“How long will it take to get to Marshall Station?” my wife asked. “25 minutes. I did it for years. Definitely 25,” I responded assertively. There was a brief pause and she knew exactly what I was about to say. “Umm, I think it could be 35 minutes.” I put my foot to the floor and was thankful that Sleepy Hollow was still asleep early on a Saturday morning. Perhaps the local Cats fans were in hiding after a despairing loss to the Hawks the night before. Nevertheless we arrived at Marshall Station in suburban Geelong, with a couple of minutes to spare.
My ten-year-old son, Max, and I were about to board a Warrnambool-bound train. Ahead of us was the Hampden Football Netball League Grand Final between the first-placed Koroit Saints and a vastly experienced Warrnambool Blues outfit, who had played in the previous five grand finals and the good fortune to be hosting the 2013 renewal on their home turf.
Young Max had set the agenda a few weeks earlier when issuing his Father’s Day gift. To my delight he surprised me with a hand-made gift voucher offering the bearer to be accompanied by himself to any country footy league grand final anywhere in the state, a kind of ‘boys day out’. Max developed a bourgeoning knowledge of country footy leagues through the course of the 2013 season, and even seemed to adopt a team of his own in certain leagues. He was equally excited about the prospect of going somewhere, but still, he left it to me. I chose the Hampden League.
Heading through most parts of the state in late winter/early spring will always reveal lush, green, fertile pastures. Victoria’s south-west offers photosynthetic greenery that is the envy of others. You’d be hard pressed to find someone unable to be drawn by the aesthetic appeal of a clear blue sky against a thick, emerald floor – just beautiful. Farms were dotted with all sorts of stock, mainly cows, of varying breeds. There were countless, well-designed properties girt by neat hedge-lines and imported pines. It made me think of pioneering pastoralists with an English bent. Masses of stacked woodpiles awaiting pre-summer bonfires appeared consistently throughout the journey. Their fate was not far away as we headed deeper into spring.
My son’s warm, Father’s Day Gift was bound by a book titled Footy Town, Stories of Australia’s Greatest Game. I drew the text from my backpack and sifted through the delightful introductions and opening chapters, and was drawn in by the resonance they offered. My son glanced across at me, bemused by my audible reactions to various anecdotes.
The expansive Lake Colac appeared to our right. This revived memories of my mother’s hometown of Beeac slightly to the north. I’d enjoyed pleasant ventures in recent years to the Irrewarra Oval, home of Irrewarra/Beeac FNC, the Bombers. Unfortunately, the Bombers’ premiership window had well and truly shut after a stellar period that drew three premierships from 2008 to 2010. This once mighty outfit was experiencing the obligatory downturn after its moment in the sun.
Max initially occupied his journey by sifting through footy cards but soon switched to a Ruth Starke novel about an eclectic mix of young cricketers. Max is an avid Sydney Swan, the two of us experiencing the joy of the Swans fifth flag at the MCG last year. However, the writing was on the wall for young Max and he knew his team was on the nose. Already the cricket gear had come out at home and his current novel spoke volumes about where his mind was at – Specky Magee out, NIPS XI in. I too can comprehend his disenchantment as I myself watched my beloved Cats disappear from contention the night before. The lengthy venture to Warrnambool was to be the perfect antidote to a gut-wrenching loss; a way of managing the misery of seeing a Curse broken, and a team departed.
With Colac behind us, the quality of scenery varied little. The Otway Ranges to the south ascend in the distance. I could look at them all day. But Footy Town had me otherwise occupied. I read and took notes on my iPhone for a potential writing piece of my own. The opening chapter of the book detailed Terry Chapman’s foray into football, Millewa Football League-style. He talked of his eye-opening introduction to the Werrimull Magpies and mused about time out of the game; and his lack of impact on the field.
Cloud cover emerged as we trekked out of Camperdown and consequently the temperature felt a little cooler. This looked a little more like footy weather, which contrasted the next chapter of Footy Town. I read Sean Gorman’s account of meeting Maurice Rioli on the islands north of Darwin. It made me feel like I was in shorts, a T-shirt and bare feet, playing footy on the grass with dozens of Tiwi Islanders. I do hope to get there one day. I found Rioli’s staggering account of stepping aside as coach of a group of less-than-supportive footballers absolutely amazing. To have taken over as coach from a disgruntled, outgoing coach mid-season only to be overthrown thirty minutes before a grand final by the players and the returning coach, to be one of the most astonishing accounts of mutiny in football I’ve ever heard. Another account within the chapter I found much more confronting was hearing the name Cyril Rioli, grandfather of the current Hawthorn star. The previous night’s Preliminary Final loss reared its ugly head again.
I joked with Max that we attend Terang Harness as an alternative to the forthcoming football match but he glanced at me scornfully. Terang township loomed ahead as the trots track disappeared behind us. At Terang Station I leered through the window enthusiastically in search of any support from local, diehard, Terang/Mortlake Bloods supporters. It wasn’t forthcoming but what became evident was that any presently-absent support was currently at the U18.5 Grand Final watching their future stars taking on Portland’s young tykes. We checked the final score when we arrived at the ground. The Bloods won by 13 points. The train was making an obvious descent as we rolled down into town. We were close to “The ‘Bool” now.
