“Why is he here?” Neil scowled at where Ty and Ross were running around the oval trying to keep the football away from Sean.
“The brat invited him. That’s good enough for me.” Todd leant on the metal fence that circled the suburban football ground.
“The guy’s a prick.”
“And why is that?” Todd knew the answer, but he wanted Neil to articulate it.
“He’s homophobic! I’ve told you what he was like in the gym during the week. He wouldn’t even look at me and was as short as possible with Liam. He made it perfectly clear he didn’t want us around.”
“And that makes him a prick?”
“Of course it does!” Neil stopped his rant and then continued at a slower pace. “Are you trying to tell me something?”
“He doesn’t sound as bad as your dad was at the start of the year. It sounds more like he’s uncomfortable with you and Liam, not that he hates you.”
Todd let the silence drag on. He’d given Neil something to think about, and, as he expected, Neil was taking his time to process it. It was one of the things he liked about his younger friend. Neil may fly off the handle at times, but when given the chance, he could think through issues and problems. He didn’t always come up with the best solutions, but he did consider the options.
Neil eventually sighed. “Okay, I’ll put up with him, but I’m not going to try to be his friend. He’s going to have to make the first move there.”
“Fair enough.” Todd smiled and waved a hand in the direction of the two teenagers and six-year-old boy running around the oval. “I think the brat is trying to grab first place in the friendship line, anyway, so you’ll have to take a number.”
“You don’t think Ty’s going to get hurt, do you? If Ross fucks him around...”
“The brat can look after himself.” Todd chuckled as he glanced past Neil. “I’d be more worried about Liam if I was you. It looks like he’s found himself a girlfriend.”
Neil grinned as he looked over to where Liam was chatting with Becky, Lorraine’s eleven-year-old daughter. “I hope he treats her nicely. I know her dad, and he’s one big scary guy.”
“Scary? Me?” Todd tousled Neil’s hair. “And I’m not her dad yet. I’ve still got almost six months before I can propose, and then Lorraine and I will need to plan the wedding.” He smiled at the woman next to him as he wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her close. “Of course, I don’t mind if we start the planning early. That way, we can hit the ground running when Becky gives me the okay to marry you.”
“Todd...” Lorraine’s chuckle was cut short as Todd used his favourite technique to keep her quiet. It was only the sound of an approaching young boy that ended the kiss.
“Todd, Ross and Ty said I’m faster than anyone they know!” Sean turned to Neil without waiting for a reply. “They said it’s your turn now. You and Liam.”
As Neil slipped under the fence, he gave Ty a quizzical look.
Ty grinned. “He’s worn us out, so it’s time for a tag and let the G-team take over.”
Sean frowned. “What’s the G-team?”
Ty chuckled. “Todd will explain it to you later. Now, get going and let us old folks get some rest.”
“Thanks, brat,” Todd said with heavy sarcasm. He smiled down at Sean. “Go show Liam and Neil how fast you are.”
“That was a lot of fun, but does he ever stop?” Ross asked as he and Ty jumped over the fence to join Todd. Sean had already raced over to Liam and grabbed him by the arm. Neil was trailing along behind the youngster.
“He does, but not on a footy field.” Todd raised an eyebrow at Ty. “Did he really wear you out? Your knee’s not playing up, is it?”
“Nah, the knee’s fine. The exercise was good for it since I wasn’t stressing it too hard. It’s our patience he wore out. There are only so many times we can try to chase him and miss before it gets tiresome.” He grinned at Ross. “Right?”
“He’s a great kid, but...” Ross hesitated.
Todd laughed. “You don’t have to apologise, Roscoe. Sean can be intense at times.”
“Anyway,” Ty said before Ross could respond. “You two haven’t really met, so I thought it was about time. I would’ve done this when we arrived, but some little bugger grabbed me before I could do more than give you Roscoe’s name.”
“Pleased to meet you, Roscoe.” Todd held out his hand and wasn’t surprised at the firm handshake he received. Todd already knew that Ross was a football player and hoped to be picked in the AFL draft. Neil had kept him, Paul, and Oliver informed on events at the club’s gym over dinner during the week.
“Thanks. Same here. Ty’s been...” Ross caught sight of Ty’s expression and grinned sheepishly. “Sorry. The brat’s been great to me. He didn’t tell me a lot about you, but he said you were a good guy to know. He almost dragged me here, even though I’ve got things I’m supposed to do at home.”
“If you’re talking about studying, you can do that later.” Ty grinned. “You can cram for exams anytime, but you don’t get many chances to make good loyal friends.”
Todd’s expression didn’t change, but he caught Ty’s faint emphasis on the word ‘loyal’. That told him why Ty had brought Ross, though he was still in the dark as to why someone like Ross would need people who were loyal.
“I’ve also got chores to do. It’s just me and my Mum at home, and that means I’m responsible for lots of things.” Ross grinned at Ty. “And I’ve got to get ready for school tomorrow. I’m not a good crammer, so I have to study regularly.”
Ty shrugged. “I think you’re crazy, but if you want to study...” He smiled. “I’m going to see what Becky’s up to. I’ll be back soon.”
