The Last Backyard Soccer Match

It was our own private field of dreams….

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As our three sons grew older and began to socialise more, we found our house growing ever smaller. No-one warned me that, as they grew taller, it would feel as if the walls were closing in. We decided, after much ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’, that the solution to our problems of space was to build a bungalow in the backyard. A retreat, man-cave, studio, shed. Call it what you will, it would be a place – somewhere, anywhere, other than our living room – where the boys and their mates could go to hang out. We reviewed and re-thought the plans for the new construction, and it was obvious that the benefits would be many. However, the downside would be the loss of a good portion of our backyard lawn.

It was not lost on the boys that the major consequence of a downsized yard would mean that there would no longer be enough room for backyard soccer matches. Ever since they were little, they had always liked soccer: Santa delivering Arsenal shirts, FIFA matches on their old PS2, setting the alarm for early morning Socceroos matches, and epic back-yard soccer contests. In fact, watching the weekly EPL highlights show became an enjoyable family ritual, which unbeknownst to the boys was cross-generational – for me, it brought back memories of childhood Saturday nights spent at my grandfather’s house watching Brian Moore hosting Match of the Day.

A decent-sized backyard was one of the reasons we purchased this home. And didn’t the boys take to its expanses. Cricket, kick-to-kick, volley-ball, bowls all had their moments. But the constant, the game they always came back to, was soccer. Part of the magic was the simplicity of being able to lay down a couple of bricks at either end of the yard…and away you went. There were some quite unique rules, most of which had to be explained to visiting friends who had not previously played at the venue. The boys took delight in explaining the specifics:

  1. The winner was the first to 10 goals;
  2. Kicking the ball with force was forbidden;
  3. Kicking the ball into mum’s flowerbed incurred a free-kick against;
  4. If the ball rebounded off the out-house or side fence it was ‘play on’.

There were other rules – some quickly discarded after NAB-Cup-type trials – which have escaped my memory for the moment.

In the beginning, the teams picked themselves. The most even match-up was for me to be paired up with Luke to take on his older brothers. In those days, like a corrupt referee, I could determine who would win the match, and by how many goals. Thus, all the matches would be close, perennially decided by the slimmest of margins. Occasionally, I would take on all three of them: I can vividly recall striding down the yard colossus-like, all three of my sons hanging off me as I closed in on goal. I can also remember arriving home after a long work-day, to find the bricks in position and the boys ready for action. The first to 5 goals was the winner in the fading light of those chilly mid-winters’ nights.

The equilibrium ever so slowly changed with time. John – the eldest – no longer needed to be hoisted over the back fence to retrieve the ball, he could just clamber over on his own; Brendan was becoming more physically imposing, and with it gaining the ability to knock me off the ball; and Luke didn’t necessarily want to be goalkeeper all of the time, regularly preferring the rough and tumble of the midfield action. The tears became few and far between; no more running to dad for a comforting pat on the back following an errant kick to the shin or after a ball had slammed into an unprotected nose. The disputes took on a much more physical aspect, with pushing and shoving and fisticuffs commonplace as the testosterone inevitably kicked in.

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The concreters were arriving early the next morning to lay the slab for the bungalow. The late-autumn evening beckoned. “Let’s have one last game of soccer”, one of the boys suggested. I was keen, as we hadn’t played in months. In the interests of an even contest, the boys suggested a subtle change to our long-established match-ups. Thus, John teamed up with Luke and I was teamed up with my middle son Brendan. It was a tacit acknowledgement that I was no longer the best soccer player in the yard.

Immediately following kick-off, I felt like the Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man. My movements were as stilted as if I were in a stop-motion video. For the first time in a decade or more of these contests I was feeling embarrassed at my lack of touch. The backyard game had passed me by. To the disgust of my wife, I finished the game shirtless such was the sweat I was raising as I chased the ball to all parts, struggling to get the most meagre of possessions. “Kick it to me, kick it to me,” my mind was echoing the boys’ long-ago pleas.

The final score was 10-4, and it was hand-shakes all round. We knew the game was up. The result could have been even worse had my opponents not taken some pity on their old man toward the end. Also, they probably had no interest in seeing me run a lap of the yard with pants down (the traditional punishment for going scoreless).

