One of the last times I spoke to Norm Minns, the conversation was short and sweet.
A new footballer, by the name of Michael Caruso, arrived in town and had accepted an invitation to train with the Rovers. It was January 1987 and the school-teacher from Maryborough was looking the goods at the first night of post-Christmas pre-season.
A phone call distracted our attention. The voice was instantly recognisable, even though it remained anonymous: ” Would Mick Caruso be there please ?”
“Nah, sorry.” I promptly hung up.
He’s a bastard that Minnsy, I thought. Here he is, trying to make a last-ditch attempt to snavel our prize recruit and lure him over the road. You wouldn’t put it past the old bugger to try anything.
Norm died later that year, and left behind a sporting legacy that is hard to match in local sport, as a footballer, administrator ……..and the toughest of competitors……………
Norm Minns had the Midas Touch when it came to winning football premierships. In one stretch, in the late-forties to early fifties, he played in seven straight. Call it luck, or being in the right place at the right time, but his exquisite talent and fanaticism for the game played its part too.
He was reared in Chiltern, but moved to Melbourne at a young age and played with Fairfield, in the Melbourne Boys League.
A four-year stint in the Army during the war years halted his progress somewhat, although he still managed to find a game here and there, to sate his thirst.
He trained with Melbourne and was keen to throw in his lot with the Demons, but, being in Collingwood’s zone, was told that if he wanted to play League footy, it would be in Black and White – there would be no clearance.
“I didn’t like Collingwood’s approach,” he said many years later. Instead of persisting with his ambition of playing at the highest level, he headed back to Chiltern for a couple of seasons, and played in their 1947 premiership side.
The following year, Norm accepted a coaching appointment at Brocklesby and, besides leading them to the flag, finished runner-up in the Hume League’s Azzi Medal.
In the opinion of a couple of his surviving contemporaries, he was as good a player as there was going around in country football at the time – a VFL talent wasted.
But the urge to give it a crack had passed Norm by . Hotly pursued by Rutherglen and Wangaratta, he chose the Magpies.
That proved a master-stroke, as they were about to embark on a run of success which, almost 70 years later, still sees them bracketed among the greatest O & M combinations of all-time.
Minns could play in any position, but was used mostly in the centre or at centre half forward in those sides of the ‘Holten Era’.
A strong mark, beautiful kick and a shrewd analyst, he was a great disciple of Mac Holten, whose ‘gospel’ of handball and team-first football revolutionised the game in this area.
The Magpies went on to win four flags in succession – from 1949 to ’52 – and, being the big occasion player that he was, Minns starred in each of them.
He always rated the 1951 premiership side the best he played in. Any wonder. The goal-to-goal line comprised evergreen full back Jack Ferguson ; Lionel Wallace the dairy farmer from Greta who was impassable at centre half back ; Minns in the middle ; Ken Nish, a marvellous key forward, despite his profound deafness ; and spearhead Max ‘Shiny’ Williams, who booted 90 goals for the season.
After Wang snuck home by 20 points over Rutherglen to win the 1952 premiership, Norm was approached by Benalla, who were seeking a playing-coach.
Again, good fortune favoured him. The Demons had finished eighth the previous season, but improved dramatically under his leadership in 1953. When they ended the Magpies’ remarkable run of success in the Prelim Final, Norm knew that the premiership was within reach.
Benalla held on in a dramatic last quarter, to defeat Albury by seven points and win their first O&M flag.
They reached the Grand Final the following year and met Rutherglen, the side they had eclipsed in the second semi. However, despite Minns kicking six of his side’s 10 goals, the Redlegs proved too strong.
He had been a regular inter-league player, but his personal highlight came when the O & M clinched the 1955 Country Championship. With 11 goals in the Semi and 6 in the Final against the Ballarat League, he enjoyed two brilliant cameos at full forward.
Corowa, who hadn’t enjoyed success for years, handed Norm the coaching position in 1956. But his somewhat tempestuous relationship with the Spiders ended acrimoniously, when they sacked him with one game remaining in the 1957 season. The inference was that he had been trying to induce one of their players to transfer to Wangaratta.
Norm denied the claim, but it was an underwhelming way to conclude his playing career. In the end, he said, he was glad to leave John Foord Oval. “The only good thing about it was that I got my money.”
A month later, he was on the Wang committee. It re-ignited a love affair with the club, which continued for another 30 years, and saw him act as a selector, recruiter and consultant on all things football.
The Rovers realised that, if a potential recruit lobbed in town, the signature wasn’t going to be easy to obtain. If he hadn’t already got under their guard, Minnsy would probably be hot on their heels, selling the Magpie cause and being a general ‘pain in the arse’ to the boys from over the laneway.
As time wore on, he became heavily involved with the O & M, as an inter-league selector and Board member. His love of football and interest in developing young talent prompted him to get behind the formation of the Ovens and Murray Schoolboys team, with whom he was associated for 20-odd years.
Norm and an old Magpie team-mate, ‘Hopper’ McCormick recognised the need to teach kids as young as five, and up to 12, the fundamentals of football. Thus, they kicked off the Wangaratta Midget and sub-junior League, a forerunner of today’s Auskick.
They provided a game for the youngsters and acted as de-facto babysitters when parents would drop them off early on a Saturday morning. It made for a huge day, as Norm would then move on to his commitments with the Magpies, which finished at around 5 o’clock that night.
His sporting passion during summer was ignited by spending hour after hour preparing the running tracks for the Wangaratta Carnival. He became involved at about the same time that the charismatic American Barney Ewell scorched up the track to win a memorable Gift in 1950.
That won him over and he was proud of the fact that the Carnival was recognised as one of the ‘blue ribbon’ sporting spectaculars in the state.
Literally hundreds of local footballers and athletes benefited from his extraordinary efforts – many advanced to the elite levels thanks to his interest and support.
It’s fitting that his name is perpetuated by the Medal that is struck each year for the O & M’s best player in inter-league matches.
And if you’re heading down Green Street, you’ll see the arch at the entrance to the Showgrounds, which immortalises the 40-odd year contribution that this sporting ‘nut’ made. It welcomes you to the ‘Norm Minns Oval’…….