Outside the box: Playing on wing and prayer

By Alex Mitchell

This column is called Outside The Box, but last Saturday I got well and truly outside my comfort zone.

For the first time since 2005 — when I was aged 11 — I took to the football field for a competitive game.

While I have spent my life deeply in love with the game, something I had never done was play a real, competitive game against other fully grown men.

I played under-9s at the Ormond Blues and Years 5 and 6 with my school Caulfield South — I was not terrible, but just naturally drifted toward other, less physically-demanding sports.

Encouraged by superstar teammate Tyler ‘‘The Gun’’ Maher, I beat the clearance deadline by mere hours and registered for Picola District Football League club Katamatite, with an eye toward playing a handful of games for the side when it struggled to get the numbers for its reserves side.

I might not have played senior level football before, but my fitness is half-decent, and I have played sport (basketball, soccer and tennis) for large portions of my life — that is not to say I would be any sort of asset for a team, just that I understand what a challenge team sports can be.

So we headed to Picola Recreation Reserve where the Katamatite reserves would take on Picola United — with injuries badly damaging the club’s playing stocks, the Tigers sit on the bottom of the ladder, with just one win for the season.

After donning a pair of football boots — thanks to GV Suns full-back Greg Nash — we headed for a warm-up, where my primary concern was not anything to do with readying my body, rather simply not totally embarrassing myself.

‘‘The Gun’’, a noted and imposing PDFL reserves presence, was named at centre half-forward, while I was slated for a spot on the wing — as our coach Nathan Brown told me, ‘‘you look like you might be fit’’.

When Brown half-jokingly asked me to push right up from kick-ins and take some ‘‘big clunks’’, all I could do was laugh — that would not be happening.

I would have comfortably been the most nervous player on the field, largely due to general anxiety surrounding not embarrassing myself, combined with a genuine fear an opposition player might snap my muscle-less frame in half.

It did not take long to find the ball and throw it on the boot forward — ‘‘how easy is this?’’, I briefly thought before a Picola opponent gobbled up my kick.

Immediately, I gained an extraordinary appreciation of the fitness levels of footballers — senior country footballers, but I did find myself wondering how professional players could make gut-busting runs in the dying stages of the fourth quarter — and I thought this at the five-minute mark of the first.

I had a handful of kicks and handballs and did what I could to limit my direct opponent, mind you I did note he was named in the best and kicked a ripping running goal.

I only got abused a few times — yes, I should have put my head over the footy rather than soccering it off the ground, but labelling me a ‘‘girl’’ only reinforced my idea there can be a reasonably sexist undertone to sporting organisations.

Not panicking in anticipation of copping a big tackle was a big issue and certainly resulted in a record-low disposal efficiency, although the one time I tried not to rush with the football, I got absolutely crunched when I kicked the footy and had to leave the ground with a corked quad.

‘‘Heroic’’ return aside (probably had one disposal in the last quarter and a half), it was a long day for my Katamatite teammates and I, falling to the Blues by 119 points.

I could barely walk post-game, yet I left the ground finding myself wondering when I could take to the field again.

Something I have always been conscious of is the idea I critique footballers and teams despite having not played a game, nor been in the environment of a football club.

While I think the classic journalist-bashing argument of ‘‘what would you know, you’ve never played a game’’ is laughable, it has certainly been a factor on my mind.

Yes, I might not have played football, but I have watched just as much of it as anyone — if your opinion of me changes knowing I have not played, that probably says more about you than it does me.

I am not sure if playing one reserves game for Katamatite would change anyone’s opinion of me if this is how they felt, but there was a personal significance to taking to the field.

Just experiencing, in some small way, what players go through on game-day, preparing for a game, battling it out and hurting like all hell afterwards, continued my education as a student of country football.

Playing for Katamatite was about learning to appreciate exactly what the players we cover go through on a weekly basis, and I came away with many learnings.

Firstly, as stated earlier, the physical demand on players is just extraordinary, and how they can turn up and battle it out week in, week out, is a testament to them.

Secondly, scores can certainly blow out quickly, even if it feels like you are in the game.

I felt we controlled large parts of the first quarter, but just could not convert our chances — and yet we hit quarter-time behind 37-0.

If that was the score when we were playing well, you can understand why the score expanded rapidly when we ran out of legs late.

And finally, I really understand why players want to dedicate every Saturday to chasing a ball around.

Above everything else, playing footy was a huge challenge, but also just really fun — and the positivity and support of my Katamatite teammates made sure that was the case.