“ICEBERG DAIRY FRESH BUTTER………”

An old friend passed on recently…………Hadn’t seen him for yonks………

He was one of those special ‘characters’ you come across in sport……….Handy player, with a deep affection for footy and cricket……A vital part of the fabric of the Clubs to which he was attached……..A shit-stirrer and prankster, who made light of most situations………And ensured people didn’t get too far ahead of themselves……

He had a stutter, which added a quaintness to the rendition of his favourite ditty…..By the time the after-match beers had suitably lubricated his tonsils, and his team-mates had begun to urge him on, he would respond with a few verses of the jingle:

“Iceberg dairy fresh butter,

The choicest butter to buy,

It’s good for you,

Your family too,

Iceberg dairy fresh butter……..”

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Frank Griffin was a Chiltern boy. As a typical lad from the old mining town his ambition was to pull on the famous Red and White guernsey that his dad, Mick, had worn in premiership sides during the thirties.

He repeated the feat at the age of 19, lining up on the half forward line in the 1957 flag triumph over King Valley. The following season he shared in another premiership, when Greg Tate’s combination got up by a goal against a gallant Greta.

They weren’t so lucky in ‘59. Despite finishing atop the ladder and winning the second-semi, Moyhu outlasted them in the Grand Final, to win their first title since 1947.

‘Griffo’ took out the Best & Fairest in his next – and final year with the Swans.

He and his bride Yvonne moved to Wangaratta, where he’d accepted a job with the Australian Postal Corporation, as it was then known.

Possibly through the influence of his mad-Rovers boss Jack Barry, or more likely, the urge to play under the great Bobby Rose, he lined up with the Hawks. In his fifth senior game he turned and slipped on muddy terrain…….. A broken leg put paid to the rest of his season.

It was a setback he didn’t need…..After a couple of early games in ‘62 he transferred to Greta, where his crash-through style as a back-flanker perfectly suited an emerging side.

The story is told that he’d been booked by a local cop – Moyhu coach Ray Burns – for driving his car with a faulty tail-light.

The opportunity for a square-up presented itself when the sides met mid-season. The brawny ‘Griffo’ sighted tough-nut Burns wide-open in a pack, and spreadeagled him:

“S..S..Sorry Ray….No Lights, ” he stammered.

Dubbed the ‘Silent Postie’ because he abhored the tradition of blowing the whistle when delivering letters, Frank graduated to sorting mail, and working on the front counter of the Post Office.

He regularly did the night-shift at the Telephone Exchange. After the pubs had shut of a Saturday night, a handful of his footy mates ( and sometimes their partners) would help him to while away the lonely early-morning hours.

He would entertain us by connecting people ( complete strangers ) on either side of the continent and chuckle while they argued about which of them instituted the call, and how rude it was to have their sleep interrupted at such an unearthly hour……..

He once contacted Rovers committeeman Ernie Payne – a fellow stirrer – at 4.30 am: “…Just ringing Ernie, to let you know that in two hours you’ll be receiving your early-morning wake-up call……”

‘Griffo’ was a left-arm slow bowler ( who turned the ball minimally) and hard-hitting batsman. He was part of the Postals team which made its WSCA debut in the early-sixties.

They took their cricket seriously at Postals, but became renowned as possibly the most social mob of the Social competition. Their after-match festivities, which often finished late on Sunday nights, were held regularly at the Griffin abode, at the bottom-end of Park Lane.

Frank was skipper when Postals scored possibly their greatest, against-the-odds, win. They were 9/85, and in an impossible situation overnight, in pursuit of 167 in the ‘65/66 Semi, when a last-wicket partnership of 96 between John West and Keith Marsden guided them to victory. Celebrations lasted until the wee hours……….

The following week, in their third successive Grand Final, despite ‘Griffo’s’ 5/41 and top-score of 21, they were unable to contain Woollen Mills, who scored a convincing win.

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His on-going battle with asthma prompted Frank to seek warmer climes, so the family – Yvonne and kids Jacqui, Michael and Stephen – packed up and headed to Darwin.

He maintained his employment with Government Departments – eventually working in the Motor Vehicle Section – and becoming heavily involved with Nightcliff Football Club.

Darwin was right down his alley. His health improved; the beer, in the sultry conditions, had never tasted better; and he loved his Tigers.

He was elected President in 1970………Recruiting was his forte’ and he would paint a rosy picture of a ‘Summer Football Paradise’ as he launched valiant attempts to lure prospective recruits from down south.

