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Outclassed but not overwhelmed

“Whoever said, ‘It’s not whether you win or lose that counts’, probably lost.” – Martina Navratilova.

Talking to Matthew Boyd at Etihad Stadium a few weeks ago in the hours leading up to a game, we got around to reminiscing about our junior football days. I was interested to hear Boydy tell me that his junior club was so dominant and had been on such a long winning streak that after a couple of years the kids got bored, disbanded and went their separate ways.

‘Bored with winning, now there’s a mindset to wrap your brain around!’

Bored with winning, now there’s a mindset to wrap your brain around! I couldn’t remember a year of junior football when my team didn’t make the grand final, although I don’t ever recall becoming bored with it all.

The irony of our current state relative to past glories wasn’t lost on either of us as we prepared for another battle under the roof. Winning games of football is a tough old caper in any year in the AFL, but it has been particularly hard this year for our boys. I’m sick of writing about losing games of football almost as much as I’m sick of actually losing games of football. It starts to wear you down after a while.

I had a good feeling going into last week, although I couldn’t tell you exactly why that was. Human chemistry is a mysterious shadow. That same good feeling I’d had in my gut all week was still there by the time the game roared to life on Sunday afternoon.

Even though we were behind for the whole day against Fremantle, it did feel at times that we were the ones controlling a lot of the play. Twelve months ago we played Fremantle at Etihad in bright sunshine, and although the end margin was a respectable five or six-goal defeat, the Dockers completely overwhelmed us. I had the sneaking suspicion then that they would go on to big things, which they did, of course.

Last Sunday we weren’t overwhelmed, but we were outclassed. I couldn’t help but think at one point as I was chasing Stephen Hill through the middle of the ground before he lovingly caressed one of his four goals. “Yeah, we could probably find a spot for him in our side, I reckon.” He’s a beautiful player to watch.

Fremantle has that thing all teams are after – balance. Size, speed, class and the anticipation of each others’ movements.

Clearly, the Western Bulldogs are not quite there yet. We must push on.

‘Fremantle has that thing all teams are after – balance.’

As the final siren sounded, I was spent. With hands on knees I looked up to see the outstretched hand of Matthew Pavlich, the class captain of my 1999 draft. He’s someone I admire.

Having long suffered near the bottom of the ladder, he now sits near the top of the heap on the cusp of another tilt. He hasn’t done it on his own though. Watching the Dockers defend the ground from behind-the-goals footage is like watching a disease spread and attack. It’s both frightening and inspiring.

There are always lessons to be taken from defeat. Although only brief, I did shake the hands of a few Dockers and a few of them were encouraging of our efforts to push them on the day. I guess that’s what they call an honourable loss.

This week – in the pages of my very own paper might I add! – we’ve had our relevance as a football club questioned. The theory is that by losing more than we win we’ve become invisible.

Sometimes the good fight is the one you started some time ago and have the will to see it through the whole way. To suddenly come out now shaking our sparklers would be insincere or spineless. Apart from the odd show pony who goes on TV, that’s not who we are.

Nothing comes easy in this game and it isn’t coming easy for the Bulldogs at the moment, but there is plenty of fight inside our walls. At the risk of becoming a boring habit, it would be nice to get a win on the board this week. I’d even take a dishonourable one.

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