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Friday, 4 July 2014

New Experience Challenge Week 26: Combining Two Previous Adventures

In week 13 this year, I wrote about seeing a football game at the beautiful and newly redeveloped Adelaide Oval. In week 19, I talked about becoming a footy umpire. This week, at the half-way point of the year, I combined the two into a really awesome day out.

At half time of every AFL match, they bring out a bunch of little-leaguers (mostly around 7 years old) to play their own scratch-match. It's part of a program called Auskick which promotes the game to new generations of fans. Our panel was offered the chance to umpire the Auskick games for the Showdown on the weekend. Only six of us were actually offered a spot and I happened to be one of them. I was so eager to go that I took the day off of work to do it.

We had to meet outside the ground at 2 o'clock on Sunday. It took me a while to find the spot, because there was no signage or anything as promised. But eventually I got there and waited with the other umpires and all the kids that I assumed would be playing. A jolly old man by the name of Doug came out and gave us tickets to get in. We were to give the tickets to a man at the side gate who tore off the barcodes and let us in.
'Now make sure you've got everything sorted,' he said as we went in. 'Because once we're in, we won't be able to get back out.'

Seemed legit. We went inside and found our seats. Our very... very... VERY high seats. In fact, we were as high up and as far back from the ground as you could be. The officials on the field looked like ants. You'd think a multi-billion dollar corporation would be able to spring for slightly better seats. But then again, you don't make a billion dollars without cutting a few costs here and there.

However, the position of the seats did help for one thing. My friend Kelsey works at Adelaide Oval and I needed to meet up with him. I'd left my beloved Boston Redsox cap in his car on Friday and he told me to come to his kiosk during the first quarter to collect it. Kelsey's kiosk was in the Eastern Stand, level five. I was in the Southern Stand on level five, so that was convenient. All I had to do was walk around a couple of hundred meters and I was there. The game started and I left my seat to make the trip. I walked anticlockwise around the ground, wondering how I'd know when I'd reached the eastern stand. I got my answer soon enough. I ran into a steel wall which blocked my progress completely. I could see what must have been the Eastern Stand through a window and a bridge leading to it from the fourth floor. How useless is that?

So I headed off to the staircase to head down a floor. But when I got there, I found there was no way to get to the actual hallway. Only more stairs leading down. I had to keep searching for a way to get to level four. I headed back up to the top and looked for more stairs. I found a couple of escalators carrying steady streams of people up onto the fifth floor. I didn't find any that were going down.

"What is this labyrinth??!!" I thought frustratedly as I moved further away from my intended destination. At long last I came to a lift. A lift! That will get me where I need to go! I joined the crowd of people waiting to get into the same lift and waited. It took three minutes. I don't know why it took that long, but it did. And by the time it did come, the waiting crowd was so big we couldn't all fit in anyway. I missed the cut and had to wait another three minutes. When I finally got in, the operator said
'Are you all going to the ground floor?'
Murmurs of approval from the group before I piped up.
'I'm going to the fourth.'

She looked at me suspiciously in my umpire's top, leather jacket, jeans and incredibly worn out sandshoes and said
'Are you going to the function?'
I had no idea what she was talking about, but there was no way I was going to mention to a crowded elevator about the elusive bridge that I may or may not have imagined.
'No, I'm uh... meeting a friend there,' I said feebly.
She nodded and pressed the button. A few seconds later I walked out...

To an empty glass room that was completely different to the floor I just came from. To my left I could see the tennis courts outside the stadium. To my right were some glass doors that clearly led to the function room. I saw two staff members talking outside the room, so I decided to ask them for help.
'Hey guys, could you tell me how to get to the Eastern Stand?'
'You'll have to go down to the ground floor and get a passout. You won't be able to get there through here.'
'So I have to go back to the elevator?'

'Um, ok...' I didn't want to face that lady again. There were two elevators there, so I stood there a sec and said "please be the other one, please be the other one" under my breath a couple of times before pressing the button. The lift came almost immediately this time and of course, there was the suspicious lady, staring at me to come in.
'He wasn't there, so I might go down to the ground floor,' I mumbled. She didn't say anything, just pressed the button and moved on.

