THE MILLS BOYS…………

My trek through the sands of time takes me back to the Albury Sportsground……..to September of 1929………………

West Albury are scheduled to meet Wangaratta in a First Semi-Final, and the scouts from the city have converged on the border town to flush out some much-vaunted talent.

Their attention is focused on a scintillating on-baller, Haydn Bunton, one of three brothers who have lifted Wests into premiership contention this season.

They hope to catch up with another talented pair of local boys – Gordon and Doug Strang – who are reportedly potential superstars.

Almost escaping attention is a strongly-built key-position player who has battled against the odds, repelling attack after attack, as he attempts to keep Wangaratta in the game.

West Albury win convincingly enough, by 27 points, and Bunton is the star of the day, but officials from lowly Hawthorn are bold enough to approach the 19 year-old Magpie, Bert Mills.

They are used to being over-run by the glamour clubs when it comes to recruiting, and are chuffed when the shy lad appears genuinely excited by the prospect of turning out for the ‘Mayblooms’ next season.

Not only that, he says, his older brother Arthur, who has also performed creditably in the big game, would definitely be interested in signing on the dotted line……………

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The Mills family had moved from Bethanga to Oxley early in 1929.

The boys accepted an invitation to play with Wang, who were also boosted that season by the inclusion of five members of the Carey family.

A giant cloud began to envelop the nation, as the first signs of the Great Depression were becoming evident. Rising unemployment created unrest ; failing companies laid off workers.

So the opportunity to secure a regular income from football was an enticing prospect. Bert and Arthur high-tailed it down to the ‘big smoke’……

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‘Dad always reckoned he was the ‘set of steak knives’ in the deal to get Uncle Bert to Hawthorn,” says Ian Mills.

But Arthur may have been selling himself short. He was a strongly-built ruckman, aged 24. In modern lingo we would label him a ‘mature-age recruit’. He broke into the senior side in round 5 of that 1930 season and played 10 games, which included three of the team’s six wins.

On his return home at the end of the year, he was to establish a reputation as one of the finest and most inspirational players in the area over the next decade.

His first stint was a two-year coaching appointment at Milawa, the high-point of which came in 1932, when he led a combined Ovens and King League team against Hawthorn ( captained by his brother Bert).

When Wangaratta were re-instated to the Ovens and Murray League in 1933, they zeroed in on Arthur to lead their big-man department. He played superbly in a gripping Grand Final, in which Wang held on to defeat Border United by one point.

His next move was to coach fledgling club, Waratahs, where he again demonstrated his leadership qualities. He won the O & K’s Hughes (now called Baker) Medal in 1934 and took the ‘Tahs to their only flag in 1935.

The Waratahs’ fleeting sojourn in local football during the 30’s provided many youngsters with their initial opportunity in senior football. My dad, who was a 17 year-old stripling, was one of them, and claimed that they could have had no better ‘general’ than Arthur Mills.

Arthur was back at Wangaratta in 1936, his return co-inciding with another flag. He was adjudged best afield in their 20-point triumph over Rutherglen in the Grand Final.

His on-field appearances became more sporadic as the years wore on. But he was enticed back to Wangaratta mid-way through 1939 , in the hope that he could help spark a somewhat disappointing season. But a loss in the last round cost the Pies a spot in the finals.

The old war-horse had one last fling in 1940. Milawa, who earlier in the season had registered just their second win in 69 games, began to get on a roll. Suddenly they were a finals chance. Then a premiership was staring them in the face. They led Beechworth by 27 points in the Grand Final, were gradually pegged back, then hung on to win by four points.

Arthur Mills had kicked 8 goals in the preliminary final and snagged six in the ‘big one’.

He settled his family on a property at Greta West in 1948 and, later, was a keen observer, as his son Ian, who became a more than handy player in 148 games for Greta, made his way in the game.

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There was never any doubting, from his first appearance with Hawthorn. that Bert Mills was going to be a champion.

He ‘walked’ into the side and played some cracking games in 1930, his strength and versatility being regarded as one of the reasons for the most promising of the ‘Mayblooms’ five seasons in the VFL.

But these were stressful financial times. The club secretary had to defend the handling of finances at an angst-ridden Annual Meeting. He explained that, for example, it had been necessary to travel 1000 miles to obtain the prized signature of Bert Mills.

“And he was worth the trouble,” added secretary Sam Ramsay.

“All those miles meant,” argued one supporter: “that Hawthorn was concentrating on imported talent, rather than concentrating on players from its own municipality.”

The subsequent performances of the brilliant Mills, were to provide justification for their pursuit of him.

He became a champion – Hawthorn’s player of the generation. Although he only stood 6 foot tall, he had a natural spring and there were few ruckmen who could out-point him in the tap-outs.

As Hawthorn were so light-on for players, Bert would come off the ball and rest at centre half back. He was an exceptional mark and kick and a true leader.

He assumed the captaincy in just his third season – aged 22 – and won the first of his three Best and Fairests the following year – 1933.

Playing with the perennial cellar-dwellers, he became a natural target of the some of the richer clubs, eager to lure him away with the promise of employment and some extra cash in the pocket.

But Bert was loyal to the core. His regular appearances in interstate matches (he wore the Big V on 11 occasions) offered some respite from the regular hidings that he was a part of in club matches.

Also, the opportunity to strut his stuff in the company of a team of stars, created a huge impression among football’s hierarchy.

With his blond hair, good looks and striking physique, he was a fan favourite and took out the Argus Most Popular Player Award, voted upon by VFL fans, in 1936.

There had been a passing parade of coaches at the Hawthorn Football Club in its 15 years involvement in the VFL. When Bert Mills became the 10th to assume the role in 1940, it was regarded as an inspired appointment.

They equalled their most successful season to date, winning 7 games, and Bert held a high-standing among the players.

But it wasn’t all plain-sailing. The club was in a financial pickle at one stage and he had to gather the players in the centre of the ground one training night, to give them the message.

“Look”, he said, “the club can’t see its way clear to paying you blokes, but they’ve assured me they’ll get it to you at the end of the year. There’s just nothing to pay you with now.”

Bert decided at the end of 1941 that his time as coach was up. He had played 195 games at that stage, and his ambition was to reach the 200-mark.

But, after one more game, in 1942, he hung up the boots. His had been a superb career.

Bert Mills was, early in the 21st century, admitted to Hawthorn’s Hall of Fame and named in their Team of the Century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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