The family text messages to organise our attendance at Sunday's match against the Pies weren't exactly zinging around.
'Umm. We probably should.'
'Yeah. It's important, right? '
'Even though we'll probably get smashed'.
'There's that, yes.'
'Meet you at the usual fate.' (Ooops, damn autocorrect). 'Usual gate!'
Faith and enthusiasm have dwindled among the Bulldog fans. The losses are piling up; the Catastrophe Performance Index has been in meltdown and has seeped into fan morale as well. Our future doesn't seem as bright as we thought just a few months ago, as doubts creep in from all angles. Our 'irrelevance' has become the new, fashionable talking point. Suddenly the whole footy world has a new scapegoat: us and our lack of improvement. Everyone's got an opinion on our lack of a game-plan. Everyone is questioning what's wrong with Ryan Griffen and Will Minson. Everyone's pointing to the apparent lack of progress, making doomsday scenario predictions that we could bottom out still further when some of our stalwarts call it quits.
Yes, the team has been grinding it out; effort and commitment haven't been in question (in some ways that makes it harder to cope with). But there's an increasing lack of joy, of flare, dash, zest. Winning ugly is one thing. Losing ugly is another altogether.
And our losing form brings another form of ugliness: walking past the race at the end of our disheartening Brisbane loss, I'd felt my face flush with anger and embarrassment at seeing our players trudging off the ground, running the gauntlet of abuse from some of our own fans. There had been outbreaks of tensions and anger erupting during the match between supporters who still clapped and encouraged the team, and those who felt that as fans they had earned the right to ridicule and boo the team at this the most trying of times, and took their venom out at those who saw it differently.
There was further demoralisation in the wake of the loss. In one of Bob Murphy's saddest articles he took a gentle but pointed gibe at those fans that delighted in 'taking the players down a peg or two' and reflected on better times:
Some of my most treasured time in football has been at the top. Winning big games, winning finals, playing in front of huge crowds when you can actually feel the pride of your own supporters beaming back at you, like the warmth of the springtime sun.
His words seemed those of someone who had fallen out of love with the game, or, more chillingly, with our club. And it almost seemed he'd reached a fatalistic acceptance that those good times, when the team is playing well and we as fans bask in that winning afterglow, are beyond reach of this current group. Or at least a group that would still feature a Bob Murphy, with his sidestep, his elegance, his sublime talent. His crazy-brave passion for our club. Which right now is giving him more pain than joy.
With all the grim news swirling in the background I really couldn't even muster enthusiasm to pen this blog after our Brisbane loss. I tried a few times (but like Homer Simpson's advice to his kids: when it's all too hard, give up). The sentiments I wanted to expressed seemed old-fashioned, trite and banal, yet they're what I believe. That you don't get to pick and choose when to barrack for your club, disappearing from their orbit in the bad years, only to reappear with suspiciously new scarves in better times. That going along every week in these hard times, even if it's an effort, form a protective fortress and a core of resilience (harden up, you young scallywags, I've been there for at least a dozen 100 point losses!) and will make our triumph one day (- it will happen one day - won't it? -) extra poignant and unbelievably sweet.
These are all the reasons why I am trudging up LaTrobe Street on Sunday afternoon towards the stadium and what seems a certain belting against an in-form team. It's what you do, that's all.
There are few, oh so few, Dogs fans around. So few that we all keep catching each others' eyes. It feels like we should exchange some sort of grim, stoic, terse, acknowledgement. Laconic and Australian. 'You're here too?' 'Yep.' Nothing else required.
Waiting for family members at the 'usual fate', I get talking to an elderly, rheumy-eyed man; he is wearing a Bulldogs beanie. He looks too old to be there on his own; he is hampered by a limp. We make some small talk; the weather, a few mildly jocular observations re Pies fans ( you have to, don't you?), and ticket prices. I want to ask him why he is there, about the things he'd seen. Was he there in 54? Who was the greatest Bulldog he'd seen? What does he think of our current plight? I'm sure he has a story to tell. But I hesitate to ask, and he heads off into the game with a cheery wave.
I recognise another Bulldog-supporting couple walking in. They usually sit a few rows in front of us at our home games. We've never spoken, but I've watched their joy when we win, seen them jubilantly waving their scarves and singing the song, shared their quiet resignation when we lose. I feel strangely glad to see them. To know, even though we don't exchange a word, that they're here too.
There are four members only of the Tragician Clan today. One brother, one sister, one son. One Tragician. We head towards the nosebleed section, where we are vastly outnumbered by the black and white army. The match quickly unfolds in accordance with our low expectations; yes, it seems, we will be badly outclassed. Our forward line in the first 10 minutes is a scramble of bodies; painstaking work reaps no reward. Three leisurely goals in contrast come effortlessly to the Magpies, one of them from an unattended player waltzing down the ground, bouncing the ball in carefree fashion, taking it away from our congested forward line and players lumbering after him. It would be, undoubtedly, a long afternoon.