The ground floor was buzzing with thousands of people. I made my way to the main entrance and joined the cue of people waiting to get out. When I got to the front, there was a guy handing out cards that would let people who had already entered go out without rescanning their ticket. I thought I'd better make absolutely sure...
'If I take one of these, will I be able to use it to get into the Eastern Stand?'
'Yeah I suppose. Only if you have your actual ticket as well.

My ticket? The one I left in my bag? The one that's currently sitting hundreds of meters above my head?
This was infuriating. I caught the inexplicably one-way escalator back up to level five, made my way back to my seat and grabbed my ticket out of my bag. But just as I began to head off again, I realised that the barcode was missing. Doug's voice came into my ears -

"Once we're in, we won't be able to get back out."

That's it, I quit. I sat back down in a huff and waited for Doug to come and collect us. He came just before quarter time and took us into a restricted area where there were change rooms and lockers everywhere. Finally we reached our room. There were six chairs with an orange rubber football on each. We took up a football and got changed into our umpiring gear.

'Ok Daniel, you'll be taking the oval in front of the Gavin Wanganeen Stand. Jason will have the senior game on the western side. Peter gets the one on the east. Casey and Stewart get the two on the south end. Michael, you've got the oval on the end of the members' stand. Any questions?'
'Um yeah, where's the members' stan-'
'Ok, so you'll each take your players and lead them out to your oval. It'll be you, the players, then the goal umpires at the rear. I'll come and collect you when it's time to go.'

I shrugged and picked up the football that was on my chair, going out with the rest of the boys to explore whatever backstage areas we were allowed to explore. Myself, Peter, Casey and Daniel found an opening that led out to the ground and we hung out in there - trying to see as much of the game as we could, but keeping our distance lest we be seen. We were there for 10 minutes before a staff member there turned around and said
'Do you want to watch the game? Watch it somewhere else.'

We stared at each other wondering if he was serious or if he actually had any authority. We decided he didn't and kept watching. It took another five minutes for a second person to get up from his seat and say
'Alright Rob, get these kids out of here. Otherwise I'm going to have them arrested.'

Ok, he definitely didn't have the authority for that. But we left nonetheless. We moved on to the next room where all the little Auskickers were getting ready. 80 excited little kids running around in singlets and underwear while a small group of parents in goal umpire's uniforms tried to get them organised. When they were finally ready they were split into four groups - one in each corner of the room - and Doug came in and assigned an umpire to each group. I went into my corner to meet the goal umpires. They were two parents named Mark and Natalie who were about as sure of what they were doing as I was. The coach of the teams came up and introduced himself.

'I'm Phil. These are the kids from the Kadina Auskick centre. We've already sorted it out, the black team is going to kick that way,' (he pointed) 'and the red team is going to kick that way,' (opposite direction). Good, I'm glad someone knew what was happening, because no one else in my group seemed to.
'Just one question...'
'How far are the kids allowed to run with the ball?'
Oh ok, that's my area.
'Ten meters, have a bounce and then another ten meters.'
'Oh I see. Because we just let the kids do what they want.'
Well that's always a good thing to teach children.

It was nearing half time. Our group was standing there wondering what to do. Ok myself, Phil and the parents were standing there. The kids (now dressed at least) were climbing all over the couch, table and each other. I saw the coach of one of the other groups taking his kids through a drill, so I turned to Natalie and said
'Should we do what they're doing?'
'Go for it,' she said and stepped back for me.

Back in high school, the word "drill" made as all sigh heavily with exasperation. We didn't care about running from cone to cone, we just wanted to get into teams and play whatever sport we could. So I was surprised at the response I got when I turned around and shouted
'Ok, who wants to do drills?'
They all cheered "Yeah!" and got into a group around me.
'Alright, line up over here. I'll handpass you the ball, pass it back to me and go to the back of the line. No, what are you... further back, I can't move! Back up guys! Back up back up back up back up back up back up... There! Ok here we go!'

I started passing the ball to each player throughout the line. Some of them were just adorable. There was a little boy with glasses who always had his mouth open like he wasn't quite sure what was happening, a little girl with a blonde ponytail who had the biggest grin, and a chubby boy who was taller than the rest, but had this look on his face as if to say "Are we friends now?"

