In early-December 1983, Rovers legend Darryl Smith was mid-way through topping up his Thirds team for the year ahead.
As he scanned his recruiting list he ticked off the ‘definites’ and put a question-mark beside those he regarded as ‘doubtful’ or ‘possible’. Two blonde-haired kids from Junior Magpies were filed into the latter category.
He knew he needed to put a bit of work into them and, from all reports it would be worth the effort. Some headway was being made with the first – a boy called Walker – and he arranged an appointment with the other lad – the son of a Wangaratta premiership player, Rex Allen.
As they headed home from a visit to Byawatha, his companion asked how he thought they’d fared: “…….They’re terrific people……….It’d be great to get him, but, when it comes to the crunch I reckon he’ll play for Wang……” was Smith’s reply.
History reveals that the resultant signatures he obtained, of the two kids born 8 days apart, were to prove a freak recruiting ‘coup’………..
Thirty-three years later, Matthew Allen’s heart still beats strongly for the Wangaratta Rovers. He now coaches at Junior League club, Imperials, where his two boys – Sam and Joe – are taking great strides towards their ultimate aim – wearing the Brown and Gold guernsey.
Little wonder. They, and their sister Georgia, who plays netball for the Rovers Under-16’s, have been part of the scene at the Findlay Oval since they were born.
Matthew played the last of his 416 Ovens and Murray senior games in 2010, amidst universal acclaim for his longevity and consistency. He ranks highly among the League’s all-time great defenders – a view echoed by Tim Sanson and Matthew Fowler, two of his keenest combatants of the modern era.
Yet Darryl Smith recalls Matt’s dislike of being stereotyped as a backman in his earlier years. Like all kids, he had a fondness for kicking goals and relished the rare occasions he was pushed up forward.
But it was as a defender that he first broke into the Rovers senior side in 1985. Once he was in, he was there to stay. He enjoyed being part of the steady climb that the young group was making towards their eventual triumph – the 1988 premiership.
Matt was just 20 ( but with 76 games under his belt) when he lined up on Lavington coach Jeff Cassidy in the big one.
The former Geelong star took the points in the first half, but the youngster got the upper hand and won the duel conclusively, as the Hawks ran away to win by 26 points.
His Political Science studies took him to Bendigo for two years, where he represented the Bendigo League in a 34-game stay with Northern United.
On his return from an overseas trip in 1991, Matt made a couple of decisions. He would join his father on the family farm and would push for a game in attack with the Rovers.
The club was a little light-on for key forwards after Neale McMonigle had retired, and Matt was given his opportunity in front of goals. He kicked 83 in a prolific season, which included tallies of 13, 9, 8 and a couple of sevens.
But the good judges were unanimous. Although he was a very good forward, he had few peers as a backman. And that’s where he predominantly stayed for the next 17 years.
He was part of the 1993 and ’94 premiership teams, although his form wavered a little during 1994, as he struggled to throw off a knee injury.
However, it surprised many footy fans when he moved to Corowa-Rutherglen the following year. Matt’s three seasons with the ‘Roos produced two best and fairest awards and NSW representation.
When he returned to the Hawks in 1998 he brought with him a refreshed approach.
Not that he was at the front of the pack in pre-season training. His team-mates envied his training regime. Starting later than everyone, he never seemed to get out of first gear in running drills.
But once the competitive work started he was in his element. The weights-room was a definite no-go area for him and the boys joked that his stretching exercises involved nothing more than standing around with a bottle of water.
They put his fitness – and avoidance of soft-tissue injuries – down to wrestling frisky Merino sheep, or tramping around the rolling paddocks. The fact that he was one of the area’s finest tennis players was also handy for his conditioning.
The memories of vintage Allen performances flash back………His decade-long duels with the O & M’s best forward, Tim Sanson, come to mind. Asked for his opinion of his toughest opponent on the eve of his final game, Sanson plonked for Matt. “I’m glad I won’t have to put up with the bugger pestering me any longer,” he said. The pair exchanged guernseys after their final meeting.
This master of timing rarely punched from behind. He backed his judgement, usually took the front position and few players could match him in the air.
A League recruiter once scoffed at his awkward left-foot kicking style as : “not up to AFL standard”, despite its effectiveness. But he was as competitive as they come.
Surprisingly, Matt didn’t get the recognition he deserved from outside his own club. He wore the O & M guernsey just three times.
Around 2003, Rovers fans began to lament: “What are we going to do when Matty retires ? ”
Not to worry. He kept stalling Father Time, and was still playing top football, sometimes on opponents who weren’t even born when he began his journey.
In 2009, he wrote another chapter in a fantastic career when he stepped in to coach the Hawks.
Those previously idyllic days on the family farm, ‘Rocky Point’, were now punctuated by phone calls from players and media, text messages, the necessity to nut-out game plans and deal with the myriad of circumstances that coaching engenders.
He hardly had time to worry about his own form, which remained ultra-consistent. He was popular with the players and the public appreciated his efforts. Border Mail scribe Brett Kolhagen rated him the most honest and the easiest coach he’d had to deal with.
When it came time to hand over the coaching reins to Michael Caruso, Matt continued to turn out with the Reserves for another couple of seasons until, at the end of 2012, he finally hung up his well-worn boots.
His total career games-tally had stretched well over the 500-mark ; comprising 430 with the Rovers ( 362 seniors, 47 Reserves and 21 Thirds), 54 at Corowa-Rutherglen, 34 with Northern United and 10 representative matches.
The Matthew Allen tennis pedigree is equally impressive. As a nine-time Wangaratta Singles champion and a double-figure winner of the Doubles and Mixed Doubles titles, he has been regarded among the elite at Merriwa Park for a couple of decades.
Tonight (Wednesday) He joins many of football’s immortals when he is inducted into the Ovens and Murray Football League’s Hall of Fame.
It’s a fitting reward for one of Wangaratta’s great sporting all-rounders………………