A Good Way To Watch Footy

 

A Good Way to Watch Footy.

 

Nutsy and I pull up barstools at the tavern. He’s played well, but his groin is sore. His wife is well-pregnant. “Groin?” I had said, while we watched the seniors belt out an easy win in constant drizzle, then gave him every “too much pulling” joke ever thought of.

Nutsy was good Senior player in his day, and at 30 is an absolute champion Twos man, all voice and direction. He hits pack after pack, eyes for the ball, no longer fast enough to punch through to the other side, so bangs it forward time and again, like a damn foot-soldier.

We have a rapport on the field. I’ve almost doubled his stats some days, entirely because of him. He’s a smart footballer, knows where to be, how his teammates do things.

The barman’s called Damo. As soon as our eyes meet, he raises his brow at Nutsy.

G’day Old Dog. Will Greg be having a beer too? his look says.

I nod, as if replying: Damo, hi. Yes please.

These small things are golden. When he brings us the grog, we make it formal with howdy-dos.

“How’s the leg?” he asks.

“There,” I tell him.

“What did you actually do?”

“Fibula. The fracture went right through, but there’s no displacement.”

“So no finals?”

“We’ll see. Doc says eight, I’m aiming for four.”

“If ya don’t have dreams…” chuckles Nutsy.

“Anyways, happy birthday Old Dog,” Damo says, walking off without taking my money.

“How did he know?” I ask.

“It’s up on the chalk board in town.”

I grin and drink. Hilarious. It’s been several years. Looks like I’m finally a local.

The boys start filtering in from the clubrooms. They order grub, play pool, make noise. Stir up the one barfly.

Spread is drunk already. He plays Hilltop Hoods on the jukebox, shifting it to reach around back, cranking the volume.

“So pick a player, from tonight’s game!” I yell to Nutsy.

“For me or you?”

“Me.”

“Well, no Judd tonight.”

“Judd’s too obvious anyway.”

“Yeah, okay, Bryce Gibbs. But don’t screw me with Boyd or Griffen. They’re machines.”

“I’ll screw you with whoever I want. Robert Murphy.”

“Me and Bob? I’m happy with that.”

“Who wouldn’t be?” I tell him.

The game isn’t far off starting. A few actual, real-life, girls come in. We know them, they know all of us. Everything’s local. They drink hard and add to the place. I flag down Damo.

“Mate, money’s on the bar, keep the drinks coming. If I get drunk enough to try and play pool on this leg, or dance, or break it up when these clowns start fighting each other, cut me off. I wanna be right for finals.”

“Determined,” he smiles, giving us new ones. The players shuffle to their positions.

Murphy drifts to half-back; as always, Gibbs moves to Griffen. I don’t know if that’s good or bad for me. Griffen is the Bulldog’s pride. The game starts, Gibbs gets a touch early. Shit, here we go.

“Scull,” says Nutsy.

 

The Dogs get off to a bolter thanks mostly to Minson, in the ruck and at ground level, bullocking like Ben Hudson before him. Everyone thought he’d blow away this year, but he’s grown, playing angry, as if determined, week in, week out, to prove 3,000,000-odd people wrong. I’m glad for him.

Murphy gets a few, my mate sculls, Bryce gets a few, I do. “Yeah, baby!” says Nutsy. No-one else is watching the footy, not even Carlton supporters. Damo keeps them coming.

I wonder where a pub like this fits on the ratings? I mean, it’s a different game up there, on the telly. Entertainment. The boys have just played the real thing, and are following through on it, with no interest in the squeaky stuff beyond score-lines and bragging points. To them, on game days, it’s all two-dimensional.

Saturday nights are for living, pubs are for living. Fridays and bad Sunday hangovers are for watching footy.

The Doggies pull three in front, getting that sort of lead you wonder what all the fuss is? Surely, the game is this easy? It feels too good to be true, and never is, even though you want it to last forever.

We watch as Lake delivers to Bob, who goes to someone else, who cuts back to Bob who kicks down the ground. Two more sculls to Nutsy.

“Pretty boys shouldn’t tag!” he sooks. “Let Gibbs run free!” he demands of the telly.