Todd spotted the tension appear in Ross’s body as soon as Ty moved away. He turned to Lorraine and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Why don’t you go check on Becky, too? Ty might need protecting, since I’ve noticed she’s paying a lot more attention to boys now.”
Lorraine looked puzzled for a moment, but after Todd tilted his head slightly in Ross’s direction, she smiled. “I’ll keep an eye on them.”
Todd turned back to Ross and immediately noticed signs of nervousness. He chuckled. “Relax. I’m not going to bite. That is, unless you do something to hurt Sean or Becky, in which case I’ll do a lot more than bite. I’d protect those two with my life if I had to.”
Ross wouldn’t meet his gaze. “Ty said you were loyal.” He looked over to where Sean, Neil, and Liam were running around. “Sean’s a great kid. I’d never do anything to hurt him.”
Todd frowned. Something about the way Ross made that statement bothered him. He quickly replaced his smile before Ross noticed. “I doubt you would. Tell me a little about yourself. I know you were with Deon at the combine yesterday—good luck with the draft, by the way—but I don’t know much else. You’ve obviously impressed the brat, and that’s not easy to do, so there’s more to you than the fact that you’re one of the few people I know who’s taller than me.” Todd grinned to show he wasn’t being serious.
What he didn’t expect was Ross flinching. Todd guessed that reaction was why Ty had left him alone with Ross, but he didn’t know what it meant. He also suspected that it would take more than one conversation before he extracted the answer from Ross.
* * *
“Thanks for bringing me home, brat. You didn’t need to.”
Ty grinned. “It’s no problem, and it gave us a chance to chat in private. I know Dad and Tony have said that they’ll keep their mouths shut, but I still think you could do with telling some more people the truth. Dad told me once that simply having someone know helps with the pressure.”
Ross sat with his hand on the door handle, ready to exit Ty’s car. “Too many people already know. I can’t afford anyone else finding out.”
“I think you’re wrong, but okay. Dad told me you have to be in charge.” Ty chuckled. “That’s not something I wanted to hear, but I can live with it. Now, let’s go inside so I can apologise to your mum for keeping you out all afternoon.”
“Thanks, Ty.” When Ty gave him a hard look, Ross grinned. “Sorry, brat, but it doesn’t feel right to be thanking someone by calling them a brat.”
Ty chuckled. “You’ll get used to it.”
A minute later, Ross led the way into the kitchen. “Mum, I’d like you to meet...” He stopped in his tracks as he stared at the other person in the room. “Er...hi, Wu. I didn’t expect you to be here.”
Ty smiled over Ross’s shoulder and raised a hand in greeting. “G’day, Wu. Nice to see you again. Hi, Mrs. Munroe. I’m Ty Flanders, but I’m better known as the brat.”
“And Norm Goss medallist.” Ivy Munroe smiled at the surprise that appeared on both Ross’s and Ty’s faces. “I keep up to date on things my son’s interested in. He watched the replay of the VFL grand final so many times I think I can recite the commentary by heart. Come in and make yourself at home. Ross, I’ll have a cup of tea.”
Ross kept the amused smirk from his face. He knew his mother’s request was part payback for disappearing and part opportunity for her to interrogate Ty. He was more worried by why Wu was clearly waiting for him.
“Coffee for me,” Wu said. He turned to Ty. “Get your order in quickly or you’ll miss out.”
Ty chuckled. “I’m happy with a glass of water. I still need rehydrating after all the running around we did.”
“You’re one of the guys Ross has been training with during the week. Is that right?” Ivy asked.
“That’s me. The others were Deon, Dave, Kev, and Dad.”
“Jim Henderson,” Ross said as he filled up the kettle. “The brat won’t use any other name for him. And before you jump on me, the brat won’t let me call him by his real name.”
When Ross’s mother raised an eyebrow, Ty grinned. “It’s a long story and better saved for another time. Anyway, I wanted to apologise for keeping Roscoe out for most of the afternoon. He kept saying he had to go home, but there were people I wanted him to meet. Things took a bit longer than I expected.”
Ross snorted with amusement. “One of the people he introduced me to was his personal coach. Sean insisted on giving both of us an impromptu training session then and there. Boy that six-year-old can run.”
“He’s almost seven.” Ty smiled at Ivy. “Roscoe did well. He didn’t outlast Sean, but I don’t think anyone can.”
Ivy chuckled. “I wish I had been there to see that.” She turned her head to contemplate her son. “Actually, I’m more interested in the fact that he went on a date last night. I thought he was going out with Wu and Lauren, but when Wu dropped in, I found out otherwise.”
“And I dropped in because he’s been ignoring my phone calls and texts all day.” Wu crossed his arms and stared at Ross.
“That’s my fault,” Ty said quickly. “Between Sean and me, he hasn’t had much time to check his phone.”
Wu’s eyes flicked to Ty for a moment before returning to Ross. “Well, since I’m here and you’re mum’s interested too, spill. How did the date go, and can you tell us who it was with?”
