FIELD OF DREAMS

Like all kids of his generation, he was mad on footy. His folks had moved to the game’s heartland when he was just a toddler and he’d gravitated to it.

Those were the days (it seems an eternity ago now), when there were 12 League teams, all games were played on a Saturday arvo and you waited, breathlessly, for the ‘Footy Replay’, later that night.

He and his mates had their heroes. It was more tribal then and you followed the team that was in your ‘neighbourhood’, so to speak. And you’d grab a ‘Pink Bible’ (Sporting Globe) when they landed at the newsagent’s, to gobble up the kick-by-kick summary of the games.

He spent lots of time playing on the ball when he was a kid and he’d occasionally overhear a couple of the coaches speaking glowingly of him. One actually said that he ‘might go all the way’.

Not that those sort of comments mattered one iota to him. He was a well-adjusted boy, quiet and self-effacing, and had pretty well made up his mind early on that he wouldn’t mind pursuing a career in education.

But that was all in the future. He ran the boundary for his local team until he was deemed old enough to play. They picked him on the wing to ease him into it, but there were no worries, he soon proved to them that he was ‘the goods’.

One of the VFA clubs came knocking. He was flattered and wondered whether he’d cut it at that level. But he loved it there and grew attached to the people and the culture of the place.

The higher standard of football seemed to bring out the best in him. And he adjusted to the toughness. Gee, blokes joked about it when they’d meet for a beer and a chat after a game, but he was surprised how ruthless it was.

He’d got through his teacher-training and was really well-settled at the club. In his third year he was one of the main reasons why things just clicked at about the half-way mark, as they sailed into the Grand Final.

You’re not meant to win the flag when you are more than seven goals down at three-quarter time, are you? But miracles do happen. Just before the final siren they kicked the goal that gave them a most amazing victory – by one point.

By now his name was on the lips of the talent scouts. It had been for some time, but, because of his loyalty to his VFA club he resisted those approaches, until now. It was an era when you were residentially bound to a club, but that was okay, he barracked for them anyway.

His mates talked him up and branded him a ‘cert’ to walk into League footy. But he wasn’t so sure. He showed some form up forward in the practice games and, sure enough, found his name on the final list.

A week later he was making his debut.

It was a dream come true. He reflected back to when he would kick the plastic footy around the back yard and pretend he was Barassi or Whitten. And here he was running through the banner and sharing the same hallowed turf with some of the greats of the game.

He kicked four goals and fobbed off the rave reviews of the scribes. “Just lucky that I kicked straight”, he replied, in his usual humble manner. The side was beginning to build after being trampled upon for decades and the fans started to react accordingly.

Not that he was one to get carried away with the hype . He was more worried about getting a kick and retaining his spot.

Then, as if he needed any reminding about the fickleness of the game, a knee injury cost him a season and he was back to square-one. He found it hard to regain touch when he returned and the coach, a shrewd footy-nut who knew how to get inside blokes’ heads, sat him down for a chat.

What would you think about switching to the opposite end of the ground, the coach proffered. Heck, he’d never played at full back, but if it meant getting back in the side, it was worth a try, he reckoned.

The move proved a raging success. The bloke he swapped with really appreciated life up forward and he, himself, clicked in defence.

The team was now moving into the upper echelon and reached the Grand Final that year. There was an air of optimism about the place and it was great to be a part of, as he continued to play a key role.

There was no doubt about the greatest moment of his life. It came a year later, in front of a capacity crowd at the M.C.G.

Even now, he can be stopped in the street by complete strangers and congratulated for his efforts in helping his side to one of the most historic victories in football history.

It seems, as the years have passed, there must have been 2 to 3 hundred thousand people at the ‘G’ that day, as they all recall the saving mark he took to repel the opposition attack just before the siren blew.

A one-point victory. Could it get any sweeter. The old stalwarts crying with joy and telling him they could now die happy – that still sticks in his mind.

As the years passed, he was labelled the greatest full back in Australia and won regular selection in the Victorian side. It meant heaps to some players, but he was always frustrated that he missed out on club games when he wore the ‘Big V’.

But he knew how much other states loved to beat the Vics. He was standing in the square at the Adelaide Oval one day, minding his own business, when someone started pelting him with apples from behind the goals. He thought he’d bring it to the attention of the local cop, who couldn’t have cared less. “What apples?”, he said.

It was a crucial role, holding down the full back spot, as you’d confront a champ every week. It was an era that spurned some goal-kicking legends and it became a bit harrowing at times.

But eventually it was his knee that gave way again. He tried to come back a couple of times, but that was it. He played a few more games back in the VFA, then pulled the pin.

He’d never had much time for the glamor of the game and pined for a life away from the big smoke; maybe a place out in the bush where he could run a few cattle, enjoy the laid-back lifestyle – and continue teaching.

It was so blissful. Occasionally a journo would inquire whether he was missing the slaps on the back, bemused that he had ‘ridden off into the sunset’. But he was now totally absorbed in his new environment and watched on proudly, as his young bloke started to really blossom up forward.

He resumed playing cricket with the locals and became somewhat of a legend with the bat. Then, after some prompting, he was talked into doing some footy coaching and, at the ripe old age of 66, guided the side to a flag.

It was time to put the cue in the rack for good this time, despite the promptings of the players, who all loved the laconic, uncomplicated way that he could dissect the game.

No, it was the way he wanted it, to be just another face in the crowd.

 

 

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