NQ

Pockets does an accidental impersonation of The Last Supper

 

 

There are green tree frogs all over the shower walls. The club has new rooms, but we change in the old cinderblock ones. They’re closer to the oval, built full of gaps, which, in the stifling Queensland sub-tropics, let air in. I like that lack of pretense, the simplicity.

 

One of the frogs moves towards my beer, perched on top of the shower wall. Behind them, dusk filters with the smoke of burning sugar cane, making the sky rusty, framing a rising moon. This will forever be my image of football in Queensland.

 

The league up here is strange. A lot of Army boys, moustaches everywhere. Tradies and uni students. Ex Tasmanians, Croweaters, Victorians. Everybody comes from somewhere, has a story.

 

The Army blokes are always ‘out in the bush’; on assignment, weeks at a time. Many of the workers have transient trades. The line-up changes every week. We have no Under 16s, every week we lose by 15 goals. But there’s a pride here that’s palpable in the true believers that nut it out. Who make you want to stay and make it all work; the team, the juniors, the club.

 

People like Pockets. Likable, always wanting to stay out and do more. He started with the team that plays on the adjoining oval, with its two story clubrooms and lawn bowls surface, its sea of players in team merchandise.

 

After five junior flags in a row he came to our poorly lit ground, 200 metres and a world away. “Why not, even up the competition a bit?” he jokes.

 

But that’s exactly why he did it, and why I like him so much. Now, every game is an adventure, a challenge. A back-flanker dealing with a barrage of incoming, playing on the ball, down forward, CHB on giants.

 

Pockets is one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, a bit introverted, yet he has that pride that doesn’t need volume.

 

So much about the footy team reminds be of my first club, 36 years ago – never winning, the best blokes. A coach, full of heart-on-sleeve passion, yelling “DO IT FOR THE JUMPER!”.

 

A club that no longer exists, from a league that no longer exists, from a way of life that’s hard to find now. Back then, it was all crims, meatworkers, boiler makers. Two-up with the truckies in the changerooms, a small oval squeezed between the tip, a blackberry-filled creek and the wood mill.

 

Team colours were for playing in. Training, drinking, any other time you wore whatever shade of flanno you wanted. None of us knew the national anthem. We were proud Aussies, laconic. That thump up ya bum stuff was American.

 

I miss it, still. It taught me about life.

 

Yet here, in Northern Queensland, somehow, the guts of it remains. The ten or twelve of us who give a damn forming a bond on Tuesdays, hanging around talking about bugger-all after training, because there’s nowhere else we’d rather be.

 

Because beers earned is football.

 

Come Saturday we play, try our guts out and lose by 15 goals. A M.A.S.H unit, covering wounds. When you’re losing by so much it can be hard to tell who’s giving their soul. In the end you figure it out, though.

 

It is so easy to be motivated when you’re shooting for flags. The blokes who give everything, every minute, to save one goal, even a point, from our score-line have character I am envious of.

 

I know that’s just pride rattling with my brain. Imposing. But sometimes to win you first have to learn how to hate to lose.

 

After the game I watch us in the rooms, the defeated. Tick boxes. K.P would chop off an arm. Pockets, Muz. Mitch. Names that would mean nothing to you, but go into my Hall of Fame. There, never to be forgotten. Standing against tides. Cal, Sticks, Whiskey, Zac…

 

Injury and deployments have gutted the team. Those of us left, our skill level is what it is. In the end all you can gauge by is desire.
We shower, then hit the sponsor’s hotel. He’s an old school publican in charge of an old school pub. Queensland big, with five kids, generous nature and short fuse. Everything about his place is high ceilings and bare walls – a horseshoe bar, stupidly cheap meals, beer. I love it all. It feels like home.

 

Sydney are on the telly, winning a close one. I try to watch, but my mate Dean isn’t running around. It makes caring hard.

 

The baby is getting restless. One of the three barflies looks across from looking at nothing.

 

“Bedtime been and gone?” she asks.

 

“A rare counter meal with the boys,” I tell her. “We’ll be heading home soon.”

 

For now, Elena needs both hands to eat, so I walk our child through the heat, onto the poorly lit street outside. All the boys are sitting at the footpath tables now, in the perfect blood temperature dark, making noise, winding up to Saturday glory. I watch Elena through the open pub door as she eats. We do everything together. Everything. It seems strange to see her from so far.

 

She knows this is what I am, and is here for us. Always. At training, the full game days. The three hour round trip just to get to training, All that time on the road. We talk about Venezuela, I learn Spanish, we write songs for our child.

