The field was hushed. So too were the people who surrounded it.
The goalie waited for the referee to blow the whistle, as did the goal kicker, who was intently eyeing off the ball as it lay ‘on the spot’.
A goal and victory would ensue, catapulting an unknown sporting minnow into the State Finals.
A miss could mean defeat and a gutting result for a team that had led earlier in the contest.
The whistle blew and the striker approached.
The ball was struck; sweetly enough.
It drew wider. And wider.
And hit the post.
At times I wonder how overtly negative these pages can come across, as much as I try to constantly reiterate that I’m not anti-sport, or anti-buying things, or anti-watching TV, or anti-internet! Moderation moderation moderation. How are we engaging with what’s truly important – our family, friends, faith and community?
There is so much that is great about sport. I guess that’s why we overdo it. We only know one way in the industrial age.
It was ironic then that as the year without sport ended, another journey was just getting going; the best of my career so far.
It never occurred to me that I would ever be writing about this team. After all, I coach the school soccer team every year; why would this year be any different?
A little context
Arriving over 5 years ago, I was keen not to be a part of the football team. They had a coach and a great team, plus the lure of a more relaxed pastime intrigued me. A love of soccer had been developed while living in Shanghai; why not give that a go?
I’d like to say that this began a remarkable turnaround for a program in desperate need of inspiration, necessitating the creation of our own ‘Mighty Duck’ (straight to tv) movie. However, a 2-8 record is what it is. But even in that short space of time, something had happened.
Kids were enjoying the game.
After every game, normally a loss, instead of trudging back up the hill to our classrooms to sit around for 30 minutes and wait for the teams who played ‘away’ to return, we would mix up our squad, add some soft-ballers or netballers(!), and play a game. And enjoy it.
Here, the ‘pressures’ of making a mistake in an important game were non-existent. I could coach within a game context and give specific 1-to-1 feedback without fretting over missing an important free kick as play continued; they could figure it out! The time was characterised by laughter and all-out attack as players threw caution to the wind in going hard against their friends.
Other kids came down and wanted to join in. Win, lose or draw, we’d always head home happy.
Well, word got out. The following year, I had to whittle down a squad of 33 players and make it manageable in a sport that features only 11 per side… More fun, more losses, but 4-6 isn’t dire straits. We were all learning; coach too… A break-even 5-5 season followed.
The tide had turned
By last year, a complete switch had occurred. The great athletes of the school wanted to play soccer! You know, those kids who could read the play of any ball sport, be in the right place at the right time and were in their element on the footy oval or basketball court, let alone the soccer pitch…
A great journey began and although the team didn’t win its district, a 7-3 record (with one controversial L!) ensured that a wonderful group of players were able to relish playing together. And the ‘after-game’ contests became more colourful than ever! Players flew about at breakneck speeds; reputations were formed!
‘We could win this thing’
And then this season began. A wonderful group of kids came together, again 30+ of them, but from that, a core of 12-14 genuine players were present. For the first time ever, I allowed myself to think, ‘We could win this thing’.
And win they did. The first two games saw us up 5-0 within the first 10 minutes. Players were shuffled; ‘try-ers’ were brought on to attacking positions, stars were benched; I would never allow us to humiliate teams. Potential 20-0 blowouts ended up 8-0…
Unfortunately, this was exactly what was happening on the other side of the draw. 17-0 and 13-0 scorelines were showing up from one team in particular. ‘When do we play them?’ the kids asked me.
‘Don’t worry,’ I assured them. ‘You could have won a few games 20-0 too.’
The big game arrived, and as I thought, we had them covered depth-wise, athletically, aerially and in skills. Yet it was the tightest primary sporting contest I have ever seen. Going up 1-0, I thought we would go on from there. Nope; we were then dominated for 30 straight minutes as our opposition, unaccustomed to trailing, came at us with everything.
Somehow, our little gems held their nerve and every single forward thrust that came at them. The whistle blew to signal full time with the score still 1-0. They slumped to the ground in desolation. Our team celebrated joyously.
From there, not another game was lost and for the first time in forever, a District Championship was ours.
‘The good thing about winning is that you get to keep playing!’ If there’s nothing else that can motivate a group of 11 and 12 year olds, it’s the option of playing a sport you love with your mates vs doing Maths!
A Zone Final followed in perfect conditions on a full sized pitch. Our boys were challenged, but a 7-2 scoreline was punctuated by a number of highlights, incredible goals and a full team effort.
The Regional Group
As we came up against 3 other teams in our regional group, I honestly thought that it was the end of the road. Amazingly, in atrocious conditions, they dominated two of their games, winning 4-0.
And then we faced our hardest opponent yet. For 5 minutes, play went back and forth. After that, it was utter decimation as our boys were forced to play fully fledged defence.
And this is the beauty of the world game. It’s all about making the most of your opportunities. It’s a very difficult game in which to score. Out boys were structured well-disciplined, and defended with everything they had.
The whistle blew to signify full time with the scores locked at 0-0. For all you haters, that is the only time in 5 years of coaching that I’ve seen a game end scoreless.
Off we went to penalties, and what a fortuitous scenario it was, considering our boys had spent 30+ minutes practising their penalties that morning, ‘just in case’…! (‘Great idea, coach.’ ‘No, no, it was nothing, really…’)
A 4-2 penalty shootout victory followed; the cruellest of losses for the better team, but a much-welcomed outcome for our boys.
Back to the beginning
And so we come back to the beginning of today’s piece – the end of our Regional Final, with the winner heading to State.
In a fantastic contest, out boys went up 1-0 on a magnificent strike from outside the box. As can happen in junior soccer, that changed the entire tone of the game. We defended too deeply and ball-watched as they all-out attacked. A scramble in their box where, somehow, we were outnumbered, saw the ball literally dribble over the line, making it 1-1.
From there, a classic contest continued, with both teams playing their hearts out, the ball pinging from end to end.
And again, the whistle blew, with the scores tied.
The final shootout
I don’t hate penalty shootouts. At some stage, you have to go back to the fundamentals of the game – scoring goals and saving goals. Otherwise, you would literally play for hours in some cases, waiting for a goal…
Yet when someone misses, it can be heartbreaking. And that’s exactly what transpired when our opposition’s best player and smoothest striker pummelled the ball towards goal – straight at our goalie! The odds were in our favour. You see what I did there with The Hunger Games reference? Ahh forget it…
After an astute coaching change (!), a new striker was inserted into the 5 ‘chosen ones’. He followed this unfortunate miss by powering the ball into the back of the net.
And so we find ourselves back to the beginning of today’s piece. Only one goal was needed and our 5th striker, the hero of the Regional Group, stepped up.
And hit the post.
And deflected in.
Pandemonium and an amazing celebration ensued.
‘This is what sport’s all about’
A couple of my friends and I will always remember a sports highlights package where two Irish hurling players were whacking the heck out of each other with their sticks, while the commentator enthusiastically screamed, ‘This is what sport’s all about’!
Well, of course, it’s not. I have been privileged to be a part of a team that epitomises what sport is and should be all about.
After our epic win, there was jubilation, not just because we won, but because we get to continue the journey together; share moments, sacrifice for each other, celebrate each other’s gifts, create memories and encourage one another. These kids play the right way and I get to go along for the ride.
With or without a year without sport…