“…….KARL…….”

“Just a tip,” they said ……”When you ring him it’ll dial out……But don’t bother leaving a message. He never returns your call.”

So I took this advice on board, and kept trying……Once, twice…..four times. A minute or so after the fifth, later in the night, the phone rings. His inquisitiveness must have got the better of him.

“Karl, here…………”

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When we meet up, he’s just come from receiving some treatment on a calf that’s been causing him some grief.

The massive 116kg frame of Karl Norman, has let him down at times this year. Any wonder…..he turned 35 a couple of months ago. But he’s confident that, with a bit of tender care, he’ll be right to guide Glenrowan through another finals series.

He’s been known as one of football’s after-dark larrikins, although he admits he’s slowing up in that department. But on the field he’s as passionate as they come. It’s always been the feature of his game.

He still loves playing, and can’t see any reason why he should give it away just yet. It’s some of the other parts of footy that he’s not totally enamoured with. Watching from the sidelines, says Karl, has never really turned him on.

Apart from his flirtation with the big-time, he reckons he would have only been to half-a-dozen other AFL games and rarely watches it on telly. Once we broach the subject of footy and other matters, though, I realise there’s more to Karl Norman than meets the eye…………

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He says he wasn’t big on Aussie Rules when he was a nipper. Despite his dad’s feats as a champion full forward, he was more into soccer and tennis. “Mum thought I’d get sick of it if I started too early,” he says.

But his obvious talent, which showed through once he took a fancy to the Sherrin, saw him debuting with Greta’s senior side at 15. The following year he followed his step-father Andrew Smith over to Glenrowan.

Approaches came from the Murray Bushrangers when he moved in to the Rovers Thirds in 2000. “Mum drove me up to training at Wodonga a few times. I’d been working on the family orchard since I was 16 and it was fairly tiring. The Bushies sort of suggested that I should apply myself a bit more if I wanted to get anywhere. Bugger that, I thought, I want to enjoy my footy.”

He was a standout with the Thirds, won their B & F, and was blooded in a couple of senior games. Then it was back out to Glenrowan for another season – and another B & F.

One reason Karl was lured back to the Findlay Oval in 2002, was to satisfy the urgings of his dad, Steve, whose feats as a 242-game player with the Wangaratta Rovers are still spoken of in reverential terms.IMG_3554

1016 goals ( a Club record ), seven premierships ( a Club and League record). Inducted to both the Rovers and O & M Halls of Fame. One helluva player. Spearheads of his calibre come along only once every couple of generations.

Expectant club die-hards ran the rule over the young bloke and concluded that he stripped more like his grand-father – former Magpie full back ‘Rinso’ Johnstone – than his old man. At 190cm and a finely-proportioned 86kg, the romantic notions that he would line up in front of goal were cast aside when he began to shine in a key defensive role.

At 19, he took on – and outpointed most of the O & M’s gun forwards. “The thing about Karl was he that had an ideal temperament. Nothing phased him. It was just ‘See ball- Get ball’,” recalled an old team-mate.

The game that probably defined him to the broader O & M public was a Rovers – Corowa-Rutherglen clash, when he pulled down 15 marks at centre half-back in a thrilling drawn game.

His good form continued, and he was scarcely hindered when he suffered a broken hand in a late-season game. Two days after it had been set, Karl calmly cut the plaster off so that he could play his part in the Hawks’ finals campaign.

The Rovers pulled back a 41-point North Albury lead in the third quarter of the Grand Final, to briefly hit the front early in the final term. But the Hoppers then blew them away with six goals in 17 minutes.IMG_3556

Norman and the peerless Robbie Walker were the Hawk stars. In fact, Karl had been dominant in each of the three finals, and capped his season by finishing runner-up to Walker in the B & F.

He had no idea that there had been any interest in him from AFL recruiters. “But I did hear later on that Carlton were up at Lavington for the Grand Final,” he says.

So when the Blues grabbed him as a ‘smokey’, chosen at pick 79 in the November draft of 2002, it was a surprise. Rarely does a player in the modern era arrive in League football from beyond the elite system. Thus, Carlton fans surmised, this bloke must be something special.IMG_3548

His improvement was steady. Solid form in defence with the Northern Bullants earned him seven AFL games in his first season.

