AMID the familiar sounds of Saturday football — the umpire's whistle, crowds cheering and fans queueing for hot dogs, beer cans and balloons — were reminders of the week that has been. "How are you going?" a Sorrento supporter asked his mate. "Bloody awful," came the reply.
The sudden, strange death of AFL player John McCarthy, 22, has cast a pall on today's grand final for the Sorrento Sharks, his former junior football team. This is their fifth successive grand final — they have won the past two — but this one feels different.
"It's all a bit surreal; a totally different feeling," said club president Gary Woodhams ahead of this afternoon's game at Frankston Park.
"Half of these kids playing would have come through the juniors; they all know each other. In previous years it has been more upbeat, more excitement around the town. This time it's more downbeat than upbeat."
A minute's silence will be held before the first bounce at 2.30pm. No members of McCarthy's immediate family are expected here for the game. They will wait for McCarthy's body to return home from Las Vegas, where he died after falling from a roof last Sunday morning.
His funeral is expected to be held in Sorrento on Thursday, Mr Woodhams said. "His family are no good — they're shattered of course," he said.
McCarthy's cousin Myles Pitt is playing for Port Melbourne in the VFL preliminary final today with No. 35 on his jersey, in tribute to the number McCarthy wore at Port Adelaide this season.
Sorrento Sharks coach Troy Schwarze said the routines of football had helped his players cope. Four of them played in the juniors with McCarthy while growing up in the close-knit community. "The structure of playing and having something to focus on has been good for the boys," he said.
"For them, it's going to be a challenge. A bit earlier in the week it was hard to see the game coming in the distance. Now it's about focusing on the game."
He won't mention McCarthy's name ahead of the game, he said, telling his players instead to go hard at the ball until the final siren.
Now is a time for playing and winning — and perhaps for bringing a smile to Sorrento, he said. "There's enough emotion around. The boys will be wearing black armbands and will go out there with a heavy heart."
Among the strong crowd gathering by the bay in the red-and-white of the Sorrento Sharks was Trevor Garby, whose three daughters shared a house with McCarthy in Melbourne when he debuted in the AFL for Collingwood in 2008. "Everyone's hurting a lot," he said.
"I guess he touched everyone across this neck of the woods. He was a fantastic bloke, would speak to anyone, very much a loveable larrikin.
"He was tenacious on the field, fearless, determined. He always had potential and he was starting to reach that potential. I think he was starting to hit his straps."