I was one who succumbed.

About an hour after I drove into Darwin, in late-October ‘71, ‘Griffo’ had set me up with a job as a ‘Scaffolder’ with the Public Works Department. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Your biggest responsibility will be tee-ing up the tradies’ morning and afternoon-teas……”.

“You can stay with us, at Sanders Street, Jingili, for a while,” he said. This turned out to be for the remainder of the footy season.

It proved to be a memorable five months. I presume that many other ‘Southerners’ were on the receiving end of the Griffin hospitality over the years.

Frank had two stints as President of the Tigers. The first was from 1970-76; the second from 1986 to ‘88. He was Treasurer from 1991 to ‘94.

In the late-seventies he married Mabel, who was Black and Gold through-and-through, and a dedicated Nightcliff figure .

They were well-matched. Mabel was widely-known as the Tigers’ most vocal and ‘excitable’ supporter, and would plonk herself in the same spot at the Gardens Oval each week. Her booming voice shook umpires and opposing players alike, and Frank would discreetly distance himself from her when she was in full cry.

The ‘N.T News’ once provided an in-depth account, in their Match Report, of her ‘taking on’ an umpire with an umbrella.

After a particularly explosive Nightcliff – Waratahs clash, during which the central umpire had threatened to report her for abusive language, Mabel, in a rare conciliatory gesture after the game, handed him a pair of glasses which, she muttered, might overcome his eyesight problem.

The Tigers reached the Grand Final in early March of 1986, against perennial powerhouse St. Mary’s. There was considerable hype in the lead-up to the game, as they were rated a strong chance to win their first flag in 21 years. Unfortunately, it turned into an avalanche………They were belted by more than 170 points.

Mabel passed away in her sleep that night, further adding to the sombre mood in the Nightcliff camp. (Her memory is now perpetuated with the Mabel Griffin Scoreboard, at Nightcliff Oval, and the Club’s naming of the Volunteer of the Year Award in her honour).

The death of Frank’s son Michael two years later, at the age of 24, also hit him like a sledge-hammer, and you’d say he was overdue for a change of luck.

It came not long after, in 1988, when he received a ‘phone call, with the news that he’d won Division 1 Tattslotto.

There was no immediate change to his lifestyle, apart from some acts of generosity towards his family. But he eventually retired from the Motor Vehicle Department , and chose to live out a dream.

He purchased a 5-acre Mango Farm 40km from Darwin and spent countless hours on his tractor. This was interspersed with regular visits to the nearby Humpty Doo Pub, or trips into town, to catch up with his mates at the Nightcliff Sports Club.

The Mangoes were sold at Market, and Frank would also pick up a few bob on the side by slashing grass in his neighbors’ paddocks.

It was good for the soul, he reckoned, when he could be in his own world, deep in thought, on his tractor; even when, on one occasion, he happened to accidentally slash a well-concealed Cannabis Crop.

Frank originally met Cath, his third partner, soon after the Cyclone Tracy upheaval of 1976. He and the boys had re-located to Wodonga for 12 months, to the same apartment block in which she lived ( He also took on the job as Secretary of his old club Chiltern during this period ).

Afterwards, upon his return to Darwin, he’d met and married Mabel.

Following her death, he and Cath re-kindled their relationship, and she moved to be with him up north. They later settled at Forrest Beach, a tiny coastal town two and a half hours south of Cairns, in the mid-nineties, and had been together for 34 years.

Frank suffered another grievous blow five years ago, when his youngest, Steven, died, aged 50. Even though he had great support from his daughter Jacqui, the passing of his two boys had affected him deeply.

He passed away two months ago, aged 83.

A Memorial Service for Frank Griffin, Nightcliff and NTFL Life Member, dual Chiltern Premiership player and colourful sporting personality, was held in his old home town earlier this month.

“ONE OF CHILTERN’S FINEST………”

I’ve arranged to catch up with Billy Peake today but, beforehand, I duck in to renew acquaintances with one of his old stamping-grounds – the Chiltern Oval……..

Nothing much has altered in forty-five years……….Those expansive, wide wings and deep pockets used to give the impression you were playing in the middle of a three-acre paddock. 

The prospect of lining up here intimidated visiting clubs……You were invariably on the other end of a hiding, and the passionate Swans supporters would sure let you know about it………

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Bill laughs when I comment on the size of the ground: “They’ve actually bought it in a bit from when I was a kid, you know…… My first coach, Greg Tate would tell us: ‘Keep the ball moving, …..If you’ve got no-one to kick it to, kick it out in the open spaces…..Run ‘em off their legs ……’ “

Billy’s a legend around these parts – quietly-spoken,  terrific footballer in his day; terrific bloke…..