Then things went awry. His name was emblazoned across the sporting pages early in 2004, when he and Laurence Angwin had an ‘all-nighter’ and arrived for Sunday morning training under the weather.

Angwin was sacked, Norman was given a reprieve and proceeded to repay the faith that the Blues’ senior players had shown by hanging onto him. A brilliant rebounding game against Geelong earned him a Rising Star nomination. A solid 2004 saw him make 16 senior appearances and be spoken of as one of the key planks in a possible Carlton revival.

But after four early games the following season, he was relegated to VFL ranks, where he continued to churn out consistent performances.

“Peter Dean and old ‘Libba’, who were coaching at the Bullants, kept telling me to keep battling away; that my form was pretty good. We ended up getting done in the Preliminary Final that year. I got a bit disheartened, though. I just hated the city….And the total emphasis on football…. It was a relief, in a way, when they delisted me. I couldn’t wait to get out of the place.”IMG_3555

“Steve Johnson’s dad, Terry, reckons I’d have been better suited to Geelong, where it’s not so much of a rat-race……Maybe….But no use dwelling on the past……”

He says Leigh Matthews left a message for him, asking him to discuss a possible move to Brisbane. “But I didn’t ring back.” The Western Bulldogs invited him to do the 2006 pre-season. …. “Great”, I said. “How’d that go ?” “I didn’t turn up.”

Instead, a mate, Steve Aloi, talked Karl into playing at Mooroopna, under ex-Geelong player Derek Hall. He spent two years there before his inevitable return to the Rovers.

His form was patchy at first, and he had limited impact as a key forward. Then a switch into the ruck brought about the transformation that made him an all-powerful figure in O & M football over the next five seasons.

And a larger-than-life character within the club. ‘Karl Tales’ are still told, and probably embellished. A team-mate recalls the playing group huddling together on the ground for a last-minute pep-up before one game. “Get a whiff of ‘Normo’s’ breath,” someone said .

The popular assumption was that, having climbed aboard the tractor to knock the frost off the cherry trees earlier that morning, he’d taken along a couple of cans of Johnnie Walker for company.

“Never affected him, though. He went out and took charge; rucked all day.”

It’s worth detailing his record in his second-coming at the Findlay Oval. Top-five in the Best and Fairest in all but one year, he was runner-up twice and took out the coveted Bob Rose Medal in 2012.IMG_3549

Twice an O & M rep, he finished third in the Morris Medal in 2011 and fifth the following year. For my money, Karl lifted his game to another level in 2012.

He recalls it with mixed emotions. “We’d come off almost being wooden-spooners the previous season, but the side comprised mostly locals who seemed to come of age. Barry Hall just topped us off, I suppose.”

“And to be nearly six goals up early in the last quarter of the Second-Semi, with a spot in the Grand Final within reach, and lose the game……..Gee it hurt…..I think about that after-the-siren kick of Barry Hall’s nearly every day……..”

There was considerable anguish in the Rovers camp, when, after 121 games, Karl headed back to Glenrowan in 2014, in pursuit of that elusive premiership.

He was about to write another chapter in his career – that of a roaming centreman cum relief-ruckman.

The Kelly Tigers had never come remotely close to being a premiership threat since being elevated to the Ovens & King League. Pitied for their uncompetitiveness, they had been on the end of some fearful beltings.

Suddenly they were up and about. People can debate how they’ve achieved it, but to maintain the momentum to win four successive flags is a remarkable effort. It’s never been done before – and, don’t forget- they rate a good chance of making it five in a row.

Karl has been one of the principal reasons. I’ve seen him manipulating things from the centre square in each of those Grand Finals …..reading the play, bringing team-mates into the game with a deft tap, a long handball into the open, or a deep, well-placed kick.

He has been runner-up for the O-K’s Baker Medal three times, third once, and won three Glenrowan B & F’s in that time.

He’s got a bit more on his plate these days; with work on the orchard, doing up a house he recently bought in Wangaratta and running a few cattle, things are pretty busy. But, come September, the big fellah will be doing his best to lift the Tigers to another flag…………….IMG_3552

FICKLE FANS FRAZZLED FORMER BLUE…….

I remember the night Ian Nicoll’s football career turned around…………

It was a mid-September evening in 1968. We’re shoe-horned into a packed Festival Hall for Johnny Famechon’s Commonwealth title bout with the Canadian featherweight, Billy McGrandle.

