Gloomy clouds surround the MCG. With the Bulldogs five goals down at three-quarter time, the Land of Hope and Maybes has receded below the horizon.
There’s a sense of deflation, anti-climax. The Dogs have squandered this one after a dominant first half.
Sure, it’s only Round Two, But the way in which we were unable to capitalize on the countless opportunities we'd worked so hard to create - and the way our team retreated into their shell when the Hawks and their ultra-professional premiership veterans put their foot on the accelerator – well, we saw that playbook far too often during a painful 2018 season.
Momentum and belief and reward for effort are everything in footy. Getting this early reminder that we’re still a way off the pace will sap our self-belief, plant those seeds of doubts in our minds, crush our spirits.
But enough of us. It could affect our players too.
My thoughts turn, half-heartedly, to possible themes to explain this match — this looming defeat — in this week’s blog. Nothing very original springs to mind. Perhaps I’ll have to resort to cut-and-pasting from previous seasons, and hope my loyal band of readers are too dejected to notice or care.
It's well-worn, but I could always trot out a few observations on the tribal and cultural differences between the ‘Shoppers from Forges’ and the ‘Shoppers from Georges’. There’ll inevitably be a line or two about the leafy eastern suburbs brigade vs the downtrodden true believers from the west — though after the glut of Hawthorn premierships in recent times, their fans are just as likely to hail from Caroline Springs, St Albans, or even - perish the thought - the Tragician’s hometown of Deer Park. I could always make a cheap shot about Jeff Kennett, some sneers about pimply private school boys, and if things get desperate, I’ll just mock those horrid colours.
Maybe I can also recycle some reflections on the mirage of footy success, the folly of assuming footy fortunes move forward in linear, predictable steps. When we beat the Hawks on this very ground in the 2016 finals, it was hailed as a changing of the guard. The Three-peaters were on the slide, the hungry and youthful Bulldogs were the team of the future, all encapsulated in the iconic moment when The Bont outbodied Luke Hodge.
The reality is we haven’t beaten the Hawks since. And that annoyingly consistent club, which SHOULD have been bloated and self-satisfied with the indecent number of flags they’ve accumulated, again achieved top four status after just one year out of contention. While the Bulldogs…
I guess I’ll try and extract some comic mileage about the moments when ‘Celeb’ Daniel found himself one-out against taller Hawthorn players (in other words every single one of them). I'll remind everyone of our motto since 2015: ‘In Bevo We Trust’, and try to sound wise and knowledgeable about how this scenario was simply the consequence of the complexities of team defence.
But right now, wincing at the embarrassing memory, I’m not laughing at all.
I know I will struggle to get the right balance between pessimism and optimism. I'll need to focus on the second quarter, and not lament too much that those efforts yielded just a fragile four point lead. Limp references to this being a learning experience will get thrown into the mix, and then I’ll probably finish off with some stats to end on a rousing or at least not-too-depressing note, for facts don’t lie (do they?). After all the Hawks had eleven players who’ve played more than 150 games, while we had just one, Matthew Suckling (and after all he played a lot of those for the Hawks anyway, which somehow discounts things in the Tragician mindset).
The siren sounds, interrupting my musings; the fourth quarter is about to get underway. The five-goal margin is, surely, insurmountable considering the Dogs have struggled to score the seven they've kicked so far. Last year’s template suggests that with so many young players, we might not just lose, but capitulate. So often in 2018 gallant efforts came to nought. The dam would break, and we'd ended up losing by a hefty margin.
And yet. And yet…
‘We’re still in this, Dogs!’ I call out. Whether I actually believe my own words is not entirely clear.
But something makes me feel we’ll have another crack at the Hawks. Even when the Hawks immediately reply to the first goal that dents their comfortable margin, I see those intangible signs. The Dogs, mysteriously, improbably, are not done.
Just as feeble efforts can run like a contagion throughout a team, heroic ones become infectious, inspire others to greater deeds.
The Hawks’ lead unravels quicker than we could ever have hoped.
We’re winning the one-on-ones. Every time I blink, we’re launched another, and surprisingly effective, forward attack.
We’re running hard, swarming. We are teeming …and teaming...towards victory.
The goals rain down, with the technicolour intensity of a dream. We’ve no sooner taken our seats after applauding one, than we’re leaping up again to celebrate another.
Why should this be a surprise, I think, with the elastic mindset of the veteran supporter? After all... footy world and doubters (which had included The Tragician only minutes earlier)... WE have OUR special group of premiership heroes, too.
Of course, there are much fewer of them out there than we would ever have thought back on That Glorious Day… just ten in fact. But each of them does something important and influential as we storm the Hawks’ castle. Each of them will show that his will, his inner fire, still burns. Each will draw upon memories of all that it takes to win, that are more dramatic, more stirring, than this round two clash. Our leaders, Wood and Bont. The precocious young men of 2016, who won a flag before they’d even played 20 games, Dunkley, McLean and Cordy. The guy with the golden boot whose best we'd forgotten all about, Tory Dickson. The runners with huge aerobic tanks and even bigger hearts, Lachie Hunter and Jackson Macrae. ‘Celeb’ Daniel, the improbable defender whose clean skills and immaculate vision outweigh his, er, lack of immense height.
And most importantly, Tom Liberatore, our mercurial player who is somehow simultaneously the anti-footballer and the purest of footballers.
We didn’t really know Libba The Second was our heartbeat, but as he snaps a goal to put us - amazingly - two goals up, and we see the raw emotion when his team-mates mob him, we learn it anew.
Even the umpires are on the Barnstorming Bulldogs’ Bandwagon, but as I’ve frequently made clear in this blog, they are an under-appreciated, admirable bunch of individuals, doing a difficult job in trying circumstances, always well-placed to make the right call even if we occasionally see it a tad differently from 100s of metres away, and I will have no truck with ridiculous conspiracy theories about their impact on the game.
(And, let’s face it, Sicily is so bloody annoying).
The final siren brings manic laughter. It's like when you’ve been on the Big Dipper or hurtled down a water slide. There aren’t words to capture the craziness of those chaotic 23 minutes, the amazing escape Our Boys pulled off.
It’s the first time EVER an Alastair Clarkson-coached team has conceded a lead greater than 22 points in the last quarter. A Hawthorn supporter sitting near us graciously shakes our hands after the game, acknowledging us as the better team and deserving of our win. (He certainly doesn’t LOOK like a snooty, leafy-eastern-suburbs-residing, private school-boy type, though the Tragician, even while appreciating his gesture, won't entirely rule this out as a possibility). We try and curb our joyous celebrations until after he leaves our aisle.
There's no Forges or even Georges any more, but still, it's mainly Bulldogs’ scarves flying merrily from windows of cars heading back towards the west. Because those Men of Mayhem, so rarely sighted over the past two years as injuries, doubts, and team upheavals have taken their toll, have roared back into town like a gang of out of control Hells' Angels. They upended all those possible themes of this week’s blog. Somehow I don’t think any one will care about that very much at all.
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.