Getting some dirt off your boots

The companion piece can be read here


The return fixture – we’ve approached this round with equal parts dread and expectation. Dreading the unnecessary niggle and verballing that turns kids away from junior footy and expecting an opportunity for the boys to make a statement – that they are better than the effort they put onto the field last time.


Everyone is fallible, we have been telling them that. Coaches, just as much. We put away the spreadsheet tracking players’ time in each position just for a half and put our strongest line-up on the park. Prove to us what you can do in your best position.


On our deck this time, another Friday night but dry and still. Adelaide’s had a bit of rain this winter but the ground has firmed up nicely, bounces returning to hand… mostly. The clay hard, the mud will not stick.


The lad’s unusually clean boots, courtesy of a winter downpour


During the week it has been all about structures – midfielders stay out of the forward 50, give the forwards a chance to do their job and keep the ball inside 50, don’t let your midfield opponent get on your defensive side if they’re winning the taps, kick the ball down the flanks in defence. Everything our opponent did better than us last time.


Best laid plans, two players pull out and we’re down to 18. There’ll be no opportunity to spend time on the bench with hurt feelings or body parts. We also have more natural forwards than defenders, doesn’t everyone? We err on the side of defence.


In the changerooms before the game we reinforce. We don’t talk about behaviours, instead keep it simple – this is the best game in the world, have fun playing it. The adults watching you would give their eye teeth to be in your position again, if we had any left.


Clattering up the concrete steps our compact ground opens before the boys as the hills loom, a dark outline framing the east and south. The team has a sense of quiet determination… I think. It could be anything really, you never know until the game actually starts but it’s not the directionless fizz of energy that boys of this age often belch.


It appears that it was – early on the boys dominate everywhere but on the scoreboard (not that we’re keeping score, the SANFL in their wisdom having decided that Under 11s would not play for results this year). We win the opening tap forward and quickly get the ball into the forward 50. The midfield does their job and repeatedly put the ball back in without clogging up the 50.


The opposition floods back but our centre half forward takes a number of good marks. Two years ago he was close to done with footy, now he has the confidence to take chest marks amidst a confusion of junior footballers (the collective noun, surely).


The boys burn some simple opportunities before their opponents use some bigger players to rush the ball down the other end for a goal. Heads don’t drop but the bigger bodies are starting to have an influence. That is until the second quarter.


An innocuous enough ball hits the deck. The opposition’s biggest player closes in as does our bull. He’s half the size and in his first season but he attacks the footy harder than any player I have ever seen. He’s fearless, flying into the contest. The smack of bodies can be heard from the club rooms and young bull is the first to get up. The boys will not be intimidated tonight.


Come the third quarter the boys hold sway once more and finally get a couple of goals on the board to grab the lead (not that we’re keeping score), still burning plenty of opportunities. “Build the wall” we shout from the sidelines and they do. The first goal comes from a dashing half forward flanker who just gets the ball and runs, hard to catch. The second from the best footy brain and most accurate kick in the team. He is footy.


It’s rare to find kids that live and breathe the game anymore – they’re more likely to be playing Fortnite than they are watching footy that they are not playing. Or the popular but unaccomplished on YouTube whose major appeal seems to be spending their comparatively easy money.


People who think footy or cricket is fine just the way it is need to spend a bit more time with some kids to understand what administrators are worried about. Football is now stuck in its own congested forward line with gaming and streaming flooding back in attractive numbers.


The message for the last quarter is simple. Keep doing what you’re doing, stick to your structures, the wall is working. With the exception of a couple of rogue back pockets they do just this.


The lad (my lad), moved from the forward line into the midfield does the job that is asked of him. When the ball’s on the ground he’s down there, neutralising a weak position or winning it forward. He’s also reading the ball in the air, running back with the flight to take a safe chest mark on a night when more go down than are taken. I’m his second harshest judge but he has matured right in front of me this season.


The moment of the match, though, comes from the shyest kid in the team. It has taken us 12 months to get him to call during the hand pass drill I run, barely audible to ageing ears. He’s a gem. Communicating mostly in nods he works hard, has good hands and a kick that improves week on week. Until tonight he has sought to handpass the moment he takes possession.