Ross flinched and dropped his head. He hadn’t prepared a consistent set of lies, so he tried to avoid answering the question. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“That bad?” Ivy’s comment was more statement than question and was heavy with sympathy.
“Yeah...” He didn’t want to meet his mother’s eyes. “I know I usually tell you everything, but...”
“Can you tell us what went wrong?” Wu asked. “Your mum, Lauren, and I are worried about you, Roscoe. I thought it was the stress from the combine, but if this girl is messing you around, it’ll help to talk about it.”
Ross grimaced while not looking at anyone. “I...I’m not sure...” He firmed his resolve, though he knew he was pushing both this mother and his best friend away. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“Was that your date we saw you with last night?” Ty asked, drawing Wu’s and Ivy’s attention.
Ross’s head snapped up. He was terrified that Ty was going to say something that would inadvertently out him.
“If it was, you’re better off without them.” Ty pulled a face. “She was one first class b—” He cut himself off with a glance at Ross’s mother. “Sorry, but I used to live with a control freak, and that’s who she was. That was your first date, right?” When Ross nodded, Ty continued. “A first date, and she was pressuring you to say you were her boyfriend. That’s the sign of someone who wants a trophy, not a friend. You were right to get rid of her.”
“Was it someone from school?” Wu smiled reassuringly. “If it is, we should be ready to pre-empt anything she might say.”
“No, it isn’t.” Ross shuddered at the thought of being outed at school.
“Where did you meet her?” Ivy asked.
Ross looked at his mother while his mind raced. He decided that sticking to as much of the truth as possible was the best option. “Through the footy club. Since the season’s over, I shouldn’t see her again for months.” Ross mentally crossed his fingers, though he was still scared that Stuart would try something. He’d already received several apologetic texts that he hadn’t responded to.
“How did you end up catching up with Roscoe and his date?” Wu asked Ty.
Ty shrugged. “We met outside a nightclub. Karen and I were having a night of it when we saw Roscoe and that b...er...woman. After she stormed off, we hung around with Roscoe for another hour or so before he headed home.”
Wu smiled. “Thanks, Ty. Roscoe deserves someone good. He’s resisted dating for most of the year, but now that he’s started again, Lauren and I—”
“No!” Ross’s outburst drew all eyes to him. “I’ve decided dating at the moment is a bad idea. I need to get through this school term, my exams, and then the draft before I think about it. I don’t need any distractions.”
Ty nodded. “Yeah, I think that’s best.” He winked. “Once you’re in the AFL, you’ll have a lot more choices open to you, too. Kev’s told me that he has no problems picking up girls, and that’s in Sydney, which isn’t exactly an AFL stronghold. I’d wait until then if I were you.”
Ross smiled his thanks. He knew that Ty was buying him time, though the assumption he would be drafted bothered him. Ross didn’t like counting on things before they happened.
* * *
“Warwick, it’s Kev.”
“Kevin! What’s up?”
Kevin glanced at his bedroom door to double-check that it was closed. Even so, he lowered his voice. He didn’t want his parents to overhear this phone call. He lay back on his bed so he could concentrate on the conversation.
“I’m sorry, Warwick, but I’ve been thinking about what you said on Friday night, and I’ve realised I’m not being fair to you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You basically told me to not play with you. To not lead you on. While I’m interested in...well...trying a few things, nothing is going to happen long term because you live here in Melbourne and I live in Sydney. That’s not fair to you. I’d prefer to keep you as a friend than to fuck you around.”
There was a long silence before Warwick spoke. “I understand, Kevin, but you won’t lose me as a friend unless you become uncomfortable with me. If something happens—if we get physical—I think I can handle it. I know we live in different cities, and I keep reminding myself of that. I’m more concerned that you’ll freak out and not want to see or speak to me again because I remind you of something that we did that you later regretted.”
Kevin stared up at his bedroom ceiling. He knew Warwick had a right to be concerned. “I...” He ground his teeth. “So you agree we’re better off not trying?”
“I didn’t say that,” Warwick said quickly. “Kevin, you’re a great guy as well as being a great-looking guy. If I can help you out by showing you a few things, I’d consider myself honoured that you trust me that much. But I don’t want to lose you as a friend, and I especially don’t want to hurt you. Maybe what you’re thinking of isn’t what you really want?”
“I don’t know what I want!” Kevin glanced at the bedroom door and then lowered his voice back to the earlier quiet level. “I’m all confused, and I don’t want to go back to Sydney like this. It’ll be playing in my head all the time, and I won’t be able to give football my full attention. My contract’s up at the end of next season, and while the club hasn’t indicated they want to get rid of me, if my mind isn’t in the right place, I could be out of a job this time next year.”
“How about we play it by ear? Go out a few times and see if anything happens?”
Kevin’s heart started pounding, but he still couldn’t work out if that was from anxiety or anticipation. “That sounds good to me. Any chance of seeing you before Friday night?”
“Only for lunch if you’re around or maybe an hour on Thursday after work. Sorry, but I’ve got a lot of things to do this week. I’m not trying to avoid you,” Warwick added quickly, “but this is the week that I’ve got a dental appointment and I’m getting my car serviced. I’ll have a lot more time free next week.”
