“Charlie, relax! Just be yourself and you’ll be fine.” Stacey followed up her encouragement with a kiss on his cheek.
Karen stared at the other two. “What’s going on?”
Charlie lowered his head to hide his face. “Nothing.” He knew she could tell he was lying.
“I think you can tell her, Charlie. It’s not like she can do anything about it.”
“I didn’t want people to know!” Charlie looked up and grimaced at the expression on Karen’s face. “I’ve got an interview in ten minutes. It’s not a big deal.”
“An interview with the St. Kilda Football Club,” Stacey added, “which is definitely a big deal.”
Karen smiled as she reached and rested a hand on Charlie’s upper arm. “I agree with Stacey, but I understand why you kept quiet about it. I promise I won’t tell Ty until after you’re finished. That way he won’t stress you out by calling with advice and questions.”
Charlie chuckled nervously. “I don’t think it’s possible for him to stress me out more than I am right now. The only time I’ve been more stressed was the day of the grand final.”
“Where’s this interview?” Karen asked. “You don’t want to be late.”
“It’s at Murphy’s. I’ve got plenty of time.” He gave the girls a nervous grin. “Plenty of time to panic.”
Charlie was hoping the familiar surrounds of the Pearson and Murphy’s Cafe would help calm his nerves. It was where Karen had first introduced him to Stacey, and it was the part of the RMIT Melbourne campus where he felt most comfortable.
“Is there going to be enough privacy there?” Karen asked.
Charlie shrugged. “They didn’t ask for privacy, just somewhere we can chat. You can come, too, if you like. I was going to let whoever it is decide if he wants it to be one on one, or if Stacey can listen in.”
“In that case, I’d love to come. I can skip my next lecture; I already know the material, and the lecturer never says anything that’s not in the textbook.”
“If you miss it, you know that this would be the one time it’s different. You should go.”
Karen fixed Charlie with a sardonic stare. “Do you want me there or not? If you don’t, just say so.”
Charlie looked away as he screwed up his face. “If you’d like to be there...”
“This isn’t about what I want. This is about what you want. Do you want me there, or would you prefer me to be elsewhere?”
Karen’s tone wasn’t leaving Charlie any room to move. He knew he was trying to avoid making a decision, but Karen knew him too well and wasn’t letting him get away with it.
“Okay, you can come.” Charlie looked back and smiled hesitantly. “Just don’t tell Ty until it’s all over.”
Karen chuckled. “You never told anyone apart from Stacey. Right?”
Charlie nodded sheepishly.
“Charlie, Charlie, Charlie,” Karen said as she shook her head. “While it’s nice that you don’t push yourself onto other people and like to stay in the background, there are times when you need to stand up and make people notice you. This is one of those times.”
“Leave him alone,” Stacey said with a scowl. “He’s fine just the way he is.” She smiled at Charlie and then gave him a light kiss on the lips. “He wouldn’t be Charlie if you change him.”
Karen laughed while Charlie blushed.
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, Charlie was sitting outside with Laurie Baker from the St. Kilda Football Club. After he had introduced Stacey and Karen to the recruiter, Laurie had asked that they sit at a nearby table. He’d smiled and said that he needed to be able to concentrate on Charlie, and that was difficult if there were two pretty girls sitting with them.
“What do you see as your biggest strength and weakness as a footballer?” Laurie asked.
Charlie mentally cringed. He knew that recruiters asked tough questions, but he didn’t expect something that blatant so soon. “I’d say my ability to read the play is my biggest strength. I can usually spot what’s about to happen or where the ball is likely to go.”
Laurie nodded. “Like that brilliant mark near the end of the grand final. You were in the right place at the right time and took the right action.” He smiled. “What about your biggest weakness?”
Charlie started to drop his head and then forced himself to look the recruiter in the eye. “I’m not aggressive enough. Julie keeps telling me I need to get into the packs more, to force the ball to go where I want rather than anticipating where it’s going to go.”
Laurie had a hint of a frown. “Julie?”
“The midfielders’ coach at the Leopards.”
“Ah...” Laurie cocked his head. “Last year you played in the TAC Cup as a forward, but you spent most of this season playing in the midfield. Which position do you feel suits you better?”
“Midfielder, I think. While I can play both, I found that being a midfielder works to my strengths more than being a forward. I get more benefit from being able to read what’s going to happen, and I can use speed and agility as an alternative to being physically tough.”
“You’ll need to be tough, too, if you make it to the AFL, but I get what you mean.” Laurie checked the iPad he was holding before continuing. “One of the things we don’t have is good data on your speed and agility. Unfortunately, you and most of the other Leopards didn’t appear on our prospects list until well after the nominations for the combines closed. We have videos for some of your matches, but we’d like something more concrete. How would you feel about dropping into our training centre in Seaford sometime in the next couple of weeks for some tests?” He grimaced. “Unfortunately, the AFL rules require us to share the information with the other clubs, but there’s not much we can do about that.”
This was news to Charlie. “Why is that?”
Laurie shrugged. “One of the original reasons for the AFL holding the combines is so that we don’t have guys like you being asked to repeat the same tests over and over again for each club. The combines have them all doing the tests just once—in controlled conditions—and then all the clubs can do what they want with the data. When we have situations like yours—wanting to test someone who wasn’t at any of the combines—the AFL rules still apply. To stop all the clubs asking you to repeat the same tests, the other clubs get the results from the first club that does them.”
Charlie nodded slowly. “That makes sense.”
“Getting back to the question at hand, how about it, Charlie? We’d like to see what you’re capable of, so how does Saturday week sound? October 18th?”
