Competitive sport at East Oakleigh Primary School began in Grade 6, and I tried out for the soccer team but was placed in the "B" squad, not quite near the level of the kids that had undergone coaching and were already picking up Soccer Action Hat Trick Certificates. The "B" team ended up not going ahead because there were not enough numbers to field the Aussie Rules team unless the Soccer B squad was conscripted.
This fork in the road actually led me to play weekend club footy for Oakleigh Youth Club six years before I would first play organised soccer. I must have been okay enough at the school footy for someone to suggest I go down to the club, and it fitted it well enough with my now widowed mother's work schedule for it to happen. While I was a prominent enough member of the school team, we weren't much chop. At Oakleigh Youth I was very much a fringe player, but we were sensational, losing only one game all season on the way to capturing the Grand Final.
When moving up to secondary school, at Salesian College Chadstone, I didn't try out for either footy or soccer teams, opting for table tennis which I was handy enough at. The senior soccer team there had a State Championship pedigree, and I knew I hadn't done anything to bridge the gap between myself and the kids already excelling at junior clubs. I assumed the footy team would be strong as well, and thought I would be on the periphery there as I had been at Oakleigh Youth Under 12's.
I'd adopted Tottenham Hotspur as my club of choice, on the back of their F.A. Cup Final success earlier in the decade. I followed them through the combination of old Shoot! magazines and the results in Monday's newspaper. Then came Saturday nights staying up to listen to the marvelous sports coverage on the BBC World Service.
Locally I followed Melbourne Croatia from nearly as afar as Spurs. I had vague memories of attending a game in the late 1970's at Olympic Park No.2, where I asked if we could come back when the greyhounds were on. Reading newspapers and watching the SBS/ABC television coverage of the NSL was the limit of my involvement.
So when I'd started Year 12 some family friends I had backyard kickabouts with (they were a little younger) suggested I should go down to Bailey Reserve (where they played at East Bentleigh juniors) as they heard there was a shortage of players in a senior team there. Their family friend, Justin Scrobogna, was a brilliant junior soon to break in to the Moorabbin City senior team. He may have heard of or been one of the reserves players asked to back up on Sunday for the Thirds and told them, whatever it was they told me so on a Tuesday night in 1990 I turned up at Bailey Reserve. I trained with the reserves that night, then the Thirds on Thursday when they showed up. On the Sunday I started in central midfield against Monbulk and we won 2-0.
Before long I was playing two games a week, as I also joined the Salesian College Senior B team. After contributing a few things for the club magazine, Moorabbin Matchday, I was soon asked to edit it. Which of course, meant writing it all. Did it on an old fashioned typewriter (google it if you have to). The following year I began attending more senior games, and after that I was club linesman every week for the reserves. I soon became familiar with putting nets up, and taking them down. Got covered in lime loading and using old school line marking machines. There was a bit of canteen work, and a few relief stints manning the entrance gate. Club functions saw more bartending work.
The club began to climb the leagues, eventually rising from State League Division Three all the way to the Victorian Premier League. There was a year where we played out of Gaelic Park in Keysborough, where heavy wooden goalposts had to be lifted in and out of place every matchday. That was the result Bailey Reserve not being up to higher league standard, and the new ground at Kingston Heath not yet ready. The first years at Kingston Heath saw times where I'd mark and put nets on all four pitches in a single morning. The clubrooms and dressing rooms were portable buildings, before the current structures at the site were erected. Indeed work on the permanent buildings had barely commenced when Moorabbin City folded at the end of 1998.
The factors for that were numerous and I won't go in to them now. The end result was a way of life had come to an end. I didn't realise how loyal I had become until it ended. I would continue to play with the Moorabbin Thirds, as we became Moorabbin Old Boys playing out of Gardiner's Creek Reserve. More than a few Moorabbin players moved there as well, joining the then Old Scotch Waverley (previously Waverley City, now Eastern Lions). I went to a few games, but did not want any further involvement. I was a Moorabbin person, and that's all I wanted to be. I'd expected to be Moorabbin City for life, and didn't want to be anything else.
Now football solely centred around a Thursday night kickaround for training and a game on Sunday with the Thirds. I started going to more NSL games, mainly to Somers Street to watch the now Melbourne Knights, but also to Optus Oval and Olympic Park for Carlton SC matches as well as Bob Jane Stadium to see South Melbourne.
Then in early 2001 I got a call from from former Moorabbin president and secretary Sam Laverty. He'd been asked for assistance in assembling a new squad by Helmut Kalitizki, who had taken over as president of Richmond following their relegation to State League Division Two. They'd just played a practise game and the players weren't particularly well looked after on a scorching summer's day and I was clearly the go to man when water bottles needed filling.
I would say the main reason I responded to the call was a personal loyalty to Sam. He had minor involvement at Old Scotch Waverley after Moorabbin City folded, but never pushed me to follow. Now he was actually asking me to help out, I couldn't say no.
For the first season I only attended match days, being team manager for the first team. The next year that would evolve into training nights. Establishing and "editing" the Richmond Alemannia Magazine followed. Managing the first team became managing the reserves as well. Kits were washed, week in, week out. You never forget how to put a net up properly. Kevin Bartlett Reserve being alongside the Monash Freeway led to some challenging ball retrieval work.
Eventually Richmond would also start the climb back up the leagues, also rising all the way to the Victorian Premier League. This would in part lead to the inner conflict which now sees me follow the game as a distant observer, rather than a passionate participant. Even after a few years, I still considered myself a Moorabbin person. Moorabbin Old Boys played one season at Richmond before getting too old (I was ten years younger than most). The rise of Richmond meant an ever increasing workload, and it came to the point where for the Old Boys to continue I'd have play a greater part than simply turning up to play and that was not a viable option so playing retirement had arrived.
