Almanac (Footy) Life: Folly In The Goalsquare


Smokie Dawson wrote this story for Footy Town, a collection of football stories from around Australia:





THE KIDS WERE PLAYING in the backyard when the phone rang. It was my mate T.R., who had taken on the unenviable job of coaching the Reserves at our old footy club. Did I fancy a game on Saturday morning?


Initially, I was reluctant. My final season had been marred by a broken scaphoid bone in my wrist, the result of which was eight weeks in plaster. The injury had ruined my season. And on the home front, with three boys under the age of five, my inability to assist in the changing of nappies and other domestic chores led to my wife – reasonably enough in the circumstances – suggesting that it was time to hang up the boots.


As T.R. and I were both Life Members, he then played the guilt card by appealing to my sense of duty to the club. Plenty of injuries, a couple of mid-season retirements, and blokes not showing up to training or games. He was painting a fairly grim picture; to say that the Williamstown CYMS Football Club was struggling for numbers was putting it mildly.


It had been five years since I had last pulled on a boot, so the fact that I was even being considered for a game told a story in itself. T.R. buttered me up a little by mentioning that he had conscripted Tommy, another good mate of our vintage, into the team.


“I’m playing footy on Saturday,” I announced to my wife as I hung up the phone.


She didn’t reply. She didn’t have to. She’d always understood what the club, and playing for the club, meant to me. Although she could not possibly have known that, this time, I was already consumed by the feeling that I was making a huge mistake.


The game was out at the old Springvale VFA oval, which, geographically, was the farthest of away games for the CYs in the 2002 season. It was yet another reason why the bottom of the barrel was being scraped regarding playing stocks; no one wanted to travel.


Tommy and I, and our wives, had decided to make a day of it: children, toys, picnic baskets… an idyllic day out for us all! My kids were too young to remember my football days, so they were both excited and bemused about the prospect of their dad gracing a footy field.


Driving to the ground, I was surprised that I was so nervous. On the one hand I had nothing to prove, not having so much as touched a Sherrin in years. But on the other hand I was beset by the nagging concern that I would make a complete fool of myself.


Arriving at the ground, with a million thoughts in my head, I was struck by the vastness of the wings and pockets. Then I wondered if there would be a jumper in the kit-bag big enough to fit me. Although I was still jogging a couple of times a week, I had never been the most svelte of athletes, and it was fair to say that since retirement I was built more along the lines of Mick Nolan than Michael Tuck.


When I ambled into the visitors’ change-rooms, it was into a throng of mostly boys who were closer in age to my children than to me. Talk about a generation gap! When a boom-box in the corner burst into life with rap music, five years out of the game began to seem more like fifty. What happened to the old pre-match mix-tapes featuring Eye of the Tiger and Playing to Win?


T.R.’s pre-match speech was an enthusiastic mix of encouragement and humour. I felt for him. It must be a real challenge for coaches attempting to rev up a group of players when they know – and their charges know – that they are running out onto a football field to take part in a contest which they have no chance of winning. After all, the CYs were winless, and were about to take on the top team Monash Blues.


As my uneasiness mounted, T.R. gestured in the direction of Tommy and I: “And a round of applause for these two club legends who have come to give us a chop-out.”


My jumper was stretched over my girth. The looks on my new teammates’ faces suggested they thought that I was about to enter a pie-eating contest. I stared down at my borrowed boots.


T.R. continued: “In a one-on-one contest at full-forward, I would back Smokie every time!”


I felt disbelieving eyes peering in my direction.


A last-minute hammy stretch or two and we were running out onto the field.


It is a peculiarity of Australia’s game that so many one-sided contests begin with an even tussle before the superior team cracks the game open and the initial arm-wrestle is long forgotten. This time, it was only about ten minutes into the first quarter when the floodgates opened, and before long our team was seven goals in arrears.


I was shocked by the size of the opposition players. We were only playing a low-grade Amateurs Reserves match, but these boys seemed huge. I had mostly been a key-position player in my time, but now I was the size of a flanker. Was there some truth to those stories about steroids in chicken?


I managed to get a couple of hurried kicks early on, which accentuated rather than alleviated the nerves. Tommy was less fortunate. His day was over when he allowed himself to be caught under the weight of a pack; his foot was bent at an awkward angle and a bone had cracked. I swear I could hear his wife guffawing from the other side of the ground as he was assisted from the field.


An uneventful first quarter passed quickly. However, the second seemed to take an eternity. Not surprisingly, all the play took place in our defensive half. We were roughly fifteen goals down when the runner sauntered out to inform me that T.R. had decided that I had a licence to roam the field. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that what little enthusiasm I had at the beginning of play had now dissipated. I was more than comfortable standing at full-forward. But against my better instincts, and to the amazement of my opponent, I found myself gradually wandering upfield in an attempt to get more involved in the match.


