The Huddle (where footy’s soul lives)

 

Carried on spring’s first northerly, down bluestone laneways and over back fences, the sounds of footy beckon like the Pied Piper’s flute. Still wearing my gardening shorts and blundstones, I load Eloise into the pram and we walk the two blocks, like children of Hamelin, to Coburg City Oval.

The bloke on the gate gives a discount because he doesn’t have correct change, while his grinning son hands over a free Record. It’s quarter-time between Airport West and Avondale Heights, semi-final day, in the Essendon District Football League.

We wheel our way through the crowd which parts happily at the sight of a pram.

‘Oh Darl, she’s a beauty.’

‘No worries mate, just push through. Look out Ken.’

With the welcomed sun on our backs, we take our place on the northern end hill, in front of the leisure centre, while the old grandstand curves protectively around the far pocket. This hill reminds me of the large mounds of earth that fortify either end of Reid Oval, home of Warrnambool footy, where as teenagers, my mates and I spent many a wintry Saturday.

Eloise grows restless, so I unbuckle her and wriggling free, she sets off, wobbling up and down the hill like a drunken penguin.

We’re amongst three generations of West supporters. Sitting on their blankets and fold-up chairs, they have sons, brothers and boyfriends playing. With their three day growth and caps turned backwards, the young men look like Big Brother contestants. They pause over their mid-strength cans and make funny faces at Eloise. The women call everyone ‘Luv’ and remind me of hairdressers or fruit shop cash register staff. The mood is relaxed and welcoming.

‘Haven’t been since I saw a few old St Kilda ladies, front row, get told by some corporate in a suit to get their scarves off the advertising signs. It lost me that day,’ I over hear a middle-aged guy tell his companions. With long, grey hair and moustache, he looks like a Beach Boys roadie.

West hold a four-goal lead, thanks to the first quarter breeze. Avondale try to use the conditions after the break but there’s little thought to their play. They bomb away instead of looking for tall forwards and West are able to gather and break up the wings. They use the ball wisely into the breeze, with sure hands and short precision-kicking. The lead extends before half-time, each goal met with an explosion of noise from the large crowd.

Like in the bush, suburban footy is tribal. Most players out there are local boys – Aussies, Italians, Greeks, Middle Eastern. Many cultures, one jumper. Former Roos, Daniel Harris and Gavin Urquhart, and Warrnambool boy and former Cat, Simon Hogan, are running around for West. The only criteria needed to get a game is that you’re a good bloke. Genuine. If you’re here for the bucks, you won’t last long.

At half-time, Eloise and I wander onto the ground. Balls swirl around us in hundreds of kick-to-kick sessions. A group of teenage boys pause patiently as Eloise walks through the middle. She joins in with a young father and son who gently kicks his ball along the ground. Eloise scoops it up, waddles forward and drops it at his feet. It’s smiles and laughter all round.

Instinctively, we’re drawn towards the centre circle, pock-marked with studs. I love the centre of footy or cricket grounds for their vastness, quiet, freedom and possibility. I love wide wings and deep pockets that allow our player to roam, sweep and show their skills. Our game was invented to reflect an expanding, forward moving world. Small grounds imprison, stifle our game.

I recall half-time with mates on grounds across Warrnambool, commentating as we flew for screamers or offered long, wide leads. If the pass fell short, we let each other know about it.

With the teams shuffling back on, I steer Eloise towards the fence, grabbing her hand the way mum always did when we crossed the road as kids. She pulls away. At seventeen months, her independent streak has already kicked in.

Eloise adopts a new family during the third quarter. Everyone gets a go. I hover nearby, wanting to protect without being a helicopter parent. As an only child, I’m conscious of her need to socialise. Life’s about relationships.

‘Got your hands full there, mate,’ some bloke calls out.

‘She’s probably due for a nappy change. Want to help?’ I reply.

‘Nah mate, she’s all yours,’ he responds, to ribbing from his family.

West are patient, using the wind well. Walshy, the big fella, is dropping a kick behind the play and setting up attacking moves, funnelled through centre half-froward. The lead is ten goals; they look home.