That wasn’t like Bob. He doesn’t get many one-twos, the staple of most on-ballers. As a backman, he’s involved in less packs, runs straighter than them, penetrates further.

The Dogs get reeled in at the end of the first and pull away again in the second. It’s a weird game on paper, hard to predict. Carlton have so many out. But we’re not watching paper. Greg and I both know the commentators will be harping on about it, and what players aren’t doing, and should be doing, and skill errors, as if they’re whiny coaches. Proving their knowledge in a way that brings down the game. Thank Christ we can’t hear them.

We know the game, too.

Compared to what we play, it’s brilliant. Stupidly fast players finding targets with hand and foot while being slung in tackles. Pack after pack, the ball belts around like a pinball, before finally being punched out the back to a bloke that’s free.

There’s a rhythm to it. Chaos, a ricochet of tackles and handballs, and smooth order. All I really miss from the 70s are players who can mark the ball. But even that is often a Furphy. I miss players marking the ball. It’s not always the same thing. These days defenders are brilliant. Underrated.

You know what I like?” Nutsy asks, then tells me. “No away strip this week. How good is to see two traditional jumpers!”

He’s right, of course.

“I’m sick of seeing the home mob versus 22 umpires,” I agree with him. “The jumper is what we barrack for, damn it.”

This is how the AFL should be watched. Nutsy and I will form our own opinions.

Every now and then the songs on the jukebox run out. I call over my shoulder.

“Spread! Music!” and, cut as ten men, wherever he is, the Senior forward pocket puts Hilltop Hoods on again.

A few of the boys go to my ute to nick some firewood I cut and loaded on one leg to raise money for the footy trip. Pissed, they try to light full logs with used bingo tickets, then blame me when it doesn’t happen.

“Dog, your wood’s green!” they roar.

“Raffling green wood!”

“Reflects bad on all of us!”

“Up the lota ya,” I snap, then go get some thinner stringy bark that you could light with a fart, dump it between the potbelly and the pool table, then go back to the footy.

“Gibbs got two more while you were away, old boy!” Nutsy says.

He’s a great mate, the best.

“You’re full of shit, it’s half time!” I tell him.

“Haha, yeah, maybe!” he says, clicking his false teeth in and out while grinning at me.

He lost his front row this year. There was a bouncing ball, he charged, as hard as he could, like always. The kid coming the other way ducked his head, it smacked into Nutsy’s face.

He played out the game, said: “She’ll be right, mate.”, cracked a joke or two. Smiled for some damn ugly photos.

I’ve played a lot of footy with Greg now. He was there in my first flag for the club. Was in the Ones next year, when we both got the call up. When, at 43, I won my first senior flag after 28 years of heartache. Then, the year after, slipped back into the McGoos with me.

“Last week. The leg, when did you know?” he asks.

“The second I broke it,” I tell him.

I came back on, standing full-forward. We cam from behind and won by a point with 30 seconds to spare, giving us a shot at a double chance for the finals.

“Didn’t want to bring the mood down so snuck off after dinner at the sponsor’s pub, went to the hospital on Sunday to confirm it.”

“Drove in?”

“Third gear, all the way from the mountain. Clutch was a bastard.”

“Doggy,” he croons, then laughs.

When word spread, Nutsy was first on the phone. Brought around an exercise bike to help with my recovery, shared a beer.

It’s not true what they say. A flag isn’t everything, playing is. Trying. The blokes you won it with, some go to other clubs, others you see again somewhere down the line as if it’s no big thing.

But the ones you like, a Premiership locks that shit in. You become rock-solid mates forever.

 

The music stops again as the 3rd quarter starts. The pub has a ripper sway to it now. Everybody is well on the way. Even the coach is here. Spread goes to put on the Hilltop Hoods for the eleventh time, but trips over the unused firewood like all those playing pool before him. A few of the boys have drifted behind the bar, the girls are dancing. Damo keeps serving while the owner, a worn-out, big, bald Hungarian, tries to keep up with all of us.

Bob gets the ball on the half back line, dodging one, under the pump, he delivers the most perfect kick you’ll see to a bloke who can’t help but mark it, even though he’s under the hammer. It’s so crisp it makes me horny. Hird had it in patches, but I haven’t enjoyed watching the skills of a player that much since Darren Bewick.

