There were all the hallmarks of a Classic Bulldog Tragician Catastrophe.
A must-win match against lowly opposition. Rumours of player unrest (well, one player). A depleted line-up. A coach under siege (some are calling for the head of Bevo Our Saviour after we lost three games on the trot).
But in these times which have been called unprecedented an unprecedented number of times, the Tragician is less perturbed than usual. Not because I have undergone a dramatic change of mindset and am coasting along, as I did in 2016, in a surge of blind faith and optimism. I can envisage only too well the nightmare scenario unfolding: a winless, desperate team, derided as one of the worst of all time, roaring back into form against the hapless Bulldogs. I had been no means lost the ability to imagine, say, Tex Walker running rampant on the forward line, while a whole lot of Crows players (I actually don't know any of their names...is Darren Jarman still playing?) swarmed all over our guys, and humiliating headlines about a Club in CRISIS.
It's just that those fears aren't as dominant as usual. Even for The Tragician, there are other things to worry about. And watching Our Boys from a distance has perhaps not weakened, but subdued, my connection to my team. Perhaps it's also to do with my understanding that we are a team in some sort of transition; perhaps it's everything that's unique about season 2020.
The wins are still gratifying. But I'm finding it's easier to greet the losses with a philosophical shrug. You're less invested when you haven't ridden every bump and goal and miskick in person, haven't been part of the surge of the crowd mood..haven't even, half the time, figured out from the coverage who to blame when an opposition player has escaped out the back for a goal or worked out why an ugly floating kick into the forward line seemed like the best option. (Actually both these things occur regularly even when I'm at the match, but you know what I mean).
My commitment just isn't as intense, now that lockdown doesn't just mean a close tagging job on a damaging opposition player...and isolation isn't about coaches manufacturing scenarios where 'Celeb' Daniel is left one-out with a hulking seven-foot-three forward.
I've always preached the virtues of just 'being there' when times get tough. That can't sustain us in this moment. Meanwhile another key ingredient in the supporting arsenal, our affection for our players and our appreciation of their individual stories, stories and challenges, is also diluted. We can't understand what it might be like for them to be living in their strange bubbles in Queensland.
Maybe it's all paradise and sunshine, but it could easily be loneliness and homesickness. It could be tougher than usual to be going through rehabilitation, or missing out on selection, when you're surrounded by your team-mates 24-7.
They might be enjoying extra bonding and camaraderie. Or it could be claustrophobic and anxiety-producing, finding that the pesky team-mate who's always irritated you is now an inescapable presence every time you line up at the breakfast buffet... where a team official might also be closely scrutinising whether you've been a bit too eager to go back for that extra serve of crispy bacon.
Maybe there's a feeling of extra support and it's enjoyable to have extra access to the coaching staff. Or it might dread at the sight of Bevo in board shorts around the hotel pool, not long after he's given you a spray for a lack of qualitative sheen.
The Tragician can only imagine some of these realities, turn on the Kayo app and hope simply that we win. Because the Festival of Footy hasn't been very festive for the Dogs. Our endeavour hasn't been wanting; but a lack of polish and composure at key points has let us down, and found us slipping down the lower half of the ladder.
Watching Our Boys run out, I realise another reason for my sense of distance from my team and its fortunes: it's now more than 12 months since I have been there in person to see a Bulldogs' win. There've been umpteen debutants play their first game; I won't be able to look back nostalgically and recall my impressions of their early moments. I didn't even get to see Bont run out for his first time as captain, sharing with him that long-awaited moment that he was always so obviously destined to reach.
Our Boys follow our strapping Golden Boy down the race. It looks like a beautiful sunny day on their newly adopted home on the Gold Coast. That only increases the feeling of disconnection, or as any earnest first-year player would say: "it's surreal". For in Melbourne, we're wearing masks; our players are wearing sunscreen.
A listless start, with sloppy skills, doesn't inspire confidence. But having not followed any other matches than our own this year, I hadn't realised that the Crows are truly terrible. The last time I saw them play, in the last match of 2019 in Ballarat, they were still an outside chance of making the finals. I hadn't caught up to how badly they've plummeted. It's more their cavalcade of mistakes than our brilliance that leads to us skipping away in the first quarter. Just as I'm reassuring myself that this might be one of those rare occasions when I can relax as we deal out a shellacking, the Crows rattle on a few goals far too easily. They are only a goal adrift, with quarter time approaching.
