The Albatross Rules – Chapter 10: Round 3, Hellenswood Saints (away): Old School

Con’s chat with Des and Maree about the town’s footballing history set a nostalgic tone for the week. There were a number of things to be learned from that first epic Mt Logan encounter.

Con had, from it, a keener sense of how deep the passion for the game ran. He also understood, even more than before, the animosity that existed between Albertville and its closest neighbour. He was destined to learn a few lessons besides. He would come to realise that, just as then, where football was involved there’d always be a wager on the side. And he’d learn, though he should have known already, that like young Davey 140 years before, who had fashioned a subterranean path to goal, the players of Albertville often had a surprise or two up their sleeves (long sleeves being the order of the day in these chilly mountain climes). These things were traditions, as much as the club’s colours or the reverence paid to the premiership flags that hung in the Grand Hotel’s public bar. They were about the way the game was played up here. For better or worse he’d have to get used to them.

Thinking back now he could imagine how it had started. Dieter Strauss, who was known as Peter, was an old-school footballer, usually dour and uncompromising. But he liked a drink and a punt and he had a less serious side that Con hadn’t witnessed. Peter Potter was an archetypal little smart-arse. A rough and tumble character who grinned his way through a life that others may have regarded as hard. His cheekiness was a huge asset on the field. He drove opponents to distraction with his continuous patter. It was directed, like a cluster bomb, into the vicinity of, rather than straight at, his opponent. He could run past a defender, stoop to gather, evade a tackle and kick for goal and still at that moment find time to be muttering something nasty. It wasn’t an agreeable skill but it was effective. Players rarely played their best on him.

Con guessed the two Peters must have fashioned their plan over a beer, and he was sure that somehow money was involved. He should have realised something was up when Strauss arrived at training wearing a pair of old high-cut steel toed White Diamond boots. They were museum pieces, probably out of date before the club’s last premiership.

He trained well in them too, looking right at home even though his feet must have ached. He played it straight, deflecting the inquiries of his bemused team-mates. By contrast Con’s own performance that night was lack-lustre. He shouldn’t have let the little prank distract him but he was fascinated by it. As the players trudged from the ground the coach saw Potter make a bee-line for the big man. His grin was broader than usual. They were up to something.

After a few beers, some time before, the conversation might have gone something like this. Potter was the talkative one, so he’d have broached the subject…

“Duck’s alright, Pete” (maybe Con was kidding myself imagining that bit) “but what’s with the ‘team rules’ bulldust.” Con had drawn up a list of basic guidelines he wanted the guys to adhere to. The usual stuff. Discipline on the field and restraint off it. “Now that’s an exercise in stating the bloody obvious. So I reckon he’s getting a bit of a stick up his arse that needs twisting. He needs to loosen up, mate.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I reckon I can get under his skin.”

“What’cha got in mind, big fella?”

“He’s full of city ideas. A bit of tradition. Remind him how the game used to be played. That’s what he needs.”

“You up to a challenge—I’ll make it worth your while. I’ll put twenty down and I reckon The Prof ‘ll come in. But it’ll be your head on the block mate if you’re up to it…”

At least that’s how the whole thing might have started. Or perhaps that was just a figment of some deep seated insecurity on Con’s part. Either way he was unsettled. Maybe he’d just become too comfortable at Albertville too quickly and there were those amongst the players who didn’t think he should have it quite so easy.

At selection time Con asked The Prof. “What the hell’s goin’ on with Strauss’s boots? They look like something out of Hogan’s Heroes.”

Massey looked at him straight, “Ducky, if there was something going on I’d be the first to know.”

They’d finished just ahead of Hellenswood on percentage last year so had to expect a tough game coming up. Indications were the Saints would be competitive again this year, having started the season with a pair of close losses to last year’s finalists, Mt Logan and Gunundurra-Heathvale.

At selection the Albatrosses brought back Harrison and DePalma, both returning from suspensions. They were pacey youngsters who would add a bit of versatility off the bench. The selectors were forced to rest Juan Rivera and Tex Halpern, both suffering niggling injuries. Into the starting line-up came a couple of young blokes who had impressed, Ross (Watcha) Doohan, a nimble left footed rover and Barry (Barb) Dwyer, who’d give them an extra tall option up forward.

