‘ACCOLADES ELUDED OLD MAGPIE CHAMP…..’

Brett Keir doesn’t say much…..Never has.

When he was being inducted into Wangaratta Football Club’s Hall of Fame a couple of years ago, his old mate Billy McMillan was invited to join him on stage.

“He’s such an unassuming bugger that they thought there’d be ‘Buckley’s’ chance of getting him to elaborate on his career,” says Bill. “So I did my best to drag a bit out of him.”

The pair go back a long way. “We made our senior debuts the same season – 1979 – played alongside each other in the backline; knocked around together. I remember we used to drive to the away games with ‘Chooka’ Dean.”

“ Coming home from Albury, for instance, we’d grab a few cans and go the back way; replenish our supplies at Beechworth; maybe pop into the ‘Plough Inn’ at Tarra…… We’d dissect the game, and life in general……. ‘Balls’ didn’t drink much in those days, so he was usually the driver……..”

“Whenever we played at Yarrawonga, everyone would call in to a spot at Bundalong after the game for one of Brett’s specialties, the ‘Hangi’. He would go out early Saturday morning, prepare the ‘tucker’, and get the fire going. Then there were the Crayfish week-ends, and his famous ‘Duck Nights’, at which he used to supply, cook and oversee the menu .”
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Brett Keir’s the sort of person that Clubs are built around. He still contributes……does his turn behind the bar; is a regular attendee at Wood Days and the like. And after training, every Tuesday night, for the last twenty years, he, Rod Canny and Bruce Poulter have  provided soup and Hot Dogs for the players.

Only the super-veterans among them would have seen him play. Determination and courage were his trademarks. Well-proportioned and agile, he rarely ventured from deep in defence.

He was destined to be a Magpie. His family were keen followers of the club and his transition from the Junior Magpies was considered a formality.

But he did test the waters over the road. He and a future Magpie coach, Robbie Richards, played a handful of games with the Rovers Thirds before a touch of family influence prevailed.

After an apprenticeship of nearly two years with the Wang Thirds he finally earned his senior spurs. He was there for keeps.

His fine form at full back was one of the reasons why the Magpies were flying high in 1980, They finished on top of the ladder, and looked a distinct premiership chance. But in finals, there can be a fine line between glory and heartache.

They  led the Rovers for three-quarters of the Second Semi-Final, before the Hawks, with a six goals to one final term, took the game away from them.

And in a pulsating Preliminary Final, Wang led by 17 points heading into time-on. Then North booted the last three goals, to sneak home by a point.

“Brett got his pants pulled down that day by a blonde-haired forward called Andy Alderton, who finished with five goals and helped swing the game North’s way. But it was a good learning experience. Not too many other blokes got hold of him from then on,” Bill McMillan says.

There were star forwards aplenty in the O & M during the ‘80’s. Keir had the mandate to curtail goalkickers of the calibre of Brian Parkes, Steve Norman, John Longmire, Darrell Bakes, Neale McMonigle and David Turner.

“ Yarrawonga once had a bald-headed coach called Steve Jones, who kicked heaps of goals,” recalls McMillan. He was unlike most forwards, in that he used to get stuck into the backmen. I went to Brett’s aid one day, and he told me to keep away.” “You’ll only make the bastard more cranky,” he said.

Keir certainly benefited when North Melbourne’s premiership defender Frank Gumbleton was recruited to the ‘Pies in 1981. “Frank played alongside him for a year and took him under his wing. He became more polished and professional and graduated from being good to outstanding,” recalled one ex-team-mate.

He endured another steep learning curve when he headed off to Sydney on his first trip-away with the Magpies. “He was just a ‘pup’ at the time and his mum asked if I’d keep an eye on him,” says Clive McKibbin.

“On the very first night, we lost him. What a disaster ! We’re miles away from our hotel and the ‘baby’ of the trip’s gone missing. But he materialised the next morning, as large as life. He explained that he just kept following the beach around until he found the pub.”

The Magpies tumbled down the ladder quite dramatically in the early ‘80’s, and it was left to the redoubtable Keir to carry the backline on his shoulders in these tough times.

But he was highly-regarded throughout the League, and earned recognition, after the retirement of Albury’s Rod Coelli, as the premier full back in the competition.

He wore the Black and Gold Ovens and Murray guernsey 12 times, was twice rewarded with VCFL selection, and shared in Country Championship triumphs in 1986 and ‘87.

John Byrne was Keir’s coach for most of his representative stint. I once asked him for a summation of his key defender: “Very consistent; a really good player,” said Byrne, one of country footy’s most astute judges.