“Sure. The Leopards awards night is in the evening, but as long as we’re finished at a reasonable time, that shouldn’t be a problem. Even if we finish late, I’m sure the club will understand.”
“Excellent! We’ll sort out the details later, but we’ll aim for an early start and be finished by the middle of the afternoon.” Laurie played with his iPad for a moment and then turned it to face Charlie. “Here’s a test on your ability to read the play. Watch this clip and then tell me what you would do if you were the person with the ball.”
Charlie focused on the iPad screen. It didn’t feel the same as being on the ground in the play, but he knew this was one of the ways the AFL clubs used to assess a player’s football smarts.
* * *
Warwick blinked when Kevin met him at the local shopping-centre food court for lunch. “Did you do that for me?”
Kevin chuckled as he self-consciously ran a hand through his recently bleached hair. “I remember you saying you had a thing for blond football players. Since you’re helping me out, I thought I’d do you a favour.”
“You didn’t need to, but I appreciate the gesture.” Warwick grinned. “I believe I also mentioned something about tight shorts...”
“Yeah, I know, but I’m not sure I can go that far.” Kevin winked. “I don’t want to do myself an injury.”
They were both chuckling as they selected their lunches. Warwick went with sushi and coffee while Kevin selected a salad roll and water.
Warwick tilted his head towards Kevin’s selection. “Eating healthy?”
“When I can. It’s become a habit, though while I’ve got these eight weeks off, I’ll have a few meals that aren’t on the club dietician’s list.”
The two chatted for several minutes, with Kevin doing most of the talking, while Warwick asked questions about what it was like to be part of the Sydney Swans. Warwick was therefore caught off guard when Kevin asked him a question.
“You’re worried about something. What is it?”
Warwick stared back. “What do you mean?”
“You’re not making eye contact as much as you did on Tuesday when we had lunch. You’re also quieter. If I was suspicious, I’d say you’re asking so many questions because there’s something you don’t want to talk about.”
“Well...” Warwick grimaced as he decided that he needed to come clean. “I’m worried about the weekend. I’m still not sure this is a good idea.”
Kevin gave a snort of amusement. “You’re worried? What about me? I’m the one who’s...” He glanced around and lowered his voice. “...who’s going to be doing things he’s never done before. Why are you worried?”
Warwick leant forward so they wouldn’t be overheard. “Because it feels wrong. I don’t like casual sex, Kevin. I’ve done it, but not with someone I like. It’s going to make things awkward between us.”
“You don’t know that.” Kevin relaxed back into his chair and smiled. “Though to be honest, casual sex is all I know. I’ve had a number of one- and two-night stands over the last year, but they all ended amicably. A kiss and a cuddle the next morning, and then I was gone. This weekend will be a first for me in more ways than one.”
“You’ve never had a girlfriend?”
Kevin’s eyes became unfocused. “I had one, back when I was Year 11. We went out for almost six months, but then I found out that I’d be changing schools for Year 12. My parents were moving to the other side of Melbourne to try to get me into a different team for the TAC Cup because they thought I’d have a better chance of impressing the AFL clubs.” He shrugged as he smiled wistfully at Warwick. “It worked, but it messed up my social life for the last year of school, and then moving to Sydney messed things up even more. With most of my focus on my football, I haven’t had time for a relationship.”
“Then I don’t think this weekend is a good idea. It’s just going to further confuse you.” Warwick was worried for Kevin. He hadn’t realised that his friend had never had someone make love to him, that he had only had sex with strangers.
Kevin scowled. “I’m already confused, and I’ve told you I can’t afford to go back to Sydney like this. I have to get this resolved.” His shoulders slumped, and he stared down at what was left of his lunch. “I trust you, Warwick. I can’t trust anyone else with this. I need to know. I don’t know why, but I need to know.”
Warwick resisted the temptation to reach over and take Kevin’s hand. If they were in private, he would’ve done so, but in public he needed to protect Kevin’s reputation. That meant no displays of affection in front of others. “And that makes me feel honoured. Okay, how about we take it easy this weekend. We’ll see what happens, but we won’t try to force it. We’ve still got a few weeks before you return.”
Kevin pulled a face and then nodded. “Just curious...would wearing a tight pair of footy shorts count as forcing it?” He grinned.
Warwick felt a familiar stirring as he grinned back. He tried to tell himself that Kevin was going to be out of his life in only a few short weeks. He tried to tell himself that he couldn’t be more than a friend.
It didn’t help. Warwick knew he was falling for his AFL-playing friend and that nothing good was going to come of it. But he didn’t have the strength to walk away.
* * *
“Liam, mate, can I have a quick word?” Steven glanced around at the other students heading out for lunch. “In private?”
“Sure, Stevo, as long as it’s quick.”
“It will be.” Steve took the few steps necessary to move into a nearby empty classroom. “I want you to reconsider about not coming to my party after school on Muck-Up Day.”
Liam scowled. “I told you, I’m not going without Neil, and he wouldn’t be welcome. I don’t want school to end on a bad note for him, and going to a party where he’s shunned isn’t my idea of fun.”
“He’s welcome,” Steven said quickly. “I’m getting to know him, and he’s a cool guy. This is a chance for him to finish on a high. I’d like him there.”
Liam crossed his arms and shook his head. “No one else will. He’ll have no one to talk to except me, while everyone else will either ignore him or make snide comments. You’ll be too busy as the host to spend time with him. He’ll be uncomfortable, and that will make me uncomfortable and unhappy. We won’t enjoy it, and if we can’t enjoy it, there’s no point going.”
