Old buggers’ footy: To the Punt Road end

Dips on the MCG

Pin those ears back Dips.



It’s like opening the fridge in the dairy section of the supermarket. There’s a brief but obvious coolness as chilled air pats your cheeks and lingers for a few moments. That’s what it is like running out onto the MCG.


On Friday afternoon about 40 blokes gathered at Gosch’s Paddock . I was one of them. We ranged in age from early 20s to very late 50s. The old blokes leaned against the fence and stretched out calf and hamstring muscles in the hope that youth might miraculously revisit them. The young blokes grabbed some Sherrins and began having pings from outside 50. Who needs a warm-up when you’ve only just formed your first beard?


I jogged around a bit then decided to join the young fellas. They were having much more fun. After a few droppies I launched into my first torp. Immediately my left calf sent a warning signal up my leg.


“Easy old boy,” it was saying, “Easy.”


Kicking a torp with a Sherrin, a really good torp, one that punts off the boot with minimum effort and maximum velocity, is like the first date with your love. You immediately want to repeat it. Again and again. The timing is like clipping a five iron directly at the flag, the majesty of it like a breaching humpback whale, and the violence of the “thud” the same as a Marvin Hagler left hook. The margin for error is tight. It is subtlety and brutality, precision and fluke; a microcosm of life itself. And it is utterly magnificent.


A few minutes later Robbo turned up. Russell Robertson, the 248-game leaping half forward for the Dees who started life in the superbly named hamlet of Penguin in Tasmania, retired in 2009 after an illustrious career that produced 428 goals and a compelling highlights reel. He still looks in very good nick.


“We’re only going to have a very light run,” he said. “And you old blokes, don’t get too excited. You don’t want to pull a hammy tonight and miss the game.”


Sage advice I thought. For the rest of the session I ran at half pace. This was enough to secure me a place in the team, and a start on the ground. A finely tuned bunch we were not. My team was the Akambo Demons, Akambo Private Wealth being one of the major sponsors of the Melbourne Football Club, who support the game as a promotional affair and as a “thank you” to their sponsors. The opposition was a collection of Melbourne Footy Club Members who, I assume, had been offered the opportunity to play. They were the Melbourne Red Legs. We were to wear the traditional Melbourne jumper, the Red Legs away strip.


Training was a jovial affair. A few groins got tweaked, some hammies pinched, and fingers bent but all survived. After training the esky was opened and some life-restoring ales were consumed. I was talking to a boog fella, Declan, and another boog fella, Steve (Quinny). We were joined by young Troy who was playing for North Ringwood on Saturday and the Akambo Demons on Sunday. In between times he would visit the Casino until about 4am. I’ve long forgotten what boundless energy is like. They were ripper blokes. Before I knew it four empties were at my feet. Sunday’s game was going to be a snorter.


Sunday morning. Game day. What’s this? I’m toey! Sad but true. Nervous about a game that means nothing. Petrified that I could spend 30 minutes playing footy (the game was being played in two 15 minute halves) and end up with a blob in my stats column. Anxious that I was playing on the MCG but would be found unworthy of her greatness. Would she mock me? My Saturday night dreams were full of dropped marks, horrible up-country punts, wide handballs, and pathetic physical frailty. I hadn’t felt tense about a sporting event since the 2014 Footy Almanac darts night.


I ate my muesli and ignored my agitated left calf. It was reminding me of its brittleness every few minutes, like a bratty kid who threatens to throw a tantrum in public. A twinge a week ago had stayed with me. Muscles like tissue paper. Hopeless. I started conversing with it.


“Just get me through the game,” I was urging. “That’s all I ask.”


Pitiful I know: bargaining with your own body parts.


Time was ticking past with the slow agony of a parent-teacher night. The MCG was waiting for me. At last it was time to leave. Kate was munching on her Cornflakes.


“I hope you’re on fire Dad,” she said as I headed for the door. Bless her. It was an abbreviated version of her regular morning farewell to me.


Dad, I hope you have a good one. I hope you have a great day. I hope you do lots of talking and joining in. I hope you are an awesome boss. And I hope you are on fire.” I love the thought of being “on fire” every day. Kate sees no reason why not. Sadly it rarely turns out that way.


We gathered outside the Demons shop on Brunton Avenue and were lead through the bowels of Her Royal Highness, The MCG, to the change rooms. There was plenty of banter. The smell of Deapheat was palpable. Footies were flying around. Blokes jogged on the spot or handballed a Sherrin at the wall. Everyone had his jumper on. We all looked like footballers now. Some of us even felt like footballers. The voices were rising as game time approached; guttural, boisterous, and urgent. The footies flew around faster and bounced off walls, doors and heads. This was sheer, blissful blokey-ness.

