Almanac Local Footy: One of many places in the Melbourne suburbs on a Sunday winter afternoon…

You could hear the desperate shrill screams from miles away.

 

Boys on the cusp of manhood threw themselves at each other in a desperate effort to prevail. Parents and avid supporters loudly egg their boys on. The Hillside under-17s football team defend for their lives. Mud is kicked up. The players are like pigs in a pen, coating their bare arms, providing a nightmare for the washing machine.

 

Scrambling for the ball and proper defensive structures under the waning winter sun, a Hillside defender attempts to marshal his troops for one last effort.

 

It seems like forever. The scoreboard reads Hillside: 13.3.81 to Aberfeldie’s 10.20.80. The defender nervously looks at the scoreboard before the ball is thrown up by the umpire once more, hoping the siren will drown out the deafening crowd and crown them victors over division one’s best team.

 

It’s a completely different state from the Sunday before.

 

Around the same time, the young Hillside defender bowed his head in defeat after a dismal loss to a Moonee Valley side they had grossly underrated. Because of a coach “none of the players really liked”, Hillside had let slip a crucial game. Something had to be changed.

 

Convening with his older leadership group, the defender pleaded they take up their frustrations with the coach, a stalwart of Hillside Football Club.

 

Darren was a typical suburban dad. Your typical office worker, in his early to mid 40s. Players say he “didn’t really have a harsh look about him”. But he was also known as “a bit of a dictator” by his under-17s team. Luckily, Eli’s aggressive teammate Nick distracted his side with his ebullient approach to motivation inspiring a marvellous week of training. Because of the newly turned midfielder who had once been a chubby back pocket, Hillside turned up to their next game desperate to prove they were a strong force in the Essendon Districts Football League.

 

Getting to training early on the Tuesday, Eli spoke on behalf of his older teammates. It was time for change. The young men demanded increased input in team selection and position choices. Darren, an unassuming character, was taken aback. Becoming defensive, he finally relented reluctantly. Eli had known his mates since under 10s, some since the age of four. They had gotten their wish. Now they had to beat the juggernaut of Aberfeldie.

 

The footballs fizzed around the artificially lit Hillside ground on Tuesday night. Nick’s voice boomed through the icy night air. Barking directions, Nick had gone from a jovial presence to a serious footballer. He is “always starting the fights”. But he has slimmed down to a level where he can play in the guts and dominate. His improvement, alongside the tight comaraderie of the boys, made Hillside under-17s the “best team Eli had played for”.

 

Arriving on game day, the slowly maturing group took on a new resolve.

 

Once light-hearted and childish in their pranks and jokes, a steely atmosphere filled their home change rooms. All talk was serious. There was more silence, only broken by the booming laughter of mothers in the clubrooms enjoying a lady’s day function. Concentration was at an all-time high, and their warm-up was full of intent. Hillside was not a team to be messed with this Sunday.

 

Their attitude paid dividends instantly. Piling on five goals to Aberfeldie’s one in the first quarter, Eli’s defence didn’t have much work to do. Instead, they watched Nick and the forward line boot through daggers. High-fives were dished out like junk mail, bum-pats their partner.

 

It was obvious Aberfeldie were shell-shocked. They were the better team in general, but not in the first quarter. Darren’s consultations with his leadership group had paid dividends. But he still refused to relinquish all control. There were no complaints in this break – the Hillside boys rose to a new level of determination.

 

As all good sides do, Aberfeldie bit back fiercely. But Eli and his defence had been settled for numerous years, and used their understanding to repel dangerous attacks. The game was going goal-for-goal. Tipsy mothers waltzed out filled with champagne. Parochial Aberfeldie supporters found a pocket and heckled. The stage was set for a grandstand finish.

 

Eli can’t recall who kicked goals in the last quarter, or any of the events for that matter. It all blurs into one chaotic half-hour of yells, grunts and desperate acts. Hillside were playing like it was a Grand Final. Players put bodies on the line like tight-rope walkers. Nick’s voice was almost drowned out by barracking and snide Aberfeldie remarks.

 

Aberfeldie willed the ball to dribble over for a 21st behind. Anything to avoid a loss. Hillside dug in, desperately trying to lock the ball in for stoppage upon stoppage. Slowly chewing time off the clock. Play had stagnated in Aberfeldie’s forward pocket. Tantalisingly close, time seemed to stop. Just a minute left, or was it an hour?

 

Siren.

 

Exhausted bodies relaxed from the frenzy around the ball. “Absolute euphoria” reigned – Hillside players hugged the nearest mate next to them. Supporters threatened to burst over the fence and onto the ground. It was mayhem. Chaos of the highest order.

 

The tension that filled the week. The confrontation. The fierce dedication to training and winning. It was all worth it. The “really good vibes” would lurk around Hillside’s rooms that night like a foul odour. Nick’s aggression would get the better of him – an after-the-siren hit caused a brief scuffle, and a later online post of the victim’s broken nose would give him 12 weeks of the sidelines. But Hillside were oblivious to this on that chilly Sunday evening. They say a week is a long time in footy – regardless of what level. Hillside would cherish this seven-day marathon.

 

Eli still clearly remembers the panic of the hectic final minutes between Hillside and Aberfeldie on that fateful Sunday afternoon. (Phot: Sean Mortell)

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