Ross looked around as soon as he was in the school grounds, hoping to see Wu. The two had chatted for a long time after dinner the night before, and Ross was sure that all the issues had been sorted out, but that didn’t stop him from being apprehensive.
His heartfelt sigh of relief when he saw his best friend approaching was quickly replaced with a gulp of fear. In all their discussions, neither guy had mentioned Wu’s girlfriend.
“Lauren! It’s great to see you.” Ross gave her an awkward hug and a kiss on the cheek. “How’s things?”
Lauren frowned. “Okay, you two. What’s going on?”
Ross managed to avoid flicking Wu a guilty look. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t act all innocent with me, Roscoe. Wu told me that you two had sorted out your differences, but he wouldn’t give me any details. Now you’re acting weird.” Lauren crossed her arms. “Talk!”
Ross gave his best friend a panicked look. “Wu...”
“It’s okay, Roscoe. You can trust her.” Wu smiled encouragingly as he slipped an arm across Lauren’s shoulders.
“It’s not that...” Ross glanced around to make sure no one was eavesdropping. Not seeing anyone close, he lowered his voice and continued. “Too many people know already. I can’t keep telling ‘one more person’, just because they can be trusted. I certainly can’t tell anyone here.”
Lauren scowled. “What are you two talking about?”
Wu’s concentration was on Ross. “Would you like me to tell her? I thought it should come from you, but if you prefer...”
Ross’s head jerked up and down in a nod. He knew that Lauren had to be told, but he couldn’t do it. “But not here. Not at school! I can’t risk anyone overhearing.”
Wu smiled. “Relax. I can tell her without anyone else being the wiser.” He gave Lauren a gentle squeeze as he turned his attention to her. “Remember this date, because it’s a red-letter day. You’re going to hear me say something that would normally never pass these lips.”
Lauren’s gaze flicked between Ross and Wu, while Ross waited anxiously. He kept glancing around to make sure no one was near while waiting for what Wu would say.
Wu took a deep breath. “You were right, and I was wrong. Sorry.”
“I’m not going to repeat that. It was hard enough saying it the first time.” Wu grinned and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “When we were discussing Ross before that party a few weeks ago, you made a comment about him. It turns out you were right, but you’re not allowed to tell anyone. Ross doesn’t want anyone to know.”
Lauren looked puzzled for a couple of seconds, and then her eyes widened and her head snapped around to look at Ross. “You mean...?”
Ross reluctantly nodded. “But as Wu said, you can’t tell anyone!”
Lauren smiled and slipped away from Wu. She put a hand behind Ross’s neck and pulled his head down. “Not a soul,” she whispered before giving him a kiss on the cheek.
Ross tried to smile, but his heart wasn’t in it. Things were going out of control, with too many people knowing the truth. All he could hope for was that his secret would remain safe until the draft. After that, he would work out what to do.
* * *
Neil still felt a touch uneasy around Steven Anderson, but he kept his thoughts to himself. At the start of the year he had no friends. Now that he had some, any change to the group made him anxious that he was going to lose them again. He knew it was irrational, but it didn’t stop him from being wary of the new addition to the lunchtime group.
“Have you guys decided what you’re wearing for Muck-Up Day?” Steven asked.
“You mean for the party?” Neil asked. “I didn’t know there was going to be a dress code.”
Evelyn, Mary, and Steven laughed, while Clarissa and Liam just smiled.
“No, he’s asking about what costumes we’ll be wearing for our last day of school.” Liam cocked his head. “I mentioned it at the end of last term, but we haven’t discussed it since. Have you given it any thought?”
Neil made a face. “I can’t really afford to hire anything, so I was thinking of keeping it simple and going as a footballer. Ollie will lend me his gear if I ask.”
“Not a bad idea,” Clarissa said. “If Liam hasn’t picked anything, he could do the same.” She grinned. “That way it’ll be obvious the two of you play for the same team.”
Neil could feel himself blushing as the others chuckled.
“That’s a better idea than what I was going to wear.” Liam smiled. “Thanks. It also gives me an excuse to ask my parents if I can stay at Neil’s place on Thursday night so we can come to school together.”
Clarissa rolled her eyes. “Did you really need an excuse? I thought you were staying with him on Friday night, anyway.”
“And Saturday.” Liam grinned at his red-faced boyfriend. “Neil wrangled me a ticket to the Leopards awards night, so it’s going to be a lot easier to sleep at his place than to come back home.”
Evelyn smirked. “Are you sure? I would’ve thought that sleeping would be the last thing on your mind.”
“What are you guys wearing on Friday?” Neil asked, trying to change the subject.
Clarissa gave him a look that told him that his attempt to change the subject wasn’t fooling anyone. She didn’t say anything about it, though. “I’m going as Scarlett Johansson in her role as the Black Widow.”
