The Albatross Rules- Chapter 28

28. Preliminary Final, Albertville v Nambool (at Hellenswood): Jimmy’s Gone A Fishin’

On the Monday afternoon following the semi-final win the people of Albertville, past and present, came together to celebrate the life of ‘The Tiger’, Jimmy Hyde. Among them were most of the players from the club’s golden era. During the seventies, with Tiger, as captain, roaming the ground collecting kicks at will, the side had played in seven grand finals and won four flags. They’d gone back to back in ’76 and ’77. That afternoon the players of those great sides stood alongside the young bucks who were attempting to realise Tiger’s dream of a return to the top of the table. For once Con didn’t resent the opinions of the old brigade. They had grand-final experience. Some of them had played in all four winning sides.  Con wanted all the youngsters to realise how much a premiership would still mean to them, even thirty years on.

The Grand was perhaps not the most appropriate place to consider the achievements of the town’s greatest tea-totaller. But The Prof had talked about it with him and Tiger had insisted that the focus at the club, at the ground and in the rooms, should be firmly on the finals campaign. “No distractions, mate; if you’ve gotta dance on my bones do it at the pub.”

And a church funeral was out of the question. Though Father Anthony had been one of Tigers last visitors the old champ was not a spiritual man. The father was one of many during the afternoon to say a few words about the departed rover.

“I went down to see him a couple of weeks ago. We spent an hour or so talking about footy. As I was about to go I asked him, because it’s my job, so I felt I should, whether he wanted to confess his sins or receive the sacrament. He responded with a question that I have asked many times myself, though I think he meant it somewhat differently. ‘Christ,’ he said, ‘what’s the point?’ I then asked if he’d accept my blessing and he said, sure, why not. But he reckoned that if he was going to meet his maker, which he doubted, that it would be up to the deity to find the time to explain a few things, so not to go to too much trouble.

“Really,” the Father concluded, “it was us, the people of Albertville, who were blessed by Tiger. I never even saw him play but I’ll never tire of the stories of his exploits.”

“How about I tell ya one then, Father?” Pete Inglis, who had been Vice-Captain to Tiger for three seasons, stepped up onto the little stage. “I want to tell you all about a game we played against Mt Logan. They had a good side that year, ’76 I think. We beat them in the grand final. Anyway it was a shocking day and on his way down to the Mt Logan ground Tiger, riding his old Vincent, got bogged. He ditched the bike and ran most of the way from the shack he called home. When he arrived it was quarter time and we were twenty-two points down. Our coach, Bill Symmonds, gave Tige’ a savage dressing down. ‘You’ve cost us dearly, Tiger. What I want to know,’ asked the coach, ‘is what you plan to do about it?’ Tiger thought for a minute then asked Ron Platt, one of our trainers, who was stats mad, how his figures were that year. ‘You’re averaging twenty eight possessions a game, two goals, and taking five marks.’ ‘Thanks, Ron,’ said Tiger. ‘I’ll double that for ya’ Symmo. ‘ll that do?’ Now for anyone else that would have been just a bit of show, but for Tiger it was a deadly serious proposal. In the next quarter he had fifteen kicks and three handballs and kicked three goals. Mt Logan became so Tiger conscious that their game completely collapsed…”

Inglis was just getting started about how Tiger liked nothing better than humiliating Mt Logan when who should pop his uninvited head around the corner, but Cobras full forward, Mitch Temple, known variously as Shirl to his team-mates and B.A. (short for ‘body’s a…) to less charitable opponents. Mitch had the righteous self-importance of many of his breed, who live sheltered lives in the shadow of their team’s goalposts. And he was not the brightest star in the solar system. “Ohh, Geeze, sorry folks. I was after Sue-Anne.”

“Get outta here, Temple,” shouted Sam Naughton. But Sue-Anne was more accommodating. “Need more yoghurt, son? I’ll be back in a moment.” As she crossed the street with Mitch in tow the two chatted amicably.

“What’s that all about?” queried Inglis. Caz, Archie’s niece and shortly to be the mother of Temple’s first-born, filled everyone in. The details of Boof’s reprieve at the tribunal, saved on the evidence of a leading dairy expert, had been a close kept secret. But now the full story could be told.

