Chapter 3: The Kid

The Albatross Rules

(a football chronicle)

If Con Filipou accepts the offer from Barry (the Professor) Massey to coach the Albertville Albatrosses it will mean big changes for both the club and the coach. Con has seen enough to know that without a few new players the success the club craves is unlikely.

3. The Kid

The Prof was in a more diffident mood at the ground the next morning as he and Con raked over the coals of the club’s demise.

“Truth is we took our eyes of the ball. We missed the boat on a few things—should ‘ve amalgamated with the netballers when everyone was doin’ it. Now the footy club’s got no money and we’d only drag ‘em down. We haven’t worked hard enough—thought we could get by with just the pub to sponsor us—that was a mistake. Boof’s got enough trouble making ends meet. I’ve gotta take some of the blame m’self, but at least I haven’t just given up. I want to make things right again.”

One question had been troubling Con. “So tell me this. Why did you pick me? I know I come cheap but still, there are plenty of blokes…”

“I’ll tell ya later,” was all the Prof would say, “I liked the way you played and I’ve got a theory about you, Duck. But I’ll tell ya later.”

Whatever his theory, Con was already pondering how best to sell the pleasures of Albertville to Maur.

He need not have worried. Though Albertville’s picturesque isolation tested the limits of his mobile phone he managed to get a tenuous connection through to home.

“When do we leave?” Maur asked, and from her voice he knew that his fate had been written the moment the Professor’s letter arrived.

“Don’t you want to know about the place?”

“Love, I don’t care if there’s nothing there. I don’t care if the locals all have club-feet and horns. I’m not staying here and getting depressed.”

Con told her about the Professor and the fish. “Don’t worry about him love, We’ll sort him out. When do you start?”

“Now, I guess. Start packing. I’ll let them know.”

Con told the Prof, and they shook on it while dust from the newly filled wicket area spiralled up on a hidden eddy and danced across to the far wing.

The new coach’s first task would be to attract a few players. The absence, for the early rounds, of those serving suspensions from the previous year would exacerbate the need to recruit.

The Prof had left two video tapes at the pub, marked best game and worst game with team lists for each. Con had watched them while tucking into an enormous breakfast of bacon and eggs, fried tomatoes and sausages, with Boof, in between tidying up, providing illuminating commentary. On the positive side he’d seen willingness to work hard on game day and some good individual skills. On the negative was an apparent lack of willingness to work hard on the track, an erratic game plan and some major skill deficiencies. In particular the team needed a good tall, some pace in the middle and a key forward (but what team didn’t?). That seemed like a tall order but he’d seen some evidence, on the tapes, of younger players who might be ready to step up to key roles. He set his sights instead on trying to locate a running defender, a small forward or, basically, anyone else who was available.

Anyone else turned out to be one Robby Formosa. A developing half forward with natural skills on both sides, the kid from the leafy outer suburbs was barely out of short pants and a little on the dim side. Con knew that his gormless optimism could work in a number of ways so he played it up a bit.

“OK, Professor, let’s talk players. I watched your tapes this morning and there’s a bit of work to do.”

“You’re telling me, mate. It’s hard getting guys to come up here. If you’ve got anyone, we can put them up at the pub, give ’em some bar work or Cotto can put them on a road crew. Can’t pay ’em much though.”

“I think I’ve got one. He’s a raw talent. Just a kid. Natural skills. Could fill a gap at half forward—he’s a definite goal scorer. Not the smartest kid though.”

“Not too bright, eh?” The Professor’s wicked eyes lit up. “We’re not after Rhodes Scholars, just good honest footballers.” Anyone who could dream up the fish stunt and have the audacity to play it twice would relish the idea of a dim-witted youngster in his midst.

“Let’s talk to him. Anyone else?”

Con ran through some other ideas and they talked about a couple of players who might be induced to switch from other Upper Downs League clubs. In dealings such as these a few years at the top level can make a big difference. Ken Formosa had played a handful of reserves games with Con. The coach remembered him as a crazy Islander whose stocky build seemed far better suited to one of the ball tossing codes. He called him when he got back to the pub. Not an hour later Formosa rang back.

“I talked to young Robby. You know what kids are like. He’ll come up there, no worries. I told him how beautiful the countryside was, how the streams run with fat trout, the beer is sweet and the girls are sweeter. I said the city recruiters always keep an eye on the talent up there. I made it sound like Shangri La. So he said he’d come if you could meet a few ‘demands’. I think he’s starting to believe someone else’s publicity. Anyway he says he’ll need a new Play Station thingy. For god’s sake, Con, give the kid something to do!”

