Almanac Local Footy – A season at Banyule: Friends, fun and some fine football

 

 

 

I had gone in thinking this would be my last year of footy.

 

I’d enjoyed my junior playing days, coming oh-so-close to a Premiership when I was 15. I’d transitioned into the senior club via the Under 19s, looking forward to training with a bevy of ex-AFL players in Brent Stanton, Scott Gumbleton and Ricky Dyson. But once our 2018 Under 19 campaign ended with a sour preliminary final loss to perennial rivals and neighbours Heidelberg, I thought my time was up. I had been playing with some mates, but it just wasn’t fun anymore.

 

Fast-forward to March 2019, and I still hadn’t thought more of what I wanted to do. Cricket season was about to end, and pre-season down at Banyule was reportedly flourishing. When our top two (cricket) teams both finished fifth and a spot outside of finals contention, I wound up down at Banyule on a fine Tuesday night for my first night of kicking a footy in half a year. How I ended up there I could not tell you – I didn’t give it any thought, I just drove down. A hint of muscle memory, a dabble of habit. Either way, I was soon running around and kicking a well-worn Sherrin within the vicinity of teammates.

 

From the outset, I knew this season was different. It wasn’t the new coach, or the arrival of senior players who were ready to take our ones to a potential flag and division one berth. It was just the feel of mateship. We often trained on the back oval, nicknamed ‘The Cabbage Patch’ because of its barren nature and supreme lack of anything remotely close to grass. Even that had changed – the turf re-laid and the ground in reasonable nick. New lights had been installed, meaning we could actually see balls flying towards us in the night sky. A close schoolmate of mine had decided to return to footy almost ten years after he stopped – it was fair to say the season kicked off stunningly.

 

Because of my late transition to footy after the cricket season, I was more than happy to watch the first game from the stands as the under 19s ran riot in a win over division one powerhouse Greensborough. Under Friday night lights and in front of a crowd that belied the usual smattering we’d see on frosty Saturday mornings, there was a good feeling going round. The next week, I played in the reserves with some under 19 teammates and the environment was awesome. There was no sectioning off, no lack of communication between teams. Everyone was willing to greet you and have a chat, as well as give encouragement during drills.

 

It showed on the field – the reserves were an improved side, I played some games in the under 19s as we won enough games to qualify for division one, while the seniors were unbeaten and top of the table. Plenty of Friday night and twilight games for all teams meant we had great crowds waltzing down for a few drinks and some decent contests. It was fair to say Banyule was alive and pumping.

 

As all footy seasons go, there’s always pitfalls and stumbles along the way, even for successful teams. The persistent rain that hammered down during the winter months, along with the consistent use of the front oval by all three senior teams and many junior sides, meant the ground was soon a cesspool of mud, water and dirt. Games weren’t as high scoring, training was often moved to the back oval. We under 19s, having our first crack in division one, lost many games to great teams. We played many of the top teams early, meaning we had no confidence for when we played other teams around us on the ladder. There were many scrappy Friday night games where my boots (standard Adidas black boots – I’m not one for colour as I adhere to the old man’s rule that bright boots only puts a target on your back), which I had worn for three seasons, could not resist the irresistible tide of mud and freezing water.

 

The showers were abused by us on many Friday nights, as we’d fight to rinse off the coat of mud we had all over us. Games against Bundoora and Diamond Creek on those freezing nights will stick in my brain as atrocious yet fun games. In the end, who doesn’t love a bit of mud once you’re out there and adjusted to the conditions?

 

The worst span for our senior club came in May and June. The seniors finally lost a game on a terribly rainy day to the struggling St Marys. The reserves fell out of the top four, while we under 19s faced the struggle of finding players to fill a team. With school football in full swing, our usual buffet of options had been stripped bare, meaning under 17s players and their mates who hadn’t played footy in years were called upon. The worst of it came when we played the table topping Eltham at their home on a Friday night – they had everyone in and we were vulnerable. A 120 point thumping was probably lucky, but it still haunts me as the longest feeling game I’ve taken part in.

 

But from there, it all slowly came up. The seniors stumbled again, but still maintained their spot at the top of the ladder. The reserves strung some more wins together and gave themselves a crack at fourth spot. We began to win, first beating Greensborough again with some returning players and then dismantling the only team below us in Macleod. It wasn’t clean, but they were wins. It felt good to sing the song again, everyone was giving back pats and high fives at training over the weekend’s action. Banyule had survived through the tough winter months, and were coming out the other side of it intact.

 

The club grew in confidence once more. Some new under 19s players had joined us at the start of the year, and they became pivotal in an awesome month or two of footy. We won five on the trot, including a highlight win where we beat the second placed Bundoora on another wintery Friday night. This time we held firm, a late shot on goal being rushed through to ensure we remained two points ahead when the siren rang. A follow-up win against Diamond Creek showed we were capable of gaining a foot hole in division one, and we then beat Macleod again to give us a chance at finishing sixth or seventh.

