“PURE FANTASY ?……HAWKS AND PIGEONS IN A NAIL-BITER…….”

Rovers fans have been sweating on this day for more than four months.

After another fruitful recruiting campaign, which has netted more than a dozen newcomers, there’s an air of optimism at the Findlay Oval.

And you pick up the positive vibe as you walk into the ground. They’re doing a roaring trade in Member’s Tickets and you detect a buzz about the place. It’s great to catch up with some of the old-timers who have been seemingly welded to their favourite vantage spots for more than 30 years.

Rex Hartwig is one who has a spring in his step. Old Rex celebrated his 90th birthday during the footy hiatus . But he has a glint in his eye, akin to the focus he had in his halcyon sporting days when he’d face off against tennis legends Kramer, Segura, Gonzales and Sedgman.

Of course, there’s a good reason for Rex’s enthusiasm. His grandson Tyson is back, after a sabbatical of four years. Tys has done it all with the Hawks – Captain, champion defender, Best and Fairest, All-Australian Country rep…… Now he just wants to add to the 139 games he has accumulated…and play a part in the revival of his home club.

I stumble upon another permanent fixture; perched on the steel railing to the left of the Hogan Stand. That’s been Steve Norman’s domain ever since he hung up the boots.

He used to say how handy it was because he was within reaching distance of the Can-Booth, and right in the midst of the most one-eyed section of the crowd. Most of his fellow-protagonists of yore, like Herbie Day, Alfie Onslow, ‘Spud’ Patat, Theo Hall and Ken Johnstone have gone to their mortal coil, and others have drifted off, to be replaced by fans of a more tolerant bent.

No one was able to split the big sticks at his spiritual home quite like ‘Superboot Steve’. He had a sixth-sense. You don’t boot 1016 O & M goals without possessing something out of the box. He ‘owned’ the 50-metre arc, and his team-mates upfield could read him like a book.

There’s another bloke hobbling past who delivered a fair few of those ‘lace-up’ passes to Steve. It’s Andrew Scott, who’s become synonymous with the Rovers since he arrived in town as a ‘cop’ 45 years ago.

Geez he could play. In his first year with the Hawks he won the Morris Medal and became the idol of those hard-boiled fanatics around the Bar.

And he was so adaptable. In the latter part of his career he had a turn on the forward flank. He snagged a lazy 10 one day against Lavi, to the delight of the ‘diehards’ . The other thing about ‘Scotty’ was that he always rose to the big occasion when he was needed.

Get yakking to him and you wonder at first if he’s still carrying the weight of the footy club on his shoulders. But then he emits a huge belly-laugh, to lighten the situation. He’s continued to contribute to the Club, has this ‘rough-nut’ plumber . What an institution……. !

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Anyway, I’d better pop into the rooms to wish Sammy Carpenter all the best. Playing his 100th game today, is ‘Carps’. I don’t recall too many mediocre ones in that lot, either.

I know the veteran rates the ‘ton’ as a real highlight. He’s been a bit of a journeyman and must be nudging the 300-mark in his glittering career. There wouldn’t be a fan anywhere who doesn’t admire what ‘Croc’ has achieved.

I interrupt a chat with his old man – and greatest fan – Leigh (who also has young Sonny in tow), to shake his hand. He’s suitably chuffed and says he’s honoured to join the greats of the Club.

Heck, he’ll play an important role in this clash with Yarrawonga. His cool head will be a crucial asset, particularly considering there are so many new faces in the side.

There’s an electric atmosphere in the rooms. The Reserves have their game well in hand, so the fans have been drifting in to catch ‘Crezza’s’ pre-match build-up. It’s packed in here; you could cut the air with a knife.

One of the stars of the pre-season, in my book, has been the boy from Manley-Warringa, Tyrone Armitage. He’s a damaging left-footer who played with VFL club Northern Blues at one stage. I love his zest on the track and he seems to have fully ingratiated himself into the Club. It’ll be really interesting to see how he performs in this footy. I’m tipping he’ll be a star.

Glancing across the rooms, I guess this must be one of the tallest Rovers sides for some years. Besides young Ed Dayman and ‘Gatto’, there’s another giant in the ranks, Nick Redley from Langwarrin. Could be a surprise packet, this fellah.

