I played my first game for Huntly Thistle AFC in April 1984. It was against Taupiri on pitch 3 at Huntly Domain, on the banks of Lake Hakanoa – a former coal mine where my step grandfather, a communist trade unionist who was and is partly responsible for my political journey in life, worked most of his.
I can’t believe we wasted the golden opportunity to call the junior thistles ‘the little pricks’ but we were only eight years old and opted for the more depressingly mundane ‘Huntly Hawks’ instead.
One of the first things my coach said to me was “the ball is the most important thing in football, you don’t need anything else. You can play on water if you want!” The world of possibility opening up before me blew my tiny mind.
I came on as a second half substitute and my first touch of the ball was a neat backheel, mimicking one I’d seen my coach do at training. I’d love to tell you it was a clever Tottiesque assist, the product of superior vision and awareness, but really I was just facing my own goal and scared of kicking the ball in the wrong direction.
My name was in the Huntly Press the next day. Clearly short of cats up trees, they reported that I had impressed on debut. A teacher came up to me in the school playground and congratulated me.
Then one week my coach told me I was going to play as a “sweeper”. He said my job was to stand still in the middle of the pitch and not move unless the ball came to me. I still don’t really know what a sweeper is supposed to do but I don’t think it’s that. I strongly suspected then, as I do now, that it was just what you did with the useless kid when you ran out of patience with them.
After a subsequent game, when I must have looked like a complete dingaling standing there like proverbial tits on a rocking horse, I’ll never forget the words of my mother, who comes from a high achieving sports family: “I’m embarrassed that you’re my son.” At the start of the following year she told me we could only afford for me to do football or Scouts from now on. After a pregnant pause she added “and I think it should be Scouts.”
Fast forward 14 years to when I was visiting family across the ditch in Adelaide. We were on our way out to watch my cousin’s eight year old grandson play for his local club. As we were leaving I told him “I’ve come all this way to watch you play, you’d better score a goal!” It took all of about thirty seconds for me to remember my experience and realise what a moronic thing that was to say. He scored a great one anyway.
Having said all that though, to this day my standout sporting triumphs are few and far between. I remember a goal I scored at an intermediate school hockey tournament, almost taking a hat-trick and hitting a six batting at 11 in C grade club cricket. And that backheel.