“How about a job shovelling gravel, a room at the pub, some modest match payments and we’ll throw in his new gizmo. Talk to him and get him to call me. He might be able to come up with Maur.”

Con stayed on in Albertville, busying himself getting to know the place while Maur made arrangements for the move. A week later she rolled into town with the new recruit. As she stepped from the car the coach could tell it had been a long drive. Robby stayed set in the passenger seat, motionless apart from his dexterous thumbs flicking away at an electronic gadget. “Con, love, I just hope he can play football—I really do.” She rolled her eyes then drew a long, slow, deep breath of the moist air. She looked, more than her husband could remember for a long time, like the bright-eyed girl he’d pursued as a boy not much older than Robby Formosa.

The beer garden of the Grand Hotel is a shabby courtyard falling away to the bank of Logan Creek, a cold swift stream in which you can catch a decent trout if you’re lucky. A few treated-pine tables and benches and some plastic chairs provide the seating. Torn shade-cloth hangs loosely over a roughly constructed pergola. The bar is reached through a grimy passage that also serves as access to the hotel’s toilets.

Collected in the beer garden on a warm autumn Saturday, along with Maureen and Con, were Barry Massey and a throng of local players, a few with wives and girlfriends in tow. The group included Robby Formosa, the dim-witted raw recruit. He sat sullenly off to the side peeling the printed layer from a cardboard beer coaster.

“Come on, Kid,” huffed The Professor, “lighten up.” He plonked a beer down onto the table.

“Thanks, Mister Massey.” the Kid responded dumbly. The Prof rolled his eyes. Maureen, who the kid had taken a wordless shine to during their drive from town, patted the boy on the back. “Pull that chair over here, son, where you can join in.”

Around the table players were reminiscing about the past season. Under Nugget O’Laughlin’s tutelage they’d kept just in touch with the finals race before being ingloriously ousted in the last round. Talk rotated between observations of a general nature—lack of scoring power, inexperience and the like—to yarns recollecting the highlights of the season. Not all of the stories focussed on match details and, as rounds of ale were consumed in the balmy sunshine, the tales became, both in their content and their telling, more and more outlandish.

“Hellenswood, mate. That was a good day,” announced Peter Potter, nudging the Professor knowingly. At just 165 centimetres tall Potter had the cheek that went with his reputation as a goal sneak. His old style, sharpy haircut, complete with rat-tails was complemented by elaborate tattoos of strictly traditional design—a dragon and a rose on one arm and a hand of cards, five aces fanning across the other bicep. He lived in the valley and worked in the timber mill at Mt Logan, but chose to play for Albertville, where his family had come from, because he liked the simplicity of the place.

Con knew that Hellenswood had defeated Albertville on both meetings the previous year and doubted that what was to follow would have much to do with football. Still he was learning a lot about the culture of the club and coaching orthodoxy said that was just as important. He sat back to listen.

The Hellenswood story told of Cotto, who had been working nearby, arriving at the ground in his low loader. It involved an elaborate ruse to extract the keys from him and finished with the Professor’s much-travelled Humber mounted on top of the Hellenswood change rooms. The Prof nodded grudging acknowledgment.

As the stories became more outlandish the kid’s jaw, which always hung loosely, slackened even further. His eyes widened and, lost in the wonder of it all, he carelessly downed mouthfuls of ale as he listened. He was not an experienced drinker.

Clearly the effect on the youngster had caught the eyes of the other players. Exaggeration and embellishment gave way to preposterous fantasy. Sam Murfett led the way with the elaborate tale of ‘big red’ the killer kangaroo of Nambool. His teammates nudged and giggled. Phil Hartley talked rapturously about the ghost of Mrs Foot, a filmy presence, he insisted, which had been captured on video during Mt Logan’s grand final win, leaning over the fence with her umbrella to trip up Roosters’ star, Hawkins, as he gathered in the pocket. Mrs Foot, Hartley said, had been killed by an errant stab pass at the Roosters’ home ground and her curse was responsible for their string of near misses.

By 5:30 the kid was plastered. All these things seemed beyond his comprehension. The only thing that surprised Con about the afternoon was that the Professor, who he knew from his own experience enjoyed the pleasure of a joke at someone else’s expense, had remained largely silent. As Paul Kippling launched into another story that began with a tornado on the wing at Barcaroo Con noticed the Prof rise and head towards the bar. He returned moments later stopping at the ‘gents’ along the way.