“I’m going as Wonder Woman.” Evelyn grinned. “It was either that or as a cowgirl, complete with rope to keep the boys under control.”
Steven shrugged. “My brother found me a place where I can hire an Imperial Stormtrooper outfit, though I doubt I’ll be wearing the helmet that much. It’s rather restricting.”
“Liam, I’ve just had an idea,” Clarissa said. “Deon’s only a little bigger than you, so why don’t you ask him if you can borrow his uniform? I’m sure he’ll be fine with that.”
“He will be if you’re doing the asking.” Liam chuckled as she raised an eyebrow and gave him a cold stare. “Okay, I’ll ask. I’ll get his number from Neil later.”
“No need. He and Kevin will be joining us for coffee after school.”
Steven stiffened. “Kevin Scanlan? Here today?”
“Not here, but we’re meeting him later.” Clarissa cocked her head. “Why?”
“Any chance of joining you?” Steven appeared embarrassed. “I still can’t believe I know an actual AFL footballer.”
Clarissa snorted as a smile played on her lips. “I suppose that’s okay.”
Neil kept quiet. He felt comfortable with Deon, but while the Leopards trusted Kevin, he was still new to Neil. He knew it would take more time before he was comfortable with the Sydney Swans player.
* * *
“Paddy, have you got a few minutes? I want to go over that list of fifteen-year-olds you sent me.”
Patrick O’Malley looked up in surprise. The Carlton Football Club’s list manager was the last person he expected to see. With the trade period coming to a close and the national draft fast approaching, the list of youngsters he had suggested they should keep an eye on shouldn’t be a priority. “Sure, Shane. Pull up a chair.”
Patrick’s suspicions were confirmed when Shane shut the office door. “Thanks, Paddy.”
“What did you really want to talk about?” Patrick asked once Shane was seated.
“Nothing, actually. I just needed a break. Greater Western Sydney are proving to be much tougher negotiators than we expected. They clearly want our number-7 draft pick, but they’re stingy with what they’re putting up for it. From what I’m hearing, they’re doing the same to the Western Bulldogs, too. Publicly, they’re saying they won’t trade Boyd, but the story we’re hearing is that for Boyd they want Ryan Griffen, the Bulldog’s number-6 draft pick, and for the Bulldogs to pay part of Griffen’s contract for next year.”
Patrick waved away the comment. “I’m not interested in what’s going on with the Bulldogs if it doesn’t impact on us. What are GWS offering for our draft pick?”
“Kristian Jaksch and Mark Whiley. That’s not a bad deal, but it’s still not good enough, given the quality of draft prospects available this year. We’re pushing for the number-19 pick that they got from Hawthorn as well.”
“Do you think they’ll go for it?”
Shane shrugged. “I really don’t know. Unlike you, I have to be interested in the other trades, too. If the Bulldogs deal goes through, our deal would mean that GWS will have three picks in the top ten, assuming they don’t trade their number-4 pick away. I’m hoping they’ll be greedy enough that they’ll give us the number-19 pick to ensure that happens.”
“Who are you thinking of selecting with that pick if we get it?”
Shane chuckled. “Who do you think? Yes, I’ve done my due diligence, and Flanders is looking like a real hot prospect. He organised some extra training for his teammates and another draft prospect leading up to the combine. That’s not something the old Flanders would do. The number-19 pick would still be before the Bulldogs’ first draft selection, assuming they trade their first-round pick away, so we should get the kid without any stress.” Shane paused. “You haven’t been speaking to Flanders or any of the other Leopards recently, have you?”
Patrick shook his head. “The last time was when we had Henderson and Bradshaw around for a chat. Young Flanders wanted to come, too, but I put him off.”
“Good. We don’t want to tip anyone off as to what’s going on. He’s our draft ace-in-the-hole and I don’t want to lose him.”
Patrick smiled. “I’m glad to see you’ve finally seen the light.”
Shane chuckled. “It took me a bit of time, but you made me look long and hard at him. I’m glad you did.”
“You mentioned he organised some training for one of the other draft prospects. May I ask who?”
“Sure. It was the Munroe kid from Eastern Ranges.” Shane screwed up his face as he thought and then clicked his fingers. “Ross Munroe. A tall forward.”
Patrick turned to his computer and brought up the file on Ross. He skimmed it quickly. “Are we thinking of taking him?”
“I wasn’t planning on it, though he’s on our list. If we needed another forward, I’d be looking more closely, but he didn’t shine during the TAC Cup and there are a number of hotter prospects out there. Why?”
Patrick closed the window with Ross’s details. “No real reason. It looks like he shows potential, but there were a few questions about his work ethic. I was curious as to whether that had improved.”
