In the 22 years that expired between 1958 and 1979, the Wangaratta Rovers won 11 premierships. The Hawks morphed from a middle-of-the road Ovens and Murray club to possibly the best and most high-profile outfit in country Australia. Four coaches in that period were to become household names .
Bob Rose (2), Ken Boyd (2), Neville Hogan (4) and Darrell Smith (3) shared the spoils of flag success. Sandwiched in between these Hall of Famers was a man with a blue-chip football pedigree who has been largely forgotten.
His name? Ian Brewer.
It was always going to be an unenviable task for the 30 year-old Brewer to follow in the footsteps of Ken Boyd, who had proved a charismatic figure during his five-year stay at the club.
He inherited a playing list that remained largely intact from that which contested the 1966 Preliminary Final. It was bolstered by a classy Moe small man, Lance McMillan and the returning Roly Marklew. And,of course, Brewer.
The blonde-haired, crew-cut Brewer stood 6’2″ and had been recruited to Collingwood from his home town, Sale,in 1956. In his breakout season -1958 – he won the VFL’s Coleman Medal with 73 goals and played at full forward in the Magpies’ against-the-odds premiership win over Melbourne.
He had played 84 games and kicked 164 goals, when his career was interrupted by a severe bout of hepatitis in 1961.Delisted by Collingwood, he moved to St.Kilda,but was still affected by the illness.
His next move was to Claremont, where he rediscovered his football pizzaz. In his first season, alternating between the two key forward posts,he booted 55 goals. He was the hero of their last-to-first premiership triumph in 1964 when he kicked 2 majors in the final 90 seconds of the Grand Final to enable Claremont to ‘steal’ the flag by 4 points.
Brewer then headed east, to Norwood, and topped the league goalkicking award in his first SANFL season, with a total of 96. He headed Norwood’s list with 76 the following season.
The Rovers had not had a genuine goalkicker for years. They salivated at the prospect that this star, who had proven himself in three states, would hungrily feed off the delivery of a bevy of on-ballers.
But Ian had other ideas. He positioned himself at centre half back in a practice match against eventual VFA premiers, Dandenong, coached by his cousin, St.Kilda’s 1966 premiership ruckman, Alan Morrow.
The Hawks ran their opponents to a few points and continued their good form into the season proper. The fact that they were gelling well allowed Brewer to roam around – mostly in defence – as the brilliant form of players like Norm Bussell, Neville Hogan and Laurie Flanigan helped make them a team to be feared.
Two tight finals victories saw the Rovers into the 1967 Grand Final -against a Wodonga side which had been dominant throughout the season.
The coach fractured his leg in the first quarter, which was a cruel blow, yet the Hawks, who seemingly never looked like winning the game, only fell short by 18 points.
Brewer would have been well pleased with his first year of coaching. He had finished runner-up to Norm Bussell in the Best and Fairest and his side had performed up to expectations. Yet,he had not really ‘won over’ the players.
He was a nice enough bloke, but not terribly motivated and was not a natural-born leader. It was difficult for him to find common-ground with some of the club’s more revelrous types.
Season 1968 was ‘annus horribilus’ for the Rovers. They began promisingly enough, winning 5 of the first 6 games,despite the loss of bullocking Norm Bussell, to Hawthorn. Then a downturn in form coincided with a car crash involving John Welch.
The popular small man was back after a season as coach of Whorouly. The news that he had suffered crippling injuries and would be hospitalised for months, hit the group hard.
Some discipline problems had also crept in and, as the Hawks began to lose games, the attitude around the place left a lot to be desired.
But there were other warning signs. Some players felt that Brewer was not training them hard enough and undertook a private session of a Wednesday night. By the end of the third week more than 20 players were involved. It was a mini-rebellion of sorts.
The committee instigated a ‘council of war’ with Ian Brewer, the players and the club executive one Thursday night at which matters were thrashed out. It cleared the air to some extent, but failed to halt the downward spiral, as the Rovers plunged to seventh spot, winning only 4 of their last 12 games.
With the talent available, the notable addition of giant ruckman Mick Nolan and some hot youngsters coming through, it had been an unsatisfactory result. The coach copped his share of the flak that flew.
A lesser club may have reacted impulsively and fired him, but the Hawks stuck to their guns.
It was a different Ian Brewer in 1969. To his credit he made a more concerted effort to communicate with his players and there was a better ‘feel’ around the club.
The Rovers made a slow start to the season but won 8 of the last 10 home and away games to finish third. And,at last, Brewer had decided to move up forward,with good results.
Unfortunately, he suffered a broken finger in the semi-final win over North Albury and was ruled out, along with champion centreman Neville Hogan, for the big Preliminary Final clash against the Magpies.
To further exacerbate the Hawks’ troubles, gifted half forward Greg McDonald collided with big Mick Nolan in the first quarter. McDonald had enjoyed a terrific debut season, but was helped off the Showgrounds with a damaged knee. His O & M career was over.
Nolan hobbled off shortly after and the Rovers finals campaign lay in tatters. They battled on manfully to go down by 27 points, but Wangaratta supporters had little sympathy for their dreadful luck.
So Ian Brewer’s coaching sojourn ended in heartbreaking fashion, after three seasons and 54 games. With wife Yvone and the kids, he returned to Adelaide and made a faltering comeback with Norwood.
The Hawks departed from the norm when they appointed an untried local, Neville Hogan as his successor, a move that was greeted with scepticism in some circles, but was to prove a raging success.
Brewer passed away in 2010 after a lengthy battle with cancer.