” ‘LUIGI’…….STAR ACHIEVER IN AN ALL-ROUND SPORTING FAMILY…….”

Laurie Flanigan had the physique of a muscle-bound Italian weight-lifter, and a proppy left knee which seemed to accentuate a perceived lack of pace…….

But throw him onto the ‘graveyard corner’ of a half forward flank, in the cauldron of a crucial O & M game, and the man they called ‘Luigi’, could make things happen.

He was a champ of the sixties, with a personality to boot……

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The Flanigan’s are a famous North-Eastern sporting clan.

Laurie’s dad Les ( ‘Tiny’ ) was one of 14 kids raised on the family farm at Myrrhee. Most of the 10 boys started with Myrrhee and almost all of them were star footballers. Harold ( ‘The Kid ), Ron ( ‘Tup’ ), Ken ( ‘Plugger’), Jack and Ben, moved on to become members of the fine Moyhu sides of the thirties.

‘Tiny’ played mostly at Peechelba, whilst another brother, Bob, was coaxed to the city, where he was to establish a reputation as one of the toughest VFL players of all-time.

Fearsome iron-man Bob Chitty once quipped that, compared to Flanigan, he, Jack Dyer, ‘Tarzan’ Glass and ‘Basher’ Williams were mere cream-puffs.

Handed the nicknames, ‘ Bluestone’, or ‘Road-Metal’, by his Footscray team-mates because they reckoned he was as tough as a piece of rock, Bob later transferred to Essendon. He starred on a half back flank in their 1942 Premiership, and played in the ‘41 and ‘43 deciders…………

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Of course, mention of the Flanigan name in this neck of the woods sixty-odd years ago would undoubtedly focus attention on the feats of ‘Tiny’ and Phyllis’s kids, who were proficient in a variety of sports.

They were just reaching – or into – their teens when the family moved into a humble Vincent Road abode in 1956.

“Actually, Mum only moved out of the place two or three years ago,” says Laurie. “She turned 100 in May, and is still as bright as a button.”

Get talking to Phyllis and she could recount her kids’ achievements, such as those of her eldest, Cliff, who won four Wangaratta Singles Tennis titles during an era which featured players of the calibre of Keith Lipshut, Jock Herd, Murray Gallagher, Bill Traill and Ken Hiskins.

He was just 18 when he became an overnight hero in Wangaratta’s famous A-Grade Country Week victory over Ballarat. That year he also took out the Victorian Country Junior singles championship.

Opponents sometimes capitalised on Cliff’s combustible temperament, but few players in the area could match him when he was ‘on song’.

He played in footy premierships with Tarrawingee in 1963 and ‘64, then transferred to Greta, where he figured in their ‘65 and ‘66 titles. His fifth straight flag came at Tungamah League club Wilby in 1967, under the coaching of his brother-in-law, Brian Hallahan.

Also acknowledged as one of the town’s top basketballers, Cliff was a regular inter-town player. He later turned his hand to Tennis coaching, travelling throughout the region to conduct Clinics for many than 20 years.

His younger sister, Pat, won two WLTC Doubles championships, and was a representative Basketballer and Netballer.

The baby of the family, Des, cemented his spot in the Wangaratta Rovers senior side in 1970, and earned a reputation as a fearless, sterling defender in his 69 games with the Hawks. He played in their 1971 and ‘72 premiership sides, and spent time with Box Hill, before continuing his career at Cohuna………..

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The years peel away when I get yakking to Laurie Flanigan.

He was one of those terrific characters you come across in sport…..as loyal as they come……..a fierce competitor…… a team-mate who could lighten the mood of any dressing-room…..

And never afraid to add a touch of ‘mayonnaise’ to his many stories…….To emphasise what seemed to be a far-fetched tale, he’d usually preface it by saying: ‘without a word of a lie’………

By the time he was through, he’d told a fib with such sincerity that you were convinced it was dead-set true……and he’d done such a good job that he believed it himself !

What an all-round sportsman he was, though………..

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He graduated from Combined Churches to the Rovers in 1961, initially playing as a rover, and occasionally alternating with coach Bob Rose on a half forward flank.

The flank became his domain when Ken Boyd took over as coach two years later, probably because of the discomfort that his left knee was causing.

“I tore the ligaments on top of the knee itself, and never got around to having them repaired, “ Laurie says.

“That’s why I had to strap it up so tightly…….Basically, I played on one leg for the remainder of my career. Without having it bound up I wouldn’t have been able to play.”

“I must have cost the Rovers a fortune in tape.”

Laurie ‘came of age’ in the 1964 finals series. After winning 15 successive games the Hawks had hit the skids and dropped the next four. They appeared set for an ignominious departure from the finals when Myrtleford booted the opening four goals of the Prelim.

It was Flanigan who sparked them back into life, by conjuring two majors, as they went on to a 42-point win. The following week he was again irresistible. The Border Morning Mail headline lauded his display:

“Kept in the game by the near-great performance of half forward flanker Laurie Flanigan in the first half, Wangaratta Rovers blasted their way to 1964 premiership honours………”

His reputation as a big-occasion player was enhanced the following season, when he booted ‘bags’ of 4, 5 and 4 during the Finals, to help steer the Hawks to another flag, and earn best-afield honours in a three-point Grand Final victory over the Magpies.

