Round 3 – Fremantle v Western Bulldogs: On winning. And losing
I guess in retrospect there were some early, troubling signs.
Over-confidence. An air of invincibility. A smug sense that winning has become inevitable. A cavalier attitude, a failure to attend to those mundane, boring details that have been critical to our success.
Yes, you guessed it. It certainly didn’t bode well when I arrived at my sister’s apartment to watch us take on Freo, without my lucky scarf and Bonti badge.
The ‘Libba Sisters’*, of course, have played a largely unacknowledged role in the Bulldogs’ fairytale rise. (Not that I’d ever make a big deal of it, but it wouldn’t hurt Bevo Our Saviour just once, surely, to admit he’d had some help via the Libbas’ selfless contribution, our commitment to the premiership glory by always sitting in the same spot whenever we play interstate, with an incredible 100% success rate. I don’t think it’s overstating it to cast doubt on whether we’d have pulled off that amazing elimination final against the Eagles without this ‘X’ factor.)
Anyway, the Libbas are getting a little too accustomed to the Bulldogs’ success. We wait for the first bounce, without any of the usual angst, perhaps verging on complacency in our confidence that Our Boys will have little difficulty bringing the four points home with them on the Red Eye.
There isn’t the typical nervous tension, none of the usual jittery anxiety. I’m not even fretting about questions like who will play on Pavlich (it is another bad sign that I had to be reminded he’d retired). There’s no sinking of the heart when the Purple-clad Ones run out and I’m startled again at just how stupendously tall Aaron Sandilands is; no wringing of the hands at how our rather depleted ruck stocks will go in countering the man-mountain. We’re not even voicing our Danny-from-Droop-St suspicions that the always evil AFL have conspired to outlaw the third man up, just to thwart our success at this tactic, which would have been a handy ploy against the aforesaid man-mountain.
We’ve lost sight, in all of the premiership euphoria, of that painfully acquired knowledge from our years in the wilderness, which I once dubbed ‘defensive pessimism’. We are no longer on high alert for factors that will inevitably presage a ‘shock’ (but not to us) defeat. We aren’t restlessly checking off that list of things that in the past would have set the warning bells clanging:
- an opponent that has been performing abysmally
- a coach whose job is on the line
- the Dogs’ status as unbackable favourites
- a Boomer Harvey milestone match
- Ray Chamberlain marching onto the ground looking especially peppy and desirous of being at the centre of a shock controversial decision.
The Bulldogs’ slow start doesn’t faze us as it should have. We are magnanimous in condescendingly acknowledging that the besieged outfit from Freo are having a red hot go. (Soon enough they’ll be overtaken by the 2016 premiers).We can see Our Boys aren’t switched on, and it would be good to see a bit more spark and energy. But they won’t lose, just make heavy going of what should have been a percentage building exercise.
It’s around the time that the words ‘percentage building’ float through my mind that I become perturbed. I’m supposed to be the Bulldog Tragician, for heaven’s sake. I’m definitely losing my edge.
I should have been tuning into reality. This isn’t just a slow start. There is an ominous listlessness. This isn’t our usual daredevil, kamikaze chain of handpass Men of Mayhem style just occasionally not coming off. This is the wrong option being taken again and again.
The Libba Sisters’ zen-like calm, the trance-like state in which we moved through the magical 2016 finals, is beginning to fray. Our conviction that somebody (it will probably be Bont. It will definitely be Bont) will rescue us from this inertia, starts to crumble.
Firstly, in tried and true fashion, we respond to the situation by attempting, with little success, to dredge up some animosity towards the umpires. It’s been a coincidence, of course, that since September 2016, we have not been so quick to find fault in the performance of the men in that horrid shade of green. Sure, we might have been perceived as having the better of the umpiring in recent times, but I’ve found myself patiently explaining that’s because good teams, excellent teams, premiership-winning teams, are first to the ball, simply more desperate, and courageous.
(There’s also, in my view, the fact they have got quite a few decades before the ledger is considered to be anywhere near squared).
The second sign that we are rattled, that we sense that we actually could lose, is when the Libbas begin to soothe our growing dismay by pouring scorn on the ‘hairstyle choices’ of the Freo players. (The Bont, because he is The Bont, is the only one able to pull off the man bun. This is just a rule of physics, or science, or something. Mess with it at your peril.)
By half-time, even though the Dogs had worked their way back into the contest, I find myself remembering (had I ever really forgotten?) everything I didn’t like about losing, especially at an interstate venue. The frustration of watching dumb mistakes – they’re bad enough the first time. I don’t really need to see them slowed down and analysed in painstaking detail. The droning inanity of the commentators (especially when they’re analysing those mistakes). The lack of context to explain why (maybe there actually isn’t a reason) we persist in those blaze-away entries into the forward line, or the slow ball movement to a scrum of players inevitably featuring Aaron Sandilands.
