The Wangaratta area has nurtured a host of champion footballers. You could argue for hours about who has been the pick of the bunch if you throw up names such as John Brady, Lance Oswald, Bert Mills, Steve Johnson and Nigel Lappin.
Each of them carved blue-ribbon reputations as genuine VFL/AFL champions among the 80-odd local players who tested themselves in the big-time.
But I want to profile a bloke who must surely lay claim to being the toughest of all-time.
His name? Robert Edwin Flanigan, or, to give him his popular pseudonym – ‘Bluestone’.
Bob Flanigan was born at Myrrhee in 1914, one of 14 kids reared on the family farm. Most of the ten boys started with Myrrhee, which numbered 160 residents at that stage,and were to become star footballers. Les (‘Tiny’) played at Peechelba, whilst most of the others, like Harold (‘The Kid’), Ron (‘Tup’), Ken (‘Plugger’) and Jack moved on to become part of the champion Moyhu teams of the thirties.
Bob always rated Harold as the best country footballer he’d ever seen. “He could high jump over six feet.He won foot-races all over the district.He kicked beautifully. The trouble was, Harold wouldn’t leave the farm.” Bob once said.
Bob went to work on his uncle’s farm at Carboor and was recruited to Milawa. He later played a few games with Wangaratta.
Jack was the first of the Flanigan boys to try his luck in VFL football. He cracked it for 5 games with Hawthorn in 1930.
He and Jim arrived home from Melbourne one week-end and insisted Bob come down to join them. The League lists had been completed when he arrived,so he stripped with Sunday League team, Alphington. In his first game with them he booted 17 goals and was soon swamped with offers from League clubs.
Eventually he was coaxed to Footscray by their coach, Sid Coventry, who lived in the same street as his brothers.Coventry said : “I think I can fit you in”.
So he became a Bulldog in 1936 and he created an immediate impression. Standing 5 feet, 9 inches and tipping the scales at 11½ stone, he was a ball of muscle and attacked the ball with a frenzy that unnerved opponents.
One of his team-mates, Joe Ryan, labelled him ‘Road Metal”, because he reckoned he was as tough as a lump of rock.He settled in at centre half back,often conceding up to six inches to wary opposition key forwards.
Renowned tough man,Bob Chitty always said that, compared with Flanigan, he,Jack Dyer , ‘Basher’ Williams and ‘Tarzan’ Glass were mere creampuffs.
Flanigan once explained his playing style. “I was never very fast and was not a big fellow,so I had to make up for these deficiencies with pure aggression. Being tough was the only way you could survive in those days.”
“Times were bad and at least half the players were out of work. Most of us were playing for our tucker.The three pounds a week we were getting was about the only income we had.”
“You had to be mean,because if you weren’t,you knew there was always someone waiting to take your place.”
Although he held his own with football’s iron-men, there were many people who thought that the ‘human battering-ram’ was too tough for his own good.
Apart from inflicting plenty of damage on opponents,he managed to break a few of his own bones. Whilst at Footscray he broke his nose, collarbone, jaw and ankle.
But he proved worthy of his nickname during the 1937 season, when he was flattened at training one night by team-mate Stan Livingstone and carried off on a stretcher with a fractured skull.
He was transported to hospital, where doctors battled to save his life. Flanigan recalled years later that it was touch-and-go whether he would pull through. “The doctors told me that I was definitely washed-up as a footballer and that there could be some brain damage.”
“Road-Metal” Flanigan played again in nine weeks,prompting a public outcry that he should be forced to retire.
It was little wonder, with the number and severity of his injuries,that he played just 49 games in 5 seasons with the Bulldogs. And when he damaged the cartilage in his left knee, Footscray decided that he was no longer worth the risk.
“The club is tired of paying for everything bar his burial”, the Footscray Advertiser reported.
So Flanigan transferred to Essendon,in a move that was to revitalise his career. Bombers’ coach Dick Reynolds, who re-named him ‘Bluestone’, placed him on a half back flank and urged him to use his vigour and strength to advantage.
A left-footer, who loved charging downfield,he starred in the 1942 premiership win and played in the 1941 and ’43 Grand Finals. He was runner-up best and fairest to the legendary Reynolds in 1942 and won the Most Consistent and Most Effective awards.
Flanigan believed that he missed the publicity of the other renowned tough-men of football because he never got reported.
“I was reported only once in 10 years and beat the charge”, he recalled years later. But he reckoned he was lucky to get off the day he ‘pegged-out’ North Melbourne ruckman, Archie ‘Cast-Iron’ Kemp at Arden Street.
“I’d clashed with Kemp during the game,so he switched to the half forward line and started niggling me. He was about twice my size,but eventually I couldn’t take it any longer.”
“I still reckon that punch moved the big bloke about six feet.He got up again, but didn’t re-appear again after half-time”.
Flanigan retired from League football,aged 31, in 1945,having played 91 games. He accepted a coaching appointment in Morwell and finally hung up his boots in 1952.
There he resided until he lost a long battle with cancer in 1988.
The Flanigan footballing dynasty continued through the ages.Among the descendants, Ian played with Greta and the Rovers, Cliff with Greta and Tarrawingee; Laurie and Des were part of premierships with the Rovers, Darren was a 138-game AFL player with Geelong and, briefly, St.Kilda and Damien was a star with Greta.
And Hawthorn’s Mitch Hallahan, a great-great nephew of ‘Bluestone’, has already won a VFL Liston Medal, and made his debut with Hawthorn this year.
There may never be another ‘Bluestone’ Flanigan. The reputation he created as a genuine Iron-Man of football will live on.