‘PIGEON BERT REFLECTS ON A LIFE-TIME CAREER IN FOOTBALL……….’

If you’re trying to track down Robert Tait of a Monday morning, chances are you’ll find him raking leaves, emptying the rubbish bins, or tidying up the Yarrawonga rooms after the week-end’s footy.

His is a familiar tale, replicated by countless volunteers throughout the state ……. Of the old champ, having hung up his boots after a storied career, rolling up his sleeves and devoting decades of service to his beloved Club.

The majestic Murray River meanders alongside the Pigeons’ J.C.Lowe Oval…..Yet ‘Taity’s’ football fairytale was enacted about thirty-five miles upstream.

As a 17 year-old schoolboy he played his part in possibly the Ovens and Murray’s greatest rags-to-riches story – Corowa’s ascent from wooden-spooners to 1968 premiers………

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‘Bert’ was born and bred on a farm at Rennie – an equidistant 17 miles from Yarra and Corowa. The Hoppers are a proud bush Club; winners of 15 premierships and best known as the spiritual home of the legendary Jimmy Sandral.

“Kids from Rennie played their cricket in Yarrawonga and gravitated to Corowa for footy. So I lined up with the Corowa Under 15’s,” he recalls.

His progress was rapid, to say the least. At 14, he was elevated to the Spiders’ senior line-up for three games. He was still making his way in the game a couple of years later, when Corowa pulled off a stunning recruiting coup, landing Richmond’s reigning premiership skipper Freddie Swift as captain-coach.

“I remember how excited we all were when he came to watch us in the final round of ‘67. He wasn’t even deterred by the fact that Wangaratta belted us by more than 17 goals.”

Swift was given an assurance that incumbent coach John Hoiles would hang around. He helped the Spiders handpick recruits Ike Isley ( from Bendigo, via St. Kilda ), brilliant rover Jack Clancy (Heidelberg) and Lindsay Jacob (Walla).

Corowa were sitting fifth coming into the last round of 1968, and had to defeat fourth-placed Wangaratta by 10-12 goals to sneak into the finals…….They won by 15, to secure their spot.

They came from 22 points down at half-time to defeat North Albury in the First Semi…… were dead level at three quarter-time in the Prelim, against a physically-imposing Myrtleford, then went on to win by four goals……..

The Spiders were into the Grand Final……….

“We had a heap of young blokes under 21…….George Tobias, Terry Phibbs, Denis Hutton, ‘Chizza’, Freddie Longmire, Jeff McLean and myself……We were all in awe of what was happening, and the town was at fever-pitch…..We hadn’t won a flag in 36 years……..” Bert recalls.

“I remember us heading over to Wangaratta for the Grand Final, stopping at North Wang, stretching our legs, and getting back on the Bus where Ovens Ford’s now located……There were 12,000 people at the Rovers Ground that day, and the majority of them were convinced that Wodonga would belt us…..”

It certainly looked that way at quarter-time. The Dogs, the reigning premiers, kicked 4.5 to 0.3 with the aid of a strong breeze. But Corowa gained the ascendancy in the second, and it was nip and tuck from then on.

A great 50-yard goal from Kevin Witherden and a skilful snap from Lindsay Jacob sealed the game for the Spiders, who hung on to win a classic by seven points.

“On the trip home we got off the Bus at Wahgunyah, all climbed on the back of one of Bernie Bott’s semi-trailers and drove across the bridge, up the Main Street to the Town Hall, where they introduced us to an enormous crowd ……I was still at school; it was a bit hard to get your head around …….”

“The celebrations went on for a week……Geez, the older you get, the better it feels..It’s still like a dream……“

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Bert landed his first job not long after, with Livestock Company, Australian Estates, in Yarrawonga.

He spent the next couple of years travelling back to play with Corowa, then got called up for National Service, which took a slice out of his ‘72 season.

“Luckily for me, Gough Whitlam won the election later that year, and abolished National Service. When I got out of the Army I rang Mickey McNamara, with whom I was now employed, to see whether I still had a job.”

“Mick said: ‘No worries. Come back, you’re welcome. I’ll fix you up with a car and get you out on the road.’ “

“When I told Mick I’d also get a clearance to play with Yarra he was very happy. He said :’ I’ve been hoping for two years that’d happen….Now I’ve got ya.’ “

So, after 76 senior games with Corowa ( his dad Bob, and brother Neville had preceded him there) Robert Tait was now a Pigeon…………

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He had, by now become a leading O & M ruckman. Yet his 193cm frame and handy big-man skills were negated when Yarra met the Rovers in a boggy 1973 First-Semi.

“The Benalla Showgrounds was a mud-heap….It poured all day. It was memorable for the fact that Neville Hogan picked up 50 kicks and his opponent Billy Nixon had about 49. I think they beat us 6.11 to 4.9.”

“Hogan was again one of our obstacles when we played ‘em in the Grand Final the next year. He parked himself in the forward pocket, alongside ‘Doc’ Doherty, who kicked a few in the first quarter. I think it was 8 goals to 1 at quarter-time……Game over ! “

“Neville brings it up occasionally. He says: ‘I loved roving to you, Taity !’ “

Bert’s finest year undoubtedly came in 1976. Despite missing four games with a twisted knee, he finished just three votes shy of the Morris Medal ( he also finished third two years later). His consolation came when he took out the Border Mail-2AY media award and Yarrawonga’s Best & Fairest.

He was runner-up in the Pigeons’ top gong for the next five years, bowing to Les ‘Salty’ Parish ( three times), Mark Booth and Johnny White, yet trailing by no more than three votes on each occasion.