The half time conversation between the Libbas shows that the tension is beginning to build.
Libba Sister One: Too much is being left to too few. I just don’t think they’re working hard enough. Some of those chases are being given up a bit too easily for my liking. I’m quite sure I could (just about) run faster than that!!
Libba Sister Two: You’re dead right. By the way, the party pies will be ready in a few minutes.
Still, we think we will win. Because this is just what these blokes, our new Bulldog Breed, do. Ugly wins, close wins, thrilling wins, courageous wins, heart-stopping wins, wins when we looked done and dusted, wins achieved just through heart and courage.
So as we begin to assert our ascendancy in the third quarter, this one is being mentally filed away. It will be a regulation one, four points banked in a not very inspiring way, barely remembered by the season’s end. A barrage of 50 metre entries have not yielded as many goals at they should have, and we should be leading by more than just 14 points, but we will get over the line. Maybe our not-so-brilliant performance will send up a red flag, though, remind Our Boys that hard work is still essential, that every team is vulnerable if they don’t bring their very best effort (I can almost hear my schoolmarm-ish tone in the sadly unlikely event that I was invited to give them a motivational pep talk). Our troubling lack of intensity at key moments will give Bevo Our Saviour a bit of ammunition, to rev them up, to remind some of the stragglers that there are a couple of premiership players waiting in the wings, hungry for their spot. He will remind them of where we’ve come from. How far ahead there is still to go.
While I’m visualising these handy, valuable life lessons for Our Boys, I neglect to foresee – because that would have been what we feared in those Bad Old Pre-Premiership Days – that we would barely fire a shot while the team in purple, outdoing us in zest, hunger and ferocity (as well as the Bad Hairstyle Tally) will run all over the top of us.
The siren sounds. The Libbas’ proud record of 100% success is in tatters. We hastily mute the dreaded Freo dirge. Our Boys, far from home, trudge slowly from the field.
It’s our first loss since August 26, 2016, when curiously enough we’d lost to the same team, in much the same way. That loss didn’t turn out out to mean anything in the scheme of things, yet at the time it seemed huge, momentous, condemning us to seventh spot on the ladder and a return to the same venue for a sudden-death final.
So as I head home, vowing never to leave my scarf behind again and feeling that unaccountable irritability that a Dogs’ loss generates, I begin wondering whether the loss will mean anything at all, or what that meaning is going to be. I’m trying to decode the looks on the players’ faces when the game ended, what The Bont and Lachie Hunter who’d both put in extraordinary efforts were thinking, how much it hurt for them and their team-mates. That’s always been the unfathomable question facing us this year, how much hunger the Dogs will retain after smashing through that wall of fate and history that had been impregnable for so long. Whether they will summon up again that indomitable drive, be prepared for the relentless hard work, how they’ll deal with being the hunted. They’ve written a script of ‘heartwarming fairytale’. But what’s the one that awaits them – and us- now?
I drive home past the silent and empty Whitten Oval. My mind drifts to a quaint photo that I’d seen during the week. It was from the 1962 Footscray Advertiser. The article was about how Footscray fans ‘long for a repeat’ of the 54 heroics. It was eight years after that flag, and just one year after our second grand final appearance.
How long that ‘longing’ was about to stretch.
The balmy autumn weather has broken while we watched the match. As I reach the pinnacle of ‘Mount Mistake’ (a droll Footscray-ism, surely) I can’t see, through driving rain, those words proudly wrapped around the Whitten Oval grandstands: Premiers 2016. Words that have brought tears to my eyes, of joy and crazy disbelief, whenever I see them.
I’m thinking about winning, and losing. We used to be so familiar with the latter, not so well-versed in dealing with the former. I often thought that if the Dogs ever finally triumphed, wins or losses in the years that followed wouldn’t matter as much any more. I expected – (in reality I couldn’t even conceptualise what it would be like) – that the exhilaration and joy would last me a lifetime. One flag, one solitary flag, would be enough. The future beyond that was just – a blank.
Of course, we were viewing winning and losing through the prism of decades of non-achievement, which coloured and exaggerated our reactions to each of these outcomes: over the top celebrations of wins, catastrophising the losses. But now we’re in uncharted waters. I’m almost surprised at how much I disliked losing to Freo. I didn’t really anticipate that winning doesn’t dull our appetite for success; it’s the other way round, it has made the losses more unpalatable and we hope – for our team as well as ourselves – harder to bear.