“Not that I’m aware of, but we haven’t been monitoring him.” Shane stood up. “Thanks, Paddy. I just needed to get away for a few minutes, and it’s been awhile since we had a chat. It’s time I got back to the grind.”
“Anytime, Shane.” Patrick hesitated before continuing. “Just one more thing. This Saturday is the Leopards awards night. Young Flanders sent me an invite, which I politely declined. I expect him to do very well. That might attract some more attention we don’t want. I thought you should know.”
Shane grimaced and then shrugged. “Not much we can do about that. We’ll keep an eye out for any clubs who show an interest in the kid, but hopefully the other clubs still believe the lies his father is telling.”
* * *
“Thanks for inviting me,” Kevin said as he and Deon stood outside one of the cafes in Ringwood. “It’ll be good to catch up with Liam and Clarissa again.”
Deon chuckled. “I don’t get a lot of chances to catch up with everyone at the moment, either. They’re all too stressed getting ready for exams.” He glanced up the street and smiled. “But here they come. At least, they’re sticking to their Tuesday afternoon coffee routine.”
“For this week, at least. What are they going to do next week with no school?”
“I haven’t asked. I know Clarissa is trying to concentrate on studying. Neil and Liam are doing the same. All of their focus is on their exams.” Deon shrugged. “She wants a break on weekends, which suits me fine, but I understand where her current priorities lie.”
With his girlfriend approaching, Deon didn’t wait for Kevin to respond. He stepped forward and gave Clarissa a kiss on the cheek. “It’s good to see you.”
Clarissa snorted as a smile played on her lips. “It’s been a whole two days. Anyone would think you were getting needy.”
Kevin chuckled as Deon reddened. Kevin smiled at the other two guys. “Liam, Neil, it’s good to see you, too, but you’re not getting a kiss.” He paused as he stared at the familiar-looking third guy, but couldn’t remember where he’d seen him before.
“Ah...I’m disappointed.” Liam grinned as he shook hands with the AFL football player. “Do you remember Stevo? He was with us at the VFL grand final?”
“Stevo!” Kevin grinned as he greeted Neil’s and Liam’s school friend. “Sorry, the name slipped my mind for a moment.”
“That’s okay. It’s been a few weeks and there were a lot of other people there.” Steven grinned. “How have you been?”
“Pretty good.” Kevin shrugged. “Deon’s got me out training again, this time with Charlie. Other than that, I’m trying to relax and spend time with friends and family.”
“It’s time for coffee, guys.” Clarissa started to usher the others into the cafe. “I need a caffeine fix, and then I have to get home to study. Let’s not waste time talking outside.”
Neil chuckled as the group entered the shop. “And where are you going to fit in time for Deon?”
Clarissa gave him a cold stare that seemed to have little impact. She then laughed. “You’ve changed a lot, Neil. If I did that to you at the start of the year you would’ve panicked.”
Neil’s smile slipped, and he dropped his head. “Yeah, a lot of things have happened since then. Some not-so-nice things...” Liam slipped his hand into Neil’s. “As well as some really good things,” Neil added as he smiled at his boyfriend.
Liam grinned back before returning his attention to Clarissa. “And just so you know you’re not getting away with the change of subject. You still haven’t answered Neil’s question about Deon.”
“‘None of your fucking business’ is the answer.” Clarissa turned her head to grin at Deon. “But if you really want to know, he fits in between caffeine and home.”
“It’s always good to understand where one is located in the priority list,” Deon said dryly.
The group were still joking with each other as they placed their drink orders and then sat down.
Neil glanced at Kevin and Steven before turning to Clarissa. “Since we’ve got extra people today, do the normal rules still apply?”
Clarissa smiled at Kevin and Deon. “These Tuesday afternoon coffees started as a way for Neil and me to get better acquainted. The rule was Neil is free to ask any questions he wanted. I still remember the first one, which was what I looked for in a boyfriend.” She grinned at Liam. “He was fishing for why I used to date you, though I didn’t know that at the time.”
“Not quite. I was trying to work out what you saw in him, because all I knew at the time was Liam was a bully with no redeeming features.” Neil chuckled. “You weren’t that helpful, but I’ve worked it out since. He’s got a few worthwhile points.”
“Apparently, I’m a good kisser.” Liam leant over and gave Neil a quick peck on the lips.
Clarissa held up both hands. “Too much information, guys!” Clarissa cocked her head. “And for the record, Deon’s better.”
Kevin and Steven laughed while Deon blushed. Liam grinned as he gave Clarissa the finger.
Neil smiled and shrugged. “I wouldn’t know, and I’m not interested in doing a comparison test. No offense, Deon.”
