The Albatross Rules, Chapter 14- Faith

14. Round 6, Mt Logan Cobras (away): Faith

Albertville had its tiger back and Mt Logan had been humiliated on national television. Suddenly the stakes in the game between the two arch-rivals had been raised. No possible advantage was overlooked during preparation for these clashes. While Con could attend to fitness and hone the skills of the game he had no influence over the team’s spiritual health. That was a job for Father Anthony.

The Father presided over the papal flock of the combined Albertville and Mt Logan parishes. Services were held at St Joseph’s, the beautiful bluestone chapel that had been built when the big company mines moved into Albertville in the 1870s. The Father was a devoted Albatross fan—he felt no need to hide his secular affiliations.

It was a source of some tension that the religious observance of both towns had to be shared in this way.  St Stephen’s Anglican Church in Mt Logan was tended by Pastor Peter Pollock and in keeping with the uncomfortable truce that had been drawn between these branches of faith, each Sunday those in Albertville of his persuasion made the trek down the hill to worship there. The devout would pass each other on the way up and down the hill, wave in acknowledgment of a shared custom then proceed, bad-mouthing as they went, the occupants of each passing vehicle as unworthy scum from that town.

Now even before the airing of the ‘Crazy Town’ story on The Eye on Friday the good Father had upset the worshippers who made the journey up from Mt Logan by wearing his old black and white scarf, clearly visible during the morning service beneath his ceremonial finery. He was unrepentant. Such was the nature of faith, he had proclaimed, that it sometimes required one to follow a path to an unknown destiny. Nobody quite knew what he was talking about or precisely which faith he was referring to. As he said it he gazed heavenwards and his mind filled with the vision of Boof, surrounded by trumpeting angels, raising the premiership cup.

Down in Mt Logan Pastor Peter had been somewhat more circumspect. But the flowers that decorated St Stephen’s, arranged lovingly, to the reverend’s strict instructions, by Marcie McKinnon (who was a believer of many things if The Eye were to be relied upon) featured big bronze Banksia spikes above an arrangement of exotic dark foliage, the black and gold of the Cobras. Pastor Peter’s sermon focused on the prophet’s call for the beaten man to turn his other cheek. The memory of the last game between the two rivals, a thumping win to Mt Logan, was evoked as he finished an uncharacteristically fine oration by reference to the likelihood that the savior’s words would ring true for some of his parishioners before the week was out.

So it was that those in cars returning from their morning services that Sunday all gritted their teeth just a little harder as they waved to cars heading the opposite way. Wayward in matters of both spiritual devotion and football allegiance, the passing parade was to be regarded with the pity that is accorded to sinners and the base mistrust that is bestowed upon rival fans.

After The Eye’s broadcast there was a victorious mood in the bar of the Grand that needed to be quelled. Though a matter of pride had been resolved in a righteous way the real test would come during the game the next day. Con knew feared that the town and its team, in celebrating the moral victory, would be distracted from the game. He was still considering how best to harness the energy of the room when Father Anthony tapped him on the shoulder. “Let me talk to them, Duck.”

Con nodded assent and the little man with the lilt of his old Amagh accent still in his voice, rose onto a chair and reached out his arms, palms down as in blessing, to call the townsfolk to order.

“Now you all know me, but only some of you know the pleasure o’ my sermons (still you’re all welcome, we’re not choosy). As a man of god and a proud citizen I’m glad that the sorry saga of the tiger is over. But that’s why I wanted to speak. I wanted to say that it is over. There’s a big game on tomorrow.

“I’ve been askin’ the lord for as much help from him as I’m game to ask for. He’s not such a vengeful god but he’s not one to suffer pesterin’ and I sometimes doubt that he quite understands about real football, like we play it down here. The Holy father keeps fillin’ his head wit’ soccer. So I can’t ask too much. Besides I know that proddy pastor’s been given it to ‘im down Mt Logan way. So maybe we cancel each other out. But I like to think he favours one ‘o us just a wee bit.

“But either way it’s mainly up to you fellas in the team and it’s up to the rest of us to support ya. Tomorrow we take on a team we need to beat. We can’t be slappin’ ourselves on the back just ’cause some city journo delivered Mt Logan a little justice. If we start doin’ that we’ll be done for. So if not for the lord’s sake then for the honour of his blessed son, The Tiger, Jimmy Hyde, to whom he gave skills to play the game like no other, I say t’ ya do not betray the Albatross tonight. I want to wear the black and white again this Sunday, but it won’t be the lord who makes me do it but you boys on the field.”

The good father was preparing to retake his seat when he was stopped by Peter Potter.

“Father. Can you here a confession?”

“I thought you were without sin, Potter.”

“Not tomorrow father. That pest Collins is gonna get such a hard time he’ll wish he was sucked up into a flyin’ saucer.”

“As the good book says, my son, what happens on the ground stays on the ground.”

“Bless you father.”

The match, which took place in front of the biggest crowd seen at the Mt Logan ground for many a year, had everything. Beneath a boiling sky that threatened to unload a fearful alpine storm at any moment, no quarter was asked or given.

Con wasn’t surprised, given the build up—and the priestly words of encouragement—to find the boy’s minds concentrated on the game. He chose to let Boof, as captain and as a fourth generation Albertvillean, address the team before they ran onto the ground, limiting himself to a brief message stressing one thing—that all the aggression that had been building during the past week be directed towards the ball. If the team were to mount a run at the flag in the second half of the season they could not afford suspensions.

