The leaves on the oak tree are golden. Days are short and the air is scented with the tang of wood smoke. The Biker is never seen without a ball in his hands and the afternoons are filled with the metronomic thud of boot on leather. We are in the thick of footy season.
The Biker plays for the local under 11 Roos. Every Thursday afternoon, he and The Farmer (who is assistant coach) head into town for footy training. Sunday is match day and despite my lack of interest in football or football related anything Sunday footy has become my favourite activity of the week.
Before we made our home in Tasmania, The Biker was a devoted Rugby player. We’d never watched a game of AFL and didn’t follow any team. I’d seen how passionate Melbournians were about the whole thing – even bookish, academic ones would suddenly reveal a different personality when the subject of football was raised – but I never imagined football would be part of my life. Two years later and the rhythm of the week is set around footy training, the Sunday game and what game is being broadcast on TV. I don’t mind this at all. Footy training means an afternoon home alone, I love Sunday footy and as for the footy on tv – well we’ve got a beautiful open fire and as long as this is blazing away, and the yelling doesn’t get too loud I’m very happy reading, though conscious of the see sawing emotions of the footy fans on either side of me.
But what has been a revelation is the footy culture at the local level. The rituals and customs around Aussie Rules matches are different to the other sports the kids have played (and I’ve watched a few).
The under 11 Roos are led by the Super Coach. The Super Coach is a straight talking, old fashioned disciplinarian who’s not afraid to pull a kid off the field for unsportsmanlike behavior or a bad attitude. He places great emphasis on unselfish play, teamwork and punctuality. His governance is autocratic rather than democratic and though he rules benevolently I’d still love to see him deal with some of the parents I’ve shared a sideline with in our brief stint on Sydney’s North Shore.
Assistant Coach is a promotion for the Farmer. After years of being an enthusiastic netball parent, he’s found another cog in his sporting arsenal. The coaching team is rounded out by two ‘runners’. The Super Coach uses his runners to great effect, but it’s not a job for the unfit as they are on and off the field with instructions and encouragement all game.
The Roos play clubs from all over Hobart and every second week a team makes the trek up the coast to our home ground. It’s a typical country footy ground with cars and utes parked around the outside of the oval and the game is punctuated with the sound of horns celebrating a goal. I’m now used to parents and bystanders being so involved that they surround the team at quarter and half time to listen to the team talk. I can’t help but admire the performance of the Super Coach at these moments. A lesser coach could have performance anxiety, but with a simple ‘eyes up boys’ he has their total attention. I’m sure their teachers wish they had such powers.
The under 11s is made up of a jumble of little boys. A fair swag of them are natural sportsmen, but there’s also a scattering of the not so co-ordinated. One of the things I love about small town sporting teams is all the boys get a go, not just the talented ones. Each week makes them more of a team. But it’s a harsh theatre of masculinity. Tears are scorned, toughness is rewarded and respect is earned through physical prowess and athletic ability.
As a mother there’s a part of me that wants to protect the Biker from such a ruthless theatre. But I can also see these boys flourishing – all of them – even the ones who are timid or a little slow to pick up the game. In a district, which has had the stuffing knocked out of it since the death of the forest industry, the local junior footy team represents a future. At half time I look at all the little boy faces concentrating on what the Super Coach has to say, see them brighten when he praises something they’ve done well and wonder where they’ll end up in life. Footy gives them a chance to be good at something and part of something bigger than themselves.
If they win, they get to sing the team song. All of them in a circle, arms around each other, belting it out. I love it.
Afterwards, when the cars are gone and the last pie is eaten, the coaching staff and support crew have a beer and dissect the game. The boys, footy boots cast off, kick balls in endless rainbow arcs . It’s a scene repeated across the state most Sunday afternoons and it’s a world away from the money, the scandal and the hype of the AFL.
It feels so transitory, these snippets of beauty amongst the busy ordinariness of life. I want to grab them and encase them in glass, place them in a museum and stop time from moving on. Impossible of course, a silly sentiment, so instead I’ll just look forward to next Sunday and hope these boys remember when they grow up what it was like to spend a whole afternoon in bare feet, kicking a football through a set of white posts, not conscious of time, pressure, money of anything except the power of imagination and a feeling of inclusion.