“Lunch sounds good.” The two discussed the details for a few minutes before moving on to their plans for the weekend. Without thinking about it, Kevin found himself organising to meet with Warwick on not only Friday night, but to also spend all day Saturday and Saturday night with him.
As he lay on his bed after the conversation had ended, Kevin contemplated the bedroom ceiling. He was scared that he was going to hurt Warwick, that he was just using his new friend. He was also scared about what might happen and what it would mean to him.
One of the topics they had discussed the previous Friday while getting drunk was the subject of attraction. Warwick had described what he found attractive about guys, and Kevin had spoken about the things he liked about girls. It was a subject that had Kevin confused. He was definitely attracted to females and didn’t find anything that Warwick had mentioned interesting, so why was he so keen to know more about gay sex?
He’d watched some porn online, and while he had been curious, there hadn’t been any emotional reaction to what he saw. Despite that, he wanted to know what it was like to have sex with another guy. He just couldn’t understand why.
* * *
Neil smiled as he stepped off the train on Monday morning to find Liam waiting for him. It had become a regular occurrence during the previous school term after they started dating, but it still gave Neil a thrill to see his boyfriend waiting patiently for him to arrive from Lilydale.
The two closed the distance between them and exchanged a short but intense kiss. Neil was still a little self-conscious about the public display of affection—and he knew Liam was, too—but both guys had agreed that they wanted to be able to show how they felt about each other without worrying about other people’s opinions.
“What did your parents say about next weekend?” Neil asked as they walked out of the train station. “Can you come to Todd’s going-away party?”
“I’ve already told you I’ll be there. The only question was whether I’d be allowed to stay the night.” Liam grinned. “They said yes.”
Neil’s return grin didn’t last. He sighed. “I’m going to miss Todd.”
Liam draped an arm across Neil’s shoulders. “I know. He’s been your big brother for almost six months, and now he’s moving in with Lorraine. He’ll still be around; he just won’t be living with you.”
“Yeah...” Neil felt Liam’s squeeze of reassurance, but his mind continued on darker paths. “Everything’s changing. Football’s finished for the year, Todd’s moving out, my parents have gone, school will be finished soon, and then we’ll probably be off to Sydney, leaving everyone else behind.”
“I’m still here, and I’m not going anywhere without you.” Liam smiled. “Look on the bright side; at least, it’s a short term for us.”
“But then we’ve got study and exams. I want to fast forward to the end, but I’m dreading what I’ll find. What if I don’t get good enough scores to get into the course I want?”
Liam sighed as he dropped his arm. “Yeah, I know. My nightmare scenario is that you get into uni in Sydney but I don’t. I’m still going to Sydney if that happens, but I’ll have to find a decent job almost straightaway, and that’s not going to be easy in today’s job market.”
“If I make it, you’ll make it. We’re pretty much on a par in the subjects we share.” Neil slipped his hand into Liam’s. “But whatever happens, we’ll do it together...right?”
“Right.” Liam smiled at Neil. “That doesn’t stop it from being scary. I’ve known all year, but it’s only really sinking in now. School is almost over, and next year everything’s going to be different.”
After a moment of silence, the two changed the subject of conversation to the AFL draft and which of the Leopards had a chance of being selected. They were still debating the possibilities when they arrived at school to find Clarissa, Doug, and—surprisingly to Neil—Steven Anderson waiting for them.
“Football?” Doug stared at Neil. “You’re discussing football? What the fuck do you know about the game?”
Neil hesitated before responding. While Neil knew he and Doug had a tacit understanding when it came to Liam, he wasn’t always sure of how Doug would react when the subject was himself. While the words that Doug had used were typical of the putdowns that Neil had endured for years, the tone was more disbelieving than snide.
“I know a lot more than I did at the start of year. I couldn’t live with three football players without picking up a few things.” Neil turned to Liam. “That reminds me. Paul’s got an interview with the Western Bulldogs on Thursday night. He doesn’t know what it’s about, but it may be because they’re considering him.”
Clarissa immediately pulled out her phone and started texting. Steven frowned, apparently perplexed. “What else could it be about?”
Neil grinned. “Given that I had someone from the Hawks talk to me last week, I think that proves they don’t just talk to the person they’re interested in.”
“Wait, what?” Doug’s eyes flicked to Liam. “When was this, and why didn’t I hear about it before now?”
Liam chuckled as he slipped an arm around Neil’s waist. “Last Thursday, and you don’t like hearing what Neil’s been up to. It seems that a number of clubs have suddenly become interested in the Leopards. They’re talking to lots of people, trying to find out more about the players. Neil knows most of the team, so they spoke to him and asked for his opinions.”
Neil shook his head. “Not opinions. They wanted to know who had done what to help me out, how the players interact with each other, and generally what sort of person each of them is.” He grinned at Doug who still had an expression of disbelief on his face. “I can’t comment on how good they are as football players, but I think the clubs already know about their skills. They’re trying to find out if they’re capable of making it in the AFL.”
