The Albatross Rules: Grand Final vs Mt Logan

29. Grand Final, Albertville v Mt Logan (at Heathvale): A Note of Caution

On the morning of the grand final there was a buzz of anticipation around town. For fans of the club the week’s training sessions had been boisterous affairs. In spite of all the fuss the boys themselves had remained composed and focused. There was a nervous energy about them but not so much that they were distracted. Tuesday they’d gone pretty hard. Thursday had been just a light run and some kick to kick, followed by a longer than usual warm down. Con didn’t want the boys getting so wound up in their heads that their hamstrings wanted to snap. And the stretching session gave him an informal platform for reiterating the basic messages that had seen the team progress this far. Pressure, pressure, pressure. Fast movement. Helping each other. And he wanted to emphasise that, just as finals are different from home and away matches, grand finals are different again. So he added into the mix, ‘Intensity’. 100 minutes of unrelenting commitment. Then he reminded the team of the unique pleasure they’d have beating Mt Logan to win a flag and that it might be the difference between having a club and not having a club next season.

“How ya feeling?” the Prof asked Con, as they collected balls and cones and tidied up for the last time for the season.

“Good, mate. I’m shitting myself of course. But fear is energy. I’m not going to fight it. Fear makes me alert. Mate I can hardly wait for that moment. I reckon the team is just where we want them, too. Pity about Cotto, but you can’t have everything. Plus you know this’ll be my first grand final, my first premiership. Injury robbed me of my chance. I know what Benny’s going through. But, for me, I’ve waited a long time.”

“It was one of the reasons I wanted you up here, Duck. I knew you’d be good. But I also knew you’d never been part of a senior team that had gone all the way. I wanted someone who had that incentive. I wanted someone who could share that with us. I’ve made a lot of dumb decisions in my life but getting you and Maureen up here wasn’t one of them.”

“Thanks Prof, Let’s see if you feel the same on Saturday night… So tell me, if we win it will it be enough to save the club?”

“I reckon it will, Duck. I reckon it will.”

The beautiful old Heathvale oval was a jewel in the Upper Downs League. Surrounded on three sides by soaring peaks with steep grassy banks that created the impression of a natural amphitheatre, it could accommodate a large crowd. To the west was a view across a narrow valley to the sprawling township of Gunundurra. As the Gunna’ ground itself had always been a bit of a barren paddock the locals of that town had been happy, when the teams combined, to call nearby Heathvale home, though they still trained sometimes at the old oval. The money that had come with the merger had allowed the facilities at Heathvale to be upgraded and everyone agreed that it was the best venue in the comp.

The main game was preceded by an under 19s final. Only five of the league’s clubs had underage teams now; neither Albertville nor Dwights Mill-Barcaroo could support one. Two local school-based teams had been added to the mix. As the Albatross players and fans started arriving at the ground Mt Desperate were edging clear of Downs Valley College with just a few minutes to go before half time.

Con had got in early to set the rooms up, along with Edith who was on balloon and streamer duty. The coach didn’t want to overwhelm the team with messages so he just placed a single word, in large letters on each of the four walls: ‘pressure’, ‘movement’, ‘support’, ‘intensity’. The players could fill in the gaps. They knew what was required. In addition Con had Des and Maree blow up copies of the photos of the club’s other premiership sides and dressed the rooms with those.

Con greeted each player as they arrived and had Perce and The Prof running decoy on the old blokes—keeping them at bay so that they didn’t complicate things. He was happy to have their energy but today he didn’t need their opinions.

Because the road from Albertville to Heathvale went through Mt Logan fans didn’t have to wait ’til they got to the ground for the chance to display allegiances and antagonise opposition supporters. A colourful procession of cars wound down the Mt Logan-Heathvale Road before joining the tail of a boisterous traffic jam. The spaces set aside for cars at the top of the bank surrounding the ground were quickly filled and the paddocks that had been set aside for car-parking were soon chockers.

Con was surprised to see a group of the wildly painted vans of Eagle’s feral green brigade parked behind the far end goals amongst the utes and hotted up hoon cars. As a rule they never came to support the big man, but clearly they understood the importance of the day. And it was the Mt Logan Logging Company at whom their political anger was directed. They were game. Their presence would add another irritant in the already difficult relationship between the two towns.

By the end of the curtain raiser cars were pulled onto the verge of the surrounding roads. It would be the biggest crowd seen in the Upper Downs league for many a year. The numbers of the Albertville and Mt Logan faithful were swelled by the supporters of other clubs, and it soon became clear that they loathed the Cobras nearly as much as Albertville. The underdogs would have plenty of support to drive them home.

