“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……..!

"THE MAN BEHIND THE STORY OF THE SAINTS' 1970 GLORY……'

The idea dawned upon him in a light-bulb moment……

He’d always been keen to write a book on footy; convinced that it was just a matter of waiting for the right subject to bob up…….Then he twigged……Heck, it’s coming up 50 years since Myrtleford won their only O & M flag…..It seemed an ideal scenario to sink his teeth into……

So David Johnston got to work ….

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‘Jonno’ has spent more than a year crafting ‘1970 – The Year Of The Saints’.

What began originally, as a straight-out football book, morphed into a social history of the buoyant small town of that era, whose entire population got behind the footballers and rejoiced in a long-awaited Premiership.

“I’ve been around to witness the heartbreak that Myrtleford have endured since, in losing those three Grand Finals in the early 2000’s. I appreciate how hard it is for smaller clubs to compete against clubs from the bigger areas,” he says.

“After they lost the last one, in 2006, you sensed that their window of opportunity had passed them by. The downturn came when they lost 62 successive games between 2007-‘10.”

“But their comeback last year was exhilarating . Several sons of former players were among the team’s stars. The core of the side was – and still is – basically local. They won only the second Third 18 flag in the club’s history.”

“Everything seemed to be jelling nicely. ”

What an ideal time to tell a fairytale story………….

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You won’t find many more isolated places than Swift’s Creek, ‘Jonno’s’ home town.

It’s situated on the Great Alpine Road in East Gippsland – roughly 380km from Melbourne…..A timber town of 350. His dad ran a Beef and Sheep farm near Omeo before recently retiring.

His brother Ron is now on the family property and has just came through a bad bushfire season. People were air-lifted off the Omeo football ground in ADF helicopters on one of its most severe days.

“ When I was growing up there was no commercial TV or radio. We’d only get the ABC……And if a storm went through the hills, the power would be off for two days.”

“We’d often travel to our aunty’s place at Bruthen (about an hour away) to watch World of Sport on Sundays. That was one of the highlights of our week-end. But I wouldn’t trade all of that for quids,” he says.

He fell in love with footy as a young fan of the Swift’s Creek Demons, who were always among the top teams in the Omeo & District Football League. The ODFL once comprised four teams and later expanded to six when Bruthen and Buchan were admitted in the mid-70’s. In more recent times Lindenow South and Swan Reach came in.

The comp’s been going, in one shape or form, since 1893, and Dave embraced its ranks when he began playing in the Under 16’s.

Then he moved on to the Bairnsdale Under 18’s (he was attending local Nagle College) and achieved what he deems the highlight of his modest footy career – as a member of the 1986 Thirds’ premiership side.

“The year before (‘85) we weren’t much good, but a few talented kids ( like Jon Ballantyne, who later played with Footscray and Collingwood) came on board in ‘86. I was very lucky to get a game.”

But the boys were entitled to celebrate their flag. They’d sometimes be up at 5am on match-day to travel to the furthest destination – Leongatha or Warragul.

When Dave headed off for a year of University, he fulfilled an ambition by travelling back to play with the Swift’s Creek seniors, coached by the town’s publican, ex-North Melbourne player, Michael Gaudion.

His first job in Journalism came when he scored a Cadetship with the Bairnsdale Advertiser..

Next stop was a job with the Gippsland Times, at Sale. He covered sport, and was mentored by two champion fellahs ( and outstanding sportsmen in their own right) in Kevin Hogan and Blair Campbell.

“Once they realised you were interested they took you under their wing,” he says. “Sport was always the thing I wanted to gravitate to. I was in my element. I combined that with being Publicity Officer for the Latrobe Valley Football League.”

After moving on to spend three years covering sport at the Ballarat Courier, a further opportunity presented itself at The Border Mail. He’d only recently married Liz, in January 1995, and his initial opportunity came as the paper’s Racing Editor, covering every meeting throughout the North-East and Southern Riverina, from Benalla to Berrigan

Then, when Simon Dulhunty stepped aside at the end of the 1996 footy season, he was thrust into the role of chief football writer.

The Border’s coverage of the O & M was ‘must’ reading. Win a game on Saturday and eager fans would hardly be able to wait for Monday’s edition to hit the shops, to pore over the full details of the round. Double-page spreads…. spectacular photos….regular features.

Added to that, the League was flying in rep footy; there were ample personalities and no scarcity of controversies.