The crowd erupts, as the national hero appears from a darkened corridor, sparring and bobbing his way down the aisle. Shortly after, amidst the razzamataz and pre-fight hubbub, the ring announcer calls the crowd to attention:

“Ladeez and Gentlemen…..Before we begin proceedings, For the benefit of the football fans here, I have an important announcement to make…..There has been a late change to the Carlton team for tomorrow’s Second Semi-Final clash with Essendon.”

“Ian Nicoll has been named to take the place of the injured Dennis Munari……….”
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For a bloke who had ‘come from the clouds’ to play League footy, this was a rare opportunity.

Ian knew that, in the ‘pressure-cooker’ of a VFL final, in front of a crowd exceeding 100,000, he would need to produce his best.

We watched on, as he turned in a more than serviceable performance. The Blues booted seven goals to one in the last half, to run away from the Bombers by 36 points.

Inevitably though, the classy Munari regained full fitness a fortnight later, and took his place as second rover in the Grand Final line-up. The boy from Whorouly was consigned to the sidelines, as Carlton snatched a thriller by three points, over a valiant Essendon.

But a sniff of the finals atmosphere had convinced Ian Nicoll that he had the prerequisites to acquit himself capably in League football………..
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He grew up among cricketing bluebloods at Whorouly, inheriting a sporting pedigree from his father Wils and uncles Ron, Ernie and Vic, who set prodigious batting records at the Memorial Oval,some of which still stand.

Ian was conspicuous as a youngster, with his slight build, horn-rimmed glasses and shirts  buttoned to the wrist to protect a delicately pale skin.

“I didn’t have the batting technique of Dad, or my brother Peter,” he says. “Uncle Ron once said to me: ‘Just give it a good crack, son,’ And that’s what I did.”

Ian’s most famous contribution to local cricketing folklore is the double century he scored, which included 24 fours and a six. The fifth-wicket partnership of 302 with his cousin Lex remains a WDCA record for any wicket. His second century came up in just 40 minutes.

So his slot in the assembly-line of a famous cricketing family was well-recognised . Not so obvious was his prowess as an up-and-coming footballer.

He played about 100 games with Whorouly.

“About half of those were with the Seconds,” he says. “When I broke into the Seniors, Terry Burgess was coach, then Ron Critchley took over. It was because of Critchley, who had moved on to coach Wangaratta, that I was talked into having a run with the Magpies in 1966.”

Aged 19, he enjoyed an outstanding season with Wangaratta, who looked to be the only likely challenger to Murray Weideman’s all-powerful Albury.

The Pies really took it up to the Tigers in a thrilling second semi, and were doing all the attacking in the final stages. At the 29-minute mark, Nicoll streamed goalwards,  but his kick veered off-line, to leave the ‘Pies one point down. Critchley had just about got his foot to the ball for another shot at goal when the siren sounded. Albury had won by a point.

The Tigers made no mistake in the Grand Final though, and controlled the game throughout, to win by 55 points……….
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Ian had ‘nibbles’ from Richmond, Collingwood and Carlton at season’s end. He had accepted a transfer to the city in his job as a clerk with the Railways and hadn’t given much thought to his football future.

“I had no great pretensions about my footy ability, but Dad said: ‘Why don’t you have a run at Carlton. You just have to turn left there on Sydney Road. It’ll be the most convenient for you.”

“I hadn’t signed anything, but after the second practice match old Jack Wrout (Chairman of Selectors) pulled me aside and said: ‘Look Ian, we’re going to put you on the list. If you work your butt off I reckon you’ll make it.’ “

He was a relative lightweight, tipping the scales at just 73 kg and standing at 179cm, but possessed a couple of prized assets – pace to burn and a distance-devouring left boot.

Progress was slow – a token senior game in 1967 and scant opportunities for most of ‘68. Things were looking bleak……until the selectors threw him that life-line in the Second Semi-Final………

Ian put in a red-hot pre-season in 1969 and knew that he wasn’t far away from senior selection.

His big chance came in a Round 2 match against Hawthorn. He was one of a heap of stars who glittered, as the Blues booted 12.6 in the final quarter, to amass 30.30 to the Hawks’ 12.10.