“Come on boys. Big game. Big opportunity. Don’t fu** it up!” It felt like we were about to play a grand final. The old blokes probably were. My heart rate was up.


Our coach, ex-Melbourne hard nut Rod Grinter, herded us into the players’ meeting room. The team was up on the board. I noted, with alarm, that he had me at either centre half forward or centre half back. There was no way of discerning which end was which. Someone asked the question.


“Ahhh dunno,” said Grinter. “Hang on, yep, forwards up this end.” Brilliant start.


I pointed out that centre half forward was not really my position given that I’m only 5’6”. But his cunning plan was for me to start up on the wing and drift down.


“Lose them in traffic,” he said with a grin. I resolved to stay on the wing.


Then Brett Allison stepped forward to fire up the troops. Allison played 219 games with the Roos and a handful in Sydney. Handy player. Sneaky, goal kicking forward. Tough player too.


“Crack in hard for the pill boys,” he yelled “make sure the agate is your main focus and get it to our forwards as fast as we can. But above all else, fu**** enjoy yourselves!”


We exited the room full of bluff and bluster and headed up the race to the arena. Backs were slapped, encouragement given. We resembled a team. I was actually very fired up! Full of false and sadly misguided bravado. It was like being in a pantomime.


We got to the top of the race. I had a footy in my hands. It was glued to me by forces I didn’t understand. I was almost selfish about it. I needed to hang onto that ball until I stepped onto the turf. I wanted to bounce it on the MCG grass, just so I could say I’d done that. And just in case possessions during the game didn’t come my way.


The cool air brushed my face as the grandstands emerged into view. Breathtaking. Overwhelming. They are like giants; sentinels guarding the spirits and treasures, from the time this was a parkland on Batman’s Hill, to now; Melbourne’s true meeting place. Warnie took his 700th wicket here. Betty Cuthbert ran into athletic immortality on this ground in 1956. Kerryn McCann reduced the city (and the country) to tears when she surged into the MCG to take Gold in the 2006 Commonwealth Games after a monumental marathon battle with Hellen Koskei of Kenya. The Centenary Test. “Jesaulenko you beauty!” Phil Manassa’s dash up the wing in 1977 and Twiggy’s goal. The toe poke. Leo Barry! Gazza’s nine goals. Bruce Doull’s headband. Helen D’amico. I saw these things from over there, over the fence. Now I was on this side. An imposter, like I’d strolled into a McCubbin masterpiece.


The ground was damp but firm, the grass deep and rich under my feet. Oh how I wished I were 21 again. Hell, even 41 would do. We burst through our banner (yes we had a banner!) and into our own dreams.


Siren. The umpires held the footy aloft. All eyes were on the Sherrin as it rose from the rubber knob and into the late morning sky. My opponent flicked me in the ribs as he darted off. This game was going to be played with intent. Love it.


The ball was pumped into our forward line. One of their defenders grabbed it and banged it onto his boot with one of those C Grade reserves, panicked, mongrel punts. The hit and hope kick. It was sailing straight at me. I jumped and felt the cow’s hide in my hands, conscious of a few other bodies around me. At that moment I also felt my calf muscle leave its home. But I didn’t care. I had a mark and kick on the MCG (and luckily a few more followed). My calf muscle had thrown its tantrum. To hell with it. Nothing was going to stall this experience.


I ran off my mark and headed for the big sticks. I heard the umpire yell out,


“Play on. Play on.”


I was in open space. Alone. I had a spanking new Sherrin in my grasp. I was bounding towards the goals at the Punt Road end of the ‘G, living boyhood dreams at the age of 51. Life is completely absurd.


We kicked the first two goals but got over run by the Red Legs who had more players under 25. I know they were under 25 because I got tackled by a few. They don’t take prisoners. I left the ground with a strained left calf, a tight right calf, and very tender ribs. But I also left with a collection of moments that have been dancing around in my head ever since. And I can honestly say,


“I’ve played footy on the MCG.”


About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. Neil Anderson says

    You have made all our dreams since boyhood become a reality even if it was done vicariously. Thank you.
    The smell and feel of the Sherrin and playing at the temple. It doesn’t get any better than that.

  2. Brilliant, Dips. Good for you!

    Who is to say you are an impostor? After all, is not the MCG the “people’s ground”?

    Bragging rights for you at family get-togethers now!

  3. Magnificent Dips. Great yarn. Great writing.
    Put Kate’s morning greeting on the internet as a download, and you could retire a rich man. Who wouldn’t start the day with a spring in their step hearing that?
    Loved the para with the analogies to hitting a torp – the first love; the sweet 5 iron, the Marvellous Marvin left hook. Brilliant.
    And who knew that deepheat/defeat were synonymous? No wonder you found so many tubes in the Demons rooms.