The remainder of the first half was a battle for the ball, only insofar as our opponents were battling each other to see who might get the most possessions.  The half-time siren was a blessed relief.


The rooms were silent at half-time. Was there some serious soul-searching taking place among my younger comrades? Or, like me, were they simply wishing they were elsewhere? I took a few moments to reflect on my performance. I had gained a handful of touches, but was stunned that simple tasks which were once second nature – such as marking the ball and delivering a simple handball – now required so much more concentration. Body contact, the very core of football itself, was now completely foreign to me. The younger players (both teammates and opponents) were so much more carefree than me. Every time the football was in my vicinity, my mind conjured up images of wife, house, work, kids, school, and sundry commitments; I envied these younger combatants who were yet to know the joys of paying off a mortgage.


A glance out on to the oval told me that our opponents would not be easing up in the second half. They were doing stretches and sprints around the centre square while a handful of my teammates were gasping on cigarettes.


I was even more reluctant to head out on to the field for the second half than I had been at the start of the match. It wasn’t fear. It was more a realisation that my time had passed. Unlike so many players who soldier on because ‘you’re a long time retired’, I had not missed football when I stopped playing. I maintained a passion for the game, but I had never contemplated a comeback. I found that I had lost all enthusiasm for the contest.


Unfortunately for the CYs, the enthusiastic Monash Blues team continued on its merry way in the second half. Goals and behinds were interspersed with periods of scrappiness in which my team tried to drag Monash down to our level. Some time during the third quarter I glanced towards the coach’s box in the hope that T.R. might remove me from the ground. But the bench had been undermanned to begin with, and several injuries had seen to it that there were no fit interchange players.


My lack of match fitness convinced me that it would be common sense to retreat to the goalsquare for the final quarter. My move was a stroke of genius, for midway through the term a melee started in the centre of the ground. The scuffle developed into a full-on brawl, with many of my teammates only too willing to use their fists to vent their frustration. Some wild punches were being thrown.


My opponent was quite content to stand back, and I sensed that he was grateful that I displayed no inclination to get involved. That would be the last thing I would wish to add to my already mixed emotions. And, besides, I did not want my children to see me in any fisticuffs.


The club-appointed volunteer umpires acted bravely – before all control was lost – by sending two players from each team from the field. The final minutes were played out with an undercurrent of tension, but thankfully no further skirmishes developed. The CYs’ solitary goal for the day was scored just before the final siren, and I was pleased to have been involved in the passage of play in which it was constructed.


When the final siren sounded I felt fortunate that I had emerged from the game with only a couple of scratches and bruises (which would cause some discomfort for a number of days to come). Tommy was not quite so lucky.


Upon shaking my opponent’s hand, I almost thanked him for showing some pity on me: throughout the encounter, he had refused to indulge in any of the pushing and shoving bravado which had been going on further afield. I then made a bee-line for T.R. and sarcastically thanked him for the opportunity.


As the senior teams jogged onto the oval, yelling and encouraging and snorting and back-slapping, I marvelled at their enthusiasm: they were displaying a keenness I once possessed. I looked over to where my wife and sons had been stationed, but they were nowhere to be seen. The kids had been playing on a nearby playground for much of the second half, the novelty of their dad playing a real footy match having worn off.


As we loaded up the car for the return journey, I noticed for the first time that day that the weather was glorious. A tide of relief washed over me.



Read about Footy Town (and purchase copies) HERE


Read Martin Flanagan’s review HERE


Read about The Swine HERE


Read more from Smokie Dawson HERE



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About Darren Dawson

Always North.


  1. craig dodson says

    Great read. I too undertook a ‘comeback’ game at the CYS, having last played in the country 15 years earlier. The result..4 hitouts, 2 handballs and a fractured shoulder 16 minutes into the first quarter! Mrs D unimpressed

    I felt exactly the same feelings throughout the match you so brilliantly described in your piece.

  2. Colin Ritchie says

    Cracking read Smoke! I didn’t play senior footy, too small and a crook knee put pay to a career there though my junior career was fairly successful. I only ever made one comeback and that was in cricket in my early 40s. Smart arse young bloke nearly knocked my head off with a bouncer so I thought ‘that’s it’ and it was.

  3. Nicole Kelly says

    A great read, thanks! I remember watching my dad playing, past his hey- day but great memories and stories!

  4. Chris Daley says

    Another great read Masters Footy has been a big part of my life for the last few years. Of course season cancelled this year. Wondering if I’ll ever pull in the boots again.

  5. Steve Keating says

    Great read Smokie – felt like I was there – which I wasn’t!

  6. Great stuff Smokie! Felt like I was right back there with ya making this comeback.

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