The Albatross Rules, Chapter 27: Destiny

27. First Semi Final, Albertville v Gunundurra-Heathvale (at Mt Logan): Destiny

The results of the last round had not gone the team’s way. While they sat out the bye Nambool had stunned Gunnundurra-Heathvale to leapfrog both the Albatrosses and the Roosters into second place. Albertville would have to take the tough road through the first semi and preliminary finals to reach their objective. It had been a matter of just a handful of points, one hundredth of a percent in the end between second and third. Though a bitter pill to swallow, they knew we had no-one to blame but themselves. But they were coming home with a wet sail so the thought of three finals just seemed to inspire the team.

Pete Handley dropped into training on Tuesday to see how they were travelling. He and The Prof had spent the day with Tiger—his cancer was rampant now and the attempts to contain his pain caused him to lapse in and out of lucidity. That afternoon Tiger had enjoyed some good hours during which his perceptions matched those of his visitors. He seemed as cranky as always but more welcoming of company. Though he’d chosen to live a lonely life, that was no way to approach the final siren, he said. That’s when you need your team around you. You’ve spent everything and it’s only seeing your team-mates in the same boat that makes you find a little more.

“Geeze I hope I’m not in the same boat as you, mate. Haven’t they told ya? Your boat’s sinkin’.”

“Just shut up and keep bailing then,” laughed the old champ.

“Tiger,” the newspaperman said, “I’ve had some pretty amazing news from a solicitor who I’ve had looking into something for me in town.”

“Geeze,” said Tiger, “don’t punish me now. Keep me from lawyers, taxmen and politicians my old man used to say. Oh and cops—stay away from them if you can. And women, watch out for them too. And footy officials with fat chequebooks—no offence, Baz, but you don’t fit that category.”

“Anyone else, while you’re at it, you miserable bastard?”

“And nosy journos, I reckon, but your dad was an exception so you can stay. Plus you did a good job on Mt Logan. Laughed so much I nearly died. Really died I mean… Speaking of which, what does this lawyer want?”

“It’s about that season you spent down in the big smoke.”

“And the city. Stay right away from the city, too. Everyone wants a piece o’ yer in the city.”

“Thanks, Tiger. I’ll remember that. Anyway, by the time you did your runner back up to the hills you’d strung together a swag of best on ground performances. You were five votes up in the Tribune’s best player comp. I reckon my old man had something to do with that. He said he never saw you play a game that you weren’t B.O.G. Now the prize…”

“That’d be right. He always was…”

“Tiger do you mind.”

“Not at all mate. He always was a daft bugger. Trudged twenty miles to have a cuppa tea with me… Could’a chosen someone who actually liked company. Then…

“Tiger! The prize that year was a fancy new car and at the end of the year you were still ahead. You won it mate, but you were nowhere to be found. Well not by anyone who cared. Just my old man.”

“Nutcase. Typical journalist except he was a good bloke. So what are you saying. I’m the proud owner of a 1967 Holden. You want me to get up and take it for a spin? Christ I can’t even get up to piss.”

“Just listen Tiger,” it was the Prof’s turn to be exasperated. “You are fair dinkum the crankiest bastard…”

“Never stopped you gettin’ half your kicks from me did it?”

“Bahh! Anyway, there never was a car. When they couldn’t find you it turns out they stuck the money for the car in a trust fund, and then they just forgot about it. That’s what this lawyer bloke’s been looking into. According to Handley here it’s now worth a fair bit.”

“Goodo let’s cash the cheque and I’ll go on a bender.” Tiger laughed, which made him cough alarmingly, which made him tremble all over, which set off some of the electronic gadgetry he had trailing out from him, which brought to the room a fiercely scowling nurse who seemed not to like the poor bugger having any last minute fun with his mates.”

“Gentlemen, Nurse Hatchet. She reckons she cares. But now I know she’s just after me money!”

“Oh just die!” Nurse Patchett’s scowl turned from the visitors to her patient. She checked and reset Tiger’s monitors. “How can you stand being in here with him?” she added as she retreated, shutting the door behind her in a measured, not-quite-a-slam way.

“Don’t look at me like that, Massey. Do you think I’m gonna start charming the sheilahs now!? Anyway, I guess this lawyer’ll get most of the money. They always do. Let’s talk about something that matters. Let’s talk about the finals. How ‘re we gonna go?”

