Trouble among teammates

Prologue – the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

 

Character, good, bad and indifferent, drives every football club.  It can be no other way.  It is no different to school or work or communities.  A mix of characters is integral to success.

 

AFL clubs spend millions of dollars analysing the personalities of their players, so the coach and administrators know what type of characters they’re dealing with.

 

The analysis might be witchcraft.  No one can predict what an individual will do one moment to the next.

 

I’ve played football with all types: cops, ex-prisoners, lawyers, miners, teachers and a host of other occupations.  Vocation is irrelevant.  It’s all about ability.  Character should be irrelevant, as long as it doesn’t affect performance.

 

But characters clash.

 

Anyone who played football at any level has witnessed the bullying, ridicule and outright rage among teammates.  I’ve seen men punch whiteboards, throw water bottles across the room and swear at those wearing the same jumper.  I’ve seen players walk off the field and refuse to go back on.

 

In my twenties, I played with a club for three years, a comeback of sorts.  The first two years were great.  Both senior grades won back-to-back flags.  Morale was excellent.  At the time, I said it was the best club I’d ever played for.

 

It changed the following year when we were hoping to win three in a row.  There was sudden dislike between teammates.  It required an intervention.

 

A ruckman, Patto, who was in and out of the seniors, didn’t like the coach’s focus on the senior team.  Patto was vocal.  A ruck-rover, Johnno, was a gun.  He took exception to what Patto was saying.

 

Maybe Patto thought he should’ve been playing A-grade more often.  Maybe Johnno thought A-grade was more important.  Maybe they just didn’t like each other.

 

Patto was coaching the under-17s and needed help.  None of the senior players volunteered. He accused them of egotistical apathy, that helping the reserves and juniors improve was beneath them.

 

The feud simmered for weeks before erupting at training, a night our coach Nifty was absent.  We were in a drill, moving the ball from defence to attack under pressure but without tackling.

 

Patto, at full-forward, led into the pocket.  Johnno, on the flank, held onto the ball and took an extra bounce.

 

Patto stopped.  Johnno yelled lead for fuck sake.  Patto yelled I was leading you fucking arsehole.

 

Johnno kicked the ball.  Patto ignored it.  I picked it up and reset the drill.

 

Later in the clubrooms, the vice-captain addressed the group.

 

‘Patto, Johnno, this shit stops now,’ Wazza said.  ‘We’re trying to win an A-grade grand final and we can’t have you two fucking up training.’

 

‘That’s the problem,’ Patto said.  ‘It’s all about A-grade.  You don’t understand that helping the reserves and juniors improves our depth.’

 

‘That’s not right,’ Wazza said.  ‘We want to win all grades and we can’t unless we’re united.  So you two shake hands and that’s the end of it.’

 

Patto and Johnno sat, looking at the floor as our eyes flitted from one to another.  Patto was up first.  When Johnno got up, Clogs gave him a pat on the back.

 

They shook hands as we watched and cheered.  Patto smiled, a meek offering of peace.  Johnno ignored the smile.

 

They didn’t talk to each other for the rest of the year, unless it was on the field.  Patto didn’t play many A-grade games.  I thought he should’ve played more.

 

The lack of respect spread throughout the team.  One night at training, I ran past Hayman for a handpass which sailed about two metres in front of me.  Hayman, nicknamed after the island because he was so big, wasn’t fat.  He was just huge and skilled for a big man.

 

‘Are you feeling sick tonight Wato,’ he said.

 

‘No.  Why?’

 

‘You didn’t get on the end of that handpass.’

 

The obvious answer, because you fucked it up, went unsaid.  He knew it was a bad handpass.  Nifty had seen it and said nothing.  Berating me made Hayman feel better.

 

Another player, Oldy, an 18-year-old playing reserves, was good but occasionally dropped a chest mark, so teammates started drilling the ball at him and laughing when he dropped it.

 

‘You’re the only footballer I’ve seen who can fuck up a chest mark,’ Rix told him.  He simulated Oldy mucking up a chest mark and got a laugh.  It was a cruel, coming from a man who would later captain the club.

 

Oldy, who was trying to grow a moustache, was downcast.  Later, as we ran laps, I told him to put his arms closer together, like a cup instead of tongs.

 

Morale degenerated further when players aligned with Johnno were cautious when talking to players loyal to Patto.  Football seemed secondary.

Then things got worse.

 

The club had a constitution that forbid men with a criminal conviction from being registered.  When a reserves player, Dunks, was charged with theft, the cops in the team told the committee.  Dunks was banned, on constitutional grounds.

 

It was an awful decision, because an A-grade player had spent time in prison.  There was a clear divide.  Nifty tried to get everyone united.  It didn’t work.  Issues within the club made it to the local media.