“Ahh, yoghurt,” she sighed. “Our place has been full of it since Sam Murphett got his brother-in-law to come up and help mount Boof’s denfense. See Sam doesn’t know the difference between sports-science and food-science. But his brother-in-law, the good food doctor, managed to convince the tribunal that he was the real deal. Then, after Boof gets off, Phil Everitt decides he’ll get some expert advice about Dopey’s troublesome ankle. So the doctor, just for the hell of it, tells him to soak it in this special yoghurt, that he can get up at Sue-Anne’s store. Mitch has spent an hour with his foot in the stuff every night since.

“Well you can bet that I’m not going to discourage him,” she went on. “The only thing it’s really done is given him a nasty fungal infection between his toes. I’ve told him that in my delicate condition I can’t share a bed with him and his stinking foot. So he’s also been a bit short of sleep—our couch is not too flash.

“I’ll tell you this much,” she continued. “If we get past the prelim’ then we’ll face a full-forward on grand final day who is dog-tired and probably a little on the nose. And he’ll still be proppy too, most likely, because god knows that yoghurt’s not doing him nearly as much good as he thinks it is, poor bugger.”

To say that Caz was generously applauded for the commendable sacrifice she was making for the team would be a considerable understatement. “You bloody bewdy, Cazza,” shouted Potter and Archie added, “Tiger would be proud of ya, Caz-girl!” He was as pleased as punch with his niece’s sporting infidelity.

Through the afternoon guests continued to tell anecdotes about Tiger; there seemed no end to his amazing on-field achievements. Like the day he ran from full-back to full-forward with seven bounces (or was it eight) leaving Mt Desperate players in his wake, then, just twenty yards out, handballed across to The Prof because, he said, he couldn’t be bothered kicking the goal himself. Or his first game in ’68, his comeback game after the failed big league stint, when he kicked a blinder from the middle of a goal-square pack that threaded through three pairs of legs as they parted in a line as if he had harnessed the power of Moses at the waters. No one doubted that it was anything other than a deliberate shot executed with divine skill and timing. As for Tiger, he insisted he’d done it before and it was nothing special.

Part way through the gathering a courier arrived at the door with a package for Pete Handley. He signed for it adding, “you’ve come a long way, mate. Grab a beer and settle in for something special.” The reporter then quickly unwrapped the parcel. Inside were a number of photocopied pages and a disc labelled ‘highlights’. Handley jumped up onto the improvised stage at the next opportunity. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve got something special for you. I hope you enjoy it. Hit it, Boof.”

Boof tapped the remote control and the old TV screen crackled to life, displaying a simple title, ‘Jimmy ‘The Tiger’ Hyde’, Ravens highlights, 1967.’ There was a gasp that spread through the room. Nobody had considered the possibility that any footage of Tiger still existed. Except for Handley of course. He’d pulled plenty of strings to get it too. For the next thirty minutes the Albertville faithful were treated, in grainy black and white, to the exquisite and sublime football brilliance of the boy who had captured the imagination of the football world in little more than half a season. He was fast, hard and instinctive. He did impossible things with a ball designed to frustrate such deft control. His vision was such that he could spot a team-mate at right angles.

The effect of the compiled footage on the older folk was one of recognition. It was as if a prodigal son had returned and they were reacquainting themselves. Upon the youngsters, particularly members of Con’s team, it was perhaps more profound. Tiger, to them, was pure legend. Seeing him up on screen performing so spectacularly gave that legend form. If the Albertville Tiger itself had walked at that moment into the bar and announced itself with a low guttural roar the impact could not have been greater. Every move confirmed the perfection of his game. His evasive skills left opponents bemused and flat-footed. And he showed leadership on the field beyond his meagre years or his natural shyness. One shot showed him urging Fred Fallon, one of the game’s great forwards, to go back and take his kick from out at centre half forward when the big man looked keen to pass it off. It was sage advice as the siren sounded just as the ball left Fallon’s boot. Jimmy Hyde was the complete footballer.