“None taken.” Deon grinned though his cheeks were still red. “As far as I’m concerned your opinion doesn’t count.”
Neil laughed. “Fair enough.”
“Anyway,” Clarissa continued, “this time is for you, Neil. You’re still in control. If you want to open it up to everyone, that’s up to you.”
Neil shrugged. “The guys at home have been going on about the AFL trading and someone called Tom Boyle. I heard them talk about millions of dollars being involved. Does anyone know what that’s about?” He gave them a sheepish smile. “I was supposed to be studying at the time and didn’t want to stop to ask them.”
“It’s Tom Boyd, and it’s a big deal.” Kevin glanced at Deon. “Do you want to take it, since it matters more to you?”
“You take it. I don’t think it’ll have any real impact on me. It’s obvious there’s a forward’s position open, and it’s just a question of which club will have a vacancy at the end of the trading period: the Bulldogs or GWS.”
“Okay.” Kevin turned back to Neil. “Tom Boyd was last year’s number-one draft pick. In other words, he’s a top-notch, up-and-coming young player. He got picked first, and I had to wait until the third round at pick fifty-three. That gives you an idea of the difference in ability between us. He’s currently with Greater Western Sydney on a standard two-year contract, the same as what I’m on, but he wants to return to Melbourne and play for the Western Bulldogs.”
“And?” Clarissa asked.
“I’m getting there.” Kevin gave her a smile. “Tom is bound by the same terms of the AFL Players’ Association collective-bargaining agreement for first-year players that I am. That is, $80,000 plus payments for any games we play, and in our case, the Sydney cost-of-living allowance.”
“That’s pretty good for someone straight out of school,” Liam said. “In fact, that’s a lot more than pretty much anyone else can expect.”
“True, though we’ve got the risk of a short career in the AFL. Some players don’t last past the first two years, and a lot are gone after four.” Kevin winced. “I’m facing that problem because the club hasn’t started talks yet about extending my contract. This is the make-or-break year for me. If things don’t work out, I’ll be one of those who only lasted two years.
“Anyway, here’s the thing. Tom is currently on $80,000 plus...and the Bulldogs are reported to be offering him a million a year.”
“What?” Neil, Liam, and Clarissa all chorused. “That’s obscene,” Clarissa added.
Kevin and Deon both nodded. “Remember, he’s only nineteen, the same as us,” Deon said. “There may be one or two other players in the AFL on that sort of figure—salaries are kept secret so I don’t know for sure—but they’re all well-established players. This is effectively marking Tom Boyd as an AFL elite; one of the top players in the competition, even though he’s only played part of one season.”
Kevin made a face. “I read last night that he has to be paid the same as the rest of us next year because of the collective-bargaining agreement, but after that the sky’s the limit for him. The Bulldogs have said that he’ll be playing for them either next year or the year after, but they’re going to get him. With that sort of money being thrown around, none of the other clubs will have a chance of competing.”
Clarissa’s forehead wrinkled as she thought. “So, you’re saying that not next year, but the year after, he’s going to be a millionaire?”
“That’s right. The question at the moment is: who does he play for next season? The Bulldogs are pushing for a trade to get him, but Greater Western Sydney are playing hardball and saying he’ll stay with them. Most pundits think he’ll stay. His club can’t afford to let him go, and he can’t leave without their permission.”
Deon shook his head. “I know that they don’t want him to go, but it won’t help the club to have someone that everyone knows is going to be gone at the end of next year. I think they’ll come up with a deal. The Bulldogs are in the same position with Ryan Griffen, the guy they want to trade for Boyd. After the comments he’s made about wanting to go to Greater Western Sydney, they really can’t afford to have him hanging around.”
Kevin smiled. “They’re going to have to get a move on if they do, because the trading period finishes on Thursday—in only two days. I think you’re wrong and they won’t make a deal, but if they do, it leaves GWS with a vacancy for a forward. That means there’s a possibility that you’ll end up there, which would be cool. We’ll be in the same city again, even if we’re not playing on the same team.” He winked. “You’ll be playing for a loser club, but at least we’ll be able to hang out sometimes.”
“That’s a long shot. I’m not in Tom Boyd’s league, though to be honest, I don’t think anyone is.” Deon grinned. “Roscoe is more likely to be picked than I am. He’s much closer to Boyd’s height.”
“Maybe.” Kevin screwed up his face. “Admittedly, I’m biased. I want you in Sydney, but, yeah, Roscoe’s a possibility, too.”
Steve gave Deon and Kevin a perplexed look. “Who’s Roscoe?”
“Another AFL draft prospect. We trained together the week leading up to the combine since he and Deon were both attending and they’re both forwards. I hope he does well.”