With a string of consistent performances during the season, Ian had now supplanted Denis Munari as the second-string rover to Adrian Gallagher.

One of the highlights of the Blues’ 36-point win over minor-premiers Collingwood in the semi was Nicoll’s exhilarating, team-lifting run around the Member’s Stand wing, and a spearing pass up forward.

Old rivals Carlton and Richmond tangled in front of 119,000 fans to decide the 1969 premiership. “We led by four points at three quarter-time, but they ran over us in the last quarter. They kicked 4.7 to our two points. It was a huge disappointment,” Ian recalls.

“That was the day Billy Barrott was switched to full forward and kicked some telling goals, and big John Ronaldson snagged a couple from well out.”

Ian again shone during 1970, but after two average games towards the end of the season, Carlton coach Ron Barassi rung the changes and he made way for utility Bert Thornley in the semi-final ine-up.

And Thornley held his place for the famous Grand Final, which saw the Blues come from 44 points down to bury Collingwood.

Ian knew deep-down that his League career was over. “I was physically and mentally worn out. To be truthful, I never came to terms with all the glamour, the publicity and worst of all, the fickle supporters.”

“It was a great thrill to play alongside the likes of Nicholls, Silvagni and Jesaulenko and the like, but you know when you’ve had enough.”

So after 41 games with the Blues he headed to VFA club Preston for a couple of seasons.

Then he decided to play locally, with Mount Evelyn. “I had a bit of a link with a few of their fellahs. I met them when they came up to Wang for a footy trip a few years earlier.”

“There was no money involved. I just enjoyed the Club and must have played about 130 games over the next 10 years.”

Ian finally hung up the boots at the age of 34.

Although he admits he’s not a great spectator, he did follow the sporting exploits of his son David, who played in 3 footy Grand Finals at Boronia, and was a more than handy cricketer. His daughter Sarah also played good quality Netball for many years.

It was at a Carlton Re-Union many years ago, that an old team-mate, Kevin Hall, precipitated a change of direction in Ian’s life.

“He ran a successful Printing business and suggested  I should buy a Vehicle and come and work with him. He had another crack at me a while later, so I decided to take the plunge.”

“I delivered Stationery for Kevin for 24-25 years. I’m still working as a delivery driver for a firm in Knoxfield.”

What a long and winding journey  it’s been for the boy from Whorouly……………

 

 

 

 

DEDICATION TAKES VALLEY YOUNGSTER TO THE TOP ……

Old-timers around Whitfield joke that they discovered a magic elixir in the cool, crystal-clear waters of the King River, in the early 1990’s.

That’s why, the wags say, a spate of talented young footballers began to emerge, much to the excitement of the King Valley faithful, who hadn’t had much to cheer about for a decade.

At one stage the ‘Roos weren’t able to muster the numbers to field an under-age team. And when they eventually did, they were on the receiving end of some fearful hidings.

Within three years the Valley had won a Thirds premiership and bold predictions were being made about a few of the kids who wore the Blue and White with distinction in 1993.

The assessments were spot-on:

Lanky, blonde-haired Leigh Newton, was to win the O & M’s Morris Medal in 1996, and go on to play 13 AFL games, before injury cruelled his career at Melbourne…….

The long and winding journey of his younger brother, Mick, would include time with the Murray Kangaroos, a couple of stints in the O & M, and coaching roles with the Valley and Milawa…….

Bruce Hildebrand would move on to the Rovers, then to Coburg, where he was to earn selection in a VFA Under 23 team………

But probably the pick of them was a beanpole ruckman, who would, in the years to come, lock horns with the best big men in the land, and establish a reputation as a lion-hearted performer……

His name ? ………. Mark Porter.

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The Porter tale is one of extraordinary dedication.

Yarns have been passed down by his old Wangaratta High School mates, of his lunch-time weight sessions……… downing tub after tub of yoghurt …………..always toiling away on his fitness.

His first senior coach, Gary Bussell, once recalled: “I actually watched him in a Thirds Grand Final when he was 15. He looked like a gangly calf. He could hardly stand up.”

“Mark actually worked on his strength one whole summer. He pushed his chest out 10 centimetres and built his arms up like you wouldn’t believe.”

The result was, that at 17, in his first senior season, he matched wits – and physicality – with the best of the O & K’s ruckmen – and came up trumps.

