Country footy: Over the hill

At 37 years of age, not having played football since 1997, I find myself standing in the centre square of Ferndale Park, about to ruck against some bloke half my age. This is the definition of stupidity.

How did I find myself in such a situation? A few months back I agreed to have a kick again with a group of mates from Wagga for an annual over 35s match for my old club the mighty Mangoplah Cookardinia United Goannas later this year. The game is looking a bit shaky with numbers, so trying to scratch my footy fix, I rang a mate, who had a mate, coaching the Williamstown thirds in the VAFA. A few phone calls, a cheap chemist mouthguard and here I am.

I wake early on Saturday. What is this in the pit of my stomach? Oh yes, thats right, nerves. Welcome back my old friend. I actually feel like vomiting as I munch on the vegemite and toast. We pack Sophie and the young scallywags Jack and Harry into the Camry, and head for the Westgate.

A quick kick with Jack on the ground and I then I bid my tribe goodbye and head for the sheds. Sophie looks worried and bids me a cautious good luck.

I find the visitors rooms and am greeted by Caine, the coach. “Nice to meet you Craig, gee you’re a big lad, straight in the ruck for you”, he says. I put this down to banter. No way I’ll start in the ruck I think. Start on the pine and then find a comfy forward pocket I’m thinking.

The boys seem excited at some new height. I try and hose down expectations and get a few looks of surprise when I inform the boys that the world was waiting for the Y2K bug to hit when I last played.

Caine tosses me a pair of shorts, “sorry mate this was the only pair I could find at the club”, he says. It has been a long time since I’ve tried to squeeze into a medium. I feel a bit like the Capper.

The side is read out and it is Craig in the ruck. “Sorry mate did you say me in the ruck?”, I ask with the trepidation clearly in my voice. Twenty sets of eyes glance over at me. I can’t squib it here I tell myself and commit myself to the challenge as we head down the race. I can’t help but think it’s a bit silly to be playing me here. Oh well, I signed onto this.

I shake hands with my opponent, a tall bearded chap in his early twenties. He seems shocked by the offer of the hand. I guess old habits die hard for me. The ump tosses the ball in the air and I give my best leap, most probably just over a jam tin, get a hand on it and off we go. My bearded friend puts on the clappers and I give chase. Just follow him around and he will take me to the right spots I think. Problem is I can’t get out of second gear.

My heart is beating a million miles an hour as I try and keep up. A boundary throw in brings relief, instinct kicks in and I stick my arse into the bearded warrior, knocking him off kilter. That felt good. The whistle blows: “one metre apart until the ball is in the air”, says the man in white. One of my few strengths is now useless.

I get my first touch and fire off a handball. Happy to trouble the stats man. I get the hook to the pine after 10 minutes, blowing like I have run a marathon. I see Sophie and the boys and say a quick hello. Jack looks puzzled as to why Daddy is so tired. One day he will know. Sophie bids me farewell and heads home to get young Harry to bed.

A few minutes and I’m back into the fray. I lay a few tackles and start to get my hands dirty. Feeling ok. Bang! I lay a tackle and throw my shoulder into the deck. Shit that hurt. I lay on the ground for a second and gather my thoughts. I get up and realise I can’t get my right arm above shoulder height. My shoulder and bicep throb. An old bung shoulder from cricket has come to say hello again. Wayne Carey carried a crook shoulder for years. I am not Wayne Carey.

At quarter time I tell Caine that will be it for me in the ruck. I try and run around in the forward pocket in the second, however, my bicep and shoulder are in a world of hurt. This is getting silly I tell myself as we head to the sheds in a tight contest.

As I get cold, everything starts to tighten. A quick chat with the physio and a few stretches have little impact. For the first time I start to worry about doing more damage. I think about not being able to play with the kids, should I end up in a sling. Years ago I would have just sucked it up and battled on. Gone soft in my old age. To be honest, I’m fine with that.