On the invitation of Collingwood coach Bob Rose, he participated in a pre-season with the Pies in 1965, but tore a hamstring, and returned home to spend the next three seasons with the Hawks.

Watching intently on the boundary during home games were his two greatest supporters:

“Mum and Nanna ( Dunstan ) sat right on the fence, on the half forward flank, kicking to the town end, every match.”

“I crashed into the goal-post one day…….Mum jumped up and panicked a bit……This bloke said: ‘Serve him right.’ Mum spun around and had a few harsh words to him. Next minute, the bloke started to abuse her and Nanna, who were both going off the air by now. “

“One of the more forceful Rovers supporters, ‘Bruiser’ Anderson ( Mum always called him her body-guard ) took a few steps forward and said: ‘If I was you mate, I’d shut up….That’s her son.”

“Funny, they’re the little things you remember when you’re reflecting on your career.”

After representing the O & M in 1966, and playing in another Grand Final with the Hawks in ‘67, Laurie moved to Cobram, where he built, and operated, the local Squash and Fitness Centre.

In his first season he was runner-up to Freddie Way in the Murray League’s top ‘gong’, the O’Dwyer Medal. He went one better in 1969, taking out the Medal, and helping Cobram to the flag.

“Neville Hogan was appointed to the Rovers coaching position in 1970. I rang Nev and said: ‘How’d you feel if I came back and gave you a hand.’ They didn’t chase me at all. I just wanted to help out a good mate.”

“My last season with the Rovers was really memorable. We reached another Grand Final…..should have won it, in fact……. and it gave me the opportunity play with Des (brother). Also, it gave Mum and Dad a chance to follow us again.”

“Dad used to play my tune a bit. He and Mum certainly made themselves heard at the footy.”

“They were sitting there at Benalla one day, watching us play……I was on a tough back flanker, Alan Beaton…It was a bit tight….I think we were a couple of points up when Beaton and I had an altercation…..I got a free kick….Bang!….Through it went for a goal.”

“Dad turned to Mum and said: “Well, Phyllis, he’s done it again.”

“He reached in his pocket for his heart tablets….pulled ‘em out… and that was it. He just leaned against the fence and tablets went everywhere.”

“Straight after the game this bloke raced out on the ground and grabbed me. I thought : ‘This bastard’s gonna have a go at me.’ He said: ‘No, no, your Dad’s in an ambulance.’ “

“I tore across, and Mum said: ‘Dad’s gone, Laurie.’ “

“He was 52, but that was the best way he could have gone…..watching a game of footy.”

Laurie would have loved to continue playing, but after ‘collecting’ a kangaroo on the way home to Cobram from training one night, he thought it’d be safer to strip with the locals again.

He had played 129 games, kicked 238 goals, played in two flags, and won the Club goal-kicking on three occasions.

After spending 1971 with Cobram, he took on the coaching post at Katamatite for three seasons. He returned to Cobram for one last ‘fling’ in 1975, before the ‘gammy’ knee finally gave way…….

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Laurie made his presence felt in Tennis, earning a reputation as a hard-hitting left-hander with a wicked, kicking serve. He won two WLTC Doubles titles, firstly with brother Cliff in 1963, and Ken Hiskins the following year.

He was a regular Country Week and inter-town rep……. And somehow combined playing Tennis with being a top Cricket all-rounder.

“How did you manage that ?,” I query.

“Well, I fitted in Tennis on a Saturday morning and Sunday………and cricket on Saturday afternoons………..Not only that, I played Baseball of a Sunday during the footy season, and managed to squeeze in Basketball, Squash and Table Tennis during the week.”

He was lured to cricket because several of his Rovers footy team-mates were regulars with United, who were a newly-formed – and up-and-coming WDCA club.

Laurie struck it lucky. He played in premierships in four of his first five seasons, was a star all-rounder, and regular member of Wangaratta’s powerful Provincial Division Country Week side.

And again, it was his ultra-competitiveness that made him such a valuable player in the higher standard of cricket.

He was a solid left-hand bat and a left-arm medium-pacer with a pronounced ‘Ian Meckiff-style’ jerk in his action. His ability to swing the ball and bowl on the spot made him a difficult proposition.

The kids from nearby University High School, who spent their lunch-period watching Country Week action in the stands at nearby Princes Park, Carlton one day, decided that his action was definitely suspect.

They slow-clapped and hooted as he began his run-up.

The more they did it, the slower he walked back to his mark…..and the more exaggerated his action became……..

It was ‘music to the ears’ of one of country sport’s most colourful performers……

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After operating the Cobram Squash & Fitness Centre, for 15 years. Laurie and his family then moved to Queensland, where he took over a Real Estate Agency in Cleveland, and obtained an Auctioneer’s licence.

He spent 28 years in Real Estate before retiring to live at Victoria Point, on the Redland Coast, about twelve years ago.

He maintains contact with many of his old Rovers team-mates, and always looks forward to returning home and regaling them with tall tales, and true, of the past……..

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