It was all rather heady stuff for the Year-12 student, when he received an invite to the League’s vote-count – and shocked the crowd by taking out the Baker Medal. He had created history by becoming the youngest Medallist ever.

The anticipated calls came from Ovens and Murray clubs. He was in demand.

Wang.Rovers coach Laurie Burt headed the queue. When Mark explained that he would be shifting to Melbourne to undertake a Physical Education degree, Laurie organised for him to train at his old club, Coburg.

The suggestion, of course, was that Mark might return home each Friday night and spend the season with the reigning premiers.

But his dad, Merv, wasn’t keen on that idea.

“Laurie said : ‘That’s okay, but can you at least play a practice match with us ? ‘ I came home one week-end and had a run against Wodonga, but I’d more or less decided that I was going to stick with Coburg,” Mark said the other day.

It proved an inspired decision.

“I was a bit lucky that one of the big men got injured and another one walked out,” he says of being thrust into the role of number one ruckman.

He enjoyed a magnificent season and handled the huge step from the O & K to the VFA with ease. So much so that he was awarded the Round-Fothergill Medal as the VFA’s Rookie of the Year.

In his two years with Coburg, Mark represented the VFA against Tasmania and NSW and had become firmly established as one of the competition’s ‘big guns’.

His coach, Kevin Breen, rated him “probably the best tap ruckman going around.”

So it wasn’t surprising that Carlton’s recruiting manager Shane O’Sullivan, was on his hammer. He was eager for the big fellah to play a Reserves game towards the end of 1996 , but was unable to make contact.

When they did eventually meet up, he invited Mark to do a pre-season.    Suitably impressed, the Blues nominated him as their sole selection in the ’97 Rookie Draft; a ‘project player’, alongside established ruckmen, Justin Madden and Matthew Allen.

Four years earlier, he had guided King Valley Thirds to a flag. Now the lad with the imposing  6’7″, 105kg frame, was on the cusp of League football.

Unfortunately, a broken bone in his hand at the start of the season cost Mark six weeks and he was fully expecting to play the rest of the year in the two’s. But he had ‘come on’ so rapidly that he was the obvious replacement for regular number one ruckman Matthew Allen, who had been ‘rubbed out’ for charging Demon Leigh Newton ( yes, Mark’s old team-mate ! ).

As he became more familiar with the intricacies of the big man’s craft at the highest level, Mark continued to develop. His tap-work was lauded, but he knew he needed to have more strings to his bow.

“You’ve got to earn your stripes in the AFL. If you haven’t got all the tricks you get left behind. I had to play aggressively and tackle strongly. And then start to take a few ‘grabs’ ,” Mark said.

A knee injury in a 1999 practice match ruled him out for a season, and halted his progress for most of the following year.

But he played superbly in 2001, and it was somewhat surprising that, after 55 games with the Blues, they traded him to North Melbourne, as part of a swap for Corey McKernan.

Mark fitted nicely into the Kangaroos’ set-up, alternating in the ruck with Matthew ‘Spider’ Burton, and chalking up another 55 senior games in his three-year stay at Arden Street.

The Porter work-ethic had not just been confined to the field of football. Mark had been studying assiduously and completed a degree in Financial Services and Master of Business and was more prepared than most for life after football.

The end came, for him, at the top-level, when North delisted him at the end of  the 2004 season.

“I was still keen to keep playing the highest standard I could, so I signed with North Ballarat and spent a season back in the VFL. Then Anthony Stevens talked me into joining him at Benalla in 2006 “, Mark says.

A couple of locals who saw Mark play at Benalla, reckoned  that the slower style of footy suited him down to the ground. He dominated the big-man duels and knocked up taking marks.

He helped the Saints to their first Grand Final in years, but they were outplayed by a strong Seymour side.

” Stevo decided to retire after that, but I lined up again. Things were going okay until I broke my arm and ended up in the Wang Base Hospital after Round 10. That was the finish for me. I was needing knee surgery, so it was time to pull the pin.”

Life has remained pretty hectic for Mark Porter. Married, with three young kids, he spends a lot of his professional time, along with Brad Wira, the ex-Bulldog and Freo Docker, co-ordinating the AFL Player’s Association’s Financial Education program. It is designed to instruct young players on how to maximise their financial potential.