Luckily we have a player (frequently mentioned in the Tragician Blog), wearing number four, who decides that he won't just watch while the rot sets in. He sharks a handball at the centre bounce, sends it forward before, yes, it's Him Again roving his own kick, and scoring an inspirational goal. I remember another time when he did something similar and I wrote that he was still a kid in the backyard, weaving around imaginary players: 'It's Bont to Bont and then he kicks it to Bont... and then Bont goals!'
I utter a silent prayer of thanks, yet again, that we have Bont in our team. Just how perfect , though, can one guy be? We've even seen pictures of him romping on the floor being 'Uncle Bont' to the gaggle of small children in the hub. You just know he wouldn't be the pesky annoying player that everyone's getting sick of in the hotel. I'd bet he's even setting a captain's example by not going back for that extra serve of crispy bacon at the breakfast buffet.
When 2020 started, Bont's vice-captain was a choice that surprised many: Lachie Hunter. They posed together in the pre-COVID promotional photos, symbols of a new Bulldogs' era.
Lachie is one of those players I've always found hardest to get a read on. Perhaps it's because when he began with us, he seemed like a flighty, maybe even cocky, half-forward that didn't work hard enough. I haven't sufficiently recalibrated over time to appreciate his full worth, as one of our club's hardest trainers and relentless gut-runners. The incident in March where he crashed several cars while drunk didn't really fit my understanding of his personality either, though that probably just confirms how little we know about what's going on in these young men's lives beyond what's carefully packaged up and presented to us.
Pre-match the rumour mill went into overdrive: it was claimed Lachie, who'd taken an additional period of personal leave after serving a club-mandated suspension, was disgruntled, looking to leave.
A little ripple of terror went through me at the the thought of losing yet another of the dwindling stocks of premiership players - so soon! ... and worried and perplexed, too, about the brutal toll that this game can extract; after all three of our players have disclosed mental health issues as requiring time out - permanently, in the case of Tom Boyd.
So there was extra joy in seeing Lachie playing well, and none of us missed the moment when he clutched his jumper after scoring an uplifting goal; a statement, he confirmed afterwards, of how much the club meant to him.
There were two other father-sons out there, and one of them (probably one of my preferred candidates if I had to guess the identity of 'most pesky' in the hub) was Tom Liberatore. He's in vintage form. While sometimes the Serial Antagonist title dominates our views of Libba The Second, he's got what I would call a high footy IQ. Afterwards, you don't often remember a scintillating highlight; but when you watch the game later, you see moment after moment that he's influenced; you wonder at his ingenuity, his creativity in close.
The story of the game, though, ultimately was about the return of Aaron Naughton, who delivered a potent reminder of his importance to our team. We call him The AstroNaught, but there's also something of the laid-back country bogan about him; he sauntered out pre-match wearing a fetching bucket hat, a healthy smear of sunblock, and a mullet which on him somehow doesn't seem self-consciously ironic.
He generates excitement that's a bit like another guy who used to play in our forward line (I've forgotten his name, he used to wear number nine for us; but Aaron also radiates competitiveness. He doesn't just fly for speckies; he works hard the whole match. I'd wondered if he'd be a little cautious and inhibited after a recent wretched run with injury, but he flies for mark after mark with carefree exuberance.
Watching him in full flight I felt for the first time the full loss of this 2020 season. We the fans can't rise out of our seats simultaneously willing him on as he soars for a mark. We can't exchange a little smile and murmur of appreciation to our neighbours at Docklands ("Astro, hey! the kid's on fire."). We can't share a laugh at his confidence, his swagger, his patented stare-down of any opponent he's just flown over the top of.
I can't even award him the ultimate accolade and pop into the Bulldogs' shop to buy a number 33 badge to fix on the Tragician scarf, for the Whitten Oval is silent and empty in these, unprecedented, times.
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.