I give it another go and a ten minute burst in the third. A few handballs and spoils, however, I’m just making up the numbers. The game is moving too fast. I’m stiff, sore and slow. I’m cooked. At three quarter time, with the coach imploring one last effort, I head to the pine for an ice pack and jacket. I’ll leave it to the young men to battle this out.

St Mary’s Salesian find a leg in the last quarter and out run us. A decent scuffle breaks out and it is all chests and bravado. I am happy to be on the pine at this stage to be honest. Too old for that. We go down by six goals in a decent game of footy.

I’m disappointed as I get changed in the sheds. I was hoping to do more. The simple fact is at 37, and with 18 years on the sidelines this was most likely always going to be a bridge too far. Make no mistake, this is a tough game. I should have given it more respect, trained and prepared. My body, and ego have paid a price.

I grab a lift home from my new mate Ben and we chat all the way down the Westgate. Good people at the Williamstown Football Club. Ben says “see you next week Craig.” I reply that I think my days are done and wish him all the best.

Today I’m feeling like I have been run over by a truck. The bruising, soreness and early diagnosis from my medically inclined wife suggests a torn bicep and some damage to the shoulder. Looks like Sophie will be lifting the kids for a few weeks. I’m probably lucky to escape with only minor damage, all things considered.

For brief moments, gee it did feel good though. To get a touch, lay a tackle, hear the siren buzz. I’m glad I had a crack. I have scratched the itch and confirmed to myself that my days are done.

About craig dodson

Born in the sporting mecca that is Wagga Wagga and now reside in Melbourne with my lovelly wife Sophie and son's Jack and Harry. Passionate Swans supporter and formally played cricket at a decent level and Aussie Rules at a not so decent level! Spend my days now perfecting my slice on the golf course and the owner of the worlds worst second serve on the tennis course.


  1. Mark Duffett says

    The physical impact of boundary umpiring is barely comparable, but at nearly 45, having just forced myself out of an 8-year retirement in order to help get my 12 year old son started with the whistle, and consequently carrying some sort of calf strain through every game this season, I feel a little bit of your pain.

  2. craig dodson says

    Good effort Mark, am sure your son will get many fond memories from the experience. Am guessing deep heat is you new best friend.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Good on you for having a go Craig.i am 52 and hobble around umpiring each Saturday ( have had 10 knee ops) and pull up sore just doing that believe me I don’t run much but there are days I miss playing something chronic, playing footy and mateship formed from it are unique

  4. Mark Duffett says

    That and a freezer brick, my physio (or rather I’m her new best friend given the $) and my wife’s magnesium chloride+oil+moisturiser concoction. Cheers Craig

  5. A great story, Craig. Congrats for having a go.
    Caine actually played his 250th game for the club last week.

    (Minor point of order: we are Williamstown CYMS, not Williamstown!).

  6. craig dodson says

    Cheers Malcolm, great that you still keep your hand in the game.

    Smokie, I assume you know Dave Wouda, my mate who was the connection to the CYMS (point noted)? Caine must be very modest, didn’t mention the milsestone.

  7. Craig, what can I say? We clearly didn’t go hard enough during our recent kick-to–kick sessions at Yarraville Gardens and then Yarraville Oval. Come Spring we may re-convene, pending Sophie’s medical assessment. But how will the mighty Mangoplah Cookardinia United Goannas cope without you? They’d pencilled you in to be rucking all day, jam tin or no jam tin.

  8. craig dodson says

    We should have incorporated some contact drills!

    I will be back kicking those mongrel punts in Yarraville later in the year

  9. craig dodson says

    nasty postscript to the story.. MRI revealed fractured Humerus (bone from shoulder to elbow).. Footy boots now well and truly buried in the bottom of the closet.

  10. Hope the Humerus is on the way to mending. But then again, it may be a blessing in disguise. You might get a permanent deformity out of it that renders your gentle off spin unplayable. There is still a chance that you end up becoming the oldest test cricketer to take 10 wickets on debut for Australia. A billion to one chance, but a chance nonetheless.

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