But with the game on the line in a congested forward line he attacks the ball, takes possession first touch and puts it through from 25 out. The moments where a kid does something under pressure that you did not think them capable are the best for a coach. It ends up being the sealer as the boys hang on by four or so points in what really should have been a six goal win (not that we’re counting).



They roar the song following the resolution of the confusion about who actually won (not that we’re keeping score). I ask the lad about his tormentor from the previous game.


“Oh, he called me ‘trash’ again”

“So, what did you do?”

“Next time he got the footy I absolutely slammed him in the tackle”


They don’t like it up ‘em.


As a coaching group we beam. We gave the boys the best opportunity to prove a point – that they would not meekly be dominated by every team that niggles and pokes. They stuck to their guns, both physically and structurally, and were rewarded. I reckon a few pennies dropped tonight.


That said, is there a life lesson in all of this or is it simply that winning is preferable to losing? Narrative-wise, as nice as this is as a third act I’m not sure it actually addresses the issues raised in the first. But it sure as heck feels better.


Of course we try to instil values in what we do (teamwork, resilience, a growth mindset) but the veneer thins at times. We’d probably get more bang for buck teaching them how to survive the environmental catastrophe that will be their inheritance from us…if we knew.


In the meantime, in the words of their coach “you are playing the greatest game in the world, go and have fun!”




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About Dave Brown

Upholding the honour of the colony. "Play up Norwoods!"


  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    How are the other KPIs going Dave, like parental feedback, attendance at training and long silences in the car after the games?

  2. Good stuff Dave enjoyable read and this not keeping score crap when the kids all know anyway pure and utter stupidity

  3. Great stuff Diogenes. No wonder Don Pyke looks perpetually nervous.

  4. Most enjoyable, Browny.

    In junior sport, there is nothing better than the quiet one/ less talented one/ battler (choose one or all) who kicks his or her first goal or shoots their first basket. As a coach, they were moments I enjoyed the most.

    Enjoy every minute, mate. The time goes so quickly.

  5. Luke Reynolds says

    Fantastic read Dave, and relate to much of this through junior cricket coaching.

    In cricket at our club I reckon it’s a 30/70 split between kids who do and don’t live and breathe the game. So much harder to teach skills to the 70% who are only there for the social side of it. Or to give their parents a break.

    As Rulebook said, kids always know the score.

  6. Dave Brown says

    Thanks for the read and comments all, appreciated and glad it touched on some common experience.

    In answering all of your questions earnestly mode, Swish, we are actually pretty blessed parentally. The set-up for our team with the coach, me as assistant and our team manager has been running for a couple of years now and the parents have been almost universally supportive. Given my spreadsheet keeping tendencies, we also make sure we can demonstrate all the little Johnnies get to spend as much time in their favourite position as anywhere else. Attendance at training is notably declining atm – reckon a few are ready for the season to end. And I’m getting better at not providing unsolicited advice in the car ride home.

    Funnily enough, Rulebook, this particular game was an example of the kids not knowing the score. Because the game see-sawed a bit and we ended up on an equal number of goals the boys didn’t know the score until they came off. I understand the broader “don’t keep scores” movement at the younger levels, but for U11s where we are playing 18 on the full ground with very little rule modification it is just plain silly.

    Thanks PB.

    Thanks Smokie, indeed, can’t believe I am 18 months away from having a teenager.

    Thanks Luke. Cricket is further complicated by the on-field coach umpiring as well – exhausting stuff. I reckon that % would be about right for the lad’s cricket team, too. A few who are really into it and the rest squatting at long stop counting the clouds.

  7. John Butler says

    Dave, like Luke, I speak with cricket experience. So much of what you say rings true.

    I found that if you could take the adults out of the equation, the kids were usually pretty good. They learn all their bad habits from us.


  8. Thanks Dave – I’ve been thinking about this all weekend – as someone who’s coached and been involved over a few junior sports, it really hit a chord. It was doubly poignant watching my son’s final junior footy game and thinking about what he’s going to take out of this phase of his sporting life.

    On non-scored games, I love the ways people discuss those games. I’ve heard many tales of favourable draws, narrow draws, heavy draws, comfortable draws, and my new favourite (as of Sunday) “we sufferd a resounding draw today”.

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