“And if there were others he could talk to?” Steven grinned. “Toula’s coming to the party and she’s invited her cousin Helena. Helena’s going to bring her boyfriend Ollie, who’s one of Neil’s housemates. Also, I’m going to ask Clarissa to come and bring Deon. If you and Neil want to invite any of the other Leopards, they’ll be more than welcome. I just need to know numbers.” He smiled hopefully. “Neil will have people to talk to. So...will the two of you come?”
Liam stared back until Steven started to shuffle uncomfortably. He then shrugged. “I’ll talk to Neil about it.”
Steven grinned with relief. “Thanks, mate!”
“Why are you so keen for us to come?”
Steven blushed. “A few reasons, the main one being that Toula wants Neil there.”
“Her cousin wants to make sure Neil is treated right.” Steven’s face reddened even more as he looked out the classroom window. “And if I make sure it happens, Toula said she’ll make sure I’m treated right, too.”
Liam laughed. “You’ll do whatever it takes to get laid, right?”
Steven shrugged sheepishly. “I like her. I want to keep her happy.” His expression changed into one of seriousness. “I also like you and Neil. I’m beginning to regret the years of keeping Neil on the outer. We don’t have enough time to become friends before the end of school, but I’d like to end the school year on a positive note with you and him.” He smiled. “And if it gets me laid, that’s a happy bonus.”
* * *
Kevin was finishing up his lunch with Warwick when he heard his phone beep. He quickly checked the text message he’d received.
“Fuck! This can’t be happening!” Kevin growled at his phone even though he knew it was a completely useless gesture.
“What’s wrong?” Warwick asked.
“The bloody AFL Commission has just banned the Swans from trading for players.”
“You’re joking.” Warwick took in Kevin’s scowl before continuing. “Why the hell have they done that?”
Kevin checked the link he’d received and scanned the news report. “It’s the Cost of Living Allowance. The AFL told us that we had to drop it immediately or be banned from trading for two years while it’s phased out.”
“Fucking AFL Commission!” Warwick’s scowl matched Kevin’s. “The club was already getting rid of it, so why are they doing this now?”
“Here, have a read for yourself.” Kevin handed his phone over. “There goes my plan to move out next year. I was going to try to find an apartment, but rents are so high I can’t afford it if they don’t pay the allowance. You’ve got no idea what the landlords charge in Sydney. It’s got to be the most expensive place to live in Australia.” Kevin slammed a fist onto the table. “Fuck!”
“Your host family will let you stay?”
Kevin smiled for a moment. “The Wembleys are great. They said I can stay with them as long as I want.” He sighed. “The main reason I wanted to move out was simply for some privacy. It’d be nice to bring a girl home for the night occasionally, but I can’t do that at their place. I’m going to have to hope that the club offer me a new contract next year with more money so I can afford to have a place of my own.”
Warwick narrowed his eyes as he continued reading. “This says existing contracts will still have the allowance, but it’s going to be phased out for any future deals. You’ll still be paid, but your next contract won’t have it included. The thing that’s fucking unfair is that they’re only targeting the Swans. This says that Greater Western Sydney aren’t being banned, just us! Why apply this rule to one Sydney club but not the other? Bloody discrimination!”
“Give me another look.” Kevin took back his phone and scanned the article again. “Okay, we can still trade for draft picks, so there’s a chance they’ll be able to pick up Deon if they get something good, but it’s still fucking unfair!”
“Yeah, I know.” Warwick stood up. “I’m sorry to leave on this bad note, because I think both of us want to yell abuse at the bloody AFL Commission, but I have to get back to work. Are you going to be okay?”
“Once I get this out of my system.” Kevin pushed his anger to one side and managed a weak smile as he rose to his feet. “I didn’t want to have too much to drink tomorrow night, but maybe we can have a few while we bitch about how we’re being picked on.”
“Yeah, I think we can do that.”
The two gave each other a brief hug before Warwick left. Kevin sat back down, still fuming at the injustice. He mentally crossed his fingers that Deon would still somehow end up in Sydney. His new plan that was starting to form was for the two of them to share a flat. It wasn’t quite as good as having a place to himself, but rooming with Deon would be a worthwhile compromise.
* * *
Karen placed her lunch on the table and dropped into the seat opposite Charlie and Stacey. “Okay, spill. You ran off to a lecture after your interview and didn’t give us a chance to find out how it went.”
“Karen, leave him alone!” Stacey glared at her friend with little effect.
“I know the two of you well enough to know that Stacey’s already asked, Charlie was demure, and the conversation died at that point.” Karen’s lips curled upwards when they both blushed. “Bad news, Charlie. You’re going to get interrogated. Your only choice is whether it’s by me or by Ty.”
“It went okay.”
Karen rolled her eyes in an exaggerated manner. “Details, Charlie, details.”
The questioning continued for the next fifteen minutes as Karen slowly extracted the details of the interview. It only ended when Karen received a text message that made her frown.
“Charlie, do you know why Kevin’s not going to be happy? Ty’s just sent me a text and a link to an article, but I’m not sure I understand what it’s talking about.”
“Can I have a look?” A couple of minutes later, Charlie grimaced. “The AFL’s banned the Swans from trading for new players. That’s going to cut into their ability to get extra draft picks, and that means they’re less likely to be able to draft Deon. That’s why Kevin is going to be unhappy. We all know he wants Deon to be drafted by Sydney.”
“What did they do to get banned?”
“It’s a little complicated. Basically, they abused the spirit of the rules. They didn’t do anything wrong according to the letter of the rules, but they took advantage of the Cost of Living Allowance that the AFL Commission itself put into place.”
