The Triumph of Respect

I’m not in the habit of republishing old material, yet I felt this an apt tribute to the passing of my old footy coach, Dan. This was first published on nickmaxwell.com in May, 2011.

“In the midst of the depression, blokes had to let off steam, and what better way to do that than a football match?”These words, penned by the great Jack Dyer, were in reference to what was known in the 1920’s as mid-week, or depression football. Played on a Wednesday afternoon in the sprawling parklands of Melbourne, teams  represented such establishments as Yellow Cabs, Railways, Painters and Dockers, Police Force and the Wharfies to name but a few.

Teams were made up from a collection of tradies, thugs, league players in search of a quid, the unemployed, criminals and enforcers of the law. Suffice to say it was not a league for the faint hearted. Dyer continues. “Mid-week football was a great escape and emotional release for the period, because everyone was poor. Many had lost all hope of ever getting on their feet again.”

While the teams have changed and the on-field violence well and truly curbed, it is with the same spirit that the Reclink Football League graces the playing fields of a Wednesday afternoon in Melbourne town these days, providing hope, social connection and a physical outlet for some of life’s frustrations.

Starting life as ‘kick-to-kick’ in a St.Kilda park in 1990, Reclink has developed into an Australia-wide operation. There are now more than sixteen sporting and recreational leagues, and a thriving 13-team football league operating in Melbourne, the cornerstone in Reclink’s operation.

According to founder Peter Cullen, Reclink exists to provide sport and recreation programs for people in the following circumstances; homelessness, drug and alcohol related problems, mental illness, physical disabilities and social isolation. It is designed to “improve participants’ social and recreational opportunities” as well as “short circuit the vicious cycle of boredom to frustration, to anger then drug use then crime.” Or in short… “to provide hope through opportunity.”

I’ve luckily been in a position to volunteer my time and limited ‘football nous’ with my local Reclink team, the Western Storm these past two years, with a third season about to begin! We play our games in Footscray at the Merve Hughes Oval, with a one-off Whitten Oval match thrown in yearly.

As I am not involved in an official capacity, I have had the privilege of getting to know my team-mates just as mates. I don’t know the intricacies of their backgrounds and difficulties, though some are happy to share. In return, from day one I have felt completely accepted and looked after by the guys.

Though the majority of ‘Stormers’ have been based in Footscray most of their lives, the nature of their situations, coupled with the changing nature of Footscray means that only a handful still actually live in the area, having gradually been moved further away to outer western suburbs, to Geelong and Bacchus Marsh. Yet Footscray is still a central hub or “capital” for the Western suburbs. Western Region Health, who run the Western Storm, are located in the heart of the suburb, meaning the Storm players are still very connected to Footscray.

Now about the club. There are three Jasons, two Jamies and one Jay running around, so if you call out “Jay”, the chances are that you’ve got the blokes name right. The other bail-out option is to simply call “Stormer!”

One of our players played his first competitive match of football for ‘decades’ last year. In fact, it was the first exercise he’d done in that time too. Though his stats were humble, it was a remarkable effort for him just to be out there.

‘Rabbit’ is our quickest player, possibly the quickest in the league. He often leaves opponents and team-mates alike bamboozled by his dazzling runs, sometimes the right way, sometimes not. Sometimes he’s just going in circles, but no one can catch him!

Image courtesy of http://www.reclink.org/

One of our “Jay” boys is the spiritual leader of the club. I don’t know the ins and outs of his situation, but it’s fair to say he’s done it hard over the years. However, he is a natural leader. Though not overly skilled, he battles away as Reclinks shortest ruckman. He looks after new boys, gives the team energy and encouragement as the oppositions’ twenty-fifth goal sails through the big sticks, and is always looking for ways to improve things around the club.

One of the Jasons travels from Geelong weekly to train and play. An avid WWF fan, he has no shortage of moves to show off. He once displayed his extreme displeasure at losing by standing atop the boundary fence and angrily back flipping off it! It was an amazing and creative way to express disappointment. Another Jason is nicknamed ‘water-boy’, as each year he bobs up with Russell Gilbert on the bench at the EJ Whitten Legends match running the water. He travels weekly from Bachus Marsh.

Then there’s Roy. Roy is our trainer, looking after everyone like a father. Though getting on in years, he literally walks everywhere, volunteering his time and energy to the team. Roy’s been around footy clubs all his life, including a number of years behind the scenes at his beloved North Melbourne. However, his commitment to the Western Storm boys is his priority. You can find Roy in any of several cafes down Barkley St in Footscray, proudly wearing his Western Storm jacket and cap. He seems to know everyone, and everyone knows him.

As for the club, it has undergone a big transformation in the past few years. My brother in law has been playing with the Storm a few more years than I, so I had an understanding of the club before joining. Having attended several matches, the first thing I noticed was the anger. The coach was angry, the players fought with each other and the opposition, and it wasn’t rare to see players storm from the field mid-match.

Now the coach loved the players and really cared for their well-being, but from my position on the outside, it appeared he had been there too long. The relationship seem strained.

I joined the club at the same time as a new coach. A mass of players had followed the previous coach to his next appointment at the Collingwood Knights, another Reclink club, leaving the club thin for players. Somehow we managed to put out at a full team every match bar one.

The new coach (Dan) realised that things needed to change. The focus shifted from results, to behaviour. Anyone that was going to fight would be straight out of the game.

“If the opposition taunts you, ignore them!” he’d say.

“Help each other, give each other options!! ” He loved the latter so much that he came around the dressing rooms each match and textered a big ‘O’ for options on everybody’s hands.

He preached values that were not only beneficial on the football field, but life itself… discipline, self-control and working hard for each other.  Most importantly, he spoke of respect. Respect for each other, opposition players, umpires, and most importantly ourselves! The scoreboard? Don’t look at it!

Results didn’t go our way and we were on the end of some frightful drubbings, but the year was certainly deemed a success. Why?

The culture changed. After playing Sacred Heart and losing by 30 goals to 2, one of the Hearts stalwarts came to our rooms. He started to excitedly rant about how proud he was that we’d cleaned up our act. He praised us for giving up the fists, and said we’re all on the right track now. He was right, and you could see how proud our boys were of themselves. Respect for our opponents, team-mates and ourselves.

We may have sacrificed results, but it was worth it. We never walked off losers due to a lack of effort, and the feeling amongst the guys was very positive throughout the year. Last  season saw us continue in the same fashion, although our performances improved a little, culminating in a win against Odyssey House and a few narrow losses.

That brings us to this year, and another new coach, who has his own ideas and knowledge to share, and the guys are responding well which is great. But my hope is that we continue to build on the positive culture which has been cultivated over the past two seasons.

Finally, one of the great aspects of Reclink is some of the grounds we play on, such as Victoria Park, Western Oval, Punt Road, the Junction Oval and Windy Hill. You can see the thrill in everyone’s eyes as we grace these fields, self included, to emulate the feats of our heroes from years gone past.

And it’s Vic Park we grace this Wednesday to tackle the Collingwood Knights in our first match for the year. They thumped us there last year and there’s every chance it’ll play that way again. But we’re not about results on the scoreboard, as much as we would love to win. It’s our approach, attitude and effort that count. It’s about respect. It’s about enjoying a game of footy with your mates, and having a snag with the opposition afterwards.

-Go Storm.

Dan and the Western Storm holding up the 2009 Reclink Division E premiership cup

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