The Albatross Rules- Chapter 22, Spirit

22. Round 10, Hellenswood Saints (home): Spirit

Rumours of ructions on the committee had started circulating during the Professor’s absence. On his return he received a few stony-faced stares in the main street. Edie had to handle the puzzled inquiries of those who felt an allegiance to the Secretary and the Treasurer. But the situation was not out of control. Yet.

“What do you think, Barry. Can we sort this out without bloodletting?”

“I dunno, Ede. It might get messy. But I’ve got an idea. Let’s hold off on calling any meetings just for the moment.”

“We don’t want these rumours getting out of hand.”

“I know Ede. Trust me—I know it’s hard sometimes. I am a mad bugger. But I think I can head this thing off. I’ll know by Saturday night if I’m right.”

“OK, Prof.” Edie smiled. “You’re only a little bit mad, you know.”

“Thanks Ede.”

The game against Hellenswood loomed as an important one—they all were now. The team had dug a bit of a hole for itself earlier in the season and needed to play at their best to put themselves into contention. The Nambool game had been a big disappointment. But they had the ruckman back this week and a couple of others had overcome injuries that had been limiting them.

At training the news of the long-haired follower’s imminent return put a spring in the boys’ step. Peter Strauss, in particular, was looking forward to having a bit of a rest and playing a support role. That was how he liked it these days. The team was also buoyed by Perce Nightingale’s support. After his pie night appearance he’d been staying in Albertville with Maur and Con, and had been coming along to training. He’d developed a rapport with the defenders who were glad to take advice from such a respected champion. Perce said it was his pleasure. Now that he had some of the old spark about him he was great to have around, and his reputation alone was enough to make Con’s Albertville charges strive, just that little more, to play at their peak.

So, although the players were aware of some of the scuttlebutt that was circulating it hadn’t undermined their confidence the way it might have. They trained with enthusiasm and seemed focused on the Hellenswood contest and the run up to the finals.

Eagle arrived at the ground early and sought out the Professor who was helping Con re-mark the goalsquares. “Prof, can I have a chat?”

“Sure, kid. Welcome back, it’s great to see you. We’ll be done here in a minute.” He turned to the coach. “You should try this bloke’s cooking some time, Con. Does some interesting things with fish!”

They measured and marked the last couple of lines while Eagle asked if there was anything special the coach needed from him. “Straussy could do with a good break after last week,” Con suggested. “Do you think you could ruck all day?”

“Should be OK,” he replied. “The week off has done me good. I’d been pulling up a bit sore but now I’m feelin’ great. I’m sorry about last week, Con. I didn’t like to let the blokes down but I didn’t reckon I had a choice—I don’t know how much Baz has told you.”

“What he hasn’t told me I’ve probably guessed. Anyway let’s worry about the game.”

“Do you mind if I grab a few moments to talk to the team before they run out today, I owe them an explanation.” Con nodded his assent. “Really that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, Prof.”

“Great minds think alike, eh? I was gonna ask if you’d mind addressing the boys. The team needs to know that they’re supported by the club. But you weren’t… and that’s the point. I’d like them to think about what their response should be. Can you put that to them? I know I’m putting you on the spot.”

“Not at all,” Eagle waved away the Prof’s concern. “I’ll just tell it like it is. I don’t want them thinking I’d just walk away. Not with things coming together.”

Con walked back to the change rooms a little behind the president and the ruckman. Something about that time together in the bush had created a unique partnership of difference that was cemented by their shared interest in the team. They now had the makings of a true odd-couple—the hirsute peacenik towering over the former rover and small time agriculturalist, chatting animatedly. Con recalled the strangeness of their first meeting, at the Grand months before, and couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t just a little bit of enchantment about Albertville.

The rest of the players began arriving soon after and each had a word for Eagle, ranging from Archie’s simple, “good to see ya back, Birdy” to “stuck up a tree last week, eh, ya dill?” from Potter.

Rachmann announced his entrance, as he usually did, loudly. “Ja, I am here, Vair is the party?” He spotted Eagle going through the series of yoga stretches that constituted his pre-match routine. “Big man, You’re back. You byuurrdy!” The exaggerated vowel, still with the guttural overtones of his native tongue, drew a few sniggers around the room.

“Andy. Ready to go today, mate?”

“Ja, Yes, Ja. Oh boy. Vee vinn and then vee party.” Rachmann motioned out the door of the shed. He needn’t have bothered though. The boys always looked now when the German turned up in case, as he often did, he had arrived with an escort. “My—you—key,” he sounded out the syllables and laughed. Outside in the sun, looking a little bewildered, stood a beautiful Japanese girl dressed in a bright pink, knee-length, party dress, fishnet stockings, white bobby socks and lime green platform sneakers. She dipped her head when she saw the attention directed her way, and raised a lace-gloved hand to mask a coquettish giggle. “You join us tonight, ja?”