Clarissa put her phone away. “Deon says that the Hawthorn recruiter asked lots of questions about Paul when he came to their place, so it could be that some of the teams are interested. He’s going to talk to Peter tonight to see if he can find out more about what the Bulldogs are after.”
“Peter?” Steven asked. He then smiled. “Sorry, but you guys have a lot more background on these things than me. I just went to the VFL grand final two weeks ago. That was the first time I got interested in the Leopards.” His smile widened. “And then the next weekend Helena introduced me to her cousin Toula, and I’ve been preoccupied since then.”
“Peter’s the old head coach of the Leopards and now an assistant coach at the Bulldogs,” Neil said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been trying to convince them to take some of his old players, and that’s why they’re coming around to see Paul.”
* * *
Peter stuck his head through Jason’s open door. “You wanted to see me?”
The Western Bulldogs recruiting manager smiled and waved a hand to invite Peter into his office. “Shut the door and have a seat. There are a few things I’d like to go over with you.”
Peter did as he was told, taking in Jason’s demeanour as he sat. Peter thought that Jason was stressed but not upset. “How can I help you?”
“As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve got more questions about some of the Leopard players.”
Peter nodded but didn’t say anything.
“There was an incident at the Victorian combine on Saturday involving Islington. I haven’t managed to track down exactly what happened, but I was hoping you might know.”
Peter stiffened. “Dave?” He shook his head. “I haven’t heard anything, but as soon as we’re finished here, I’ll chase up on it.” He hesitated before continuing. “But if it was something personal, I won’t be able to tell you.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Jason rolled his eyes. “Everyone’s protecting Islington, including my own bloody medical staff.” He fixed a steely gaze on Peter. “But if he’s unstable, he won’t be drafted. I heard he got into a fight with one of the other attendees.” He checked a piece of paper. “Craig Roach claims that Islington attacked him. The official story is that there was a small altercation, quickly dealt with, all due to the stress of the testing.”
Peter scowled. “I wouldn’t trust anything Roach says. He’s had it in for the Leopards since the interstate match against South Australia.”
“Why is that?”
“One of Roach’s mates missed out on the state squad. He decided that Ty was the one who took his mate’s spot. Since then, he’s had it in for Ty and, by extension, all of the Leopards.”
“And your evidence?”
Peter shrugged. “Only hearsay. I know what he said to Ty in the locker room after the loss to South Australia. He followed up when we played them a few weeks later by baiting Ty until the brat snapped and decked him. Ty vowed he wasn’t going to let him do that again. When Roach tried during the finals, Ty just smiled and ran him off his feet. But the fact that Roach tried, even though it was months later, tells me he’s harbouring a grudge.”
“Or he thought he had a chance to psych his opponent out for a critical match.” Jason drummed his fingers on his desk. “I have a record of what was said after the state game. One of my recruiters was there. He said that Flanders overreacted, but Roach was definitely out of line with his comments. Chase up on Islington and let me know what you find out. I need to know the details before I make any judgement call as to Islington’s stability.”
“Now, there’s another Leopard for whom I’m not getting complete information. I’ve been told that when asked about details of Paul Crowman’s private life, his teammates become evasive.”
Peter had a quick mental debate with himself before deciding it was in Paul’s best interests for his secret to be revealed. “I’ll tell you whatever you need to know.”
Jason raised an eyebrow. “Why? You Leopards—and, yes, in this context you’re still a Leopard—have always circled the wagons when protecting one of your own. You’re one of the tightest bunch of guys I’ve encountered. There’s usually one player, coach, or staff member who’ll spill the dirt about a draft prospect, but not you Leopards. So why will you tell me when everyone else won’t?”
“Maybe I’m that one person?” Peter grinned. “In this case, I’m doing so because I think Paul could benefit from you knowing. Everyone else is being conservative and protecting Paul. The basic issue is he’s in financial trouble, and he’s struggling to get out of it. We all know the situation, but no one talks. Instead, we find ways he can earn a little more money, such as his regular media commitments at Pride FM. I’m telling you because he’ll earn a lot more money as an AFL player, and that’ll address his financial crisis.”
“He’s got a gambling problem?”
Peter shook his head. “Nothing like that at all. His ex-girlfriend convinced him to sign as guarantor on a car loan. She then defaulted, and the banks turned to him for the money. He’s paying off a car he doesn’t even own.”
“What did she buy? A Ferrari?”
Peter laughed. “No. Nothing special, but when you’ve got a part-time job so you can put most of your effort into your football, it doesn’t leave a lot. As you know, being a VFL footballer doesn’t pay well. His bonus for winning the grand final will have gone a long way to giving him some financial stability, but he’s not out of the woods yet.”
“Why wouldn’t anyone else tell us this? It’s not that big a deal.”
“To Paul it is. He’s also been breaking the team curfew so he could work a second job on weekends. We turned a blind eye to that since it wasn’t affecting his game, and he was breaking curfew to work, not party. If it wasn’t for the fact that for Jim’s 21st birthday the club ended up at the restaurant where he was a waiter, he might’ve gotten away with it.”
“So he keeps secrets.” Jason’s lips were pinched.
