Behind the scenes with the NEAFL team

By Beth Newman

“We are the Champions” blares through the speakers, but everyone around is silent.

As the NEAFL Northern side walks off West Adelaide Oval, the air is one of disappointment and resignation, of knowing one side was simply outplayed on the day.

There had been plenty of fight to half-time, but eventually the visitors were worn down.

It was the end of a campaign that had been filled with optimism and hope, rather than necessarily confidence, and ended with a mood of consolation, rather than shock or frustration.

It started as a coming together of players from four different states – something that is immediately clear when, at Brisbane Airport, one of the staff is trying to piece together a team song in the event of a win.

On a flight with 30 footballers, the irony of being 5”3’ with an aisle seat allocation and no neighbour is not lost on me.

Arriving in Adelaide on a day more like a Brisbane spring than southern autumn, we head to West Adelaide Oval on the bus, via Sir Donald Bradman Drive – proof that South Australians can name streets.

It’s a light run for the senior side, who are out on the track first, while the Under-22s have their team photo taken.

As the guys train, coaches and other staff discuss the game, the crowd, the players and generally plan for match day.

To the hotel for the first time, the seniors prepare for a pool recovery session, before dinner.

On the 22nd floor, the lights of Adelaide stretch out to the horizon, and the Adelaide Oval, covered in cranes, sticks out in the skyline.

Dinner is basically an exhibition of how much footballers can eat (hint: a lot), followed by a study of some vision.

Each line has a laptop and players huddle around, discussing the assets and tendencies of key SA players and watching various passages of play from SANFL matches.

The coaches are at one table, picking apart some of the key opposition cogs, and how to combat them.

Once the players leave, the coaching staff remains for a good half hour, discussing rotation plans.

Do they want in and under to start with or players who create, and use, space effectively to kick things off?

Who should play on whom, who should be part of which rotations, interspersed with updates of the Geelong v Essendon AFL match.

Game day is a day of ebbs and flows.

Having seen little of Adelaide, I take a sunrise run (at the all-too early time of 6:30) along the river, introduced to a brand new season on the way, with autumn leaves scattered on the riverside paths.

On the first bus to the ground, arriving almost an hour before the players, the rooms were eerily empty and the jumpers laid down on the bench awaiting their owners; a bunch of footies together in the centre of the rooms and a water bottle caddy filled and ready to go.

With the Under-22s game nearing, the players begin to arrive and each has their own pre-game routine.

Some have iPods and beats by Dre surgically attached to their heads, some are chatting with coaches or teammates.

Two sit on the bench, flicking through the match day record (or Budget to any South Australians).

The team comes together to listen to coach, Shaun hart, speak.

Harty emphasises the bond the players, from QLD, NSW, ACT and NT, must forge for two hours on a Saturday morning and reiterates messages from their sole training session as a side.

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Click above to see part of Hart’s pre-game address.

And watching from the wooden bench in the grandstand of West Adelaide Oval, among more than a dozen recruiters, with notepads and binoculars, it seems the messages have stuck,

Co-captains Kaine Stevens and Eddy Mallan, as well as Redland’s Blake Grewar and Labrador’s Jake Goldsmith are among those who elevate their own names in the footy world in an unfamiliar environment, but you could make the case for just about anyone.

While the crowd is predominantly Croweaters, four people next to me ride the emotions of the NEAFL player wearing the #1 guernsey, Syndey Uni’s Tim Barrett.

His every involvement is greeted with a squeal, a grimace, and when he kicks a goal, all four leap off their seats, with smiles plastered across their faces.

Showing fight and aggression, Opens external link in new windowthe league’s rising stars prove the South Australia trip a success, before the main game even gets going.

The fight of the under-22s carries into the opening half of the seniors, after a bit of a jumpstart from the home team, and the NEAFL Northern side are fired up at half-time.

There is intermittent encouragement from some of the more experienced players as the team readies for the second half, some advice on what to do and some just simply keeping morale up.

Senior coach Jason Cotter gathers the side and implores them to keep fighting tooth and nail and to throw everything they have into the game.

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Click the above picture to hear a snippet of Cotter’s half-time speech.

Opens external link in new windowThe intense first half has taken a toll, and the home side just grows in stature in the final stages, running rampant.

And so, Queen’s anthem sounds around the park as the NEAFL trudge off the ground, preparing for ice baths and cubes to be glad-wrapped to their niggles and getting ready to dust themselves off.

The post-match function is an upbeat affair, filled with footy conversation and some great trivia about the Lions three-peat side and a chicken schnitzel as big as my face.

Then it’s back on the bus, a few quiet beers and off to bed.

Some of the coaches are still dissecting the game, and its ramifications, hours later, but most of the group simply move on.

The final morning is another early one, straight on the bus.

The ride back to the airport is a quiet one, with the toll of a physical weekend showing.

Plenty was gained from the weekend to the festival state, though in 48 hours in the city of churches, I never saw a place to pray.

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