There was the rise of the internet. Participating on local forums, as someone from a club lacking a huge supporter base , I sort of became the face/spokesman of the club to many. Which was odd, as deep down I still felt I was more Moorabin than Richmond. The rise of the internet, naturally, also soon saw me running a club website.
Success brings great times, so soon that feeling began to change. As time passed it was only natural I would become more comfortable being a "Richmond person". The end of the NSL saw Melbourne Knights join the VPL. A year later, Richmond were promoted to the VPL. When we would come to clash, my loyalty went one way and it was the way of the team in white. Now I was truly Richmond.
At the same time, the A-League had come into existence. Melbourne had a new team, Melbourne Victory. I went to a few games when I wasn't busy with Richmond, and naturally wanted them to beat the interstate scum. There was no way I could muster any real passion for them though, and snobbishly I'd question the motives of many who overtly had that passion. I mean, this was not a club they had grown up following, or had began following in a family tradition. They hadn't played for them as kids, it all seemed a bit cheap.
Matchdays would involve arriving at the club by 4pm on a Friday afternoon to put the nets up and flags out and put ice in the freezer. I had a huge set of keys, some for the gates that were used to turn an open park into an enclosed venue. There'd be checking that the away rooms were tidy. Then setting up the home room by bringing in the kit, pumping up the balls for the warm up. Drinks (2 trays of water bottles, one for each team, two five litre cordial mixes - one orange, one apple raspberry - and a twenty litre Powerade/Gatorade mix) would be prepared, as well as a supply of lollies laid out to keep the players buzzing. Fill in some team sheets, hand out some shirts. Give the referees the match balls. Copy the team sheets for any media in attendance. Get the players to put their valuables in a case and lock it away for safekeeping. Make sure there were whiteboard markers and magnets at the coaches disposal. Find some new socks for the players that needed them every second week. Pour out 30 cups (10 of each flavour) just before half-time time. Take notes for Goal! Weekly and club website match reports. Watching the first half of the seniors was problematic because I had to clean up after the reserves/Under 21's to get ready for half-time (we only had one room to share). As a result the second half of the senior game was usually the highlight of the week. Then it was deal with the match officials after the game faxing results in and what not. Load the washing into the car, put the drinks containers back in the coolroom. Clean out the home and away team dressing rooms forn the juniors on the weekend, take down the nets and bring in the flags. Then have a chat with whoever was left in the clubrooms after 11pm.
At the end of 2012, after eleven years at Richmond, I left the club. It was a case of personal loyalty exceeding loyalty to an institution. Helmut had been forced into a situation which saw him step down as president, and I made it clear to people remaining on the committee they would be wasting their time asking me to continue in my roles. At that stage, I was as relieved to have a break as I was sad. A small club overachieving doesn't happen easily.
Before the start of the following season came a point when I would be more than not involved in the club, but where the term estranged would be more apt. This began to take place when one of the committeemen responsible for ousting Helmut appointed himself senior coach. It became official when the club signed Josh Groenewald.
The night Semir Sivic had his leg broken is without doubt my worst moment in football. Worse than losing any game, even a Grand Final. Worse than Moorabbin City folding, and that had randomly brought me to tears on one occasion. I had been a part of a dressing room, where if for some inexplicable reason Josh had been brought into as a new signing, every person to a man would have walked out. That he had been signed by the same people who brought Semir's brother Enes back to the club marked that the club was no longer the same. Not knowing the history there was something I could not abide. There was also the sense that in signing players who refused to talk to each the new regime had no idea what it was doing and everything the club had achieved in recent years was about to go to waste.
In one way the estrangement was not permanent, but in another it was. The week after the coach was sacked after four straight defeats culminating in a 2-7 loss at home I received a phone call from the new president, Wolfgang Smoger. My replacement as team manager had to return overseas for a month, there was Dockerty Cup game that night, and I was asked to fill-in. I said I would, then called Helmut to let him know that I was going back, to see if he'd object to what I'd agreed to. He didn't. Grant Brebner was then appointed coach, and I stayed on until the end of the season assisting the team manager upon his return from overseas. It was not the same though, it never could be, a bond had been broken and at the end of the year I declined requests to continue.
Long before the club's eventual relegation that year, the whole situation would just make me sad. I'd see Josh in the changing room and feel bad for having hated him. Did I still hate him? Not really. No. Did I approve of him being at the club? No, but he was. We wouldn't have spoken much. I assumed that he'd known what I thought of what had happened, but maybe he didn't. Either way, it was not an area to go to.
I now go to games and hope the team does well, but the life or death nature is no more. Where there was certainty, now there is conflict. I still feel "Richmond", but no longer am. I feel I would be cheating to label myself a Knights fan when I compare myself to genuine die-hards. Part of me now feels like a neutral at games even when I'm there to support a particular team. This may also stem from going to watch the former Richmond boys at their new clubs. There's also plenty of people I respect at other clubs, which makes it hard to hate. More than anything though, it's because when you've been in the inner sanctum so deeply, and then step out, you end up an outsider just looking in.
It's for that reason that this blog is more about the past than the present and future than intended when I started it. I just don't enjoy going to games as much as I used to, and still have concerns about the direction the game is heading. Since I first started to do some research as Moorabbin began to plan to prepare for it's 50th anniversary, compiling a history of the local game has been a project on the backburner, now you know why it's at the forefront of my endeavours.