“I had a bit of luck, being new to the job, and with the O & M so successful in rep footy. I used to go to training… go away to cover all the rep games….That helped me get to know people…..You developed contacts with every club.”

“Nowadays, the Internet has changed everything. I love print but understand there are more and more eyeballs making the transition to digital. You’ve just got to go with it………”

Not that it was all beer and skittles during ‘Jonno’s’ 11-year reign as chief football writer.

“I copped plenty of ‘serves’ in my time,” he says. “Some coaches, like Tim Sanson, Richard Bence and Paul Spargo weren’t easy to get along with. But you’re not doing your job if you don’t cop the occasional ‘roast ‘.

“I thought I was in real trouble one night, at the end of a Morris Medal count at the SS & A Club, when I came face-to-face with a coach whom I hadn’t had the best rapport with all year.”

“I owe a North Albury official at the time a large debt of gratitude for defusing a potentially tricky situation.”

“Of course, Albury people were always happy to let you know whenever you’d made a ‘blue’, or if they won when you hadn’t tipped them in the paper that day. Nothing has changed…….”

“It’s interesting to look back, though…in that period, between 1997 and 2008, every team played in a Grand Final……..”

“I loved my time covering sport. I’ve been lucky enough to cover an Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, and major race meetings in Melbourne, like the Melbourne Cup and Cox Plate”

In the eleven or so years since, Dave has moved into General Journalism, with a particular focus on politics. But he’s retained an avid interest in the League, either through broadcasting stints with OAK-FM, doing match reports, and as a foundation member of the O & M League’s Hall of Fame selection panel.

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With the seeds of his first book planted firmly in his head, he roughly outlined its structure.

Only four of the 20 players from Myrtleford’s 1970 premiership – Kevin Smith, Pat Quirk, Terry Burgess Snr and Bob Crisp – had passed on.

His first interview was with the coach, Martin Cross.

“We yakked for two hours and didn’t even get around to the Grand Final,” he recalls.

He spoke to fellahs like Johnny Bianco, a local boy who ended up playing just six senior games with the Saints before teaching took him around the state. He’s always remembered, though, for the part he played in the premiership…

And there was Graeme Ward, whose career as a stock agent with Elders-GM had seen him strip with Albury, Corowa and Golden Square. He represented both the Bendigo and O & M Leagues in a brilliant career, before spending the best eight years of his footy life with Myrtleford……..

Once he started interviewing the surviving players Dave found all of them had an absorbing tale to tell. They were in good shape, as were other sources, Jimmy Mattassoni, who was Treasurer…..and club stalwart Ken ‘Kanga’ Johnston (the Secretary)……

“ Tobacco was big at that time. Myrtleford was booming…… There were Hospital extensions….houses being built everywhere…Lake Buffalo had just been constructed.”

“The Crisp boys, and Derek Taylor were drawn to the area. Those guys moved to Myrtleford in the ‘60’s, formed a building business, and never left. They became an vital part of the Football Club…..and the town.

Dave devoted two chapters to VFL-zoning, which was in vogue. He caught up with revered North Melbourne administrator – and recruiting ‘guru’ – Ron Joseph, who was a central figure in a stream of O & M players heading to the ‘Roos’ during this era.

The most prominent was Sam Kekovich, who was mythically swept off the training track at McNamara Reserve mid-way through 1968 and took out North’s B & F the following season.

Joseph also nominated the O & M players he missed out on – Stan Sargeant ( “could have kicked a VFL ‘ton”), George Tobias, Neville Hogan and John Smith – as certainties to have played League football.

Myrtleford’s pre-flag history, since their admission to the O & M ( 1950 – 1969 ), was also touched upon.

“The Saints had some excellent sides, and could have won a couple of premierships during the sixties. Then again, luck definitely played its part in the flag they did win……..”

“For instance, Wodonga champ Brian Gilchrist breaks a leg in the second last game of the 1970 season, to slightly expose the Bulldogs…..After 27 successive wins, the Rovers pip them in the Second-Semi Final.”

“Then Wodonga charge back after surrendering a fair deficit to Myrtleford in the Prelim….. Gary Williamson has a late shot which could recapture the lead in the dying seconds. The Saints hang on…..And the climax !…The Rovers take a handy 19-point lead into the last quarter of the Grand Final……Yet again, Myrtleford prevail…….”

“The pipe-dream was that Myrtleford could go on and repeat the feats of 1970 this season,” says ‘Jonno’. “But footy fairytales don’t come around too often, do they ?……..”

