The Comeback

Playing junior football is nothing more than a deception for most kids who never realise their dreams, getting engulfed instead by the requirement to prove skill, dedication, heart and desire.

For most kids that’s a heavy burden.

Playing football has always been a tough game, no matter what age.  There’s nothing tougher in football than getting through more than two-hundred games in the juniors, answering all the questions about courage, ability and mental strength, knowing it gets tougher as each year passes to senior grade.

A frustrated coach recently lamented his team’s lack of desire, how they’d been bullied by the opposition into forgetting about the ball and concentrating on not getting hurt.

‘They just didn’t want the ball,’ he said.  The five goal loss was galling.  His team was better than that.  ‘Too many players didn’t have a kick.’

The words came from the coach of an under 12s side.  Junior football, aside from the giggles, mightn’t be as tough as the games men play but it’s just as brutal.

The junior coach knows who can play and who can’t.  He can see the boys who’ll go on to play senior football.  It’s all about talent and heart.  Maybe twenty percent of his team will go on to play in the under 16s.  Less will play senior football.

The juniors, by design, weeds out the bludgers, those with nothing to offer the game except passionate dollars of support to the AFL.  The failure of kids not progressing to senior football is no blight on their courage or ability, or the game.

They just didn’t have the adaptability to play senior football.  It doesn’t mean they can’t stay involved.

There’s almost 700 men registered to play AFL (level) football out of 23million Australians.  The honour of representing an AFL club is all about desire, heart, dedication and talent, natural ability too.

Varying levels are required in the lower grades, the State leagues, even less in district competitions.

Senior football in the districts is naturally primitive.  Clubs do the best they can with meagre handouts from the major governing bodies.  Still, there are thousands of football clubs Australia wide where men pull on jumpers with expectation, trepidation and belief.

Some clubs field two senior teams, A-grade and the reserves.  Finding enough men to wear the jumpers can be a problem.  Often clubs resort to desperate phone calls to find enough able bodies willing to run out.  Sometimes they’re short.

And the game goes on.

Those who play senior football have their own reasons to test their mettle.  Every club has stories of kids going on to the glitter dome, and veterans who never got there but kept playing to taste more premiership glory or to help the kids.  Clubs are built on veterans who return to the game and help out, men with the determination to prove something to themselves, their team-mates and the opposition.

Hundreds of veterans come back.  What happens when they return isn’t a cake and ass party.  It can be tough, gritty and rewarding.  Sometimes it’s different.

Phil Staley was 31-years old with a wedding scheduled when he made his comeback.  Worried about wearing weight to the wedding, with a pot belly causing concern, he returned to the Centrals-Trinity Beach Bulldogs, at Cairns in far north Queensland.

Getting fit for the wedding was a priority.

There was a reason, Staley said, why he needed to lose weight.  ‘When you hang around in Mackay with journalists you get a pot belly.’

His decision to play football doesn’t mean he loves the game.  His background belongs to basketball.  He’s good at it.  His favourite books are biographies about Magic Johnson and Michael Jordon.  But his passion for sport doesn’t end with the AFL and basketball.  Putting aside his journalistic profession, he can talk about all sports, could play any sport and chose AFL.

Four years prior he’d never played or touched an Aussie rules ball.  He went to the Bulldogs with blinkers on, introducing himself to the coach.

‘I said hi, I really like the Lions, can someone teach me how to play.’

During the first training session, and despite his lack of natural talent, forty blokes offered encouragement as he ran around, kicking, marking and handpassing, trying to learn what to do.  A few weeks later, when he kicked a straight one in lane drill, team-mates ran over and congratulated him.  He felt like he was improving.

Staley stands six-four, weighing about a hundred kilograms.  He’s not the first basketballer to switch to the AFL.  It’s almost a natural progression now.

The transition wasn’t easy, though.  Staley had a lot to learn.  The Bulldogs, however, exuded team spirit.  Playing and training was rewarding.  His team-mates wanted him to improve.  Given his height and strength, the coach quickly realised during match practice that Staley could play in the ruck, full back or full forward, it didn’t matter.  He just played wherever he went.

