In the aftermath of the Western Bulldogs’ victory over Essendon last week, Toby McLean was slightly bemused.
With just under a minute left in the pivotal stoush at Etihad Stadium, Bomber Brendon Goddard caught the Bulldog high with a tackle and then rubbed McLean’s head into the turf after he hit the deck.
“I don’t think he likes me,” McLean told The Weekend Australian.
“That is one of the first times I have met him, but he has obviously watched a bit of me and I don’t think he likes the way I go about it, so he rubbed my head in the dirt there.
“It didn’t hurt much, and I got the 50 (50m penalty), so I will take that. It’s his mistake, obviously.”
Goddard, never a footballer to mask his emotions, was undoubtedly frustrated as a match still in the balance only minutes earlier became a blowout when McLean extended the margin to 30 points.
The action provoked fury on social media, with the grumpy old Bomber savaged for his behaviour towards the young pup.
But others, including Brisbane’s triple-premiership star Jonathan Brown, noted with interest the way McLean’s teammates responded to both the incident and the Essendon challenge blunted with just four minutes remaining.
Marcus Bontempelli, the young champion who was arguably best afield, was the first to remonstrate with Goddard.
And as soon as McLean kicked the goal, a pack of Bulldogs attacked Goddard, perhaps reminding him their youthful teammate owned a premiership medal that unfortunately eluded Goddard at St Kilda and so far with Essendon.
It is hardly rare for players to come to the aid of a teammate but Brown deigned it a moment of significance in what has been a troubled premiership defence.
“They have got the unity back, the Bulldogs,” he said in commentary.
“We saw it last week against the Suns up in Cairns when they jumped in for each other. Again they were like a pack, getting around each other, letting Brendon Goddard know they were not happy.
“There was great spirit there by the Dogs.”
Amid allegations of rifts between players, form dips and assorted misfortunes, including the depression battles suffered by Travis Cloke and Tom Boyd, 2017 has not been the smoothest year at the kennel.
With four rounds remaining, beginning with a game against the Lions in Brisbane today, they face a struggle to make the eight.
The Bulldogs are the bottom-placed of four teams on 10 wins and sit outside the eight in ninth position, just a victory ahead of Essendon and St Kilda.
But there is renewed optimism among the Dogs, who host the Giants at Etihad Stadium and Port Adelaide in Ballarat before a Friday night clash against Hawthorn to end the regular season.
They have strung together three wins in succession to surge back into September contention, none more impressive than the victory over Essendon.
Captain Bob Murphy, who is surprisingly an emergency this week as he rests his body, said the premiers were keen to ride the wave.
“We built a little bit against Carlton and then we went up to (play) the Gold Coast and nobody really sort of noticed too much but there was just some good little signs,” Murphy said on SEN radio.
“But Sunday felt the best it’s felt probably all year, to be honest. Every side has kind of had their little dip and most sides have had their run of momentum, and I feel like we’ve got ours at the moment, probably for the first time. Sunday I got a bit excited. It was fun out there.
“It felt like, ‘This is our team. This is our kind of trademark of play’ and it sort of hadn’t been there for a little while, so that was exciting.”
Momentum is a magical thing in sport, yet equally perplexing.
As McLean said after the win over Essendon, “it is one of those things where it comes and goes and you can’t really explain it”.
Yet this Bulldogs team knows only too well how far it can take you once harnessed. It’s just over a year since their flag hopes in 2016 were written off. Murphy had been long sidelined when the Bulldogs lost Luke Dahlhaus, Jackson Macrae, Mitch Wallis and Jack Redpath in consecutive weeks in late July.
But the Dogs, buoyed by some quick recoveries, defied the odds to claim the club’s second premiership.
There is still much to do this year but McLean feels they are capable. “Form is coming for us. We’ve won the last three and we feel like we’re getting this momentum back, which we didn’t have during the middle of the year.”