“He had great pace for a big fellow, which enabled him to play on tall and small opponents with equal success. “

“He could handle forwards who led quickly, and was always a sure ball-handler. I never saw him play a bad Inter-League game.”
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The well-documented Keir resilience saw him line up on countless occasions with injuries that would  ‘kill a brown dog’.  It was all part of his dedication to the cause. The only time his loyalty swayed was at duck-opening week-end.

Over the years, Brett resisted several tempting offers to leave the ‘Pies . To acknowledge his yeoman service they threw a 200-game Testimonial ‘shindig’ in his honour. Naturally, considering his popularity, it was a rollicking affair, and a tidy sum was raised.

It just proved a tad difficult to hand it over to him. “He wanted to donate it to the Junior League, or the Past Players. We had to get it to him in a round-about way,” recalled one official.

To the astonishment of the majority of his team-mates, a Best and Fairest eluded the champ during his 15 years and a club-record 264 games with Wangaratta.

So did a Senior Premiership, and when injuries started to become an impediment to producing his best in O & M football, he was enticed to Greta for a final farewell to the game.

His great mate Robbie Richards had taken charge of the Blues and it seemed like a perfect fit.

“We had our Hop-Farm out there, and I knew plenty of people,” says Brett.

The flag that he savoured finally came in 1995. Greta led at every change and held off a fighting Beechworth resurgence in the final quarter, to win by four goals.

The Chronicle reported : ‘…..it was a fitting reward for Robbie Richards and Brett Keir, whose long careers were crowned with victory. Keir led a strong Greta defence with a Best-on-Ground performance……….”

Brett celebrated accordingly :“I took my swag out and slept under the Greta Hall that night. It turned out a big week-end.”

“I did a knee 5-6 weeks into the next season, and came back just in time for the finals. I knew then it was time to give it away,” he says.

Nowadays, Brett loves heading off into the bush to his favourite fishing and shooting haunts, or up to the Wonnangatta, where he’ll trudge miles and miles in search of deer.

He also tends to a couple of big vegetable gardens out at his Colson Road property, in between working as a Gardener at the Wangaratta and Shepparton Private Hospitals, and helping a plumber install Water-Tanks.

But he certainly doesn’t miss those goal-square battles with annoying forwards…………

 

 

SON OF A GUN SPREADS THE FOOTY GOSPEL……

For a bloke who has experienced his share of football’s vagaries, Robbie Richards remains remarkably upbeat.

He underwent the tribulation of dual knee reconstructions which robbed him of close to four years of his playing career… was at the mercy of a fickle committee which cut short a coaching stint… then endured some of the darkest times in his club’s history.

Yet he retains a boyish enthusiasm for the game.

He’s still vitally involved in footy, more than 40 years after he first excitedly stepped out  as a slight, skilful youngster, with the Junior Magpies.

I caught up with Rob at last week-end’s Junior League finals. He had just come from giving one of his Magpie Thirds players a fitness test and was gearing up for their Elimination Final the next day.

Match-day coaching stresses him, he says. Rather, being able to sit back and watch a game, and pinpoint some good kids, as he was doing, gives him a real buzz ……….

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In his heyday, during the sixties, his dad Len, was a pillar in defence for Wangaratta. It takes something exceptional for a back pocket player to win a Best & Fairest, but that’s what the tough and uncompromising Lennie did in the Magpies’ famous premiership year of 1961.

He had joined the ‘Pies via Eldorado and Tarrawingee and was a steadying influence amidst flamboyant personalities like Kevin Mack, ‘Rinso’ Johnstone and ‘Bushy’ Constable and champs of the calibre of Ron McDonald and John Mulrooney.

Rob3Wang were around the upper rungs of the ladder for most of Len’s 152 games and when he took on the coaching job at Chiltern in 1967, some suggested it might be a hazardous task to win over the tight-knit footy town.

To the contrary, he proved immensely popular and led them to the 1968 flag during four enjoyable years with the Swans.

“They’re terrific people, and Mum’s still got a lot of good friends from Chiltern,” says Rob, who, as a young whippersnapper, recalls tagging along behind Len, whilst he performed his coaching duties.

It’s always intrigued me, I put to him, how he ended up playing with the Rovers Thirds.

” Well, Dad didn’t put any pressure on me. The Rovers invited me to have a run when the Junior League season finished in 1977. The Thirds reached the Grand Final and I could easily have stayed there.”

“But they were really strong at that time and I couldn’t see myself breaking into the senior side in a hurry.”