And he became a regular, and proud, wearer of the O & M guernsey. The first of his eight games in the Black and Gold was against the VFA, when he lined up on the colourful Fred Cook and ‘Frosty’ Miller.

But perhaps his best inter-League performance came at Ganmain, when his strong marking in defence held out a charging South-West League, who fell short by 17 points:

“We were travelling well that day…..until they bought on an aboriginal called Sid Robbins, who they’d recruited from up north. Could he play ! He nearly turned the game for them. I was talking to their coach Tom Carroll after the game, as they announced that he’d won a Bag donated by South Melbourne, as their best player.”

“Tom said: ‘Do you know where that bag’ll finish up…..In the Murrumbidgee River. He lives on the river…….He’s a great player up here, but every time you pick a team you always have to name one extra, in case he doesn’t turn up !’ “

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After 176 games with Yarra, Bert took on the coaching job at Rennie, in 1983. It was a romantic homecoming of sorts, as his Grandfather had been their first coach, back in the early thirties. His dad played there, and he was taking over the reins from his brother Neville.

“Kay ( his wife ) said: ‘What am I going to do out there ?’ I said: ‘They’ve got Netball’. Well, she loved it. We made lifelong friends.”

In his five years as coach Rennie won two flags. In the first, they were undefeated, and belted Coreen by 103 points in the Grand Final….the Second came against Corowa-Rutherglen in 1985.

At the end of 1987 his old mate ‘Salty’ Parish enquired what he was doing about his footy.

“I said: ‘Well, I’m going on 36. I’m getting out while I’m reasonably sound.’ ‘That’s good,’ he replied. ‘I’ve just been appointed coach of Yarra, and I want you to come with me.’ “

“I’d always got on well with Salty….. used to look after him a bit….You know, he was a hell of a good fellah, but when he first came to Yarra he was a bit of a street kid…….he’d never wreck anything…..but once he had a few beers he could become a bit antagonising.”

“I told him I’d help him out…..I took over as his Chairman of Selectors; used to drive him to the footy, take him home after games…..keep him off the grog.”

Yarra finished fourth in 1988, but shaped as an improved side in ‘89 after the recruitment of Damien Sexton and Kerry Brain from Finley. On the eve of the season, the Committee approached Parish, requesting that he alter his Selection Panel.

“What was the story there ? “ I ask ‘Taity’.

“Well, they wanted to have five, instead of three Selectors.’ But ‘Salty’ wouldn’t have a bar of it. I went back to the Committee and offered to stand aside, to enable them to include someone else.”

“I said: ‘Don’t lose him over this. You know what he’s like; he’ll stick to his digs.’ ……..When I told ‘Salty’ of my suggestion he was adamant: ‘Nope. If you, Paul (Walker) and I can’t do it, then I’m out……”

“And that’s how Yarra came to part ways with its best-ever footballer ( in my opinion).”

It’s history how stalwart Neil Davis stepped into the breach and coached the Pigeons to a memorable flag. ‘Taity’ stayed in the background, but maintained 100 percent support for Davis.

He went back to Rennie the following year, when they couldn’t find a coach, then returned to Yarra for keeps.

“ ‘Davo’ said: ‘We’re trying to get a Past Players Group up and running. I’d like you to help out.’ He was the initial President, then I took over in ‘92……I’m still there…….”

It has become one of the League’s more vibrant PPOA organisations. One of their most satisfying projects was the launching of the Football/ Netball Club History, a glossy publication, which was three years in the making, and sold over 1,000 copies.

When ‘Bert’ returned to the footy Club Committee in the early nineties, Tracie Gillies suggested that he become involved with the Netball side of things, besides being Vice-President..

“She said: ‘Your girls are going to be playing, along with the four Davis girls, three Bourke’s and a couple of Tyrrell’s, among others. I’ll coach and I want you to be the Club’s Netball Rep.”

His daughter Bridget has played over 300 Club games ( including 250 A- Grade) for ten flags, whilst Janna has three, including Yarra’s first A-Grade title. Bert and Bridget are the sole members of the O & M’s Father-Daughter 200-Game Club.

“We’ve won a total of 17 premierships in all grades since Netball began in 1993. It’s become a vital part of our Club,” he says.

He has ridden all the ups and downs of footy, including the lows of the early 2000’s, and the highs of Bob Craig’s 2006 premiership side.

And he recalls the arrival of Yarra’s most famous recruit in 2012.

“Alan Tripp, who is a keen, and generous supporter, said to us: ‘You’ve gotta get someone who’ll kick 60-70 goals, otherwise you’ll never get over Albury. I’ve got just the bloke for you. I want you in Melbourne next Monday…..’ ”

“We had no idea who we were going to see……We walked into the room and Brendan Fevola was sitting there…….I said to Glenn Brear and Drew Barnes: ‘Geez, what are we doing here ?’ “

“On the way home, I said: ‘Shit, I dunno whether Yarra’s big enough for Brendan Fevola.’…..We spoke to Alan Tripp again and he re-assured us. ‘Leave him to me,’ he said. ‘I’ll look after him. I’ve told him he’s gotta play down the line.’ “

“Anyway, history shows that we won two flags, and crowds came in their droves….. On Fev’s first game, against Lavington, we took $120,000, with gate, canteen, membership and the rest. Don’t worry, Fev was great for Yarra, and the League……….”

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‘Bert’s’ been hamstrung lately, as he battles Charcot foot, a weakening of the bones in his left foot, caused by significant nerve damage.

“They gave me two options – continued treatment or amputation……. I chose the former……”

But this setback certainly hasn’t diluted his passion for footy, netball and Yarrawonga……..

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