Leather Soul: A Half-back Flanker’s Rhythm and Blues now available for purchase here.
All of the laughs, the scraps, the yarns and characters. The game. It all left a mark on me, on my soul.’ —Bob Murphy
For all the moments of spark and exhilaration in footy, there are days and weeks when there is little more than the constant hum of routine and repetition. But then there are other days everything sits in perfect balance under a golden glow of gentle, unexpected sunlight. It was one of those days today.
I’m in love with autumn. Certain cities are suited to certain seasons, and Melbourne is at its most beautiful when the leaves change their shade. There’s something about the cool, crisp mornings, when the winds lay low and the hot air balloons fly high, that makes autumn my favourite time of year. If I ever leave this fair city to live interstate or abroad, it’s probably the autumns I’ll miss the most. George Eliot said, ‘If I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.’ I feel the same way.
For footballers, autumn comes at a good time. The playing year has begun, and the season is finding its rhythm. You can feel the cogs turning and the pieces slotting into place. Autumn mornings are enchanting, but by mid-morning footballers want the sun to have burnt through the clouds so conditions for training are note perfect.
All of this is swishing around in my thoughts as I drive towards Footscray for training, just after 7 am. I have grown to enjoy the daily toil and grind of football training. There’s a certain type of physical poetry that comes with unrelenting routine, and that’s what a football season is about: routine and then more routine.
But today I have an extra pep in my step. We’ve had a good week. After a surprising and disappointing loss to Fremantle in Perth, we’re back on home soil and gearing up to play the Kangaroos in the very first game to be played on Good Friday. I have a good feeling about this week. Sometimes, you just know.
There isn’t much traffic on the road and it’s mostly going the other way, one of the blessings of heading west in the mornings. A triple-shot mug of coffee and You Am I blast me all the way to the Kennel – past the cemetery in Carlton and the Melbourne Zoo, through Kensington, up on the shoulder of the Flemington racecourse and across the Maribyrnong River. As I roll across the bridge, I think about the river’s long Indigenous history and its connection to our club. This year’s Indigenous guernsey, designed by Koori artist and Bulldog fan Kylie Clarke, incorporates a map of the Maribyrnong and the camping sites that were once dotted along it. Then I’m on the other side of the river, picking up speed, gently veering left towards the Whitten Oval on Geelong Road. I could almost make the trip with my eyes shut, I’ve driven it so many times. I have been known to head off along this familiar trail with Justine and the kids in the car when we’re meant to be heading on a family outing somewhere else.
The huge palm trees on the doorstep of the Whitten Oval come into view and I park my car. Today is ‘captain’s run’ – the last training session before game day. It is the least physically demanding day on our weekly calendar. In total, there will be four meetings for the morning. There’s a different energy inside our football club for the captain’s run. A respectful reverence. For what, I can’t be sure. Maybe the battle ahead. There’s nervous tension in the room. A few sets of knees bounce up and down as we listen attentively. One of those sets of knees is mine.
The irony of the captain’s run at our club is that since I’ve become the captain, I rarely complete the session. I join the boys out on the ground for the warm-up and float through a couple of ball movement drills, but eventually I drift off to the side to watch while I rest my old legs.
The ten minutes that I’m out there with the boys are precious though. Your feet barely touch the ground on a captain’s run. The fatigue in your legs from last week’s game is long gone and you feel rested and strong.
Today, the stillness of the autumn air and the soft warmth of the morning sun allow everyone’s skills to shine like diamonds. We’re running on top of the ground. The coaches are relaxed, or at least trying to appear so, and the feeling in the group is that we’ll win tomorrow. There’s not even a hint of doubt.
We take our time moving the ball from one end of the ground to the other, running among each other in big, sweeping figure eights, like ballroom dancers, and the ball glides across the oval before being rammed home for a goal – only for the dance to come back to life immediately for another run-through. I try to feel the ball in my hands, consciously feel the leather beneath the callouses, and carefully guide it down to my boot and sympathetically offer it up to a teammate who has led to space with outstretched arms. A perfect drop-punt pass that hits your teammate without him breaking stride is precious. It never gets old.