The pair are also advisers for the AFLPA and AFL Industry Superannuation Plan and Mark is continuing his Financial Planning studies.

The young man who was dubbed ‘an old-fashioned blue-collar ruckman’, has transitioned perfectly into the white-collar world.

It’s seemingly light years away from the idyllic surrounds of the King Valley cattle farm………

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A LIFETIME OF SERVICE TO FOOTBALL……..

The name, ‘Hopper’ McCormick, is firmly implanted in local football folklore.

It may conjure images, to those of an earlier vintage, of a sturdy defender, with abundant traits of determination and discipline and the ability to clamp down on dangerous opposition forwards……..

Many will recall a lean, smooth-moving left-footer, able to be used, with equal effect, in defence or attack. They’ll hark back to the the injuries, which played havoc with his career – but not before he had made a sizeable impact on the game.

Still fresh in most people’s minds is the vision of a brilliant, creative on-baller, capable of swinging a match with his scintillating ball skills. Many rank him among the greats of O & M football.

Then there are his two siblings – less talented by comparison, but blessed with the knack of fine disposal, who carried the additional pseudonyms of ‘Turtle’ and ‘Apples’.

However, there is more to this footballing dynasty – which spans  80 years – than just on-field achievements and a nickname that has stuck like glue……….

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John William McCormick ( ‘Hop’ sounds more appropriate) turns 92 next month. He’s a tad proppy these days and thankful for the ‘Walker’ that helps him to manoeuvre around.

But there’s no doubting his memory. He’s as sharp as a tack and I’m sure no-one’s able to bring bygone eras to life the way Hop can.

He credits his old man, Dave, for fostering his love of the game.

“Dad couldn’t kick over a jam tin, but by gee he loved his footy. He was one of a handful of people, along with Peter Prest, Bill Heffernan and Aub Jackel, who were responsible for forming the Wang Junior League in 1938.”

Hop wasn’t really old enough to play, but managed to squeeze in a few games the next season, when the South Wanderers were short.

War was declared, the juniors went into recess, and the only way youngsters like him could get their footy fix for a couple of years, was to train with the Wangaratta team, which was competing in the Murray Valley Patriotic Association.

He then served in the Air Force for 16 months ( “I helped win the war at Essendon ! “) and, on his return home, joined a newly-formed team – the Rovers – who had been admitted to the Ovens and King League.

I tell him I’m tickled by that unlikely correlation – ‘Hop’ McCormick and the Rovers. But he assures me it was only for one season, after which he moved on to fulfill his dream – of playing with Wangaratta’s O & M club, the Magpies.

He was about to become part of football legend.

Tom Tribe, the ex-Footscray star, had been the mentor in his first two seasons. His successor, a respected Collingwood forward, Mac Holten, initiated a training regime which moulded the Pies into the fittest and best-drilled team in the competition.

“Holten completely changed the coaching dynamic by getting us to play a flow-on game. He was a great coach,” Hop says.

Wang swept to four successive flags – 1949 to ’52 – with an array of talent which compares to anything ever assembled in O & M football. The dour McCormick formed part of a water-tight defence, led by the pillars, Lionel Wallace and Jack Ferguson.

He became King Valley’s first paid coach in 1953 and despite little on-field success, reckons the four years he spent in the hills were among the most enjoyable of his football career.

“Lorna and I had a great time, and made many life-long friends.”

Hop was rising 31 when he returned to the Magpies in 1957;  unsure if he still had it in him to command a regular senior place. There was no cause for concern. He slotted back into a strong defence and played his part in a heart-stopping Grand Final victory over Albury – his fifth flag in 7 seasons of O & M football.

The rivalry between the two Wangaratta clubs was at its most intense during the 50’s. One story, which has filtered down through the years illustrates how passions were on a knife’s edge in the ‘local derby’:

Hop was given the task of shutting down one of the Rovers stars, in a match which had already produced its share of fireworks. Suddenly, he reeled from a pack ; a ‘blue’ started ; he was worse for wear, but Dr.Howard Marks finally revived him with a whiff of smelling salts.

His dad, a dead-keen supporter, took exception to Hop’s treatment and became involved in a heated argument with some vocal Hawks ; the result being that there were spot-fires raging on both sides of the fence.

