Lately, I've been worried.
Worried that I'm not really worried enough.
Anxiety and over-the-top fears are, after all, an integral part of my Tragician persona. I'm not alone in this, however - remember the quintessential gloomy fan, Danny from Droop Street, within a few hours of our 2016 triumph fretting that now we wouldn't get any high draft picks.
Yet so far, before each of our 2021 matches, I've been ... well, hopeful. Excited.
Before a 'must win' match against North I would normally have reached back ino the mental archives for all those similar occasions where the Dogs have turned in an insipid performance, leading to a morale-sapping, ignominious loss against lowly opposition. I should have been wringing my hands about the likely tactics of those North faux-tough-guys (are Scott Thompson and Firrito still playing?), and been in a state of high alert about one of their stars having a day out (Ben Brown? Glenn Archer? Drew Petrie? I realise I can't even name any of their players).
Anxiety should have been skyrocketing, given my legendary antipathy towards all things North. ('Why don't you like us?' a North-supporting colleague asked me plaintively one day, to which I could only reply: 'Maybe I'm just not a very nice person.').
Yet somehow I expected a win, and an easy enough one at that, though even the newly-minted Relaxed and Comfortable Tragician couldn't have foreseen how dominant our performance would be, or that, in an un-Bulldog-like fashion, we would continue to ruthlessly grind our undermanned and inexperienced opposition into the turf.
Then we headed to Ballarat for our next challenge. I should have been getting antsy about whether, after such a romp against North, Our Boys could rise to another level against sterner opposition. I should have been worried whether the wet, cold, bitter conditions (are there any other kind in our adopted home?) would suit our game style. Not only did these concerns barely cross my mind, but in cavalier fashion, I even rejected the idea that those strange little handwarmers would be needed, figuring I'd be too busy clapping Bulldogs' goals to get cold hands*.
*(I can confirm this was a mistake).
From where does this uncharacteristic tranquility come? I guess, like most things over the past 12 months, COVID has to take centre stage. When you've gone through harsh lockdowns, been unable to see people you love, need to wear masks and are confined to home apart from one hour a day, just being able to be at the footy is exhilarating. I even welcomed that bracing Ballarat wind.*
*(may not be strictly true).
The other reason I might not be as worried any more is the welcome return of what I can only call a more joyful style of playing. That joy felt like the biggest casualty of the past few years. The best times for footy teams and fans alike are when it all starts to come together, and possibilities seem endless. In contrast, so many of our post-2016 matches, even the wins, were often dour affairs, where we accumulated relentlessly, painstakingly, yet countless inside-50s didn't reap rewards. It was often quite painful to watch and somehow the players too seemed to be finding it grim, baffling and downright exhausting. I certainly did.
Now I see a briskness in their steps, renewed energy, the closeness and camaraderie that the best teams always have. Goals come easily, the 'look-away-now' moments aren't as common. This team, you feel, has started asking the audacious question Bob put up on the whiteboard before our 2016 final against West Coast: How good could you be?.
The fact that we sit in different locations each week to watch our team (usually somewhere ludicrously not 'Best available' - thanks Ticketmaster) has also given a novel and enjoyable perspective. Last year, of course, we'd been unable to watch games in person, having to depend on idiotic commentary for any insights into what was going on.
Admittedly, in the matches so far I've been located in the pocket, most of the time struggling to see a lot of the play down the other end (apart from multiple missed frees to those in red, white and blue). On the other hand we've been only a few rows from the front, much nearer to the action than usual. I've been able to see at close quarters Bailey Smith's strength as he pushes off an opponent, and his one-touch grab of the ball even while he wheels around to assess his next option. I've been able to watch how our defence work together, folding back and moving forward like lines in a battlefield, covering dangerous options or supporting a team-mate. I've seen how big and solid Alex Keath is as he marshals the backline, and been able to appreciate the speed and calmness of Bailey Williams as he sums up the danger and instantly makes the right judgement of when to stay and when to go.
All in all, even in Ballarat I wasn't going to waste time complaining about the poor location of seats* or whine about the cold*. I simply set myself to enjoy a day of country-style footy and feel in my increasingly frozen bones just how different things are in 2021.
