It seems no time since Mark Booth was a young ‘pup’, flogging Critics at the Rovers’ home games. On a good day he might pocket the princely sum of $6.00 or so, which wasn’t bad money for a 10 year-old in those days.
But he couldn’t wait to get off the gate and into the rooms. To soak up the atmosphere of the pre-game, thriving on the yabbering among the players. And the tension, which you could almost cut with a knife.
He was born in the bosom of the Hawks.
His dad, Fred, had come down from the tiny central Riverina town of Lake Cargellico in the late forties, found a job in town and was recruited to the Rovers.
Freddie, reared on a diet of Rugby League and Aussie Rules in his birthplace, became the star player at his new Club. He won a couple of Best and Fairests and, when his career began to wind down, coached the Reserves.
The Rovers were central to the Booths’ lives. Fred remained a keen helper….Marge became heavily involved with the Ladies’ Committee…. the four kids were always around the place.
Soon the boys were coming through the ranks. Col spent time with the Reserves and Graham made his name as a disciplined ruckman-defender.
Tall and angular, with a great pair of hands, ‘Manny’ was solid and dependable. But dickey knees shortened his football life, which had almost drawn to a close when Mark made his senior debut in 1973.
It was against Yarrawonga. He was named on a forward flank and picked up three kicks, all from pin-point passes from the boot of coach Neville Hogan.
But, as he settled in, the thing that impressed wizened old Rovers followers was that he was prepared to burrow in to extract the hard ball . And there were no pretensions about being able to cope with any of the rough stuff which was meted out.
He was an integral part of the Rovers’ golden era and featured in premierships in 1974, ’75, ’77 and ’78. His pack- bursting ferocity and spot-on disposal saw him equally adept as a rover or flanker.
He was basking on the Continent when the Rovers took out the 1979 flag and had a so-so season in 1980 – marred by injury niggles and his difficulty in settling back into the side.
He was living and working at Yarrawonga at the time, and relented to the Pigeons’ persistent overtures in 1981 by pulling on the blue and white hoops.
“It was one of the best things I ever did”, he said years later. “It made me more determined to do well. I’d been getting into a groove at the Rovers”.
He produced a terrific season for Yarra, winning their B & F and making lifelong friends, but was back home at the Findlay Oval the following season.
“I think I played my best football from then onwards”, he recalled. “Before that I was a crash-and -bash type of player. I started to run a bit more and create space.”
Now among the League’s elite players, Mark won the Best and Fairest in 1986 and ’87 and became a regular inter-league rep. He was rewarded with VCFL selection in 1986.
He had come through the ‘Super Seventies’, was part of a slight downturn in the Club’s fortunes in the early eighties and braced for a new era, with the onset of ‘Burt’s Babes’.
He was now vice-captain and, as one of only a couple of elder statesmen in the side, could hardly have predicted the exhilarating wave that the Rovers were going to ride in 1988.
Surrounded by young talent, Mark was a vital component, but suffered a brain-fade which he will eternally regret.
He crunched Yarrawonga defender Jamie Flanagan in the opening minutes of the final home-and-home game, a match in which the Pigeons prevailed by 58 points. It cast a cloud over the Hawks’ flag prospects, but just as importantly, cost Mark a two-week suspension.
He watched on as the Hawks staged a form-reversal to win the second semi, then ran away from Lavington in the Grand Final.
Although he was a seasoned veteran at this stage, the Hawks were hardly carrying him. He picked up his third B &F in 1989, was runner-up in the Morris Medal and named in the O & M’s Team of the Year.
But he was on the verge of pulling the pin after the Rovers bowed out in the first semi-final the following year. His aching body was feeling the stress and strain and he was bitterly disappointed with his own display.
“I really thought that my time was up”, he recalled. But his team-mates talked him into continuing. “I agreed to go on, as long as I could be of some benefit to the side”, he recalled.
It proved an inspired decision. He would chalk up his fifth premiership in an emphatic Rovers victory over Yarrawonga in 1991, then enjoy another terrific season to be runner-up to Robbie Walker in the 1992 B & F – his tenth top-five finish in the Award.
It was time now, he said, to hang up the boots and pass the baton on to the younger blokes . And after 336 O & M games ( including 17 with Yarrawonga) who could blame him for putting the feet up.
But he wasn’t out of the game for long. Mulwala sought his services as non-playing coach and, seeing that he was residing in the town, it seemed a natural fit. The experience was enlightening and sometimes frustrating, but his two years in the role rounded out his footy education.
But wait, there was another chapter to be written in the Mark Booth story……….that of the Administrator.
He served on the Ovens and Murray Football League Board for three years, but eventually answered the call from his old club in 2010 when he succeeded long-serving Chairman Pat Flynn.
It was an eventful three years at the top, perhaps highlighted by the club’s recruitment of Barry Hall, a move which lit up the Hawks’ 2012 season and took them to within an errant kick of the Grand Final.
Now he toils behind the scenes, actively promoting the Past Players Association and remaining on the club’s Board.
But Mark would reckon that the best example of the feeling the Booth family has for the Club is epitomised on the balcony each home match.
It’s his mum Marge, around ninety and with failing eyesight. She’s still eager to sample some of the atmosphere of the game, barrack for the Hawks and offer support to her grandsons Darcy and Mitch.
That’s spirit for you.