IT'S AMAZING how much morale rises when you're winning. Alright, I know that might sound a tad obvious, but that rush of excitement and the general vibe at a club after a win is enough to have you springing out of bed before your alarm buzzes to life, itching to get onto the training track.
As a footy player, there's no greater feeling than walking off the field after a win, standing arm in arm with your teammates and belting out your club's theme song. Those couple of minutes is what every single player trains so hard for. It's what makes all those brutal preseasons worthwhile.
When you have a win, everything feels, not necessarily easier, but certainly much more relaxed. You can actually enjoy the following week, get excited for the game review and you're usually not too concerned about whether or not your spot in the team is in jeopardy.
Right now, it's great to be a Bulldog. For the first time in 12 years we've started the season 3-0 and the excitement is palpable. It's not just the players feeling it, either. Every single person at the club walks a little taller and has an extra wide smile on their face than perhaps they would if things weren't quite going to plan.
I'm not going to lie; as a club we were pretty bullish on our prospects before the season had begun. We were also well aware of the outside noise and heightened expectation from our fans, the media and general public. But it's actually really difficult to gauge exactly where you're at until the final siren sounds on your Round 1 game.
After such a strong start, where we've managed to beat Collingwood, West Coast and North Melbourne, there's no doubt you begin to wonder just how good 2021 can be? But it's so important not to get carried away this early, as we all know how quickly things can turn in sport. I've certainly experienced the flip side, a dissapointing start to the year, and it's something I will never forget.
OUR PREMIERSHIP hangover in 2017 has been well documented. Missing out on finals was not exactly what we'd had in mind for our flag defence year, but the one positive we took away with us was that we had begun to rediscover some of our best form in the latter stages of the season.
Similar to this year, we felt confident heading into 2018. We were no longer the hunted, as a dominant Richmond side had just beaten Adelaide to become premiers, and the disappointment of 2017 had re-ignited our hunger for success.
So when we travelled to Canberra and were absolutely thrashed by the Giants in Round 1, it felt like a real slap across the face. Another backhander came seven days later when the Eagles did a number on us, winning by nine goals. In the blink of an eye we were 0-2 and wondering if we were simply not as good as we had thought?
We steadied the ship in Round 3 with a much-needed win over Essendon, but things took a horrible turn a week later when we hosted Sydney at Marvel Stadium - an afternoon I will remember for the rest of my life.
Heading into the game with a 1-2 record, and having been smashed by the media all week, we really couldn't afford to slip up again. We knew, against a well drilled Swans outfit, this was going to be a game we had to grind out for four quarters.
It turned out to be an enthralling contest which featured a number of significant momentum swings. We opened up a 22-point lead early in the second quarter before they kicked out to a 14-point lead of their own in the third term. But by the final quarter, the scoreboard was tight and the game was tense.
With just three minutes left on the clock, and with us trailing 73-79, I spotted Marcus Bontempelli about to mark at centre-half-forward. Without thinking, I bolted towards goal, and to my surprise, no Swans defender picked me up. By the time Bont had turned and put the ball out in front of me, I was at the top of the goalsquare, in 15 metres of space, my eyes lighting up at the prospect of tying the game and likely keeping our season alive.
But in my eagerness to kick the goal, I lost concentration on the ball, spilled the mark and allowed the Swans to get back and snuff out the attack. I blew it.
We ended up losing the game by seven points and I'll never forget that gut-wrenching feeling as I trudging off the ground to a chorus of "cheer, cheer, the red and the white." I felt like absolute s---; and as if I had let every single teammate down. It only got worse when I arrived back in the rooms and spotted my family standing off to the side waiting for me. At that point, I lost all control and broke down in tears. I was shattered.
My teammates put their arms around me and assured me that it wasn't all on me, but no matter what was said, I couldn't be convinced otherwise.
🏅 @championdata reveals the players who thrive under pressure— The ESPN Footy Podcast (@FootyTips) May 4, 2021
💪 @ESPNAusNZ's @AFLDraftExpert talks 2021's draft prospects
❌ The worst guernseys of all time?
🤔 Is Sam Walsh Carlton's best player?
All the #AFL chat, with @championdata, in one place ⬇️https://t.co/snkaSjVJ0q
You see, as a player, you reflect on the losses far more than you do the wins. You're always a much harsher critic if you haven't secured the four points. You sit in the rooms thinking about what you could have done differently. You drive home thinking about it. You're even thinking about it in bed. Professional athletes aim to be perfectionists and it's hard to deal with the frustration of a loss, particularly when you feel you're responsible for it.
THE GAME against Sydney had been played at twilight, so by the time I had showered, packed my bags and arrived home, it was close to 10pm. There was not a single second where I wasn't replaying that dropped mark over in my head, berating myself for the mistake.
In my desperation to try and switch off from what had happened a few hours earlier, I decided to lean on social media. It's fair to say, that wasn't the greatest idea I've ever had. What I saw horrified me.
My Instagram DMs were overflowing with literally hundreds of abusive messages, but one of them really stood out. Someone had actually sent me a Google Maps screenshot which had directions from Marvel Stadium to the West Gate Bridge. Here I am, just a 21-year-old kid, being advised by a disgruntled 'fan' to commit suicide after making an error in a game. No matter what the coaching staff and senior players tell you, you can't help but feel responsible for the loss when you see something like that.
Seeing that image made me feel sick to my stomach. Without any doubt, that was the lowest I have ever felt after a game. It was my rock bottom. All I wanted to do was hide.
After a night of tossing and turning in bed, I decided to report the offenders and actually change my Instagram profile to 'private'. I also learned a valuable lesson that day: never check social media after a game, particularly a loss. It's something I still practice today.
HEADING BACK to the club on the Monday was as tough as it gets, and a stark contrast to how we're feeling right now. I could tell everyone was still thinking about what had happened, and at 1-3, although nobody would care to admit it, you begin to wonder if it's going to be another wasted year.
The following week we travelled to Perth and after going down to the Dockers by 54 points, and falling to 1-4, that feeling of writing off the year only grew stronger. I remember sitting on the plane back to Melbourne, replaying those infamous seconds over in my head. Just how different could things have been had I held on and kicked the goal?
When it comes to sliding doors moments, for me, that's certainly the most significant one I've had, but it's one which taught me plenty of lessons.
You know, it's amazing how that type of mistake can easily be papered over when you're winning. I actually turned one over in the first quarter against North Melbourne in Round 3 this year, but because we won by 128 points, nobody talks about it and nobody will remember it.
But that's sport.
The reason the highs make you feel invincible is because in the back of your mind you know full well just how difficult it can be on the other side of the ledger. I'm sure there are players right now who are going through a similar situation to what I went through after that loss to Sydney in 2018. Just remember, go easy on them!
Lifeline 13 11 14
Beyond Blue 1300 224 636