So the three men talked for a while about how the team was fairing and Tiger liked what he heard. He gave The Prof a message for the players and said he was sure it would be their year. The afternoon had dragged on and he had resisted the need for added pain relief for as long as possible. “Go and find that harridan Hatchet, Handley, and get her to work her magic” he demanded.

“You want us to go?” asked the Prof.

“Not yet, mate. You’ll know when.” Once the journalist was out of the room Tiger leant close to his old comrade. “The team’s going well. That’s great. But how’s the club going?”

“Not so good, mate. We made a bit of dough out of the carnival and the family day; even the pie-night, thanks to Ede and Perce Nightingale. But we’re still just keeping the creditors at bay. We’re not out of the woods by any means. A flag might make it hard for them to kill us off this year, but the rest of the league are gunning for us.”

“Well, if that dosh Handley’s talking about is useful, it’s all yours. I made a will—didn’t think it was worth anything. In fact I just figured that if I left my affairs to the club I’d at least give you one last headache. But now it looks like it might be helpful. I hope it is mate.”

“You sure Tiger? Handley, tells me this could be serious money”

“Who else am I goin’ to give it to—Hatchet?”

“Thanks, mate. It’ll mean a lot to the team. I’ll let everyone know.”

“Don’t be daft, Baz! Sometimes you’re more stupid than you look. You can’t tell them. Not yet. They need to play like the life of the club depends on winning that flag. And maybe it still does. Tell ’em after they win it.”

“But Tiger…”

“I know, Baz… You won’t need me around to tell you how to spend it.”

Patchett and Handley returned. Some minutes later, after the long-suffering nurse had seen to Tiger’s drip, his speech started to falter. When he looked over at The Professor and shouted, slurring slightly, “kick it long, you weak bastard,” the two visitors knew it was time to leave.

“Too late,” said The Prof to his old team-mate, “the siren’s gonna beat us.” Then the two visitors departed.

It had been twelve months earlier, almost to the day, that Tiger had first told The Prof that he was sick. That was the day the Albatrosses had been bundled out of the finals race. “Geeze,” Tiger had said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever see ’em win another flag.”

That was also the day that Barry Massey started to hatch his ambitious rescue mission for the ailing club. “I’ll see that you do, Tige’.” But Tiger’s demise had been more rapid than predicted. Even if the team made it through it seemed the champ might not.

Everything else, though, was going to plan. Even the committee ructions had been resolved. From the nominations for vacant positions good candidates, full of ideas and enthusiasm, had emerged. Through amicable discussion Edie and The Prof had avoided the need to take the positions to a vote. The new officials had been welcomed onto the committee on the Thursday after the tribunal hearing, and, by the time the finals started, the issue that had loomed as a major off-field complication had disappeared. The first act of the new committee had been to create some honorary positions on a, ‘Finals Campaign Support Committee’ as a way of welcoming back the disaffected former committee members. It was an olive branch they were only too ready to grasp. They loved the club. It was good to see them back on the terraces again when the team ran out to train on the Tuesday before the First Semi.

That night on the track involved some more skill sessions and some relaxed circle work, followed by some dedicated defensive stuff, tackling, smothering, blocking, which Con let Perce run. Finals, Con told the players at the end of the session, are a different game. “Maybe those of you who played last year have realised that. It doesn’t have to be pretty. But to win you have to do the hard things. We’ve been working on skills but if there’s plenty of mistakes it’s no great surprise because there’ll be plenty of pressure. But if we put more pressure on our opponents then we’ll break them before they break us. Simple. Pressure, pressure, pressure. Make a mistake under pressure—no worries. Just don’t make it twice. But if you allow an opponent an easy disposal you’ll be dragged. Finals football. No passengers.”

There was no escaping finals fever around the town that week. Everyone wanted to talk about the team. Everyone wanted to know the latest on injuries (only a few niggles really, the football gods had surely smiled upon them) and our form on the track. The town was feeling good about itself. So, two days later, a sizable crowd—they’d have been proud to get as many at most home games during the season—turned up to watch training on Thursday night. They watched more work on skills and hard tackling and just some light running, it was too late to do too much about fitness now. The townsfolk raised a raucous cheer as Boof led the boys from the ground. The only person missing that evening, it seemed, was the Prof.