Archie arrived with Caz and Maur who stayed with her friend to make sure she was comfortable. Maur was concerned that the extremities of Caz’s barracking—a characteristic that was not diminished by pregnancy nor by marriage to the Cobra’s full forward—might cause her to go into labour. “Just don’t get carried away, Caz.” she urged as they went in search of a good seated vantage point.

“Anyway, you’ve got divided loyalties today,” said Archie.

“No bloody way. Mitch knows he’ll get no sympathy from me after they loose. I think he half hopes I do go into labour so that I have to miss the game.”

“What’ll you do if that happens? Did you and Mitch sort something out?”

“Well I told Mitch it should be his job. I didn’t get this way by myself. I even thought about making him tuck a phone into his knicks but that wouldn’t ‘ve been fair. So anyway, Doctor Don ‘ll be in the crowd. I’ve got his number if worst comes to the worst.”

“What about Mitch, how’s he feeling?”

“Oh, Mitch is OK. He’s such a darl’ you know. Anyway, I told him if there was any news I’d send a note out with the runner. Better see if we can get a spot near their bench I guess. Anyway he’s been so worried about his foot problems—I’m afraid the yoghurt treatment’s been a bit of a disaster—I don’t know that he’s thought about much else these last few weeks.”

There were a group of old dears, sympathetic to the Albatross cause, who had taken up the front row along the grandstand wing, close to the interchange area. Caz and Maur were glad to take seats in the space they made, although when they started asking baby questions Caz quickly redirected the conversation. “How much are we gonna win by, girls?”

Con was hoping he wouldn’t have to say too much before the game. He’d asked the senior players to take whatever action they thought necessary to make sure the team was ready for battle from the moment they walked onto the ground. In the rooms loud shouts of encouragement alternated with quiet reflective conversation and a surreal stillness that suggested a steely resolve. The coach’s job would be easy. Apart from going over the basic game plan he simply made one observation. “What you expect from your team-mates today will be what they expect of you. Go out there and make each other proud.”

From the Cobra’s rooms next door they could hear Phil Everitt rallying his troops. He let his energy hit the Albatross rooms like the backwash of a surging wave. ‘Go ahead, wind them up, Everitt,’ Con was thinking.

Boof led the team onto the ground to a huge cheer and the sound of car horns ringing the ground. And another noise as well. The hippies had a full-on band going, drums and bells and gongs and things. They would do whatever they could to distract Mt Logan players kicking for goal at that end.

“Soak it up, boys,” the captain implored, “this is our day.”

Mt Logan entered the arena, the preliminaries were dispensed with and ends chosen. Albertville would have first use of a modest breeze. Then, almost as if time had skipped forward, the ball was hanging above the heads of the charging ruckmen.

Eagle had the first touch, Potter had the first disposal, Formosa took the game’s first mark, handballed to Juan Rivera who kicked the game’s first goal. Too easy. Cartwright got crunched by the first nasty hit of the game and went down behind play.

Across the ground Con’s players settled better than their opponents. Mt Logan were steamed up but their minds weren’t on the job. They were in a belligerent, sniping mood. Albertville could handle that sort of pressure.

Not until the thirteen minute mark did they score a goal, from a lucky free. The Albatrosses were still fifteen points ahead and soaking up everything that could be thrown at them. Pirelli goaled to restore the margin and, though the Cobra’s game started to come together they kept the advantage until the change of ends.

By half time the lead had tightened to just ten points, and Albertville had lost Kippling to a calf injury. Mt Logan had put their nervous start behind them and were getting on top in defence. They played hard football that relied on their ability to soak up attacking pressure, getting numbers behind the ball, then scoring on the counter attack. It was not an easy game to counter so Con emphasised the need to break through the opponent’s defensive structure by moving the ball as fast as possible. If that meant sometimes bombing it into contested positions within scoring distance then so be it. One on one they were always a chance. They had to play fearlessly.

With the team responding the game opened up in the third quarter. Cartwright, Potter and McKenzie were starring and Eagle regained his early ascendancy in the ruck as the Cobras pair of Donohue and Forbes began to tire. Every time the Albertville big man touched the ball the drums started up behind the goalposts. And every time the drums started up the Mt Logan barrackers became angrier. When Eagle goaled to give them a twelve point break they banged and clattered and danced so much that the birds in all the gum trees at that end took to the air.