There’s a sparseness to the whole session, like the closing credits of a great film. For years I’ve stayed out on the ground for the full captain’s run session, trying to soak in its goodness, but I can’t do it anymore. It’s hard to leave the group as they really hit their stride. But that’s my lot these days.
On the surface, everything may seem relaxed and even laidback, but it’s not until the final tactical meeting (known as walkthroughs) is finished that all residual tension evaporates. The 22 chosen players stand out on the astroturf in position and we go through various scenarios that Bevo lays down for us. You can’t plan for everything and the human battleships of footy can be a lot easier when you don’t have to fight fatigue, but we feel prepared for the Kangaroos.
The work, if you could call it that, is done. It’s 11.30 am and the rest of the day is gravy. I get my legs massaged, or ‘flushed’ as we say, by Roz Richards, our Welsh-Jamaican myotherapist, who I call Sis. I’m not sure I’ve met a more positive, kind-hearted or soulful person than Roz. She’s a big part of the spirit in our footy department. But today we have a problem to solve. The daily riddle that is up on the whiteboard has us scratching our chins. ‘When is a door not a door?’ It takes Roz and me a good 15 minutes to work it out. ‘When it’s ajar.’ The deflation of taking so long to solve the riddle is offset by the healing powers of the massage. I feel light on my feet and ready for the Kangaroos.
And then I’m done, free as a bird. I jump in the car, weigh up my lunch options and steer towards Seddon. I park, jump out of the car and run in to see my barber, Des. He assures me that if I come back in an hour he’ll fit me in for a much-needed trim. Back in the car. Short trip up Charles Street to the Turkish café Advieh, where most of my teammates have congregated. It’s a squeeze to get a seat, but I take my place among them and order my usual: mixed juice with extra ginger, a zucchini pancake on the side and a chicken wrap with chilli. The talk around the communal table is much the same as it’s been for my 18 years in footy, and it warms my heart. I mostly just sit and listen. I only get some of the jokes. All teams have their own language or accent and these boys make me laugh with theirs.
With a takeaway coffee in my hand, I say goodbye to the boys and it’s not long before Des has me in the chair. Des is originally from Manchester, his accent is still quite thick and he talks passionately about everything, especially Manchester United. Adorning his walls are posters of Oasis, Paul Weller and Richard Ashcroft. My bag, baby. As with lunch, I order the usual from Des: the only change from my last visit is the number of grey specks in my hair.
Des and I shake on it and I’m out the door again, and this time I’m headed east – though not for home just yet. I’ve got one more stop to make: Conway’s fish wholesaler. The night before we play, I like to keep the menu familiar. These days it’s a baked piece of Barramundi with ginger on a generous serving of risotto. If I’m eating fish, it’s always from Conway’s. They are the best. I walk inside and am greeted by Manny, whose family own and run this operation. They are big Bulldogs fans. Manny has a few questions about the team and I’m more than happy to indulge him. I sat in front of Manny at the MCG one day back in 2006; he wasn’t as friendly towards the Bulldogs in the outer as he is to me and my teammates when we drop in to Conway’s.
I tuck some salmon and barramundi fillets under my arm and hop back in the car, headed for home, everything in its right place. For the trip home, I pick the track ‘Running on Empty’ by Jackson Browne. There’s something powerful about listening to the right song at the right time and this feels like one of those moments. It’s a nostalgic lyric with a melody that’s as pretty as hell, and its rhythm moves with momentum. The perfect road song.
I cross the Maribyrnong again, only this time I’m reminded of Terry Wheeler’s speech from a couple of years back: he spoke to the boys about the club’s connection with the working class in the western suburbs of Mel-bourne. Decades ago, along the muddy banks of this river tanners and blacksmiths worked long, hard days. And this is still a blue-collar part of town and we are still a blue-collar club. That makes me feel good. Proud.
A Springsteen song would probably work just as well right now, some-thing like ‘Factory’, but the boy Jackson from California is about to find his chorus.
Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels,
Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields.
I’m picking up steam now, heading down Footscray Road with the bluest of blue skies high above me.
. . . Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind
running on, running into the sun
but I’m running behind.
There’s a metaphor in there somewhere. It’s a fleeting moment of perfection, life in a perfect balance. But man, what a moment.