The Magic of Football: Paynesville Clinic a Hit

When the pictures get broadcast on nightly news bulletins of the carnage left behind by the East Gippsland bush fires, the instinct is to sympathise through the lens of largely adult ideologies. Insurance, mortgages, the cost to businesses, local economies, lives, jobs and lost family heirlooms are the buzz phrases when considering what consequences the fires will have once they finally pass. The obvious remedy from the community is to assist with financial contributions to help families and businesses get back on their feet.

On Saturday 18 January 2020, at the Paynesville Football Club, the forgotten victims of the fire crisis gathered at the ground for some brief respite to the challenges they'd faced across the past month: the children. Port Adelaide superstar Robbie Gray, who grew up in East Gippsland, and whose cousin still lives in Paynesville, had traveled from Adelaide to run a free clinic for the children in the region. With him, he bought former captain, and fellow superstar Travis Boak.

When a local family, whom had only recently lost their entire home in a blaze, were found to be parochial Bulldogs fans, Travis made a call to a friend of his to join him on the trip: Bulldogs skipper Marcus Bontempelli. The Bont was to make a surprise visit to the families' children for a spot of lunch before the 2pm run around at the football club.

I attended the day to represent AFL Gippsland and to lend a hand, where possible, to allow the players to spend more time mingling. I'd estimate the crowd of children would have swollen to around 200 people by the time the band of superstars had rocked up. Robbie began by explaining his connection to the region and by introducing Travis and Marcus to the adoring eyes of those sitting before them.

I'd estimate, of the 200, only 30 would have genuinely supported either of the two teams represented by Robbie, Travis and Marcus. I ran a marking station with Marcus, over by the goals, where we were sent 40-odd kids at a time for a six minute rotation. The real spirit of the clinic wasn't necessarily found with the kids playing the games as an instinct kicks in when a kid chases a ball. The magic was at the end of the station, when the whistle had gone to signal a chance of locations, and the kids with both Marcus and I would be sent elsewhere. I'd pull aside the kids who were wearing their Bulldogs jumpers.

"What's your name" I'd ask.

"Liam" one of the children responded.

"How old are you, Liam?"

"Six".

"How long have you been a Bulldogs supporter?"

"Umm.. ummm.. forever".

"Would you like to meet Marcus?"

The face is priceless.

Bont, one of the nicest people in football, was only too obliging. A handshake, a photo, a short conversation where the child would inevitably profess that Marcus was their favourite player, and a lifetime memory created.

I concede there is an age bracket where those moments are most captivating. Before trying to be funny, or trying to impress your mates becomes a thing. It's an age where something so simple can happen to you, like shaking the hand of a footballer and have him treat you like he genuinely wants to know you, and nothing can detract from your happiness in that moment. I'd like to think the age of six sits so incredibly comfortably in that bracket.

At the end of the skills component of the clinic, the children were congregated to sit in front of the pavilion and engage in a Q&A. The players made it clear to us, privately, that there was no time constraint. Around and around I went with the microphone, with every child asking a question. It ended up being more about getting the opportunity to ask, more than wanting to know the answer. Shortly after one child had asked what the trios favourite goal was, another asked what their favourite kick was.

"As in field kick?" I asked. "Yep" she nodded. That was a tricky one.

My favourite was little Sven. Sven was wearing a Hawthorn jumper and was probably the smallest of all the children. Whilst the players were answering another question, I turned the microphone off and met Sven.

"How old are you, Sven?"

"Four" he told me, holding up five fingers.

"Have you got your question ready, buddy?"

He nodded eagerly.

"What is it?" I asked.

"I want to know who else goes for the poos and wees: Hawthorn" he said, shaking his jumper.

Gold. I wasn't telling the kid he couldn't do that.

When it was his turn, I turned the microphone on and introduced him to the players.

"Sven, what's your question?".

Sven stood up, grabbed the microphone confidently, turned to the whole crowd in his Hawks guernsey and said "who else goes for the poos and wees!?".

How good. He was four.

I've run hundreds of clinics through my work with either Claremont Football Club or FootyKids where we'd often get players of note. Those clinics generally always end up the same. The players need to be there, they sign autographs at the end, then they rush off, leaving a portion of the crowd disappointed.

Marcus Bontempelli, a club captain and premiership winner, Travis Boak, a former captain and dual best and fairest winner, and Robbie Gray, a multiple All-Australian and oft-prominent Brownlow Medal finisher, signed every child's autograph until there was nobody left at the ground. I have never seen children leave before the players, and certainly not when the players were of the calibre of that trio. Nothing was a problem, there was no time constraint, no kid couldn't have a photo and nothing couldn't be signed.

When these fires are over, and normal order, to whatever degree, is restored, the numbers will be crunched and the impact will be felt. But, for the children of Paynesville and the surrounding areas, who attended that day, nothing will ruin their memories of their day out with the stars.

Magic.




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