It appeared as if Albertville would take a handy little lead into the last break until Temple took a grab on the siren. He rode high onto Archie’s back then launched backwards and struck out with the fingertips of his left hand to drag it in. The Mt Logan crowd went wild. “Bloody Mitch,” screamed Caz on the wing, “missit, missit, missit, missit.” But he didn’t miss. His kicking and his family life followed the same disciplined pattern that allowed him to cope with the rigours of both.

Sometimes football games follow haphazard paths. They are marked by momentum swings and changes that don’t follow any sort of pattern. At other times they seem familiar. Games played in two halves, for instance—those strange affairs where a team that has been dominant comes back after half-time as a purposeless rabble, as if some dire spell has been cast upon them.

As Mitch’s kick sailed through Con had the sense of a game following a familiar and unsettling trajectory. His team had gained an early break that was substantial but by no means decisive. He had sat through two quarters during which they had slowly relinquished all but the last few points of that lead. He felt a little sick as he ran out to the huddle. He felt as if an enormous wave was poised to break upon them. He’d seen it happen before, just like that.

But he also knew, as a keen body surfer, that there are times when a dangerous set comes through. You recklessly catch a wave as it’s forming and for a moment you are thrown out in front of it. Then it builds, taller and steeper behind you and threatens to swallow you. As the tip comes over you know you might be crushed by it. But you also know that if you keep your cool and hold your shape you might just ride the breaker down, keep clear of the treacherous vortex at its middle and be catapulted forward again by its foaming energy.

He could think of no better way to describe our position. He wasn’t sure that surfing provided the best analogy to use on a team from the high country but it was worth a shot. “You’ve gotta ride this out. They reckon they’re coming over the top of us. They’ll be confident and you can be sure they’ll hit us with everything. But if you can soak it up I know you can stay with them. Straussy, you start on the ball. Eagle, go back for the first ten minutes, I want you fresh when it’s needed. And don’t back off. If we go defensive we’ll hand them the game.”

Everitt threw his side around and asked them to forgo the dour defensive game for some hard running. He thought he could break his opponents. Con didn’t have that luxury. He sat back to watch and hope, trusting the team and perhaps the football gods to bring them home. Five minutes in and The Cobras finally snatched the lead after a sloppy shepherd by Eagle, on the last line gave Temple another shot close to goal.

If that goal was the tip of the peeling breaker as it rounded onto itself then Con would know soon enough how the boys would respond. He didn’t have to wait. At the centre bounce Strauss climbed to take the tap but it was picked off by Cobras rover, Rick Renaldo. As he tucked the ball under his arm and set sail towards goal Tex left his man and accelerated hard. The ball carrier didn’t see him coming. Tex braced, and his shoulder crashed through brutally. The rover’s ribs shuddered and his right arm was sent twisting back at an unnatural angle. The ball jarred free and, regaining the momentum that the collision had absorbed, Tex plucked it, twisted around a diving tackle then steadied to snap a handball out wide to Rachmann. The German gathered on the run and found Strauss, who’d drifted forward. Strauss wasted no time, launching a long bomb that, but for a desperate lunge from full back, Piggy Pandazopoulos, would have regained the lead.

With one moment of fearless, brilliant football Tex had salvaged the initiative for Albertville and removed the troublesome Renaldo in the process. All over the ground Albatross players lifted. Con felt a familiar sensation again. But this time it was the adrenaline rush of being tossed ahead of a giant wave and surging at the front of the foam. If they could hold on through the white water then they’d take it all the way to the beach.

The rushed behind brought the team within two points. Piggy’s kick out dipped on Cobra’s back-pocket, Hendrik, who spilled the mark and scrambled desperately to keep the ball in play. But another swooping tackle, this time from Formosa, gathered him and the ball and saw them both across the line. Hendrik stayed on his haunches, gulping for breath as the ball was thrown in. Strauss rose high and swung a mallet fist goalwards. Peter Potter streaked in, took it cleanly at full tilt, then audaciously snapped it back over his right shoulder with a swinging left foot. The ball took a fortuitous bounce in the goal square and spun clear of the diving pack. They had the lead again.

