Of all the characters you meet in sport, none could have been as genial, unaffected, charismatic or laid-back as Michael Nolan. He succumbed to cancer seven years ago, but left a huge legacy on and off the field of football.
I hope you don’t mind me re-counting this yarn that I penned on ‘Big Mick’, not long after his retirement from the game……..
It is the classic sporting success story.
The overweight kid, spurned by schoolboy and junior football teams, goes on to captivate the nation by controlling the ruck duels in a VFL Grand Final…….
One thing that Michael Nolan never lost throughout his football career was his total abhorrence of running, just for the sake of it.
As a boy, he held the basic philosophy that laps and sprint work were a complete waste of energy. Thus, his Junior League club, South Wanderers, relegated him to boundary umpiring duties. Even in this role he was lampooned for being too slow and lazy.
Mick recalled years later : “I did get picked as 19th man when we were short in one match, but they made sure they didn’t have to take anybody off to give me a run”.
The nine Nolan kids were reared in a blissful environment at Tarrawingee, where parents Pete and Mary ran the Plough Inn Hotel and the kids took it in turn to milk the cows that grazed on the adjoining acres.
Now, ‘time’ and ‘worry’ are two words that are not part of the Nolan vocabulary.
One thing they did care about, though, was the local footy team. Old Pete had been tied up with the club since he was a lad and was a prominent O & K official. The boys always attended training and, as they matured, joined in with the senior players.
Enter Ray Burns, the Bulldog coach, who recognised that, in Mick’s flabby body and awkward gait was a ruckman of substance waiting to emerge.
Burns nurtured Mick for a couple of seasons, making provision for his haphazard efforts at training and suggesting that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if he ‘gave the fags away’.
While the latter suggestion fell on deaf ears, he found a young man who gloried in the competitiveness of the game and was a ‘natural’ ruckman.
Mick was Tarra’s best and fairest in 1967 and was targeted by the two Wangaratta teams. He chose the Rovers, much to the relief of Hawk secretary Ernie Payne, who had almost worn himself out socialising at the ‘Plough’ in pursuit of the big fellah’s signature.
“What a player and clubman he turned out to be for us”, Payne once said. ” But I used to tear my hair out on match days, wondering where the heck he’d got to. Just when you were starting to despair, he’d wander in the gate, wondering what the fuss was about .”
He played 101 games with the Rovers and was best and fairest in 1971 and ’72 – both premiership years for the Hawks.
In an era of fine O &M ruckmen he was rarely beaten.
Neville Hogan coached Mick in three of his five years at the club and could only remember him meeting his match once, against Corowa’s Ray Willett.
“Willett ran in front of him all day and Mick steadfastly refused to change his angle,” Hogan recalled. “I suggested he try it, but Mick just pointed goalwards and said : ‘No, that’s the way we’re kicking, that’s the way I run in.”
Hogan emphasised that, although Mick was the unfittest player at the club, he would chase until the last minute of the game.
“Although he didn’t outwardly show it, he had great determination and was really competitive. Strangely, he wasn’t highly rated by other O &M clubs.”
Rovers players noted that, in the big games he would ruck all day. When a match was ‘in the bag’ he would spend long periods in the forward pocket.
They noted his training routine. He would arrive long after everyone, open his battered bag and take out his ankle bandages. He would then proceed to roll them up carefully, fasten his ankles and put his gear on. It was an elaborate process, which seemed to take half an hour. He would manage part of a lap before blending into the anonymity of the ’round the circle’ exercise , which was already in full swing.
Mick played a rattling game in the 1972 Grand Final, when he took on – and outpointed – the highly-rated Yarrawonga big men.
An interested onlooker at that game was Bill Stephen, assistant-coach of North Melbourne, and an old Pigeon mentor.
Stephen reported that , even allowing for his physique, Nolan was a definite League prospect.
Mick had already sampled VFL pre-season training at Geelong a few years earlier, but decided that, this time he would give it a fair dinkum shot.
North’s coaching staff were shocked when they spied his torso early in 1973 and the detractors scoffed that he’d be too slow, too cumbersome. But they didn’t bargain on his determination and under-estimated his skills.
He had a part to play in the game at the highest level, in spite of his weight – 116.5kg – which made him the second heaviest player in League history.
His endearing personality , his physique, and the fact that he was pretty well an instant success, made him a folk hero and he was ‘immortalised’ by Lou Richards, who dubbed him ‘The Galloping Gasometer’.
Lou wrote: ‘………North Melbourne recruited a ruckman in its quest for success in the 70’s, a bloke with a more than ample girth and a thirst that was without equal. His name was Mick Nolan and a nicer bloke you’d never meet. Mick was a terrific tap ruckman and, according to Barry Cable, one of the best, but he looked terrible. He’d look good dressed in a Doona cover. He was large and rotund and, even at full stretch, would be out-sprinted by a geriatric tortoise…….’
The subsequent publicity, and his nickname, brought a job offer from the Gas & Fuel Corporation, a liaison which lasted for Mick’s entire stay in Melbourne.
In the earnest environment of league footy, he was a breath of fresh air. Only Mick could have got away with frequent absences from training around March each year. His repeated excuse of family bereavements began to raise a few eyebrows, particularly when it became obvious that it coincided with duck-opening.
He once accepted coach Ron Barassi’s condolences when someone piped up : “That’s six grandmothers he’s lost and they’ve all died at this time of the year.”
A group of his former team-mates dropped into Mick’s home to collect some 1974 Grand Final tickets he had teed up. Half a dozen empty beer bottles stood on the servery ( ” Had a few drinks with the neighbour last night “) as he hoed into a breakfast of six sausages and three eggs.
Later on, he informed a 3AW interviewer that he was ‘pretty toey’ about the big game and hadn’t been able to sleep or eat in the lead-up to the big game.
Mick missed North Melbourne’s other flag triumph in 1977 when he dislocated a shoulder in the preliminary final. It was his biggest disappointment in football.
North’s recruitment of Gary Dempsey relegated him to regular periods in the Reserves in the late 70’s.
Ever-popular at Arden Street, the Roos we’re sorry to see him go in 1981, when he accepted an offer to be captain-coach of QAFL club Mayne. He had played 107 games and kicked 40 goals.
Mick transformed Mayne from cellar-dwellers to premiers within two years. Queensland officials, looking for someone to boost the code, found him ever-ready to help.
He was still playing well when he decided to call it quits after 101 games up north, at the age of 36, but returned as non-playing coach a few years later, in Mayne’s hour of need.
At different times he had been coach of Queensland’s state side, a ruck coach for the Brisbane Bears and a Channel 7 boundary-rider.
It’s rare for a bloke to play 100-plus games with three clubs, but when you couple it with Hall of Fame membership with Wangaratta Rovers and a host of other personal achievements, that’s some contribution to the game.
When Federal M.P. Damien Hale rose in the House of Representatives to pay homage to a great Australian soon after his death, he spoke for many thousands of Australians who had been touched by the passing of the man simply known as ‘Big Mick’.