West Ryde Rovers Over 35s sent a rejuvenated squad to Canberra’s Woden Valley Fair Play Vets Shield on the weekend of 22/23 October and finally brought some silverware back to Sydney after a hard-fought win against a hard-running Belnorth team. The nation’s capital put on its rainiest weather, leaving the playing fields in swampy condition, but that was never going to stop this annual tournament from taking place. The players of all teams mastered the conditions and put on a great show, with penalty drama in both the men’s and women’s competitions adding to this exciting event.
The Rovers team assembled in Canberra at 9.15am, setting up camp at the boggy Mawson playing fields. The majority of the squad travelled down on the morning of the first day – strong coffees and baked goods required en route after a 5.45am start – and after brief introductions to the new players, we were straight into game one. This eleven-a-side tournament of 40-minute games had a new twist this year, with the offside rule scrapped, and the Rovers had little time to get used to the idea before they were a goal behind on the break on the wettest field of them all, surface water everywhere, comedy slips and the added obstacle of puddles that stopped the ball dead. Coming from a council area that closes fields at the mildest drizzle, this was a fantastic opportunity to play in conditions that brought back childhood memories. Thankfully, the no-slide-tackle rule, that we may have forgotten to tell our new players, was in force, and kept everyone on their feet, at least most of the time.
The Rovers then upped a gear and took a good lead, going up 3-1, before a late rally from the Belnorth team looked to have derailed the good work. Cue a fabulous move that saw former golden boot winner Ian sweep the ball beyond the advancing keeper on the break with almost the last kick of the match. A famous 4-3 victory then, with an amazing performance from Richie between the sticks, and a boost going into the second game.
Still no time to rest, we were straight into game two against TUFC Saints. This field was in similar condition, and the rain continued to fall. A battling performance in this one saw the Rovers come away with another slender win, the short-sighted referee missing a clear handball in the area by Toby, and that gave us a great chance to advance to the knockout stages of the Shield.
The marquee became a makeshift washing line as the players attempted to dry their sodden clothes in time for the third and final game of day one, and a well-timed break between games allowed the haloumi to go on chef Choco’s vintage BBQ and the first beers of the day to get cracked.
Game three was back on the wettest field, and this one was against Brindabella. Despite a dominant display, the Rovers succumbed to defeat, undone again by the lack of offside rule that left two players in space, and a 1-0 lead was turned on its head, losing the game in the latter stages with a poacher’s goal.
That left the Rovers in second place in the pool, teeing up a semi-final showdown for the following morning at 9am against the winners of the other group, the Flaming Moes. After a well-earned beer and packing up the marquee, it was time to check in at our hotel in Narrabundah, get showered and get our wet and muddy clothes in the washer. The sight of us walking into the hotel reception with mud caked all over us would have terrified the hotel cleaners. Human again, it was time to head to our favourite haunt, the Harmonie German Club, a short walk from the hotel, but a very wet one as the rain got heavier and heavier.
This was a great night rehydrating and taking on protein, carbs and minerals to replace the energy lost in the day. The club has undergone a refurb since our last visit two years ago, there was much more space and there was a presentation night for the local pool club in the adjoining hall so business was brisk. Pork knuckle and weissbier were the order of the day, our solo vegan still finding a feed on the menu despite the meat-heavy offerings. This was a great way for our squad to get fully acquainted with each other and was a lot of fun; memories of semi-final defeats in previous years after going out afterwards til the early hours came back to send most of us back to the hotel, although a small contingent hit the casino to watch Liverpool lose the early EPL game.
After a sound sleep, with no snoring whatsoever, in our dorm-like rooms and taking in a quick breakfast in the hotel lobby, we were back in our clean and dry Rovers kit (thanks Toby!) ready to go in search of our first ever semi-final win at this competition. And that’s what we did, a glorious cross from the rampaging Toby headed home majestically by Al to win the game and put to bed the second-day hoodoo that has haunted the team over the years.
A big gap in between the semi-finals and final allowed us to catch some of the other drama. There was a unique situation where three games went to penalty shoot-outs simultaneously, and we saw some great goals, especially from the women’s game on the field next to our marquee.
Finals time came, a midday kick off on the premier field against our first opponents on day one, and the sun belatedly showed its face to give the game a tropical World Cup feel. Our Spanish maestro Juan, the madman from Madrid, took the game by the scruff of the neck and got us back into the lead with a mesmerising run and cheeky finish a la Chris Waddle. There was late controversy as the referee only awarded an indirect free-kick to Belnorth instead of a penalty, and some mad scrambling and clever management of the final moments saw us to the final whistle and to a victory in the Shield.
Smiles all round for the Rovers team of 2022. This was a marvellous weekend; a well-run tournament, all games played in the right spirit, a great break for football-mad dads from the everyday and some good quality time to laugh and chat with like-minded people. We were back in Sydney by 5pm and back into the routine as if this magical weekend never happened. We have the memories though and we’ll be back for more next year, a year older, a few centimetres wider and couple of paces slower.
Big thanks to the organisers Mark and Marc for making this event happen, to all the teams for playing with the best attitude and making this such an enjoyable experience. Thanks to the refs and everyone else involved for keeping us safe in treacherous conditions, but most of all thanks to the players of West Ryde Rovers for being outstanding teammates, room mates and carpool buddies. See you next year. Up the Rovers!