A footy season is built on routine and then more routine. When the season eventually crashes and burns to the ground, as it did for the Bulldogs on Sunday night, it can leave you feeling a little lost.
No amount of cold beer or fancy dress can mask the disappointment or fill the emptiness in the hours that follow, but we try anyway. Following the awfully named “Mad Monday” is a day sometimes referred to on the inside as “Terrible Tuesday”. This is the final day of routine in a footballer’s season, and if you’ve had a year like ours, it’s not much fun.
‘The day bounces from one meeting to the next like speed dating, only there are no potential life partners sitting opposite you, just your bosses.’
The day bounces from one meeting to the next like speed dating, only there are no potential life partners sitting opposite you, just your bosses. The first date is with the medical staff where your year of ill health is opened up in front of you. For the first time in quite a while I managed to play every game and there won’t be any post-season surgery for me.
Even despite this clean bill of health, it takes a good 10 or 15 minutes to work through the various bumps and bruises accumulated over a season. There’s injuries to hips and A/C joints I can barely even remember. It’s a long year.
Compared to other years, when I’ve been on crutches already or sent straight to hospital for surgery, this year has been a success – in a medical sense at least. I thank my group of Weary Dunlops, we shake on it and hope for more of the same next year.
Next up is the big daddy of blind dates, your individual coaches’ review – and there’s about nine of them in there! I’m not nervous about going in until I’m in there, when all of a sudden I’ve got nine bosses sitting there looking at me. The palms start to sweat and my mouth feels as dry as a biscuit.
It doesn’t make sense to be nervous; after 15 years in this job there shouldn’t be too many surprises at the end of the year. All season long feedback flows through the corridors of footy clubs like a spring creek.
The nerves must have been embedded in me from long ago, as a young recruit facing a much smaller but intimidating firing squad of Terry Wallace and his lieutenants. When you start out at AFL level there can be more than a couple of surprises at this time of year which can be difficult to absorb when your hide is not sufficiently hardened.
I remember in my first or second year being sat in front of Plough and listening to his assessment of me while trying to look him straight in the eye. To my horror, he started to shrink before my eyes! The hangover I was sporting obviously wasn’t helping, but along with the general stress of the situation it created a cocktail of vertigo.
I tried to listen carefully and keep my eye contact solid, but after the 10-minute dressing down Plough seemed 25 metres away, when in fact if I reached out I could have touched his nose. No wonder he thought I was a space cadet in those early years.
Thankfully, the same didn’t happen with Macca and the other coaches this year. They all stayed right where they were, and although some scars remain from those early years, I emerged from the meeting with a mixed bag but an overall sentiment similar to that of the medical department. Played every game, not a bad result for everyone.
‘This time, there is no strategy, no enemy over the hill… The war is over for 2014.’
Walking out of my meeting I saw a few players in various states of nervous tension, waiting their turn. A couple of them were pacing up and down the gym. This day takes its pound of flesh.
With the individual evaluations complete, we came together as a group for one last team meeting of the year. This time, there is no strategy, no enemy over the hill. Even the tones of voice sound different, softer, more considered. The war is over for 2014.
Management tie off a few loose ends and there’s a quick run-through of the expectations on every player for their time off and the fitness level we’ll all need to be at when we return. It’s a sobering thought. All that’s left after that is to clean out your locker and go home.
The routine that’s ruled your life for 10 months evaporates, and for a while the empty feelings in my stomach bump and sway.
I’m really looking forward to the first final on Friday night between the Hawks and Cats. It’ll be a beauty, these two old foes know no other way. If it goes down to the wire, as I think it will, the empty feeling in my gut may just start to fade a little. That’s the power of finals footy.
As much as there’s liberation in being let off a footballer’s leash, becoming a spectator overnight at this time of year only makes me wish the routine had continued for a while longer.
This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.