Mervyn Holmes doesn’t go much for the bright lights these days. It needs something special, like the marriage of his daughter Kerrie, or the need to pick up a part for the tractor, to coax him into town.
Some say he rivals his former eccentric neighbor and fellow dairy-farmer, the late ‘Poly’ Maher, as the best-known product of the tiny hamlet of Carboor.
Others liken him to the legendary ‘Plugger’ Lockett, who, once he had finished his footy career, rode off into the sunset and embraced the oblivion he had craved.
The last time ‘Farmer’ (reluctantly) hit the spotlight was in 2006. Bushfires had wrought havoc in the north-east and, as a spokesman for local fire-fighters he eyeballed Prime Minister John Howard and explained the necessity for access to tracks in the national parks.
“We need more help”, implored Merv, who, the journalist noted, was ‘wearing a cut-down green shirt and a hat that could well be an heirloom’.
His imposing physique may well have intimidated the delicately-framed national leader of the day, just as it did, with telling effect, opposition forwards in the Ovens and Murray League for a decade and a half.
He played 302 games with the Rovers as a tough, unyielding, super-competitive, unflappable, hard-hitting centre half back, who appeared to be not over-fussy what measures he took in pursuit of football success.
His team-mates shared something bordering on idolatry for the things he did on the field and the good feeling he engendered around the Club………………
Former Rovers President Jack Maroney can take most of the credit for luring ‘Farmer’ to the Hawks. He had counselled the young fella’s folks, Pat and Jim, on livestock matters for years and his Milawa -Carboor ‘run’ would always co-incide with a lunch-time visit, a hot meal and healthy discussion.
And he keenly followed the progress of the wiry lad, who, by now, was showing plenty of potential with Milawa.
After he had appeared in his third straight Grand Final (including the 1969 premiership) and chalked up 85 games with the Demons, Jack suggested that, as soon as he got his driver’s licence, he should come in to the Rovers.
It was 1972 when he made the move, but he wasn’t an overnight success. In fact he was struggling, and when his 8 match-permits from Milawa had almost expired he sought out his his old Milawa coach ‘Jay’ Comensoli for a tip or two.
He was advised to ‘stick at it’. Fate took a hand when he was dropped to the bench, then re-instated to the 18 as a replacement for an injured player. He starred, and the career of one of the great O & M defenders of all-time was up and running.
It was fortuitous that his arrival at the Findlay Oval came at a time when the Rovers were embarking upon an incredible era of sustained success. Merv played no small part in this, as his consistent, solid performances at centre half back installed him one of the keystones of the side.
He was rarely beaten, but if someone got hold of him, like a John Leary, a Greg Nicholls or a Warren Stanlake, you could rest assured that he’d be fired up for the contest next time-around.
He played a prominent part in six premierships with the Hawks and reckoned that the urge to keep winning them kept him going.
“Once you’ve tasted success, you get the thirst for more”, he once said. From 1969, when he played in his first flag with Milawa, he was involved in Grand Finals in 11 of the next 12 years.
One of the enduring memories of how he could impose himself on a game is of the 1977 Grand Final. He had been involved in some fireworks early on, but once the game settled down, controlled the defence like a traffic cop and ranged “10-feet tall” across half-back.
He was an automatic selection in rep sides during the seventies, but for someone who wore the Black and Gold on nine occasions, wasn’t fond of them. “It wasn’t fair dinkum enough”, he bluntly said.
The Holmes vocabulary was colorful, to say the least. His ripe turn-of-phrase caused much mirth among team-mates. But there was apprehension when new recruit Alan Wills, arrived at training in the 1979 pre-season and threw down his bag next to the number 16 locker.
The boys set up the unsuspecting Merv nicely and the string of ripe language that he produced must have caused the newly-arrived Minister of the cloth to wonder about his choice of clubs.
It was a rugged initiation for Wills, fondly nicknamed ‘The Pope’, but he and ‘Farmer’ became good friends.
Probably Merv’s most excruciating moment on the footy field came at Benalla in 1980, when he was caught in a pack and fell to the ground clutching a dislocated ankle, the bone protruding through the skin.
He had played 186 consecutive games to this point and was regarded as seemingly indestructable. As the trainers carefully hauled him from the ground he muttered some simple instructions: “Pull the bastard of a thing back into place and let me back on”.
An operation immediately followed and the ankle was in plaster . Doctors were emphatic : ” Your career is over”.
Only eight weeks after the injury, and free of the plaster, he began a comeback, which culminated in his appearance and gritty display in the Grand Final loss to North Albury.
It was inspirational stuff. The ankle continued to cause him a bit of grief over succeeding years, but didn’t cost him any games. The fact that he won the Best & Fairest in 1982 was indicative that he was still playing at his top.
He had never exposed his body to the evils of the ‘demon drink’, preferring to stick to the soft stuff. And the fags, which he had given a decent old hammering in his younger days, were given the flick in his bid to maintain fitness.
He had the gift of making people feel good in his company and his leadership qualities among the playing group were renowned. He was appointed vice-captain in 1977, became skipper in 1982, then was appointed captain-coach in 1985.
There was no flowery rhetoric in ‘Farmer’s’ pre-match speeches. He was honest, communicated well with the players and, during his two-year reign, blooded a number of young players who were to form the nucleus of Laurie Burt’s great sides.
Towards the end of the 1986 season he knew that the end was nigh. He had extracted the maximum from his ageing and aching body. The round-trip from Carboor (150 miles a week) was beginning to wear him down and the cows were calling.
So the glorious 15-year career of one of the Rovers’ greats was over. His standing in the game was recognised with his inclusion in the Wang.Rovers and Ovens and Murray Halls of Fame.
But to died-in-the-wool old Hawks who followed the journey of the boy from Carboor, there will never be another ‘Farmer’ Holmes.