Third time unlucky

The air-raid siren blares through the oval, signalling the end of the game. The players in navy blue scream ‘yes!’ in a state of euphoria, pumping their arms and sprinting to their fellow players to celebrate with them. The 2011 Northern Football League Under-12’s Grand Final has just been won. On this side, jubilation is the only feeling.

On the other side, my side, the gold and blue side, sudden realisation and then sadness. We’ve lost the Grand Final. The season’s over. Tears run down my cheek.

Adam is openly crying. He’s been our tiny goal-sneak all year, kicking some great goals. In his interschool sport footy team, he was the full forward, kicking most of his school team’s goals. Unusually I’m quite sure he was their smallest player.

I walk up to him on the oval as tears run down his cheek. ‘Think of how far we’ve come,’ I say to him, sniffling. ‘We’ve come this far,’ he replies. ‘But now we’ve lost!
I resign myself to the fact he’s on the glass-half-empty side of things.

Let me provide the back story to this. The Northcote Junior Football Club under-12’s won two Premierships in a row leading into season 2011. A few players left- Tim, Sammy, Henok, Tonchi, Henry and Samson had all left for different reasons. But even more players came in- Lachie, who played in the under 10’s, skipped a year because he’d moved to the west, and then decided to come halfway around Melbourne to play for us. Nic, who’d also played in the under 10’s in 2008 and decided to come back after skipping two years. Our other new players were Daniel, Yemurraki, Antonio, Adam, Chris G, Jakson, Jesse, and Oscar.

The home and away season seemed reasonable on the whole; we lost three times to Epping, and once to West Preston for our four losses. We reached second spot with a few rounds to go and held on in our four remaining matches for one loss, a good smashing, and two lucky wins, to snatch the double chance from the jaws of West Preston.

Coming into our second Semi Final against Epping our coach, Dave, urged us to play clean run-and-carry football and to play on at all costs. We had to beat Epping at their own game.

The first couple of quarters of the Semi Final were alright given the classy opposition; we were down by about 4 goals at the first break but fought back in the second quarter to be 3 goals down before half-time.

The third quarter was a debacle. The Epping ‘Pingers’ kicked something like 7 goals in 15 minutes to absolutely crush any hopes of us taking an express to the Grand Final. The coach commented on how no accountability was shown whatsoever except by Harry, one of our half-back flankers, who ended up listed as the best player for us on the day in a great performance.

Epping secured a ten-goal win in the last to take the first spot in the Grannie. The speedster onballer No. 49 for Epping starred, kicking seven goals in what would have been a unanimous vote for best on ground.  The big ruckman No. 25 was also a standout. He looks like he’s 15 years old (I’ll remind you we’re in the under 12’s) and can smash the ball 25 metres forward from a ruck contest and send 50-metre punts into their forward 50. I don’t think anyone in the competition is tall enough to match up against him. He also cruelly commented after Epping kicked another goal late in the third term ‘These guys don’t deserve to be second. They don’t even deserve to be last!’

I don’t remember much of our Preliminary final against West Preston. During our three training sessions leading into the game, we practiced drills that got us to handpass after a mark and Dave urged us yet again to play the clean, fast, run-and-carry footy that we basically failed to produce a week earlier.

We did. We ran, we played on, we were fast, we took risks, we did almost everything right and we held on for an 11-point win.

We were the obvious underdogs. West Preston had just a few weeks ago beaten Epping in only their second loss for the season. I was feeling shattered with about five minutes to go in the game when Nic, who was on the wing, kicked to the flank to Antonio, who then quickly turned around and saw that I was the only one in the 50. I lead and indicated the spot I wanted him to kick the ball to. He sent a low helicopter punt straight onto my chest. I dropped it. I dropped a sitter when I was 20 out, straight in front. I battled hard to keep it in the 50, but the ball was eventually kicked out to the wing. I thought I might have lost us the game. Luckily we kicked a goal and were sent into the Grand Final against Epping.

‘It’s a Grand Final, anything can happen.’

These were Dave’s last words to the team at Friday night training before the Grand Final. Epping obviously had the wood on us, beating us by an average winning margin of 52 points in the four times we met. But we kicked the first goal and things were looking up. Epping answered back with two goals before the siren sounded. We had worked our butts off, and most of our players were sweating in the quarter-time huddle. More rotations were needed.

More rotations came, but in a bad way. Epping did the same thing they did in the third quarter of the Second Semi to us. They kicked six goals. They kept us scoreless. It all seemed too easy for them. I figured too many of their players were running into open goals. They were kicking most of their goals from 5-10 metres out. Some of our players were dragged. Again, accountability was the main reason. At three-quarter time we were down by 8 goals. The game was well over. Dave told us to just enjoy the last quarter because we may not get to play in another Grand Final in our lives. He told us just to aim to beat them in the final quarter and show Epping that we deserve to be runners-up in 2011.

We kicked five goals in the last quarter. It was a fitting end to our season.

The air-raid siren blared through the oval, signifying the end of the game. We walked, dejected, to the coach. He talked about how good that last quarter was and how we never gave up, even when most teams would. He talked about how it’s been an honour coaching us and how we should not feel ashamed of ourselves, because we had made it all the way to the Grand Final of Division 1.

We then trudged back to the clubrooms, tired and covered in dirt, and there was a weird vibe of satisfaction. We were five-goal losers, the closest we’ve gotten to Epping all year. We had realised we would’ve had to do almost everything right to beat them. We chatted, we laughed, you wouldn’t have thought we’d just lost a Grand Final.

The after party was a gathering of parents, friends and anyone who did anything for the club on the night the Grand Finals were played. The under-13’s and under-15’s also played in Grand Finals; both came away with no silverware. Pizza was eaten, parents talked whilst sipping beer and wine, and the kids just played footy. It was great fun. After a year of training, accountability, structures, and epic battles, it was the most fun to just have a kick with your mates.

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