” …..Stay cool. If things look bad, they’ll get better. It’s
never as good or as bad as you think it is…………….”
It’s late August 1987. Eight years have elapsed since the Rovers last won a premiership. They have again missed the finals and it appears that they are on the road to nowhere.
In a fit of melancholy I jot down my thoughts on the Club’s predicament :………….
“The status of the Wangaratta Rovers as the O & M’s super-power is now just another page in history. It was obvious that the era which saw the Hawks appear in 10 out of 11 Grand Finals, would not continue unabated.
“The club had become blasé about its success. The warnings that a more active approach to recruiting was required, were not taken seriously. After all, the players had bobbed up before. They would do so again, wouldn’t they ?
“It is a tribute to the players and coaches of the early ’80’s that the Rovers have remained competitive on the field, despite the apathy and diminished enthusiasm that threatens to erode the edifice of this great Club.
“From the post-Maroney era to the present, it has been saddening to see chips appearing. A slackening of discipline here, a lack of manpower there ; the loss of good, strong people, with no-one willing to step into the breach.
The Club has had three vacancies on its Board for most of the year. The Treasurer’s post has been unfulfilled since April. The Past Player’s Association folded during the season. Social functions have been a disaster.
“The Hawks of ’87 have operated on only a couple of cylinders. Those close to the action say it is fast approaching a crisis The pleas for help to former players and disciples who enjoyed the halcyon days, have seemingly fallen on deaf ears.
“The Rovers have some good things going for them. The young crop of players are a tight-knit bunch and there is a loads of potential in the Thirds. We have an excellent coach and good back-up on the football side of things.
“But are the Hawks losing their soul ? Can we afford to stagger along in the present manner, before completely losing our way ?…………..”
March 1988: The loss of team lynchpin Peter Tossol to his hometown club Thornton, is expected to be a telling blow to the Hawks.
But they are buoyed by the return of young guns Robbie Walker and Mark Frawley from North Melbourne and the sublimely-talented Nick Goodear from Carlton.
And, in a recruiting coup, John O’Donoghue, who had been cut from the Kangaroos’ list, is snapped up. Not a lot is known of the likely-looking, red-haired centre half back who is soon dubbed ‘Hotty’, but the mail is that ‘the boy can play’.
Mark Booth and Laurie Burt are the only players with more than 60 games of experience, but Burt says in an interview: “I see that as a plus. I’ve got all the faith in the world in the players. They’re learning all the time ”
But still, there are ‘Doubting Thomas’s’. I recall strolling past as the coach gathered the group around him at training : “Fellahs, you’re capable of winning a premiership”. And thinking to myself, ‘Gee,Laurie, you’re a con-man, we’re light years away from it’.
April 1988: after a good win against Wangaratta in the season-opener, confidence is sky high, but Wodonga then tear the Hawks to shreds at the Findlay Oval.
The distaste of the 67-point defeat is magnified when Rob Walker crashes into the rockery around the boundary fence and is diagnosed with a broken wrist. He misses 7 weeks.
June 1988: The Hawks have improved spectacularly as the season progresses. Seven wins in eight matches proves that they’re the real deal, as they approach the return match against Wodonga at Martin Park with plenty of confidence.
It’s one of the games of the year.
The Rovers trail by 55 points at one stage in the third quarter, but grab the lead with 7 minutes remaining, courtesy of a Peter Harvey goal. A minute later, Harvey goals again and the Dogs look shot. But they retaliate with successive goals to clinch a two-point victory.
Although sorry to lose, the Hawks are consoled by the fact that they can match it with the best.
Late August 1988: The Rovers have strung together another six straight wins to be comfortably placed at the top of the ladder.
But they strike a pot-hole in the final home-and -away round at Yarrawonga. They are pumped by a fired-up Pigeon line-up to the tune of 58 points. Many players are down and veteran on-baller Mark Booth is reported – and subsequently suspended for two weeks for striking.
With such a young line-up it is felt that Booth’s absence would be sorely felt, as he has the toughness so crucial in the pressure-cooker of finals.
No doubt the recruit of the year is 21 year-old O’Donoghue, who has become a cult hero to Rovers fans. They thrill to his long runs from defence, countless attacking thrusts and the occasional ‘long bomb’ goal.
He’s a hot tip for the Morris Medal, but alas, polls in only two games. Glamour centre half forward Rob Walker finishes equal third despite missing many matches and Booth polls 12 votes to finish fifth.
September 3rd 1988: The Hawks take the first step towards premiership glory when they lead all day to down Lavington in the second semi-final. Five goals in the first 18 minutes is enough to snuff out the Blues’ challenge, as they coast home by 27 points.
So the excitement of reaching another Grand Final is tempered by the disappointment that Booth, the war-horse and last remaining hero of the 70’s would be watching on.
September 18th 1988: The Hawks are labelled ‘Burt’s Babes’, and with an average age of 21, have captured the imagination of the football public. They square-off against Lavington for the fourth time this season and it’s billed as the contest of the contrasts – experience versus youth.
Weathering the initial storm, the Rovers keep the Blues in their sights all day and run over them in the last half.
As a Grand Final it has everything – pressure tackling, high-marking, precise disposal and an all-in dust-up.
But when it comes to showing the way to attack the footy there is none better than Laurie Burt. In the finest moment of what was to be a career of glittering highlights with the Hawks, he cops two heavy knocks and still finishes with more possessions than any other player.
The brilliant Walker is named best afield, as the Hawks, with 13 players 21 or under and nine still in their teens, go on to win by 26 points.
The Rovers Thirds had belted Corowa-Rutherglen earlier in the day, to win the flag by 80 points.
Burt rises to speak to a packed room full of delirious players and fans. “Every one of you has contributed to this. We’re a strong club now. We’ll be even stronger in the future”.
Footnote: The Hawks go on to contest the next eight finals series and take out flags in 1991, ’93 and ’94.
Indeed, things are never as bad as you think …………