The Big Nick

 

by John Green

I never thought I’d see a band of Vikings marching up the centre of Bridge Road.

There they were. Arrayed in red and white, sporting horned helmets, brandishing hammers and calling on the names of ancient Norse gods.

At least that’s what I thought they were saying. They weren’t the only ones on the street that night.  Rows of Africans playing drums with onlookers swaying to the beat. Middle-aged men in Union Jack t-shirts singing near the pub on the Waltham Street corner.  Irish in emerald green spilling out from the bar of the Mt.View Hotel. Maoris, Pacific islanders and pretty Japanese girls in kimonos.

And everywhere, in the sea of people moving up the hill, the green and gold of the eucalypt and the wattle. It was November 20,. 2022 – the AFL World Rules Final between Australia and Denmark.

Andy and I moved with the tide.

“You nervous Mick?”

“Me?” I replied.”Nah. Well I am a little. Wouldn’t be right for the Aussies to lose again tonight. After all, we invented it.”

“Yeah, it’s strange isn’t it? I know we helped to bring world peace and all that when they started  playing footy, but I never thought anyone else would actually get good at it.”

It happened quickly. The rise of Australian Rules Football to become the most popular sport in the world. Some trace this seismic change to the success of Kevin Sheedy in luring Barcelona’s Argentinian maestro, Lionel Messi, to change codes and play for Greater Western Sydney in 2013. Others point to Manchester United going into receivership in that same year and forcing outraged fans to rattle collection tins throughout the north of England in a desperate bid to keep the club afloat. Or was it when a major power in Italy’s Serie A was defeated by a tiny club from a breakaway republic in Central Europe in a Cup tie and their manager was found to have taken a bribe. Until he was exposed, the gentleman in question was poised to receive the entire year’s proceeds of the republic’s illegal gun trade.

The last straw for many was the decision of FIFA to award the 2022 World Cup to joint hosts  Somalia, Sudan and Libya. Claims of corruption were ignored. New FIFA supremo,  former  Libyan president  Muammar Gaddafi, threatened to unleash a wave of destruction upon any country challenging the voting process.

Captivated by images of the robust and thrilling Australian game on cable TV, disillusioned fans of the round ball code flocked to the small football clubs in their home countries or rushed to form their own. New clubs sprang up like mushrooms.

There were immediate appeals from all over the world for AFL headquarters in Melbourne to send footballs, guernseys, beanies, witches hats and DVDs explaining the rules. The AFL could scarcely keep up with the demand.

Many responded to the missionary call and headed overseas, especially if they were out of contract. Robert Harvey came out of retirement to take up the appointment as captain-coach of the Putney Magpies in London. 

In just a few short years the exponential rise of Australian football produced profound social changes. There was a massive upsurge in production throughout the industrialised world with the advent of office and factory tipping contests. Gang violence at football matches disappeared almost overnight as there was now too much happening on the field for youths to become bored and start fighting opposition fans or letting off flares.

 An AFL World Rules tournament was hurriedly arranged in 2018 with 16 nations competing. Australia suffered a shock two-point loss to the Japanese Samurai in the final.

The other nations were on the rise. There were now 36 teams in the mix, having qualified from zones across Asia, Europe, North and South America and the Pacific. The Australians drew with the USA Revolution and just managed to overcome the New Zealand Falcons before regaining form and fighting their way to the final.

 Tactics were constantly evolving.

The canniest coach of them all was Denmark’s Erik Damborg. A former stalwart in his domestic league, he had taken his Vikings to new heights of professionalism. After being runners up to the German Eagles in the European Championships just twelve months ago, his team had swept all before them. He produced innovations such as the trekant, or triangle, where a group of three assembled in open space, took possession and moved the ball rapidly into a scoring position with quickfire handball as a trio.

Damborg had also adapted soccer’s header. Players in marking contests legitimately fended off opponents with both hands. But instead of attempting to catch the ball, they actually used their heads to direct it to teammates in a better position.

But the real reason for Denmark’s meteoric rise was Niels Bjarnum, their brilliant full forward. With bags of twelve against Samoa and nine against Canada, he was the leading goalkicker of the 2022 AFL World Rules. He was quick off the mark and equipped with sure hands and uncanny accuracy. Like Nuts Coventry, he never said a word to opponents. He formed a deadly combination with midfielder Mikkel Cederholm, his best friend and teammate at the Farum Cats.  

As Andy and I crossed Punt Road with the masses, I expressed my misgivings.

“Mate, we’ve gotta stop Bjarnum somehow.”

“How you reckon we can do it?”

“I told Cuthby. He’s gotta use the Big Nick.”

“The Big Nick? What’s  the Big Nick? And why should Cuthby listen to you all the time? ”

“Cos we’re mates and it’s the only thing that’s gonna work.”

 

It was true. I did know Cuthby. Trent Cuthbert, triple Richmond premiership captain and the skipper of the national team. We played together  as kids at West Preston Lakeside. Used to hang out at his place in Wollert, just outside Melbourne. We  watched old footy matches on an ancient VCR and imitated what the stars did. We would do a Daicos and try to dribble the ball between the old lounge chair and the clothes line for a freak goal from the impossible angle  Or do a Jezza and take a speccy over the pile of mulch by the back shed.

