We sit around the kitchen table at dinner-time. Yelling. Discussing sport. Arguing. Laughing. Fighting. Passing around the yoghurt for the curry. My wife and I watching three teenage boys waging a never-ending battle of testosterone-fuelled one-upmanship.
Talk inevitably turns to personal sporting endeavours. And – more often than not – footy is the focus. The two older brothers engaging in a familiar verbal wrestle and it is a lions’ den into which I never dare venture. Who has kicked the most goals? Who has kicked the most spectacular goal? Who has kicked the most important goal? I leave it to them to work out. When this discussion begins, my youngest son Luke laughs along but falls silent. For as much as he would love to, he knows he cannot be involved in this banter: in four seasons of football, he has never kicked a goal.
I am mildly surprised when Luke approaches me a couple of months prior to the season and announces that, after a year away from the game, he has decided to again pull on the boots. He tells me that the club is struggling to field two teams in the Under-14s; a couple of his mates have been in his ear about coming to training. And for him, that is what it is all about. Just playing footy with his mates. He barely has a competitive bone in his body, and whilst – like every other kid – he enjoys winning more than losing, what is most appealing to him is the social aspect. I am happy, because each minute he spends at training on a Tuesday and Thursday night and playing on a Sunday, is one less minute spent in front of a television screen or laptop computer.
He knows he is a battler. His marking and general ball-handling skills have improved over time due to basketball, which remains his number one love. And he has some size about him. In the old days, Luke would have been referred to as a “follower”, lumbering around the ground across half-back, a kick behind the play, and then trying desperately to get to the ball-up when the umpire’s whistle blows. It suits me fine. I can just go along on the weekend and enjoy the game, not having to concern myself with the parental politics of selection.
Luke’s Under-14 C team is a group of battlers, consisting mainly of kids who play purely for the love of the game, more interested in chatting with mates at quarter time than listening to the coach’s instructions. There are a handful of handy players in the group, all willing themselves on to “A” team selection. And as such, they cop some heavy defeats. Defeats which are tough to watch from the boundary line, despite the fact that the majority of players aren’t all that fussed. It becomes a long season.
But – fortunately for my son and his team-mates – there is another team in the same boat as the Williamstown Juniors Under-14 C’s.
The contemporary junior player has ready on-line access to ladders and results, so the team is acutely aware that today’s match against Albanvale is a chance to post a win. The pre-game banter is an octave higher, with the footy pinging around the change-room at speeds I did not think this group capable of. A seasoned observer might even say they are “On”.
Under dark and threatening skies, the match follows what for our boys has been an unfamiliar course this season: five goals up at the first break, even further ahead at half-time. Luke has been “serviceable” in the ruck, but in the third term he is moved to full-forward. Dale the coach, who is more than aware that Luke has never troubled the scorers, issues clear instructions: “Kick it long to Luke and let him use his size.”
Both teams have tired considerably, and the match becomes an ugly scramble befitting the two bottom teams. However, toward the end of the quarter, our boys string together an attractive passage of handballing out of defence; the ball is then kicked long to a leading Luke, who juggles a chest-mark twenty-five metres out from goal. Fortuitously, he is kicking directly toward my regular vantage-point behind the goals.
As he determinedly strides back to take his shot, I text his mother, who is overseas on a business trip. “L is lining up 30 out frm gl” The response arrives as our son is pulling up his socks: “I am nervous”.
He nervously, gingerly, steps toward goal, careful not to make a huge blunder. Kicking into the man on the mark with your first ever set shot would be disastrous. If not memorable. He releases the footy with that awkward, unique double-handed ball drop of his. The kick tumbles toward the goals. It never looks like missing, passing through the big sticks two-thirds of the way up. I was surprised at the length of the kick, but then again he usually hand-balls when he gains possession. He jogs back to the goal-square in his understated way, acknowledging the back-slaps but determined not to make a big show of it all.
My phone rings. “He kicked it, didn’t he? Of all the matches I miss, it has to be this one. Bugger.” The hidden inference is that he may never kick another goal.
At the three-quarter time huddle, he glances at me and raises an eyebrow as if to say “What did you think of that?”
The plates are being cleared. The arguments starting over whose turn it is to do the washing-up. With a new season about to start, we are also talking plenty of footy. “What’s the best goal you have ever seen, dad?”
I talk about Ablett, Blight, Carey, all the great goals I have been lucky enough to witness. I join in the spruiking, and announce that some of my own were pretty handy. Silently though, not wanting to embarrass him in front of his brothers, I reckon that the greatest goal I have ever seen was kicked by a 13 year old on a weed-infested school football oval. From 25 metres out.