The Albatross Rules: The Finale

30. Birth and Rebirth

Loudest amongst the voices raised in celebration was that of Benny Cotton. Still coming to grips with the crutches he’d sported since the preliminary final, Benny half hopped and half swung down onto the ground before the siren had barely stopped ringing. Nobody begrudged him the chance to join his comrades in their proudest moment. Con knew some of what he’d been experiencing. But Benny displayed little of the sense of loss the Coach had felt when injury kept him out of the grand final in ’92. Con’s had been, he realised now, a professional and personal disappointment. This was different. Though Con hadn’t had an on-field role this had been a victory for a team and a town—his team and his town.

Benny whacked his old mate Boof so hard on his broad shoulders that the recoil nearly sent him toppling off his crutches. “You bloody beauty. You ripper!”

Boof was smiling with the satisfaction and contentment of a proud father. He’d played until he could run no more. Potter was more animated. He was running rings around the Mt Logan huddle, rubbing it in while accepting the dejected hands that acknowledged defeat. In the crowd Edith was singing in her churchy, sub-operatic way, but her teeth had worked loose, adding to the gracelessness of the club song. Nearby Honey O’Reilly was mangling it even more. She was brimming with pride for her boys, particularly Robby. He’d had a great game to cap a great year. Back in the room at the pub that had been his home for the last six months the electronic toy bought to help him settle in the town had been kicked under the bed long ago. If he returned to the city it would be as a different person indeed. Then again, he had reason, perhaps, to want to stay around a while.

The Prof skipped out to join the players as fast as his aging knees allowed. He was greeted by a loud cheer. The players knew that in many ways it was their crusty supremo who had given them this opportunity. Next to arrive was Edith; her aging pegs were more robust than the president’s. She went to shake her colleague’s hand but he opted for a heartier embrace that made her forget at least a couple of decades. “We did it Ede. We bloody did it!” the old boy glowed.

Caz, meanwhile, had summoned the Mt Logan full forward who, seeing Constable ‘Plod’ Clarke on the boundary line had called for his assistance. His wife’s indiscretions were forgiven—he knew he had it coming anyway. “We’d better hustle, Mitch,” she urged, “this is happening quicker than I woulda thought.” The timing between her contractions was shortening noticeably. “This baby wants to join the party. You played great darl, really. But the boys. Oh wow, how good were they? What’d ya reckon Ploddy? How good were they?! Oh, what a day. Just the best! Oh, wow. Oooh. Oooohhhh!”

Plod guided the couple between the rejoicing and commiserating fans. As they parted the reason for the urgency of the policeman and his group became apparent. They may have been momentarily tempted to reflect on the relative unimportance of football in the scheme of things. But Caz would have none of that. She greeted each black and white bedecked supporter with raucous celebration and even had a word or two for some of the normally more strident Mt Logan fans. Indeed, Plod and Mitch had to encourage her forward. As they ushered her through the milling crowd she swooned under the influence of a heady hormonal mix concocted by these most exquisite of circumstances—a grand final victory at the moment of the first stages of labour.

The way of the three towards Plod’s police car was made difficult by the surge of bodies in the opposite direction. From the old wooden stand and the vantage points at the top of the hill, from cars and bars and all around, delirious Albertville fans flooded down and onto the ground to join their team. Spinning through the air above the ground were hundreds of footies in an array of colours and sizes, propelled by hundreds of happy kids. The win triggered a host of memories for the old boys of the past players association, particularly those from the seventies, when the club had last known such success.

And Con—so recently an outsider—he soaked it all in. He remembered punching the air when the siren sounded and being wrapped up in a Perce Nightingale bear hug. By the time he wriggled free he was being overtaken by the fans streaming onto the ground. So many of them wanted to shake his hand, slap his back, or give him a word of thanks that his passage to the playing group was slowed considerably.

When he did arrive at the huddle a rousing cheer went up that he would never forget. It was then that the moment’s double significance really hit. He had his premiership at last. It was every bit as sweet as the one he’d missed out on a decade and a half before. And he was part of a team that had achieved it together—as much a part of the club and the town as those locals who had stood by through the barren years. He’d been greatly privileged. And in the process of securing the flag he knew he’d helped a town recover its sense of itself and maybe secure its future as a stand alone club.

“They could never have done it without ya, Duck. How does it feel, mate?” It was Nugget O’Laughlin, Con’s predecessor, and only months before part of the old-guard on the committee who had threatened to destabilise the club.

“How does it feel, Nugget?” Con replied. “Bloody brilliant.”