Peter did his best to keep a scowl off his face, though he wasn’t sure he succeeded. “He tries to fix his own mistakes. He doesn’t go crying to others unless he has to. He did ask for help from the club for ways to earn more money, but that was discreet, and only a handful of people knew. He never asked for a handout or for special consideration. The only reason I’m telling you is that being an AFL footballer pays well, and his financial troubles would be solved. His current problem won’t be a problem anymore if he’s drafted.”
Jason chuckled. “I knew that would get a rise out of you. You Leopards are all alike.”
“How long before I’m considered a Bulldog?” Peter retorted.
Jason pondered the question. “For now, you’re a Leopard and a Bulldog. Eventually, you’ll be a Bulldog who’s also a Leopard, but that will take time. You’re a professional, Peter, and your loyalties are to us because that’s who you work for, but you’ve still got loyalties to your old team. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be someone we’d want here.”
Peter considered that statement before calming down. “So you’re considering Paul?”
“Considering, but only considering. The inside story is that Greater Western Sydney is going to start haemorrhaging players soon, with a lot of the players they drafted two years ago wanting to move on now that their initial contracts are up. Kristian Jaksch has already announced that he wants to return to Victoria. We were hoping to trade for him, but it looks like he’s on his way to Carlton, so we’re keeping our eyes open for another experienced defender. Based on Crowman’s performance during the VFL finals he was suggested as a draft possibility if we don’t get someone through a trade beforehand. But we were struggling to get more information on him, hence this meeting.”
“What about Todd Underwood or Ward Peters? They’re the Leopards’ other key defenders and all the same age as Paul.”
Jason checked his computer. “Peters is not considered to be good enough by our scouts, but Underwood’s on our list as a possibility. He’s solid. Crowman’s just considered to have the edge with his height. Neither is considered to be a must-have because there are others with a similar level of skill.”
He leant back in his chair and fixed his gaze on Peter. “What can you tell me about Underwood?”
* * *
Anne kept her amusement to herself. There weren’t many occupations where it was acceptable to show up to a job interview in a tracksuit, but head coach for a VFL team was one of them. She glanced down at the summary sheet in front of her after the initial introductions were made. Henry Aurian was forty three, married, and currently one of the assistant coaches with the Fremantle Football Club. He was also one of the last applicants to be interviewed for the position as head coach for the Leopards and—at least on paper—one of the better candidates.
Eric Blackman, the club president, started the questioning. “It seems a little odd for someone who’s been coaching with an AFL club for the last seven years to not only move interstate to Melbourne, but to also change to the VFL. I know you said in your application that you wanted a senior position, but surely you would have opportunities in Western Australia. Why move to Victoria?”
Henry smiled. To Anne’s eye, he looked relaxed and in control. “I also have personal reasons for the move, assuming I get the job. My wife is originally from Melbourne, and now that the kids have grown up and left home, she’d like to come back and be closer to her family. Her parents are getting to the stage where they’re going to need help, and she wants to be here for them.”
Eric returned the smile. “An excellent reason. We at the Leopards like to consider ourselves to be a family, and we appreciate the importance of being with those close to you.”
Eric continued with a few more general questions before handing over the lead to Roger to interrogate Henry on football-related issues. Anne and Colin, the other two members of the selection committee, usually only asked a few questions each interview. They and Eric were there because they needed to be able to work closely with the new head coach. The three would be putting together the shortlist of two or three candidates that would be presented to the board in two weeks. Roger was there for his input as the team captain, but he didn’t have a vote in who made the cut.
“The Leopards are a young team. How do you see that affecting the way you coach?” It was a question that Roger asked in every interview.
“The advantage of a young team is that you’ve still got room to grow. For a team that’s just won the premiership, that’s an excellent starting position. I see my role as being to nurture and encourage the players, to work to bring them all to their peak while keeping the team spirit that’s clearly present.” Henry’s eyes flicked over the group before returning to Roger. “If there’s one thing lacking at the moment, it’s older seasoned players. I don’t know whether I’ll have a role in recruitment this year, but if I were, and if you lose Deon Bradshaw to the AFL as most punters believe, then I’ve be looking for an older forward, preferably another ex-AFL player. The enthusiasm of a young team is great, but the problem is the lack of discipline and control that can result from their youth. An example would be when Ty Flanders lost his temper early in the season and ended up being suspended for two matches. Having a few more older players would have helped teach him to keep control. I can’t say too much more without a detailed knowledge of the players, but that’s one area I’d start work on.”
Anne was impressed. Henry had clearly done his homework on the team and knew what he was letting himself in for.
“How would you teach that discipline and control? As a team or on an individual basis?” Roger asked.
“Both. Teamwork is critical when playing football at this level. As much as possible coaching should be done in the context of a team, but there are always individuals who need additional attention. You can’t work effectively if you only address one of the two. You need to work on both.”
Roger nodded thoughtfully. “So you’re prepared to treat a few players specially, if needed?”
“I generally don’t. When I’m talking about an individual level, that’s because every player has his own skills and aptitude. These have to be moulded to meet the needs of the team. No one is special, in my opinion. Everyone is part of the team, and treating some players differently to others is a mistake. Everyone needs to be equal, even if skills and abilities are different. Doing anything else creates an unnecessary focus for contention.”
