Not everyone gets to be part of sporting history – and realise it at the time. But that’s exactly what happened on a cold Echuca morning on Saturday when two junior teams turned football on its head
AUSTRALIAN rules football might have been invented in Melbourne circa 1858. And the first match generally accepted as good old number one was played on July 31 of that year between Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College on the Richmond Paddock, next to the G.
But if being 100 per cent correct is a big deal for you, then the oldest surviving document actually setting out the rules of the great game were etched into history almost a year later – three days after Melbourne Football Club was founded.
Since then the game has evolved through seemingly endless identity crises, expansion and now prides itself on its ‘rounds’ and special ‘games’.
Indigenous round, multicultural round, MND, Country, Blue Ribbon, Maddie’s, and so on, and so on.
All excellent causes and cases, no argument there.
But through it all, something seems to have gotten lost along the way.
Until Saturday, when Echuca United and Congupna football clubs revolutionised the sport – they introduced the ‘sportsmanship’ round.
A game where everyone got a fair dinkum crack, a game where everyone had a smile on their face and a game that made you feel pretty sure the game might still be in good, grassroots hands instead of in the clutches of the corporate kings.
Junior footy, indeed junior sport, as every parent and/or coach knows, is a minefield of hormones, growth spurts and maturity – where some kids turn up after the summer having shot up six inches and gained 10kg of tanned muscle and a team rookie stepping up from the previous age group mighty be so small and skinny they would have to run around in the shower to get wet.
The rules say that’s a competition; nature says it’s a joke.
It also accounts for insanely lopsided scoreboards, where ‘junior’ junior teams turn up for a weekly flogging of often astronomical proportion.
Be honest, who hasn’t scanned footy results in the local paper and scoffed at scores of 200-plus points to zero?
Even pointed it out to the better half, and the kids, and thrown in a little mockery for added impact.
The game’s elite, with their elite incomes and cocooned and indulged view of the world outside the big show, are lauded as heroes, courageous, fearless, and so on, and so on.
But if you think about it, the truly brave players are the ones who train on small ovals across country towns and suburban stretches; in the dark, the wet, the cold and with little luxury, not much interest beyond their families and play so early more often than not they are kicking frost, not dew, off the grass.
And they go through all that to get smashed. Week in, week out, game in, game out.
Providing that entertainment for that armchair expert reading the footy scores in the paper.
Yet they front up to training the next day, front up to the game the next week and like as not, front up to another smashing.
But they keep fronting.
In season 2018 the bulk of this year’s under 14 Eagles were competing as bottom agers in the Goulburn Campaspe Junior Football League and getting battered from pillar to post.
This year as fledgling Eagles, and a year older and bigger, they sit atop the Murray Football League table with a perfect record and a flag in their mind’s eye.
Yet on Saturday they happily agreed to potentially throw away a perfect season and play in a game where everyone got a game.
Against a team of little battlers from Congupna. Some of them just 10 and 11 playing bruisers aged 13 and 14 who look to be growing in front of your eyes.
Because this time they would not only be playing against them, they would be playing for them.
Most importantly, with them.
We’re not talking routine junior sport, where the team with the most players lends a couple to them team with the fewest.
By the time the siren ended the game on Saturday morning, virtually every player from both sides had played for, well for both sides.
The initiative came from Congupna president Geoff Jacobson. He has been pushing for a couple of years now to find a remedy for the very uneven playing field that is pre-pubescent (mostly) sport.
But he struck sympatico with United under 14 coach Garet Stobaus – the man running his own little team of invincibles.
“It’s been floated around in the Weekender and other circles, everyone is aware of the gulf that often exists between the top six and bottom six of a lot of junior competitions,” Garet said.
“Geoff Jacobson at Congupna drove the conversation about the weekend and for us it was something of a lightbulb moment,” he said.
“It is too easy to get caught up in the cut and thrust of the game, of winning, and everything that comes with that and you can lose sight of what it really is all about.
“I can tell you that both teams got more out of Saturday’s game than we would have ever guessed, every kid on the ground had a smile on their face – and quite a few of them loved being able to niggle a teammate wearing a different jumper for a quarter.
“What were able to do was actually show our best sportsmanship and it felt great.”
Both Geoff and Garet agreed their players unanimously agreed to the swaps as soon as it was spelt out to them pre-game. Geoff said a couple seemed a little unsure how it would actually work but once the game got going that was all forgotten.
“Nobody wants one-sided games; they are not fun to be on either side,” Geoff added.
“To the best of my knowledge this was the first time virtually whole teams swapped jumpers and sides and I have to thank Echuca United, they were sensational in the way they adopted the suggestion.”
Garet went a step further; saying it wasn’t just about the two clubs, it was about the bigger picture of junior sport.
“The parents thought it was great, along with the coaches and the clubs,” Garet explained.
“And you only had to look at the faces of all the kids when we spoke to them after the game and you could see they had a ball,” he said.
“When a couple of the Congupna players kicked goals for us it was pretty priceless.
“Would we do it again – absolutely. That game captured the real spirit of what it’s all about; I’m just glad I was there.”
And for the first time for weeks no kid trudged off; this time they jogged, they laughed and they eventually surrendered their borrowed jumpers.
And that was the only thing that was surrendered on June 22.