This week there was a bit of a legend in the social club pre-match – Portland man Gary Hincks who two weeks ago had, extraordinarily, clocked up 1000 consecutive games of watching the Bulldogs.
One thousand games!
Gary’s amazing streak began in 1974.
He was there for our highest ever score, when Kelvin Templeton kicked 15 goals against St Kilda. He saw nine of our ten worst ever losses; and 17 times in his streak, saw the Dogs lose by more than 100 points. He saw countless coaches come and go, kept turning up in those dismal seasons, 1981 and 1982, when we only won five games.
Across both seasons, that is.
He saw Doug Hawkins in his heyday, witnessed the debuts of six champions who went on to play more than 300 games - including that apple-cheeked western suburbs lad who holds our match record of 364 games.
He saw promising careers that fizzled and raw talent that never developed, injuries that stymied potential, players who willed themselves to succeed where skills and talent suggested they could not, should not, make it at all. He saw three captains walk out on us. Line in the sand games after which, somehow we got bogged all over again.
He travelled interstate, he turned up at Kardinia Park, he travelled to the Western Oval or Princes Park or Subiaco or Cairns to see thrilling wins against the odds, capitulations and debacles, losses that stung. He must have been there on the dreadful day in 1974 that Neil Sasche became a quadriplegic.
And in 2017 Gary was one of those who walked around the Docklands stadium, hands on the precious premiership flag as it was carried reverently around the arena.
One glorious, still night in 2016 the Libba Sisters found ourselves walking alongside him, part of a throng in red, white and blue. We were about to take on the smug three-peaters, that club positively oozing success and glory. The club that held up a mocking mirror of how footy supporting life could be, to those downtrodden fans of the Bulldog persuasion. Hawthorn, with their experience, their aura, their collection of premiership players, were expected to swat away the traditional underachievers like annoying flies.
Yet Bulldogs’ fans – there were so many of us – were walking with nervous excitement and unaccountable hope across the bridge into the MCG.
Walking together in an almost silent and eerie reverie, because the Dogs the week before had pulled off an amazing upset and beaten the Eagles in a cut-throat final.
There was something electric, emotional in the air. Our heads were held high, our steps were light. We believed in Our Boys as we’d never quite dared to before.
Gary had been at that extraordinary win in Perth of course; he told us he’d arrived back in Melbourne that very day. It seemed right to ask for a photo with him; he obliged, wearing his familiar jaunty chef’s hat. He gave us a wave; then he merged back into the red, white and blue mob.
(Below left) Gary is in the back left corner of those carrying around the flag: (below right) Gary with the Libba Sisters, and a Libba Sister Apprentice, my niece Stephanie, on the way to the semi final against the Hawks in 2016.
I’m sure I’ve seen most if not all of the same games as Gary, and probably more games than him overall, though not consecutively. There’ve been babies, holidays, colds and flu to interrupt the rhythm, and I've rarely travelled interstate to see the Dogs. Which has usually been just as well. I don’t know what the ratio of wins to losses has been in the decades I’ve been watching; it’s unlikely to be a stat I’d like to dwell on.
But my experiences in those formative years of barracking have cast a shadow, and no more so than in what by now is an irrational reaction to those imposing Melbourne ‘Big four’ clubs: a fear of their supporters, a cringing memory of past humiliations, a distorted perception of our relative strengths over the past few years, one that is grounded in memories now decades old.
Carlton, of course, was always one of those clubs. They were the anti-Bulldogs, with their wealth, hubris, ruthless expectation of success, Liberal party connections, and dodgy but arrogant presidents. (They even had a Rhodes' scholar on their list, for heaven's sake. Not to mention the infamous Bluebirds). They flaunted their ability to go out and buy a premiership or two (ok, 16). That theme song boomed relentlessly in my head after each galling loss. Da-ta-da-ta-da.
Oh how we despised them. Those privileged, elitist, Old, Dark, Navy, Blues.
So whenever we encounter the Bourgeois Blues, as we sneeringly nicknamed them in my rebellious youth, I revert to a time-warp sensation, a fear of losing, a feverish conviction that THEY are the team I loathe the most (I know I said that about Essendon a mere fortnight ago but I’m sure you don’t read this blog to get facts and rationality).
I guess after standing too many times in those Princes Park terraces copping hidings, I’m frozen in some version of footballing PTSD. Footy was primitive then, primal, even ugly. There were no polite reminders flashing on the scoreboard reminding fans to behave nicely to each other, no separations of fans into bays so you could at least endure potential misery with like-minded sufferers. There was a tangible sense, as you were (well at least I was) wedged beneath the armpits of triumphant, celebrating Bluebaggers, of our footy club as despised outsiders, losers in every sense of the word, mockingly told we should just bugger back to St Albans or Footscray or Deer Park as soon as possible, and leave the rest of the competition to get on with their real business, doing something we knew nothing about.