So Rob headed over the road…. and the rest is history.

Rob2He was a talented winger with all the skills – and soon developed into one of the O & M’s best.

Wang finished on top in 1980, and were 4 points up at three-quarter time of the second semi-final against the Rovers. But they couldn’t withstand a withering last term from the Hawks.

Richards was the Magpies best. The following week, when they kicked 18.10, to go under by a solitary point to North Albury, in the Prelim Final, he again shone.

There would be plenty more finals ahead, he no doubt thought. But it was to be his last September experience for a few years, as the Pies plummeted down the ladder.

The next decade or so was to prove something of an on-field roller-coaster for Rob Richards.

In the midst of some superb form in 1982, which saw him being tipped for inter-league selection, he ‘did’ his knee, and missed the rest of that season – and the next – after the resultant reconstruction.

In the meantime, he moved to Maffra in his employment as an Electrician and had not long settled into the LVFL club when the knee ‘popped’ again……. resulting in another agonising spell on the sidelines.

It takes time to restore confidence and touch when you’ve been out of the game for such a lengthy period. But when Rob returned to Wangaratta he was a solid contributor – aside from a two-year absence, as assistant-coach to Brendan Allan, at Milawa.

He made 142 senior appearances with the Pies, spanning 17 seasons. In the last, he combined playing, with coaching the Thirds.

It was a handy preparation for the Greta coaching job, which he accepted in 1995. I twig his memory by running through some of the names in this star-studded side, like Paul Hogan, Brett Keir, Peter Mulrooney, Alan Millard and John Shay…

“From half-way through the season, Beechworth and us were shaping as likely Grand Final opponents. And that’s how it turned out. We led comfortably, then the Bombers fought back in the last quarter. We ended up winning by about four goals,” Rob says.

Greta dropped just one game for the season and the Chronicle reported that it was ‘…….a fitting reward for the veterans Richards and Keir, who had finally capped their fine careers with a premiership…’

Spaced 27 years apart, the rare achievement of a father and son coaching O & K flags had the statisticians scurrying for the record books.

After two years at Greta, Rob decided to take a year off. He was really enjoying the break, when Wang officials approached him, seeking a favour.

Maurie Wingate was struggling to combine the coaching job with running his sports-store. Could he possibly lend him a hand for a while ?

Sure, he said. But two rounds into the season, Wingate resigned and Rob was thrust into what was then the toughest gig in O & M football.

“After a couple of games, I realised how precarious the situation was. They’d done no recruiting; had no money. I said to the Board : ‘…Look, we’ve just got to put our heads down and grind out the year…..’ I thought we were on the same page, and we battled through.”

“I was happy to continue the next season, but a few weeks later, they called out to see me at Toil and Soil, with the news that they were bringing Gary Cameron and Marty Dillon over from South Australia to coach.”

“I could see where they were coming from, but it was really disappointing not to be kept in the loop. Still, it doesn’t do any good cracking the sads, does it ? You’ve got to move on.”

Rob coached Tigers for the next two season (winning the 1998 flag)  and had the pleasure of being in charge of AFL players of the future, in Steve Johnson and Luke Mullins.

After another year at the helm of Greta (2000), he made a playing comeback, picking up a few kicks – and having one of his most enjoyable years of football – with their Reserves side.

When his good friend, Jon Henry, assumed the senior coaching position at Wangaratta, Rob came on board as Reserves coach for two years, followed by another two as the Thirds mentor.

In recent times he has been tied up with Imperials, where his sons Nick and Joe came through the ranks. He was named the AFL North-East Junior coach of the year in 2014.

So it was only natural, when the Pies were casting around for a Thirds coach this season, that Rob agreed to step into the breach – for his third stint with the Under 18’s.

He can now anticipate what might become the most enjoyable period of his marathon sporting journey – following the progress of his kids, Nick, Joe and Olivia.

Rob1Nick, a classy small forward, has made a big impression with the Murray Bushrangers this season.

The laconic 16-year old Joe hit the headlines earlier this year, with an 11-goal haul against Corowa-Rutherglen, in one of the handful of senior appearances he made with the Magpies.

He’s one of his dad’s key weapons, as the Wangaratta Thirds strive to take out their fourth flag in five years.   Rob4Olivia has also done well in her first season with the club’s Under-16 Netball side.

One thing’s for sure ; the Richards kids won’t be facing any undue pressure from their old man, whose vast experience has taught him to read youngsters like the back of his hand.

He’s a highly-respected football person, is Robbie Richards……

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