Deon smiled at Kevin. “Speaking of which, I was talking to him about possibly being drafted by GWS yesterday, and he mentioned he doesn’t know anyone in Sydney. I told him that you and he should catch up a few times between now and when you head back, just in case he does end up in Sydney. What do you think of going out with him on Saturday while the rest of us are at the Leopards awards night?”
Kevin grimaced. “I was planning on going out with a friend. I’ve been trying to keep my weekends free for that reason.”
“It was only a suggestion.” Deon shrugged. “Roscoe seemed interested in the idea, but he didn’t want to impose.”
“Let me check what my friend’s got planned. I’ll be right back.” Kevin stood and pulled out his phone. He headed outside as he lifted the phone to his ear.
“Warwick, it’s Kevin.”
Warwick chuckled. “I know. A little thing known as caller ID. What’s up? I’m still at work and can’t spend too much time chatting.”
“Shit, sorry. I’m just with some friends, and I was asked if I had plans for Saturday night. Are you going to be free?”
“Actually, no. Luke got onto me at lunchtime. He’s concerned that Geraldine might still be upset about losing her job and wants the group to go out with her. You’re welcome to join us if you want. Geraldine apparently asked about you.”
Kevin grimaced. “That’s probably not a good idea. If I did, she’d want me to spend the night with her, and I’m not that keen. It’ll be easier if I wasn’t there rather than turning her down.”
“That’s what I thought, too. I’ll be free Friday after work if you want to meet up. There’s a band playing nearby that’s supposed to be decent.”
“That sounds great! Okay, I’ll meet you at your place on Friday night. Say...around seven?”
“Seven’s fine. I’ll see you then.”
Kevin smiled as he headed back into the cafe. He enjoyed talking with Warwick even if it was only via a phone call. When he returned to the table, he found Deon blushing and Clarissa glaring at Neil. “What did I miss?”
“Not much,” Deon said quickly.
“We were just talking about how nice it would be to have millionaire boyfriends.” Neil smirked. “Clarissa didn’t seem impressed with some of our comments.”
“Getting back to more important things,” Deon said before anyone else could jump in. “Did you find out if you’re free on Saturday?”
“I am. Warwick’s got other plans, so, yes, I’m happy to spend some time with Roscoe. You’ve got his number?” he asked Deon.
“I’ll send it to you now.” Deon pulled out his phone.
“Warwick?” Neil frowned. “Do you mean Warwick Sampson?”
Kevin blinked. “You know him?”
“We both work at Pride FM. I was working with him during the school holidays.” Neil stared at Kevin with a faint quizzical expression. “There were rumours going around last week that...” Neil reddened as his mouth snapped shut
Kevin was surprised to find that he wasn’t apprehensive. He might’ve felt different if there was a public rumour about him and Warwick, but the only stranger listening in was Steven. Kevin was comfortable with everyone else. “It’s okay. Warwick and I are friends. I’ve been getting to know him after meeting him just before the AFL grand final.” Kevin grinned. “He’s a super-keen Swans supporter, which is why he introduced himself to me at the radio station.”
“Is that all? The rumours implied—”
Liam elbowed his boyfriend. “Neil!” Liam’s eyes flicked to Steven for a moment before returning to his boyfriend. “Don’t pry into Kevin’s private life.”
Kevin chuckled. “It’s fine. I assure you, there’s nothing going on between us apart from a developing friendship.” He didn’t add that he wouldn’t have minded it going further than that, but he understood Warwick’s concerns. “Warwick’s single, granted, but just because he’s seen having drinks with another guy, that doesn’t make that other guy—me—his boyfriend. Sorry, the rumour mill is wrong on this one.”
Neil stared before his lips twisted up in a quirky smile. “Sorry. I know how keen Warwick is about the Sydney Swans and about football in general. He’s a nice guy. I was hoping he might’ve found someone.”
“He is a nice guy. That’s why I’m hanging out with him when I can. I’ve also promised him that if I find out that any of my teammates are gay, I’d introduce them. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any gay AFL players. I’m sure there are some, but I have no idea who they are.”
Kevin noticed that Liam and Neil exchanged looks while Steven frowned.
“You really think there are gay AFL players?” Steven asked.
“Why wouldn’t there be?” Deon smiled. “Look at Jim. He’s gay, and he plays football. He kept the fact that he’s gay a secret for a long time, but he’s certainly capable of playing at the AFL level. Why couldn’t there be a few other players keeping the same secret who managed to get drafted?”
Steven screwed up his face. “I understand what you’re saying, but I have trouble getting my head around the idea of someone gay playing AFL football.”
Liam scowled. “What’s the problem, Stevo? Gay guys play football, too. Why couldn’t there be some who are good enough to play in the AFL?”