With these memories and flashbacks, my sense of apprehension about the match was of levels that may have been understandable if Stephen Kernahan, Diesel Williams, Bruce Doull and that guy ‘BOSUSTOW!!!!!’ who flew for mark of the year each week were still taking the field. Then again, it’s bizarre how someone who writes a footy blog can take so little notice of whatever’s been happening over the years with opposition clubs and their playing personnel. I was agitated when we played Essendon two weeks ago that Darren Bewick was getting too much of the ball - until it was pointed out to me that the ginger-haired bloke racking up possessions was Devon Smith.
(While we’re on this subject, why do Essendon always have so many unlikeable red-heads? Paul Barnard, the aforesaid Darren Bewick, Moorcroft, Alan Ezard, Dustin AND Ken Fletcher…ok, I’m veering off track. But I believe it's an issue worth thinking about).
Back to my sentiments about our clash with the Bourgeois Blues – my fear of failure against them was not allayed by reminding myself they’d lost the first five matches of 2018. In true Tragician fashion, I figured this would only make it worse, make us MORE of a laughing stock, if we couldn’t even beat the Bluebaggers when they’re down on their knees.
Carlton, of course, are allegedly young and rebuilding. (Again. Even though that borderline-crook president who called our club tragic, boomed out in his raspy voice that “Carrrrllllton NEVER rebuilds” !!). And yet, they’re not all that young, with Kane ("Grandpa") Simpson and Daisy Thomas still going around; it’s the Dogs that, as with every match so far in 2018, fielded the youngest and most inexperienced team.
With each game this year, our premiership has seemed further away, but my acceptance and understanding of why this is the case – why it must be the case - has been slowly building. Instead of wistful pining for what had been, my focus has switched to the emerging new talent. It's always the way: gradually we create a story around them and they find a way into our hearts. There are 200-gamers of the future: ‘Little Red’ Richards is like an uncanny mix of Bob Murphy and Liam Picken; Aaron Naughtin (let’s hope we find a better nickname for him than ‘Naughty’) is gangly and raw, but there’s a steeliness that suggests the guy who’s undoubtedly been mentoring him, Dale Morris.
And the ‘old hands’ playing alongside these teenagers are still yet to reach their footballing prime. Our engine room consists of players who are 23 or under: Lachie Hunter, Jackson Macrae, The Bont (who returned to slashing form apart from the goalkicking yips), and Toby McLean. Dailey Bailey, Bailey Williams, In-Zaine Cordy and ‘Celeb’ Daniel, who somehow looked even smaller - (can that helmet make such a difference?) are just 21. Our first ruck is 20-year-old beanstalk Tim English, interchanging with the footballing enigma Tom Boyd. Who despite the countless words, critiques, hand-wringing, scorn and questions, is himself just ... 22 years old.
The game was scrappy, the skills were diabolical, and even in the last quarter a panic-stricken Tragician was talking about one of our scores providing the traditional ‘handy point.’ We were never really in danger of losing, my hyperventilating aside; we should have won by 10, 11 goals; but we were just glad to prevail, to beat the Bluebaggers, to begin the slow climb away from the bottom reaches of the ladder.
There was another celebrity in the social club apart from Gary on Friday night too. I don’t know how many games my mum has seen since she became an ardent fan in 1954, but I’m pretty sure 2018 is the first time she’s ever missed five games in a row. She’s just turned 81, and had a stint in hospital early this year, but, having regained match fitness, she was at the Docklands stadium to cheer on a new generation of blokes in red, white and blue.
Though my dad played for the Footscray reserves, it was my mother who was the avid fan, going to the footy – it really was rain, hail and shine those days - each week. When I was a child I can vividly recall that when another interminable season drew to a close, Dad was waiting on the front porch at Deer Park for my mother and I to return, bedraggled and depressed from the final game (we’d lost, of course). As we got out of the car, he was brandishing a wooden spoon in an attempt at humour. It didn’t go down all that well.
The Dogs have accumulated four such wooden spoons in their history – the first, rather aptly, in the year I was born. Until very recently the proud and haughty Blues boasted they had collected none at all; yet in the last 16 years, they’ve found themselves ‘earning’ four. (2002, 2005, 2006 and 2015, but who’s counting?)
The Blues have had the tanking scandal, and the salary cap rorting scandal; the last of those 16 premierships was way back last century...1995. Their defeat on Friday night was the first time they'd ever lost the first six matches of a season. It’s all enough to put a spring in a Bulldog Tragician’s step, but the lowly Blues now have a subdued and meekly resigned fan base, who’ve known more bad times than good over the past two decades. Their fans have had to learn the lesson that Gary and my mother had to master so long ago - simply to, when all else fails, endure.
Out of respect for the recent misfortunes of the Old Dark Navy Blues, I feign a humble demeanour as we leave the stadium.
I can’t help an inner sense of triumph however.
After all, Our Boys kept Stephen Kernahan so quiet, it was almost like he wasn’t on the field at all, and I do believe an unsighted Bruce Doull must have had a shocker as well.
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.