Jeese, cold aye? Hope the rain holds off for the game.Yeah.
Our exchange of half hearted pleasantries is interrupted by shushing. Crowded into a cramped dressing room, we quiet down to listen to Tony gee-up the kids. South Sydney Juniors under 10s division 2 grand final.
OK you blokes, this is it, the big time. I wannna see every single one of youse concentratin' an' lookin' for your mates. I know they look like big bastards, but if you don't get tackled you won't get hurt. Go in on their legs they'll hit the ground harder, and they'll get hurt. We got no reserves, so Jonesy, don't go falling over on me, OK? I cringe at hearing Kevin singled out again.
We are all focused on our kids, trying to telepathically transmit confidence into their souls before they run on. I swallow down a lump of fear just before the cheer goes up, and a dozen calloused, nicotine stained hands slap shoulders as the boys clatter past us into the tunnel to be consumed by watery winter white light at the end of it.
There is a report of applause from outside as they take the field and we file out to take up position on the sideline.
That's your third smoke Jen and they haven't even blown the whistle.
It's either that or three hot dogs. I'm on a diet.
I'm as polite as I can be with the pious know-all cow. Oh shit, the whistle! Why did he have to choose league?
I've done this every Sunday since nappy grade. In the beginning they looked so cute all decked out in gleaming white jerseys with the slash of red V in front. Kenso United. Knights of St George. My very own little knight in shining armour on the field of valour, bearing my favour. They looked like a bobbing red jelly and ice cream coloured centipede. The coach, Len, like an attendant buzzing insect, hovered around to make sure that if one of them did accidentally pick up the ball he would run in the right direction. But the novelty wore off, and blissful sleep-in-and-read-the-newspapers Sunday mornings became only a fond memory. As the season progressed I came to realise just how vast the district was, and each successive fixture drew us deeper into the depths of southern suburbs I'd never heard of, requiring road map and compass to find hidden grounds on the blustery banks of Botany Bay, Yarra Bay, Long Bay. There were days I felt more intrepid than La Perouse.
Eight am. Sleet. Morning chaps. A few would nod in reply, but mostly there was little socialising. The only thing we had in common was the kids, and the shared misery of an arctic wind howling across the headland at Clovelly. I huddled against the cold in the cobweb-hung, cats-piss-reeking dressing shed to listen to Len read out the team, while milk teeth chattered in little skulls and plastic studs rippled on concrete.
Now, when you get the ball, remember, run towards me. Jonesy, you go reserve.
Shit reserve again. I fantasised about how Len would coach without kneecaps, but I never interfered or complained about it - not like some. Like bloody Barbara, manicured, hair sprayed, ironed-tracksuited Barbara. She who knew more than anybody else about everything to do with club politics. Her husband had played A grade for Souths a hundred years ago and his butcher shop sponsored Kevin's team, so she was the manager. I know she had it in for me, and her boy wonder, Jacko, had it in for Kevin. Jacko was head bully and the most gifted player on the side, because, I suspect, since the day he was born, Jack had a football kicked to him.
Jacko never did it in front of his mum, but at every opportunity he'd taunt Kevin. A push here, a shove into the mud, a trip there, and he never passed the ball. On the rare occasion that Kevin took the field and did find himself with the ball, he'd inevitably drop it, or hand it to the wrong side, or loose it in a tackle, and then be mercilessly abused by Jack.
You can't win if you're all backs. Somebody has to make the tackles. Turn the other cheek mate.
But it was really hard to be philosophical with those eyes brim full of tears; all I really wanted to do was rip out Jack's cruel little throat.
In the end I found an excuse to change clubs.
Well Barb, there's a new club started up at Moore Park. Its much closer for us for training, and they play in Bronco colours. They're his favourite team.
Oh, that is a shame. She found it difficult to conceal her glee. We'll really miss Kevin. Insincere cow.
But there's a Barbara in every club, and Karen, her latest incarnation, is right beside me, sneering at me through her benign smile, and its too late to find another seat. She's married to Tony, the trainer. He prowls the sideline shouting, Good tackle Marty! Take 'em round the legs! She chimes in with, You're useless Simpson. You're not out there for decoration Jones. She only sees missed tackles and fumbled passes and seems obsessed with Kevin's obvious lack of natural talent.