At eight-thirty, as Con was rounding up an address to the players—mostly just a few fatherly reminders about not doing anything stupid between now and the game—Barry Massey slipped into the rooms. He stood listening to the little lecture with arms crossed and a contented look on his face, as an aging patriarch might look out across his family congregation at Christmas time; as if, for the first time in years, the pieces that made up the Albertville Football Club seemed to be in their right place.

Con wrapped up with a simple message, “…two sleeps then it’s finals time. If you believe in destiny, and I do, then the next three weeks will turn out to be amongst the best in your lives. Enjoy them. That’s everyone, too. If you didn’t make the team you’re still part of this. See you all on Saturday.”

Then as a rumbling motivational roar began to swell in the room The Prof stepped forward. “Before you all go I’d like to say a word or two about destiny myself, boys.” The players fell silent again, except for Potter. “Gotta have the last word, don’t you Baz’?”

“No mate, that belongs to someone greater I’m afraid. My message is this. Tiger’s gone. The greatest player this club ever saw—the greatest player Albertville will ever see—died this evening at the hospice down in the valley. Tiger’s greatest hope had been to see this side back on top again. But he’s missed that chance. He had a pretty good excuse. You fellas don’t. Chances like yours are rare. Respect them. There’ll be a function to remember Tiger some time early next week. Before then, you’ve got a game to win.”

Then the president made a little stuttering bow towards his audience. With a glance towards the honour boards, hung around the walls, he shuffled back into the cold air outside. That’s where Con saw him still, twenty minutes later, hunched on the benches on the boundary looking out across the ground with empty eyes. When Con approached him he stood and turned, flung his arms around the coach momentarily in a gesture of profound, wordless, regret. Then he drew back, looked at Con and through him, clapped both hands firmly against his shoulders twice, then turned his gaze groundwards and walked off towards his trusted Humber.

In the neutral yet familiar surrounds of the Mt Logan sports ground the players gathered, on Saturday, for the match. The scene in the sheds was calm, purposeful and orderly. There was something ethereal about the quiet there. It’s at moments like those that a coach must put faith in the instincts they have developed over years in the game. Con thrust the prepared notes he’d made for a fire and brimstone exaltation back into his coat pocket. Instead he went around to the players individually, giving them each, in turn, such encouragement and last minute reminders as required. Perce had a few words, too, with the players he’d been working with. Otherwise barely a word was spoken as the men prepared except by Potter, whose mouth had no ‘off’ switch. Even his chatter was muted, like a radio heard from an adjacent room.

Con had written key phrases and placed them around the rooms including, ‘PRESSURE’ written large on the old whiteboard, but, sensing the mood, he rubbed that off and replaced it simply with ‘Tiger’.

As the players ran out he looked hopefully towards his former team-mate, Perce, not sure really whether the team was ready for the contest. Perce was greatly changed from the dispirited and broken man Con had picked up in the valley not two months before. There was a keenness to him that Con remembered from his football days. “No sweat, Duck,” he laughed, sensing the coach’s uncertainty. “They’re home. You can sit back and enjoy this one I reckon.”

So he did. By quarter time the combine players looked shell-shocked. They had been struggling to repel wave after wave of Albertville attacks. The ball was being swept forward at an astounding pace and key forwards, Formosa and Pirelli were having a field day, along with Cartwright who had the knack of drifting into space inside the fifty.

With more of the same in the second term, the game appeared to be over at half time. My main fear was that the side would drop a gear in the second half and that that might alter the momentum they’d take into the following week. So I urged them to keep running hard and reminded them that a flag would not be so easily won. They responded with two more dominant quarters, not as devastating as the first but full, nevertheless, of precise, hard, committed football.

If the changing room before the match had been subdued, then afterwards the mood was pulsating. The song was sung with gusto, then sung again. Highlights were replayed and analysed. The stinging pain of various bruises, corks and battle-wounds was dulled by the balm of sweet victory. Boof addressed his team-mates, reminding them that preparation for next week’s game had now begun and that no victory, however impressive, would matter much unless they were still playing the week after that.

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