*definitely not true
I realise too, that my own perspective is changing. The centre of gravity in our team has been shifting for a while, and even the sometimes reluctant Tragician is coming around to view the present-day team as more than just Bulldogs 2016 Lite, or unfairly seeing the newer talents as mere support acts to the dwindling numbers of premiership heroes.
Now, I'm dazzled by the sheer talent of the up-and-comers.
I'm part of the crowd's murmur of anticipation when the ball goes anywhere near our Astro-Naught, who can clunk the ball better than anyone I've seen, and then with cat-like reflexes hunts any that spill free. I'm enthralled by the agility, marking and (of late) straight kicking of Tim English, as well as being somewhat astonished by the idea that we - WE!! - have a glut of tall marking forwards.
I'm praying, hard, that Young, Lewis nails down that spot in the backline and doesn't let it go. I'm revelling in the transformation of Daily Bailey from slightly-built, enigmatic and injury-prone half-forward to still slightly-built and enigmatic but hopefully much more durable half-back. I love watching him glide around; I see a touch of Bob Murphy in the way he intersects with the game.
I'm enjoying the point-of-difference of star recruit Adam Treloar, bringing that pace and burst speed that isn't an overwhelming feature of our uber-talented midfield. (I also reflect on his bromance with Josh Dunkley, and wonder at the strange connection between one bloke who was traded from a club he still desperately wanted to play for, and another bloke who desperately wanted to be traded from a club that still wanted him; but after a while my head hurts a bit too much to think about it).
I feel relief watching Stef Martin's big frame absorbing the blows in the ruck, and I enjoy seeing a wry smile from Bevo Our Saviour in the coaching box when Josh Bruce kicked his tenth goal - while serial antagonist Libba and his promising sidekick Bailey Smith meanwhile were in the thick of a stoush (in which Our Boys were entirely innocent, undoubtedly caused by typically untoward faux-tough-guy tactics from North).
The New and Improved Non-worrying Tragician took time this week for a leisurely view of the Barkly Street podcast. This week it was in honour of our captain and hero Marcus Bontempelli, who is playing game 150 this weekend. He was interviewed by Bob who seemed almost as starstruck as if the Bulldog Tragician was the one behind the mike. I watched, bursting with pride, the Bont's relaxed and affable demeanour; whenever Bob praised him, Bont accepted the compliments with grace, rather than shuffling around with any fake humility. The Bont has always known how good he is, in an uncomplicated and hubris-free way, and that's part of his aura and also part of his playing style, for all champions reflect their own personality on the field.
Not for the first time I give thanks to the planetary alignments that led Bont to our club, this still young man without whom, I am sure, we would not have known the premiership euphoria. I find myself thinking about an early interview that Bont, just 18, did on one of the footy shows, with boorish Mark Robinson asking the teenager: 'Were you disappointed when you were drafted to the Dogs?' Bont's reaction was a slight flinch of annoyance and then a composed 'No, not at all' response. With his trademark politeness, he did the equivalent of the old politician-style favourite of 'not accepting the premise of the question.' He was there to change our club from within both by his outrageous talent and his equally outrageous question of 'Why not us?'
But...hang on, what's this? Moments after the podcast finished, my nerves begin to jangle, my radar for an impending catastrophe blares outon high alert.
Because Bont is a free agent this year (thanks for that dumb idea AFL) and already the whispers have started. Clubs are assembling a 'too-good-to-be-true' war chest in the hope of prising Bont away from our club.
My pulse quickens, as I try (and fail) to banish from my mind the thought of increasingly gloomy headlines ('Bontempelli contract talks stall'), speculation building throughout the season (it couldn't be Essendon could it? please God let it not be Essendon), the dreadful sight of Bont donning the colours of another club (Stop it right now!). I visualise crying children abandoning their number four guernseys, and a tearful Tragician melodramatically tearing a beloved badge from her scarf. I need some deep breaths as I try and replace the growing hysteria with more soothing images and tell myself that my worst fears won't come to pass.
For surely Our Golden Boy just wouldn't - couldn't - do it to us.
It's weirdly comforting, though, the return of the worrying. I'm not really built for Zen-like 'this too shall pass' response to footy heartbreak, even though I've had plenty of practice at it. I guess that's why footy is endlessly enthralling and gripping, that constant see-sawing between its highs and lows, because as Leonard Cohen (worrier extraordinaire) said, the cracks are where the light gets in.
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.