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Bulldogs can find strength in adversity

“That’s it Murphy, keep chasing.
All you’ve done today is 
f—ing chase people!”

– anonymous Bulldogs supporter, 2001.

My dear old Ma was outraged when she first heard this being yelled out to me in the early days of my footy career.

Luckily my older brother was on hand to give some calming advice. “It’s going to get a lot worse than that, Mum.” He was spot on, my brother. It got a lot worse.

It’s funny, but when you get to talking footy with people in the park or at a coffee shop they often feel obliged to bring you down a peg. “What about your kicking the other night?!” “Gee, ya miss a lot of left-hand handballs, don’t you?”

They don’t mean any offence by it, and it’s not that harsh per se, but I get the feeling some people think we footballers live in ivory towers, kept away from the criticisms of regular folk. The truth is our world is filled with criticism.

Some of it is very public. Opposition supporters and even some of your own are always on hand when things go awry. Newspapers and television stations feast on the vulnerable, and the murky waters of social media trickle constantly under the surface like bore water.

‘Newspapers and television stations feast on the vulnerable, and the murky waters of social media trickle constantly under the surface like bore water.’

In that sense the Bulldogs are centre stage at the moment; lights are shining bright and the trickle is more like a torrent.

That’s the public side of things. Inside every club in the AFL there is constant judgment. It’s not as blunt as the senior coach walking around spraying players all day long, although every coach I’ve ever had has that in his repertoire.

I sometimes think preparing yourself to play AFL footy is like boarding a fishing boat with 11 holes in it and you’ve only got your 10 fingers and thumbs. You have so many things to work on and often there isn’t enough time to get to it all.

You need to be aerobically capable, fast enough, have skills of hands and feet, physical courage and the mental endurance to take in every set play and still play with the freedom of your 10-year-old self when the game restarts. It will stretch you to your uppermost limits.

I always think the kids that come into our club with a bit of overconfidence will probably be OK. That bedrock of confidence will be chipped away by a thousand little comments and a few-hundred video review sessions. You don’t have to go too far in footy to have someone clip you.

I remember a night early in my career, a game against Hawthorn when the ball rolled towards me and at the last moment I looked up to see what was coming at me, flinched, and fumbled the ball. I didn’t sleep very well for the next two nights, waiting for it to come up in the review in front of my teammates. I’d let them down.

I also remember getting to the club on that Monday, and with sweaty palms sitting down in front of Terry Wallace and the other coaches. Then Terry announced there would be no video review that week. My heart leapt!

It’s normal to feel uneasy about a video review early in your career. Over time you begin to look forward to them. They can be a cathartic exercise, even if there is a bit of pain or embarrassment to be endured.

This week’s review was a robust one, which is to say, there was blood on the tracks. Most of us took at least one punch and when it came my turn I couldn’t help shifting in my seat. I sat there watching myself, willing myself to move.

“Go now! Push up the ground and stop the flow of play!”

But it’s too late. I watched myself run backwards and my team pay a price for the wrong decision.

Ultimately, all these little moments of pain and embarrassment are designed to make you better. Over many years you become hard-wired to judging yourself just as harshly as anyone watching at the ground. The trick is to play with freedom and positivity despite the missteps. It’s easier said than done.

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.

Strangely enough, some other times that are just as treasured have been while we’re languishing at the other end. Beaten, bruised and abandoned. That’s when you know you’re really part of a club, because after trying so many different ideas to develop a gang mentality, you suddenly find yourselves a tightly wound-together group of human beings who genuinely feel like it’s you against the world.

Of course you’d like more time at the top, who wouldn’t? And you don’t want to keep returning to the dark shadows we again find ourselves in.

But here we are. It’s us against the world again.

This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.