He and Faye live in High Street, which has itself played an intrinsic role in the history of this famous old footy town.

When Chiltern won the O & K flag in 1968, the side comprised no less than eight High Street residents.

“Kevin, Jock and ‘Rowdy’  Lappin lived over the road from us…..Billy and ‘Meggsy’ Cassidy were next door….Gary Howes lived down the road a bit….Dessy Lappin was up that way, too…..” Bill says.

“The Lappins had a paddock behind their house….When we were kids we used to kick the footy ‘til all hours…….. Faye’s dad ‘Cob’ (Lappin) would be there and the rest of them, even the little tackers , like his youngest son, Rick, joined in……”

“The ambition of every youngster in town was just to play for Chiltern…..That’s why most of ‘em never left. They went to school together, and played together……….”

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The Swans’ reputation as a footy leviathan grew in the late 40’s-early 50’s, when they strung together seven Chiltern & District League premierships in nine years.

“My older brothers played in a few of those sides,” Bill says. “Mum and Dad (Tom) loved the game, especially Mum, who was a fanatic……That’s all they lived for…..I was the team mascot, and grew up with a footy in my hands; no other choice, really…….”

When the CDFL disbanded at the end of 1953 Chiltern gained admittance to the Ovens and King League. But Bill reckons the best thing that ever happened to the Club was the recruitment of Greg Tate as captain-coach.

‘Spudda’ Tate had been a star during Essendon’s Dick Reynolds-John Coleman era, then coached Rutherglen to their last O & M flag, in 1954.

“He’d been working at the Springhurst Butter Factory, but Dad, who was on the Shire Council, urged him to train up to be the Shire Secretary. He moved his family to Chiltern and lived in the Shire house.”

“He was a great leader…….Everybody loved him. I was just so fortunate to be coming through when he arrived .”

“Of all the coaches I’ve heard, he was the best orator ……Even when he went crook at you, he’d put it in such a way that you didn’t realise he was giving you a burst……….”

“In my opinion, he laid the foundation for the Club’s future success………..”

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Bill was 17 when he played in Chiltern’s 1957 flag.  King Valley, under the leadership of lanky ruckman Bill Pinder, had beaten the Swans three times during the season, and started hot-favourites in the Grand Final.

Despite a howling gale blowing towards one end,  Tate won the toss and kicked against the breeze.

“We held them to a goal in the first quarter, then Tate kicked 5 of our eight in the second quarter. That broke their back a bit, and we went on to win by 44 points,” Bill recalls.

He shared in the premiership triumph with three of his brothers – ‘Jonna’, Frank and Alan ( who starred in a back pocket ) – and a cousin, Bobby.

But he was rapt to also play alongside one of his heroes, Ron Howes.

“He was the best footballer I’d seen play around here…..Never wanted to leave Chiltern, though…… “

“Ron only stood 5’8 – 5’9”, could kick either foot and play anywhere. He kicked 100 goals the previous season, lined up at full forward in that Grand Final – then promptly retired.

The Peake quintet were also members of the 1958 Grand Final side, which engaged in a titanic struggle with Greta, in miserable conditions.  

Bill started on the half back line that day, but swapped flanks in an endeavour to shut down dangerous half forward Ian Younger, who’d booted  three early goals. Chiltern had registered the first point of the game, lost the lead and trailed from then on. They finally drew level at the 25-minute mark of the last quarter……..With the clock ticking down a free kick was paid in the dying moments.

To howls of indignation from Greta fans, the umpire penalised one of their defenders for hanging onto Chiltern forward Tony Borrack.

Borrack converted from the goal-square to establish a six-point lead…..The siren blew seconds later, to give the Swans their second successive flag…………

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“Handy start to your career, Bill….Dual premiership player, and a Best & Fairest at 18,” I suggest.

“Yeah…..pretty lucky, I suppose . The only setback came in 1960, when I had a pinched cartilage….Missed about 6 games…..Then I heard about a fellah called Taylor, up at Beechworth, who was a bit of a miracle-worker…… He fixed me straight away.”

That was the only year he ever missed playing finals. 

The following season he played a couple of practice games for the Rovers, before a Chiltern icon Norm Minns enticed him to have a run with Wangaratta. Again, his run of good fortune continued….