He’d been forced to rest Archie Pierce for this one and had brought in Kevin Cartwright, one of the young aboriginal boys Maree had told him about, from down in the valley. He was tall and athletic. He’d been keen to try his luck at Albertville and had trained well. The transfer came in just in time to pick him. Otherwise the Albatroses had been fortunate with injuries and didn’t need to make changes.

Mt Logan had just one late change. Young Callum Carew had been so angered by the recent TV coverage of Mt Logan and the slanderous portrayal of his father that he had thumped a table at the bowling club so hard that it had shattered and a splinter had caused nerve and tendon damage in his right wrist.

The fiery opening was befitting of the big game atmosphere. The football was not pretty but it was desperate and tough. There were mistakes on both sides as players threw themselves in with disregard for their own safety. As the quarter progressed play started to open up. The teams swapped goals until Mitch Temple, the Cobra’s show-pony spearhead, took a huge mark, up high on Boof’s broad shoulders and goaled right on the siren. The big Mt Logan crowd went wild. The Albertville fans, on the other hand, bit their tongues against rival taunts as they sought the relief of the pie-warmer’s delicacies.

The second quarter started with a free before the siren and an easy goal to Cobra forward Stephenson. Con had to drag Boof though he was sure the indiscretion had been in retaliation. But ill-discipline had to be minimised in a game like this. Besides, it was not such a bad thing to have a good player cool their heels then return with added incentive. Five minutes later and the Cobras had scored again for a twenty three point lead. Con threw the Kid to centre half back and the captain back on as a big target in the goalsquare. He sent a message to the midfield to get the ball up to Boof who responded masterfully. Two goals from big pack marks and they were back in the game. At half time fourteen points separated the sides.

In the third Peter Potter got Albertville off to a flyer. He niggled his way to a free on the wing and an attempt to wipe the smile from his face cost his opponent, Billy Collins, fifty metres. Potter goaled.  His mouth was going ten to the dozen all the way back to the centre-bounce. You wouldn’t have been Collins for quids. Two more to Pirelli and one each to Eagle and Rivera and, in spite of a late Cobras flurry, the Albatrosses had their noses in front.

It’s hard to know, in games like these, where there’s room for the contest to improve. But with so much on the line players somehow find a way. The last term was pulsating and brilliant. Both sides went up a gear. There were spectacular individual efforts like the Cartwright lad’s withering run and dive to smother and save a certain Cobra goal or the stumbling run of Cobra half-back, Phil McKinnon, beating three opponents as he played the tumbling ball along the boundary line. There were speckies and long bombs through the sticks and, deep into time on, the unrelenting pressure had not dwindled. The Cobras had fashioned a four point lead. Cobra rover, Butler, took the ball on the run from a throw in and threw it onto his boot. The goal umpire took up position behind the left goal post, leaning back, riding it hard, caught up herself in the drama of the game. To the spectators it seemed impossible to tell how the kick would finish up as it swirled high in the breeze. But as it reached the goal line it grazed the inside of the post right up near its highest point.

With time against his team Boof kicked long to a crowded centre square. A big pack flew but Potter stayed down. He hit the ball at full pace, leapt a fallen Cobra and split the remaining pack (mumbling meanly as he did, ‘gangway suckers, the little green monster’s coming through’). He zeroed in on the open forward line. As he reached the edge of the centre square he spotted The Kid in space in the pocket. Just as he set the ball towards his boot a late dive came in from the side, hitting him at shin height and taking his feet from under him. The umpire raised his hand but the ball had spilled forward to Pirelli who gathered five metres in the clear. The athletic forward ran, bounced, steadied and launched the ball goalwards. As it sailed through the sticks the Albatross players, as one, went up in jubilant celebration.

But their delight was short-lived. The goal umpire signalled with raised fingers then waited. Amidst a looming wave of confusion the players sought out the field umpire hoping for confirmation. As they glanced back up the ground they were astonished to see him standing imperiously where Potter had been felled, arm outstretched. “Trip. Free kick Albertville. Play had stopped; no advantage.”

No advantage! It was an impossible call. A stupid call. Just plain wrong. The fleas on the back of blind Freddy’s dog could have seen——. Boof ran in to plead the team’s case but the official was unswayed. As Potter went back to take the kick, too far out it seemed, to score, the umpire blew to restart time and the siren sounded. Potter shaped a torpedo that was as good a kick as he’d ever executed. It fell metres short.

There are bad ways to lose good football games. That day at Mt Logan was the worst Con had ever known.

On the terrace the reverend from the home town sidled up to Father Anthony. “The lord giveth and the lord taketh away.”

Biting his tongue the Father looked at him disdainfully. “The lord, you can be sure, had nothing to do with that.” The Father turned and trudged away, allowing himself, just for a moment, an uncharitable thought. By the time he reached the gate through which the lads were wearily trudging he had regained his composure a little. “Great game boys.” he offered.

“What d’ya reckon, Father?” Con thought a little pastoral care might do him good at that moment.

“Ah, Con. He works in mysterious ways. Still… plenty to like today. They’ll be a very good team. Be proud of them. Make sure they know how well they played today.”

“Thanks, Father.”

“One other thing, Con.”

“Yes Father?”

“Tell Maureen, it’s up to the girls now.”

He was right. Next week’s grudge match between the women of the towns now shaped as a scorcher.

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