Off Season Odyssey Part 4 – The “G”

 

by Matt Zurbo

 

Jack’s in a band. He plays social footy, and fills in with a suburban team now and them. They call him The Butcher. More for the way he kicks than anything.

“How was the Tassie west coast?” he asks.

“Brilliant,” I say. “Lonely. There just aren’t any people down there. I ended up parking the ute on remote beaches, and went for a few pre-season runs, rock islands and surf everywhere.”

It was like I was there forever, as if it went forever, then there was a boat and I was on the mainland.

We’re greeted at the gate by a super friendly bloke called Simon, early, before the place is open. As if we’re being snuck in wearing cleaners uniforms. I doubt the higher ups know about this.

Good on him.

When you ring, the message says “Welcome to the MCG: The People’s Ground.”

Who are they kidding? No-one. It’s bigger than that. It’s The GROUND. Full stop. Enormous in size, responsibility, commitments.

“Jesus,’ I say to Jack when we’re walking through. “It’s larger than most towns I’ve lived in!”

“Something this huge would have it’s own community,” Jack says. “They should have their own footy team.”

“They’d all be suits and dusty old cleaners, it would be murder,” I tell him.

“You kidding?” he says. “You know how many people working here would have been players who want to stay involved in the elite level?”

“It would be a strange mix,” I say, which we agree on.

When I walk out onto it -a broken down, over 40, Two’s player from the bush- the surface is perfect. I mean, just, damn perfect! Even, Arian grass. Not a dint, not a ripple. It doesn’t feel like grass underfoot. It doesn’t feel like soil.

Simon tells us it’s been cut to half its length for cricket.

Whatever, I hug it, hump it, kiss it, then, for a warm up, do a few footy card poses.

Bartell baulking. Barry Cable scooping the pill off the ground. Diesel punching out a handball. Ling, scragging, Pratt marking.

I go for a jog.

Find memories and legends.

 

Just off the wing, nowhere near the forward-line, I see Peter Matera bolt by me to kick all those running goals of his.

The coach’s boxes, the old wooden ones, now gone, when I squint right, still seem to be there. I can see Barassi as a Grand Final coach, going troppo on the boundary when the final siren goes. Yabbie, Norm Smith, Jack Dyer, even Chocko Williams using his tie to neck himself. Everybody’s hands in the air! Everybody hugging and backslapping. From fat, old runners to Presidents.

In the middle, Ablett’s out-marking Essendon. All of them. In the backline Nankervis passes to Nankervis. On the other wing, Fitzroy’s Flea is taking out Jimmy Jess with a perfect shirtfront. On the flank, one quarter later, Mick Malthouse is getting even by knocking out Mick Conlon. He was always “One of ours goes down, one of theirs goes down.” A born back pocket.

I’ve played enough footy to picture it from where I’m standing. Things look different from out on the oval.

I walk over Paul Kelly’s kick as it falls two inches short of Lockett and a Premiership. I see Roos, Fitzroy jumper on, in a pack, sick of losing, wind his foot so far back it touches his ear, then let loose the angriest torp ever, only for it to smack into Osbourn’s head, knocking him out instantly, the ball ricocheting straight up, thirty meters into the air. I see the magic of any given Rioli.

I see Balme beat up Carlton. I see honest battlers like Taubert, like Manson, like Round. I see every ruckman. I see a red-head called McLean playing one of his about eight games for St.Kilda.

I see Lounder kick four on debut, and never be heard of again, and wonder how he felt about that? Does he resent it, the anti-climax, or does he still tap into that first game, monstering marks in the goal square, whenever he needs to feel invincible?

I dodge my old mate, big Len Thompson. Young and strong and running. Always running. Good on you, Len! We had some good times, despite the age difference. Great to bump into you again. I thought the absolute world of you.

To me, Len, when you were out on the ground was the only time you looked truly at home. That, and brushing your daughter’s long, red hair in that small flat of yours.

I drift towards the goal square, where Andy Goodwin, possibly the last old school battler to play at that level, went out swinging in a Reserves Grand Final. I trip on all the streamers and torn up phone books and rolls of dunny paper which were a part of a backman’s lot in the 60s.

From the middle, I see myself, in the crowd, watching Fitzroy’s last game in Melbourne, goddamn it. Yet it wasn’t as sad a day as I thought it might be. There were red faces everywhere, but joy, too. It was almost a celebration. We were there, in the moment. So were out Royboys. We mourned later, at home, when we were alone again.

When I squint, I see mud! Glorious mud! And all the players who ruled it. I see every boggy ball-up that people complained about, but to me was football.

Not a thing is left of the old paddock that started it all. Not one grain of soil. Not a piece of timber. But it’s all out there, when you’re out there.

