The friendly ghosts of East Gosford

A thick fog hangs over Hylton Moore Oval as the boys jog in to start the night, each making their own contribution to the murky haze as they breathe out.

A rather spooky setting for my first footy training session in the Central Coast.

Last year, I left Melbourne to work as a radio journalist in Port Macquarie on NSW’s Mid-North Coast – it was 11 months of iPhone alarms, instant coffee, hit-and-miss calls to the police at 5am and weekends spent kayaking the back channels of the Hastings River, building up the mental fortitude to do it all again.

Squarely in NRL territory though I was, I could still never seem to make footy as big a part of my week as I’d planned, and now I’ve relocated to Gosford – an hour north of Sydney – I’m hoping to make a better fist of this endeavor.

That starts tonight, with the Terrigal Avoca Panthers in their misty lair.

“Alright boys, we’re gonna do nine exercises tonight, bit of skills, bit of fitness,” shouts coach Chris – known to all as Fish. “Can someone get me more cones?”

“Don’t go saying that too close to Mann Street, Fish!”

I’m new to town, but I know enough to laugh: Mann Street’s the dirty, dingy main arteriole of Gosford, characterised by people living rough in the doorways of buildings in disrepair. And crime. Last week a guy who won on the pokies there got stabbed and robbed by two of his friends on the way to an ATM.

“Friends,” ha. Fortunately, the guys who’ve turned up tonight seem a bit friendlier than that.

“So find your groups of four, and we’re gonna spend four minutes on each exercise, one minute off!”

Most of the groups sort themselves out in milliseconds flat, and I’m left searching for an incomplete one to join. This is lunchtime at primary school all over again: last to speak up equals last to be picked.

“Hey mate, over here.”

Man this fog is heavy, I can’t even see who said that. Someone comes running towards me… Jesus, is that Jack Ziebell? Nah, too young, but he’s got a near identical physique. He said that with some resignation in his voice – probably wishes I wasn’t the only one left. He introduces himself as Mickey and we jog back over to another guy with his bulk and swept hair and a smaller guy – bulk-wise – with brown hair.

“Hi buddy, I’m Otter,”

“Manno, nice to meet you. What are we doing first?”

That would be goal kicking on the run. Armed with two footies we march towards the big sticks.

“Oh, niiiiice leg, Alex!”

Four straight shots at goal later, and my confidence is building. Turns out I was wrong about Mickey. He’s built like a bull, but closer to Ferdinand than the ones matadors fight – encouraging and not all aggression. His quad strain might have something to do with it, mind you.

Exercise two – handball drills. Shame we had to start with my strongest skill – I’m probably gonna fall short of the guys’ expectations for the rest of the night now.

“One… On- nah, nah mate, remember: LEFT hand – we switch hands on the way back.”

Darn, that’s the third one in a row. I must be testing Otter’s patience by now.

“Keep your eyes on my hands and what they’re doing and try and copy it. You ready? One. One. Two. Two.”

Ah, now we’re onto something…

“One. Two. Three. One. Two. Three”

I feel a bruise growing on my thumb knuckle.

“One. Two. Three. Four…”

Some patchy fog swirls behind Mickey’s shoulder.

“Four. Five – this is good – Six…”

My heart rate and handball rate are getting faster.

“SEVEN. EIGHT. ONE. TWO. THREE…”

We’re shouting the numbers at each other now and edging closer. I feel Mickey’s breath on my face.

“NINE. TEN!”

Whew, got there! That actually wasn’t too hard once we found a rhythm. Anyway, onto exercise three – ball use through the middle.

In theory this one’s simple: one person gathers the rolling ball and starts a chain of handballs, before the last person to receive kicks it inside 50. But as Stephen Milne will tell you, it’s never that straightforward with an oval ball. We all end up looking like T.Rexes chasing humans through Jurassic Park trying to pick it up.

“Guys, we’ve gotta make sure we’re in front of whoever’s getting the ball, not behind. If he has to look back, he’s giving whoever’s chasing him more time to wrap him up.”

That’s Manno. After four fumbly starts it looks like he’s taking charge. Fair enough, can’t argue with his logic.

Take five, my turn to gather the ball. Otter rolls it out in front of me, and I’m running at it hunched over, smelling the dewy grass.

“Who wants it?”

“YeahyeahhereAlexONYALEFT!”

I punch the ball out to Manno. It comes to Mickey, to Otter, back to me, inside 50.

Now we’re all in a circle, heaving in breaths, hands on knees. “Better, fellas”.

Did I just say “Who wants it”? Didn’t think I could sound so authoritative. Felt good though, more experienced players showing me respect. Wonder if Fish saw that?

We’ve gotten lucky with the order tonight – the last drill for us is a four minute jog around the boundary.

It’s positively eerie now, the fog’s that dense I’m almost losing sight of Otter five metres ahead of me.

Inboard, players appear out of thin air – or maybe thick air – to mark balls that a second before looked destined to hit the turf. Disembodied voices call out player nicknames before a ball comes flying out, startling their targets.

No doubt about it, ghosts train here.

But I’ve found these sporty spectres aren’t to be feared – they’ll be your friends if you’ll be theirs. And I reckon I’m gonna enjoy haunting other teams with them.

About Alex Darling

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

Comments

  1. Hope the season goes well Alex, that’s an accurate description of the main drag and the fog is worse up the mountain. Ha ha.

Leave a Comment

*