Albertville players who, minutes before, had felt barely able to raise another effort found themselves oblivious to the tribulations of one hundred minutes of frenetic football. Their opponents, meanwhile, found the weight of their efforts suddenly bearing down upon them. Con ordered Eagle onto the ball, brought Strauss off for the extra pace of Bobby Rivera and sent a message out to Formosa to make a bit of space for Pirelli. This last move bore fruit almost immediately when Hartley gathered on the wing and fashioned an audacious run through traffic before bombing to the full forward, one-on-one against the tiring Piggy. Pirelli took front spot and held it vigorously. In his efforts to neutralise the contest, Piggy scragged him clearly around the neck. You don’t expect too many frees near goal during the final stages of a grand final, but the young bloke had earned this shot. He shook off the effects of the contact and coolly slotted the ball through from just inside the fifty.

There followed minutes of grinding, gut-wrenching football during which clear possessions were few and the ball was often buried between weary bodies. Time-on ticked over as the Sherrin went into another pack on the wing. With players running in to join the fray, Archie and Mitch Temple were left alone near the Cobras’ goal square. A scrambled ball bounced clear of the mob between half forward and wing for the Cobras and Callum Carew swept it up.

Mitch Temple was just preparing to lead into space when he noticed the Cobra’s runner, his best man, Andy Natoli, sprinting towards him. Andy appeared to be carrying a folded piece of paper. Temple’s mind began to race. He looked up again to see Carew, about to be tackled. Though distracted he instinctively ran towards the first patch of undefended turf he could see, deep in the pocket. As the rushed kick came in, in that direction, Archie closed. The befuddled forward hit the ball with weak hands and Archie’s fist cleared it from behind. It stayed in play where Boof gathered, banged it back over a wall of players to Potter and Formosa who, after shuffling the ball over a lone defender with a series of handballs, gained clear ground. They were able to run it all the way to the fifty. With Potter protecting him Formosa fired a low ball in to Pirelli, who took it on the chest.

As the full forward lined up for a likely sealer the pale Cobra’s spearhead collected the folded note from his friend. “She OK?” he asked urgently. His hands were shaking. He could imagine how the pressure of a game such as this could precipitate labour in one so football crazy, and heavily pregnant, as his wife. Though suddenly rendered clumsy he eventually managed to unfurl the paper.

As Pirelli’s kick split the posts, the future father squinted at the scrawled note. ‘Eyes on the ball darl–Love you, Caz xxx’

Temple turned crimson. He scanned the boundary in front of the grandstand like a soldier scanning the horizon for a lone sniper. Archie, slapped a bruising hand on his back. “So how’s the missus, Mitch?”

The missus, as it happened, was deliriously happy. She’d had to use all her old high school acting skills, minutes before, to convince poor Andy. But she was no longer clutching her heavy belly. Now she was waving her black and white scarf high above her head and screaming at the top of her lungs. She felt only the barest twinge of remorse for her subterfuge. She remembered keenly how her husband had goaded her about her allegiance to her ‘no-hoper’ team and his unseemly bragging after Mt Logan won the previous flag. She remembered his prediction that they’d both be barracking for the same team, anyway, after the amalgamation. He’d sounded out the syllables of that hated word with relish.

For the whole of the game Caz, when not alarming Maur by roaring at the top of her lungs, had been conducting a silent commentary to her unborn. Its concluding moments went something like this… ‘…the ball’s come out the back to Carew; he’s a nasty piece of work, you’ll meet him later. Carew looks up and sees Daddy. Daddy’s looking worried, Oh poor Daddy, Archie’s whacked it clear. The boys have got it in space. They can take it all the way. Pirelli’s on the lead. You little beauty…’. Caz felt a sharp kick from within as Pirelli nailed it. “Yes baby. That’s right. That one’s for you, little Albatross,” she whispered.

At the restart Eagle opted for a long punch forward. Tex ran onto the ball and moved it instinctively to Potter by hand. He fired another handball out to Boof who’d followed his man up the ground. Boof loaded up with a towering torpedo off two steps. The ball cleared the pack fifteen metres out. The siren sounded. The ball bounced on its end and skidded through for a final goal. The Albatross dream was complete.

“Ohh, yes….” cried Caz, “baby they’re home. Your boys have done it for you, baby. Oh YES, CARNA ALBATROSSES!!!!”

Then her tone became suddenly quieter yet more urgent. “Oh, baby! OOHH little one, oooh. Geeze!” The noise was such that a phone call would be pointless. She desperately motioned to Andy, who could tell at once that she wasn’t faking anything this time. As he ran towards the dejected Cobra players, oblivious, for the moment, to the events of the last three hours, the strains of the Albertville club-song filled the Heathvale stands and echoed out across the valley and through the hills and out across the whole of the Upper Downs.


  1. Dave Nadel says

    And another black and white team wins a flag! I’m really enjoying this story, Richard.

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