Though my father had played for Footscray reserves and grew up only a few streets from the Western Oval, he was not a keen follower of their fortunes, and rarely attended games during my childhood. Working second jobs at night (as a milkman or cleaner to supplement his income as a draftsman) he could have been forgiven for pining for respite on the weekends; instead he always encouraged my mother (the true Bulldogs fanatic) to head off off each week to see her beloved team.
(He was so new-age that he even prepared dinner for when she and I - for as the eldest I was allowed the privilege of sitting with her in the John Gent stand - returned home. Daringly he replaced the usual three meat and veg with the occasional experiment with a new fangled product called Rice-A-Riso. But I am digressing. For not the first, and not remotely the last, time).
On one occasion as Mum forlornly steered the family car up the driveway after the last match of the season - another loss by the red, white and blue - my father was waiting for us on the front porch, cheerfully brandishing a wooden spoon. I had only a vague understanding, though this became clearer from my mother's reaction to his "humour", that the fact that the Dogs had just collected this spoon (do other sporting competitions call them this, I wonder?) was most emphatically not a good thing.
There were plenty of other reasons to detest them, however, not least the fact that even within the prestigious grounds of St Peter Chanel Deer Park - literally the most western part of the city - their fans outnumbered the subdued and downtrodden supporters of the 'Scray. In fact my brother had a friend who was extremely disappointed when his nomination of "Jesaulenko" as his confirmation name was rejected by the nuns.
While I knew I didn't like them, it was a while before I associated THEIR success, power and privilege with money and class, and realised that OUR lack of any of the above was also linked to our constant financial woes and our unfashionable western suburbs location. My club became dearer than ever to me as I contrasted the affluence, smugness and arrogance of their supporter base, to our threadbare and impoverished plight. It also wasn't lost on me that in 89 when our club was bludgeoned into a merger, Collingwood and Richmond fans joined the rally to save our club. Their fans were fearsome and parochial indeed, but their working class origins - the teams from Struggletown and Carringbush - gave them a kinship with us and redeemed them in my eyes.
Naturally those in red and black, or the Ole Dark Navy Blue, were nowhere to be seen.
I clung to my loathing, holding on almost proudly to memories of beltings and shellackings and hateful behaviour from their entitled fans. I was not beyond reaching back in time (a long way back in fact): to the elitism of Sir Robert Menzies constructing a special ramp at Princes Park so he could sit in his Bentley and watch The Bourgeois Blues untroubled by any contact with the great unwashed. To the fact that Footscray defeated Essendon in the "Championship of Victoria" play-off between the premiers of the VFL (them) and the VFA (us) - yet had to tarnish our glorious triumph by claiming the match had been rigged! (Honestly, as someone once said about the Poms, could they ever be beaten fairly?)
Typical God-damn cheating Bombres. Typical, despicable, class warriors Carlton!
Let's travel forward in time, however, to the last round of 2022 (finally, I hear you say). Though Our Boys were still clinging to finals contention, the Villainous Duos of Carlton and Essendon were somehow still occupying my mind. With Essendon I watched with a mix of disbelief and glee as they imploded in spectacular fashion: humiliating a coach, changing presidents in ramshackle fashion, and then launching themselves, with some degree of desperation and more than the usual arrogance ,at Alastair Clarkson. I was secretly fearful, however. What if they got their man, and actually became...good?
The Essendon supporters were brazenly sure that they would prevail over their rival for Clarkson's services - for weren't North, as they scornfully proclaimed, just the "tin-rattlers"? And, they gloated, how could Clarkson resist the allure of a cashed up club, blockbuster games, and a list that was surely (because, you know, Essendon) infinitely better in their deluded eyes than that of the struggling Shinboners? and what about the knockabout "humour" of old fogey Kevin Sheedy, who jested (what a wag!) that if Clarkson took on the North role, he could steer them onto Tasmania!! (ROFL as the younger generation say!)
My celebrations when the Bombres were embarrassingly jilted at the altar were extreme. I may have even said, as jubilant texts celebrating this public failure zapped around my family, that I would swap the glorious moments that Essendon splutteringly realised that they'd royally stuffed up, for the slim chance that the Dogs would make finals this year.
I didn't mean it, of course. But I have to say it was close.
I spent more time, in fact, chortling at the misfortunes of the 'Don the Sash' devotees than worrying about the prospects of the Dogs. I'd become resigned, fairly early in the season, to the fact that we just hadn't got it together. We couldn't get on a roll. We couldn't play four consistent, sustained quarters. Bont looks sore and injured. Our confidence seems down.The magic of 2021 had fizzled; maybe the Demons (I don't like them either) had inflicted a fatal blow to our souls.
Against the Hawks we got over the line, in workmanlike rather than brilliant fashion. The ho-hum display was distinguished only by an exciting performance of one Sam Darcy, clunking marks at a critical juncture and slotting goals. What a player he could be! If 2022 isn't our year, it is consoling to think that surely with such young talent on our forward line - Naughton, Jamarra, Weightman and him floating in - brighter times must lie ahead.
It was preferable to think that way; too too much to hope that Carlton could implode to allow the Dogs into the finals. They surged to a 25 point lead in the last quarter. We all began, with typical defeatism, to adjust to another squandered year. Debate was already beginning among our fans, even as the match at the G still played out: did we need a full rebuild or the more modest refresh? should we blame our leaky defence, or our overly attacking midfield? How come we've never made finals after making a Grand Final (from a full sample size of four attempts?) Was Bevo...?