Anne frowned and interrupted Roger. “We have a player who is treated differently to everyone else. There are good reasons for that that I can’t discuss due to privacy issues, but he’s given special rights. He’s still part of the team, but there are some off-field and after-training activities that he doesn’t participate in, and that’s been with the blessing of the coaching staff. Do you have an opinion on that?”
Henry’s brow was wrinkled in thought before his expression cleared. “I think I know who you’re talking about. I feel there needs to be a certain amount of off-field bonding in the team, but I wouldn’t insist on players interacting with someone they feel uncomfortable with.”
When Roger stiffened and Colin leant forward to speak, Anne quickly held up a hand to stop them. “Who do you think we’re talking about, and do you feel we need to do anything about the situation?”
“You’re talking about Jim Henderson. I’m sure there are unique challenges in having an openly gay player on the team. My view is that as long as he pulls his weight and doesn’t cause any disruptions, what he does off the field is his own business.”
“There are no unique challenges. The player we’re talking about isn’t Jim.” Anne pinched her lips as she thought quickly. She was having trouble deciding if Henry’s comments were just assumptions and ignorance or if they masked a homophobic attitude. “But since we’re on the topic, how do you feel about open displays of affection between a gay couple in the change room after a match?”
Henry opened his mouth and then closed it. His forehead wrinkled before he responded. “If it’s not causing a problem with the other players, then I don’t see a need to intervene. But if it’s making others uncomfortable, I’d want it stopped.”
Roger chuckled. “What about open displays of affection between a player and his girlfriend? Or having said girlfriend stay in the change room while the other guys get ready for their showers?”
Anne grinned. She knew that Roger was talking about Angela, Zach’s girlfriend. Zach, the team’s primary ruckman, was madly in love with Angela, and she, in turn, only had eyes for Zach. She also had a habit of staying in the room while he stripped for his shower and not leaving until he was clean and dressed again.
“Same rules apply. If it’s making any of the other guys uncomfortable, it needs to stop.”
Roger shrugged. “Several of the younger guys don’t like it, but everyone lives with it. Is it really a big enough deal to be worth upsetting some of the players?”
Henry hesitated. Anne could tell he was about to backpedal. “Probably not, but I’d like to see how upset those other players are. If it’s a minor annoyance, it’s not worth noticing. If they’re clearly uncomfortable with the situation, it needs to be addressed.”
Anne’s impression was that Henry wasn’t homophobic, but having a gay player was something he would need to get used to. He wasn’t going to be able to take it in his stride without a period of adjustment.
Henry’s gaze flicked over the group again. “If I can ask...if the player you mentioned earlier wasn’t Henderson, who was it?”
The other three immediately looked at Anne. Privacy issues were her responsibility. “I won’t say at this time, though we’ll fill you in with what we know if you get the job. All I can say is that we have a player with a mental-health condition: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The consequences of this are that he has problems with interpersonal relationships and has a few other quirks, none serious. He used to have anger issues, but he appears to have those under control. We expect him to be under the care of a psychologist for the foreseeable future.”
“And just so you know,” Roger added, “Jim showers with the rest of the team. He’s just another one of the guys. He’s not treated any differently to anyone else.”
Anne was pleased to see Henry smile and thank Roger for that information. It indicated to her that he was prepared to accept all the members of the Leopard family; an important requirement as far as she was concerned. Henry’s qualifications were certainly decent on paper, and he was presenting well at the interview. Unless something cropped up during the rest of their discussions, she felt he was likely to be on the shortlist.
“Back to coaching,” Roger said. “What’s your opinion on disciplinary actions?”
“For on- or off-field conduct?” Henry asked.
Roger settled back in his chair and smiled. “Both.”
“Well, my view is that acceptable off-field conduct should be agreed to as a team before the start of the season. That agreement should indicate the types of disciplinary actions that will be taken for various misdemeanours. The head coach should have a strong input into that agreement, but senior representatives from the team also need to be involved, so they have some commitment...”
* * *
“G’day, Julie. I’m hoping you can do me a favour.” Peter had grabbed a small conference room so he could make his calls in private. When it came to Dave’s personal life, he was ultra-cautious. He’d left a message for Dave, but since he knew that Julie was also supposed to attend the combine, he thought he would see if she knew about the incident that Jason had referred to.
“Depending on what it is, I’ll do my best. How are things with the Bulldogs?” Julie asked.
“Busy. Besides all the work I have to do to get ready for the start of pre-season, they’ve also been picking my brains on various Leopards as input to their draft preparations.”
“Anyone besides the obvious?”
“Maybe.” Peter grinned. “I’ll tell you, but I need something in exchange.”
“You’re not my boss anymore, Peter. You can’t tell me what to do.” Julie’s tone was light and playful. “Ask, and I’ll see what I can do.”
“There was an incident involving Dave and Craig Roach at the combine on Saturday. Do you know what happened?”