He managed to hold his place in a strong Pies line-up which was on the march to a convincing September series. 

A side numbering multiple stars such as Constable, Mack, Killeen, Waller, Steele, Woods and Mulrooney, thrashed Corowa by 40 points, and Wodonga by 52 in the lead-up finals.

The inclusion of Ron McDonald, a talented centre half forward from Richmond, had put the icing on the cake for Wang. The Grand Final was a slaughter, as they ran over Benalla by 63 points. McDonald booted 16 goals in the three finals games.

Bill had played predominantly in the forward line during the season, but was switched to the back flank five minutes into the decider, when Rodney Swan went down with an damaged ankle.

It was the makings of him. He gathered 23 possessions and was named among the best players. “Until then I’d been battling up forward, but thereafter I spent most of my time as a Back Flanker,” he says.

Occasionally, though, when the Pies needed a ‘stopper’ he’d be handed a job on the gun mid-fielders of the day, such as Hogan, Deane, Gayfer or Hanlon…….

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Greg Tate had worded up his old club, Essendon, about the likely-looking young bloke from Chiltern.

“John Coleman was coaching. He and ‘Tatey ’ were good mates, so I was invited down for a run. But I hated the city,” Bill says.

“I trained for a few nights, and played in a practice game, but couldn’t get home quick enough ! “

Wangaratta remained there, or thereabouts, in Bill’s seven years in the No.5 Black and White guernsey. They reached a further three Grand Finals, bowing out to the Rovers in 1964 and ‘65, and Albury in ‘66.

The last of his 120-odd games was another riveting Final – the 1967 First Semi against the Hawks. It was a battle of the defences at Rutherglen, but the Pies were in the horrors in front of the big sticks. 

Forward Ron Critchley couldn’t buy a goal ( finishing with 0.8 ) as their rivals sneaked home by three points.

Chiltern was calling. His old Magpie team-mate Lennie Richards was in his second year as coach and they’d recruited well.

He took out his second  Club B & F ( 10 years after the first ) and finished runner-up to Whorouly’s Billy McAuliffe in the O & K’s Baker Medal.

And, in a carbon-copy of the Grand Final a decade earlier, Chiltern snatched the flag from under the nose of their old rivals, Greta.

“They’d beaten us three times during the season, but we sniffed a chance in the Second Semi,” Bill recalls.

“We were on the smallish side….Our ruckmen, Paddy Tognello and Bob Lappin, were both only around 5’11”, but we seemed to have all the answers for Greta that day, even though we only got up by four points. It was a bit of a triumph for Len Richards, who was very popular.”

Three years later, the Swans held on to pip Milawa by 6 points.  

“Milawa had a crop of good kids at at that time. Barry Cook, Merv Holmes, Ross Gardner and Gary Allen went on to do big things with the Rovers. But ours was a young side, with the Lappin boys, John and Charlie Narres and Johnny O’Neill.”

“ ‘Skimmy’ O’Brien had come from the Rovers as coach. I liked ‘Skimmy’ and it was a pity he gave it away after just the one year.”

Bill’s fifth flag with Chiltern came the following year, when they overpowered Beechworth in the the dying minutes of a thriller. The Bombers were leading by 12 points,when the Swans hit back.

“We had a 16 year-old, Don Mattson up forward, who took three big grabs in the goal-square and helped turn the game.”

“He had plenty of talent, Donny, and went on to play with Richmond and Essendon. But he probably didn’t like putting in the necessary hard work to make the grade .”

Bill played the last of his 230-odd games with Chiltern in the 1973 Grand Final. It was a memorable, bruising affair against a tough North Wangaratta side, which was chasing its first O & K flag. The Northerners finished in strongly to deny him the perfect farewell.

He thought he’d hung up his boots…….until his brother-in-law Jock Lappin took on the coaching job at Brocklesby a couple of years later, and sought his help to drag the Hume League cellar-dwellers up the ladder.

In somewhat of a fairytale , they reached the Grand Final, but had to tackle Walla Walla without Bill, who’d suffered a broken thumb in the Prelim.

“That was definitely curtains…….I’d had enough by then,” he says.

He concentrated on watching the Swans, and in particular, his son Craig, who played 300 games and shared in three flags with Chiltern.

He spent a year as President of Chiltern, and now follows the netball fortunes of his grand-daughters Lucy and Molly who play with Chiltern U.15’s and Barnawartha U.13’s respectively………

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Bill’s confronted a few health obstacles in recent times.

