Chapter 6: Round 1 v Dwights Mill

The Albatross Rules

(a football chronicle)

It’s been a long pre-season. After the recruiting dramas and the dramas of last week’s family day finally it’s time for the season opener. Will this be the beginning of the Albertville Football Club’s resurrection, or the first game of their last season as a stand-alone club?

6. Round 1, Dwights Mill-Barcaroo Demons (away): Gone Fishin’

The Upper Downs League takes in the farming and timber towns in the ranges above the great pastoral lands of the Eider Valley. The isolation of the area spawns small, close-knit communities. A great passion for football exists in such places providing a focus for the pride of townsfolk. Albertville and nearby Mt Logan are perched at the Eastern edge of the Logan State Forest amongst the taller foothills known locally as The Dentures, after a prominent semi circular land form, the partial rim of some long dormant volcano. This area is west of the centre-point of the Upper Downs catchment, which runs in a staggered line from the mountain villages in the North East to the farming country in the South West. Most isolated of the teams in the alpine country is Dwights Mill-Barcaroo, a combine formed from two towns that now barely rate as dots on the map but which have a mythical standing in the area. The land on which they are built contains places of ancient ritual. Among those lonely hills the most infamous of bush-rangers once found protection. Dwights and Barcaroo are true back-country places where only the wild, the intrepid or the determinedly lonely ever take root.

These days the club forms a team from the members of the eight dynastic, tradition bound, grazing families who remain, from the workers at two small gold mines and from a handful of ring-ins, mostly itinerant workers at the ski-fields on the fancier slopes of the next range. In spite of their annual struggle to field a team of any sort, let alone a competitive one, they are regarded as the Eastern frontier of the league and the romance of the towns and their families is strong in local folklore. In return, the families provide the financial support the club requires. If they are nothing else, Dwights Mill-Barcaroo are solvent. So it is Albertville that other clubs are gunning for, with Mt Logan leading the push to force an amalgamation—a take-over.

Albertville had Dwights Mill-Barcaroo first up. It was a win you could be tempted to pencil in. Con spent the week emphasising the damage that complacency could bring.

On Wednesday night he sat at the selection table (a wonky bench at the back of the pub) with Boof McKenzie and the Professor. The Prof got right to the point. “Alright Duck, show us what you’ve got.”

On paper the team looked good. Up the spine was solid. Young Marco Pirelli had bulked up since last year and pre-season form suggested he had the makings of a genuine full forward. He marked one grab, out front. He ran hard and straight and was learning to time his leads. And he was the best set-shot at the club, reliable to 45 metres. At centre half forward the Kid, Robby Formosa, presented well. For all his immaturity off the field he was a composed performer on it.

At the other end Archie Pierce was an intimidating full back. In front of him Boof marshaled the team. He was a big presence, not blessed with great pace but lightning quick with his hands.  He loved to get the ball in tight then give it off to faster team-mates running through. The lack of experience in the forward half was matched by over three hundred and fifty games between Archie and Boof in the backline. In the centre Con suggested they try Bobby Rivera, the larger and more nimble of the brothers we’d picked up from Dwights’. He’d played most of his footy off half-back but Con reckoned that with the big feral, Eagle, in the ruck they’d be in a strong position at stoppages and would benefit from Rivera’s fearlessness in tight.

The German, Rachmann could indeed play out wide. He’d been a revelation on the training track. He’d been fascinated by the game from an early age, following it however he could—videos taped from late night sports shows then, later, on the internet. When a fledgling league formed in his homeland he’d been its youngest recruit. A good soccer player as well, he’d adapted easily to the oval ball, practicing as a youngster with a borrowed rugby version until he’d got hold of the real thing by pestering the Australian embassy. 185 centimetres tall and bullishly strong, he was skilful and a good reader of the play but most at home enjoying the space and run he had grown up with playing the round ball code. Since coming to Australia he’d played a full season with a strong local team in the city. But he liked Albertville and it’s pub and he’d struck an acquaintance with Fee Brierley, so he decided to stick around. He had an unstoppable personality and an infectious optimism. “Sure, coach,” he laughed, “Vee vin the cup for you this year for sure—you see.”

The team had strong crumbers in Juan Rivera and Peter Potter. Cotton, Kippling, Murfett and Hartley were old campaigners who could fill roles at either end of the ground. Peter Strauss would ruck alongside Eagle. They’d try young Paul Henry as a tall rover and Terry (Tex) Halpern in the forward pocket.

The old ground at Dwights Mill was the most distant in the comp’. The Prof rang Jen McRae, who ran the local garage, to organise her bus to take the players across. It was an aging school bus, in the American mode, built like an old truck with the engine housed in its ugly protruding nose. Being school holidays it had not been used since the family day. It had been cleaned of the mud that had settled in it that day when it had become bogged in the swollen creek, but the radiator, which had been punctured during the incident, had not yet been repaired. Nevertheless Jen advised, as we set off, that with the heater and fan on full—not a bad thing in the cold mountain air—the old girl would easily keep her cool. So, crowded into the jalopy like school-kids, we set off across the hills.

The journey soon became cozy as the heater kicked in. Jen kept an eye on the gauge. The Professor suggested a few rounds of the club song, a reasonable proposition with so many new players on board. His voice was half an octave above most of the team, which added to the cacophonous disharmony of it all. To the tune of the old Glen Campbell classic he led the way. It was hard at first not to laugh…

Albertville, Oh Albertville

We shall hear the siren ringing

Hear the grand old anthem singing

We will feel the winning thrill

For Grand old Albertville

Albertville, Oh Albertville

We’re the pride of the Upper Downs League

But the rest are not in our league

They’re never going to toss

Our grand old Albatross

Con wasn’t surprised to learn later that it was one of the Professor’s earlier creative efforts.