Feeding off the spirit, training became routine instead of a chore.  Having seventeen team-mates give him a high five just for turning up to training was magnificent.

‘That’s probably the main reason,’ he said, offering spirit as another explanation for the comeback.  ‘That’s a nice feeling.’

It was more than that.  Playing was about contributing and enjoying it afterwards.

‘Even though you’re not Jason Akermanis, when you kick a goal and all your mates come around and pat you on the back and mess up your hair, for just about four seconds you are Jason Akermanis.’

Thousands of kilometres south, in Melbourne, 37-year-old Paul Turner made a comeback for Doutta Stars, ostensibly to play reserves football.  The Stars didn’t have a great team.  After three rounds, Turner had suffered three losses, two of them by more than a hundred points.

Turner was a standout as a junior, winning the best and fairest each year he played, once finishing second in the competition best and fairest.  He never stopped playing until his mid-twenties.  Since then there were years he missed but the lure of fitness and competition drew him back.

Proving his love of football, his desire to keep playing competitively, Turner created the Social Football League, a loose gathering of games where men get another grand chance at being heroes.

One year the SFL grand final was played at the Western Oval.

That’s some organisational feat.

Turner also coaches junior football, the under 12s at Doutta Stars and coaches kids in the Auskick program.  Simply, he’s giving a lot to football, making the recent losses he’s played in all the more galling.

‘We’re probably getting smashed a bit too much,’ he said.

Coming into the season, he’d been involved in an intensive fitness program, six boot camps in eighteen months.  Form in the SFL was solid.  Playing reserves, surely, couldn’t be much harder.  The Stars were short too, but Turner says that wasn’t the main reason.

‘The timing was right. I wanted to have a kick.  I just decided one weekend I was going to train and have a kick and they worked out that they needed me.’

In far north Queensland, the Bulldogs quickly realised they needed Staley too.  By proxy, he needed them as well.  The comeback though, caused minor angst with his fiancé, Nerida.  Injuries had stymied his first attempt four years earlier.  Soft tissue injuries, mainly hamstrings, forced his retirement.  When he mentioned a comeback Nerida offered two words.

‘Oh god.’

The injuries, she reasoned, weren’t worth it.  He wasn’t the type that handled them well.

‘I kept getting injuries and then I’d mope around the house for three weeks whinging,’ Staley said.  ‘I couldn’t mow the lawn, I couldn’t bend over the sink to do the dishes.’

With the wedding getting closer, Nerida was pleased he wanted to lose weight.  She suggested he ride their stationary bike.

Phil decided on the comeback.  It quickly became apparent, during the first training session, how unfit he was.

‘Probably ten minutes in after a couple of laps around the oval, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t lift my arms to throw a handpass.’

Cairns, in March, doesn’t offer much relief in temperature.  As Staley ran around, hulking the pot belly, the sun beat down, the air heavy and clinging.  Not having run laps for a while isn’t comfortable when the humidity is high.  He pressed on though, blessed with a wiry body, looking fit even though he professes not to be.

In reality he’s hardly carrying any weight.  It took just four training sessions to get fit.

‘The sessions were tough because I was so unfit and I did have a chuck a couple of times.’

Vomiting at training takes dedication, desire and perseverance.  Staley was striving to get fit for the first game.  He was running around an oval in Cairns, beneath a hot sun and throwing up.

All because he didn’t want to burn out after one quarter.  At training he ran hard, kicked the football and didn’t shirk a command.

‘If you go out there and after quarter time you can’t throw a handpass then you’re just embarrassing yourself.  There’s a bit of pride that kicks in.  You don’t want to make a comeback and stuff it up.’

Turner is driven by pride too.  He doesn’t want to stuff up either but he concedes, at 37, there are occasions when he’s got to give it everything to get to the footy when it is in dispute.

‘I do get there but there’s times when I feel pretty wrecked.’