Max and I stroll from the train station, through town and up to Reid Oval, an expansive football ground suited to teams that spread well and run all day. We arrived at halftime of the Cobden v Camperdown Reserves final. The Magpies backline was valiant and continually repelled any Cobden advance. The Bombers earned a hard-fought, 10-point win in the end. While presentations and songs were sounding out from the dais, Max and I got a feel for the conditions on the oval. The surface had a nice cushion but was not abundantly damp or soft. In racing parlance it was a Good 3. A healthy kick-to-kick ensued. Max carefully slotted his first ever goal at Reid Oval and proudly declared his milestone. The players were called in for the national anthem. I’m not terribly patriotic but I found the crackling, mono-quality recording a little more homely and quite agreeable. The Warrnambool sun belied the forecast and had quite a kick in it. It gleaned on Koroit’s traditional St. Kilda strip, likewise for Warrnambool’s navy blue jumper which possessed an interlocking ‘W.F.C’.
The Saints kicked with a slight breeze toward the town end in the first quarter and broke the deadlock with a classy opener. The Blues peppered the goals but only managed a couple of minors before getting their first goal. The Saints made them pay by getting the next two goals. There was a hint of nerves, evident by a few fumbles. Only a few passages here and there opened up the play. Koroit led by nine points at quarter-time.
The Blues came out running in the second quarter and thanks to some poor discipline from the Saints, the Blues hit back to lead by 15 points midway through the second quarter. Koroit’s lack of leg-speed became obvious as the Blues held onto a slightly more convincing 13-point lead at half-time.
In the lead up to the AFL finals series, Max made a grand announcement. “I have a theory,” he boldly declared in a forthright, room-quietening announcement. “If teams have the same or similar amount of scoring shots, the team who kicks straighter will probably win. Such wisdom from a ten-year-old. Max’s Theory was ringing true at the long break. Koroit 4-10-34 Warrnambool 7-5-47.
The halftime festivities moved into full swing. To Max’s chagrin, no-one was allowed on the oval. The ‘Kick the footy into the back of the ute sponsored by a local car dealer comp’ was about to start. A dozen or more lucky, local contestants fought it out to win $5000 from a local car mob if they could land the footy on the full in the back of the ute from about forty metres away. Only one contestant came close, however, his errant kick took an Angus Monfries’ like turn for the better and despite hitting the turf first, his ball hit the ute floor after one bounce. The ignorant MC, who lacked the presence of mind to play the crowd, immediately and quite carelessly declared the kick invalid. Hoots and hollers followed before common sense prevailed. The local car dealer sponsoring the event ushered forward and awarded the cash prize to the should-be winner. The crowd applauded, football’s the winner.
The third quarter began with Koroit relying on too few. The Blues burst out of the blocks and were full of run while Koroit lacked pace, run, spread and possession. The Blues eased out to a healthy 25-point lead, into a slight breeze midway through the third quarter.
Ground announcements have been part and parcel of sporting events for decades. Reid Oval, quite rightly, kept the result-thirsty crowd up to date with scores from both netball and football all day. On the subject of staying informed, Max declared the HFNL Footy Record as the best he had ever seen, and I agreed.
The Blues broke and spread across Reid Oval like it was their home ground and the semi-final-winning Saints were found out for being too one-dimensional, reliant on a few talls to get them back in the hunt. The Blues kicked majors into the wind and practically stymied all of Koroit’s forays forward. The Blues backline had been the proverbial ‘Gibraltar’ all day. Warrnambool led by 25-points at three-quarter-time. Max’s theory was still at work. Koroit 5-13-43 Warrnambool 10-8-68.
The final quarter got under way with dark clouds rolling in off Lady Bay. Bathed in sunshine in the first half, patrons were mindful that they might soon seek refuge in the packed stands. There seemed to be little change in the game’s direction however. After an early arm-wrestle, Warrnambool ran rampant. The Blues proved too strong when they extended their lead to 36 points. Any illusions of a fight-back were pricked and the atmosphere was sullied. For those not sporting navy blue, the match was reduced to a social occasion. Spotfires of conversation swelled though the air and were an unwelcome distraction. In the end, it was a comfortable win, but the shots-at-goal tally revealed a sorry tale. Warrnambool 13-11-89 defeated Koroit 6-16-52. Max’s theory comes to the fore.
The heavens opened when the victory dais was wheeled out. But the game was over. Rain would bear no havoc on the event other than usher officialdom into action. The Blues shook hands with their opponents and gathered as one. They twice sang a rousing, guttural rendition of their theme song. The ground announcer’s earnest pleading for their attendance at the ceremony had no effect. The Saints were dejected. When you finish on top and lose to a team you defeated three times in a season, including the semi-final a fortnight earlier, you’re never going to take a loss too well.
Max wanted to kick the footy on Reid Oval for one last time but we had a train to catch. We trudged back through a dampened Warrnambool town shielded by ponchos and an umbrella. The train departed Warrnambool with a delightful rainbow arched above the Hopkins River and out to sea. It was a fabulous sight and an enjoyable day. What a wonderful Father’s Day gift. What a wonderful son.
At home, I sifted through various other country footy league grand final scores from the day. I discovered with much delight that Werrimull Magpies won the Millewa FL Grand Final by 38 points. I smiled and wondered if Terry Chapman was there.