At long last Doug came back into the room and told us it was showtime.
'Daniel, you'll be leading your group out first, Michael second, Casey third and Stewart fourth. Enter the ground in a single file with the umpire in front, the players and then the goal umpires, and the next umpire following behind. Let's go!'

We all lined up in a very packed-in formation, such was everyone's eagerness to to out on the ground. The half-time siren went and we waited for Doug's go-ahead while people on the field set up the oval. I still wasn't entirely sure where to go when I got out there, but I had an idea. There were two senior games which I assumed were being played in the middle of the ground, and I was sure the four other games were being played in each corner. I knew I had to turn left once I got out to the ground and that Daniel's was further out from our entry point than I was. But that was all the information I had. I pictured playing a makeshift game of follow the leader with the kids as I ran out onto the field and covered the the whole place looking for my oval.
"Here it is! No wait, it's over there! Wait, double back! We had it before!"

It turned out alright in the end though. We ran out in front of the 50 000-strong crowd and I did a quick scan of the options to my left. There were two sets of goal posts quite close to each other, but one had a matching set further away, so I guessed that was it. We got to the middle of the oval, Natalie and Mark went to their ends and the players all stood around me waiting for me to throw the ball up.

'Spread out, guys!' I said. They didn't move. 'Come on, spread out!' Eventually they got the idea and started to move out.
'Ok, who are our rucks?' I said. They all stared at me blankly. Sigh...
'Ok you two, do you want to be rucks?' The kids I pointed at stepped forward obligingly and when I saw that others had already gotten started, I quickly got our game going.

In games where the players are that young, we don't keep score. The rules are worked out so that all we're doing at that age is introducing them to a game they'll hopefully be involved with for the rest of their lives. No need for winners or losers or awards or sanctions just yet. The kids here just grabbed the ball and kicked it in the right direction, often not quite connecting with the ball properly. Every now and then, the ball would tumble through the goalposts and we'd haphazardly bring it back into the middle to throw it up again. For the first few minutes I tried to umpire it like a normal game. I called one player to dispose of the ball three times before blowing my whistle and awarding a free kick against him for running too far. I apologised to him and eased the ball out of his hands while he looked at me dumbstruck. At that moment that I realised that there was absolutely nothing official or serious about this game. It was purely for fun and to give these kids from the country a great experience. So I put the whistle away and just ran beside the players while they played. I even mucked around with them, once pretending to throw the ball up just to see the kids' eyes dart up.

We only had 20 minutes, which was just too short for me. I looked up to see the other ovals being packed up already, so I had to stop the game so we could go back inside. We got into single file again and walked back into our change room, where the kids immediately stripped back down to their singlets and jocks. Before they disappeared too far, Mark spoke up.

'Alright everyone, say thanks to Michael!'
'Thank you Michael!' They all chanted together.
'My pleasure,' I said and myself and the other umpires left to watch the rest of the game.

Two more things I should mention. It started drizzling down with rain just as we got back to our undercover seats, so we were lucky to avoid that. Also, despite leading at half time, Port Adelaide went down to the Crows to record their first ever loss at Adelaide Oval and lose top spot on the ladder. Not a good end to the day.

The view from our seats.

That was my game.

A photo appeared in the Yorke Peninsula Country Times.

They left a fruit box on each of our seats as a thanks.


  1. So Aussie rules is played at the Adelaide Oval. No need to protect the cricket pitches in the middle?

    I've learned my first Aussie rule! You can only run 10 yards before releasing the ball. What do the fans yell if they think an opposing player has run more than 10 yards?

    1. I think by the time the cricket season starts the turf will have had time to recover.

      Hate to throw a spanner in the works, but that's the adjusted rule for 8 year olds. In the major league (the AFL) it's 15 meters and and many bounces as the player wants. A meter is about 1.09 yards.

      Running too far in the AFL's pretty rare, so there's no standard thing that the crowd yells. They just look at each other and say "That's too far isn't it?"

  2. 'Alright Rob, get these kids out of here. Otherwise I'm going to have them arrested.'
    Reminds me of the time I nearly got kicked out of the Westchester Public Library for suspicious library-ing.

    1. Hahahahaha! These kids are reading too loudly. I bet they've got fireworks under their hats!

  3. It disappoints me how so many children are better at sports than I'll ever be.

    1. Don't worry, you could take these kids down a peg.


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