 

Our ruckman, Spider, despite the nickname, looks just like Max Gawn. Him and bearded Whisky are giving each other lazy shit as if campfires were involved.

 

They wear the traits of being a Queenslander without even realising it; the laziness of shorts and thongs all year round. The headset that installs. I wonder if any of the team realise how lucky they are? That they rule the fucking world!

 

I look at our baby, its perfect, tiny hands, its forever curious eyes. Doing so fills me with an insane love, every time! It’s a good moment to start the long drive home.If the baby’s sleeping maybe we’ll stop with a beer or two at the $10 drive-in for half an hour. Surround ourselves with four or five other lonely utes, sugar cane fields, superheroes and stars.

 

The highway is straight, empty. On our rare days off there’s nothing to do but roam, and just maybe, when we drive long enough down gravel back roads, to horizons, find a mountain or two where the sugar cane stops and mining begins, a glorious old pub with brass railings, drizzle and mist, but never any AFL. Not while walking the baby through paddocks carved from volcanic rock. Not splashing with her in swimming holes fed by fresh water rapids. Never on the telly above the bar.

 

This is North Queensland.

 

My jaw is a bit sore from a barney today. Back in the city all strings would have been cut by now, the boys in glorious free-fall. I tell Elena we should watch a local rugby game before work takes us even further north, into the tropics. “Sure”, she says. “Bueno!” as the road rolls.

 

I’m still playing, but, for now, have left footy’s fishbowl.

 

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Comments

  1. Brin Paulsen says:

    Thanks Matt, wonderfully written and absolutely sensational! Pieces like this are what drew me into the Almanac in the first place (and what made Footy Town such a brilliant book).

    I think you’ve hit on that special quality of being part of a playing group that gets flogged more often than it wins. You’ve captured that sense of togetherness, being around your mates and have a crack that for most players, most seasons, is the general state of the game. The Army has a lot to answer for when it comes to lopsided results in Queensland footy.

    Given how cold it is in Melbourne, all your talk of all-year shorts and thongs weather almost makes me miss Queensland…

    Enjoy the tropics

  2. Yvette Wroby says:

    Love hearing how your little family is going and once again, you tell a great story about life and community. Big hugs

  3. Old Dog, The North is getting a hold of you. This is one of many terrific observations:

    They wear the traits of being a Queenslander without even realising it; the laziness of shorts and thongs all year round…I wonder if any of the team realise how lucky they are?

    It’s a different world Up North. And, as you know, at once, it’s the same.

    The photo is genius.

    All the best to you and Elena and your bub Ciela who may just be a Queenslander. What a blessing!

    All the best to you and yours.

  4. Rulebook says:

    Well played,Old Dog completely agree re playing in a team which gets hammered each week quite often you form much closer bonds sounds like you are developing in to a banana bender have fun

  5. Yes love that photo.

  6. Easy reading as always brother!

  7. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    Wow, Matt. I just get completely transported reading your pieces. I even began to think that the hot water bottle currently on my lap in Sydney was the warmth of the setting sun at one of those outside tables. The proxy journeys I take with you and your little family soothe my forever restlessness. And then ignite it like a wildfire when I’m finished.

    This really does embody the spirit of doing for the sake of doing – play, work, family, love – cause it’s being human. And kind. Humankind. Many thanks.

    The description of the publican is gold!

  8. Colin Ritchie says:

    Fab reading as always Matt!

  9. Matt Zurbo says:

    Thanks all. Nice to be back.

  10. Welcome back, Old Dog. This piece was certainly worth the wait. Love it.

    “None of us knew the national anthem. We were proud Aussies, laconic.”
    These lines, so simple, have a depth which say so much…

  11. Brilliant Matt. Great to have you back on here.

    I’m intrigued by the Friday Goose Club- 7pm reference on the blackboard in the photo. Can you or anyone else explain?

  12. Footy in the North will always be about the four blokes who would ‘train’ Tuesday and Thursday at the Mission Beach State School Oval for their games in Cairns on the weekend. A round trip of 400km, or more if playing Port Douglas. If it was raining, didn’t make any difference because 5 minutes was enough to have you sweating bullets anyway. Those blokes were ‘core’.

    You did it again Matt. After coaching the pup to a 1 point Premiership last year, footy is off the agenda this year. Without the ‘investment’ my interest in AFL has waned to the point where I’ve only made it through about 3 games in total. But this speaks to me. Thanks!

    Mickey, Goose Club is a kind of raffle set up to draw in a pack of regulars to buy a ticket or number on a board. Random number is chosen, winner is a grinner, or if not present jackpots next week.

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