How to Watch Football (part 15): Innocence

By Vin Maskell

Innocence

Friday afternoon 21 June. Bayview St, Williamstown. Oval number 2

Willi North Primary v Newport Gardens Primary.  Semi-final.

No goal umpires. No boundary umpires. One multi-skilled field umpire (Steve, a student-teacher with hair like Dyson Heppell). No runners. No scoreboard. No magnetic boards. No statisticians with laptops. Two coaches (teachers). Half-a-dozen parents. One school-crossing supervisor (out of uniform). One slightly flat synthetic junior football.

Willi North’s captain for the day is a tall blonde, Tiara. Like a dozen of her team-mates, she doesn’t play footy regularly.  Not even kick-to-kick in the playground. “She’s a squad swimmer,” says her mum, “and a basketballer and a runner. She’ll try most sports.”

First quarter. Newport Gardens look smaller but smarter. And quicker. A few have played this game before. Know what to do with the footy. And what to do without it. The visitors are a goal up when the siren blows (the Willi North teacher-coach calls out, “Steve! Steve! Time!”).

Half-time. The Gardeners are still a goal up – three goals to two – on a big bumpy ground. “Our backline has to tighten up,” says the Northerners mild-mannered coach-teacher-scorer-timekeeper. “If two of you are having a chat at half-back then two of the opposition are on their own. You need to man up. And we need to go straight down the middle.”

Third-quarter.  Cameron, the tall, quiet, strong Willi North centre-half-forward bombs a long goal  straight down the middle –  30 metres with a flat ball. Oliver and Wade on the backline hold marks and steady the defence. Tiara gets a free for a good tackle. The siren blows. Scores are level.

Three-quarter time: “We’ve had most of the ball, but we haven’t scored enough. I reckon we’ve played better but it’s taken three quarters to be level.” The coach, carrying just a clipboard, asks the handful of players who play regularly, on this ground for Willi Juniors, to dig deep.

Final quarter. The nippy Gardeners are getting tired. Can’t find space.  Wade, now in the forward pocket by accident rather than design, kicks a goal. His class-mate Williams J. snaps another. The home team win by 13 points.

Post-match. The victorious coach stymies the celebrations, not as a matter of discipline but as a matter of politeness.  “Shake hands with Newport Gardens and thank them for the game first.”  The opposition are disappointed but only for a few minutes. Some are soon joshing and joking, mucking around. Playing.

The school-crossing supervisor pedals home to get his uniform and his whistle and thinks, Why can’t all footy be this innocent? And, Maybe competitive footy should stop at this level, at Grade Six. Anything after that should be just kick-to-kick and circle work and training drills. Then he gets to the crossing, and the traffic, and the 3.30 bell goes. He stops daydreaming.

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