“What does that mean?” Stacey asked.
Charlie smiled at her. “Some background: because Sydney’s a more expensive place to live, the AFL told both Sydney-based clubs that they have to pay an allowance to all their players. Essentially, all the players get an extra ten percent to compensate for things costing more, which only helps them keep pace with players living in a cheaper city where money goes farther.”
Karen nodded. “Makes sense. How did they abuse it?”
“Because it applies to all players, not just the lower-paid ones, and it doesn’t count towards the salary cap. For a first-year player on $80,000 a year, the extra money helps pay the rent, but, for example, last year the Swans enticed Buddy Franklin to play for them. While salaries are kept secret, most people would guess he’s probably on at least half a million. The Cost of Living Allowance for him would be at least an extra $50,000 a year, which is a lot more than he needs as compensation for living in Sydney. In other words, they’re using the allowance to pay him a lot more than they’d be allowed to under the salary-cap rules...and he’s not the only big name they’ve recruited recently.”
“The law of unintended consequences.” Karen shrugged. “It happens. Where does that leave Sydney if they want more draft picks?”
“They don’t have a lot of options. The article says that they can still trade players who want to leave the Swans, but they can only get draft picks in return—no players. Unless one of their better players wants to go, that’s not going to be very effective. I don’t know if they’ve got anyone who’s a free agent, but a compensation pick for them leaving would be another way of doing it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Free agency is new to the AFL. The Players’ Association advocated for it to give the older players more say in where they end up. After eight years, I think it is, when players are out of contract, they’re free to go wherever they want. Normally, a player would be traded if they want to leave, so the club gets something for them going, but for a free agent, the club would get nothing. To complicate things further, since the club losing a free-agent player put in the resources to train that player, the AFL Commission works out a compensation draft pick for the club. For a top player, it may be an extra first-round pick immediately after their current pick, or it could be an extra pick at the end of the round. For less skilled players, it could be a second- or even third-round pick.”
Karen frowned. “So there’s a big difference between being traded and a free agent.”
“Yes, with a trade, the club can negotiate for things other than a draft pick. They could ask for another player, or a player and some draft picks. The player doesn’t always end up where they want to go because the clubs involved have to agree on the trade, but most of the time they try to accommodate the player’s wishes, as long as the other club offers something that the first club thinks is fair.
“With free agency, though, the AFL Commission chooses the compensation and there’s no appeal. You get what you get given and you have to accept it. And that could be no compensation at all, if that’s what they decide.”
“Ouch. Sounds political. I can see why the clubs try to trade if they can. That must put a lot of pressure on them to take a deal, even if it’s not as good as what they want.”
Charlie nodded. “Most of the trades with players that want to leave are when they still have a year or two left in their contracts. If the club waits until the last year and can’t convince the player to stay...” He shrugged.
There was silence as the three finished their lunch. Karen only acted when Charlie and Stacey stood up to leave. “Charlie, there’s something that’s been bothering me. I thought you might know the answer.”
“What is it?”
“Do you know why none of the clubs are talking to Ty? He tries not to let on, but he’s really hurting. He won that award at the VFL grand final, and everyone in the club thinks he’s fantastic, but none of the AFL clubs seem to agree. Do you know what he’s doing wrong?”
Charlie grimaced. “Sorry, no. I don’t think it make sense, either. He should be the one the clubs are chasing, but instead they’re talking to people like me. I don’t understand it, and neither does anyone I’ve spoken to at the Leopards.”
Karen sighed and stared down at the table top. “Thanks. I was hoping for a different answer, but I’m not surprised. That’s what everyone else has told me, too.”
She was startled when Stacey gave her a hug. “Don’t give up faith, Karen. Ty will be recognised one day. They can’t keep ignoring him forever.”
* * *
Patrick O’Malley was frowning as he spoke on his phone. “Shane, what’s this about us trading our first-round draft pick?”
“GWS want it for Kristian Jaksch. We’re pushing back as he’s not worth a number 7 pick. We’re seeing what else we can squeeze out of them. They know they have to deal; otherwise, he walks as an out-of-contract player and we’ll have a chance to get him without them getting anything in return.”
“Is this going to interfere with the plan to draft young Flanders?”
“Paddy...” The old Irishman heard a heavy sigh from the other end of the phone call. “I agreed to draft him. I never said it would be in the first round. Anyway, I’m working to get a late first-round or an early second-round draft pick in a trade, so we’ll still have options.”
“The Bulldogs know about the young lad, too. If we’re not careful, they’re going to get him instead.” Patrick was keen for Carlton to draft Ty and was worried that Shane didn’t have the same sense of urgency.
Shane snorted. “The Bulldogs have their own problems. I sincerely doubt they’ll be in a position to pay any attention to Flanders at the moment. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but it’s quite probable that they’ll let Flanders slip through the net. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a big shakeup of staff there, and that’s going to cause massive disruptions to their draft preparations.”
“What are you talking about?”
Shane’s voice was filled with amusement. “Check out the live trade page at the AFL website. The first shots in a Bulldogs’ civil war have just been fired at the kennel.”
* * *
Lee Corrigan grabbed Peter as he passed by. “Come with me.”
Peter allowed himself to be led along. He was coming back from a late lunch after working to get some plans ready for the Bulldogs’ senior coach; plans that he’d be presenting later that afternoon. “Where are we going?” Lee’s demeanour was worrying Peter; it was clear that something was wrong.
