Like a fishing boat on the open seas, a footy season lifts and falls over and over and over again. Even from week to week, the physical and mental state of teams and individual players has a rhythmic sway.
The most popular cliche in the game historically was the line, “We’ll just take it one week at a time.” Popular because it is so true of a footballer’s lot. Few dare to look too far ahead in case they get capsized by the next wave.
Over the last month of this season, my team, the Doggies have four Sunday matches at home in a row. All this means (apart from being a wet blanket on a Saturday night) is that our weekly routine is locked in and I get a crystal clear picture of this rhythmic sway and how each day feels different. It worked for Robert Smith of The Cure with Friday I’m In Love, so here goes.
The night after a game can leave me feeling like I’ve been thrown clear while riding a bull – I’m sore and a bit confused. So tired, but I can’t get to sleep. When it comes it’s usually a fitful sleep anyway, replaying passages of play and moments in the game over and over in my head.
‘The best way to describe the modern review of an AFL game is “uncomfortable”.’
As hard as I try to look at these moments or the game as a whole in a balanced way, my mind has been hard-wired over 15 years to explore the pain and embarrassment of skill errors and weak efforts far more than revisiting that well-timed intercept in the second quarter. Oh, the joys of a footballer’s exhausted stupor.
A quiet day. The late start at the club gives the young boys a sleep-in, but for me it’s a chance to slip into normality for a little while. Up early with the family to walk the dog, get the coffees and take Jarvis to school. A form of recovery in itself. It’s nice to disappear into the imaginations of my kids for a couple of hours after the frenetic day before, and I’ll be back in time for pick-up too.
By mid-morning, everyone is required at the club to report any injuries from the game, get some treatment and roll the legs over on the bike. It’s a low-key day – everyone is still pretty tired and disappointed with the loss, but usually a couple of the players’ kids are running about to break any tension and get a few laughs. On this most recent Monday, my Frankie runs up and down the rehab trampoline with Chloe Boyd and Otis Giansiracusa in hot pursuit.
Tuesdays can be brutal, intense and cathartic, especially after a loss like the one we had on the weekend. A Tuesday is like a few cold fronts running into each other. A perfect storm. It’s 48 hours since the game and my body feels the worst it will feel all week. Muscles and bones ache and you wonder just how you’re going to do it all again in five days’ time.
At 2pm our coaches hold the game review, and that fitful night’s sleep is brought into sharp reality on a large screen. The best way to describe the modern review of an AFL game is “uncomfortable”. As players we are caught offside by the optimism of coaches just as often as we are caught off-guard by their scrutiny, although I must admit that this year’s video reviews have had a particularly hard edge to them. This is the lot for a team near the bottom that is trying to drag itself up the ladder.
As uncomfortable as it can be, once we go over the tape (which takes close to an hour), the chances of a better night’s sleep have increased somewhat, but the recovery and review process still has a day to run. The atmosphere just seems to be heavier on a Tuesday, I suspect it’s the same for most AFL players.
Starts with another review, this time with my band of brothers in the back line, the men’s department. The aches and pains in the body are slowly starting to fade and the mood and energy in the playing group has lifted. The men’s department is a smaller group, about 15 or so, and we watch some more vision from the weekend’s game. There tends to be a bit more discussion in these meetings than the main review the day before. The back line review is conducted under the watchful eye of our coach Rohan Smith and his trusted lieutenant Matthew Scarlett.
Throughout the rest of the day there will be more meetings. Each of us will go through our individual video edits with our line coaches and in the middle part of the day there will be a players-only meeting that will go for an hour and be run by our leadership group. These meetings are broken up by some low intensity skill and fitness work that is specific to the position each of us plays.
By afternoon, there will be no more looking back at what happened on the weekend. Time to cut the cord and look forward to our next opponent. If there is ever going to be a chance to “roll the Ricky Dyson”, it is today. But after being brutalised for divulging too much information last time, I’d rather not say.
‘I show the boys how it’s done, almost lifting the entire gym onto my shoulders to show the young fellas that I’ve still got it.’
Full steam ahead. This is the main training day for the week and you need to have your wits about you. Thursday is our first look at our next opponent and there will be two separate meetings that will explore a plan to beat them.
Players are armed with pens and notepads to record what’s being said and there’s always the chance that a question is going to be fired your way to check if you’ve been paying attention. Pens click, knees bounce and eyes dart around for most of the day. A healthy kind of nervous tension slowly seeps through the walls of the club.
Training itself will be intense and we’ll stay out on the ground for a couple of hours. It’s a nice feeling to get out on the ground and really blow out the cobwebs, get a good sweat up and train the way we want to play.
I often get asked about the difficulties of playing AFL footy in a physical sense, but in many ways that’s the easy part, particularly on a sunny but crisp winter’s day when the wind stays away. There’s no place in the world I’d rather be.
We spend the afternoon getting treatment for the niggles and lift some weights. I show the boys how it’s done, almost lifting the entire gym onto my shoulders to show the young fellas that I’ve still got it. If I have my way, Johnny Cash will be on the stereo, but I’ll settle for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers if they whinge.
A day off, and with the two older kids at school and kindergarten, I’ve spent it this year at home with my wife and baby Delilah. It’s Friday and I’m in love.
Our captain’s run. It’s a quiet day, lots of introspection, but with a communal feeling of hope and optimism. A final meeting is conducted as we sit in a circle. I call it footy church. This is just about as good as I’ll feel all week, even if I might not look that way.
Assistant coach Shannon Grant will invariably make a comment during our short skills session that I haven’t got out of second gear in a captain’s run for two years, and he’s right. I get around the Whitten Oval with a Dane Swan shuffle, only much slower.
There’s a conflicting duality for the captain’s run. It’s the first time all week where you really want to open up and tear across the ground, burning up the grass, but you are trying to hold yourself back. It’s a bit like taking a greyhound for a walk on the lead – you need to save your jets for the race tomorrow.
As the light session finishes up, there’s a set-shot goalkicking competition before any last-minute touch-up stuff you need to do. I’ll meet Gia in the middle for a touch routine we’ve crafted and perfected over 15 years, and then we’ll head over to the fence where some supporters have come down for a photo or a signature.
Pat and her daughter Jenny (of Year of the Dogs fame) will be there to wish their boys good luck for the game. As Pat and I chat about our dislike for this week’s opposition, she’ll hold onto my hand. I’m not sure if she even realises she’s doing it, but it’s a nice moment, unique to playing with Footscray.
By the time Sunday rolls around, everything that has gone before is almost forgotten. The butterflies flip and fly in my tummy all day as battle looms.
This week we’ll size up against one of the powerhouses of the competition, the Sydney Swans. People on the street would laugh at me if I told them this, but on the day of the game I don’t just feel like we could win, I expect we will win.
Once I’m at the ground, the pre-game ritual starts and it’s like a meditation. By the time I slip on our jumper it’s almost time to strap myself into the saddle for another two-hour bull ride. You just never know how it’s going to end up.
This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.