I see that back pocket for Melbourne, Neil Crompton, following his man forward in ‘64 Grand Final, to accidently kick the winning goal. Back pockets never left the back pocket in those days. Word was the crowd laughed as he jogged back to his post. I try to hear it, to feel it.

Right down to the white picket fences.

Man, the memories are everywhere! Billy Picken takes a hanger in the rain. Stephen Mount, an honest Richmond player from the early 80s pushes through one too many games in the Twos. Chocko Royal, what a servant! Bobby Skilton. Schimma! Bourke! Barrot! Clay!

Tilt Carter, Judd, McLoud, always McLoud, running with grace and power. Ricciuto showing no mercy. Dawson, surviving all the arrows. Good ya Zac! You’ve got one fan, anyway. I stand Coleman. Try to tag Pendlebury.

I’m beside Langford after Hawthorn beat Melbourne in the last home-and-away game of the year, defiantly going up to his supporters, taking his jumper off and fiercely shaking it at them with all his pride and passion, while another Hawk champion stayed quiet about the merger.

 

I baulk a pack that’s not there, just like Crazyhorse.

 

The oval it thick with skin and the colour of jumpers.

 

Above all else, of all things, I see, as if I’m the umpire, that Footscray kid in the Little League, bending down to do up his boot lace, only to have another kid take a specky over him.

 

Simon’s come with us onto the oval, he thinks we’re just going to take a few photos and move on, job done. But it’s not a job. Jack and I keep lobbing the ball to each other.

It feels good, like training warm ups. Simple training. It’s not about the crowd. It’s about playing at this level, as if this is your home, your workplace.

The training I can picture easy. It’s the training I’m jealous of. The work. The everyday of it.

 

“I want to re-enact them all,” I tell Jack. “Farmer’s mark, Bartlett’s goal against Melbourne that was so freakish the umpire called it on the full…”

I leap as if getting out of the way as Harms slides towards the boundary, fist swinging at the pigskin. Jack laughs as if he knows what I’m doing.

“Let’s do Jacko!” he tells me.

“You’re on,” I say.

But, before I can draw Kelvin Moore’s moe on him, I see Simon’s looking toey. The corporates are coming to work. Time for us to vanish again.

 

That’s fine. Memories are sweet, but living’s the thing. Being a part of something. It was great stopping off to see Big Daddy, to stand on the mighty, new thing, built over the once-mighty, old thing, that was built, well over 100 years ago, over a paddock, having a run, dicking around with the footy. Well worth the two day dent it put in my journey.

It boggles the mind, all that concrete, all that engineering, to give 100,00 people a better view of a small, air-bloated pigskin, and a fistful of men who’ve dedicated their lives to chasing it.

It carries history, and bristles with energy and strength of here and now, and the future.

This place, the MCG, the birth of Australian Rules Football.

 

 

But it is not my history. I love the place, and worship and respect it, and wouldn’t trade one game of bush or suburban footy I’ve played for it. No these days, not for the longest time. My dreams have changed a little.

 

Jack’s as happy as Larry as we leave. He’s like that with his music, too. Expects nothing, just digs it. Outside we take a few photos of each other taking speckies over the statues, just to prove to ourselves we’re dickheads. Landing on concrete isn’t easy.

“Jeez it was great of Simon to slip us in like that,” Jack says.

It was. Just fantastic. In cricket season and all. Good on him!

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Andrew Starkie says:

    Beautiful

  2. Matt, you have done it again. I traveled every step with you and I thank you for my/our shared journey through your words. Now I feel I’ve been to the centre of the G, well done, as Andrew said, beautiful.

    Yvette

  3. gold

  4. A toast. To the G and all those memories!

    Thanks Matt.

  5. Peter featherston says:

    Great writing turbo, reads as though im there, totally agree that nothing beats playing in The bush with your mates

  6. Malby Dangles says:

    Wow! Felt like I was there!
    Thinking about the old and new legends of the game is special.
    Once upon a time you could run onto the G after a game with a few thousand others but no doubt it would have been lots more special having a quiet kick with a mate.
    Enjoying the odyssey Matt.

  7. once in a lifetime…

    sensational.

  8. Brilliant Matt. My yardstick for a great experience is that tingle that goes from the spine to the cheeks.
    Your reference to the old coaches boxes on the boundary line and those great men and the scenes of back slapping and release – took me right there. Thanks for the thrills and chills.
    This ground deserves its own team – “they’d all be suits and dusty old cleaners, it would be murder.”
    Sounds like a fair description of the Demons. Is that their jumper you’re wearing?

  9. Cool. Thanks everyone!

    No, Pete B. It’s a bush team’s jumper. I won a Ressies flag in it.

    Or against them, Feather…!

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