“In here, and then we’ll talk.” Lee pointed towards a small conference room, by coincidence the same room that Peter had used earlier in the week to talk to Julie about Dave.
Peter entered the room. “I can’t stay for long. I’ve got a meeting with Brendan in twenty minutes, and—”
“That’s what this is about. Be careful, Peter, because I don’t think Brendan’s going to be around for very much longer. I take it you haven’t heard the news?”
Lee grimaced. “Ryan Griffen’s management company released a statement about thirty minutes ago that essentially told the club that Griffen has no confidence in Brendan. Ryan wants to be traded to Greater Western Sydney, and crisis meetings have just started.”
“Oh, shit.” Peter didn’t need to be told that when the captain of a football club says that about the senior coach, at least one of the two wasn’t going to be around for very much longer. “What’s the current status?”
“The club’s about to question the other senior players, but the word on the grapevine is that Ryan’s not the only one who’s unhappy. The club’s announced that Ryan still has a year on his contract, and he’s required to play, but I don’t see that happening unless Brendan is forced out. The club can’t operate if those two are both here and fighting.”
“Is this being kept quiet?”
Lee stared. “You’re not on Twitter, are you? This is all public information. The bastards at GWS sent out a tweet announcing it to the world. The story going round is that they’ve been talking to Ryan’s management for months. We’ve got a public shit-fight between our captain and our coach, and everyone is going to be looking for someone to blame. You need to keep your head down.”
Peter winced. “I can’t see any good outcomes from this. Even if Brendan goes, Ryan’s position as captain is going to be called into question. You just don’t do what he’s done.”
“What do you think is going to happen next?”
“Fucked if I know.” Lee screwed up his face. “Ryan wants to go to GWS, but at the moment they’ve got little to trade for him. They may be picking up Carlton’s first round pick if they can cut a deal for Jaksch, which will give them two picks in the top ten. Taking both is a reasonable deal for Ryan, but that’s dependent on that deal with Carlton going through.
“If we force Ryan to stay, like the club is currently saying, he walks as a free agent at the end of next season and can do what he wants. Our best bet would be to get rid of Brendan and convince Ryan to stay, but even that’s going to cause massive waves in the club. There will be people who will blame Ryan for the loss of our senior coach.”
Peter grimaced. Lee’s analysis of the situation matched his own opinion. That analysis was reinforced ten minutes later when he found that his meeting with Brendan had been cancelled, with no follow-up scheduled.
* * *
“Henry, this is Eric Blackman from the Lilydale Leopards.” Eric leant back in his chair, phone to his ear, as he stared out his office window at the empty oval below.
“Eric, it’s good to hear from you. How can I help you?”
“Firstly, I wanted to inform you that you’re on our short list of candidates for the head coach that will be presented to the board Tuesday night next week. They will be discussing it, and then there will be a special board meeting the following week to make a decision.”
“That’s great! Thank you. Did you want me there on Tuesday night?”
“Are you still in Melbourne? We weren’t sure on exactly when you were returning to Perth. If you’re not around, we’re happy to do a conference call.”
“My travel is flexible, but at the moment I’m not heading back for another couple of weeks. I’m available if you’d like me to meet the board members.”
“Excellent! We’d like that. Also, if you’re free, we’d like to invite you and your wife to our awards night on Saturday the 18th. That will give you a chance to socialise with the board members in a less-formal environment as well as having a chance to meet the players.”
“We’d love to come. Will the other people on the short list also be there?”
“There’s only one other person on the short list, and yes, she’ll be there. The other candidate is one of our assistant coaches, Julie Crowman. The board and players already know her, so we felt that it only appropriate that you also have a chance to introduce yourself. I’ll have Mel, my personal assistant, email you the details.”
“Thank you.” There was a short pause. “I presume she has the front-runner position since she’s already employed at the club.”
Eric considered his next words carefully. “She certainly has the advantage of being an existing Leopards coach, but you also have strengths with your background and experience. We see the two of you being evenly matched as candidates. That’s why we’d like you there for our awards night so the players and board members can get to know you.”
“Okay, thanks. I look forward to seeing you and the board on Tuesday—and again the following Saturday.”
After a couple more minutes of pleasantries, Eric ended the call. He then contacted Melissa. “Mel, can you please email the details of the board meeting and awards night to Henry Aurian. Also, can you please ask Julie to come to see me as soon as possible? It’s time to tell her that she’s made the short list.”
“I’ll chase up Julie straight away and then email the details to Henry.” Eric could hear the smile in Melissa’s voice. “They’re both good, strong candidates. I don’t think we can go wrong with either choice, though I hope it ends up being Julie.”
“We’ll have to wait and see.” Eric kept his own thoughts to himself. In his opinion, Julie was in the weaker position with the board. Not only was she female—a fact that still disgruntled some of the older board members—but hiring her would leave a vacancy for an assistant coach that would need to be filled. Those complications could be enough to scuttle her hopes in an already evenly balanced hiring decision.
At least Will, the other Leopards assistant coach had decided against applying for the head-coach position. Eric had been concerned as to the possible consequences of having both apply and then one or both of the assistant coaches failing to be promoted. As it was, he only needed to worry about the possibility of Julie missing out, and he was sure he could assuage her purely on her lack of experience. If she didn’t get the job of head coach, he would tell her that with another few years of experience with the Leopards, she would be in a much stronger position for any future coaching positions she applied for.
* * *
Talk to me or I start talking to everyone else.
That was the latest text message from Stuart, and it was the one that sent Ross into a panic. He had been hoping that the lack of response would be enough for Stuart to give up. Reluctantly, he sent back a reply saying he would call him that night.