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The bungalow? It has been a big success. But I miss the fun, the pure uninhibited joy. Of making the most of the time spent in the backyard playing with my sons, because deep down we all know that times like those will not last forever. As was so brutally proved in my final soccer game.

About Darren Dawson

Always North.

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    But where will the grandkids play Smokie?

    You’ve hit upon the universal appeal of soccer. It can be played anywhere, with any ‘ball’, between any sort of goalpost, between any number of players.

  2. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Beautiful story Smokie. So many great memories about the improvisations of backyard sport. Also grew up with Brian Moore and Fred Villiers with the overnight results on WOS.
    Lucky boys, lucky dad. Great stuff.

  3. Great read Smokie. I lament the lack of space I have here in Singapore (but also realise how lucky I am to have the little space I have). We have a few small ball games going from time to time but I struggle to get anything going consistently with the kids.

    In Ken Dryden’s The Game, for the 30th anniversary edition, he added a chapter on playing one last hockey game at his parents house and took the Stanley Cup there. The backyard (in Aus) really is where most of our sporting dreams are born and where our fondest memories are. Sounds like you have quite a few to cherish.

  4. Hi Smokie
    Can relate whole heartedly to your account, even though soccer hasn’t featured prominently within the confines of our suburban palings.

    Within my neighbourhood lately, I’m confounded by the number of homes currently,either being demolished and/or being subdivided into smaller allotments.

    It might have quaint, outdated and even nostalgic notions…. But what happens when family homes lose backyards???????

    In a strange sort of way they are terribly intimate and cherished spaces.

    Cheers and enjoy your bungalow

  5. Patrick_Skene says

    Wonderful read Smokie!

    Captured the passage of time perfectly, the once towering demigod father’s declining skills contrasted with the inexorable rise of fearless, testosterone fuelled boys.

    There was real nobility in your final game, shirtless and hunting for crumbs against far superior opposition.

    Bravo!

  6. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great read Smokie captured the essence of time beautifully and bought back memories mine was cricket with dad , the new metal stumps re Xmas day bowling him , Not out son the bails didn’t come off ! Exactly like you the game evolving in to a full on game with my future brother in law , thanks for taking us to your home , Smokie

  7. You do have a way with words to paint a picture Smokie.
    Great memories, brings back some to Me when as a lad I played Footy with my 2 brothers. We would be Collingwood and always smashed the opposition.

  8. mickey randall says

    Thanks Smokie. That is a great memoir and ode to the backyard. Living in Singapore, like Damian, we lament the lack of outdoor space. I don’t especially miss our house back in Adelaide, but do miss the front and back yards, small as they are. I even miss mowing the lawns, whipper-snippering, and using the blow-vac.

    We have just moved to an address with over 700 apartments. I reckon that means there are more people on site than in any of the three towns in which I spent my first thirty years. Whilst there are excellent facilities there is nothing like your own patch.

    As Australian cities move to higher density housing, I fear for the backyard and the social and psychological impacts of its reduction in size and frequency. I hope they survive, and continue to generate narrative and memoir, and healthy kids.

  9. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    That great Australian philosopher Red Symons has a theory that Australia’s cricketing decline can be traced back to the upswing in the backyard landscaping industry of the last decade.

  10. I loved this Smokie. Brought back (bad) memories of my Dad playing my nascent wronguns (I had been practicing all school holidays) with a broom handle in the backyard. And (great) memories of him teaching me the basics of golf with a rusty 3 iron (he was left handed so I couldn’t use his clubs) and those hard plastics balls with the swiss cheese holes that were used for back yard practice in the 70’s.
    You bring a tear to the eye. Thanks Smokie.

  11. Thanks for all your kind words.
    I must say that I really enjoyed recalling the (mostly) fun we had in the back-yard.
    Swish: you are correct re soccer being universal. The yard was too small for footy.
    Phil: as a kid I once ran into Fred Villiers in Williamstown & got his autograph!
    Kate/Mickey/PeterB/Rocket/Malcolm/Patrick: I also have memories of backyard fun with my dad…such great times…I can see the positivies of higher density living (slowing the urban sprawl, consolodating infrastructure etc), but I do wonder about the detrimental effects (no back-yards !!!!).

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