There were shots of courageous marks, going back with the ball. There were shots of tackles on larger men who simply never saw him coming. And, in a game against the Reds there was a featured goal from the edge of the square with a scrambled ‘worm-burner’ that appeared to bisect three Reds defenders. “Hyde’s just gone straight through them,” screamed the commentary. “That is unbelievable!” The Albertville crowd cheered. It was true. He had done it before. At the end of the package was a short interview that showed Jimmy Hyde, the nervous country kid. He answered in single syllables and looked like a rabbit held in a spotlight. ‘Great game today, Jimmy’ – ‘thanks’, ‘You seemed a bit sore when you came off—any problems?’ – ‘nup’, ‘How do you think the season’s going for the team?’ – ‘good’, ‘There’s been some talk that you might return home at the end of the season’ – ‘maybe’, ‘still you have to be pleased with your form’ – ‘yep’, ‘thanks, Jimmy’ – ‘thanks’, ‘there you go folks, he’s a young man of few words, but he can sure play football. Back to you Pete.’

Rapturous and spontaneous applause erupted as the screen dissolved to black. Handley stood again. “I’d like, if I can to read you something about Tiger. It was written by my father who—and this is a secret Jimmy took to his grave—who did track Jimmy down that spring when he came back here from town. Those of you who were here will remember that the place was crawling with journos. But none of them could locate Tiger until my old man found him in a cattleman’s hut up on the high plains. This is the full text of the story my old man wrote after talking to Jimmy. But it’s not the same as the one he filed that afternoon…

Jimmy Hyde is going fishing. Sometime this afternoon he’ll take the old cane rod down. He’ll go to a place below the mountain peaks, not too far from the sweet, cold air that licks around the hut in which he has set himself up. And he’ll cast a lazy line.

Jimmy’s been up here ever since the first of us reporters started sniffing around Albertville, hungry for a story that he could never give them. He didn’t want their attention. He had nothing to say. So he’s going fishing. But before he goes he says I should have a cuppa with him. Because Jimmy knows that sharing a cup of tea is the right and proper thing to do with a guest. And seeing I’ve found my way, by the crooked instincts of my craft, to this lonely place, and maybe because I just walked up and knocked on the door instead of skulking around like some of my colleagues, he says I should stay a while.

“Here, hang your boots up.” Says Jimmy. I think it’s the longest sentence he’s ever spoken to the press. So full of delicious irony too. “Hang ’em over the fire,” he says. “Dry ’em out.” They’re worse for wear after hours of trudging, on a hunch, across the boggy mountain country. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” prompts the lad. I haven’t even stopped to think. But yes, it is beautiful. It’s country which, on a benign day like today, shines the pale luminescence of vast distances, releases a perfume of sweet meadow grasses and plays the soft melodious tune of rustling winds and birdsong.

So after we’ve had a warming cup of tea and some biscuits from a tin, and I’ve had a nip of scotch to brace myself for the return walk, Jimmy’s going fishing. He deserves that simple pleasure. Jimmy has given his best on the fields of a foreign land, the flat green plains of the big city football grounds. He thrilled the old-timers, who clattered off their clattering trams for the game each week. He thrilled the whipper-snappers who climbed up onto the pie stand roof for a better view. He thrilled the screaming girls, set their hearts aflutter with his exquisite footwork. And he thrilled the bustling matrons who held their tartan blankets tight on their knees whenever he went near the ball.

I thank him for his kindness and he thanks me, which is a little odd, for the effort that I went to, finding him. I tell him that no-one else need know. I tell him that the secret of this spot will be safe with me. And on my way back down I guess I’ll decide how true I should be to that word. For in my profession honour can be bought and sold and information like that has a price. But in Jimmy’s world honour is a good word and a word is as good as any lawman’s deed.

My boots are warm and dry again. The air is clear and pure. The scotch has fuelled me well for the task. Yes, I think I’ll type a different story when I get back to the Tribune’s smoky press-room high above the clamouring streets. I’ll make the kid a modern Clancy. Dress it up a bit for the readers. Keep them happy. Because it’s better that way, like Clancy. Jimmy’s gone a fishin’, and we don’t know where he are.

