Mike Fitzpatrick was worried. The Brownlow seemed to be going well. The players were behaving, Andy was reading the votes out quickly, without the ham-fisted pauses, all the girlfriends looked both stunning and the same. But, for some reason, a group of backmen from various clubs appeared to be congregating around a table at the rear of the ballroom. He walked over during the commercial break. It took some time to get that far back from the podium.
There were six of them, just beyond the lighting. Rutten, Harry Taylor, Yarran, Jetta, Brian Lake. Darren Glass was slouched back in his chair, tie undone, collar unbuttoned, big hand resting lazily over the rim of his wine glass, looking mean, imposing.
“Is everything alright, boys?” Fitzpatrick asked.
There was that awkward second of silence.
“Peachy,” Glass told him.
Fitzpatrick couldn’t tell if he was the ringleader, or just a natural leader without even trying.
“I don’t suppose you all want to get back to your team tables?” the former Carlton Premiership Captain asked.
“Nope,” said Rutten.
“Better hurry off, Bruz, the commercials are almost over,” Jetta pointed.
‘Shit,” Mike spat, looking at the floor manager counting the coverage back in again.
“What are we even doing here?” Jarran asked, once Fitzpatrick was gone.
He didn’t bother to look at Glass. The bloke was a club Captain, and All-Australian. The league had no choice but to ask him. He had no choice but to be here.
“Free booze,” smiled Harry. “I nicked Jimmy Bartel’s ticket.”
He was a happy person, Yarran liked him.
“I told the blokes at the door I was Goodesie,” said Jetta. “Half of them can’t tell one brother from another.”
“I snuck in,” said Yarran. “Can’t die saying I never went to a Brownlow.”
“I dared them to try and stop me,” said Rutten.
He’d had a killer year, his best yet. Stopped everybody. Was not once beaten. Destroyed the hottest player in the comp, Pav, not two weeks ago, and in that Fremantle’s entire season.
The count was half way through, yet he hadn’t polled anything. None of them had, apart from Lake.
“Bloody midfielders…” grumbled Harbrow, who’d just joined them from his table.
The count kept rolling, the backmen drinking.
“Three votes, Hawthorn, Sam Mitchell,” Andy’s voice filled the room.
“Oh, I’m on the edge of my seat…” Darren Glass mocked it.
“Wait for it… Wait for it…”
“Hawthorn, Brad Sewell.”
“Oh, surprise! A midfielder!”
“One vote, West Coast. Daniel Kerr.”
“Fuck you!” called Glass, the second the television coverage cut to the next week’s highlights.
The crowd murmured.
“Ease up,” Rutten whispered. “Don’t go Fev on us.”
“I smashed Buddy that day! Murdered the prick! Hawthorn’s main avenue to attack! Despite their on-ball dominance! One-on-one. In space, in packs, from centre clearances. You know how big his engine is? They think Franklin simply had a head cold or something?”
Nobody at the table said anything. Their eyes met, in a hard way, like they knew of things.
“Round whatever. Sydney versus Adelaide…” Andy’s voice drifted back to them.
“There were only something like 15 goals kicked that day,” Rutten said. “In perfect weather!”
“True that,” said Jetta.
“How’d you play?” asked Rutten.
Glass leaped up, shouting…
“I’ll give everyone in this room $1,000 – that’s each – if a defender poles a single vote!”
“That’s, like, $250,000 dollars, or something” squawked Harry.
“Relax, it’ll never happen,” Harbrow told him.
“Three votes: Thompson… Two votes: Hanneberry… One vote: Dangerfield,” Andy’s voice told them.
“Sir, the game’s changed,” the waiter said, pouring more wine for them. “Midfielders are so much more important these-“
“Ahh, suck it!” Glass snapped. “So are defenders. Faster, better leaps, better spoils. Better delivery. Quicker reflexes, better vision. More attacking, harder running.”
“If on-ballers are so great and we’re so shit, how is it that less goals than ever are being scored?”
“Why are there no more Locketts, Lloyds, Dunstalls!?”
“Hey, Bruz, easy up on the bloke. He’s just the waiter…” said Yarran.
“Nah, look at him, he’s everybody. Somebody who reads the paper and listens to the commentary without ever looking at the game for himself. He’s exactly who should hear this.”
“Then don’t shout at him,” laughed Yarran. “Look, mate…” he said, turning to the waiter. “When Gaz, ripper bloke, when he left Geelong, did they buckle?”
“They won another flag, Sir.”
“Exactly. Someone else filled his roll. Any one of six blokes could kick it to Hawkins. But there was only one Hawkins. Only one or two blokes who could stop him. You watch how well Geelong do without Scarlett. Now there’s a loss.”
“And Gaz went to the Suns, how did they do?”
“Average, at best,” smiled the waiter, happy that, for the first time ever, AFL players were actually talking to him. “I’m onto it!”