“So there I was,” Kippling was saying, “clinging to the nob at the top of the goal post…”

The Prof’s mobile rang. “Massey here … Yep … “ He motioned to the collected players. “shhhh, a bit of quiet boys” then returned to the call “… Bernie—how are ya? … yep … yep … the kid? … Yeah, yeah, right here with me now … yeah … yeah … NO?!” His voice cracked with excitement and he pointed in an animated manner towards the mouthpiece, his eyes wide in disbelief. “… no worries, mate … NO WORRIES!!… see ya mate.” Clearly affected by the call he clapped the phone shut and rounded on the kid.

“Jeeze, Robby. Do you know who that was? Bernie bloody McGrath mate!”

Bernie McGrath was a legend. A 200 gamer. A very big name. “Blernie Mglarr?!”

“Bernie McGrath, lad; he heard you were in town. He’s recruiting for the Panthers, son. He wants to talk to you.”

“Brernie Mgah! Shi… iii…iii…” the kid started hyperventilating.

“Mate, he’s on his way here now—pull yourself together.”

The kid stood, wobbled and fell back, horror stricken. He began sweating like a hack racehorse. “Oh, sheeeez. Missa-Mashy, No’now. Oh SHEEEZZZ!”

“Bloody Hell, kid! How Pull y’self together!”

“I shink I trunk too mush, Misha Mash… Oh shiiii…”

“Snap out of it, lad. Go and give yourself a good splash with water, quick.”

Though his legs wobbled like jelly and his feet moved as if weighted by concrete blocks the kid struggled up to the toilets. He collected three straggly pot plants on the way and nearly came down over the mop bucket.

As the onlookers cheered he drove on. His audience, being more worldly, each knew the urgent voice that would be repeating inside his head, demanding the impossible—’shober up, shober up, shober up…’ They’d heard it before. He swung like a zombie into the wrong toilet, became momentarily disorientated then swung back out and wheeled into the adjacent door. He re-emerged, some moments later, ashen faced. “No worder, There’s no bluddy worder!!”

Thinking quickly (of course) the Prof pointed down the hill. “The creek, boy, quick, QUICK! The creek”

Now a coach’s responsibility is to his players. Most of Con’s were having a fine old time. The kid was going to learn sooner or later anyway. Con looked across to Maureen for counsel but she was doubled up with laughter and could barely raise her hand to give a wave. It was a feeble gesture that said, at once, ‘let it go, darling’ and ‘oh, help’. The Prof sat back silently admiring his handiwork.

As he stumbled towards the icy water the kid struggled to remove his tatty old school windcheater. For a horrifying moment he looked like a thing from the deep, flailing about with long tentacle arms and no discernible head. A constant lamenting wail only added to the impression. Finally divest of the garment he presented a no less terrifying sight. He rolled on down the hill, hopelessly moaning. As he neared the water’s edge he tried in vain to remove his track pants but they tangled around his ankles. In the setting sun, condemned by raw gullibility, and stripped and shackled for his crime he danced the macabre jig of a convicted man sent mad by the gallows walk. Compounding the scene’s inevitable, tragic climax Maureen howled like the widow witness.

There at the water’s edge he skipped and swayed and spun. His eyes spoke pure confusion and terror and his pimply face reddened like a blown camp-fire ember. (‘…Shober up…shober up…SHOBER UP…’)

Con looked across at Maur’ but she was now beyond composure. The boy’s skinny white bottom glowed as it bobbled in the late afternoon sun. As he hopped and hollered tears streamed down her face. She looked at Con desperately, hopelessly but he could do nothing. In vain she tried, through her tears to say something that might break the spell that had been cast upon her by the boy’s spectral dance. But the simple words, ‘poor, kid’ just could not come. The effort to deliver them finished her off. As she collapsed under the table screaming for mercy the kid finally released himself from his troublesome pants and leapt like a deranged cat into the chill waters.

All was silent apart from the distant call of a bell-bird and Maureen whimpering pathetically from the concrete. All was peaceful for seconds that hung long with brittle anticipation. Then, just as Con was about to experience the first faint sense of concern for his young charge, a blood-curdling scream rose above the town. The kid from the city had apparently never seen a blackberry bush. He made land at a place that poorly suited his nakedness. At this signal of agony the Professor, the players and the girls around the table dissolved into fits of juvenile laughter. Seconds later the kid re-emerged in a froth of frantic splashing at the bank below the beer garden. He stumbled up onto the lawn and collapsed in a panting, shaking heap. The Professor went straight-away to comfort him. “Sorry, kid. Bernie just rang. He got caught up in Dwights Mill and won’t be able to make it. Pull your strides back on. There’s a mixed grill, on me, tonight.

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