The boot camps, thankfully, have given him a solid fitness base.  Running the game out isn’t an issue.  Fitness, of course, is just one way to play the game.  Being older and more experienced makes it easier to read the bounce of the ball and get into position.

‘How you play, how you defend the footy and how you present, you’re a lot wiser to where the footy’s going to be, how to get hold of it.’

Turner might be wise, but his team isn’t exhibiting much intelligence.  Two weeks ago the Stars were hammered by West Coburg.  Turner played most of the game off half back.

There’s no question he was played out of position.  Late in the game he was shifted into the middle and got two clearances, one leading to a goal.  He was named in the best.

At the weekend the coach put him in the back pocket.  The only way Turner could be more out of position is by being on the bench.  His whole career was spent in the middle, at the fall of the ball.  Winning clearances is second nature.  Weighing about 70 kilograms, standing about five-eight, he’s still strong and quick.

From the back pocket, Turner conceded one goal but otherwise did pretty well.  His preference, unsurprisingly, is to get into the middle, at least on the wing.  He could play in the forward pocket.  He believes his scant history with the club is holding him back.

‘I’m the one who hasn’t played much so I’ve just got to accept where I’m put.’

Getting selected in the back pocket, though, came as a shock.  It means he has to work harder to prove his worth.  Nothing, though, shakes his belief that he’s better suited to a midfield role.  He’s fit and willing.

‘I’ll put my head over the footy, I’ll have a go at it.’

Not bad for an old man, in football terms.  Proving it’s not all about pride, Turner pointed to the club’s poor form.

‘If you’ve lost the last four games in a row you’ve got nothing to lose to try something different.’

The Stars, though, even when they’re down, persevere.  As a coach and a veteran of the game, Turner knows a fair bit about tactics, but age and inaction are hampering his input.

He wants to say something but hasn’t yet.

‘But I can see when something’s not working you got to try something else.

While Turner is happy with his form, Staley, who didn’t have the same background, rates his form as indifferent.  Proving his worth as a utility, he’s played in the ruck, at full forward and at full back, rarely getting beaten, despite a limited output.

‘I probably only got ten touches a game but my guy never scored a goal.  It was the run-around more than the contribution on the scoreboard that I was happy with.’

Something’s he’s unhappy with is the team spirit, which was a major reason he decided to comeback, the thrill at getting high fives for turning up to training.

‘This time it’s the opposite,’ he said.

About six reserves players turn up for training.  It’s a sad situation.

‘There’s no leadership as far as the club goes,’ he said.  ‘You don’t feel like you’re going anywhere so therefore you don’t feel like you’re a part of something.’

The main reason Staley loved playing so much back then is the same reason he’s lost interest now.  Four years ago the club had leaders.  Now there is nothing.  And he’s older, over 30.

Staley admits he’s one of the least skilled players at the Bulldogs, but he’s also one of the oldest.  He was expecting the players in A-grade to give encouragement, as they’d done years ago, to him and the younger players, those who might be seventeen years old playing against men, in far north Queensland.

It’s a point he doesn’t miss.

‘In regional Aussie Rules the elite aren’t untouchable, these guys aren’t that good that they’re able to bitch about other players.  Instead of giving encouragement you can see people bitching behind their backs and sniggering at training sessions.’

The criticism, while it touched Staley’s soul, didn’t kill the spirit he felt when more than six reserves players turn up for the match.  The reserves, he said, once the game started, loved playing and what they offered their team-mates.  The result was incidental.

‘At three-quarter time we all get in the huddle and say right boys, one more quarter to go before beers.’

Back in Melbourne, the heart of football, Turner says the spirit at the Stars isn’t good enough.  The reserves don’t always get to training, a point Staley raised.  And as an outsider coming in, Turner expected the welcome to be better.  Instead he’s met with indifference, making it hard to know his team-mates.

Getting to know them is all about confidence, he said.

‘It’s up to me to make an effort and build the confidence, and they’ve got to build confidence in me to know when they deliver the footy they know I’m going to win the ball and do the right thing.’

