The Dogs are looking resplendent in their retro jumpers. There's been a fitting outpouring of love and affection for our hero and captain as he ran through the banner (perhaps the young Murphy girls share their dad's quirkiness, as they were wearing the numbers 17 and 23 rather than that of their father, the milestone man).
And yet, at half time, the crowd is uneasy. The celebration isn't going as planned. Our team, expected to score a comfortable win against a struggling opponent, have plunged as far behind as seven goals.
Those retro jumpers have certainly re-ignited memories from the Western Oval days. But not in a good way. Our goal-kicking struggles would have been understandable in those days when men sporting those red collars battled the howling, notoriously flukey wind. Yet beneath the roof, we alone are apparently kicking into its teeth, no matter which end we face, as shot after shot drifts astray. Our lowly opponents meanwhile are completely incapable of missing.
A second and equally unwelcome retro factor has surfaced. A neanderthal near us loudly expresses his view that our team are playing 'like girls.' Unfortunately I gather that this is not a complimentary nod in the direction of our AFL women's team. I find it curious that racism is rightly condemned yet there's still a tolerance level for abusive comments about 'girls' or 'retards' (what a loveable rogue that Heath Shaw is, hey).
There's a final retro element. Without me being informed, Brisbane's famed triple-premiership stars the 'Fab Four' have somehow been re-united. That simply has to be Michael Voss or Nigel Lappin waltzing breezily away from stoppages again and again. I become vigilant, half-expecting to see long-retired Bulldog nemesis Daniel Bradshaw somehow leading out in the forward line, with poor old Steven Kretiuk or Matthew Croft valiantly struggling, with flailing arms, half a step, or more, behind him. But even though I don't spot him, the Lions are outsmarting and outplaying the Dogs far too often.
There is no getting around the fact: the Dogs are not in sparkling form. There are moments as rare as a Bulldog Tragician acknowledgement of a fine piece of opposition play. Somebody (I think it may have been Simon Black) was actually able to evade a Bont tackle. Who knew that was even a thing? And even Bob, who could probably perform a magic trick and land the ball on the head of someone 50 metres away 99 times out of 100 (I'm voting for Heath Shaw as the first one to stand in position while this scenario is tested) misses a sitter from 30 metres out.
How does it happen, that ripple through a team that grows into a storm, the awful nervous fear before every shot of goal that it will inevitably be missed? It's accompanied, of course, by a growth in the number of panic-stricken handballs as each player avoids being the one left, pass-the-parcel-style, having to take the dreaded shot at goal. How does confidence seep slowly from a team, so that milli-seconds of reaction time and anticipation become painful seconds, balls bounce inevitably in awkward directions, and those lightning-fast handballs that dazzled the footy world last year become more like hand grenades thrown in the direction of an ill-prepared team-mate?
I don't know the answers to any of those questions. Because in a revelation that will shock many loyal readers, I've never actually played the game at the highest level. (I recognise that my brief - though sadly under-rated - career as a best-and-fairest winning centre, playing for Braybrook in the Catholic girls Saturday afternoon netball competition, never really gave me sufficient insight into the mysteries of form swings in team sports. Especially as - I freely admit - I did play 'like a girl').
Bob has chosen the playlist for the day. Those of us sitting in the outer side of the arena never get to hear interviews; due to some bizarre decision-making by the Etihad management, we instead get treated, pre-game, to some inspirational insights from the Gold Coast Suns on our small screens, interspersed as much as possible by gambling ads.
But as the half time break comes to an end, I do hear a snatch from one of Bob's musical selections. It's Springsteen's Thunder Road. Our captain, as usual, has made the right call.
Show a little faith, there's magic in the night..
The Dogs re-enter the arena. We're relieved to see a renewed purpose, a sense of the urgency of the situation, how easily these four points are slipping away. We're running harder. We begin to overlap down the wings. We've rejigged our defensive lines, so that scoring against us isn't so effortless. Daniel Bradshaw still fails to appear. The avalanche of forward entries starts to finally pay off.
