The Day I Earned My Place in the Dream Team

I’m early at Ludstone Street Oval. Not a difficult thing considering I live just a few streets away.  Still, it’s a good sign, I need to do everything right today.

 

The Hampton Rovers Under 9’s are finishing up their Sunday match against Cheltenham. I stand behind the goals at the change rooms end to watch – just so I’m not tempted to do the same when I’m on the other side of the fence in about half an hour’s time.

 

Other cars are starting to pull up around other parts of the ground. One by one, the best team in the Moorabbin Saints Junior Football League Under 10’s East division materializes.

 

First to arrive is Matt Tucker, a gun at setting up goals via running bounces on the wing.

 

Then Matt Broadbent and Tom Woodrow, each with a knack for clean ball use. Along with Ruckman Dean Robertson, they form the backbone of the team.

 

Josh “Speedy” McMaster, a ruck rover who loves a goal, already displaying the upper body strength and marking prowess that will one day earn him a promotion to full forward in the Rovers Under 14’s side.

 

Next to fully assemble is the defence: Full back Liam Everton, pockets Simon McKendrick and Andrew Kersten, who all know how to take goal-saving marks and can drift forward to add to the sides’ scoring power.

 

Centre Half Back Levi Oswald, whose aggressive charges at ball and opponent alike have stopped attacking plays by the other team time after time.

 

A blue Subaru outback stops behind the fence at the opposite end of the ground, and out jumps zippy forward pocket Alex Shark. He’s followed by fellow goalsneak LJ, a master at wrong-footing opponents on his way to goal.

 

Together, they are formidable. They are unbeaten after 11 rounds for the second consecutive year. They are the ‘dream team’.

 

Then there’s me.

 

I’m full forward, but you wouldn’t know it to look at me: Even by a ten year old’s standards I’m skinny, slow, reluctant to get my hands dirty, never lead at the midfielders, never do extra training, content to ride on the team’s coattails, afraid of bruises and go flying like a struck bowling pin when bumped.

 

I only play where I do because my dad suggested it to the coach, and Bill – Tim’s dad – has been nice enough to keep me there for one and a bit years. No one says it, but I’m pretty sure it’s the elephant in the room: I’m the weakest link.

 

That changes today. Obviously I’m not gonna get taller or stop bruising, but I’ll play my part in my position. Heck, if Phil Matera can kick multiple goals each week playing from the square as one of the smallest Eagles, there must be at least a chance I can do the same in under 10’s footy.

 

 

Besides, I have a feeling today’s gonna be my day: I have luck on my side. Ms O’ Mahoney’s managed to get me back my new NIKE Air Vortex boots – which I’d airheadedly left at school on Friday – in time for the match.

 

The under 9’s have finished up, and the dream team splits into four groups for short-kicking drills ahead of the clash with Cheltenham. I’m that excited all my kicks go flying over my target’s head – “Keep ‘em low Darling,” Phil offers encouragingly.

 

That was embarrassing, but it’s OK, good thing to keep in mind for the game: Keep a lid on it, don’t use too much energy.

 

Now we’re all sandwiched together as Phil goes through tactics one last time. “Remember that drill from Friday… if you take a mark near the 50, see who’s running past you can handball to.” Oh I remember Phil, and I’m gonna actually take some marks today…

 

At the goal square, I size up my opponent. More luck! For once he ISN’T a head and shoulders taller than me. He looks how I usually feel: sheepish, not completely comfortable in the role he’s been given. Let’s hope he plays that way.

 

 

A siren. A whistle. A bounce…

 

 

The ball hits the deck after Dean and his opponent both get hands to it, and Matt – Broadbent – swoops on it and looks up.

 

I charge, arm outstretched – now… NOW is the moment to prove my worth – “Matt! MAAAAAATTTT!!!!”

 

The ball sails over my head – how’s that for karma? – and the sheepish guy’s fist clips my ear.

 

Never mind, Alex, now for the second effort – that’s what being a footballer is all about.