I notice Ryan Stone edgily flicking the pill from hand to hand. It’s great to have him back. He developed into a top-flight player at Heidelberg since leaving the Hawks after the 2013 season. I’m sure he’s relishing the opportunity to play his first Senior game with the Rovers alongside his young brother, Dylan.

I sneak outside for a bit of fresh air and spot a familiar face ; underneath that trademark Pigeon cap, he’s wearing his usual pre-game furrowed brow. It’s old ‘Jinxy’ Clarke himself – one of Yarra’s best-known fans.

“Whattya reckon Jinx ?”. “Ah well, you blokes have had all the publicity about your recruiting, but we’re happy with what we’ve got,” he replies.

“Just remember,” he adds, “apart from those couple of hiccups last year, we had the wood on you for more than 10 years.”

I do remember, because ‘Jinx’ would remind me every time. “What’s that up to now ?…. 23 on the trot…….. ?”

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Not long after, the siren sounds to launch the 2020 opener.

It’s the usual nervy, frenetic start, but the Pigeons appear to have settled down nicely. Their first major comes from tall Matt Casey, who’s managed to find a yard on Hawk champ Nathan Cooper, and nails one from just 20 metres out.

There’s no doubt that the big wraps on their gun recruits Willie Wheeler and Leigh Masters are spot-on. Wheeler – and his brother Harry – are in everything in the mid-field, negating the ruck effectiveness of Dayman and Redley.

In fact, the Hawks look listless and a couple of sloppy turnovers prove costly. You can detect the blood of coach Cresswell rising, as normally cool customers make mistakes under pressure.

He gathers his troops at the quarter-time break for a good, old-fashioned rev. They’re 22 points down, the Hawks, and look a far-cry from the glamor-side they have been pronounced in pre-season tittle-tattle………..

Things don’t improve much early in the second term, either. But an intercept from veteran defender Sean O’Keeffe finds the ball in the hands of Carpenter, who feeds off to Sam Allen.

The long kick from the youngster – well beyond the 50-metre mark, sails through for a timely goal. Surely that will have the Hawks up and about.

Slowly they begin to creep back into the contest, despite not making a huge impact on the scoreboard.

Mark Whiley, Yarra’s first-year coach, has been in everything, as has the evergreen Xavier Leslie. Whiley is certainly an inspiration and Cresswell will need to make a move to shut down his effectiveness.

Despite the Rovers’ best efforts, the lead has crept out to 31 points at half-time.

The Hawks are quickly ushered into the coach’s room. Meanwhile, shell-shocked fans wait about, but it’s a good 12 minutes before they file out – suitably chastened and grimly determined……..

The third term produces a stunning turn-around. Shaggy-haired Will Nolan has been swung onto Whiley, and curbs his influence. And Tyson Hartwig begins to create a presence up forward.

Yarra’s dominance around the ball, which has given them control of the game, now wanes, as the dynamic Charlie Thompson, Jamason Daniels and Raven Jollife continually get their hands on the pill.

In a 16-minute burst, the Hawks have reduced the margin to less than a kick. By three-quarter time it’s the Pigeons who are looking rather ragged……..

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But they’re not done with yet……

They register early last-term goals through Jess Koopman and talented youngster Jack Sexton, to regain the ascendancy. Then, dashing Jack Gerrish takes possession from just beyond the half-back line and scoots off, dodging and side-stepping in typical fashion.

He’s within kicking distance ( there’s a player loose who he doesn’t see), and lines them up.

Goal !……… The faithful in the Maroney Pavilion rise as one.

The Hawks slot another, after Armitage swoops on the ball and kicks truly with his left boot from the angle.

It then becomes goal-for-goal, in what has become a classic contest.

Entering time-on, the Pigeons hold a slender four-point lead. Both sides are tired, but desperate, as the ball bobbles between the respective half-back lines.

I’m tuned in to OAK-FM and ‘Gamby’ breathlessly informs us that there are less than 15 seconds left.

Suddenly, Carpenter, the 100-gamer, retrieves the ball out of nowhere and spots Ed Dayman. A pass, delivered with surgical precision, thumps the young fellah on the chest….15 metres out….straight in front….just as the siren blares…….

What pressure !……..Big Ed lines them up and sneaks it through.

It’s a Hawk victory by two points……..!

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