The Tragician has been lying low. Coughs, colds, fevers. Soaring temperatures. Bone rattling chills and clammy sweats that come on suddenly (not even accompanied by the sight of Shane 'The Perm' McInerney marching onto the arena, or flashbacks to the '97 Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named).
An ominous array of symptoms. Overlaid, of course, with the Bob Murphy Blues. A depression, at thinking of a year without our heartbeat player. An even worse melancholy, if the dreadful thought pokes through, that we may never see him out on the field again, except through tears as he is driven around in some meaningless MCG motorcade.
Dear Bob. Say it ain't so.
The media, of course, have kindly advised fans and players, to 'put Bob's catastrophe behind us'. I heard Gerard Healy pontificating about this. We should be treating Bob's injury as though it had happened to any player on our list, and just move on and be rational, advised Gerard, moments before I - a little too energetically - punched the dial to turn his infernal inanity off.
'What would you expect from a footy mercenary who left his club and took the big bucks to go to Geoffrey Edelston's pink helicopter Swans?' I fumed (a bit of hyped-up, manufactured, vaguely illogical anger is, I find, a tonic in fighting the mournful Bob Murphy Blues).
Seemingly determined to increase our suffering, the club released the first instalment this year of The Ride: a continuation of the 2015 series, the main focus of which was the parallel journeys of Bob and Luke Beveridge; 'the coach Bob had always been waiting for.' There again was that terrible slow motion footage of Bob's injury. The faces of our devastated fans, seeing but barely believing, that Bob could go down, at that moment, like that. There was the emotion in Luke's voice, the rasping throat and red eyes. The footage in the inner sanctum as Luke addressed the team, confirmed that the injury was exactly as bad as it looked, and told them all to look after each other. There was Bob's daughter, Frankie, looking up at him and his crutches with trusting but bewildered eyes, then reaching out to pat his sore knee.
It somehow made me think about the story I wrote at the end of one of our more dismal years, 2013: 'Tomozz' . This was my imagining of the 2016 Grand Final: a Bulldogs' team running onto the 'G at last. I can hardly claim to have been a soothsayer: in my story, we were still of course coached by Brendan McCartney, with Ryan Griffen our valiant captain, and Bob a veteran whose spot in the team was in doubt until, at the VERY last minute (the Tragician loves a fairytale) he ran out onto the 'G with his boys.
Versions of this daydream have played out in my mind again and again over the decades. Of course, I've had to cross names out and insert new ones as the unsuccessful years rolled by: perhaps Rocket and Johnno might lead us to the promised land. Before then, it was Wheeler and Grant holding up the Cup, or Wallace, Libber The First and Crofty (I'm not sure why but Crofty, in my view a long-lost Krakouer brother, was just the kind of ungainly cult hero to cement a strong place in my affections).
It's no wonder I'm feeling poorly; I feel a sort of tiredness, a sorrow and fatigue, at the thought at having to energise myself to mentally re-write the dream again if it's not to include Bob Murphy, premiership player.
So on Saturday night as I headed to the ground for our game against the Lions, it somehow felt as though some of the thrill of the 2016 Ride had begun to dissipate. Already so many are missing from the group that jumped out of the blocks and dazzled the footy world in Round One: Tom Boyd. Caleb Daniel. Josh Dunkley. Bob. Jason Johanissen.
Though each match has been at Docklands this season, we've alternated 'home' games there with others where we are the 'guests'. How strange it was last week when we played the Blues, to see all that proud arrogance and the sense of money, power, privilege and entitlement that seeped from the very Princes Park turf, stripped away. The once mighty Blues are just another struggling Etihad tenant and bottom four certainties. Their display of hubris, as in a weird display cartoon characters representing 'The Blues', ran out carrying their 16 premiership cups seemed rather misplaced given the last decade or so. I wished we'd parodied it by the Dancing Dogs running out brandishing our wooden spoon collection.
Now, back in OUR familiar seats, we watch the Dogs make a shaky and error-riddled start to the first quarter. But very soon the result is beyond doubt. While our lead builds, I begin to concentrate my energies on two different pairs of players: our two elder statesmen Matthew Boyd and Dale Morris, and the two Boy Wonders on which our premiership dreams are built, the outlandish talents of The Bont and Jake Stringer.
Our two oldest men out there, Matthew Boyd and Dale Morris, have between them played 473 games for us. Yet each came to the club as rookies. Boyd in fact rose from the ranks of the Frankston seconds.
Because Bob has so often beautifully articulated his premiership dream and his longing for a flag has so mirrored ours, it's easy to overlook that his two fellow senior citizens may be burning just as fiercely in their desire for the ultimate success. The three of them are the last remnants of the preliminary finals heartaches and together have endured the plunge to mediocrity of 2011-2014, the apparently certain knowledge that their flag 'window' had come and gone.