Steven held up both hands. “Sorry! I know better, but I still have this mental picture of gay guys being...weaker, I guess. You’re right, and they’re not, but as I said, I’m having trouble getting my head around the idea.”
Liam stared for a moment and then grinned. “Okay. As long as you understand it’s your problem and there’s nothing wrong with a gay footballer.”
Steven chuckled. “Agreed.” He reached over the table to bump fists with Liam.
“Back to the draft,” Neil said as he turned to Kevin. “Who do you think will draft Deon?”
Deon screwed up his face. “I might not get drafted at all. We shouldn’t talk as if I will be. The brat and I both know from last year that there’s no certainty about what happens.”
Kevin grinned. “You’ll get drafted, I’m sure of it. It’s unlikely to be by the Swans, unfortunately, but you’ll get there.” He frowned in thought. “So who’s likely? Let’s see...I’ve already told he’s not allowed to be drafted by either the Hawks or the Cats...”
* * *
“You must be Julie.” Henry Aurian smiled and held out a hand. “You’ve got an impressive resume.”
Julie smiled. “Thanks, but you’ve got a lot more experience with coaching than I have.”
“Don’t talk yourself down. Your coaching career is short, but you took the Broncos to the finals twice and then helped the Leopards to a VFL premiership. That’s pretty impressive for such a short period of time.” Henry glanced at the closed door of the Leopards boardroom. “Any idea of how long before they ask us to go in?”
“Absolutely none. This will be my first presentation to the board. Peter used to do them.”
“Well, good luck, then.” Henry grinned. “Regardless of how tonight and next week turn out, don’t be discouraged. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the AFL teams start trying to poach you in the next few years.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think that’s likely. The AFL is still very much a man’s world.”
Henry shrugged. “True, but things are changing. Peta Searle became the first female coach in the AFL earlier this year. You’ll need to build up your experience, but from what I’ve heard, you’re on the same path as her.”
“We’ll have to wait and see. For now, my focus is on the Leopards.” Julie grinned. “We’re all hungry to win back-to-back premierships for the first time in the club’s history.”
“And you’d like to be the coach who wins that second premiership.” Henry gave her a wry smile. “So would I.”
Julie chuckled. “Who wouldn’t?” She made a face. “One of the challenges will be replacing players after the draft. The money seems to be on us losing at least one of the guys, but from what I’ve heard it could be as high as six.”
“Six is probably unrealistic, but two or three is certainly a possibility.” Henry grimaced. “Finding appropriate replacements will be difficult. I watched a few replays of your more recent games, and one of the things that struck me was the high level of teamwork shown. Everyone was involved, not just a few key players.”
“That’s because we treat each other as family.” Julie grinned. “If you get the job, you’re going to have to encourage and build on that because, otherwise, you’re going to encounter a lot of resistance. Any new guys on the team will need to learn the same or things won’t work.”
Henry paused. “You seem keen to offer advice.” He made it a statement, leaving it to Julie to see if she wanted to comment on the observation.
Julie shrugged. “The way I see it, if I get the job, it doesn’t matter what I’ve told you. If you get the job, I want you to know how we do things because I’ll be part of the team that will be working with you.”
Henry smiled as one of his concerns was addressed. “You’ll stay on as an assistant coach if you don’t get the head-coach job?”
“Of course!” Julie gave him a wry smile. “It’ll take you a bit of time to understand how close everyone is in the club. Our focus is on the team and winning. There’s not a single person I can think of that’s in it for the personal glory. From what Peter told me, it was different last year, but they got rid of the troublemakers, and now everyone works together.”
“That’s good to hear.” Henry gave her a lopsided grin. “If I get the job, I may need you to help make sure I don’t put my foot in it while I’m coming up to speed.”
Julie raised an eyebrow. “Is that something you really wanted to share with someone who is competing for the same job? What if I told the board what you told me?”
Henry shrugged. “I consider myself to be a good judge of character. I don’t think you’d do that.” He smiled. “And if I got the job, from what you’ve said, honesty is the best approach to take with this team.”
The boardroom door opened at that point, and Anne poked her head out. “Julie, you’re up first.”
“Thanks, Anne.” Julie straightened and ran a hand over the neatly pressed Leopards tracksuit she was wearing.
“Good luck!” Henry called out as Julie followed Anne into the boardroom. He then sat down and waited. In around thirty minutes’ time, it would be his turn to present himself and his plans for the team.
* * *
“How do you think you went?” Paul asked over the phone.
“I really don’t know.” Julie sighed. “Some of the board members weren’t receptive, but there were also a number that seems very supportive. I already knew there were some old guys who didn’t believe a woman is capable of coaching, but I was hoping that the season we’ve just had would’ve countered that.”