“Roscoe, you look worried.” Wu smiled as he and Lauren joined Ross at the edge of the schoolyard.
Ross quickly put away his phone. “It’s just life in general getting to me. I know I’m not going to hear anything from any of the AFL clubs for several weeks, so they’re not distracting me from schoolwork, but I’m still having trouble concentrating.”
Wu gave Ross a mock punch to the ribs. “You’ll be fine.”
“I hope so.” Ross grimaced. “I’ve got so much going on that sometimes I don’t know what to do.”
“What you need is to relax.” Wu cocked his head. “We’ve been told over and over that we need to keep things in balance. I think you’ve been doing too much studying or training and not enough chilling out. How about the three of us get together on Saturday night for a few hours of doing nothing much? I’m sure there’ll be a movie or two worth seeing if you’re interested.”
Ross was tempted, but he suspected that Stuart would have other plans. He was too scared to commit to something until he knew what Stuart wanted. “Sorry, but I think I’ll have a quiet night at home.”
Wu crossed his arms and gave Ross a hard stare. “You’re going to study, right? Roscoe...” He shook his head. “I just said you need some balance. Studying all the time isn’t going to put you in a good mental state for our exams. You need to give that small brain of yours a rest occasionally.”
Ross chuckled, though his heart wasn’t in it. “This small brain of mine is doing okay. No, I wasn’t planning on spending the night studying. I thought I’d read a book or watch some TV. Just chilling out by myself, that’s all.”
“As long as it’s not a textbook, that’s okay.” Wu slipped his arm through Lauren’s. “But if you change your mind, we’d love to have you go out with us.”
“I’ll be fine. You two go off and enjoy yourselves.” Ross smiled. “Thanks for the offer, though.”
Wu grinned back. “At least that earlier expression is off your face. You can’t spend all your time worrying about what’s going to happen. The draft is out of your control, and while you can do something about our exams, you have to trust that you’ve done enough through the year to carry you forward. The VCE is not the be-all and end-all of our lives, especially for you. You’ve got options that don’t involve getting good marks in school.”
“Wu!” Lauren smiled an apology at Ross. “Sorry, Roscoe. I know you don’t want to be reminded about the draft, but while he wasn’t tactful, he’s right. The—”
“Of course I’m right!” Wu interrupted. “I’m me!”
Ross laughed. “You and Ty are so alike at times, Wu. You’re both always right. I’d love to see the two of you in an argument at some stage. It’d be interesting to see who wins.”
Wu straightened and tried to look offended. “That would be me!”
“Probably.” Ross personally didn’t know who would win, but he was grateful that Wu was a solid and loyal friend. He was hoping that Ty would be the same, though he didn’t know him well enough to be sure.
Lauren snorted. “And you’d say the same thing to Ty if you were having this discussion with him. I know you, Roscoe. Outside of the footy oval, you don’t like conflict.”
Ross chuckled. “Probably.” His expression slipped as Lauren’s comment reminded him of the problem with Stuart. The only good part was that she’d given him an idea on what to do.
* * *
“Roscoe, mate. How’s things?”
“Ty, I need your help.” Ross glanced at his bedroom door to make sure it was closed. His mother was due home from work at any time, and he didn’t want her to overhear the conversation.
“Sorry, mate, I don’t know anyone by that name. Maybe you’ve got the wrong number?”
Ross grimaced. “Brat, I’m in trouble. I need your help.”
It was like a switch had been thrown as Ty’s tone went from light-hearted to serious. “Talk to me.”
Ross proceeded to tell Ty about Stuart and the threat to be outed, interrupted occasionally by questions from Ty. He then waited. He didn’t know what Ty could do, but he was hoping that another person might see a way out of his predicament.
“Shit! I don’t think I’m a good person to speak to about this, Roscoe. I’ve never been in a situation like that, and I don’t know what to do.”
Ross slumped onto his bed. “Okay,” he said, his tone dead.
“Hey, don’t give up just yet! Let me think. Are you sure he won’t back off if you tell him you’re not interested?”
“You saw him on Saturday night. What do you think?”
“I only saw him for a minute or two, and maybe I just got a bad first impression.”
Ross sighed. “He can be nice, but you said it yourself: he’s a control freak. He wants to dictate what I do. He does it politely...for now...but will that change?”
Ty grunted. “You’re right. Sorry, Roscoe, but I think I need some help with this one. Can I discuss this with Dad?”
“Sure. What’s another person knowing how fucked up my life is?” Ross immediately cringed. “Sorry, Ty. I didn’t mean that. I just don’t know what to do.”
“We’ll come up with a solution, even if it’s just to delay things until we can work out something better. I’ll call you back as soon as I can.”
“Thanks, Ty.” Ross glanced at his bedside clock. “I don’t think I’ve got more than a couple of hours, though. I told him I’d call tonight. I can’t wait too long.”
“Dad’s in his room with Tony. The door’s shut but they won’t mind being interrupted for this.” Ty’s voice softened. “Don’t give up. We’ll work out something. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Oh, and one more thing. The name’s ‘brat’. Stop calling me by that other name. That’s not me.”
Ross’s lips twisted into a momentary smile. “Okay, brat.”
Ross made a half-hearted effort to study while waiting for Ty to ring back. As the minutes dragged on, Ross’s ability to concentrate on the textbook in front of him decreased steadily. He thought of doing a quick workout, but he didn’t want to take any chance of missing Ty’s call.
It was a little over twenty minutes later before Ross’s phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID and then mentally crossed his fingers that it was good news. “Brat?”
