THE ENIGMATIC ‘AUTUMN LEAVES’……..

One of the prerequisites of a successful footy coach is to be blessed with a healthy slice of luck.

It could be that a dynamic key position player is transferred to town, and lobs on your doorstep…At about the same time a couple of stars from a neighbouring league who have been ‘umming and ‘ahing for a couple of years decide that now’s the time to make the move.

Hopefully, your playing list can avoid being hit with the injury stick……..and you have the backing of a vibrant committee. It will also help if you can chalk up a couple of early wins to boost the confidence of the team – and convince the supporters that you’re the man for the job.

Sometimes it just boils down to being in the right place at the right time.

But for some, the dice doesn’t quite fall their way……..

Laurie Burt, the man who guided the Wangaratta Rovers through a Golden Era in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s is always eager to deflect some of the plaudits towards his predecessor, Mervyn Holmes.

‘Farmer’, he said, introduced many of the ‘Baby Hawks’ to senior football and, with a bit of ‘tough love’, hastened their progress…………..

History records Bob Rose as the architect of the Rovers’ rise to Ovens and Murray prominence in the fifties. Possessing a rare aura that dragged people through the gates, and enticed players to want to come under his spell, he is quite rightly revered by old-time Hawks.

But little is known of the man who ‘did the hard yards’ and paved the way for ”King Bobby’.

His name ?   Alan Dale……….

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The Rovers were enthusiastic and ambitious in their early foray into the O & M League.

A solitary draw in their first year was not unexpected, but a fifth-place finish (with 9 wins) in 1951, lifted the bar and gave rise to expectations that the club would soon be jostling with the ‘big guns’.

Instead, a couple of ordinary seasons followed and it was decided to sniff around and investigate the prospect of luring a big-name coach.

At that stage there were few bigger than Charlie Sutton. The fearless and irrepressible Footscray tough-man had just completed his third season as captain-coach and led the Bulldogs to the 1953 Preliminary Final.

Imagine how the pulse-rates of Hawk followers rose when they picked up an early-October edition of the ‘Sun’ newspaper, to read a back-page lead-story : “……Charlie Sutton’s appointment as the Wangaratta Rovers’ playing-coach for next season was talked of freely in football circles last week……”

Whether Charlie was ‘fishing’ for a bigger pay-day from the ‘Dogs is problematic. But he would have had no qualms about his decision to decline the Rovers’ offer and honour the remaining two years of his contract.

The following season, he was to achieve football immortality by leading Footscray to their first VFL premiership.

The Hawks were obliged to move on. A month later they had their new leader………….

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Alan Dale had been a schoolboy prodigy. Raised within walking distance of Windy Hill, he joined the Bombers’ Thirds from EDFL club, Doutta Stars.

His talents were widely-touted when he took out the first-ever Morrish Medal, awarded in 1947 to the VFL Third Eighteen Best & Fairest player.

But, like many players of his vintage, he had to serve a lengthy apprenticeship before finally being selected to make his senior debut towards the end of the 1950 season.

His rise was meteoric. Within six games Dale was lining up in the centre in the Grand Final, before a crowd of more than 85,000 – the majority of them Bomber fans, expecting to witness their second successive flag triumph.

He starred in a comfortable six-goal win over North Melbourne and was hailed as one of the ‘new breed’ who had helped to maintain Essendon’s standing as a post-war power club.

Dale continued his fine form into 1951 and figured in another Grand Final, as well as being the Argus VFL Rising Star and Essendon’s equal-leading Brownlow Medal vote-getter. He again polled heavily in 1952, attracting plaudits for his attack on the ball.

But the rise of the brilliant youngster Jack Clarke began to squeeze him out of the Bomber line-up and he spent lengthy periods in the Reserves.

So, when the Rovers came knocking in late-1953 he was receptive to their approach and was installed as the successor to local dentist Jock Herd, who consented to stay on as a player………..

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The Hawks’ new coach was fit and strongly-sculpted. He stood about 5’10”, was a solid 12 stone 7lb and had earned his reputation as a stay-at-home centreman with a fine pair of hands.

