You’d be hard-pressed to find a more fervent football disciple than Laurie Burt.
He posesses a boyish enthusiasm for the game. It came to the fore last Saturday, when his old side, the Hawks, clinched the unlikeliest of victories.
I’ve seen him entranced by games at all levels. Even when he sights two little fellahs fondling the Sherrin, you can see his brain ticking over and dreaming of their potential.
If it was my task to appoint a Football Ambassador, Laurie would be my man…….
His attitude to footy now is no different to that of the squat, dumpy 9 year-old kid who turned up to play with St. Andrews Under 13’s in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
Ron Taylor, who coached him at junior and senior level, saw players of the calibre of dual Brownlow Medallist Keith Greig and champion goalkicker Geoff Blethyn go through the club, but rates Laurie the most dedicated he has seen.
He was determined to extract the best of his ability and headed to Coburg, where he was soon to make his mark, despite his unlikely stature.
Channel 10’s live Sunday afternoon coverage of matches during the ’70’s and ’80’s drew a cult following to VFA football and Laurie was one of its biggest personalities.
Harold Martin, who played with and against Burt in this era, gave this summation of the Coburg on-baller :
“He looked more like a hairy Sumo wrestler than a footballer, but boy, could he play ! He was tough at the ball, skilful and had no fear. He was always at the bottom of the packs, taking courageous marks by backing into packs or standing his ground.”
“The umpires loved him, everybody loved him. He was undoubtedly one of the top three VFA players in that era. He was the King of Coburg.”
Laurie played 157 games with the Lions, was Best and Fairest in 1978, ’79 and ’81, captain for three years, runner-up in the VFA’s 1978 J.J.Liston Trophy and a regular and dependable VFA representative.
His only taste of premiership glory came in 1979, when Coburg broke through to win their first Division One flag in 51 years.
The only time that his unflinching loyalty to Coburg had deviated was in his early days, when he was invited to do a pre-season at Essendon. He lasted a few weeks at Windy Hill before returning home.
But by the end of 1983 his beloved club had slipped badly on and off the field and there were rumours of discontent in the camp.
As luck would have it, there was an approach afoot from the Rovers. Let me explain how it crystallised.
The incumbent coach, John Welch, had indicated that if the club could find a replacement, it would be in their best interests to have a change.
Akin to the Hawks’ present scenario in their hunt for a messiah, they searched high and low. Among the many possibilities who were fanned was a dogged Richmond back-pocket player, Michael Malthouse.
But after Mick had expressed some interest, the news came through that he had accepted the job at Footscray.
You’ll do anything for a lead when you reach a dead-end – like contacting prominent VFA media identity Mark Fiddian out of the blue and quizzing him about any likely coaching prospects.
“Well, there are two standouts”, he said. “Graeme ‘Swooper’ Anderson from Port Melbourne is a good player and has plenty of experience. But there’s a fellow at Coburg called Laurie Burt who would make a sensational coach. I reckon he might be receptive to an approach “.
A bit of detective-work was done and the response from all who were asked was the same: ‘Lovely bloke, top footballer, fine clubman.’
Laurie rejected the coaching offer, but warmed to the idea of joining the Hawks as a player, which he did in 1984.
The stern judges who congregated at the bar-end of the Hogan Stand adopted him immediately. They loved his toughness, the way he burrowed in after the ball.
This was no ‘blow-in’ coming up for an easy kick and a quick quid. And he wanted to be involved in everything that was happening within the club.
He was Best & Fairest in 1985, represented the League and was a great support to Merv Holmes, who was steering the Rovers through two difficult, but improving years.
So, when the legendary ‘Farmer’ decided to retire, his successor was a no-brainer – it had to be Burt.
Laurie and his wife Cheryl decided to give it a go and moved to Wangaratta to live in 1987. He accepted a transfer in the Education Department to Barnawartha Primary School and adapted perfectly to life in the bush.
He loved the feel of the town and enjoyed the fact that the locals were so passionate about the footy club. It was different to anything he’d experienced in the city.
All of the Rovers’ champions of the ’70’s (except Mark Booth) had, by now, moved on and there were plenty of spots to fill.
But there was a bevy of young, emerging talent around the club and a couple of experienced players – Maryborough school-teacher Michael Caruso and North Melbourne reject John O’Donoghue – landed on their doorstep.
And it was a big help when classy Robert Walker was lured back from the Kangaroos.
The young, group engendered a good spirit and responded to their inspirational coach.
In his first eight years they clinched four flags and at one stage chalked up 36 wins in succession. It was one of the most dominant periods in O & M history.
Walker spoke of Burt years later: ” Laurie was just what we needed; the right bloke at the right time. He was fabulous for our club and the whole town.”
“He was always reinforcing the team aspects – the guys who were injured or others who had missed out, the supporters who’d backed us and the whole community that was behind us.”
“We weren’t playing just for us, he’d say, but for them as well. The flags weren’t just ours, they belonged to the whole town.”
When Albury broke the Rovers’ sequence of 36 wins early in 1985, a new challenger to their throne had emerged. Indeed, the Tigers did become the pace-setters from that point on, but the Hawks fought ferociously to hang onto that mantle.
Laurie’s coaching reign had spanned a club-record 11 years when he decided not to seek re-appointment at the end of the 1997 season.
He had coached in 230 games for a remarkable success rate of 74.3 which saw the Hawks only miss the finals twice. He had played 152 games and had influenced the lives of a couple of hundred young men who played under him and absorbed his sage football advice.
The gongs that had come his way in a stellar career included induction to the Coburg, Wangaratta Rovers and Ovens and Murray Halls of Fame and membership of Coburg’s Team of the Century.
In the ensuing years Laurie has undertaken a number of roles on football’s periphery and thrived on the involvement.
This year he collected another sporting trophy – a share of Wangaratta Table Tennis Association’s B-Grade doubles title. He was overshadowed by his son Ashley, who took out the A-Grade championship.
I don’t know what it’s like facing him on the other side of the net, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have been half as daunting as having him bearing down on you on the football field.