Ian Rowland occasionally gazes wistfully at the photo of St.Kilda’s 1966 premiership side and reflects how close he was to football immortality.
His mind harks back to that most celebrated day in the Saints’ 118-year history, when the VFL’s perennial underachievers snatched a dramatic, last-minute one-point victory, thanks to a wobbly Barrie Breen kick.
And in this Grand Final Week, as conversation swirls around who might be the unlucky Hawthorn player to make way for the returning Jack Gunston, he’ll spare a thought for him, as the axe begins to fall.
Because he faced the same predicament 49 years ago………..
But, firstly, here’s the backdrop to the ‘Doggy’ Rowland story.
His ascension to League football came via the typical grassroots path of the 50’s. Born into an ultra-keen Wangaratta Football Club family, he was an impressionable eight year-old when the Magpies won the first of their four successive premierships.
It was his dream to follow in the footsteps of some of those club greats, like Timmy Lowe, Kevin French and Bill Comensoli.
His mum died when he was just 11 and there were some good people in, and around the club, who became a positive influence on the lad.
A year later he followed his brother Bob, down to Junior League club Imperials and was planted in a forward pocket, conceding plenty of age, height and weight, but snagging the odd goal.
His improvement was rapid over the next couple of seasons and coaching guru Mac Holten, a discerning judge of football talent if ever there was one, sneaked him in for the odd Reserves game with the Magpies.
At the tender age of 16 he made his senior debut.
“It was over at Corowa and I came on as 19th man. A few minutes later, someone flattened me in the middle of the cricket pitch. Immediately, Bill Comensoli came in and ‘evened up’ for me. It was great to have a bloke like Bill keeping an eye on you,” he recalls .
Wang were looking good in 1957 and he was given an occasional run on the ball with Lance Oswald, who was four years older but somewhat of an idol to the young ‘Doggy’.
Any wonder that he was keen to emulate the feats of the brilliant Oswald, who, in a dominant season, shared the Morris Medal, won the League goal-kicking, represented the O & M and booted the goal which clinched the flag for the Pies.
Ian had played six senior games and was named as an emergency, alongside Bob Comensoli, for that Grand Final. But the following year, with Oswald moving on to St.Kilda, he settled into a permanent on-ball role.
There were stars aplenty in O & M football in this era, some of them having stepped out of League ranks in the prime of their careers. And there were few better small men than the clever 173cm, 75kg Rowland.
After 42 games with the Pies, the inevitable offers came from the VFL. No doubt worded up by his old team-mate Oswald, St.Kilda secretary Ian Drake hot-footed it to Wangaratta and gained his signature…….
The Saints teed up a job at Phoenix Engineering in his trade as a Fitter and Turner ( Oswald was a co-worker ) and he walked straight into the opening round line-up as a rover.
It was an average year for the boys at the Junction Oval, who finished middle-of-the-road.
But, in a unique scenario, his team-mate Alan Jeans was appointed senior coach in 1961 and helped to inspire a revival in the downtrodden club.
Ian had now become established as a top-line League rover. He won St.Kilda’s goal-kicking in ’61, as the club reached the finals for the first time in 22 years. Although some critics had a bit of a knock on his perceived lack of pace, he made up for this with his cleverness and innate ability to read the play and ‘sniff a goal’.
Jeans began to use him as a ‘tagger’ on the gun small men like Skilton, Goggin, Aylett and Birt, and he relished the role.
The Saints’ upward surge continued. By 1965 they had moved their home to Moorabbin and had become a genuine power. A one-point win over Collingwood in the second semi-final took the club into its first Grand Final since 1913.
It proved a let-down, as Essendon broke away in the last half to win by 35 points. ‘Doggy’ did a fine job that day, running with Bomber champ Jack Clarke and finishing as St.Kilda’s leading possession-winner.
But, he said, the club just got caught up in the euphoria of the occasion and didn’t handle it very well.
“Nobody had been through the Grand Final experience. A lot of time was spent on peripheral things like organising tickets and coping with backslapping fans. We just took our eye off the ball.”
But, he acknowledged, everyone was better equipped to handle the occasion the following year.
Ian chalked up his 100th game during 1966. Apart from missing two matches mid-season, he played every other game in the lead-up to the Grand Final.
He’d noticed his form tapering off a bit and sat on the bench, as the Saints belted Essendon in the Preliminary Final.
Nevertheless, he felt he had something to offer for the Grand Final against Collingwood.
But he heard the bad news on the radio on the Thursday night, after training.
“To make matters worse, I had to front up for work the next day and put up with my mates all raising the subject !” he recalls.
Ian sat in the stands with other unlucky Saints – Carl Ditterich (suspended), Ross Oakley and Ray Cross – as the crowd of 101,000 roared themselves hoarse at one of the greatest VFL/AFL deciders of all time.
“The significance of it all didn’t sink in until later. It stung to be left out of the team photo, for instance. But, as the years wore on, you realise the life-time bond that those 20 players shared,” he said this week.
He advised his coach and good friend Jeans that he would be moving to Finley to coach the Murray League club. He had played 110 games and booted 97 goals with the Saints. “My time in VFL footy was up. I wasn’t a city person and Finley suited us nicely. We were reasonably successful in the four years I was there, and played in one Grand Final (1968).”
” I had a job selling farm machinery, which was enjoyable. I would head out to places like Colleambally fairly regularly, to deal with the rice farmers. It was great to get out in the bush”.
With a growing family, Ian felt it would be best for their education to move to a bigger town, so he accepted the position as assistant-coach of North Albury in 1971, and was employed at engineering firm, Borg-Warner.
His playing career came to a dramatic halt after two games with the Hoppers, when he ruptured a hamstring. It was time to hang up the boots.
But he continued his association with North for the next 37 years, in a variety of roles connected with the football department, and cherishes the Life Membership that he was awarded.
There’s still no more fervent football fan than ‘Doggy’ Rowland, and he’ll eagerly park himself in front of the telly to watch Saturday’s big game. And he’ll no doubt have a soft spot for the unfortunate bugger who has been squeezed out of the side at the last minute…..