‘BACK IN ’77………’

“Would you be interested in being secretary of the Rovers? ” he asked.

It was early 1977. At 29 the aches and pains from a dicey back had confirmed that my uninspiring footy career was stuffed.

Having dreamed of amassing an obscene number of games, starring until early middle-age, then riding off into the sunset, the curtain-call came too quickly.

“What an honour to be asked” I said to Moira, who was too busy tending to the two babies to effect much interest. She would soon be pregnant with a third nipper (an ‘Irish twin’, she called him, who would arrive later in the year) and rolled with the punches when I told her I might go back to help the Hawks……………….

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I asked him what the job entailed.

“Ah, nothing much. Mainly taking down the minutes of the meetings and scribbling out a few letters.”

Who does the recruiting ?

“You’d do a bit of it. You just have to sell the club. You’ll do it on your ear,” was the response.

As a glass half-empty sort of bloke, I soon felt I’d let the club down.  My first two recruiting targets – North Wangaratta full back Alan Bodger and ex-North Melbourne and Wodonga ruckman Neil Brown ignored my somewhat naive approaches and decided to sign with Wangaratta.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. I’d better explain the lead-up to the summer of ’77……….

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There was a suggestion from outside the Hawk camp that they could be on the wane.

Following the glory years of the early ’70’s they’d uncharacteristically struggled for form and fitness during a hazardous 1976. At one stage, in mid-season, they dropped seven games out of 10 to tumble down the ladder, but recovered sufficiently to squeeze into the finals by half a game.

Coach Neville Hogan had battled a nagging hamstring which cost him 10 games; key position player Daryl Smith was sidelined after a serious knee operation. The spark that ignited their legendary team-game was flickering weakly.

But, after surviving a drawn Elimination Final against Wodonga, they turned it on in the next three cut-throat games, to secure a Grand Final berth against Wangaratta.

The ‘Pies, on one of their most memorable days, ran away from the Rovers in the last quarter, to clinch the flag by 37 points.

It seemed to confirm the popular assumption –  that the old champs had courageously psyched themselves for one last crack at the title, only to be outdone by the bold new challengers…………….

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Hot on the heels of Neville Hogan stepping down from the coaching position after seven years, club icon Jack Maroney relinquished the Presidency.  ‘Old Wally’ had been a constant in times of trial and tribulation. He handed over the baton to a man less than half his age – Brian Sammon.

Neville became Thirds coach and intended to play on.  Surprisingly, despite all of the big-name outsiders who were touted on footy’s grapevine, including the favourite, classy Preston small-man Peter Weightman,  Daryl Smith was handed the plum job.

Considering that Smithy was still experiencing some difficulty with his knee rehab it was a bold appointment.

“I must say I was a trifle apprehensive how the knee was going to stand up,” Daryl recalled the other day. “The coaching side of things was okay – the players were really switched-on and gave me plenty of support.”

What struck me about the playing group, on returning ‘home’ to the City Oval, was their self-belief. And, having been involved in a winning culture for some time, they didn’t need much geeing up . Their mission was to make amends for ‘dropping the ball’ in that Grand Final – only the third loss to the ‘Pies in their last 19 meetings.

Another plus was the depth of the list. The Hawks were the reigning Reserves premiers and departures had been minimal. The only major loss was defender Greg O’Brien (the joint Morris Medallist) who decided to pursue his career at Myrtleford.

The recruitment of Gary ‘Sticks’ Allen, the talented Milawa ruckman, compensated for ‘Ab’s’ departure.

If there was any doubt about the Rovers ability to remain around the top they snuffed that out by winning the Pre-Season title, then belting Corowa by 34 points in the opening game.

Albury brought them down to earth the following week in an absorbing clash at the Sportsground, but the news that the great Neville Hogan had finally yielded to Father Time just two games into the season, provided a double whammy.

He had notched up 246 quality games at the Club and exerted a huge influence on many of the current players.

But the Hawks had convinced most critics, by mid-season, that they were the team to beat. With stars on every line, they dropped just three and a half games to finish clearly on top.

They avenged a one-point loss in the final round to Wodonga, to eclipse them by 33 points in the Second Semi-Final.

There to meet them in the Grand Final was a rampaging Wangaratta. The Pies had come from ninth spot mid-season to win their way into the ‘Big One’ and were confident of again turning the tables on the old enemy.

Daryl Smith approached the encounter with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. He had experienced a season from hell after recovering from his knee op. In succession he copped a broken nose, a torn hamstring, broken ribs and a severe ankle sprain which in total limited him to just 5 games.

He named himself on the bench for the Grand Final, and the line-up looked like this:

Backs: Greg Rosser,  Denis Hill,  Robert Lowe.

Half Backs: Chris Porter,  Merv Holmes,  Gary Bell.

Centres:  Barry Cook,  Paul O’Brien,  Peter Booth.

Half-Forwards:  Leigh Hartwig,  John Iwanuch,  Mark Booth.

Forwards:  Trevor Bell,  Steve Norman,  Eddie Flynn.

Rucks:  Gary Allen,  Andrew Scott,  Phil Stevenson.

19,20:  Greg Elliott,  Daryl Smith.

The game started in explosive fashion when ‘The Enforcer’,  Merv Holmes, flattened Magpie rover Craig Godde, prompting a spill-over of tensions and an all-in ‘barney’.

It resembled a tank battle and the upshot was that ‘Pie big man Neil Brown went into the umpire’s book.  But, just as significantly, Holmes had made a giant statement. He was to go on and  collect 22 kicks at centre half back and keep his opponent, Chris Schubert, kickless, in a best-afield performance.

Wang kept pace with the Hawks, to trail by just a point at quarter-time, but the second term belonged to the Rovers.

They stretched their lead to 29 points at the big break and from that point on were never challenged. John Leary, who had been a Pie hero in 1976 with 5 goals, was shut out of the game by Denis Hill and picked up his sole possession, a free kick, in the third term.

Hill, Robbie Lowe, Greg Rosser and Chris Porter collected just 19 kicks between them for the game, but were ‘Scrooge-like in defence.

It was a multi-pronged forward line which did the damage for the Hawks. Steve Norman (8 goals), John Iwanuch (3),Eddie Flynn (3) and Trevor Bell (3) reaped the rewards of the brilliant work of on-ballers Paul O’Brien, Andrew Scott, Phil Stevenson and Gary Allen.

Norman and Iwanuch had been outstanding in attack all season and between them booted 184 goals (Norman 115, Iwanuch 69).

The Hawks ran away in the second half, to win : 20.16 (136) to 12.12 (84).

The speedy, systematic Rovers Reserves virtually had their flag sewn up by quarter-time. Two long goals from ruck-rover Paul Hogarth set the pattern early. Hogarth finished with five in the 45-point victory over Myrtleford.

Fringe senior players Neville Allen, Peter McGuire, Phil O’Keefe, Gary O’Keeffe and Keith Rowan all shone out. As did the talented youngster Graeme Bell, who must have been dead unlucky to have missed out on senior selection.

The Rovers Thirds fell short of making it a trifecta for the Club when they lowered their colours by 35 points to Wodonga. Lanky ruckman Neale McMonigle was their star…………..

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So a season that had begun with a degree of uncertainty produced almost a clean sweep for the Hawks. They had finished Minor Premiers in all grades, won the Pre-season, the Club Championship and two flags.

It was, indeed, a Year to Remember…………..

 

 

P.S: Memories of 1977 will be evoked at a re-union of the Premiership teams at the Findlay Oval on Saturday. The Rovers 2007 Reserves Premiership team, coached by Bob Murray, and including three presents-day players, will also be re-assembling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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