Pretty soon a little dais had been fashioned in front of the grandstand and the same league officials who had been planning Albertville’s demise stood eye to eye with the players who had thwarted it. Premiership medals were handed out. Con’s felt like gold in spite of its tinny ring. Then the ‘J.B. Hyde Medal’ was presented for the best afield on the day. There were many candidates in a winning team that had shared the ball and played as one. Formosa and Pirelli had been great in attack. Potter’s efforts in and under had given the team possession in contested situations on many occasions. Archie Pierce had been more than solid on the dangerous Temple. Eagle had rucked pretty much all day and took the points over a tough opponent. There were others that deserved a mention too. Any would have been a worthy recipient. But a roar went up around the ground when old Fred Parkinson, who played six seasons at the highest level before returning to captain Dwights Mill’s last premiership side, made the announcement. “The winner of this year’s Tiger Medal for the best player afield is…” he paused like an old pro, “…Boof McKenzie.”

That night the Grand Hotel rocked like never before. The premiership cup—a modest affair—took pride of place above the bar. The television showed a replay of the game, and though the quality of the production left much to be desired every Albatross goal was greeted by thunderous applause.

There was music, too, to entertain the patrons. A bit of impromptu karaoke ended promptly when Honey threatened to sing. Then Rachmann and Potter produced electric guitars and played a short drunken set of heavy metal favourites of the stadium rock variety. There followed numerous renditions of the club song. Finally, on the urging of the crowd, and this time with Edith’s complete approval Sam Naughton regaled everyone with his best Elvis impersonation—Heartbreak Hotel. He was pretty good too.

There were a few formalities as well. The Prof thanked everyone who’d supported the team. “It’s been one hell of a year. There were moments when even I didn’t think we could do it. To the players and to Duck—well this town is indebted to you.

“Now, speaking of debt,” the President continued, “you all know that the club’s been in a bad way and that the big wigs have been eyeing us off. Those bastards have been circling like vultures all year. They want that merger with Mt Logan. Well I can also tell you tonight that it’s never going to happen. The Albatrosses are debt free and cashed up. So stuff ’em all. This club’s here to stay.”

I’m not sure if the cheer that followed that remark was the loudest since the moment the siren sounded. But it almost lifted the roof off the old pub. The Prof went on to explain how Tiger had bequeathed the money from the Tribune’s award and how, in the old champ’s ignorance of it, it had been shrewdly invested. He thanked Pete Handley for his part in bringing the award to light and for the support he’d given Tiger. The gangly media-man rose in acknowledgment but he had celebrated too hard and his legs gave way. Though his piece on Tiger’s remarkable story would be appearing in the Sunday tabloid the next day it seemed doubtful whether he would read it until some time on Monday.

Towards midnight a call came in for Archie. After some moments on the phone he called Father Anthony across. As the good father was taking the call Archie called for a bit of shush. “Great news, everyone. Caz has had a boy. It all happened quick. Seems the little tacker didn’t want to miss grand final day for anything. Everything went well. Mitch says g’day to everyone, by the way. And Maur, he says he’s sending a photo to your phone for us all to have a look at.”

Con glanced across the room towards Maur. She was smiling serenely in the midst of the mayhem of the celebrations. It was a smile to herself mostly, but on meeting Con’s gaze she drew a breath and closed her eyes gently and he knew she wanted him to see her contentment.

Then her eyes opened suddenly again and he saw her dive for her handbag. She flipped her phone open and smiled broadly. There on her screen was a shot of the new-born, decked out already in black and white, lying in a cot beside a small soft toy—a dirty looking fluffy yellow bird. Maur nudged the Prof who looked down and smiled, looked away then swung back and grabbed the phone out of her hand and peered with astonishment at the little image on the screen.

When the cheers that had greeted Archie’s news died down, it was Father Anthony’s turn. “There’s to be a christening. The young lad’s faith and his fate were decided when that siren blew this afternoon. Anyway, the details have gotta be worked out, but it seems his parents had a wager of sorts on the game. ‘Naming rights’ Mitch called it. So he says you’ll all be invited, some time soon, to meet our latest recruit. I’ll be christening him Albert, of course. That’s the name his mother’s chosen for him. Little Albert Ross.”

Things seemed to go right for Albertville after the flag. A big mining firm started sniffing around the old mine. Apparently the gold price was right for maybe starting it up again. Boof had been working with Billy, from the women’s carnival. Together with Rory (as cultural adviser) they were soon selling getaway packages to the area. After the tourists started arriving Rory reopened one of the boarded up shop-fronts as a gallery cafe. The Pedersons, seizing an opportunity, re-did their signage. They stopped being simply butchers and became, to the amusement of all who knew them, Pedersons’ Gourmet Country Butchery and Larder. It rained where rain was needed and the cricket team started the season just where the footballers had left off.

Oh, and Maureen and Con decided to stick around for another season, though Con thought it wasn’t for him to say whether or not that was such a great thing for the town. What he knew for certain, when he looked back on the season past, was that Albertville had been great for them both. Maur was made godmother and given ‘aunty’ status by Caz. Con had a premiership to his name at last and a team with whom to share it. They were in no hurry, either of them, to return to the bustle and the smog or to the indifference of life in the big smoke just yet.

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