The Running Man

Sometimes the messages get complicated when you’re the team runner for the Ivanhoe under 15s.

“Tell Patrick to hit a target when he’s kicking into fifty, tell Seb to pick out a teammate when he gets it and take Sam off for Liam. Sam’s number nine.”

Many times I’ve bounded onto the field and realised I haven’t got a clue as to where to find the players I’m meant to communicate with. It’s even more involved if I’m charged with bringing players off the field “for a rest” and onto the interchange bench. Usually they don’t want to make an exit. You have to time your instruction carefully to avoid being down by one and leaving an opponent unattended if the ball sweeps back into the area too quickly.

Sometimes you get caught in a place where you have no right to be. When Ivanhoe met Warrandyte earlier in the season I was stranded within the 50 metre arc as Ivanhoe was about to kick out after a behind. Despite my attempt to become invisible I was spotted by the umpire and a free kick awarded against me. Fortunately for my career, the recipient missed the shot.

Now it’s the return bout at Warrandyte’s patch and I’m being threatened with retribution by the umpire as I scoot away from a stoppage after delivering instructions to one of our onballers. Ivanhoe is on top of the ladder and Warrandyte is second, so there’s all the tension of a top-of-the-table clash. The opposite wing to the pavilion is fringed by forest, an environment typical of grounds in the hills east of Melbourne. It’s a trip to the country for the boys from the more urban Ford Park in Bellfield, which alternates with Ivanhoe Park as the home ground of the Hoes.

Ivanhoe won the first clash by seven points. They led by five goals at quarter time after kicking with a gale. The Bloods just failed to reel them in. My son, who plays for Ivanhoe, attends the same school as a few of the Warrandyte boys. They blamed the wind for their defeat, claiming it died away after  quarter time. They fancy themselves today.

I’m a teacher at the same school, so I know the boys as well. I actually taught one of them in my class. This boy’s father is the opposing runner. We greeted each other before the match. I warned him that if he ran into my path I would go right through him and he expressed doubt as to whether I could see the game out before collapsing in exhaustion.

I stand next to Jeremy, the coach and Anthony, his assistant, awaiting their instructions. They don’t miss a trick, noting match-ups, rotations and numbers in the square with great perception. They are aware of things which I don’t see. This is no mean feat, as they also have sons in the team.

“Tell Ben he’s gotta kick it as soon as he gets it and not to try and bounce it.”

Paddy marks strongly and goals.

“Well done to Paddy. Go out there and pump his tyres up.”

“Sorry John”, says Anthony. “I’ve got to send you out again. Tags off and Declan on.”

Back and forth, cap in hand when I run across the turf. Running, but never sprinting flat out. A pulled calf muscle, the classic middle-aged man’s ailment from a netball game at school a couple of years ago, put paid to any illusions concerning my current athletic ability. Back to the boundary, take a few deep breaths to recover. At the age of 52, I need some momentary respite. On a bitterly cold day I’m the only one apart from the players wearing shorts.

The umpire delivers a number of contentious calls.

“Find out what that 15-metre penalty was for!”

I can barely understand what our player replies through his mouthguard, but I think he says that someone argued with the umpire.

On another run across the field I am told by one of our players that the umpire wants to have a word with me. Now what have I done? Back I go and wait for a break in play.

“Excuse me, did you want to see me?”

“Yes. Tell your coach that number 33 needs to stop mouthing off.”

“Right. Thank you.”

In the last quarter a Warrandyte player is lining up for goal. Suddenly a 15-metre penalty is awarded in his favour. Jeremy and Anthony are flabbergasted.

“Get out there and find out what happened!”

The shot sails wide and I wait outside the 50 metre line for the ball to be kicked in.

“What happened?” I ask the players in the vicinity. “Why did he get the 15?”

Nobody seems upset and a few of our players are actually grinning.

“Excuse me,” I say to the umpire. “What was the 15-metre penalty awarded for?”

The umpire looks at me quizzically.

“The coach wants to know,” I add helpfully.

“Discrimination,” he replies.