“We’ve come up with a plan of attack, but we need you to trust us. We’re going to tell a few more people. Can you handle that?”
Ross stared unseeingly at the football posters on his bedroom wall. He had been half-expecting the request and was prepared with an answer. “I don’t have much of a choice. I either let myself do whatever Stuart wants, or he tells everyone. If telling a few people stops both of those scenarios, I can live with that.”
“We’re not guaranteeing that this will work, but I think it’s our best shot. This is what we want you to do...”
* * *
Ross took a deep breath and called Stuart’s number. He was hoping to get his voicemail but wasn’t surprised to be disappointed.
“G’day, Stuart.” Ross did his best to keep the trepidation from his voice, but he knew he wasn’t sounding confident.
“Look, I’m sorry I had to threaten you, but you weren’t answering my calls or texts. I couldn’t think of any other way to speak to you. I wouldn’t have told anyone. Honest.”
Ross didn’t know whether to believe him, but he knew he couldn’t trust him. “I didn’t really enjoy Saturday night, Stuart. I don’t think we’re suited for each other.”
“That was one bad date. Up until Jim Henderson and his friends showed up, it was a great night. They’re the ones that ruined it, so I was thinking that next time we could—”
“There’s not going to be a next time.” Ross didn’t think the statement would work, but Ty had asked him to try.
“Don’t be like that,” Stuart pleaded. “We can work things out, I know we can. I was too excited, and I pushed things a little too far. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have made you go to that nightclub. I understand how important it is to you that no one recognises you, and I fucked that up. But it all worked out well in the end, didn’t it?”
Ross hesitated. Stuart sounded like he was apologetic and just wanted to make things better, but trust was in short supply. “Sorry, Stuart, but I’m really not interested in dating. I want to concentrate on school and then cross my fingers for the draft. That’s all.”
“And I want the same! There’s nothing that I would like to see more than you becoming an AFL footballer. Give me another go. Please?” There was a slight pause. “I understand how you don’t want anyone to know that you’re gay. I really do.”
Ross swallowed. Those last statements had the same hint of steel about them that had originally scared Ross into dating Stuart. It seemed to Ross that he was going to have to activate Ty’s plan.
“I’m happy to stay friends, Stuart, but I don’t want to date.”
“Friends with benefits?”
Ross flinched at the thought of where that would lead. “No, just friends. Maybe something can happen in the future, but for now, just friends.”
“Okay.” Stuart dragged the word out, but Ross didn’t know if that was because he was unsure or if it was a sign that he was up to something.
“If you’re happy with that, I’ve been invited to a party Saturday night. Would you like to come with me?” Ross crossed his fingers.
“What sort of party?”
“Footballers, mainly, though there will be a few other people there, too. What do you say? I’ll pick you up around seven if you want to go.”
“That’s early for a party.” Stuart sounded more curious than suspicious.
“Some of the people going have young kids and they don’t want too late a night. I’ve been told that the party will probably be going until around midnight.”
“Sounds good. Okay, it’s a date.”
Ross flinched again but didn’t rise to the bait. “I’ll pick you up at seven on Saturday. Now, I need to get back to studying or Mum won’t let me go to the party and we’ll have to call the whole thing off.”
Stuart chuckled. “We can’t have that. Okay, Roscoe. I’ll see you at seven. I’ll be ready.” His voice lowered into something approximating a sexy baritone. “I hope you will be, too.”
Ross swallowed. “Bye, Stuart.” After hanging up, he put his head in his hands. Ty’s plan wasn’t foolproof, but it was the best chance he had to get himself out of his predicament.
He took a deep breath and then left his bedroom in search of his mother. He found her in the living room, watching television.
“Mum, the guys I was training with last week have invited me to a party next Saturday. Can I borrow the car? They said I can stay the night, so I’ll be back Sunday morning.”
Ivy Munroe looked up and narrowed her eyes. After several seconds of Ross trying to avoid squirming under her searching gaze, she smiled. “As long as all your homework is done and you’re back by ten on Sunday. Call me if your plans change.”
“Thanks, Mum.” He gave her a hug. “You’re the best.”
His mother chuckled. “You don’t need to study all the time, Ross. As long as your social life doesn’t interfere with your schoolwork, I’m not going to make you stay at home. You still need to have fun and let off some steam from time to time.” She smiled. “I’m actually pleased. You haven’t done a lot of social activities this year, so as long as you don’t go overboard, I think going out for the night is great.”
“Thanks, Mum,” Ross repeated as he smiled back.
Ross retreated to the safety of his bedroom before calling Ty to tell him that he and Stuart will be at Todd’s going-away party on Saturday.
* * *
Todd was deep in thought while sitting in the lounge room at the Bronson Avenue house he shared—for two more nights—with Paul, Oliver, and Neil. The television was showing a current-affairs program, but Todd was paying it no attention.
“What’s got you worried?”
Todd looked up to see Paul looming over him. Todd shrugged and waved a hand to a nearby chair. “Just thinking about what’s going on at the Bulldogs. It’s going to get messy, and I’m worried that Peter may get caught up in it.”
Paul dropped into the indicated seat. “I think it’s an understatement to say it’s going to get messy. Some people are going to be shown the door. The only questions are who and how many.”
“Yeah.” Todd made a face. “I’m hoping Peter’s not one of them. If the Bulldogs coach goes, is his replacement going to shake things up and maybe replace some of his staff? Peter was picked by Brendan McCartney, and he hasn’t had enough time to show how good he is at his job.”