  4. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Getting the toe poke and Helen D’amico almost in the one sentence was a feat in itself. So many great lines and your childlike enthusiasm shines through. Terrific experience that I’m sure you’ll treasure for life. Tell me Dips, when you’re inside 50 at the G do the goals seem closer or further away?
    Sage advice by B. Allison btw. Great yarn.

  5. Terrific stuff Dips. All us old creaking ‘sportsmen’ salute you. What a thrill it must have been to get a kick or two and an honorable injury in a game on the MCG. Definitely sounds like a ‘Dips on fire’ sort of day, as per Kate’s wishes.

    Great to revisit those MCG memories as well. Especially Scarlo’s toe poke.

    Cheers, Burkie

  6. Paul Young says

    “Pitiful I know: bargaining with your own body parts.”
    Loved that quote Damian. How bloody true. I have that one way conversation with my hammies and calves a lot, but I don’t think they listen.

    Recently I played my first game (in a proper comp – not the codger’s stuff) for 28 years when the 2nds were short at my local club. With my first kick I snapped a goal from the pocket. It was only one of three the team kicked for the game. I reckon held my own until I had to leave the field as I’m the runner for the A Grade. Mind you that says a lot more about the standard than it does about me!

    Unfortunately like you Dips, the calves gave way (whilst I was the runner, no doubt fatigued from playing earlier) and I won’t be playing again this season.

    But now I’ve had a taste and I’m thinking with a HUGE pre-season, the 2016 beckons. Just gotta convince the body parts they can do it.

  7. Ahh… the Toe Poke.
    Lovely stuff, Dips. Funnily enough I’ve had many a leak in the middle of the G, having sloshed sloshily from the Bullring in the darkness looking for release, but never kicked a ball there.
    Will be there tomorrow. If there’s a good time to get the Hawks, it’s after a rain game in Perth.

  8. Thanks lads. I don’t mind saying it was the best thing I’ve done in a long time. Sore as hell .

  9. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I got donuts in my last game, never got a chance to atone.

    You’ve lived all of our dreams Dips. On fire.

  10. I loved every word and image Dips! Was dying to get to the end to see how you fared! Well done you.

  11. Chris Willaton says

    Great work, Dips. One of those rare occasions where one can say “everyone was a winner” and truly mean it. I could almost have sworn I felt a tear welling. Proud to have you represent Akambo and the Melbourne Football Club (go on, admit it – that #15 Demons jumper will now mean more to you than your Geelong duffle coat).

  12. Yvette Wroby says

    Terrific stuff dips. Thanks for taking me with you

  13. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Fantastic Dips well played sir ( yes I will be honest more than a little jealous ) bloody oath it is a dream for all of us as would be the dream and fear of doughnuts.Seriously Dips a wow moment and definitely bragging rights at family get togethers.Love Kate’s greeting ( parent – teacher night was my other favourite line ) Yep Dips is on fire !

  14. On fire.
    Lovely writing, Dips. And a winning story. And a winning experience.
    Love it.

  15. Luke Reynolds says

    Wonderful Dips. Well played. What an experience.

  16. Mickey Randall says

    Well done Dips. You’ve taken us out onto the sacred deck with you. Thanks for that.

  17. craig dodson says

    Dips, I saw a fleeting view of you in channel 7 pre game coverage last night. Mick molloy showed footage of some bloke playing in your team with massive arms. You flooated into the back of the shot..add tv star to your cv!

  18. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Sweet and bitter and then more sweet.
    I loved the MCG, a ‘she’ with her sentinel stands around her.
    Well played, Dips and thanks for the very gentle, vivid tale.

  19. Craig – a few people have informed me that my scone was on the TV. Sorry if I frightened the children.
    CW – the jumper is a great momento but will not surpass the Cats one. Ever.

  20. Well played Dips, in every sense.

  21. Peter Flynn says

    You are a Baldock-type CHF Dips.

    Superb Old Mucker!

  22. Great story Dips – really well told. Must be an amazing feeling to emerge from the rooms onto the ground. I remember in year 10 my mate giving a presentation to the class about playing on the MCG and getting his first kick (his was in the shins – boom tish).

  23. ILuvHawkThugs says

    Well written Dips – what a wonderful experience. Between you and Kate in 2015 – experiences in the middle of the `G’ will ensure plenty of Christmas tales around the family table.

  24. G’day Brad (ILuvHawk) – yes extraordinary few months in our house. Kate and I can discuss the experience. The others are just jealous.
    PF – Baldock!! brilliant. I was thinking Paul Callery, but I’m actually about 2cms taller than him.

  25. Andrew Starkie says

    Brilliant Dips. Footy keeps us young, mate.

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