I’m speechless. I know the Warrandyte boy from school. He is of Spanish descent and I wonder whether one of our players has racially abused him. But somehow I doubt it. There is no report. Jeremy and Anthony shake their heads in disbelief. Spectators behind us are just as incredulous. The solution to the mystery will have to wait until after the final siren.

In the meantime the game is steadily slipping away from Ivanhoe. After a promising start in which the visitors booted the first two goals of the match, the Bloods have taken control of the game. Matt, our centre half forward, kicked nine in the previous round against Heidelberg. He scores two by quarter time but his effectiveness is blunted when a bigger and more skilful opponent is moved onto him in the second quarter. The home team is too quick. Warrandyte runs Ivanhoe off its feet. Late in the game there is little for me to do because there is nothing the coaches can pull out of the hat to alter the result. They simply let the boys play the game out. The Bloods win by 52 points and seize top spot on the ladder.

The mood is remarkably convivial as the teams meet in the centre after the final siren. I congratulate the Warrandyte boys from school as well as my opposing runner. It’s handshakes all round. The victorious coach presents an award to the player his assistants nominate as Ivanhoe’s best. It goes to Sean, who played an unfamiliar tagging role on Warrandyte’s gun midfielder and more than held his own.

“Youse beat us last time, and now it’s one all. It was a good game and we’ll see how we go next time.”

The discrimination mystery is solved in the rooms.

Matt is in the same class at school as the Warrandyte player who was shooting for goal. As he was about to take his kick, Matt said to him, “You’re a faggot Harry.” It was a line from a Youtube clip satirising Hagrid’s first meeting with the boy wizard in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  They had recently watched the clip together. Other players around the mark had recognised the line and started laughing. That was why the umpire had decreed the 15-metre penalty. The Warrandyte boy was laughing so much that he missed what should have been an easy goal.

I buy my son a hot dog from the well-stocked canteen. We meet his direct opponent at the counter. He pats my boy on the back and says “Good game mate.”


  1. craig dodson says

    Firstly congratulations on still being able to run out a game at 51, even if it is at cliffy young pace. Secondly its great to read about a positive junior footy game played in the right spirit, all I seem to see these days are stories about all in brawls with spectators, umpires being abused etc etc.

  2. Funny.

  3. Love it John. I am a junior coach, and we try to restrict our messages to ‘pats on the back’ or good effort’ messages, as too many runners in junior footy become onfield coaches.

    Last Sunday I sent the runner out asking him to swithch Ryan and Josh and have Josh pick up Number 30. Runner gets out, decides that Ryan should stay on 30, 30 takes third mark for the quarter and goals, Ryan in tears at the break. Thought my message was pretty clear!

    Next week I am going to get him to take a message out to the full back, then when he returns to immediately go to the opposite forward pocket, just for fun! Then the outer wing, then back to FB!

    It’s always great to see dads geting involved, and remembering that’s it’s just fun and junior footy. The account you give is a much more pleasant refelction on junior footy than the media accounts of abuse and violence that, sadly, does exist at some levels and in some leagues.
    Have fun this weekend, and good luck.


  4. Andrew Starkie says

    Great piece. I haven’t been able – or willing – to run since I was in my late 20s.

  5. John,
    As the runner for our local U/18’s (Saturday mornings) and U/16s (Sunday afternoons), it would be accurate to say that I can totally relate to this piece.
    It can be a thankless task!

  6. pamela sherpa says

    Wow, I’m staggered that runners need to be on the ground so much for a junior game.

  7. Pamela

    I agree, they shouldn’t. Often, at least at U12 and 11 grades, they become psuedo coaches, on the field too much and effectively coaching from the ground. The league has clamped down on that, limiting them to 2 messages per trip onto heh ground, but some seem to be there a lot.

    It’s sad how much junior footy means to some parents. The boys themselves bounce back after a loss once they get a drink and hot dog, parents sweat it more and longer.


  8. pamela sherpa says

    I’m glad to hear that Sean. I have to say -I don’t like runners being on the ground at senior level. What happens at senior levels filters all the way down to junior sport. How in the heck can kids and senior players think for themselves if they are being bombarded with messages all the time?

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