“He also hasn’t had time to create any enemies, so he’s likely to be ignored.” Paul shrugged. “And it might be their captain that takes a walk. It’s a pretty drastic action to publicly bag your coach like he did—plus he’s asked to be traded—so I think he’s more likely to be the one that leaves.”
“True, but that doesn’t stop me from being concerned for Peter.” Todd gave Paul a wan smile. “He’s coached us for five years. I’d hate for this move to turn out to be a professional disaster for him.”
“Look on the bright side,” Oliver said from the kitchen room door. “If the Bulldogs sack their head coach, that’s an opportunity for Peter to take the job. This could be a major opportunity for him.”
Todd rolled his eyes. “Be realistic, Ollie. Peter has no coaching experience at the AFL level, and he never played in the AFL. AFL clubs like coaches that know what it’s like to be an AFL player, as well as someone who’s shown what they can do at that level. Peter doesn’t have a chance in hell of being appointed the senior coach of an AFL club. Not for a few years, at least.”
“Hey, Peter’s got experience!” Oliver shrugged. “Okay, it’s not quite three weeks—and that’s without any players being there—but he’s got experience!” He grinned to show he wasn’t being serious.
Todd and Paul both chuckled. “Yeah, it would be a dream come true for Peter, but it’s not going to happen,” Todd said as Oliver came into the room and sat down. “Not now and not until he’s shown what he can do, which is going to take at least a couple of seasons and probably more.”
“Is Peter going to be okay?” Neil asked as he appeared at the door that Oliver had vacated.
“He’s going to be fine,” Paul said. “You concentrate on your homework and ignore us.”
Neil frowned for a moment and then smiled. “In that case I’ll shut the door so I can’t hear you.” He disappeared, closing the door behind him.
The other three discussed the situation for a couple more minutes until Todd’s phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID and smiled. “Brat! Did you catch the news about the Bulldogs?”
“I did, and I hope Peter’s okay, but that’s not why I’m calling. Are you free for a chat? Something’s come up that I need your help with.”
“Yeah, I’m free. I was just discussing things with Ollie and Paul. Do you want me to put you on speaker?”
“No! This is private. They may find out about it later, but not yet.”
Todd’s brow wrinkled. “Okay, brat.” He stood up and caught the eye of his two housemates so they’d know that his next comment was for them, too. “I’ll head to my room, and we can talk in private there.”
Paul and Oliver frowned but neither spoke. Todd knew he’d be questioned after the call ended but also that his housemates wouldn’t pry for more than he was willing to tell.
“Thanks, mate,” Ty said.
A minute later, Todd was in the bedroom that he shared with Neil. Most of his stuff had already been taken to Lorraine’s house, with only a handful of items remaining.
“Okay, we’re private. What’s up?”
“Roscoe’s got a problem, and the only solution that Dad and I have been able to come up with means using your party to try to solve it. I couldn’t do that without explaining the situation to you and asking for your help.”
“Talk to me, brat.”
Todd listened as Ty explained the situation. He was momentarily surprised when Ty told him about Ross being gay and then scowled when he learnt about Stuart and the threat to out Ross.
“Okay, brat, what do you want from me?”
“We need to make it clear to the bastard that Roscoe has friends. Big, strong friends who won’t be impressed if he fucks things up for Roscoe. We’re also going to threaten to go to the police if he outs him because what he’s doing is blackmail. Between the two, we’re hoping that he’ll back off and leave Roscoe alone.”
“Technically, it’s extortion, not blackmail, but you can count me in.”
“Extortion, blackmail...who bloody cares? What he’s doing is fucking wrong!”
“Easy, brat. I’m on your side here.” Todd thought for a moment. “I’ll ask Paul if he can start work late on Saturday. An extra guy playing the heavy won’t hurt. Is it okay if I tell Paul what’s going on?”
“Sure, but try not to tell anyone who doesn’t need to know. Roscoe’s still deep in the closet and the more people who know, the more chances there are that his secret slips out.”
“You can count on me. There may be a way we can bring in others, too, without telling them why.”
Todd smiled grimly. “Leave that to me. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone apart from Paul, but I’ll make sure that Stuart doesn’t leave here on Saturday without understanding the consequences of messing with the Leopards.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: As an author and reader, I’ve always felt perturbed by apparently random events being introduced in a story that appear to be there just to create stress and tension. Things like that just don’t feel right. They feel like the author is forcing things in an unnatural way.
However, when you set a story against real-world events, like I’m doing here, sometimes you just have to go with the flow and accept that real-life can be weirder than fiction. The situation with the Western Bulldogs described in this chapter is real. Here is a media report on Ryan Griffen’s request to be traded to GWS, and another report that gives more background as to what’s been going on at the Bulldogs.
For the record, I started writing the Lilydale Leopards series well before these events took place. I had even chosen the hiring of Peter by the Western Bulldogs before all this occurred. I had nothing to do with what happened next...
For anyone who is curious, here’s the wrap-up of the trading for Thursday 9th October, 2014. If things fall just right GWS may be able to offer a credible deal for Ryan Griffen.
And if you’re interested, here’s the article about the Swans being banned from trading for players that Kevin received during his lunch with Warwick. And no, I didn’t know about this when I introduced Kevin as a friend of Deon during Leopard Spots. This is another one of the real-life events that is impacting the story.
The Cost of Living Allowance (or COLA) was a real concern to the AFL Commission at that time. Here are a couple of articles from the time when Sydney’s Cost of Living Allowance was being debated. Yes, things really do get complicated in the world of the AFL. And, I’m simplifying things by leaving out a lot of the fine detail...