The air-cooled engine behaved perfectly until the bus reached the top of a high mountain pass. Suddenly, as the descent into the next valley began, Boof screamed at Jen’ to stop. He struggled out of the low door and, as his teammates cheered, brought his breakfast up in the bracken on the verge. Their mirth was short-lived. One by one the team quickly succumbed to sickness as a horrendous odour, like the ghost of every old footy sock that had ever trudged off the Albertville ground, filled the cabin. The players rushed for the door. Con was in the back seat discussing tactics with the Prof and could only watch and wait in horror as the invisible tsunami of stink rolled, row by row, towards him.

“Bloody hell, Jen what’ve you got in there? cried the Prof as he swung, at last, out of the cabin and knealt in the scrub. Con followed, last of all, bowed low, carrying his breakfast.

Jen, though gagging horribly herself, flipped the hood. Everything seemed in order. Only a rising sliver of oily smoke betrayed the hidden menace. Jen held her handkerchief tight over her mouth and craned around as far as she could, then leapt like a frog from a fry-pan in horror as two tortured eyes fixed upon her. Tucked neatly in behind the manifold and now slowly cooking on the hot engine, a putrifying carp the size of a large cat, taken a week ago in the creek crossing incident, stared back mutely at the stunned driver.

Once discovered the source of the offending odour was hastily removed as best it could be. But the fan had to remain on high and so continued to blow a deplorable stench through the cabin.

By the time the team reached Dwights Mill, stopping regularly on the way, they had been reduced to a sickly bunch.  The ump, a stickler for the rules of the game, was looking disapprovingly at his watch. Cursing his officiousness, and under threat of forfeiture the players took the field with no chance to recover from the rigours of the journey. For the first half they proved no match for the home side and went to the main break lucky to be only thirty five points down.

It was not how Con had imagined his first half-time address. He walked from player to player urging them to use the break to re-gather themselves and take as much liquid as they could. He tried to ascertain who had pulled up best from the ordeal. Only Eagle, who had skipped the bus trip in order to attend a sit-in at a nearby boggy fen—home, apparently, to some under-appreciated toad—was unaffected. Con urged him to cover as much territory as he could, fill the hole in front of opposition forwards and also provide an attacking option if he saw the opportunity. He told the side to slow the game down and keep possession where possible so that there’d be something in the tank for a last quarter challenge.

Boof was still sadly off-colour but insisted on taking the field. The possession game frustrated the combine’s players. Goals in the term to Eagle, Potter, Henry, Formosa and the smaller of the Rivera boys cut the deficit to an achievable twenty points. But a supreme effort would be required. At the huddle there was an air of desperation. Boof, who looked, as he felt, truly awful, spoke passionately about the importance of a good start to the season, of not dropping a game the team should win, and reminded everybody of the club’s precarious place in the competition. To this the German, who had recovered well enough to do some nice things during the quarter added, optimistically, “Ja, vee vin today, vee trink tonight.”

After an early charge, with consecutive goals to Pirelli, from a free and a great contested mark, the game turned into an arm wrestle. Through the remainder of the quarter the two teams alternated goals. Then, just as it seemed that time (and an odour from the dankest level of hell) had beaten us, Rachmann posted his first for the club from a tiggy-touchwood fifty metre penalty. In front of the flabbergasted crowd he celebrated instinctively with a jumper over the head routine he’d learnt on the rectangular pitches of his homeland.

Now the opposition captain, Bill Heffernan, was the twentieth Heffernan to play for Barcaroo, and a traditionalist with no time for histrionics. Without realising quite what he was doing he struck out his size twelve boot to bring the ridiculous goal-dance to an end. It was an instinctive reaction to something that didn’t belong, rather like shooting a rabbit or slapping a mosquito. He did it with disdain rather than malice, not in his capacity as a footballer but in his capacity as a non-sufferer of foolishness. But it mattered little. The boy went down just as the umpire, returning to the centre for the restart, jogged past. Without hesitation the officious bastard (bless his heart) stopped, raised his whistle to his lips and blew. To the outrage of our opponents, the boy from Hamburg lined up again from thirty meters out and straight in front. His wobbly punt sailed through and we were up by a point. There could be only a minute or two left.

Fuelled by anger the combine players mounted a final charge, scrambling the ball forward by way of a series of ugly mauling packs. It disappeared into a tangle of bodies on our half back flank and it seemed likely that a bounce would be needed to clear it. But before the ump could make the call the ball somehow popped out again and into Heffernan’s arms in a pocket of space that gave him just one opportunity to get boot to leather. He did so sweetly, with a punt that arced majestically towards goal.

At the apex of its flight the siren blew. Boof, who for health reasons had chosen not to get involved in the scrum on the half back line, turned from where he had been crouched on his haunches in the pocket and ran. The world was reduced to two converging points; the ball and Boof.

Though his stomach felt as if it had been turned inside out and his head ached Boof summoned a sprint that still seemed likely to finish agonisingly short of its mark. Only a clean grab could seal a win. A juggle across the line and two points would be all the club would get for its effort. Failure to reach it would see the home side take the points. All eyes watched Boof and the pill as they tracked towards what now seemed, in air traffic control terms, a likely near miss somewhere above the goal line. But Boof had other ideas. He had one last effort left in him. From beyond the edge of the square he launched himself head long. Ball and palms and goal-line met and somehow he held it clean. His ample gut came down sliding like a plane with a malfunctioning undercarriage. On impact its last remaining contents came forth. There he lay, sickly green, prostrate in a puddle of bile, ball in hand, grinning thinly. The game was ours.


  1. Geoff Sinclair says

    Excellent stuff, Richard. I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

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