“Ohh, look at that!” Nutsy says of Murphy, as he does it again.

“I figured if you’re going to go down drinking, it may as well be thanks to somebody worthy.”

“Good one, Doggy,” Nutsy says, downing another.

His eyes are rolling. He played hard today, there’s not much left of him.

Carlton are taking over. We get that sinking feeling that Footscray supporters live with. That ‘honourable loss’ groove they have no choice but to slot into. That they knew about as babies when their parents signed them up for all this pain and working class glory. This Pride, that teams with money get in Premierships.

When Griffen goes down with a hammie, it’s not over yet, but it’s over. Free of a player more talented than him, Bryce goes forward to kick two.

Nutsy bangs his glass on the bar.

“Spirit shots for goals! Yeah, baby!” he hollers.

“Fuck ya,” I say and down them.

We wobble and bump into people, but I’m determined to watch out the game.

The Bulldogs don’t have a forward-line. Same as always. They get the pill, run well, then, nothing. The ball bounces outta there like a bored teenager’s yo-yo. In this Eddy Betts is the difference. Both teams have their jets, their triers, but with only about 12 touches, and two goals, Eddy has that touch of brilliance, of time and space and timing, that bit of imagination other players don’t.

Screw the stats!

The Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean look-a-like finishes off about four goals for Footscray. Good on him, he’s a go-er, but he has nowhere near the same impact as Baggypants. Eddy makes things happen from nothing.

Lake, the best defender in the League, bar none, goes down trying, like a battleship, taking blows, steamrolling forward. He’s done his bit, as always, marked everything, played with stroppy grit.

“I’m sick of full-backs from the top team always winning All-Australian! It shouldn’t be allowed! They have support! The ball comes in less, and messier!” I protest. “Spread! Put that damn crap song on again!”

“You love it!” he calls over the zoo of arms and legs behind me.

I hate the tune, and am sick to death of it. We all are, even Spread.That’s why it’s funny.

“Throw Murphy forward!” Nutsy screams at the telly. “The game needs winning, not saving!”

“I hear ya!”

“It’s Paul Roos and Fitzroy all over again. Bob could be anything in a team not always trying to not lose.”

“Fitzroy,” I sob. “Don’t get me started.”

There’s not much longer to go, but Nutsy and I are finding it too hard to look up at the telly, so, hunched, red-faced, we talk to each other, calling out Bob or Bryce’s names occasionally.

I notice, on the final siren, some kid kicking a sausage for Carlton to finish the game with a comfy-looking a three-goal margin.

For shit’s sake! The Doggies are even denied their honourable loss score-line.

I stagger outside, into the sweet, bitter cold drizzle, to get some air, only to find the rest of the pub sucking out with me. A couple of the boys are wrestling over something. Everybody does the Saturday night carpark dance then drifts on up to the clubrooms to start their night proper.

When I limp on back in, Nutsy is still propping up the bar. My great mate. Gibbs and Murphy did their jobs, as best they could, but neither killed it. Yarran, with that incredible line-and-spirit-breaking pace pipped both of them.

“A draw,” slurs Nutsy.

Damo comes over and has a knock-off with us, while we try to get it together enough to go up the road. We talk local footy, me and partner in crime on the field, Nutsy. Soon, he’ll be having a baby. I’ll be there for the head-wetting. I would not have met him but for footy.

Other than us and the barfly, the place is empty.

 

Comments

  1. Just brilliant

  2. Ben Footner says:

    Great read, loved it!

  3. Malby Dangles says:

    Great stuff Matty. Loved the insight on yr home town and their take on AFL. Glad to see that you appreciate Eddie Betts, one of the few Blues whose maintained a high standard this year. His work around the ground and deep forward is brilliant. Carn the Blues!

  4. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Loved it old dog and your right winning Premierships isn’t everything playing is .
    Well I will change that as some 1 who is too old to play involvement is ! I look 4wd to the inaugural night game at Uni oval ( Bob Neil number 1 ) and catching up with guys which is what footy is really all about . As the afl game in style , cost , rule changes , and beliefs ( lack of ) you and I are on the same page , mateship and amatuer footy is real Thanks Matt

  5. Matt Zurbo says:

    Too easy. Thank you, Mal!

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