“I’m not sure who collected me – it was either Bob Rose or Ray Burns. But Rosey came around to see me a day or so later, to enquire about my health. We ended up becoming good mates.”

Hop played two more years in the seniors, then spent the 1960 season helping out the Reserves, before finally hanging up his boots. He had played 183 senior games.

Time to rest on his laurels ? ……Not likely.

After two years on the Wang committee, he accepted the position of Junior League secretary, a role he performed for the next 18 years.

In the mid-sixties, he and Norm Minns recognised that kids who were not old enough to play in the Junior League weren’t getting the opportunity to play any organised football.

They initiated the Midgets competition.

“We advertised a couple of training sessions. 150 kids turned up on the first day. But they wanted to play fair-dinkum matches. So eventually we had under 15’s,13’s,11’s and 9’s. Every available oval was used on a Saturday morning. Another off-shoot of this was the Mini-Midgets, for the little tackers.”

Hop was the President of the Midget comp ( as well as Junior League secretary) and called in on each of the matches, ensuring that balls, umpires, guernseys and helpers were all spot-on. He would leave home at 7am, principally to ensure that all of the grounds were okay.

By now, his son Ian had made his way through the ranks, and into the Wangaratta senior side. A noted team player, he made over 120 appearances in the Black and White guernsey during the seventies.

His highlight, naturally, was playing on that memorable day in 1976, when the Pies ran away from the Rovers to record a famous Grand Final victory.

Ian chalked up two more flags with Milawa during the early ’80’s. But the sum total of his injuries ( three knee reco’s, a broken jaw and a dislocated shoulder) cut short his time in the game.

Wise judges had been spruiking the talents of Jon McCormick long before he took out the WJFL’s McCormick Medal – named after his grand-father – in 1997. The lad with the long, flowing, blonde locks, could pick up kicks at will and the only knock on his prospects of becoming an AFL player appeared to be his slight frame.

He did play 26 games with Carlton, after being released from North Melbourne. Many felt that he was judged harshly because of his size, and deserved more opportunities with the Blues.

But on his return to Wangaratta, he took the O & M by storm. He won the 2007 Morris Medal and, but for injury, could have won another.

He was a champ, a dual club B & F ( McCormick Medallist), and a contributing factor in the Magpies’ flags of 2007 and ’08, but his second knee reconstruction in 2009 put the kybosh on a glittering career.

Jon’s sporting juices are currently sated by chasing waves at Philip Island, where he now resides.

His brother Ben, a steady player, and a beautiful left-foot kick, also played with Wangaratta, as did Dan, who has been at Tarrawingee for the last few years.

He’ll be one of the Bulldogs’ key players, as they attempt to maintain their early-season form and chase their eighth O & K flag this season.

‘Old Hop’ – VCFL, WJFL and Wangaratta Life Member, Magpie Team of the Century back flanker, former O & M Tribunal member, former O&K Investigations Officer and extraordinary football servant, hopes he’ll  be there in the role that he loves ………. urging on the young fellah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

100-UP FOR MR. DEPENDABLE

The scene is a concrete pathway at the rear of Wangaratta’s main thoroughfare. It’s mid-winter. Two boys, still clad in school uniform, are absorbed in kick-to-kick.

Night after night they drill the footy at one another, leather-on-leather, mostly hitting the target, but occasionally forcing an unwitting passer-by to duck for cover. Only the rapidly gathering dusk disturbs their routine. That, and the fact that their parents have shut their respective shops and declared that it’s time to head home.

Years later, the left-footer of the duo is on a plane to Sydney to make his AFL debut……….

 

……………………………………………………………………….

Sean O’Keeffe is one of the ‘good guys’ you meet in football. Quiet and unassuming, he has achieved much in his 16 -odd years in the game. He’s a ‘coach’s dream’, as any of the dozen-or more blokes who have guided him throughout his career, would testify.

He is the son of Vicki and Greg (a former star Hawk winger-turned sprinter). The family’s Rovers’ genes extend back to his great-grandfather, Martin Shelley, who had been a footballer of note in the 1920’s and threw in his lot with the club when it was formed in 1945.

And his great-uncles John and Kevin played in the 50’s. Kevin,so highly-rated by coach Bob Rose that he was thrust into a key defensive post at the age of 16, showed touches of rare class. Tragically, coming home from a Rovers Ball at the end of that 1956 season, he was killed in a car accident.