“They can’t argue with success. You helped us to a premiership. If they can’t see that...”
“You’d think so, but some of them put all the credit for our success on Peter’s shoulders. I was just there to do his bidding.” Julie’s sarcastic tone told Paul she was quoting one of comments made during her presentation.
“I’m sure there are enough board members who don’t believe that to give you a chance. Your current standing with the team must have some influence on your chances.”
“Apparently, even that can be a negative. There were concerns raised—in front of me, but never directed at me—that it’s inappropriate for the senior coach to be related to one of the players.”
“What?” Paul scowled. “They’re using the fact that I’m your brother against you? We got through the entire season without that causing any waves. Why are they bringing it up now?”
“I think they wanted to find anything negative that they could. I supposed that’s their job. If they did the same with Henry, I can’t complain.”
“Did you get to meet him?”
“I did. We had a chat before I was called in. He seems like a decent guy, and if he gets the nod, I won’t be upset. We’ll have to wait and see, naturally, but I think he’d do a good job as senior coach.”
“But you’re hoping you’ll get the job instead.”
Julie laughed. “There wasn’t much point applying for the position if I didn’t want it.”
“Well, good luck. When do you find out who won?”
“Next Tuesday. The board will be meeting informally with me and Henry at the awards night on Saturday. Purely social, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t ask questions about some of the things said during the presentations. It’s also a chance for you and the rest of the team to meet Henry. I think he’ll make a good impression.”
“Okay, but just so you know, I’m biased. I want you to get the job.”
“Thanks, Paul.” Julie sounded pleased. “I’ve got to go. Aaron looks like he’s getting impatient. He’s holding two glasses of wine, and he’s miming that if I don’t get off the phone, he’ll drink both.”
Paul chuckled. “We can’t have that. Say hello for me, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.”
After he hung up, Paul sat for a moment. Most of the team had contacted him in the preceding days, telling him to make sure they were informed as to how Julie’s interview went. It would be easy for Paul to poison the team against Henry, but he had heard Julie’s respect for Henry. He needed to make sure that any news he passed on was done in a diplomatic manner.
* * *
Ross was in his room re-reading William Shakespeare’s Henry IV as preparation for his English class the next day and the exam in two weeks when his phone rang. He checked to see who it was, but the number displayed as an unknown caller. Ross tossed up for a moment and then mentally crossed his fingers that it was from an AFL club. “Hello?”
“Roscoe, it’s Kev.”
Ross grinned. An AFL player was a good second option. “G’day, Kevin. What can I do for you?”
“Deon was speaking to me earlier today and suggested that we try to catch up on Saturday night. Are you doing anything?”
“I’ve nothing planned except for studying, and I think by then I’ll be more than happy to take a break. What did you have in mind?”
“I was thinking of getting a bite to eat and then either a movie or having a few drinks somewhere. Maybe a nightclub later. It’ll just be the two of us since Deon and his teammates will be at a Leopards function.”
Ross hesitated and then reminded himself that Kevin was straight. A movie sounded too much like a date. “Drinking sounds good to me, but we’ll need to find some near public transport unless you’re volunteering to be the designated driver.”
“No fucking way! That’s not my idea of a fun night out. How does meeting up somewhere in the city sound?”
“Okay with me. What time?”
After a short discussion, the two agreed to meet up at six outside the Young & Jackson Hotel opposite the Flinders Street railway station. They would find something to eat and then have a few drinks before making a decision as to what to do next.
“Thanks for this. I really appreciate you inviting me to hang out with you,” Ross said.
Kevin chuckled. “Deon thinks you’ve got a chance of ending up in Sydney and suggested it might be good to have a friend in the area when you get there.”
“He said the same thing to me.” Ross grinned with amusement. “But that was predicated on GWS and the Bulldogs making a deal for Tom Boyd—leaving a vacancy for a tall forward—and I don’t see that happening.”
“To be honest, neither do I. GWS have too much to lose by trading Tom. But even if you end up at the other end of the country in Perth or Fremantle, it’ll be good to know another player. There’s no reason we can’t be friends as well as professional rivals.”
“Do you really think I’ll be drafted?”
There was a short pause. “Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve never seen you play. All I know is how well you did at the combine and that Deon thinks you’re a decent player.”
Ross grimaced. “I don’t think Deon has seen me play, either.”
“That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter to me whether you end up in the AFL or not. Good friends are hard to find. Especially, for someone in my position. Too many people aren’t honest and are only interested in being seen with an AFL player. They’re not interested in me, only what I do for a living.”
Ross flinched. Kevin’s comment reminded him too much of Stuart and how even a prospective AFL player could attract unwanted attention. The mention of honesty didn’t help Ross’s mental state, either, even as he reminded himself that he had to stay in the closet if he wanted to be drafted. Honesty, at least in that area, was a bad idea for Ross.