Game day came around and the archaic footwear re-appeared. “Are you fair dinkum?” Con asked lamely as Strauss laced them up.

“No worries, Duck, My old man kicked a ton in these one year so I reckon they’ll do the job.”

“Your old man!”

“Good footballer, my old man. They’re good for the ankles, these. I reckon they’re due for a comeback.”

Con tried to imagine a team with a White Diamond boot sponsorship—what a sight. Still there seemed little point arguing with the big man and he had more important issues to deal with. Bobby Rivera had come down with the flu and they were short a centreman.

The game was not a pretty one. There were plenty of mistakes on both sides and it seemed that neither side could gain ascendancy on the scoreboard. Scores were level at quarter time and Hellenswood had just a five point lead at the half.

The game opened up in the third and with Eagle dominating the ruck Albertville were able to fashion a slim lead at the final break. Strauss had been impressive too though the boots gave him a straight-backed look and his gate was mechanical, like the pistons of a steam locomotive. It was ten points the Albatrosses’ way in spite of poor kicking for goal. Con asked for a special effort in the last term but tried not to get too excited—there are days when you just feel that a team is travelling as well as it’s going to and you hope that’s enough. This was one of those days, a bit on the flat side but still they were getting the job done. Besides, Con was distracted. He could see Potter and Strauss conspiring at the edge of the huddle.

Albertville wasted opportunities and the Saints took theirs so despite winning their share of the footy Con’s boys found themselves two goals down, with ten minutes left on the clock. Then Potter took the ball on the wing, and though Pirelli lead strongly he chose to duck a tackle, scramble through traffic and squeeze a pass out wide to a contest.  Strauss stuck his big backside out and took the ball strongly in front, copping a solid whack on the cheek for his trouble.

Potter jumped high like an excited schoolboy when he saw the mark completed. He turned and ran back up the wing, skirting the boundary and Con could hear his nattery voice loud and clear from his spot on the fence. “This one’s for you Ducky. Watch and weep mate. A thing of beauty. Stick this in your team rules.”

From forty five metres out and with a sharp angle to contend with Con could see Strauss take aim with the ball held at a peculiar angle, high in front of his stomach and nearly horizontal.

“He can’t kick a banana from there,” Con muttered, then realised what Strauss was about to do. With his high cut boots he half trotted and half marched in a straight line towards goal. He guided the ball downwards, all the way to the turf, with his right hand, and his steel capped toe swung through like a wrecking ball, picking it up as it bounced and launching it spinning fast, end over end, straight and perfect towards goal. The pack in the square backed back to the line but the high trajectory defeated them. Players raced to Strauss to congratulate him and Potter climbed over the top of them all to give the normally placid ruckman a big high five.

Con felt like he should have seen it in black and white. It was a beautiful, anachronistic, wonderful, absurd thing. A real drop kick. Not even the slick stab-pass, version of a later era but the brutal kick-of-choice from footy’s hard days—a technical thing that, should one element be mis-aligned or mistimed could be so clunky and strange but which, in its perfect execution, was the ultimate human victory over the vagaries of an oval shaped ball.

Though Con was seething it was hard not to admire a thing of such majestic grace. And the response from the players was one he could never have engineered. No smart rotations or fancy set-plays, no tempo football or defensive flooding could have turned that game around the way Strauss’s goal had. After nearly two hours of disinterested footy, the boys sparked up. They suddenly had a spring in their step and played out the rest of the game in the joyful, positive manner that suits it best. And by siren time they had earned a fourteen point lead.

Strauss took another mark, closer this time, as the siren sounded. He walked back to take his kick, looking up towards the coach as he did, their eyes meeting for the first time since his last shot for goal. Con couldn’t win. Another drop kick goal and he’d never hear the end of it. Or miss with something more conventional and prove nothing but his own poor judgement. He did the disciplined thing, the bureaucratic, mean-spirited thing. He shook his head. Strauss strode in purposefully and duffed the straight forward drop punt. As it squeezed through for a point Peter Potter, at his shoulder, derided him. Strauss stooped down, undid the old boots, and pulled them off, before jogging to the change rooms in his socks. As he passed a rubbish bin on the boundary line he raised his old man’s White Diamonds to his lips, kissed each on its steel capped toe and tossed them in.

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