 

I U-turn and dash towards the pocket where the ball’s bounced to. Now I see why the guy I’m on looked lost just before – he’s pretty quick, like a midfielder. After starting from where I did he beats me to the ball by about two seconds.

 

I cannon into him – more to avenge my throbbing ear than to make a contest – but he drops… It’s a legal bump. Play on. No one’s standing between me and the goals and I snap it home.

 

WOOHOO! That was easy! Suddenly the dream team’s all around me – LJ giving me lowdown high fives, Danny Venn coming up from centre half forward to tussle my hair, Matt raising an arm in the distance. Does he mean “Sorry” or “Well done?. I don’t know. I don’t care.

 

A feeling I can’t describe wells up in my chest. It’s something like but not quite pride or adrenaline, but whatever it is it’s awesome. I punch the air.

 

“ALEX! That was mean of you! Go and apologise.”

 

What? Dad! He’s behind the big sticks chastising me after my single greatest act on a footy field! I look over at Mr Sheepish, and he’s on his feet. Shut up Dad.

 

Anyway, the ball’s back in the centre, gotta think about that again: one good effort doesn’t make a good player.

 

Dane’s opponent gets the tap but Tim’s waiting behind the ruck contest. He throws in on his boot and about twenty boys come charging my way.

 

Before I can decide whether to enter the fray, a pack forms about 15 out from goal. Forwards, midfielders and even centre half backs – kick chasers them all – pile on top of one another. A giant ball of polyester and sweaty skin forms, arms and legs sticking out in all directions. Several times a player emerges with the footy only to be pulled back into the fray.

 

I realise I’m daydreaming. Spectating. Exactly what I promised myself not to do before the game, darn it!

 

I look around for Sheepish, but he’s already waded in to try and effect the contest.

 

But this time, my failure becomes a masterful tactic. The ball comes shooting out in my direction from I don’t know who. Before I know it it’s in my hands, and I run to the square and bang it home for another!

 

WOO BLOODY HOO! Right over the goal umpires head! And over Dad’s. Ahem, you were saying old man?

 

The dream team surrounds me again. That indescribable feeling returns with interest. Alex Darling 2.0.12, opposition 0.0.0. Heck, blow the final siren now!

 

It’s just as well they don’t: Like a mechanic watching a car he’s just fixed up drive out of his garage, I marvel at my handiwork, watching as the dream team carries out the win I’ve set up.

 

Andrew, Liam and Simon take saving marks in defence. Levi steams off half back. Matt (Tucker) runs and bounces. The lead builds as he, LJ and Speedy chip in with majors of their own. All of Tom and the other Matt’s kicks into the forward line hit targets, including myself – I put another one through the sticks in the final few minutes.

 

Another siren. A whistle. A song… “So let’s give a cheer for Hampton Rovers, for this year’s premier’s we will be…”

 

Once again, we’re all sandwiched together, in the change rooms as Bill hands out the award for BOG – a much coveted free hot dog from the canteen. I’ve won before, but this time if I get it it’ll be for playing a cracker of a match rather than something dubious like “unselfish play”.

 

“Now this player I thought was critical to today’s result, had some crucial touches and always provided an option for whoever had the ball… It’s Josh, SPEEDY!”

 

I don’t mind. The wrap of the game he’ll email out two days later – with a breakdown of the goalkickers – is a bigger treat than what the people behind the counter can offer today.

 

The dream team wins all but one game for the rest of the year, and fulfills the prophecy featured in the team song. We beat Mordialloc Braeside in the lightning premiership Grand Final, a seven-point win that avenges the last year’s result where they beat us, and gives us something to show for our dominance.

 

It’s a relief when we collectively hold up the flag, but no one’s more relieved than me. For all my faults as a junior footballer, that day at Ludstone Street proved I deserve to be – to always be – part of this great footy side.

 

About Alex Darling

Melbourne-born, NSW-based footy fan, lover of the Saints, classic rock guitar and good writing on each of these topics.

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