Conversations, soul-searching, and analysis suddenly screeched to a halt. The Blues were choking, their panic-stricken inability to kick a goal reminiscent of that Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named. In incredulous tones, the words "GO PIES" were being uttered in homes, streets and pubs across the west. The Bulldog Tragician cheered for DeGoey...that's how unique the situation became. The Blues collapsed. And by the barest, slimmest of margins, the Dogs squeaked into the 2022 finals.
Any previous philosophical comments by me that "we'd only be making up the numbers" were instantly shelved, especially when I saw Our Boys leaping around with joy as they too, rode every last heart-stopping moment. I watched the footage like a proud parent; okay, perhaps more than once. I laughed to see our beloved captain jumping up and down like a kid in a toyshop, hearing his team-mates' jubilant hollers, seeing their excitement, just like an under-10 team. I realised that my occasional grouchy wonderings of whether they really CARED as much as we do, were unjust. Getting to finals is hard. Just ask the Blues, and Bombres, now (again) on premature Mad Mondays, while for us, there's still a chance. Still just a chance.
With the bye approaching, I've had plenty of time to dutifully complete my daily ritual of pressing "like" on the '"Days Since Essendon Have Won A Final" twitter account (now surpassing 6500, in case you're wondering, and now of course with a guaranteed 365 more to come). I also had time to ask myself exactly why these two clubs continue to loom larger in my memory than their more recent performances should deserve in reality.
Carlton and Essendon are no longer bywords for success. Each in recent times has much to be ashamed of. Especially now that money, their traditional way out of any form slump, is no longer the way forward.
Carlton, after all, was fined nearly a million dollars for their systematic salary cap cheating in 2002. The names of those who'd tortured us for years with their on-field brilliance - Silvagni, Kernahan and Bradley - were besmirched as recipients of under-the-table illegal payments. The signage of the John Elliott Stand - commemorating the crook who'd sneered at our club as 'tragic' - was removed. There were few signs his club had been humbled by these mistakes, even as it tumbled to its first ever wooden spoon, with four more swiftly following. Used to being able to buy its way out of trouble, the club changed tack and moved onto barely disguised tanking.
Meanwhile, in one race that their fierce rival Essendon would not have been happy to win, the Bombres surpassed Carlton's record fine, and easily glided past them in infamy, when their experimental drug program was discovered. (The majority of fans are disbelieving that they did anything wrong to this very day). They didn't let the Blues have it all their own way when it came to salary cap rorting either, having been found guilty of breaches and tampering in the 1990s - including in their 1993 premiership year. In both these instances the 'Don the Sash' mob have by large remained defiantly unapologetic and, disappointingly to the Tragician, the club remains wealthy in funds if impoverished in spirit.
Yet it's like I haven't noticed that quite apart from these disgraces, on-field these teams are no longer the powerhouses of my memory. In the past 25 years, Essendon has won a single flag and Carlton none. The Dogs have been regular finalists, playing in eight preliminary finals and two grand finals, while our former tormentors wallow in mediocrity.
The Tragician hasn't grasped this new landscape, still at heart fearing and envying them. Somehow their aura persists, well beyond the facts of the last couple of decades.
It still seems to sting more, that the Bombres defeated us by the record greatest margin in 1982 (the Tragician, sorrowfully, was in attendance for the 132 point shellacking) than it does that in 2019 we kicked 20 unanswered goals to thrash them them; or that we have won 11 finals while that mortifying Twitter account number keeps ticking relentlessly forward.
It somehow seems more real, the routine humiliations at Princes Park, than the fact that the Blues too have languished without a finals victory since 2013 - and that gifted to them when Essendon were booted out because of their drug misdemeanours
No matter how delusional they remain secure in their own self-belief and identities as important and successful clubs, the story they continue to tell about themselves In 2008 Carlton unveiled their new slogan: "They know we're coming.'" Their arch rival mockingly posted their own reply: "They know we're waiting."
Yet their bluster proved empty: Carlton finished 11th and Essendon 12th.
And our club finished third.
Six years ago the Bulldogs, rank outsiders, travelled to Perth for an elimination final that only they believed they could win. I still feel emotional thinking about that outlandish, improbable victory: at the time I said it felt like the win we'd been waiting for, forever.
In those rooms in Perth, Luke Beveridge gathered the players - how gallant they had been! - and said to them: 'This story is our story.' He, and they, were about to transform and overturn everything we thought we knew about our club, bringing us a new confidence, a pride in everything we stand for - not the least of which is an identity as winners.
Our Boys have another chance, this week, to write more of that new story, which I sometimes still struggle to believe. But as I eagerly (and apprehensively) await, I think I'll savour, for a moment, the fact that Essendon and Carlton each now have more wooden spoons than our Bulldogs. And that Carlton were in the eight for the whole season of 2022 bar the few seconds after the Magpies hit the lead. And that when we hoisted the cup in 2016, Essendon (lucky to even be still in the competition in my view) finished last, with just three wins and a percentage of 46 per cent.
(Click image below to go to the story of our win against the Eagles).
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.