N.B: This week, his labour of love: ‘1970 – The Year Of The Saints’, becomes available to the public.

It hits the shelves of the following Booksellers: Edgar’s Newsagents, Wangaratta; Mahoney’s Newsagency, Wodonga, News Xpress, Myrtleford, and Dymock’s Albury. Orders can be placed at email: davidandliz5 @bigpond.com.au Cost: $30.

'KEEPING AN EYE ON THE FINAL…..'

By Guest blogger Simone Kerwin

“Sim!” A time-worn finger beckons my attention from the perimeter of the WJ Findlay Oval, where it’s owner perches on a bench seat, leaning on the fence.

Of course, I think. Why wouldn’t he be here in spirit, at the culmination of the competition played in his name.

“Hi, Pa. You’ve been watching?” I manage, as I step towards the ghost of my grandfather, who nods, as he peers out towards the middle.

“Terrific. Another generation’s in love with the game,” he says, gesturing towards his great grand daughter, who’s loving every minute of this as her team moves steadily towards a grand final victory.

“Things have changed since my day, but that’s the way of things,” he says.

I smile. Sometimes we forget that our forebears, as much as they would shake their heads in disbelief at the speed of the world’s progress, were the innovators who brought places like this very ground into being.

“The girls more than hold their own,” he says of the mixed contest playing out before him, “and the boys don’t bat an eyelid at the fact they’re there. Great!”

“First wicket of the day – straight through the dangerous opening bat,” he rubs his hands together, recalling Grace’s conquest, and probably the thrill of his own on this ground, years earlier. “I loved that. And she batted so well yesterday. Brave.”

He puts a hand up to shield his eyes from the glorious autumn sun.

“It’s a Yarra team they’re playing, did I hear?”

“Yeah.”

He nods again: “Would have been a rep game years ago.”

“Yeah,” I say, “the landscape’s changed. Not as many playing these days, so they’ve adapted – Dad drives as far as Mansfield to score for Rovers-United Bruck now.”

It’s almost as though he’s copped a jab, the way he flinches at the mention of the combine.

“Still can’t get used to that name,” he says grimly.

“What do you think about your great grand daughter playing for Wang-Magpies, then?” I ask, as I lean on the fence next to him.

“Ah well, whatever it takes; s’pose I was a Magpie once upon a time.” He glances over at the assistant coach, who’s following every ball as though he’s facing them himself. “She was never going anywhere else, and nor should she; he’s her hero, I reckon. That’s as it should be.”

“You’re his hero,” I say, directing his gaze to the figure on the other side of the oval; Dad’s circling the ground he’s traversed countless times throughout his life, lost in the contest and his grand daughter’s imminent success.

“And he’s one of mine, for sure,” he says.

HOWZAT!

A final wicket, and the 2019-20 Len Hill Memorial Shield lands safe in the hands of the Wangaratta-Magpies under 14s. I look over to catch the reaction of the man himself, but he’s gone. Gone, but definitely always here in spirit.

‘THE NICOLL’S OF WHOROULY……..’

Coronavirus has had the last say on the WDCA finals. They’ve been abandoned without a ball being bowled.

It’s an untimely conclusion to a season which has been rudely interrupted by Bushfire-haze, heavy overnight rain, or plus-40 degree heat.

There’s nothing unusual about Finals failing to reach their inevitable conclusion. Inclement early-autumn weather has often intervened in a competition that has spanned 125 years..

But permit me to explain the hiccup that came in April 1948, when Whorouly were sensationally punted from the Finals.

The Maroons, thanks to a contribution from the brilliant Nicoll’s, had overpowered St.Patrick’s in the Semi. Their total of 402 included a bludgeoning 130 from Wils Nicoll and 111 from his brother Ron.

The following Thursday, on Grand Final-eve , a lengthy, and heated WDCA executive meeting decreed that Wils Nicoll had flouted Association rules during the season, and had thus been ineligible for the recently-concluded Semi-Final.

His ‘crime’ ?…….Failing to take part in a WDCA representative match against Albury, after being selected and agreeing to play…………..

The decision caused ripples of discontent throughout cricket circles and rankled Whorouly followers. But the man at the centre of the controversy accepted it on the chin.

His effective response was to guide his side to a premiership the following season – and continue to represent the Association for the next ten years………

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Few families have played as significant a part in the WDCA’s long history as the famous Nicoll’s of Whorouly.