He realised early on that, as the leader of a side which was light-on for talent, he would need to adopt more strings to his bow. Thus, he usually took on the opposition’s star player, and alternated between the mid-field and centre half forward or back.

He was dubbed ‘Autumn Leaves’ because of a tendency to spend a fair bit of time on the deck. But he proved a star. Possessing a low centre of gravity, with strong legs and big hips, his ruggedness tended to attract the ire of opposition fans.

No more so than those of the Magpie breed. Dale was a key figure in the Rovers’ first-ever victory over Wangaratta, a slender five-point margin which had downtrodden fans ‘dancing in the streets.’

They also got home in the reverse fixture, this time by three points. The ‘raw edge’ which typifies the ‘local derby’ was shaped in these encounters.

But the Hawks could scrounge only five wins in 1954, losing four by less than a kick, and proving competitive in most.

Their recruitment of a brilliant VFA forward, Stan Trebilcock, was expected to give them the impetus to climb the ladder the following season.

And ‘Trebly’ produced the goods, kicking 17 goals in two and a-bit games before incurring a fractured skull against Wangaratta in a horrific accident. He returned a couple of years later, but was never the same player.

The Hawks recovered from the body-blow of losing their ‘gun recruit’ to win three of the next four matches before things started to sour.

The committee, dedicated to success, became less than enamoured with Dale. Despite the brand of professionalism he had introduced – and his continued good form – he had been unable to inspire his mediocre charges to greater deeds. And when they dropped six games on the trot in the latter part of the season, he knew that the end was nigh.

Although he had guided them to seven wins – and into sixth spot, he announced his resignation.

Amidst a backdrop of rumours that the committee were well down the track in discussions with the great Bobby Rose, he returned to the ‘big smoke’………..

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Dale won his spot back in the Essendon side for the opening three rounds of 1956. But, in a shock move, he lined up with St.Kilda three games later.

He was just 27 when he played the last of his 17 games with the Saints, giving him a total of 62 VFL appearances.

A stint with VFA club Oakleigh, three years with Mount Waverley and an appointment as captain-coach of Belgrave rounded out the career of the enigmatic ‘Autumn Leaves’……….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘GIVE THE HEMPS A GO…………’

The year is 1957. A young lad, reared in the western suburbs of Melbourne, achieves his lifelong dream when he’s selected to make his senior debut for his beloved Bulldogs.

He had jammed in to the MCG three years earlier to watch his hero, the human battering-ram Charlie Sutton, lead Footscray to their first and only VFL premiership.

Now he was to play under gnarled old Charlie in this Round 13 clash at Junction Oval, St.Kilda.

Or so he thought……Almost co-inciding with the selection of the team was the bombshell announcement that Sutton had been sacked and replaced by his 23 year-old protege, Teddy Whitten.

Bob Hempel could hardly have walked into a more volatile situation. There were divisions among the Footscray players ; many were unhappy that Sutton had been undermined. For instance, the reluctant appointee Whitten and the previous season’s Brownlow Medallist, Peter Box, were at odds and scarcely spoke to each other.

‘E.J’ was half-way through his first pre-match address when, in defiance of the committee, Sutton strolled into the rooms and said : “Good luck, son. In future, take your time when you talk to the players…….”

‘Hemps’ didn’t remember much else about his big day. He was steamrolled by St.Kilda’s ‘iron-man’, Eric Guy and carted from the ground. At that stage he was a lightly-built winger, had just come out of three months National Service training and really wasn’t equipped for League footy.

He played the next week, against Carlton, kicked a couple of goals, then was dropped to the Reserves………..

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Hemps was the youngest of eight kids. His dad left home for good, soon after he was born, and his mum, Emily, worked long hours to scrape together enough money to put tucker on the table.

He left the Footscray Tech School, aged 13, barely able to read and write, and reckons his real education “was obtained in the rough and tumble of the streets of Yarraville, where we were brought up to survive.”

His progression to the VFL was typical of any up-and-comer from the western suburbs……Footscray & District Under 19’s, to VFA club Yarraville for three years, then impressing the Bulldogs’ recruiters.

He was dismayed when his League career didn’t pan out the way he’d visualised. But he knew he was too light and lacked pace.