One of the most joyous things about last year's Year of Wonders was seeing the effect on our three thirty-somethings. Their enthusiasm rekindled week by week; as the young beanie-clad brigade kept barging through expectations the realisation dawned on them that it might not be over; it was worth sticking around. No longer did they have to resign themselves to being teachers, role-models and influencers for a group whose maturity they wouldn't be around to see. Their dream wasn't dead, buried and cremated.
Yet two weeks ago, the ranks of the three stalwarts, rejuvenated by the precocious talents around them, thinned down to two. No wonder there was such terrible sorrow on Matthew Boyd's face when he saw Bob on crutches after the Hawks' match; he shared with him the longest, closest and saddest of hugs.
For some reason Boyd has always been respected rather than loved by the Dogs' fans - including myself. But as I concentrated on watching his efforts on Saturday night I was unsure and slightly ashamed of why this has been the case. Maybe it's because he is rather dour in public; maybe it's because he's always been about workrate rather than flashiness; maybe it's because his disposal skills have often irked us. But I watched the kilometres he covered against the Lions, the second and third efforts which belied his 33-year-old body, saw the times that he willed his way into contests to help his younger team-mates, and I wondered afresh why we have never fully appreciated our two-time Sutton medallist and former captain and the immensity of his efforts for our club.
By contrast Dale Morris is one of our most well-loved players; yet many an opposition fan would probably struggle to name him. Like Matty Boyd he is approaching his 34th birthday, and it is hard to believe that he spent 18 months on the sidelines after a horrific broken leg. I always like to remember the tale of how the Dogs' leadership group moved their meetings to his hospital bed to include him. So selfless and unassuming is Dale that you could easily forget the single-minded ambition and self-belief that drove him when he was a 24 year old Werribee player. He kept sending the Dogs' brains trust videos of his play until they relented. How lucky are we that he did.
The other pair that I watched on Saturday night have never had to fight and scrap to prove the doubters wrong; they were the cream of their crop, high draft picks, elite talents from day one. From the moment that Jake Stringer and Marcus Bontempelli came to our club they were marked out for greatness, seized upon by success-starved fans; in only his second year Marcus even had the nickname from his team-mates of 'Footch'. It stood for 'The Future'.
Initially, the euphoria of the fact that these talents were OURS was overwhelming, but now as though we can't quite believe our luck, we've started to become critical, a little picky, projecting on them the stories of a lifetime of bulldogs-supporting failure and disappointment, worrying a little too much if they have a poor match or don't dominate week after week.
I watch The Bont closely this week. There's less of the dazzling freakish talent, but heaps of grunt. He's at the bottom of packs. His tackles are strong and courageous. I see that whenever there's a ball-up, he's one of the organisers, directing his team-mates, talking, encouraging, blocking. He spends time on the forward line, an imposing sight, a nightmare match-up with his height, power and mobility.
The Bont has not yet turned 21, but he's in our leadership group; he's played 42 games and last year ranked sixth in the competition for inside 50s. He topped our Brownlow votes with a staggering 13 votes.
He's The Bont. Our Bont. He's going to be a star.
I watch Jake 'The Lair' Stringer. His bristling energy, the forcefield of his outsized personality, has seemed a little confined over the last few weeks. Three, four, defenders always seem to be surrounding him. He's actually been - I wouldn't have ever thought this was possible? - down on confidence.
The ball's in our forward line - like many of our kicks on this night, it's a scrappy entry. Suddenly a steam train bearing the number nine crashes through our forward line. Lions' players fall like skittles around Jake Stringer as he turns - inevitably - towards the goals. The fans begin to rise the second they see who has the ball and what is his intent. There's a special distinctive sound reserved for some players, an ooh, an appreciation of artistry. We hear it now as Jake snaps the goal. As only he can.
As we leave the ground I'm reflecting again on Boyd and Morris, remembering their unflashy one-per-cent contributions in the backline, unheralded, solid, leading by example, doing the right thing time and again. The fans are never going to stir in our seats in anticipation as one of them launches a blistering run through the centre; we're not likely to chant their names as we did with The Bont in last year's final. How do they feel when they look down the ground and see their freakish younger team-mates? I imagine them praying, hard, that their bodies will hold up for one more year, two more years, whatever it takes to be out there when The Bont and The Lair light up the 'G.
Perhaps my 'Tomozz' fantasy was just one season too soon. We've waited a long time, such a very long time; what's another year? It wouldn't be right if it didn't feature three thirty-somethings, who've played their hearts out, side by side in a miserly backline. I can imagine them exchanging a few quiet glances as the light begins to fade in the dying moments of the 2017 Grand Final and they know what they've played for all these years has finally arrived.
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.