Their patriarch, William Wilson Nicoll, emigrated from Alyth, Scotland in the late 19th century. Excited by the prospect of a new life in Australia, he travelled firstly to Queensland, then in 1893, settled in Whorouly, with his wife, on a property they named after the town of his birth.

He was short of stature, had a troublesome hip and leg and wasn’t the sporting type. Nevertheless, he wholeheartedly encouraged his boys, who displayed an aptitude for cricket.

And he also made available some land, on which the Whorouly Recreation Reserve now stands.

His sons were all blessed with outstanding qualities as cricketers. Over the years debate raged as to who was the best of the clan.

Some say that Vic, who was tragically killed in a machinery accident in 1929, might have been the pick of them…..Ernie was another who had many admirers……Wils and Ron were powerhouses……

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Ron Nicoll’s talent was obvious when he made his debut for Whorouly in 1922, aged 12. But his development was halted when he contracted diphtheria. Seriously ill and reduced to just ‘skin and bones’ at 4 stone, it was to be the best part of three years before he fully recovered.

On his first season back he played with Everton, as Whorouly had disbanded for a year, but in 1926/27 the Maroons returned to the WDCA with a vengeance. The Nicoll’s played no small part in the premiership season, with Vic (649 runs, 39 wickets), Ernie ( 637 runs, 84 wickets) and 16 year-old Ron (492 runs and 40 wickets) contributing strongly.

Tall and rusty-haired, Ron stood upright at the crease. He drove and cut beautifully and was rarely mastered by the bowlers. It’s said that he could play what seemed like a routine forward defensive shot and the ball would scoot to the boundary.

That magnificent timing…….and a fine array of shots, were the key weapons in his armoury.

1938 was a Golden year for Ron Nicoll. At Melbourne Country Week his figures were: 112, 19 and 6/43, 168 retired, 70 and 74 not out. His tally of 443 runs is still to be bettered and helps explain why Wangaratta took out the ‘A’ Group title.

He scored 717 runs for Whorouly in the same season, including four centuries. His knock of 202 in a semi-final was described by the Chronicle as among the finest ever seen at the Showgrounds.

One of Ron’s most satisfying innings’ came three years earlier, when he opened the batting at the Gardens Oval with Benalla’s Tom Trewin, against an all-star New South Wales line-up. The pair added 91 before Trewin was removed. Nicoll top-scored with 65 out of the North-East XI’s total of 207.

Around this time he was approached by Richmond, who were keen to lure him to District cricket. But they were unable to drag him away from the farm.

A quality leg-spinner, Nicoll wasn’t afraid to toss the ball up, and possessed a handy ‘wrong-un’. His 322 wickets complemented the 6673 WDCA runs he scored.

Genuine and quietly-spoken, he was a popular figure in cricket circles and his love for the game had not abated after the War. He was a veteran by this stage and scored the last of his 16 centuries ( still a WDCA record ) in 1950/51, aged 40.

His Whorouly team-mates knew the end was nigh in 1953. Whilst still batting well he did the unthinkable one day, and dropped a couple of ‘sitters’ in slips.

“ ‘Ginge’ has grassed one,” was the surprise reaction to the first. Shock greeted the second.

Ron made 14 and took 3/43 in his final appearance, the 1952/53 Final. He had played 190 WDCA games ( and another 51 in the Myrtleford competition ) and a good portion of these were as captain of Whorouly.

He continued to be a mentor to the Club’s up-and-comers. His three daughters, Beth, Shirley and June were all taught to bowl the googly and leg-break and adopt the correct batting stance.

His service to the community included 15 years as a Shire Councillor and two terms as Shire President. Whorouly’s Ron Nicoll Bridge honours his contribution to sport and public life………

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Ron and his younger brother Wils gelled perfectly at the wicket, despite their contrasting batting styles.

This was best exemplified in a Wangaratta v Benalla Country Week clash at Collingwood’s Victoria Park in 1938.

Sent in on a dicey wicket, Wang were reeling at 2/1. The pair proceeded to put on 221 for the 3rd wicket. Wils was dismissed for 77 whilst Ron retired on 168 in a total of 378.

Ron was a craftsman at the crease, whereas Wils was murderous when in full flight.

Wils was slight and craggy-faced, spoke with a drawl and was completely bereft of style – the epitome of a ‘Bush Bradman’.