There are some gifted kids out there who know what they're doing, there are some who are quick and if fed the ball can dash down the wing to score. But mostly they are just like Kevin, uncoordinated, awkward boys who's best football is played in their imaginations, inspired by the match of the day the week before. They dream of making a sliding dive for the line, dragging a wake of opposition players along and then popping up a pass at the last minute, or kicking the match winning field goal.
Three weeks ago they thought they'd played their last game for the season and were out of the comp. They'd done OK but were knocked out in the prelims. Now, following some complex ring in scandal which even Karen, with her exhaustive knowledge of club intrigue has failed to make entirely clear to me, they are playing in the grand final by default, facing the top team in the division. No one was more surprised than Tony. He rang us all up to scrounge a team together from the players not on holidays. He's nervous. They haven't trained and seem to have already lost hope. The opposition is huge.
I reckon some of those kids are thirteen.
Wouldn't be game Jen, not after the Wombat fiasco.
S'pose. I'm not convinced. Kevin is big for ten, but some of these kids are enormous.
What do you reckon Mary?
Nah, they're only little fellas. She would know. Her boy Sani is our best forward and no runt either. Mary's the coach. She doesn't say much, just keeps her eye on the game. I've never heard her shout - she leaves that to Tony, but in the dressing room she deals out calm, clear and considered strategy.
A girl coach? When he first joined, Kevin was appalled.
So what, I'm a girl, I told him.
Girl's don't know anything about football. But it's a different story now. She's not only infallible when it comes to the game, but is a world expert on everything from diet to bed times. Mary says this, Mary says that. I remember the moment a couple of years back, when Kevin became her devoted servant. He limped off at half time sucking in wind and clutching at a red hot poker of a stitch in his side. After a series of hard tackles his legs had turned to jelly under him. Tony helped him into the dressing room.
You'll be right mate. Come on, breathe in... out... in...
Mary looked like an Easter Island statue, but with one of those cartoon black thunderclouds above her head. The dressing room was in the eye of a cyclone. And then it hit.
Worst bloody performance I've ever seen. Youse are all gutless. Only kid out there with any heart is Kev. Sani, you're dropped as captain. Kev, you take over. He looked up at me in questioning surprise and then down at his feet to cover his embarrassment. I didn't know whether to burst with pride or be pissed off that she'd shamed the rest of the team into action by making an example of the most hopeless player. Whatever, it worked for Kevin. He transformed from exhausted also-ran into a pointing shouting bustle of confidence, marshalling troops and calling the play.
I still thought maybe this would be a good time to try hockey, but suddenly Kevin, inspired by Mary's confidence made a try saving tackle right on the line. There was cheering, and he felt his team surge around him. They slapped his back, and he heard Tony yell at him to get up and do it again. For the rest of the game he was possessed. He was a brick wall, impenetrable.
At full time he could hardly move, he was so buggered. They all sat cross legged on the grass spurting Fanta and Coke at each other and Mary awarded him the most improved player. He beamed at me but I kept my cool, and just ruffled his hair and said, good on you, but all the way home in the car I had to do a commentary of the play, over and over till the tackle took on Herculean proportions in his mind.
And here he is now, in the same situation, outclassed and demoralised, but giving it everything he's got. They all are, but its not enough. The first half is a nightmare - they're not being thrashed, but they are losing heart. The show ponies are frustrated, can't get a touch and the forward line is starting to come apart like a wet paperbag. The whitewashed grandstand, claimed by the opposition crowd crouches at our backs and the scoreboard across the field screams that we are 10 points down with half time only a minute away.
I want to run on, intercept and pass to him. I want to throttle the umpire and take the opposition star player out of the game. I'm jealous. I find myself wishing for the physicality of it - the sort of push and shove you only ever get with sex. The closest I came to contact sport was association netball, and then the only real physical contact was the inevitable chick fight in the beer garden car park afterwards. I wish I could feel what its like to plant a screaming tackle, but its too late for me. I do it by proxy. Most of the time his defeats and failures tear me to pieces, but when the magic happens and your side is on top, the elation makes your hair prickle and your cheeks flush.