 

After that Macleod win, the 10K draw night brought everyone together. Free drinks for two hours only encouraged us and our partners to indulge, and the sweet tunes of local stalwart Gary Eastwood ensured everyone loved it. Many cheeky laughs and stories were exchanged on the Tuesday, and age, race, gender or any personal characteristics meant nothing when it came to chatting and having a laugh. This was what a modern footy club should strive to be like – everyone was getting along.

 

In the lead-up to finals (which only the seniors will be taking part in), the bond of the club was strengthened even more, but not in a happy-go-lucky environment. A visit from Sport & Life Training (SALT) hit us right between the eyes. Most of us attended, and it wasn’t your standard chat and advice from supposed experts. For once, we all opened up. The stories of hardships, the tears that were brimming under the surface, begging for release, were given their time in an understanding environment. It’s the night I’ll remember most in terms of a footy club environment. So many people went through terrible things, and their only solace was knowing they had a family at the footy club always willing and wanting to see them. I drove home that night in a state of emotional shock, realising just how massive a problem mental health is for Australians, particularly men in a closed-off sporting environment. It really makes you wonder how important sport is.

 

Following this sombre night, the atmosphere at training was unique. It was still jovial, positive and fun, but there was a deeper notion of understanding that covered every ‘G’day’, every ‘how are you going mate?’. It took me all night to pin down what was different. It hit me on the walk back to the change rooms – for the first time in my life, when a teammate had footy asked ‘how are you?’, they genuinely meant it and were eager to know how you were going. It was a beautiful feeling.

 

We under 19s looked to take the scalp of neighbours Heidelberg, as they sought to sew up a top two spot, while we just wanted to gain bragging rights and continue our winning streak. It had been talked about at length on Thursday night, our coach willing us to prove them wrong while they sat back and bagged our club. We all ate our meals and joked how great it would be to get one over them, sitting back across the road in smug delight.

 

That Saturday morning proved to be the first where we got proper sunlight. We were moved to the back oval because of the atrocious state of the front oval (mud and water had managed to absorb the sawdust placed in certain patches). The Cabbage Patch was fine for us – my boots sure needed it to ensure not too much mud flew through the wide hole in the side of my right boot.

 

We matched it with them all day. The sun was out, the weather mild to warm, and we were winning and regularly scoring goals. Going into three quarter time in front by three goals, we were as nervous as ever. We’d shown we were as good as the best in division one – an amazing sight considering our initial problems in the competition. But now, with their coach becoming irate and their plethora of parents all turning nasty, we had a chance.

 

It wasn’t to be. Playing on their small and dangerous full forward, I had perfect view of their tall half-forwards ghosting across for contested marks and resulting goals. They carried on with every major, running out nine point winners. We were disappointed when the siren rang, but could hold our heads high. The reserves, following our game on the front oval, lost and thus had their finals chances extinguished. But the seniors ran riot, as they look set to finish on top and be a great shot at a flag.

 

With one game to go for the under 19s and the reserves, it’s hard to reflect and realise how different this season has been. I went in unsure, with a lack of confidence and adamant this would be my last season. As I sit now, the close bond this club has forged is something I don’t want to leave. For the first time in my footy life, I felt that despite my low status as a defender in the under 19s, I was a part of the club.

 

All I can hope for now is that we all pack out the grandstand at Preston City Oval in a few Saturday’s time, willing on the seniors and cracking more jokes with the wonderful Banyule people I have become close with this season.

 

 

Read more from Sean Mortell HERE.

 

 

See what else is going on at The Footy Almanac HERE.

 

 

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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Comments

  1. Terrific piece Sean. I really like the understated way you describe what happens in footy clubs and other sporting clubs everywhere. It builds a sense of ordinariness. But, without hype, you make a strong argument for the real significance and importance of sport and clubs. You certainly convey a sense insight and understanding gained from what sounds like a really important night for Banyule and all of its people, in what seems to have been a season of revelation and emerging clarity.

    You can’t ask for much more.

    (Maybe a premiership, too. Keep us posted).

  2. Great story Sean

  3. Henry Ballard says

    Great read Sean. Really cohesive summary of not just your own team but the reserves and seniors efforts as well.
    As someone in a similarly positioned footy career – unsure how long my heart and body have left – it’s nice to not be totally alone in this strange little phase. As a kid you think you’ll play footy forever and one day that’s suddenly not the dream anymore.
    In any case, hopefully the seniors see that cup on the mantle come the end of September, can’t wait for that piece.
    Cheers

  4. I’m glad it’s not just me Henry – we’re holding on for dear life! Hope you’re enjoying your footy too, can only wish the best for the latter stages of your playing days!

  5. roger lowrey says

    Love it Sean. The beauty of your writing is I can close my eyes and imagine I am there. RDL

  6. Good read

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