The story is told of the day he pushed open the white-picketed gate and sauntered onto St.Kilda’s Junction Oval, in a time of crisis for Wangaratta.

An old weather-beaten hat was pulled down to shield his eyes from the belting sun. Black socks were tucked into his well-worn white dacks , and his trusty, heavily-marked pigskin-covered bat had seen many a battle……

One fieldsman sneered, within hearing distance: “Have a look,at this bush yokel will ya……..”

Wils’s jaw tightened, his eyes narrowed….. and the battle began…….

Two hours later, he returned to the pavilion, having plundered the bowling in his usual ruthless manner. His innings of 130 had set up an easy victory.

He was a run-machine. His tally of 10,710 club runs, amassed in the WDCA and O & K competitions from 1927 to 1961, was staggering. He also took 418 wickets with his medium-pacers and played 293 games.

He won the WDCA batting average five times in eight years during the fifties,and finished with 20 centuries .

I witnessed one of the last of these – 178* at Tarrawingee. Yet to reach my teens, and pressed into ‘subbing’ for the ‘Dogs’ for part of the afternoon, the ball zoomed off the Nicoll blade, as I made countless trips to the boundary to retrieve it.

That was convincing enough for an impressionable youngster, but the thing that got me was that the old fellah smoked throughout his innings.

He would have a couple of drags between overs, then park the cigarette behind the stumps while he dealt with the Tarra attack……..

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Wils shared a 240-run stand with his 15 year-old son Peter in 1959/60, which gave every indication that the stylish left-hander would be a star of the future.

And the youngster certainly carried on the family tradition. His occupation as a stock agent took him away for periods of his career, during which he played with Richmond, Mansfield, Temora and in Wagga, but he managed to fit in 27 seasons with Whorouly.

After he’d negotiated the early overs and got into stride, Pete could turn on a batting ‘clinic’. If you happened to be driving past an Oval and spotted him at the crease it was well worth pulling over and catching half-an-hour of ‘Hollywood’s’ panache.

He scored 7561 runs and took 466 wickets for the Maroons, made 17 trips to Country Week, was selected to open against the West Indies, and played three games against touring Shield sides.

His brother Ian became better-known as a footballer who came from the clouds. He was floating around with Whorouly Reserves, but within two years was stripping with Carlton in an MCG Final.

“I didn’t have the batting skills of Dad or Peter,” Ian once told me. “I just took the advice of my uncle Ron, who said: “Just give it a good crack, son.” and that’s what I did.”

His most famous contribution to local cricket folklore was the double-century he scored, which included 24 fours. His second century came up in 40 minutes. The fifth-wicket partnership of 302 that he shared with his cousin Lex remains a WDCA record for any wicket.

Lex Nicoll’s story is a triumph of courage and determination. The son of Ernie, Lex was tipped to be a champ of the future.

On the eve of a 1951 footy semi-final, however, he woke up with a splitting headache, was rushed to hospital and diagnosed with the polio virus. “You’re lucky to be alive,” he was told.

Doctors informed him that he probably wouldn’t play sport again. But he set about proving them wrong.

Three years later, Lex returned to WDCA cricket and used a runner, as he was obliged to do for the remainder of his career. Opposition sides were pleased to see him playing at first, but soon found him an ‘immovable object’ in Whorouly’s upper-order.

He made 7 WDCA centuries and was part of Wangaratta’s much-lauded 1957 Provincial Country Week championship team. The 30-odd he made against a South Australian Sheffield Shield side in 1957 created a huge impression on the visitors.

But the locals were unsurprised by his fine knock.

After all, he was a Nicoll………..

‘OLD PIE TREADS DOWN MEMORY LANE……’

We first encountered him in the late-summer of 1965, on a sporty Princes Park wicket.

After back-to-back Country Week victories, our reasoning was that a third win, against the formidable Warragul, would have Wangaratta on the cusp of a spot in the Provincial Group Final – within reach of the most prestigious prize in country cricket.

But we hadn’t factored in Trevor Steer – a quickie with a high action, who could move the ball and make it steeple off a good length.

He and his slippery opening partner John Kydd proceeded to scythe through our batting; routing us for 71; then having us teetering at 8/55 when we followed-on – eons away from their total of 201……

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Fifty-five years later, Trevor’s hazy about the finer details of that game, but distinctly recalls a large group of kids from Princes Hill Secondary College clustered in the Robert Heatley Stand, giving him a ‘razz’ as he ran in to bowl:

“They must have been mostly Carlton supporters, and obviously twigged that I was the big, lanky bloke they’d seen trying to get a kick for Collingwood…….”

