Junior Footy: The Journey Begins

I lined up in a forward pocket. I remember that. It was at the Houghton Road reserve in Clayton playing for “The Holes”. History says that the Clayton Football Club, who wore the Collingwood colours, and were officially known as the Magpies, has adopted this other name because a set of donated jumpers from Collingwood arrived, nibbled severely by moths, and the players ran out in jumpers full of holes. The name stuck. It became one of my first memories of footy. My journey had begun.
So, what about the forward pocket? Well my dad, the coach, didn’t usually trust me in the midfield, or presumably anywhere very close to the ball. The forward pocket was a safe enough place. I remember running about erratically hoping to get somewhere near the ball. To touch it would be something else.
As a ten year old I was surrounded by monstrous eleven year olds who were bigger, faster, stronger and more skilful. Once the ball left our forward line I would watch our full back, Marty, continue his chat about marbles with the opposing full forward. The ball came back our way a few more times, but I got no closer to that Holy Grail for the entire match. At the final siren I ran off cheering and happy as a lark. My stats were impressively consistent. No kicks, no handballs, no marks, no scores, no score assists, no defensive rebounds, tackles, shepherds. All I had to show for my first game was a grin from ear to ear. Oh, and a really proud dad who had just watched his son play his first match.
Thankfully, as my career continued, those stats did improve.
But the things that sustained me were the special moments along the way. We could cope really well with being a mediocre team (we never played finals while I was there) because there was so much fun, friendship and excitement. Winning really didn’t matter. It was just a bonus when we did. What we wanted was the next exciting moment.
I remember the game, against Hallam I think, where we played in an absolute Melbourne “pea souper” fog. Again I was in the pocket, but I could not see the half forward ahead of me, much less anything else. We knew that Hallam had scored when the voices filtered down the ground from the other end. “He got a goal”, “Goal”, It’s a goal” until word reached us. When we scored we returned the favour by sending the bush telegraph message back to the other end. How those umpires figured things out is still beyond me. But it was an amazing day that I still remember from 40 odd years ago.
On another occasion we played Doveton Lions at their new ground. It rained and their sewage pipes broke. We sloshed through mud – yes, real mud from head to toe, which is basically outlawed now – which smelled evil and resulted in absolutely no differentiation between teams.  Parents refused us entry to our family cars, such was our state of filth, and it was decided to chuck us all in the back of a removals truck. One of my most joyous junior memories is the trip back along the Princes Highway in the days just prior to seatbelt laws becoming tougher. We all hung onto anything we could, with the rear roller door on the truck wide open, and the parent’s cars following, singing wildly “Are we good? Are we Good? Are we any bloody good? Yes we are! Yes we are! We’re the bloody best by far!” We had lost by 10 goals, but it was the first time mum and dad saw me swear. I was so proud.
These two stories are part of my own personal narrative of junior footy, but everyone I know has their own. The great memories. The fun times. The excitement. The good and the bad. I look back now with pride that I shared this. Seeing Trevor Mustey, David Windbanks, Silvio Foschini go on and play for South Melbourne in the VFL. Seeing our captain, Craig Clark, one of the most gifted players I ever saw,  go on to become the games record holder for an AFL goal umpire after his playing career was cruelled by knee injuries. Trying to understand why our inspirational captain, Tony Windbanks, died of meningitis when only 14. These are the experiences which shape your life.
Nowadays I coach my own junior teams. I get to watch the enjoyment on the kid’s faces when they win, the anguish when they lose, the numbness when they draw. I see the camaraderie, the jokes, the love and the respect these kids have for each other. I see them having their own experiences which will be a part of their personal narrative as time goes by. They have begun their own footy journeys and who knows where it will take them.
Some kids will make the big time, I am certain. Others will leave the game. Some will return later as parents themselves and coach the next generation of players. They will experience highs, lows, joys, tragedies. They will take the baton from people like me and carry junior footy into the future. When they are my age they will tell their kids, or grand kids, of their memories. The cycle goes on.
Much is made of the competitive nature of junior sport placing too much pressure on kids by not being equitable to all. The fear that winning is everything, and the less gifted get left out. There is truth in those thoughts, but from my experience it also misses the point. It is pointless to coach a kid to lose, or not offer them the best tuition you can. The kids should be trained and coached to have the capacity to win. From there is becomes a social argument to teach kids that it’s OK to lose. Loss builds character at a greater rate than winning provided the atmosphere at a club promotes that. Give the kids the ability to play at their best, but promote the aspects of fun in equal parts so that a kid bases their junior footy experience on the whole package, not just the results.
I heard my dad say once, “You give me one hundred percent of your commitment, heart, courage, teamwork, desire, effort and skill and the scoreboard doesn’t matter.” This is so true. To know I gave it my best was a greater feeling than winning. This has become my mantra. I don’t know who dad nicked it from, but I’m glad he did.
I can certainly look back now and see the game in a generational sense. Dad played. I played. My son played, and grand children cannot be far away. I am proud to say that my own experiences have created a climate of enjoyment, friendship and love of the game. My hope is that others can enjoy the  same journey.
Junior football is the lifeblood of our great game. Without is there is no guarantee of a future. The various programs across the country and overseas are designed to achieve a strong development pathway for kids to enter and remain in the game. Programs such as Auskick, School Ambassador roles, coaching accreditation, grants and funding are among the many options out there to ensure that kids get the best possible opportunities and experience to play. Somehow, as the junior game grows into newer markets in non-Australian Rules states and nations, the funding has to be found to ensure the game goes into the future. To ensure we have the ability to reach out to the kids who will be the future.
But, at the end of the day, the glue that holds the fabric of Australian Rules footy together is fun.  That’s what we all have to make it for kids. We have to give them the fog, the mud, the laughs and the smiles for the journey to continue.
P.S.  You can still make a start to a kid’s footy journey at http://www.footys4all.com.au/our-mission


  1. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Good article Wes , as a maggot each sat re juniors ,I am creative at times trying to make sure each kid gets a kick but overall the kids just want to have fun the winning really is secondary and it is the adults who are present who carry on at times , which is a important lesson as adults it is our resonsibility that fun and teach to improve and explain with patience are the motto that juniors starting out to play are the go .

  2. Ripper piece Wes. Loved the story about Collingwood donating moth-eaten jumpers so you guys were known as the “Holes”. Boomerangs and homing pigeons.
    Also going home together in the moving truck with the back door open. Great stuff. No PC helicopter parents in those days.
    Apologies that your piece is a bit hard to read with the lack of spacing and clear para breaks. Because you submitted the original as a link to another website, the page was in a HTML format that is harder to edit to make it look good on our WordPress format.
    Your great yarns more than make up for it.

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