‘IT’S ALL ABOUT SURVIVAL FOR ‘OKA’S’ BOYS………’

 

Gary O’Keefe twanged his hamstring on Saturday. Of course that can happen to the fittest of blokes……it was getting close to the final siren……his tired body stretched awkwardly…..the testy tendon gave way……
The 62 year-old North Wangaratta President had been pressed into action for his Club’s clash with Milawa. For a variety of reasons, the Hawks had nine absentees.
“I was planning to run the boundary. But they said: ‘ We’re short. You’d better pull the boots on.’ I stuck it out as best I could; played three and a bit quarters……until I felt it go…….”
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‘Oka’ has one of the most unenviable jobs in footy. He’s in charge of a Club that has no ground, no Reserves, hasn’t won a senior game in three years and is coming off a 337-point belting.
And yet , he remains optimistic.
“We’ve been able to fight back from near-oblivion two or three times in our history,” he says. “….And we’ll do it again.”
He’s at an age where he’s entitled to be sitting back, can in hand, and enjoying the footy – maybe reminiscing with his mates about ‘the good old days’. Instead he’s doing his bit to keep the club afloat.
“I just couldn’t walk away from it………..”, he says.
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‘Oka’s’ a football ‘nut’; always has been.
He chalked up close to 600 games in his marathon football journey. Over 150 of those were with North Wang’s Reserves, after he thought his playing days had well and truly passed him by. He used to fill in, he says, and still enjoyed it, so kept going.
You have to go way back to 1973, when he first broke into the Rovers’ senior side. His dad Max, and uncle, Les, had both played a handful of games in the fifties, so he was pretty well steeped in the Hawk tradition.
Rovers coach Neville Hogan had been impressed with the discipline he showed when he was playing in the Junior League finals with Junior Magpies one year, and thought he had a bit to offer.

 

A solid apprenticeship followed in the Hawk Reserves. But his break-out senior season came in 1975, when he settled onto a back flank. On a soggy Albury Sportsground, the Hawks resisted everything that North Albury threw at them, to clinch the flag.
“I’ll always have fond memories of that one,” he recalls. “I was 19, and had the privilege of playing alongside some of the Rovers greats. Have a look at that half backline….Neville Pollard, Merv Holmes, Gary O’Keefe. Gee, I was in good company there.”IMG_3304
His studies – and subsequent employment as a Phys Ed teacher, took him to South Bendigo for three seasons, Toobarac (Heathcote League) for one, and Moe ( Latrobe Valley League) for four years.
When he settled back in Wangaratta, with Claire and the kids (Sean, Paul, Daniel, Katherine and Erin) , eight years after departing, Rovers coach Laurie Burt convinced Gary that he was ideally suited to an important job as playing-coach of the Reserves.
There’s not too much glory attached to that role. You have a mix of players who have just been dropped, others who feel they deserve a senior guernsey, and youngsters who are just making their way in the game.

 