Less than two years on, he was still wearing a Black and White guernsey, but now it was as the newly-appointed captain-coach of Wangaratta…………….

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He’s 81 now, and has a trove of sporting memories:

….Like the time an uncle, George Hulett , took him for his first visit to the MCG: “I was nine years old, and Australia were playing a Test series against India. I’ll never forget laying eyes on that green oval , the huge stands, and seeing Bradman, Lindwall, Miller, Hasset, Barnes, Morris, Johnston and Tallon in the flesh,….”

“And to top it off Bradman scored a century. It made me determined that, one day, I’d get out there and play on that magnificent arena.”

He was raised at Drouin, spending his early years on a Dairy Farm before the family moved into town. He credits Bruce Tozer, a legendary teacher at Warragul High – and future State cricketer – as a tremendous sporting influence on he and his school-mates.

When Trevor headed off to boarding school at Scotch College he was a skinny, little tacker – just on 5’8”, and barely able to hold his place in Scotch’s Fourth 18 footy side.

But in his 18th year he grew roughly 7 inches. “I was playing with a church side, St.George’s, East St.Kilda. From struggling to get a possession one season, the next I was kicking bags of goals and starting to kill ‘em in the air. I thought: ‘How good’s this ?’ “

He travelled back home for a season, and played in Drouin’s 1958 premiership, before spending two years with University Blacks whilst completing his teaching degree.

That’s when Collingwood came knocking.

“Actually, they offered me a couple of games in late 1960, but I knocked them back. I couldn’t let Uni Blacks down by leaving during the season.”

The Steer VFL career ignited early in the opening round of 1961 when the Sherrin floated over the top of a charging pack, he ran onto it and nailed a goal with his first kick in League football.

He booted two goals on debut, but learned how unforgiving the ‘Pies fans were, as they reacted savagely to a 39-point mauling at Geelong’s Kardinia Park.

That boyhood dream of treading the hallowed MCG was realised two months later, in the Queen’s Birthday clash with Melbourne, in front of 78,465 fans. He nailed four out of Collingwood’s seven, in a 69-point defeat.

Trevor was teaching at Wonthaggi at this stage. His random training appearances at Collingwood mainly came during School Holidays. But the Magpies made sure to arrange a job for him back in the city in 1962.

For the next six seasons he revelled in the big-time atmosphere of League football. He occasionally muses how, but for two cruel twists of fate, he could easily have been a dual-premiership player.

In 1964, it was a dramatic goal from Melbourne’s pocket player Neil ‘Froggy’ Crompton which stole victory from the ‘Pies…….And St.Kilda fans still relate, with glee, Barrie Breen’s long, tumbling kick in the dying seconds of the ‘66 Grand Final, which registered a point and delivered their only flag.

1965, though, was Steer’s finest season. Big Ray Gabelich, the club’s key ruckman, went down early on and the 6 ft 3 inch, 84kg Steer was thrust into the role. He adapted so well that he took out the Copeland Trophy – Collingwood’s B & F – and was rewarded with the vice-captaincy the following year.

Trevor still found time, with his busy footy schedule, to return home to play cricket at Drouin. “Our coach Bob Rose, being an old cricketer himself, had no objection, as long as I organised it around practice-matches.”

His new-ball partner Des Nottage – an accurate medium-pace swing bowler – was a quality back-up, and the pair ran through most batting line-ups in the district. Along with prolific run-scorers like Tom Carroll and Stuart Pepperall, they helped Drouin Gold to five successive flags.

Besides fitting in two years of Country Week cricket (including the 1965 Final against Warrnambool at the MCG), Trevor also made two cameo appearances with District club Northcote.

“Someone from school who was tied up with the club invited me down there to train. I remember Bill Lawry was in the nets when I started bowling. They said: ‘Don’t upset him by giving him anything short, he’s got a Shield game on tomorrow’. I decided to try and get one to move away from him and bowled him. That must have impressed the experts; they picked me for a Cup-Day game.”

“Thinking back, I should have kept on at Northcote, but it was just too big a commitment at the time……..”

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A young Collingwood ruckman, Len Thompson, had arrived on the scene in 1966, and was being touted as, potentially, the finest big man in the game.

