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We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers

In early April 2019 Ben’s soccer team, Epping FC, played its first game of the new season in the Gladesville Hornsby Football Association Super League Reserves competition. It was the very first time the team had played in open age competition, and their first match since the death of their skipper ten weeks earlier.

As we arrived at the ground on that day, and made our way to join the uncharacteristically subdued group of Epping supporters, I spotted someone (albeit from a distance) and, just for a split-second, I believed I was looking at Ben. The heart often draws cheques these days that the brain refuses to cash. It was, of course, one of Ben's former teammates, doing his pre-match warm-up.

A short while later the Epping team sought the agreement of the referee, and the participation of the opposition, in a minute’s silence prior to the match’s commencement ‑ in honour of their departed captain. The opposition not only agreed instantly to that request, but advised they had wished to do the same thing in recognition of another young man, their dear friend, who had died in tragic circumstances on a building site in Macquarie Park only the week before.

And so, in their first ever meeting, an immediate connection was established between the two teams.

Thankfully that respect and admiration remained undiminished at game’s end – the result a hard-fought 1-1 draw; although even the most ardent Epping supporter would have conceded their opposition had clearly had the better of the match.

Fast forward almost five months, and the same two teams would be fittingly scheduled to meet one another again in the premiership-deciding Grand Final. In the week leading up to the big match, Bill ‑ one of Ben’s closest mates, and his successor as captain ‑ invited me to speak to his side at their final training session.

Bill and I have a lot of history. Not only have our families been close friends for more than 15 years, but he and I have played cricket together over many seasons, and have developed a great love and respect for one another, on and off the field. Apart from Bill, there were many amongst his team who I knew very well, and held in the highest regard. However there were also three new members, who had joined at the beginning of the 2019 season, and with whom I had spoken only briefly a couple of times each. These three had never known Ben, or even met him.

As I composed my thoughts in preparation for that final training session I realised ‑ even though I had been asked to speak as Ben’s Dad, and not as some kind of insightful soccer expert – that whatever I said on the night should not, and could not just be about Ben.

But what? And how?

The more I thought about this team, and the strength of the friendships between them, the more I was reminded of another group of young men – one I had played with when I was a similar age to these guys; my First Grade Colts rugby team at Warringah. A group who had lived in one another’s pockets then, and whose closeness and camaraderie continue to draw comment to this very day from friend and foe alike.

Like that Colts team, Epping FC had lost only two games during the regular season, boasted an outstanding for and against record, and finished minor premiers by some margin. But more than that, the underlying foundations of its success was the unshakeable bond that existed between its members, and amongst them all as a collective entity.

For the Epping lads, much moreso than for my Colts team, a legitimate concern was that the sentiment of the occasion, the sense of obligation to “win the big one for Ben”, would become an overwhelming burden. So I decided to tell the story of what had happened to my team in the minutes before we took the field for our Grand Final back in 1983.

As we waited in the dark dank changeroom at Concord Oval that day (some years before it underwent its handsome redevelopment!) our skipper called us into a tight huddle. He asked us to look into each others’ eyes, and to reflect on the fact that, as a group, today we would be playing together for the last time. He emphasised that this opportunity, to play and win something special with our best mates, would never present itself again. So we had two choices – to take that opportunity, or to waste it.

As I looked around at my teammates there was moisture in my eyes, and in many of theirs, and the impassioned tension in the room was palpable. We were desperate to take the opportunity offered, but desperation is never any guarantee of success. In fact, often quite the opposite. Our coach sensed, correctly, that more needed to be said before he let us take the field. Without in any way diminishing our captain’s urging, he wanted us to understand that if the game became a battle of emotions, then we were effectively inviting our opponents ‑ a very physical team, with total commitment to the cause ‑ into the game.

But if, instead of playing the game based on the emotion of the occasion, we played it in reliance on our skills, our teamwork, and our structures – the things that had got us to where we were, and made us the best team in the competition – then we would significantly increase our chances of success.

What I hoped the Epping FC lads would draw from this story was that yes, this was a unique opportunity for them to do something they would remember proudly forever, but that they should save the emotion for full-time, when the result was known and, if all went according to plan, victory was theirs to celebrate.

To this point I had not mentioned Ben at all; but I knew that, for many of them, the upcoming match was about nothing else than honouring their teammate and friend. I told them I was certain Ben would have been so proud of what they had already achieved during the year: their first season of open age football, with no coach, no manager, and no regular players over the age of 21, and yet they had proved themselves to be worthy minor premiers. He would have been so disappointed not to be there with them on the field to play his part in earning the victory they had worked so hard for, but he would be with them, I was sure of it, and he would be saying, “Don’t win it for me. Win it for us – because what we have is forever”.

Optimistic though I was that the boys would do Ben proud, not even I could have imagined that the big match that following Saturday afternoon would unfold in almost exactly the same manner as my Colts Grand Final had done all those years before.

Epping drew first blood, just as we had - scoring halfway through the first half - only for a quick reply from the opposition to leave the match well and truly in the balance at half-time. However the further the second half went, and notwithstanding that the scores remained locked together for quite some time, the more obvious the difference between the two sides became – in terms of skill, in terms of teamwork, and in terms of desire. Until finally, inevitably, the dam wall burst, allowing Epping to score twice in the last quarter of the match - just as those 1983 Colts had done before them - and secure a well-deserved and emphatic 3-1 victory.

What had given me the greatest pleasure though, as a highly invested onlooker, was to observe the wonderful sense of composure that characterised the team’s performance throughout the match; indeed, even after the game had been won, and the trophy hoisted high in triumph. A number of the boys would confess to me over subsequent days that they had felt a great sense of calmness throughout the Grand Final, almost as if the result was predetermined - as long as they just trusted in one another, and believed in what they were capable of.

In 30 or 40 years’ time I sincerely hope this band of brothers are all still thinking about that day with fondness and pride, still enjoying each others’ company, and still remembering their mate – who would, I know, have been prouder than anyone of what they achieved.


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