Our blue collar midfielders Jackson Macrae and Luke Dahlaus, with their selfless, committed running and attack on the ball, keep working and working to dig us out of our hole. Meanwhile 'In-Zaine' Cordy plays a sound, accomplished game in defence. There's something about Zaine that makes it look as though he takes every opposition possession as a personal insult. He's got a welcome streak of mean. And he's still only 16 games (and one premiership) into his career.
Matthew 'Keith' Boyd could have been forgiven, after an awful blow to the back of his head, for taking refuge on the bench for the rest of the match. Yet nothing but an amputation of a limb (actually, make that two limbs) would stop him from returning to the field to be there for that mate whose sorrowfully mixed emotions on grand final day he seemed to feel as keenly as the man himself.
Though we rein in the deficit in the third quarter, we still don't hit the lead. In fact there are only ten minutes of the match to go when we finally snatch it. My only wish at this point is just the desperate hope that we can somehow scrap and fight to retain that slim one point advantage. Yet somehow we go on a mini-rampage (I don't know if that's a thing either) and register a 32-point victory, mainly achieved in the final seven minutes. We'd have surely been reasonably satisfied with that outcome pre-match.
Yet even as we applaud our captain off the field, the events of the day, and the Dogs' current form, are giving us many questions to ponder. It's hard to know whether our emotions should be pride at the stunning transformation and the moments of brilliance unleashed when our backs were against the wall, or whether we should be concerned about the fact that we ever got into such a rut in the first place.
Before the 2016 grand final, Bevo urged our team to 'bring their instruments.' Our band are striking some uncharacteristically discordant notes at present. From outside the inner sanctum, we don't really know whether that's because of limited preparations or nagging injuries for some who look well down on fitness and confidence. Or whether, after the drama and theatre of playing each week of the finals on the knife's edge, making history and swept along by a tide of emotion, it's rather ho-hum to be have to make an effort in these early games. And yet we've seen, in every one of our games so far, that there is still hunger, a competitive spirit can still be tapped into, players who'll lift and keep running, even when we're out of sorts.
Our team aren't the only ones, however, striking out-of-tune notes of late. To my dismay, I discovered only this week that, after an off-season catastrophe when my home was flooded and all my possessions ended up in an even greater jumble than usual, that the scarf I'd been bringing to 2017 games so far was ... NOT...my lucky one after all. (Small wonder Bevo Our Saviour has looked unusually rattled in the coaching box).
Determining which of the ever-growing, frayed and worn selection was the genuine article could have been the subject of an episode of Antiques Roadshow or one of those historical constructions where some relic of the true cross is dramatically exposed as a fake.
But it wasn't that hard, really.
I recognised it as my lucky scarf when I saw a little glitter from the talisman pinned on it. I'd thought, and feared, it had somehow been lost. It's a miniature replica of the premiership cup. My son bought it for me when we were among the euphoric celebrating crowd at the Whitten Oval, the day after we won the flag. I only have to glance at it to be flooded with those memories, to remember the joy in the crowd. I didn't expect, on that day, that I'd ever find anything to worry about in footy ever again. But as I make sure the tacky but precious little memento is pinned securely next to my Bonti badge, I notice I'm absent-mindedly humming along to Thunder Road.
Hey, what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well, the night's busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere..
26/4/2017 05:26:48 pm
Such a small talisman but with huge impact and meaning. I bought one also on that glorious day on 2nd October as well. Just being there that day was more than enough after dreaming about it for 62 years. So the size of the memento didn't matter. I was also at the match last Saturday spending the first half puzzled but not frazzled. It's amazing how a premiership can keep your heart-rate on a more even keel. Also saw games-record holder( as a spectator ) Gary Hinks waiting to catch the Bulldog Express to Warrnambool where he gets the bus on to Portland. Glad to see he was part of the flag unfurling.
27/4/2017 08:13:04 pm
Hi Neil, it really was a strange match. We're off the pace at the moment but I guess the best sign is that they somehow find a way when they have to.
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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.