“You are bloody amazing. Sure, mate. I’ll join you—if we win.”

“Byyyyuuuuuuurrrrrrrrdy. Vee Vin for sure.”

Time before a match starts defies its normal patterns. When you get out onto the ground it speeds up. You’re having a bit of kick-to-kick and before you know it the siren has sounded and the world has been condensed onto that scruffy patch of grass that stretches from boundary line to boundary line. But before that, when you’re still in the sheds, time can seem to slow right down. It’s filled by little personal things that differ from player to player—tying laces a particular way, listening to music, a few minutes on the bike to relieve tension or some moments with the family. For the Albertville coach those moments were often spent in quiet circulation. He used the time to try to pick up the mood of the team and of its individual players. Some blokes would let him know if they had something on their minds and others would keep it to themselves. He’d pretty much learnt who was in which camp and was a bit concerned to see Tex in a quiet frame of mind. “You OK, Tex?”

“Bit flat I guess. I dunno. It’s been a long season. Maybe I’m worried about the finals. I’ve never played in a team that really thought they ought to be there. We’ve made up the numbers before, a couple of times. But this was different. I should feel great about that but I suppose Nambool was a bit of a wake up.”

“It’s footy Tex. It’s hard work sometimes. But I don’t want you fretting about what might or might not happen. I want you thinking about one thing. Getting in amongst it. You worry about that bit of puffed up leather out there and let the rest take care of itself.”

“No worries, Duck.” He brightened up a little, “anyway; it’s good to see the big bloke back.”

The big bloke! It was time to get the team together and Con had to leave Eagle time to talk. He asked Potter for his loudest whistle, which always had the desired effect. “Righto, let’s run through a few things,” Con hollered. The stops of twenty-two pairs of boots clacked on the concrete as the players shuffled together. Con called Boof over. “Players only, Boof. Perce and the Prof can stay too. Clear the rest of ‘em out of here.” The past-players, family members and onlookers grumbled as they were marshalled out into the sunshine. Boof shut the door behind them.

“First up I want to get Nambool out of the way. We played badly. If we’re going to have a bad day at least it wasn’t in the finals. So forget about it. We know what we did wrong. And we got belted in the ruck too. Well Eagle’s back this week, which’ll fix the structure up. Speaking of which he’s asked me if he can say a few words. I reckon you need to hear him out. Eagle, it’s all yours.”

“Thanks, Duck.” The ruckman swung forward through the shoulders of his teammates. “Look I’ll keep it short and sweet. Last week I didn’t play and I didn’t want to just turn up this week as if nothing had happened.

“Well you all know I’m a sucker for a cause. But I wasn’t up there hugging trees, as you call it, last weekend. I was wondering about my future at this club. I couldn’t play where I wasn’t respected and I’m afraid that’s what it had come to.”

There was some uneasy shuffling in the otherwise quiet room. “Don’t shit me Eagle,” Potter muttered, “you’re part of this side, mate. Or have you been on the crazy-weed?”

“Look, I saw a chance to play footy at the start of this year, and I took it because I love the game. I didn’t want any favours. But the fact is that some of the old blokes on the committee decided they wanted me out—spreading stories, badmouthing me. Before the Nambool game I’d been told by a couple of them to ‘take my hairy friends and piss off’. That’s a quote. So that’s what I did. And that’s why I wasn’t around. But while I was off I thought about the team—which is different from the club…”

“Those bastards are all living in the past, mate.” Potter was red with indignation.

“…the team—you guys—you’ve never let differences of opinion get in the way of playing together.”

“So what’re we gonna do about the old-blokes?”

“They’re just set in their ways. I don’t want to crucify them. But I’m askin’ you all to get behind me. Prof, you could do with the support too, eh?” From the back of the room the president nodded his agreement. “I’ll concentrate on footy today. I reckon I owe you two game’s worth. I’ll ruck all day if Duck wants and I’ll do everything I can. And after we’ve disposed of the Saints I want you to do what you can to get some changes on that committee.”

Amid cries of “yeah” and “we’re with ya, mate” Benny Cotton cleared his throat. “Eagle’s right. I was at that last meeting. They do bugger all for us, most of them. We oughtta do something about it. But first lets show ‘em all that there’s a good team in this town…and it didn’t play thirty years ago.”

“They can stick their bloody old premiersh…”

Eagle cut Potter off. “Those old flags and the blokes who earned them deserve our respect. But it needs to go both ways. We’ll show ’em we deserve theirs too.”