 

Dunks was never going to play A-grade.  He was playing to lose weight.  He’d made a mistake and copped the whack.  Being banned hurt him, even if the club didn’t miss him.

 

On the field, senior players were abusing mistakes and taking that abuse into the change rooms.  Their attitude forced two players to tell Nifty to drop them to the reserves.

 

One of them was blunt.

 

‘I don’t want to play with them,’ he said.  Nifty couldn’t talk him out of it.

 

I quit halfway through the year because of study commitments and because I was sick of the atmosphere.  I didn’t miss it.

 

A week before the last round, Nifty turned up at my house, wanting to know why I wasn’t playing.  I blamed it on my ankle, which I’d injured in the opening round.  It was a lie.  The ankle was fine.

 

Nifty was insistent.

 

‘Come back and play reserves,’ he said.  ‘We’re playing finals.’

 

Despite not training in six weeks, I fronted for the last round of the year and broke my left collarbone in the first quarter.  I asked a few A-grade players if they could drive me home.  None of them would.

 

Driving myself home in a blue HD Holden station wagon with a three-speed column shift made me angry.  Pain from changing gears in a car like that infuriated me.

 

Both grades made the grand final that year.  I watched with my arm in a sling.  As I walked from the huddle after quarter time in the A-grade grand final, a teammate tackled me.

 

He didn’t put me down but he put me in a world of pain, then mocked me after I yelled at him.

 

‘Oh, my collarbone, are you alright?’ he said and slapped my shoulder.

 

It’s the closest I’ve ever come to punching a teammate.  Later, as we were drinking during the wake, I wondered what kind of teammate tackles a man who has an arm in a sling.

 

No one can predict that kind of behaviour.

 

We finished on top that year in both grades and both grades lost their grand finals.  Looking back, it is no surprise.

 

Teammates being nasty to each other is nothing new.  Kevin Sheedy reportedly punched a teammate at Richmond who refused to give an autograph one night before training.

 

Former Carlton player Setanta O’Hailpin punched and kicked Jason Cloke at training and copped a club suspension.  I remember seeing footage of teammates at the Western Bulldogs punching each other during an intra-club practice match.

 

It happens.  It shouldn’t happen.

 

Footballers need volatility, but the level of volatility is expected to decrease when you’re arguing with a teammate.  A change room filled with testosterone and anger is a volatile environment.

 

When something happens, like a teammate punching a teammate, it happens quickly, like a blink, before there’s any possibility of separation.

 

When teammates punch on, they’re expected to shrug it off and put the team ahead of personal issues.

 

It’s hard to put personal issues aside.  One time, I ran into a teammate outside a diving store.  He was holding a spear gun and threatened to shoot me if I didn’t kick a goal the next day.  I heard a teammate tell another teammate, two minutes before we ran out, that he didn’t want him in the team because he wasn’t good enough.

 

During a game, a teammate yelled you fucking wimp at another teammate when he dropped a mark.

 

Teammates gave a slightly built player a derogatory nickname, Cringer.  It stuck.  I refused to use it.

 

I got angry when an older, slower player kicked the Sherrin at me from close range one night at training because I tackled him.  I was angrier when a young player did it a week later to someone else because he lost a goal kicking competition.

 

Teammates mimic poor behaviour.  They have to be better than that.

 

Looking back, the feud between Patto and Johnno seems trivial.  But no one was capable of moving on from it.  All clubs suffer disharmony among the playing group or with the coach, but I’ve never seen anything like that.

 

The leadership group was misbehaving and there was nowhere to turn.

 

Men play football for the camaraderie, enjoyment and the involvement.  You must trust your teammates.

 

If you can’t do that, find another club, like I did…

 

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. Yep, I’ve been in teams with good players but poor attitude that didn’t go anywhere. And teams with solid players and a combined purpose that won a premiership. Definitely better players, but when there are factions within a team it’s hard to get beyond them. Not so much when things are going well, that tends to gloss over the problems. When the pressure is on, they fall to pieces because it is someone else’s fault and rather than solve the problem at hand it is easier to take it out on the bloke who dropped the mark…

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Sporting clubs can be the best place in the world. Terrific camaraderie or can degenerate in to a atmosphere where you want to be any where else . The most known feud at afl level has been McLeod and Edwards re the crows personally I thought there was faults on both sides and while it never was apparent on the ground will always wonder if this held back the crows and was a factor in not winning
    2005 or 2006 . Both wives involvement was unsavory to say the least , idiotic and frustrating for all concerned . A interesting topic Matt

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Sporting clubs, workplaces, families … there’s something in there for all of us – thanks Matt

  4. The People's Elbow says

    Great piece Matt…

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