“They didn’t really want ‘Thommo’ being stuck in the back pocket, guarding the resting ruckmen, so that job fell to me. It didn’t really suit me, and I wasn’t all that happy,” Trevor recalls.

“I was teaching at Murrumbeena, but had received a promotion to Monbulk, which would mean a fair bit of extra travel to get to training. I gazed out the window of the classroom one day and saw these two bushy-looking blokes wandering around the school……Someone knocked on the door and said there were a couple of chaps who’d like to speak to me.”

“That was my introduction to Jack White and Gus Boyd. They said: ‘We’re from the Wangaratta Football Club and we’d like you to coach us. Are you interested ?’ “

“Sure,” I said, “but there’s one problem, you’d have to do something about organising a teaching transfer.” “Leave it to us,” they replied.

“The long and the short of it was that I went to Parliament House and met the local Member, Keith Bradbury, who somehow negotiated a transfer to Beechworth High.”

So, after calling it quits on his 88-game VFL career, Trevor and his wife Jill settled into a house in Swan Street, and embraced their new Club.

Wangaratta had been the ‘Bridesmaid’ in the previous three Grand Finals, but held high hopes that their new coach, and ace ruckman, could guide them to that elusive flag.

Wodonga, led by an old Collingwood team-mate Mickey Bone, were a revitalised unit in 1967, and loomed as the early favourites, but the ‘Pies were among several other worthwhile claimants.

Their hopes were vanquished by wayward kicking in the First Semi-Final at Rutherglen. Former coach Ron Critchley booted 0.9, as the Rovers prevailed by 3 points.

They remained contendors in each of the four Steer years, missing the finals by percentage in 1968, losing the First Semi to eventual premiers Myrtleford in 1970, and bowing out to powerhouse Wodonga in the 1969 Grand Final.

They felt the loss of their skipper in that game. He watched on as the ‘Dogs gained control; having sustained a broken hand in Round 18.

Trevor ranked among the best of a talented band of big men who ruled the air during this strong late-60’s era of O & M football. He represented the League each year and turned in one of his finest performances in the Country Championship Final of 1968.

10,000 spectators converged on the Horsham City Oval, as O & M turned on a paralysing last half to defeat Wimmera by 35 points.

The Wimmera Mail-Times reported that : “……It was ruckman Trevor Steer who made sure the O & M’s dominance in the latter part of the game never flagged.”

“Assisted by a mere handful of players, Steer created sufficient energy to keep O & M alive in the first half, and was a giant among giants in the last……….”

Magpies Cricket Club recruited Trevor when he first landed in town. He helped transform them from battlers to a gun combination. In his three and a half years in the WDCA he captured 153 wickets, played in three Grand Finals and helped them to their second flag, in 1967/68.

His strong performances in the North-East Cup competition justified selection against the Victorian Shield side at Benalla. Two years later, and after 49 wickets in just 11 Cup matches he was chosen to lead a Victorian Country XI against the touring West Indies at the Wangaratta Showgrounds in 1969.

That, Trevor says, provided the highlight of his cricket career. “To be rubbing shoulders with legends of the game like Hall, Lloyd, Nurse, Gibbs……. I have a photo on the mantlepiece, of tossing the coin with Garfield Sobers……then to mix socially with them….it was a huge thrill.”

…….That was just one of the many fond memories of his time in Wangaratta, he says….”Two of the kids were born there…..we made some lifelong friends.”

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The Steers moved to Healesville, and Trevor coached Kilsyth in 1971. In his final year of footy- with Healesville – in 1972, he snagged five goals in the Grand Final, to help the Bloods to a premiership.

“That was as good a time as any to go out, I thought. I was nudging 34. It was an privilege to have captained Healesville to both cricket and footy flags in the same year.”

But he continued to play cricket – at Inverloch, Bendigo, Mandurang and Mirboo North finally hanging up the spikes at the age of 53. School-teaching took he and Jill and their kids ( Peter, Leesa and Rodney) to East Loddon P-12 School as Principal, then to Mirboo North Secondary, also as Principal.

After leaving the teaching profession, Trevor operated a 288-acre Beef Cattle farm in South Gippsland for 18 years, but now, in retirement, the Steers are domiciled in the seaside town of Inverloch.

His passion for footy and cricket remains as intense as ever, but he admits that nothing surprises him too much about sport these days…….

Except for the occasion, six years ago, when Life Membership was bestowed up him by the Collingwood Football Club.

“That was the ultimate honour,” says the big fellah……….