“Too bloody right,” yelled Tex, and Con knew whatever had been troubling his little man was now furthest from his mind. Eagle had done not only the Prof’s work but the coach’s too. The mood amongst the players was sharp and focused.

Then Perce stood up at the back of the room. “Humble pie tastes great, boys, when someone else is eating it. I got trashed by a journo once, a sheilah with a sharp tongue and a sharp pen. The next week I dedicated to her. Five goals, eight marks, thirty-five kicks, three votes. Then I gave her a wave at the end of the game. Show ‘em all what you’re made of today.”

“Rightto. Let’s go.” Con called.

As the team began milling around in the moments before they ran out onto the ground Con could see Boof, Eagle and the Prof deep in conversation. Then Boof broke away and trotted to the door. “C’mon Albertville,” he bellowed as he swung it open. The team followed him out looking every bit the confident unit they’d need to be to make it all the way.

On that fine and hazy afternoon the players returned to the form they’d shown two weeks before. Perhaps the Nambool disappointment was just a blip on the radar. The Saints struggled against Albertville’s fast running and direct play. With Eagle getting first use at the stoppages the Albatrosses started linking up in a dynamic fashion.

Encouraging this style of play, Con’s fear had always been that the older players may have been unable to adjust. But when a team starts playing well it’s usually as a team. Boof and Straussy, Archie Pierce, Benny Cotton and the rest of their vintage seemed to be swept up in the wave of enthusiasm. In the space of a month or so they had became different players. They had always been fearless when it came to putting bodies on the line. Now they became fearless thinkers as well, trusting themselves to keep the ball moving, taking the first option, running off their opponents when they sensed an opportunity.

And they were enjoying being able to play with flair, like park footballers for whom the game is less a contest than a physical expression of joy. Archie even allowed himself a rare specky, in the dying minutes, lifting his heavy frame up onto the shoulders of the Saints’ skinny teenage full-forward then clasping a ball that ten years of defensive discipline told him he should punch. The home crowd went wild when he held it.

Albertville had good payers all round the ground that day and no passengers. But two players dominated. Eagle gathered twenty-eight possessions right across the ground. He won all day in the ruck and took telling marks at both ends of the ground, creating options in the forward line and closing down opposition attacks. Con could tell, from the stands, that he was taking a more active role directing traffic around him too. The main beneficiary of this new-found confidence was Tex, who had a blinder. They combined directly for two of Tex’s three goals and Tex continually fed the ball forward from Eagle’s ruckwork.

At full time Boof led the team from the ground, winners by forty-nine points. The margin flattered the Saints who had scrounged a couple of lucky goals late in the game. A broad grin was etched across the captain’s face. “Enjoying your footy, Boof?” Con inquired. “We’re having a ball, mate. All us old fellers are. And I think we might be ready to take the club somewhere special.”

He was right. That afternoon the coach felt, perhaps, if he were being honest, for the first time, that he was in control of a group that could go all the way. A group of talented youngsters who still didn’t know how good they were and honest veterans determined not to miss an opportunity they may never get again.

“What about the committee, Duck—Bob and Bert—do you want me to tell ‘em where we stand?”

“Yeah, I guess, Boof; but let ‘em have a drink first and just do it quietly. Really their hearts aren’t in it. So if the team’s position is clear…”

“Clear as day”

“…then I think they’ll see that their time’s about up. Are you sure you want to handle it yourself?”

“It says captain on the team-sheet. Seems like a captain’s job to me. Geeze the big feller showed ‘em today, eh?”

“He played bloody well.” Con agreed, needing to say no more because the game was still fresh in their minds.


At the Grand that evening the sense of expectation created by the win was tempered a little. The coach and The Prof were off by themselves, talking quietly about the finals campaign. In the darkest corner of the bar a group of past players had gathered. Bert Ironside and Bob Goldsworthy, their usual ring-leaders, were hunched over beers that had long since lost their heads.

Boof caught Eagle’s attention. “Here, give those two a shot from me or they’ll make us all miserable. Glenfiddich—it oughtta cheer ‘em up.”

Eagle took the little glasses. “These are on Boof, fellers. What d’ya reckon—good win today?”

“Good win, yeah,” muttered Bob, not looking up.

“Good game, son. You killed ‘em out there today.” Bert slowly and deliberately raised the little glass to Eagle. A dense aroma of distant peat bogs and fens swept upwards after it.

“Thanks, Bert.”