So young Sean was destined to be a Hawk. He started with Centrals, graduated to the Thirds and played in their 1998 premiership side.

He had been identified by Murray Bushrangers chief John Byrne as an elite talent. But Byrne had to press the issue with the youngster before finally persuading him to train with them.

“I paid him two-or three visits.He wasn’t convinced he was good enough, but I rated him highly. He was excellent overhead, had footy smarts and had a good foot on him”, Byrne recalls.

He played in the Victorian Country U.16 and U.18 teams and in 1999 represented the Australian Under 16’s in an International rules match against Ireland. In late 2000,after a good couple, of years with the Bushies, he was drafted to Carlton.

Sean spent all of 2001 in the VFL and wouldn’t make his debut in the big-time until Round 17 of the following year, against the Swans at the SCG.

He recalls getting a phone call soon after the Carlton side had been announced. “I bet you’re glad you went to the Bushies”.

It was John Byrne.

The early 2000’s were a period of upheaval at Princes Park and probably not the ideal scenario for a youngster to be making his way in League footy.There had been considerable blood-letting after Carlton had been penalised for compromising the salary cap. And nobody was happy when they plunged to the bottom of the ladder.

After a fair performance in his first game, Sean was chopped when Collingwood belted the Blues the following week. And, at the end of the season, with the arrival of a new coach, Denis Pagan, he was delisted.
Continued good form in the VFL the following year saw him reinstated and he was selected in the Carlton side for another four games, before he was again delisted, this time for good.

His move to Sandringham in 2004 proved a winner. The Zebras took out the VFL flag and Sean, now playing with plenty of confidence and very comfortable in the environment, had a fine year.

He toyed with the idea of returning to the Rovers in 2005 and was, in fact, selected in the Hawks’ opening-round line-up. But Sandy held firm and convinced him he was a required player.

Fortuitously, he played in another premiership team and won Sandy’s best and fairest award. During the year he had represented the VFL against South Australia and he was named in the ‘VFL Team of the Year’ at season’s end.

Sean had completed a teaching degree, but had a gut feeling he would like to have a crack at being an electrician. He’d done a bit of fill-in work with a Sandringham committeemen during the holidays and really enjoyed it.

So, in a bold career move, he headed to Adelaide to start an apprenticeship and joined Sturt. His form was patchy at times, but in his second season he finished fourth in the best and fairest for the SANFL club.

In 2008, with a sense of adventure in his nostrils, he and partner Kerrie shifted to Kalgoorlie, the historic old mining city across the Nullarbor. Besides boasting more than 30 pubs to service its thirsty population of 30,000 and a reputation as a rollicking frontier destination, it has a serious football competition.

The Goldfields Football League has a rich history and most clubs bolster their ranks by flying star players in from Perth.The realisation that a former AFL player was in their midst created a flurry among recruiters.

Sean signed with Railways, who had been a bottom-runger the previous year. He was a star in his two seasons in the west and won the League’s Mitchell Medal in 2009.

It was a nostalgic homecoming when he returned to the Findlay Oval on the eve of the 2010 season. Having completed his apprenticeship and secured a job as an electrician in Mulwala, he and Kerrie were freshly betrothed and he was eager to throw himself into his career renaissance with the Rovers.

It had been 11 years since he had played the last of his 6 senior games in Brown and Gold, but he has an outstanding return season, winning the Best and Fairest in style. His ability to read the play and set things up was uncanny and he quickly became an O & M star. He garnered an impressive 23 possessions when the Hawks bowed out in the Elimination Final.

In the past five seasons he has been a model of consistency. He is rated as a superb player at stoppages and, thus, absolutely vital at the centre bounce. Yet he is a past-master playing as a ‘sweeper’ across half back.

‘Okey’ is a finals specialist. His best-afield performance in last year’s Elimination Final steered his side to a tight win over North Albury. And, who could forget that beautifully-weighted kick in the dying stages of the 2012 Second-Semi, that allowed Barry Hall to run onto the pass that should have guided the Rovers to a Grand Final.

He averages 21 possessions in the six finals he has played with the Hawks. On Sunday, in his 100th senior game with the Club, the now-seasoned assistant-coach will again shoulder much responsibility.

But, for ‘Mr.Dependable’, it will be just another day at the office.
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