Is This Just Fantasy? The Bulldogs Ponder

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality.

The opening lyrics from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, one of the greatest songs of all time, and one that I’ve heard frequently.

However, this is also summing up the mood of Bulldogs fans pretty well.

It’s been 62 years since the Bulldog’s only premiership. On a chilly September day in 1954, eighteen men from down Footscray way played their hearts out to defeat Melbourne by 51 points. It is to this day the finest moment in the history of the club.

Since then, the club has played in nine preliminary finals, from 1956 to 2010, and has lost all but one of them.

Footscray faced some tough times in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Losing the 1961 Grand Final to Hawthorn set the tone for a bleak two decades. From 1965 to 1969, they finished bottom three five years in a row, including the 1967 wooden spoon.

By 1985, things were looking up. The Dogs had finished second on the ladder, but faced a tough encounter with Hawthorn in the qualifying final.

A 93-point loss.

The Bulldogs accounted for their opponents in the semi-final, before playing the Hawks again in the prelim. They performed significantly better, but lost by 10 points, consigning them to spend the rest of the decade soul searching and contemplating whether it would really be that bad to merge with Fitzroy.

And yet, by 1992, the Bulldogs were back up again. Their best season in history had them just percentage off Geelong on top (however, Geelong had scored 3000 points for the year), and faced the Cats for a ticket straight to the prelim. They lost by 61 points, accounted for their semi-final opposition, and lost to their qualifying final opponents in the prelim. To those who remembered 1985, it would have been a serious case of déjà vu. And, also like 1985, they missed the finals the next year.

1997. The year that has given nightmares to both Bulldogs and Saints fans, the year where Adelaide came from the brink to snatch victory out of our hands, the year where we had our best chance of busting open the trophy cabinet, and adding another shining silver premiership cup to accompany the one that has sat in solitude for forty-three years.

If we had beaten Adelaide, then who knows what would have happened? We might have lost to the Saints in the Grand Final, but at least we’d been there.

My own experience with the heartache of being a Bulldogs supporter started on July 10, 2009. I was seven years old, and had gone to my first Bulldogs game, against the Collingwood team supported by my grandfather. Sitting in the stands of Etihad Stadium, wearing a Bulldogs beanie, filling in the scores in the AFL Record, circling my three favourite players (Adam Cooney, Jason Akermanis, Brad Johnson). I watched the Bulldogs go from being 35 points down at three quarter time to lose by a single point, and it crushed my newborn football fan’s heart.

That year, the Bulldogs made the preliminary final. We were playing St Kilda, the St Kilda side that had won the first nineteen games of the season. However, there was a buzz around the Bulldogs, a genuine feeling that they could get the Saints, whose form had been patchy leading into the finals (although I now realise that was just Ross Lyon resting all of his players).

We were five points down at three quarter time. The first four scores of the quarter went to us. At any other club, hearing those figures would be cause for celebration, knowing you’d kicked away and were going to a Grand Final.

We had scored 1.3. We were just four points up.

Then Nick Riewoldt happened. He engaged in a final stanza that meant his name would in future be spoken with a contempt previously reserved only for Darren Jarman.

He scored two goals in the last twelve minutes, when his twenty-one teammates had scored five in the first hundred. There was a dilemma on whether one of his goals was touched. It was ruled to have not been.

At 10.16pm on September 18, 2009, the siren sounded. St Kilda had won by seven points. The disappointment on the Bulldog players’ faces was impossible to hide. So were my tears the next morning, when I found out.

How does one describe the pain of a loss? The 2015 elimination final against Adelaide serves as a case in point.

Near the end of the game, when it becomes clear the Bulldogs will lose to The Demons From The South, your heart contracts into a cavern somewhere within my ribcage. The salty, liquid manifestation of disappointment pools behind your eyes, like water behind a dam ready to burst. A cry appears within your lungs, praying to be let out, but, like the small Dutch child at the dike, you attempt to hold it in. However, unlike the small Dutchman, you fail, and emotions spill out into the world, setting a tone for the conclusion of the football season.

To some Bulldogs fans, you may be asking why. Why have I bought you through 761 words of heartbreak and trauma?

Hope.

Hope is something that has been hard to come by down at Footscray. The song Three Lions, recorded in 1996 about the English soccer team, contains the words Thirty years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming. For the Bulldogs, it’s more like sixty years. However, the message is still true.

The Bulldogs are on top of the ladder after two rounds. Our form has been impressive, but there are still question marks. Like in Bohemian Rhapsody, we don’t know whether this is fantasy or not.

We play the reigning premiers, Hawthorn, on Sunday afternoon. In previous seasons, this has been a game at Launceston, and has been chalked up as a definite loss.

However, this year, it is being played at Etihad Stadium.

And the fans are hopeful.

Believe it or not, people think there is a genuine chance of the Bulldogs beating Hawthorn. This is something that would be considered ludicrous in 2014, even 2015.

But there’s a real feeling of hope at the Bulldogs. And everyone is thinking the Bulldogs are in with a chance, even that the Bulldogs could win.

If we win this game, we will most likely be top of the ladder. We could even be considered premiership contenders.

Of course, we will have to keep a lid on it. If we set ourselves up for glory, we will be disappointed, like we were in 1985, 1997, 1998, 2008-10, and 2015.

But there’s a feeling something’s coming along to the too-bare Bulldogs trophy cabinet.

And that’s got a smile on the faces of the faithful.

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