We also used to do a Big Nick after watching grainy black and white footage of Carlton’s John Nicholls in the sixties. We spotted something he used to do and tried it ourselves at West Preston. It’s fair to say that Cuthby experienced more success than I did. When he received the invitation to train at the Northern Knights I tagged along too. I lasted about 15 minutes before shown the door, but we remained good friends despite his rise to stardom. He eventually lifted the Tigers out of the doldrums while I went back to the Roosters, where my career petered out after a handful of games in the seconds.

I was on the mobile to him last week.

“Cuthby, Bjarnum’s got a flaw in his game.”

“Mick, I’ve gotta  go. Press conference.”

 “No Cuthby, it’s true! I saw it when he played against the South Africans and PNG. When he has to kick a big one, when the scores are close late in the game, he turns his back before he walks back on the mark. I reckon it’s his way of focusing. You can get him with the Big Nick.”

“The Big Nick?”

“Yeah! When his back’s turned.”

A pause.

“Right Mick, I’ll remember that. Thanks for the advice. You got tickets?”

“Yeah, bottom deck, just behind the interchange. Come over and give us a high five after the game.”

Laughter.

“Right, Mick. See what I can do. Gotta go mate.”

 

 The light towers of the MCG loomed over us like giant fly swatters, illuminating the whole glorious scene. Not a spare seat in the house.

The teams entered the arena to a tumultuous roar.

The stars were out that night. Cuthbert, Martin, Hill, Fyfe, Kruezer and Riewoldt from Victoria. Urban from Sturt and Beers from Claremont. Bjarnum, Cederholm, Hoejgaard and Holm wearing the colours of Denmark.

The anthems, the siren and the opening bounce passed in a blur before I was engulfed by a tornado of light and sound.

It was close all night. The Aussies were up by a goal as the clock ticked over into time on in the final term. I didn’t know whether to cry, scream or rock back and forth with my head in my hands.

Cederholm!

 Somehow the ball was flipped out the back of the pack to the Viking ace. He took possession, wheeled onto his trusty left foot and delivered lace out to the leading Bjarnum. Pandemonium in the stands.

“No! No! I can’t look!” screamed Andy.

“Wait!” I exclaimed. “Look what he does.”

Bjarnum walked back to the spot where the umpire indicated the mark. Forty-five metres out, slight angle for major number five. Normally, he measured his run up with twelve precise steps while walking backwards, keeping his eyes on the sticks. But this was the crunch goal.  True to form, Bjarnum stepped out with his back to the goalmouth.

“Big Nick! Big Nick!” I yelled.

Suddenly, the normally immaculate Trent Cuthbert materialised next to the umpire on the mark, with his socks down. Waving his arms around, he motioned for Franklin, Bjarnum’s opponent, to retreat to the goal line. The umpire was momentarily distracted by Cuthbert’s action.

Then I saw Cuthby give Bjarnum the Big Nick. He reached down and pulled up his left sock with both hands, stepping forward as he did so. He did the same thing with his right sock. This was  accomplished in a second, before Bjarnum had reached the top of his run up. He never saw it and neither did the umpire. This was one of Big John Nicholls’ tricks. Cribbing on the mark. Cuthby had pinched a metre from Bjarnum.

Would this be enough to leave the sharpshooter out of room as he put boot to ball, forcing him to kick high in order to clear Cuthbert on the mark?

It worked!  Caught unawares! Lofted too high and punched through for a behind by the defenders! Five points in it!

The Aussies chipped it around, eating up the seconds.

“It’s enough!” exalted Andy.

“No it’s not!”

The inexperienced Crouch, trying to hug the boundary, miscalculated and floated the ball into Row C just in front of us. I glanced across to the opposite wing. Three Vikings on their own! The trekant was about to be activated to get the ball back into Bjarnum’s hands.

I launched myself across two rows of spectators and locked hands on the footy. I had to buy time for the Aussies.

“Tell ‘em to man up Andy!”

I was in a nest of Norseman. I looked into the eyes of an enraged Danish supporter. He knew exactly what I was doing.

“Giv mig bolden, sydlge barbar!”

He proceeded to belt me over the head with his plastic hammer. His mates seized the ball  from my grasp  and threw it back onto the field. Was it enough? I looked up. Cuthby and Martin had spotted the danger and sprinted across to the unmarked Vikings.

The ball sailed to a contest. Stacks on the mill, siren! An eruption of exultation from elated fans dancing in the aisles with their hands in the air.

The Dane looked at me, eyes agape and veins bulging in his neck. I meekly awaited the hammer blow that would cleave my skull in two.

“Ja. Good trick”, he rasped. “You know Princess Mary?”

We embraced.

A tearful Andy clambered over and joined the hug.

I saw a jubilant Cuthby striding in our direction, scanning the crowd. I knew he was looking for me.

“It was the Big Nick,” grinned Andy. “The Big Nick that won it, just like you said.”

.          

Comments

  1. funny stuff john.

    love the ‘adapted header’.
    seen a few of those in the local league here in sweden.
    but i don’t think they’re intentional!

    hb.

  2. Yes very good , may not be as funny as some think after the distrubution byt th afl and if we don’t have etihad for own own use soon

  3. In my Vision of World Peace everyone is playing Aussie Rules too JG. You nailed it beautifully.

    In my nightmare Ayatollah Demetriou has grabbed control of The Game in a coup. Eddie McGuire is his 2IC after Angry Adrian had to flee to Fiji – where he is assassinated by an ice pick driven through his left ear.

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