When Neil Irwin welcomed his baby daughter into the world the day before his grand final match, he had accepted he would miss the big game.
But with the chance to break a 39-year winning drought at stake, his Aussie Rules teammates — who were gearing up to play 350 kilometres away — had other ideas in mind.
“We won the qualifying final two weeks ago and Penny was due the Thursday after so I thought, ‘no dramas, Penny will be born and all will go to plan,” Mr Irwin said.
“But as things go, she didn’t come until the day before the grand final.
“My mate Toby told me they had a helicopter or aeroplane on standby. I didn’t believe him, but he was serious.”
Toby Conroy and Irwin are good friends that had spent most of their football careers together. They played with the Queanbeyan Tigers for 15 years and in 2014 joined Leeton Whitton, which was Conroy’s football club growing up.
Having not shared a grand final victory with Leeton, Irwin said Conroy “moved mountains” to ensure they grabbed the last chance before retiring together this year.
“Jessica [his wife] had to stay in hospital overnight so I didn’t get home until 10.30am on Saturday and it would have been impossible for me to get to the game at 2:45pm, but Toby came to the rescue,” Mr Irwin said.
Conroy told him over the phone not to worry, as there would be a six-seater private aeroplane his team and club president had pitched in to hire waiting at the Canberra Airport.
Irwin packed his footy gear and brought his mother and five-year-old son along on the “whirlwind adventure”.
“My son had never been on a plane and felt like the most important person in the world,” he said.
“I thought – my team’s gone to a lot of trouble, I’d better not lose.”
‘It was a great big finale’
Conway did not reveal the “not terribly expensive” price tag of the high-class travel, although he did say it was arranged at a discount through club sponsors.
But when the team finished the match on top, he knew the grand gesture was worth it.
Leeton scored a six-point win against Collingullie Glenfield Park on a hot and windy Saturday afternoon in Narrandera, near Leeton.
“It had been 39 years since the club won. It was a great big finale,” Mr Conroy said.
“Neil was key member of that experience and his leadership was really important, so we are glad he got to be there for both the birth of his daughter and the grand final.”
While Mr Irwin was ecstatic about the big win and appreciative of his sky-high adventure (when the most exciting part of his usual Canberra-to-Leeton trips was lunch at Subway), he said it would have been the best weekend regardless.
“It was a special moment to win… but I had thought, ‘well if we do lose I’ve got my prize at home with little Penny,” he said.
“I got to come home and have my celebration with them last night.”