It was the dawn of the fabulous ‘Burt Era’, when the Rovers picked up four senior flags. ‘Oka’ hit it off well with the old guru, who realised the importance of having the Reserves in synch with the senior list and an experienced head guiding the side on the field.
He coached them into the finals in each of his seven years in charge, then played on for another two. He had tallied 251 games ( 32 Seniors and 219 Reserves) and was honoured with Life Membership, when he made the agonising decision to leave the Rovers and take on the coaching job at North Wangaratta.
The North side contained quite a few players that ‘Oka’ had been involved with at the Rovers and, being an experienced hand at the coaching caper by now, he fitted in seamlessly at Sentinel Park.
North lost a nail-biting final to Chiltern by a point, despite having five more shots at goal. They trailed the Swans by three points in the decider a fortnight later, but Chiltern overpowered them in the last half to take out the flag by 33 points.
But they made no mistakes in 1997. With the acquisition of a few more handy recruits, including the classy Jason Gorman, North pumped Chiltern by 66 points in the second semi, then disposed of Greta in the Grand Final by 83 points.IMG_3298
It was the end of a 21-year drought for the boys in Brown and Gold, and a tribute to their coach, who handled proceedings from the bench, as the players followed his instructions to a tee.
After another season at the helm, Gary returned to the Rovers and acted as senior runner for John O’Donoghue.
Then it was back out to North Wang for a few more years, filling an assortment of chores. His boys were saddling up in the Two’s, and he enjoyed one of his favourite footy moments when he played alongside Sean, Paul and Danny in the 2003 Reserves premiership side.IMG_3302
“We needed to win the last five games to secure a spot in the finals. Then we went on with the job in the finals. A couple of my old Rovers team-mates, ‘Bozo’ Ryan and Johnny ‘Hendo’ were also part of that side. It was a huge thrill to share it with the kids.”
Gary was enticed back to the Rovers for 2006 and ‘07, as coach of a talented Thirds side, which numbered among its ranks, present-day League stars Ben and Sam Reid.
Then North Wang, who had again fallen on hard times, pleaded with him to return as coach in 2008.
It was another rocky period for the Hawks. After picking up 5 wins in the first season, they plunged to the bottom in the following two.
“It just goes to show how quickly things can change,” Gary says. Three years after finishing without a win, we produced a team which was good enough to take out the O & K flag.
That was 2012. “We were able to entice David Steer, the star Magpie defender, to coach, but we had a really well-balanced side……..picked up some boys from Tennant Creek ( Phil ‘Barra’ O’Keefe, Nathan ‘Mudcrab’ Morrison, Andrew Baker and Owen Patterson), the Bell brothers, Jamie and Ben, and a few others. And a big guy, Richard Findlay, kicked the ‘ton’,” Gary recalls.
North broke the shackles, booting eight goals to two in the final term, to steamroll Whorouly by 47 points, and storm to their fourth O & K flag. The flamboyant ‘Barra’ O’Keefe booted six goals and was a star. ‘Oka’ ran the bench and was assistant-coach to Steer, who had been dominant in the back line all year……….
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Two years later, the ‘arse’ had again fallen out of the Hawks, as they suffered a mass exodus of players.
Gary took on the Presidency to help steady things, but they finished with two wins, and the wooden-spoon. He was still in charge when they were locked out of their ground.
“It was May 13, 2015. We won our last senior game a few weeks earlier, in Round 3, so it’s been a horror three years.”
Everyone is acquainted with the background to their temporary eviction, but Gary says it still leaves a sour taste in their mouths. “We suspect that a ‘do-gooder’ complained to the EPA, who were obliged to act.”IMG_3299
“The bottom-line, as you know, was that traces of shot-gun pellets were found on the oval, so all of a sudden it was off-limits to us. That’s despite the fact that Rifle-shooting has been conducted near the Oval precincts for decades, and nobody has been remotely affected.”
“We estimate it’s cost the Club 150 to 160 thousand dollars over the last couple of years. Some of our volunteers have been putting in 12-hour days; things like transferring our match-day equipment and canteen goods to other grounds – then returning them to our Clubrooms……. A few good people have been burnt-off.”
“The Rovers, Wang and Tarra have been fantastic in letting us use their facilities. This year, though, we’re purely in survival mode.”IMG_3300
“But we’re financially secure. We’ve always been in the black and we’ve got a terrific sponsor in the Wangaratta Club who have been with us for ten years.”
“Once we get our ground back things will start to fall into place. We can’t really talk to anyone about the future until we’re back home…….Look, we’ve proved before, that if you snare a good coach and recruit the right half-dozen players, you can quickly turn it around on the field……..”
Ever the optimist, ‘Oka’s’ a good man to be steering the ship. The football world will be geeing for the Northerners…………….
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       THE GARY O’KEEFE GAMES TALLY
Wangaratta Rovers 251 ( 32 Seniors, 219 Reserves)
South Bendigo. 46 ( Seniors)
Toobarac. 18 (Seniors )
Moe. 76 ( Seniors – Vice-Captain)
North Wangaratta. 202 ( 48 Seniors, 154 Reserves )IMG_3305

 

 

 

 

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