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The age-old battle with AFL immaturity

“Getting older is a struggle. I always feel that just under the surface of acceptance and enjoyment of the ageing process is a terrible hysteria just waiting to burst out.”

– Michael Sheen

The ball spills out sideways and I get that sinking feeling. My man has got a step on me and space to move. The ball is sympathetically placed out in front of him and he canters out to meet it.

This is the lot of a backman – try as you might to stop your opponent from getting an easy kick, inevitably this is what happens sometimes. It stings every time. In an instant you regroup your thoughts, take stock of what’s happening and how you can limit the damage.

On Saturday night at the MCG, against the Demons, I was standing the mark about 40 metres out from goal and the ball was in the hands of Jay Kennedy-Harris, my opponent. He seems a confident young kid, confident with the ball anyway. I’ve been watching videotape of him all week from his games this season.

We’re close to the boundary, really close. I can hear the voices of the Demons fans over the fence taunting me. “He got you there, Murphy.” “He’s all over you, Murphy.” I’ve heard it all before.

I also notice that Kennedy-Harris isn’t looking to pass it off, he’s going to have a shot. He is confident. My offering of, “Gee you’re hungry, you haven’t even looked to pass the ball!” is at the more generic end of the sledging spectrum. I stopped short of asking him if there was chewy on his boot.

‘I do my best “what are you on about?” face, and the oldest argument in footy grumbles to life.’

Kennedy-Harris approaches and hits it sweet. I turn to look up at its trajectory, and it’s hard not to marvel just a tiny bit at its perfect spin in the perfect setting of the MCG under lights. Fair play to the kid. The crowd erupts and so does Kennedy-Harris.

He’s either so happy with the kick that he wants the moment to last a bit longer, or he’s so outraged for being thought of as hungry. Either way, he’s in my face and letting me know about it. I do my best “what are you on about?” face, and the oldest argument in footy grumbles to life.

It is the right of every young footballer to take it up to the old blokes on a footy field with variations of “you’re too old, you’re finished!” Just as it is every veteran’s right to return fire with a disgusted look and simple query of, “Who are you and what have you done?”

On Saturday night we danced the ancient dance of old and young. Kennedy-Harris was supported by teammate “Chip” Frawley, who chimed in with, “He’s only played eight games and he’s leading you on a merry dance,” or words to that effect. I was still working on my “what are you on about?” face, and hit back with, “That’s right, he’s only played eight games and one kick is hardly a reason to break out the champagne.”

And around and around we went. At some point during this exchange I couldn’t help but think back to another time when it was me in Kennedy-Harris’ shoes.

In my very first pre-season at Footscray we were on the back end of a torturous summer and were entering the practice match phase. Two sides were picked, and as we jogged out to our positions I noticed that our team’s best player and future Hall of Famer Brad Johnson was trotting down toward full forward. I was drifting down to my post on the opposition flank and decided to niggle a club icon.

“Are you a forward pocket like Kevin Bartlett now?” I shot at Johnno.

I hang my head in my hands now when I think about it. At the time it was a bit of a throwaway line, a kid being a bit cheeky. As the scratch match started moments later, I didn’t have time to gauge how my comment was received. It turns out it was received poorly by the smiling assassin.

A few minutes later I found myself waiting under a loopy handball and I sensed trouble in the air. As I took the ball I turned and something flashed past me. It was Brad Johnson. To avoid being broken into 100 pieces I must have hit the deck at the last second. As I lay on the wing of the Whitten Oval I had enough self awareness to know that Brad must not have been happy with my remark.

It still comes up occasionally when we see each other now. He’s not as angry about it these days. I really don’t know what I was thinking saying that to him before I’d played even one game. And then, on the other hand, I think it’s great. Young pups niggling and pushing old dogs to get a growl out of them. You want to see if you’re up to it, and if the old dog has got some fight left.

The brash confidence of youth and the weathered sentimentality of the aged are destined to conflict on the footy field. It’s part of what makes footy interesting.

This week the football community lost one of its giants in Tom Hafey. I didn’t know Tom very well, but like most people in football I had met him and heard him speak about his philosophies of football and life. In many respects, Tom was able to bridge the conflict of old and young better than most. “I’m sensational and getting better,” was one of his famous lines.

When Bruce Springsteen’s close friend and saxophone player Clarence Clemons passed away, he described it as like losing something elemental, like rain. Tom will leave a similar hole in our game, but he will leave us with something just as powerful. When I think of Tom I think of overwhelming optimism. Young or old, we can all share in that.

This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.