“Yeah, good game lad. Cheers eh?” Bob sat upright at last and carefully tilted his glass letting a drop of the aged liquor settle on his tongue. The world held many mysteries. He closed his eyes and let them condense onto that pearl of amber liquid. He tossed it back. “Ah! Some things never change, eh Bert.”

Bert spun the scotch up around the edges of its tumbler then put his gnarly old nose, which had taken too many knocks and descended into too many glasses in its time, to the rim and drew a slow breath. When he finally took a taste he held it for a moment before swallowing. Time slowed for him as the flavours and aromas mingled, the way it had when, in his youth, he’d risen above a pack and the pack had held him up and he could see each spin of the ball coming towards him as if he was pulling it in on an invisible string and he knew he was about to take the mark of a lifetime.

Things brightened up in the bar after that. At Eight o’clock, a little later than usual, the German wingman made his entrance with his candy coloured companion who was carrying a beaten up laptop computer covered in stickers. “The party is here, boys. Zwei bier, Boof.” He held up two fingers.

The German sat down in a group with Eagle, Potter, Tex, the Rivera brothers and Kevin Cartwright. His introductions weren’t elaborate. “Miyuke; Eagle, Pete, Tex, Bobby, Kev, Juan.” His Japanese guest smiled and nodded at each in turn. Then she flipped open her computer, right there on the table between the glasses. At the sight of something electronic the Kid made his way across from the other side of the bar and joined them.

“The Kid is here, too. Byurdy. And here is Miyuki; cyber-girl. Ha, ha check it out.” She clicked on an icon and suddenly the screen was filled with a dazzling digital montage of the Albatrosses’ win over the Saints. There were shots of the game as well as incidental images—a sauce covered pie, some disreputable youngsters lounging in the tray of a ute, a goal umpire, flags extended, Barry’s old Humber and various vaguely pervy photos of the boys.

“Ha! Vee have club website now. Heh, Prof, Duck, have a look.”

“What’s this?” The coach and the president came across to see what the fuss was about.

It wasn’t exactly what the Prof had imagined but sure enough there it was:-‘’. “Not bad, ja? Fuuuuunky!”

“Boof,” called Tex, “check this out.” The captain came round from behind the bar and peered over the shoulders at the screen. “Eh, that’s us!”

Then, surprising her new acquaintances, the artist spoke in measured English with just a hint of an American accent. “Your footy page. Andy can fix it too—yes?” Rachmann nodded. “Photos, blog, video.” She clicked on an icon and a little movie showed the team running out for the second half. “You like?”

“Lots of bum shots,” exclaimed Potter.

Its designer giggled. “You like?”

“It’s a beauty,” exclaimed Eagle. “I’ve seen a lot of footy sites but nothing like this. Good on you Miyuke. Can I stick the logos on there?”

“Ja,” replied the wingman, “easy. We fix together. You and me, big fella.”

The Prof smiled and called to the past players. “Come here you blokes. History’s being made.”

By the following Monday night a brutal alpine wind had chilled the air so that, outside, the puddles that had formed after a squall earlier in the day had turned to ice. Barry Massey was surprised to receive a knock at the door.

“Come in. Door’s open.”

Baz, how are ya? Bert extended a hand. Bob, following close behind waved at his old team-mate.

“Sit down boys. I’ve got the kettle on as it happens.”

“Haven’t got a beer ‘ave ya?”

“Sure, Bert. Bob?”

“No, nothing, mate, ta.”

“Good game on Saturday.”

“Yeah, good game Prof. Great win. They’re doin’ well. You’ve done a good job.”

“We’ve done a good job,” the Prof corrected as he returned to the lounge room with a drink for Bert.

“Thanks, Baz,” Bert straightened. “For the beer.”

“We’re here on business, Prof, I guess you’d call it. It’s like this…We’ve been bloody idiots. We went and made a pest of ourselves. I’m not just talking about the committee meeting. You know what I’m talking about.”

“I heard a few things.”

“Well it’s time to get out of the way and get some new blood on the committee,” Bob went on. “You’re different. You’ve got youth in your veins. But we’re getting on and we’re getting cranky—we’re better off just cheering from the stands I reckon.”

“You sure, Bob? Bert, what about you?”

“Awh shit Baz, We’ve done enough harm. We’re resigning mate. Should’ve done it long ago.”

“You know I said we’d win a flag or die trying. Well no-one’s dying and we’re a chance to go all the way. If we get there you’ll have been a big part of it. This club and this town don’t need grudges.”

“Thanks, Baz. That’s what we nearly forgot.” Bert glanced at Bob who bowed despondently.

“Heh, I was talking to Tiger the other day,” the Prof smiled. Soon enough the three team-mates had left the business of the night behind and were reminiscing about old times and games past.

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