Confidence is a word often used to describe players and clubs.

Staley, as a player, has lost confidence in his club.  Turner is trying to build his club’s confidence.

The issues seem different but they’re exactly the same.  They’re old men in a young man’s game, not getting the respect they deserve, because they turn up to play, to make a contribution.

‘It’s going to take a few more rounds before their confidence is in me and they know who I am and how I go about my footy,’ Turner said.

It shouldn’t take any time.  He’s doing what he must for the team.  No one should need to question anything, especially confidence.

Both men find questioning the coach difficult.  Staley is a vocal guy, a gag a minute, capable of the outrageous, some of the funniest and unprovoked comments ever heard in a newsroom.  But his wit doesn’t extend to team spirit and the lack of support from the A-grade players.

‘I’m 31 and I’m not playing for sheep stations.’

He doesn’t sound disappointed at missing a few games because of work commitments.  Getting home at seven, as training was winding up, meant he’d be able to do no more than a few laps, opening himself up to more questions from the A-grade men.

His absence, however, hasn’t gone unnoticed.  A few weeks ago a Bulldogs official called and asked if he could play.

Staley couldn’t.  He’d already lost the pot belly in a matter of weeks.  He didn’t need to play anymore.

‘Very happy about that,’ he said, of the pot belly.

He was happier still, not to let the Bulldogs down.  Having missed training for a few weeks and no longer being match fit didn’t erase his responsibility to the team.  Playing without training just wasn’t an option.

‘If I can’t contribute then I’m not playing.  If I can’t play more than a quarter then I’m useless and people will say he sucks.  I know it’s my fitness, not my skills that are making me poor so I won’t do that.’

Staley’s recent absence doesn’t mean the comeback is over.  But there’s trouble.  Though his work commitments are easing, the poor attitude he’s seen from the seniors makes it easier to slide back to basketball to maintain his fitness.

‘That’s more enticing than hearing some dude who’s ten years younger than me bitch about my shit kick when I’m more concerned about cooking dinner for my wife than kicking a goal.’

His concern for her, for the wedding and the pot belly are the reason’s Staley made a comeback.  It was largely driven by pride but he was willing to make a contribution to a football club.  A relative novice to the game, four years ago he was feted just for turning up to training.

Of course, he was 27 then, not 31, not old, in football terms.

Turner, too, is old in football terms.  While he’s maintained fitness and created a competition for old men, his greatest fear in his latest comeback doesn’t have anything to do with age.  Getting cleaned up unnecessarily worries him most, getting punched, elbowed or kicked, unwarranted thuggery.

In the contest all footballers get knocks, corked muscles, bruised ribs, broken bones.

‘That’s footy but I don’t like the rubbish that goes on,’ Turner said.  ‘I’m happy to take it in the contest but not when it’s unwarranted or behind play or late.’

Injuries aren’t a concern, though he has had problems lately with his hamstring.  A strain caused ongoing worries for a week.

‘It bruised up but once I got through the week I thought as long as I keep stretching and do the things I’m doing it’ll be okay.’

Hamstring aside, Turner’s not sure if he’ll run out again next year, but his passion seems likely to get the better of him.

‘At the moment I feel really good.  Win, lose or draw I like getting in there and playing footy.’

Staley probably won’t front up for the Bulldogs next year.  He’s got pedigree in basketball and a stationary bike at home.

He’ll also be married and won’t have to worry about drinking with journalists in Mackay, or that damn pot belly that didn’t really exist.

 

Postscript:

I interviewed these men several years ago.  Staley is no longer playing football.  Turner, at 43, is still playing in the Masters’ League.

 

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…

Comments

  1. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great fascinating read Matt with a lot of possible conclusions re this generation , club spirit and the vital aspect of leadership ( lack of ? ) it is a vital aspect of sport at all levels !

  2. Earl O'Neill says

    Great tale, Matt.
    Reminds me of Damian Monkhorst, playing in his local league until a few years ago, winning a flag with his son.

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