His first ever try! I'll never forget it. The day I watched him take a pass only five metres out from the line, and drag four defenders over with him was better than sex. I shouted and whistled and danced around like a headless chook. The other parents smiled and clapped and I became one of them.
Thank god, half time siren.
We clap them off the field as they straggle into the tunnel, Mary and Tony following and the rest of us scooting round to the other entrance to hear her second-half instructions. Terry's father gets stuck into him for a dropped pass early in the game. Karen voices her general displeasure at their performance and bitches to her long suffering son, Marty, about his head high that cost us a penalty. He sheepishly plucks grass from his mouth guard, ducking her disapproval. I just feel terribly sorry for them. They desperately suck oranges and pour water over hot, red foreheads, anything so as not to burst into tears.
Mary enters the circle and silences us with a stony glare.
Youse are doin' good, real good. You keep playin' this hard and yous'll wear 'em out. Keep helpin' each other. She turns to us.
An' one more negative word out of any of you lot, I'll have you chucked out of the ground. Understood? She's staring strait at Karen.
Just stay cool and concentrate. Matty, you watch the line and make sure everybody gets back the five. Sani, keep the pressure on 'em. Everybody, watch the ball and good safe hands. No room for mistakes now. Go out there and play football. You can win this.
Kevin's aches and pains have disappeared. He trots into position, tense, anticipating the whistle. Marty kicks to start play. Kevin moves up with the forwards and I hardly recognise him. He's ploughing in for the tackle and pushing himself to the limit, testing the edges of his strength, being knocked down and getting up again - undeterred. I can't believe it's only yesterday he was a baby. How could ten years go by so fast?
In the labour ward, with nurses urging me on and slips fielding midwives between my knees, crouched, anticipating the delivery, I knew I was going to die. After eight hours I felt like a tackle bag. I felt the final slither between my thighs, and thought I was over the line, but then I heard his voice and a surge of adrenaline sat me up and turned me into a tiger. Hand over that baby or you're dead meat. They gave the purple, bloodied betesticled creature to me and I knew I could find the strength to kill anyone who tried to hurt him.
From the sideline I watch as my precious bundle is pummelled and pushed and shoved, and all I can do is shout till my lungs split, to squeeze the fear back down. It can't be my gentle natured child out there, frowning, then powering into the bulk of another player. I know its inevitable, he won't be my creature forever, and with each lunging step he gets further and further away from me.
Mary's theory is paying off. The opposition are making mistakes, and our boys are tapping reserves of tenacity none of us thought they possessed. In the lead by a point; all they have to do is hold on. Five minutes till the siren. I reel at every hit, cringe at every lunge.
Clash centre field, player down. Stand for a better view.
What's happening? Tony sprinting across. Ref leaning into the huddle of boys, clearing space.
Fuck, it's Kevin! Not moving. Mary is there. Start counting. Three minutes, three minutes repeating in my head like a mantra. Slow motion walk to the sideline. Every molecule of my being wants to be out there with Kevin, but I'm almost rigid with horror. I feel like the dog I had when I was a girl. It was never allowed in the house but could get its whole body inside while still keeping its four paws behind the threshold.
What have I done? How could I have put him at such risk. I hear all the justifications I made to judgmental girlfriends who couldn't understand why I let Kevin play league. Thugby, brutal, violent, they said. No, no, boys are like puppies, they need the rough and tumble and biting and kicking to measure their growing strength against each other; they need an outlet for all that aggression and exuberant energy, I reasoned.
Oh God, be OK. Please, please be OK.
Mentally picking out wheelchairs and special schools for the disabled. Wish I'd gone to Sunday school so I can feel less guilty about praying.
One hundred and twenty-one, one hundred and twenty-two....
Ears ringing. Sweating, burning. Still down. I think I'm going to feint from the pain in my chest, and realise I have to breathe. The ringing rises to a roar, but its not me. He's up! It's the sound of the ground applauding. He's playing on, and I want to throw up.
They won. There was air punching, high fives and jumping onto each others shoulders, and singing in the dressing room and tears of joy and beaming faces. Fear and loathing melted into sheer delight. My brilliant, heroic, knee-grazed, tag-marked angel-faced child lined up with the others to receive his medal. We'll be there next season.
Shortlisted for and publsihed in the 1988 CUB Best Australian Sports Writing. Random House.