aspects of failure, and I can lay aside my pen (or computer mouse) declaring with a grand flourish: My work here is done, fellow Tragicians!
I watch the game on an Ipad app, checking in via text and twitter. How strangely futuristic this would seem to Teddy and his mates in 1961, as unreal as a scenario from the Jetsons. It would have seemed just as likely that we would all have arrived in our individual flying saucers for the match.
The Dogs' performance is not exactly bad. But the gap between us and the Hawks, in class, skills, and personnel, is huge.
Any slim hope that we might cause a stirring against-the-odds upset vanishes when The BONT (he's already one of our most important players) is a late withdrawal. Not long after Wallis suffers a horrible back injury; the footage of him struggling to walk around the boundary line makes us all wince. These losses mean our two chief contested ball-winners so far this season are out.
Our backline, too, is depleted with this year's surprise defensive stars Boyd Senior and Easton Wood missing from the line-up; when our usual mainstay Dale Morris pulls on the red vest, the result becomes a foregone conclusion. With our rotations severely hampered, I start wishing that former Bulldogs Brad Johnson and Big Bad Bustling etc Barry Hall could pull on the guernseys and help stem the flow, instead of doing their best to sink down to the cliche standards of the inane Foxtel commentary team.(I need to report I was NOT on the edge of my seat, hoping to hear whether Luke Hodge would break his personal record for possessions.)
The Hawks have harder bodies and they're not afraid to use them; I'm outraged when they keep smashing our little guys: Hrovat, Honeychurch and Dalhaus get dumped regularly into the turf. (How unsporting. And mean. Can't they just rely on the fact that they're so much better, instead of picking on our feather-weights. After all, our team clapped them off the ground in 61).
Not only are they mean and unsporting; on average, the Hawks are two years older than our pups. They have eight players who've played more than 150 games compared to our three, and their average games tally is 124.5 while ours is a mere 63.6. (See? The Tragician Blog brings you cold hard facts, figures, statistics, not just musings on the futility of the barracking experience).
The Dogs' performance is not completely without moments of hope; there's enough to make you dream about what could come. Boyd Junior, who seems fortunately oblivious to the unending snide remarks about his contract and pay packet, plays his best game yet in an admittedly short career in the red, white and blue. You could imagine - in fact I frequently Do imagine - this guy, with his powerful frame and composed, mature presence, dragging down the big occasion contested mark in a tense final, the sort of mark that has always eluded us in our previous tilts. Michael Talia continues his impressive form this season, standing up well to the many, many Hawthorn forward thrusts.
And though it's far from home, it's heartening to see player number 982 make his first appearance in our colours. Nineteen-year-old Lukas Webb makes a polished debut and doesn't look daunted by the presence of so many triple premiership thugs, I mean players.
There's not much respite for the bruised and battered Dogs: next week we take on the undefeated Adelaide Crows.
The pain of our performances against the Crows in 97 and 98 - otherwise known as The Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named and The Other Preliminary Final That Wasn't Really Very Good Either - has caused wounds that not even Hawthorn-style premiership gluttony over the next few years will ever repair.
Forget that tosh about how much more intrinsically interesting failure is. Our Boys need to make sure that hateful refrain 'Pride of South Australia' isn't ringing in our ears late on Sunday evening. We've all, surely, suffered enough.
More on my story of the '61 missed opportunity: 'There's always next year'
23/4/2015 03:57:50 am
The last appearance at the big dance before the big drought. Hard to hate Hawthorn like certain other Clubs we dare not speak their name, and in a different era the Bulldog boys would have been genuinely congratulating Graeme Arthur and the Hawks as graduates of the class of 1925. What a great nick-name for Arthur. Mort as in Mort d' Arthur. I saw him interviewed recently and he seems to be a humble man.
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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.