‘HOTTY’……..OVERSEEING FOOTBALL’S CHANGING LANDSCAPE.

Being a bloke who does his utmost to shun the limelight, John O’Donohue would cringe at the thought of being labelled one of country football’s ‘movers and shakers’.

But that’s what he is.

As the Regional Manager of AFL North-East Border, ‘Hotty’ heads up a team of 10, who oversee the game in an area stretching from Corryong to Mansfield / from Bright to Yarrawonga.

At first you’d say: What a dream gig !

But there’s more to it than that. It’s an era of sweeping change for the code, as it wrestles with dwindling player numbers; sustainability of clubs; volunteer strain, and the implementation of the  equalisation-seeking Salary Cap and Player Points system.

Some traditionally strong footy towns have already confronted the prospect of merging with arch rivals in a bid to maintain their club’s identity. It’s led to its share of heartbreak.

On the brighter side, the phenomenal success of women’s football  has filtered down to the country, and has prompted requests for a regional competition to be introduced.

So, like all jobs, it has its share of hassles and high points. Luckily, ‘Hotty’s’ an unflappable customer, and considers the crux of his role is to support people. Football in this region couldn’t have a better person to plot its course…………..

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My first memories of him are of a strikingly-built, red-haired centre half back, who took the Ovens and Murray League by storm in 1988.

In the modern era, when clubs embrace distance-devouring defenders who can set things up in attack, he was all of that – and more – 29 years ago.  With a healthy burst of pace, a strong pair of hands and a lethal right foot, he quickly became a ‘cult hero’ among Wang Rovers fans, especially when he landed the occasional ‘long bomb’  after another of his meandering runs.

He was rated a 2/1 hot favourite to take out the Morris Medal that year, with most experts rating him a ‘near-cert’ to add to the two Media Awards he had already pocketed.

Alas, he was to poll in just two games (6 votes), to finish streets behind the winner – Yarrawonga’s Johnny Brunner.

But the consolation for the 21 year-old was his win in the Club Best & Fairest, and the part he played in a memorable Premiership victory over Lavington……………

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‘Hotty’s’ old man Danny, a strongly-principled Irishman from county Cork, arrived in Australia on his own, aged 18. He had little money, an endearingly-lilting brogue and a love of sport, particularly Gaelic football and Hurling.

He and his wife Mary, raised five kids (4 boys and a girl) and built a life in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, a stone’s throw from the old VFL ( or, as they used to deridingly call it ‘Arctic’) Park.

“Dad soon adapted to Aussie Rules. Our ritual, every winter Saturday, was to go to the footy at VFL Park. We’d leave home at the same time every week; sit in the same seats – and play kick-to-kick in the car park for about an hour and a half, after the game, till the crowd cleared,” ‘Hotty’ says.

Then young John started to show a bit of ability – with St.Joseph’s (Boronia) and Scoresby Under 16’s.

An invite arrived from North Melbourne, to have a gallop in the Thirds, under the coaching of Denis Pagan. He was just 15, played a few games, then returned to spend the rest of the season with Scoresby.

The four resultant years he had at Arden Street saw him play 30 games in the Thirds ( including the 1985 and ’86 Grand Finals) and 35 in the Reserves, alongside ex-Rovers boys, Tim Rieniets, Mark Frawley and Paul Bryce.

“It was ‘Frawls’, I think, who got in touch with Laurie Burt, and said I might be interested in having a yarn. Laurie invited me up to have a look around, early in 1988, and introduced me to a few people at the Club. It all felt good, so I committed.”

And that’s how the Rovers came to nail the recruit who was to perform beyond their wildest expectations.

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‘Hotty’ did a pre-season at Fitzroy in 1989. He was half-way through his Signwriting apprenticeship  when West Adelaide coach Kevin Morris came knocking.

“I’d had a really enjoyable year with the Rovers, but this seemed like a good opportunity. And even though it disrupted my apprenticeship, it proved to be a worthwhile experience.”

His four-year stay in the ‘City of Churches’ was peppered with some outstanding form in his 80 games, a knee reconstruction in 1991, a niggling hamstring injury and irregular work.

Additionally, he thought the contract he renewed in 1992 would enable him to return to Victoria at the end of the season. But when he sought a clearance back to the Rovers in early ’93, Wests’ General Manager Doug Thomas quickly put the kibosh on it.

Correspondence – and the occasional solicitor’s letter – flowed back and forth before ‘Hotty’, who was now living and working back in Wangaratta, was released for a fraction of the hefty transfer fee West Adelaide had demanded.

He proved to be the icing on the cake for an almost-impregnable Rovers combination, which glided through the 1993 and ’94 seasons for the loss of just one game.

And he added another string to his bow – having an occasional run in the ruck when the occasion demanded………Such as the return home-and-away fixture against Wodonga in mid-’93.

After a keenly-contested first half, the Bulldogs’ aerialists Steven Murphy and Brett Allen looked set to swing the game their way, after injuries to Hawk ruckmen Anthony Zervaas and Howard Yelland.

“At least that’s what we thought would happen,” commented the Border-Mail…….

“A bloke just back from South Australia, who has played most of his football in defence, was thrown into the ruck against two of the best big men in country football.”

“John O’Donohue was the winner.”

“Although he gave away height, O’Donohue’s bullocking work brought his team-mates into the play, with Ronnie Ferguson, Peter Tossol and Robbie Walker benefiting………”

The Rovers avenged the loss they had suffered to the ‘Dogs earlier in the year, and went on to convincingly defeat them in successive Grand Finals. O’Donohue was a key figure in both victories.

Laurie Burt’s abdication from the Rovers coaching job at the end of 1997, after a glittering 11-year reign, prompted conjecture that Peter Tossol would step into the role. But surprisingly, ‘Toss’ headed to Corowa-Rutherglen.

From left-field, the laid-back, quietly-spoken O’Donohue was chosen.

He had battled niggling ‘hammies’ in the latter part of his career. Then, after finishing runner-up in the B & F in 1997, a ‘bung’ shoulder forced him off the playing field.

Initially, he felt it would provide him with the opportunity to help bring along the club’s younger players; maybe as coach of the Reserves, or some such role.

But when the Senior job was offered, he thought: Why not ?

It was tough. The Club was flat broke at the time. “I can remember going around, with Mick Wilson, trying to recruit. All we could offer was basic match payments – 60 bucks a week. I think we only landed two fellahs – Steve Croxford and Travis Hubble. Actually, they both turned out handy players,” he says.

But thankfully, he admits, he had at his disposal, eight or nine stars from the premiership years, who offered great support, and ensured the club remained competitive.

With the benefit of a posterior cruciate operation in late-1999 – ‘Hotty’ attempted a playing come-back early in the following season. The Hawks clung onto fifth spot, but bowed out in an Elimination Final thriller to North Albury.

It was to be the last of his 110 senior games – and also brought  the curtain down on his three-year coaching stint.

He admits that he enjoyed coaching.  One player reflected that, despite the quiet O’Donohue demeanour, he was bluntly honest, and could ‘rip shreds off you’ when the occasion demanded.

‘Hotty’s’ sojourn as a Signwriter drew to a close soon after.

“I put a drill piece through the main power supply at a job I was doing. Suddenly, the Power Box burst into flames. It shook me up, and I decided then and there I’d rather be doing something else.”

“I went back to studying, saw a job ad from AFL Victoria, and applied for it…… It turned out a good move……..”

 

P.S: ‘Hotty’s’ daughter Kara is in her first season of Netball with the Rovers Under 16’s.   Josh, now with Imperials, is looking forward to stepping up to the Hawks’ Thirds side next season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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