“Mate. Waiter. I reckon you’re alright,” Rutten said. “Watch the Swans and Hawks this week, cobber. Both midfields will cane it. But if the Swans can either curb Buddy, or stop Rioli or Roughhead…”
“They’ll lose more than they win out of the middle, Mummy’s injured, Hale underrated,” added Harbrow. “But watch where their attack comes from. Shaw. The Beard. Teddy. There are at least six teams in the AFL that start their attack, get their drive, from the half-back line. Adelaide, Doggies, Swans…”
“Hey, there’s Bob Murphy!” grinned Jetta. It was a great grin. Cheeky. “You’re one of us! Come over, mate!”
The Western Bulldog waved, but stayed seated.
“Got his ‘media commitments’ to think of…” grumbled Glass.
“Ex-forward,” grunted Rutten.
The waiter slipped a shot of his personal supply of scotch into the glass of each defender. It seemed like a favour, and was, but under that, functions bored him, always. Everything so formal. He wanted a little action.
“So what’s so different these days, then? What’s changed to make on-ballers so important?” he asked, just to blow smoke in the hornet’s nest.
“The times have changed. Not the importance of midfielders. These days people are obsessed with Superstars! Bloody statistics! Someone shuts down Stevie J, buries him, kills it on the rebound, the press don’t give votes to the bloke who did it…”
“That’ll be me,” said Sam Fisher, as he passed, working as a busboy.
“They say Stevie had a shit day,” Rutten finished. “He’s a glamour. Nobody cares about Sammy. It’s all about celebrity.”
“I’m not so sure,” said the waiter, pouring them another. “What about the flooding?”
“If that was all there was to stopping a forward, why don’t they just bomb it long and quick to them?” asked Rutten.
“Because we’re so good at reading it, peeling off our man and coming over for the spoil these days…” said Harry.
“Because, when it hits the ground we’re so good at sweeping it out of defence…” said Harbrow.
“Because, for the most part, we won’t be out-marked like we used to…” said Glass, downing his scotch with a curl of his lip, as if it and him hated each other.
Eventually, the count rolled to a finish. Watson won from Cotchin, Mitchell, Swan, Ablett, Beams, Dangerfield, so on. The backmen were well on the way. They let out a slowly clapped, half-arsed Bronx cheer that only tables towards the back noticed.
“Waiter,” Lake beckoned.
The waiter came over. Everyone was surprised. Until now the most attacking full-back in the league had said nothing. Just sat there, listening, brooding.
‘Yes, Mr Lake?”
“Are you good at maths?”
“Look at the leader’s board. Tell me how many votes Watson got.”
“And the All-Australian backline?”
“So that means…”
“One Jobe Watson is worth 26 of you, Sir. If you were selected.”
“Jobe… could match it, on his own, with a team-and-a-half of All-Aussie backmen?’ said Jetta.
Up on stage, Watson was praising his father, who was, into turn, praising his son, who, in turn, was praising the other on-ballers who missed out on the medal. Everybody was smiling, listening.
“The Sydney backline?” asked Lake.
He sounded so calm it made Yarran shiver.
“Um, do we include McVeigh, Sir?”
“No, mate.” Lake said. “He only polled when he went into the middle.”
“Well, without McVeigh, the best backline in the league polled a total of one vote, Sir.”
“Jobe polled 32?”
‘So, one midfielder is worth 32 Grand Final backlines?”
“32 x six men. That’s 192 elite players, Sir.”
Lake watched the rest of the presentation. The medal going over the neck, the raised glasses. The heartfelt cheers. The way they all laughed and chattered and loved each other like royalty. The way so many of them were forcing their smiles, Ablett, Mitchell, Dangerfield, all thinking, Lake knew, they were the most hard done by people on earth! That they should have got more votes. That they should have won the medal. That they never got the recognition they deserved.
Brian Lake seethed, boiled, as a ballroom full of glamour boys pretended to not notice or love all those telly cameras that were hassling them.
The waiter backed right off. The tension in the air was palpable.
“Aaand… cut to commercial,” the floor manager announced.
“Right!” Lake bolted to his feet, shouting to the room. “Any of you, ANY of you want to take it outside…?!”
All noise stopped. Nobody answered.
Glass and Rutten stood behind him.
“ANY OF YOU!” roared Lake.
“We’ll go table on table if you want…” Glass added.
The place was still for the longest of minutes. There wasn’t a sound, just backmen glaring.
“…aaaaand we’re back in 5… 4… 3…” said the floor manager. “…2 …1…”
The crowd nervously went back to being the centre of attention. The powers that be were shitting themselves. If Lockett or Hall were about the car park would become a war zone. Or worse, forwards didn’t poll as well as they should these days, either. Nobody would be safe if those two sided with the backmen.
The waiter brought everybody at the rear table a double scotch, while they stared at the backs of all those media darlings, who were trying to pretend they didn’t notice.
“Gutless,” said Jetta, downing his shot.
Harry did the same.
“Midfielders…” he grumbled.
“I’ll get another bottle,” said the waiter.