My most vivid memory of junior footy was a clinic put on in 1978 by Essendon players at our primary school in our little farming community of Nhill, (population circa 2000), in the Wimmera region, in the back blocks of far western Victoria.
In those days each VFL club had a designated recruiting zone and for the Bombers it was the Wimmera. And these were halcyon days for that particular arrangement as a wealth of talented players, including some of the rising stars of the game were originating from the area.
Whilst our little town couldn’t lay claim to any of them at the time, Wimmera lads accounted for 1/3rd of the places on the Essendon list and we loved basking in the glory of the exploits of the region’s players in the Big league.
So when word spread of a clinic to be run by Essendon players at our school the whole place was agog with excitement. As an avid Bomber supporter who hadn’t yet seen them in the flesh I was beside myself.
The day loomed and after an agonisingly long maths lesson the footballers were excused and we raced from class to the school oval, where we were introduced to the players by our PE teacher, Mr Colbert.
He was having a hard time getting our attention as most of us were looking up wide-eyed at the flesh and blood of five league footballers. In real life they were much bigger than I’d ever imagined and they looked super impressive in their red and black Adidas track suits complete with a ‘Don Smallgoods’ Logo on the front.
Four of the five I recognised straight away; Glenn Hawker, Merv Neagle, Wayne Primmer and Geoff Burdett were all regular senior players in ‘78 and I’d studied Burdett’s face in both the ‘77 & ‘78 Scanlen’s footy cards sets. The fifth player I didn’t recognise and when Mr Colbert announced him to be Paul Mc Donald it didn’t help. Still I figured he must be a good player to be in their company and he sure did look the part, particularly when he casually drilled a post high goal from centre half back.
When Mr Colbert said we’d be in the hands of the Bomber stars for the rest of the morning the day couldn’t have got much better.
For much of the morning we did training drills. Kicking, marking, hand balling and tackling mainly and with all of us dead keen to impress the skills went to a new level.
We were as proud as punch when the players brought us in and praised our efforts and when Glenn Hawker announced it was time for a match pandemonium broke out.
A proper game in front of our heroes was as good as it gets; our chance to really strut our stuff. I retied the laces on my newly acquired Puma medium cut boots and eagerly awaited the selecting of the sides.
When Hawker and Co finalised the teams we quickly realised they’d got it slightly wrong as we managed to secure the lion’s share of the better players.
But rather than own up to the discrepancy our team just gave each other conspiratorial grins. When he sent me to the forward pocket my grin got even bigger. I loved playing deep in the forward line and in my mind nothing could possibly impress them more than kicking a bag of goals.
With the team we had and the position I’d been given I was mentally pencilling in a goal fest as I ran to position. This is going to be the best bit of the best day of my life I thought to myself….
The game began and it was just as I expected; the ball raced into our forward line and in a matter of minutes we had a couple of majors on the board. The backs looked around at each other, already utterly despondent and helpless to stem the tide. We forwards gave each other knowing glances and re calibrated each of our potential hauls upwardly. This really was going to be a day to remember!
It soon was, as upon the third entry into the forward line I managed to take a mark right against the boundary line in my forward pocket. One of the Bomber players yelled some praise and I was stoked.
As I stepped back from the mark it seemed like my entire team was calling for the ball. But their calls went unheeded. Because I knew from the split second the mark was paid that this was the moment I’d been waiting for; a chance to impress like few others, a chance to kick a banana goal from the boundary.
To make certain all the Bomber entourage could take in the enormity of what I was about to do I stepped further to my right, making the angle officially impossible.
With no daylight now between the posts I thought this is it; my moment of glory.
I focused, shutting out the noise of my team-mates calling for the ball and opponents telling me I was hungry and I’d miss it. Time slowed down as I began my run in, the Lyrebird footy held across my hand just like I’d done it a thousand times before in the back yard. Cometh the hour cometh the Bomber’s next young recruit…
…the piercing sound of a whistle interrupted my focus, stopping me dead in my tracks. I quickly glanced around the field to see why we’d been pulled up but it wasn’t immediately clear. Field umpire Hawker was not running toward the goal square so there’d been no infringement there, nor was he running to the bench so there’d been no oversight there. He was running straight for me. I suddenly got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach…..
As he slowed up and put his hand on my shoulder it still didn’t dawn on me what he was about to do. But when he wheeled me around to face the other way it slowly did. “You’re going the other way young fella, kick it to the back flank”.
I protested as calmly as I could and even tried appealing to Mr Colbert; “But I was picked as a forward… He picked me”…. To my horror he sided with the Bomber player and in an instant my day and all the hopes I’d had for it were blown to smithereens.
My face turned forlorn and I booted the footy as far as I possibly could. My moment was gone, never to return.