‘Heights may go the knuckle,’ someone says. ‘There’s a Bambino in their team.’

At three-quarter time Eloise wraps her arms around my legs, burying her face in my thigh. She’s had enough.

We load up again and head out to the huddle. We’re among the faithful. True believers, real footy people, who love and respect the game. Would never harm it.

There’s no self-centredness here.

Players break into groups: go over their rules; urge each other on. Water girls and boys hand around drinks. Physios rub hamstrings. A wrist is strapped.

The faithful offer support. They want to be close while keeping respectful distance. There’s noise, chatter, encouragement, but it’s also hushed. There’s reverence; intimacy.

The huddle is where footy’s soul lives.

The sun is disappearing behind the Sydney Road shops when Adam Contessa, former Bulldog and West playing coach, calls his players in.

‘Tighter boys, tighter.’

They crowd around, all eyes on the coach. This shows they respect him; believe him. The faithful creep closer; the huddle becomes a beehive. We crane to hear.

Contessa, olive European complexion, furrowed brow, keeps it short.

‘Keep running, keep working. Out score them this quarter.’

The huddle constricts even further. Players lean in, arms around each other. Contessa’s voice becomes a whisper, audible only to the players. In the end, this is only about them. This is their journey. The faithful are a part of it, but not all the way. There’s something exclusive about team sport. A bond, between coach and players, that others can only envy.

The address ends with a roar that breaks the huddle and evaporates into the sky.

The West players fan out to their positions. Contessa grabs one by the arm, points into his face and mutters. Walshy jumps the fence, has a leak behind a gum tree, then lumbers back to the centre.

We stroll home under lengthening shadows. In the backyard, as Eloise plays in the sandbox and I collect warmed, dry washing off the line, a roar greets the final siren, signifying West’s victory.

Comments

  1. Cat from the Country says:

    Ah local footy! My love of it stems from games in the 60’s in Castlemaine where my dear departed dad was the Boot Studder for many years I now follow The Cats and do a 4 hour round trip to Kardimia Park for home games. I am always impatient for the new season to start every year.

  2. Cat from the Country says:

    I grew up in Castlemaine, central vic. Castlemaine Magpies played in the Bendigo Football League (BFL). We played from Kyneton to Echuca with South Bendigo, Sandhurst, Eaglehawk and Golden Square in the big smoke and Rochester between Bendigo and Echuca. Castlemaine won the Flag in 1963 when Ray Poulter was Captain. My family did not have a car till I was 17, so friends took me to away matches when fhey could. I moved to Geelong in 1965 to do my nursing training. This was the first time I went to a big league match. Became a Cats member in 2000 and am passionate about our great game. Go Cats

  3. Adam Contessa is a decent cricketer also.

  4. Ben Footner says:

    Got tingles reading that one!

  5. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Well done Andrew and yet again this is what this site is all about REAL Footy storieifstold from so many diifferent angles and with passion also spot on we all do it to show our support and feel the tension at all levels and from us old buggers a sense of jealousy and wish I was still playing as the coach gets just the Players in
    Great Stuff and enjoyed the Family side of the Story as well

  6. Andrew, that’s a beauty. Thanks.

  7. Great read Andrew – makes me want to move back to Aus so I can take the kids to some local games.

  8. Shane Kennedy says:

    An absolute cracker of a story.

    The start of every spring and I get very itchy feet. Finals time, sunshine and many more reasons, most of which are beautifully expressed in this piece.

  9. DBalassone says:

    Beautiful stuff AS. Great to get back to salt of the earth footy. I too recall the long, wide leads of youth – no better feeling that when you got to it full stretch, hugging the ball into your chest.

  10. Ace.

  11. mickey randall says:

    I love the narratives in which footy experiences and private lifes intersect. This story does it gently and engagingly. Well done.

  12. Jake "Cobba" Stevens says:

    Spot on! Loved the couple of lines on the centre square. The place beckons a mysterious freedom, opportunity. But the huddle feels intimate, sacred and where dreams are hatched.

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