Last time the team played Nambool they struggled. It had been an ugly and unconvincing exhibition by both sides but, in spite of the close score, The Ravens had always looked like winning. Since that game both teams had consistently played good football and had emerged as the most likely challengers to Mt Logan’s dominance. Now it was crunch time.

Before the game the players looked nervous. Perhaps all the talk of Tiger’s greatness had made them question their own more modest talents. But they were talented and when they played as a team they had shown they were very good. Today was the day. Con took a few steadying breaths then hit them with both barrels. He went for fire and brimstone. He gave the team the whole eye-popping, floor pacing, table thumping treatment. He yelled myself near hoarse. Then he had Perce come in and play ‘good cop’, pressing the message home hard but without the bluster. “Remember this is finals football. Defensive pressure all over the ground. No let up. Then when you’ve got possession move the ball quickly. Try to stick in the corridor. Trust each other. Help each other. You’ve shown how good you are. Don’t waste this opportunity.”

Within minutes of the first bounce Cartwright and Halpern had goaled and the team had settled into a rhythm. The more physical Nambool side was trying to test them but they weren’t intimidated and stuck to the game plan; defensive pressure and fast direct attacking football.

Just as Con was feeling comfortable about proceedings, however, fate intervened. Benny Cotton tried to crash a pack. Big Martin Edwards for the Ravens hit him with a crunching hip and shoulder as he emerged with the ball. Whether it was that contact or in the process of splitting the pack open, Cotto went down. He tried to stand but clearly could not put any weight on his right leg. Cotto’s ankle had snapped.

It was a cruel blow to a club stalwart who had felt closer than ever to being part of a premiership. In eleven seasons with the club he’d rarely missed a game. He’d played through crippling back pain for most of the season and had lost five kilos to ensure he’d be at his best for the finals. He hadn’t touched a beer for two months. And now he was out of the game and his season was over.

Nambool seemed to sense a chance to turn Cotto’s injury to their advantage. Not only had the Albertrosses lost an important player but the fickle nature of football suddenly seemed to weigh on the younger Albatross players’ shoulders. They started to fumble and make errors and Nambool pounced. After giving up a three goal lead they steamed back to be four points up at quarter time.

The break gave Con a chance to settle the boys down. He rallied against some of the sillier mistakes, chiding Rachmann for not shepherding and Rivera for failing to take a quick option and getting caught with the ball. They were tough kids and the coach knew they’d respond so he martyred them for the cause.

Sure enough they bounced back well. The other players also got back on track. But Nambool had their tails up and weren’t going to make things easy. The final three quarters contained some of the hardest and most exhilarating football in the competition that season. Neither side could make a critical break. Albertville led by five points at half time and three at the last change.

Through the last quarter, bodies tired. Players had to find reserves of energy they hadn’t tapped all season. The teams shared goals, with five lead changes up until time on. As the clock passed twenty minutes The Ravens held a three point lead with the ball trapped deep in the Albatross attacking zone. A scrambled kick bounced towards the goal square where Tex Halpern gathered it as tacklers lined up to bring him down. But Tex, who wasn’t known for flash football, fashioned a kick that he later said seemed to ‘just happen’. He threw the ball down onto his left foot as Petrovic lunged across to smother. He swung his boot, low hard and flat and sent the ball under the defender’s dive. Anderson, Peters and Millington had formed a wall three players deep between the kicker and the goal. They watched with horror as the ball fizzed through underneath the bracing stances they had taken. To the delight of the Albatross fans Tex had kicked a Tiger special, and he wasn’t at all sure that the old club champ hadn’t somehow had a hand in it.

After the bounce Nambool attacked again. But Boof’s defensive grab, running into the hole forty metres from goal, and then his quick hands to Archie Pierce, repelled the forward move. Archie spotted Eagle in space between wing and half forward. His kick found the big man whose long handball hit Pirelli on the chest. The forward swung inboard onto his favoured right foot and slammed a final goal through. Though Nambool attacked hard for the final two minutes of the match they could do no more than scramble a couple of points.

The siren that announces that you’ve reached a grand final is one of the sweetest sounds in football. As the team came together in the centre of the ground there were tears in the eyes of many old time fans. One week, one game, and Albertville might have its flag at last.

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