“I do.” Julie’s tone had changed to the serious tone Peter remembered from a season of coaching. “I didn’t see it, but two recruiters did; one from Hawthorn and one from North Melbourne. Both told me about it immediately afterwards.”
“Can you share it? The recruiting manager here wants to know the details.”
There was a pause. “Well...given that two other clubs know about it, I don’t see why the Bulldogs can’t be told. I’ll trust you to work out how much detail to pass on.”
Julie proceeded to tell Peter what she’d been told. Peter felt a cold anger building at Craig Roach’s comments to Dave. She also passed on the conversation she’d overheard at lunch that day about how Roach was telling the other attendees that Dave was crazy.
“Thanks, Julie. I’ll pass it on, though I won’t tell Jason the exact words used. He doesn’t need to know. I’ll also make sure he knows of the rumours that Roach was spreading.”
“I hope it helps. Dave is much better than he was at the start of the season, but I’m worried that having his mental-health condition becoming public knowledge may put too much stress on him.”
“All the clubs already know about his PTSD. It’s the details that they don’t need to know. Only the medical staff here have that information, and they’re not telling anyone else.” Peter snorted with amusement. “Jason complained that they wouldn’t even tell him.”
“It’s not the professionals I’m worried about. If the news is spreading, it’ll be picked up by the supporters, and that makes Dave a prime target for any opposition spectators. Players can be brought before the tribunal and sanctioned if they say something inappropriate. Disciplining supporters is much more difficult.”
“There’s nothing we can do about that.” Peter ground his teeth with frustration. “I hope that Rollingford bastard gets put away for life, if not longer, for what he did to Dave. Any word as to when the trial will be?”
“No word yet, at least to my knowledge. Check with Charlie. I don’t think anyone else is game to ask Dave if he’s heard.”
Despite it being a phone call and she couldn’t see him, Peter shook his head. “I don’t need to know. But if Dave has to attend court to present evidence, I’d like to be there when he does. He could do with all the support he can get.”
“I’ll keep you informed. If that happens, I think most of the Leopards will be there for him.” There was a momentary silence before Julie changed the subject. “Did you need anything more from me, or can you now tell me who else the Bulldogs are considering?”
“How about your brother?” Peter grinned in anticipation at the reaction that would generate.
“Yeah, I already knew about him. They’re coming around to see him Thursday night. Is that it?”
Peter blinked. He hadn’t expected that Julie would know more than him. “What about Todd? I was told that they rated Paul slightly above Todd, but not by much.”
“Makes sense. It’s hard to separate those two in terms of importance and ability.”
“True. Anyway, thanks, Julie. I need to go pass on the information about Dave and Roach. Good luck for Paul, but don’t raise his hopes too high. Jason made it clear that both Paul and Todd are only two out of a number of guys they’re looking at.”
“I won’t say anything to either one. They don’t need the stress. Say, is this an official call from an AFL club?”
“Why? It’s not really official. I’m just doing a favour for someone.”
Julie’s tone was one of amusement. “Because I’m keeping track. If it is, it’s my twelfth call since the grand final. It seems we’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest with our win. Lots of clubs are interested in our players. If they all follow through, the Leopards are going to be a very different team next year. I’ve had enquiries about six different guys.”
“Okay, you can mark this as an official call. Can I ask who the other clubs are interested in?”
“Well...unless you want me to tell them who you’ve been asking about, I don’t think I can. I will say however, that there’s one name that’s conspicuous by its absence. Do you know why none of the clubs are asking about the brat? After his performance at the grand final I thought he’d be the first name on their list.”
Peter considered his next words carefully. “I’ve got no idea about the other clubs, but I’ve been telling people here about him. However, I’m not part of the team that’s making decisions, so I don’t know what they’re doing. Sorry, Julie.”
“That’s about what I expected, Peter. I’m guessing that there’s something I don’t know, because to me he’s an obvious draft choice. If you do find out, I wouldn’t mind knowing.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Peter said. “I mightn’t get a chance to speak to the appropriate people here until after the draft because they’re so busy, but I’ll do my best to find out what’s going on and let you know.”
Peter’s silent comment to himself was that as far as he was concerned, the more people who knew what Ty’s father has been doing the better. But only after the Bulldogs had drafted Ty.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Here is the media report on Greater Western Sydney’s Kristian Jaksch requesting a trade back to a Victorian club and how the Western Bulldogs are looking for a key forward, though they were also keeping an eye out for an experienced key defender.
And for those interested in the follow-up from the academy and father-son nominations announced the previous Friday, the results from those nominations are here. As expected, Sydney was forced to use their first round pick to get Isaac Heeney. They were also forced to use their second round pick for Jack Hiccox, though they only needed to commit their fourth round pick for Abe Davis.
Also, on Monday 6th October 2014, the AFL awarded an extra first round draft pick to the Melbourne Football Club as compensation for the loss of James Frawley to Hawthorn as a free agent. As Melbourne had the number-2 pick, this meant that they would also have the third pick in the draft, unless they traded one or both of these away. This pushed all the subsequent draft picks down on, meaning that the Western Bulldogs’ first pick was now number 6 and Carlton’s was number 7.