It's a relief when we finally jag our first goal. And then, surprisingly enough, another. We hail them with over-the-top exuberance; aware that Melbourne only managed three for the whole afternoon against the Pies the week before, we want to get value for money out of each one. Hang on...we've kicked two more. We're deliriously happy to see we're in front at quarter time! In time-honoured 'acceptance of mediocrity' mode, we jump enthusiastically to our feet to give Our Boys a clap.
So low have been our expectations that we take a while to recalibrate and get a sense of what's going on as the match progresses. We're not only right in this game; we're winning it, taking it on, playing a quite different and exciting brand of football; the slow hesitant players who featured in the dismal Brisbane match mysteriously transformed into demented, frenzied running machines. Griff, our captain, is playing the inspirational footy we've been hoping for all year, hurling himself into contests, his trademark zip and burst returned. He's showing us, I think, not just how much the criticism has stung, but how much he loves this club. The other much maligned player in the media glare this week, Will Minson, who has been shouldering an insane rucking burden manfully with no support all year, has regained that nasty manic aggression that is so endearing in your own players (and totally reprehensible in others).
And the Second Libber...I don't have the words for what he's doing out there. In his dad (the First Libber), you could see the burning will and intensity, or as Martin Flanagan memorably said:
In his prime, he was capable of recording a third of his team's tackles and year after year he led the AFL tackling count. Larger players would see this tiny 163-centimetre figure in front of them, back themselves to run over the top of him and find themselves brought crashing ignominiously to the ground.
His son is playing one of the best, most complete games I've seen in the red, white and blue. Thirteen clearances, ten tackles. His face is blanker than his dad's, the emotion is more hidden, but his actions tell us that he's inherited his fierce competitive spirit. He's powering around the ground, driving us forward again and again - there's one moment when he simply rips the ball out of his opponents' hands. Around him, a brigade of younger players are growing in confidence and more than ably supporting him. Suddenly they've gelled, and you can see the future that's been brewing in BMac's petri dish: Jackson Macrae with his elusive movement and the brilliant peripheral vision that the elite players have; Liam Jones providing a high leaping forward target (yes, you read that right) and strong counterpoint at our end of the ground for the monster Cloke; Jason Tutt putting together self-belief with his pace and long kicking; Wallis sticking doggedly to his tagging task on Pendlebury; high-leaping Easton Wood refusing to give up a contest. The wily foxes, Murph, Gia and Morris, are gracefully ceding support roles to this new breed, who are now linking up after all those hard fought inside possessions, moving the ball relentlessly forward, instead of all somehow getting in each others' way at the bottom of the pack.
At three quarter time we're stunned. The scoreboard says we're six points up. It's a nervous tentative happiness, far from jubilation. Sometimes daring to win is the hardest thing of all, for fans and players alike. It's hard not to retreat into our shells, to be satisfied with a brave effort, to prepare mentally for the last quarter surge from the Pies that must surely be moments away.
When we get the first two goals of the last quarter it first occurs to me that we could actually win. Just as I'm grasping this unlikely possibility, Liam Jones, who's been superbly accurate, must have had the same thought; he misses what should have been his fifth goal. The Pies begin an ominous charge. Their uncharacteristically subdued fans begin their famous intimidating roar, rocking the stadium, as their players click smoothly into a higher gear. Suddenly it feels like they've been toying with us, waiting for this moment when the real match will begin and they can flick us away like annoying mosquitoes. In the pressure cooker atmosphere I think of how many times the Pies have played at the MCG in blockbuster matches, with huge crowds, with so much more at stake. They're so much more at home in this screaming cauldron, when the air seems to have vanished, and the fans can barely breathe. The Dogs, surely, are about to crack. Legs look heavy. Our run is gone. The Pies, who know how to win, are steaming home, within a goal with five minutes to go.
Here it comes. Our Usual Fate.
There's a last lunge of Bulldog defiance, a last fierce flurry of intense contests, and it's us that win them. Jason Tutt has the ball in his hands in front of goal, a set shot that's not especially difficult, yet not that easy for a player who seems always to doubt his place in the side. When he kicks truly there's a tremendous din that makes you forget there's only probably 3000 of us Dogs fans there. A roar of relief, of delight. Of amazement.
When the siren goes, our joy knows no bounds. There was something else, after all, that Murph said in his article about strength in hard times.
You suddenly find yourselves a tightly wound-together group of human beings who genuinely feel like it's you against the world.
We take a photo of the four of us, celebrating wildly, to capture forever the memory of the day that We Were There.
I try and catch news of our game on the radio on the trip home, but they're covering the Essendon-Demons match which is still playing out. I'm not at all surprised when I hear that Daniel Cross has contributed to the last passage of play that leads to an inspiring Demons victory (well, all right, I'm quite a BIT surprised that it was apparently a perfectly weighted kick from our much loved helicopter-kicking specialist). It seems fitting that the new bearer of the number four guernsey that Crossy wore with such distinction, Marcus Bontempelli, played a superlative, breakout sixth game, earning a Rising Star nomination. It was Bonti's last quarter run and kick that found Jason Tutt, and won us the match.
The footy circle of life turns around again.
I get a text from my partner, the Footy Non Believer. 'Why can't the Dogs play like that every week for you!'
Only the Believers know the strange but true answer. It wouldn't be as much fun.
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.