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Rd 4 - North v Blues

A Good Friday gospel according to Ben


Then, at the conclusion of a week of hospital-related publicity, much of it spent in the company of Carlton brother-in-arms Sam, Ben made his way to the Docklands stadium – or ‘Marvel’, as its signage decreed. He had a typical preparation for the game and believed himself in sprightly condition, particularly considering the recency of his health challenge and the fact he was a veteran of more than 200 games at the top-tier coalface. His affiliated men, notionally ‘Kangaroos’, displayed an air of positivity about what was to come. After a rev-up from Coach Clarkson, they ascended a race and entered the field of their contest right beside their navy opponents, thus affirming there were bigger goings-on this afternoon than simply a match of football. Ben felt that many of Marvel’s 98,000 eyes were on him, given the remarkable revival of his playing career following a life-threatening illness was well-known. On this day, he was as good as ‘King of the Roos’.


At the commencement, he lined-up close to the man who was then the league’s most lauded ‘midfield bull’, a title he himself had once likely held. He immediately clamped the feted Patrick Cripps in a tackle and hurried a kick that was later discounted because of a free. A younger affiliate, referred to in the parlance of fans as ‘UDL’, enjoyed a standout quarter. Ben battled manfully to collect five disposals of his own, honouring the good form of teammates by providing several blocks and presenting as an option even when he would likely be unused. His team reached the quarter-time break ahead. They managed to be leading at the halfway stage of the match, as well. Although Ben’s statistical output was slighter than would have been average in his halcyon seasons, he nevertheless was contributing to a midfield that looked firmly on top, even as they were sandwiched between Carlton’s superior forwards and defenders. In the third stanza, however, the Kangaroos had their colours lowered – figuratively, for it would have been impossible to dim the cartoonish brightness of the novelty strips that had been foisted on them for this marquee match. At their interchange, Clarkson paced and squatted near the boundary-line, ostensibly laying a plan. The Kangaroo substitute, Hugh Greenwood, possessed exactly the tackling nous that seemed good for apprehending Carlton’s run-on. Clarkson moved to one of his acolytes, a grovelling football manager who had been following him since Hawthorn days. “Who is the man I ought take off?” Clarkson asked. He was shown the statistics of the match, and after some scanning it was evident that Ben, aforementioned ‘King of the Roos’, was barren with respect to his ‘A-game’, the somewhat ambiguous measure of ‘clearances’. Clarkson felt uneasy seeing this, and plodded away from the bench to both do some thinking and make himself more visible (which he assumed to be highly reassuring for his club’s supporters). All the while, he sensed Greenwood eyeing him feverishly. The turf beside the coach rumbled as that journeyman began his warm-up without even an invitation to do so.   


Soon, Clarkson returned to the acolyte. “Is there really no other man?” he asked. Several younger players were having similarly uninspiring games according to the stats sheets – Tom Powell, Will Phillips, Dan Howe, as proof. “No, it must be Cunners,” emphasised the acolyte, forgetting for a moment the status of the one he was speaking to. Still, Clarkson was uneasy, and it transpired that he only took action when the Blues’ focal points, fattened by the offerings of those upfield, really began to get the upper hand on the small-ish Kangaroo defence. At his next interchange break, Ben was delivered the unfortunate news. Clarkson explained the decision to him in strictly numeric terms, as thought it was numbers, and their fundamental value in a dispassionate universe, that had made the call. Ben avoided eye contact, tracking instead the liberated Greenwood as he tore around the oval like a junkyard dog hoping for elevation to the farm. For the rest of the match, Ben bristled on the bench and resisted the comforting of teammates. This was not how he had visualised the day would unfold, during a meditative exercise recommended by the Roos’ sports psychologist that he had last night conducted in his back garden. He imagined his wife and mother now in the stands, crying over what was occurring. He wondered about the point of such a cruel decision, given a Kangaroos comeback felt off the cards – and would prove to be, despite their late rally (or Carlton’s lapse of concentration). At his moodiest, he also wondered about the point of re-establishing his football career against remarkable odds if it was only to now have it suggested, so publicly, and in a match he had been so attached to, that he was ‘over the hill’. He resented the crouching master-coach, just a stone’s throw away (or a drink bottle’s, or a boundary phone’s, or a footy boot’s), who he had never quite trusted, knowing full-well the ‘slash and burn’ approach taken towards veterans when Clarkson arrived at Hawthorn some two decades prior. Ben assessed from the way he talked, puffed his chest, drank his own bathwater – not to mention the ridiculous squatting – that Clarkson must have had a Messiah complex.


In the press conference, after the loss, Clarkson sat beside a former Children’s Hospital patient and said that Ben had taken the disappointing news ‘in the right way’, repeating publicly that he hadn’t been playing to his capability. It was a fierce, lucrative, unforgiving sport, after all. In a successful side, you couldn’t go soft for the sake of sentimentality. Once the ball had bounced, and until the last siren sounded, to suggest there was more than a game of football going on was probably artifice. Ben reflected on all this as he drove home, intending to grumble in his bedroom for at least the next couple of days.


Little-known performer(s) of the week:

The group of friends ahead of us who I’m prepared to suggest were Jewish on the basis of stereotypes – hairstyles, repeated references to a ‘Zimmerman’. Having passed on Jesus, it appeared they were ‘all-in’ on Harry Sheezel as a messiah, at least with respect to their football team. One of the party, an affable young man, reflected the conflicted mentality of the day when he yelled, “It’s just for the kids!”, as a way to assuage the disappointment of a turnover and supposedly put things in perspective. Minutes later, though, he was howling for a North free kick. And speaking again of kids, special mention too to the approximate nine-year-old in North Melbourne-wear who remarked to his adult in the second quarter, with his side marginally ahead, “It’s just like 1999!” Absolutely right, except this match was in April, the Roos’ current co-captains couldn’t combine for the gravitas of Wayne Carey, and on this occasion, given the lead wasn’t to hold, I didn’t leave the ground in tears (four years old in ’99, I have a memory of grand final pain being eradicated by ‘A Bug’s Life’ on VHS). Needless to say, the precocious historian could hardly have been expected to be across all these details.

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