He was even contemplating retirement, when a chance phone call from Benalla coach Bill Luck changed the course of his life.

Bob jumped at a package from the Ovens and Murray Demons, which included a job as a salesman with ‘ Wardrop My Tailor’.

Playing as a half forward, he became a star,   and a regular O & M rep. He could cut a side to ribbons with half an hour of wizardry and was too smart for most back flankers.

Meanwhile, Hemps had surprised himself with his skills as a Menswear Salesman and, with an abundance of natural self-confidence, turned his hand to flogging Insurance.

As he admitted many years later, people didn’t need to ask how good he was ; he’d tell them himself !

He had taken on the coaching job at Euroa, after three successful seasons with Benalla, but didn’t fancy it all that much. A transfer in employment to Wangaratta relieved him of that obligation at season’s end.

Bob was immediately contacted by Rovers coach Ken Boyd, with whom he was acquainted. He needed little persuasion to become a Hawk.

Boyd saw ‘Hemps’ as a vital piece of the jigsaw. He had a young, talented side, but needed that extra bit of experience. He also knew that he was a ‘bit of a ratbag’, who would liven up the dressing rooms and cultivate the camaraderie in the group.

And so it proved. ‘Hemps’ was an excellent clubman and became the chief organiser of social functions and end-of-season trips. The Rovers Ball – a Hempel production – became bigger than Ben Hur.

The only time he’d be tempted by the demon drink would be on Ball Night, when things were in full swing. He would let his hair down, with disastrous consequences.

Unfortunately, a persistent thigh injury kept him to only 12 games in his first two seasons with the Hawks. But he finally got it right and played in both the 1964 and ’65 premiership sides.

Young Rovers players, seeking to improve their marking, would test themselves against ‘Hemps’ at training. His body-positioning and sure hands were hard to out-manoeuvre.

Not that training excited him all that much. He was often a late arrival, but must have decided that the pelting rain one bleak Tuesday night didn’t warrant him getting out on the track. It may have gone un-noticed, except that he drove down Evans Street and tooted his horn to the saturated group, as they completed their laps.

He was dropped two nights later.

‘Hemps’ was at his top in 1966. His brilliant marking, shrewd positional play and a touch of fire, were sparked by improved fitness. He was a real danger man on the flank and booted 44 goals for the season.

Three years later, as his career entered its twilight, he talked the selectors into trying him on a half back flank, which was shaping as a trouble spot.

If you can imagine a modern-day Easton Wood or Sean Dempster floating across the front of packs to take intercept marks, that was ‘Hemps’. At 33, he crowned a great season by taking out the Best & Fairest award.

He retired in 1970, after more than 100 games with the Hawks, then became President of the Rovers Past Players Association.

His next step in business was to start-up his own insurance brokerage. Ever the promoter, he took to wearing lairy red or gold jackets emblazoned with his company name on the pocket. He hit the air-waves, pleading with the public to ‘Give the Hemps a Go’.

They did, and they also supported him when he stood for council.

“I spent two learning years on council and had the ego knocked out of me,” he said. “I had no idea other people could have different opinions to mine”.

The fertile Hempel imagination then concocted a fresh idea. What about branching out into the tourism industry ? He disposed of his insurance business and created ‘Kellyland’, a 40-minute animated show depicting  Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, which he still operates.

The banks played hard-ball with him a couple of times, and he battled to keep his head above water . He once gave his version of confronting his toughest-ever opponent:

 

“My business is going down the gurgler; I can’t sleep or think. I owe a million dollars – everything is on the line. There’s no way out……But wait  a minute, how many times have I seen the Bulldogs down, with their backs to the wall ? ……And against all odds they got up and won !”

“The vultures are circling, ready to pounce and finish me off ! But Charlie Sutton would have said: ‘Lift your game…..Back yourself in…..come on Hempo….if Footscray can do it so can you……………….AND I DID ! ”

 

 

It’s been a hell of a journey for the old entrepreneur ……showman….larrikin…..’ratbag’…….right from the time he was a ‘nipper’, sitting around the kitchen table, eating rabbit stew and dreaming of wearing the Red, White and Blue……………