* * *
It was near the end of school the next day that Ross received a text from Kevin.
We were both wrong. Boyd is now a Bulldog.
Ross guiltily looked up into the stern expression of Mrs. Cartwright, his English teacher. “Sorry.”
“I know you only have two more days of school to go, but can you please pay attention? You need to be ready for your exams, and playing on your phone isn’t going to help you.” The teacher glared around the room. “That applies to all of you. Don’t expect to pass your exams if you don’t put in the effort. Now, as I was saying, the exam will probably be in three parts...”
Ross couldn’t wait for the class to end. He was desperate to know what had happened and then try to work out how it affected his chances of being drafted. As soon as the bell rang, he grabbed his books, stuffed them in his backpack, and sprinted outside. Knowing that Deon would be waiting for him, he sent Wu a text to say he was off to training and would ring him later that night.
After grabbing his training gear from his locker, he raced to the car park. Deon was, as expected, standing next to his car. He grinned at Ross. “Ready for some more hard work?”
“As long as it’s not another endurance run, yeah, I’m ready.” Ross grinned. “Actually, I think I’m ready for an endurance run, too. I’m not going to get better if I avoid doing some exercises simply because I don’t like them.”
Deon chuckled as he sat behind the steering wheel. “Keep up that attitude and you’ll be in the AFL before you know it.” He grinned at Ross as the two fastened their seatbelts. “Me, I don’t want to do another one of the brat’s endurance runs if I can help it. The midfielders need them, but I’m hoping that we forwards don’t need quite that level of fitness.”
“Hoping doesn’t make it so.” Ross stared unseeingly out through the windscreen as his mind churned between his upcoming exams and the draft. “There are too many things outside of our control. We need to be prepared for any eventuality.”
“Damn, now you sound like Jim.” The conversation stalled as Deon concentrated on getting out of the school car park and on his way to Lilydale. It was only when they were on the main road heading north did it resume. “Did you hear about Tom Boyd?”
“Kevin sent me a text to tell me he’s been traded to the Western Bulldogs, but I haven’t checked for any details.”
“GWS completed two trades today. Ryan Griffen for Tom Boyd, two players to Carlton, and they picked up draft picks six and seven as well.”
“Shit! That leaves them with three top ten picks. Unless they trade them tomorrow, they’re sitting pretty for the draft.” Ross’s brow was wrinkled as he thought of what that would mean. “If they pick three players in the first round, they’re not going to be looking for much else.”
“Why would they want to trade them?”
“Because St. Kilda has the number-one pick on the table. They might be willing to trade it for two or three high-order picks.” Ross thought for a moment. “But I think GWS will be stupid to do that. There are a lot of great players in the draft this year, and regardless of who St. Kilda and Melbourne draft with the first three picks, there will still be plenty of talent left for GWS.”
“Any tall forwards?” Deon flicked Ross a grin. “Sorry, I haven’t paid as much attention to the draft as I did last year.”
“Two I can think of off the top of my head. Paddy McCartin and Peter Wright. Paddy’s one of three guys being speculated as the number-one draft pick, and Peter isn’t that far behind him. At least one of the two should still be around when GWS’s picks come around.”
“So you don’t think you’re a chance?”
“Not for the first round. Fourth or fifth round, maybe. Third if I’m lucky.” Ross sighed. “I should’ve done better during the year, but there’s not much I can do about that now.”
“That’s how I feel, too, which is why I’m trying to avoid paying too much attention to what’s been going on. There’s nothing more I can do to influence the clubs, so I’m waiting to see if anything happens next month. If it does, that’s great. If it doesn’t, then that means another year with the Leopards, and that’s not a bad thing.”Ross sighed. He wished he had Deon’s attitude. Waiting for the draft was driving him crazy. Worrying about being outed wasn’t helping, either.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Here is the article Kevin referred to that speculated on how much Tom Boyd was being offered. This highlights the difference in salaries between the AFL and the U.S. National Football League. An AFL player can make quite a bit of money when compared against more conventional careers, but it’s not usually in the millions, and the money is generally only for a handful of years.
The AFL publishes statistics on player salaries each year. The statistics for the 2014 season show that there were only two players that year who earned a million dollars or more. This doesn’t include money from endorsements, but only a handful of players make any decent money from that source, and those players are generally the ones at the top end of the salary list, anyway. The average AFL player earns around the $300K mark.
And here’s one of the AFL reports on the Boyd/Griffen trade that highlights how many players Greater Western Sydney was losing in both 2013 and 2014. That loss of players was why so many media reports believed that they wouldn’t trade Tom Boyd.