He’s been living with leukaemia since 2013, then was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus two years ago.

“It came as a shock. They could’ve operated, but advised it wasn’t worth the risk at my age ( now 81). It doesn’t worry me, though……….Faye and the girls ( Ange and Natalie)probably stress about it more than me.”

“When it gets real bad I might have to be drip-fed……But that’s okay, they’ve given me fair warning.”

“It is what it is……..”

Post-Script: The Peake brothers accumulated a total of 28 Premierships: ‘Jonna’ (9), Alan (7), Frank (6) and Bill (6).

MORE THAN A ‘SECOND BANANA’…….

The name – Brian Patrick O’Brien – invokes connotations of a bearded, whisky-swigging Irish poet……or perhaps a loose-piselled Gaelic footballer.

Slot the pseudonym ‘Skimmy’ somewhere in there and seasoned locals will automatically recall a star sporting all-rounder of the sixties and seventies.

He’s got a fair idea of the derivation of the nickname. The kids at Glenrowan State School thrust it upon him, he says, probably because his old man, Des, was a dairy farmer, and it had something to do with skimmed milk.

So he’s been ‘Skimmy’ ever since………….
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He remembers riding the bike to and from the farm at Greta West to attend school and play tennis at Glenrowan on week-ends. His resultant disdain for cycling has continued to this day.

When the family moved in to Docker Street, Des, thinking young Brian would continue to work on his promising all-court game, invested in a membership of the Wangaratta Tennis Club for the eldest of his two sons.

But he never got around to treading the hallowed turf of Merriwa Park.

Instead, cricket and football were to become his passions…………..
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‘Skimmy’ became an ‘overnight success’ as a medium-pace bowler of quality, mid-way through his career, when he unleashed a couple of outstanding performances at Melbourne Country Week.

He’d long been typecast as the ‘second banana’ to more highly-rated quicks of his vintage; the sort of bloke who could tie things up, whilst the ‘big guns’ did the damage at the other end.

To be truthful, he’d been under-valued. A prolific wicket-taker in club cricket for years, his outswinger to the right- hander was lethal. It was just that he was a touch unfashionable.

On his first two trips to Melbourne, the selectors overlooked him. He copped it on the chin, he says, but admits it hurt deep-down.

When he finally ‘hit his straps’ in 1970, he did it with a bang, bowling unchanged in oppressive conditions on successive days.

Operating in tandem with his clubmate Robin Kneebone, he sent down 22 overs from the Railway-line End at Glenferrie Oval, to capture 4/58 against Maryborough.  Kneebone snared 4/60, as they restricted their opponents to an easily-accessible 9/127.

The following day, he completed another marathon performance, to snare 9/91 off 23 overs at Richmond’s Punt Road Oval. Central Gippsland ( 203 ), just failed to overhaul Wangaratta’s 5/222.

It remains the only Country Week ‘9-for’ by a Wangaratta bowler. ‘Skimmy’ had finally won the respect of the wider cricket public………..
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His entry to cricket was low-key. The first three years were spent with Housing Commission in the Social competition, alongside good friend Pat Heffernan and such erstwhile characters of the Sunday game as Rob McCullough, ‘Lofty’ Bracken and Bernie Mullins.

Little wonder that an impressionable lad, in his mid-teens, learned plenty, both on and off the field. Moving into the WDCA, he spent time with both Wangaratta and Rovers, before settling on United.

It was a stroke of fortune for both parties. The fledgling club was on the rise – destined to dominate local cricket for more than a decade. And he was to play a key role in its run of success.

In WDCA history, only the Corowa sides of the late-‘80’s and nineties, can rival this United unit for its depth and overall talent. At one stage, eight of their players were walk-up starts in Wangaratta’s representative teams.

‘Skimmy’ played in six premierships in his first eight seasons – and won the competition bowling average in four of them.

Nagging accuracy, consistent pace – and that hooping swing – made him a difficult proposition.

He went to Melbourne to represent the Victorian Postal Institute against the VRI once, he says, and caught the eye of one of the coaches with his ability to ‘move the cherry’.

“But can you control it, lad,” the coach asked. After half an hour  in the nets, into a difficult breeze, he conceded: “You’ve got one of the most crucial parts of a fast bowler’s armoury.”

A couple of his most memorable efforts in WDCA Finals were produced with the willow. He dragged United from a precarious 9/125 to a more comfortable 205 in 1968/69, thanks to his knock of 60, and a last-wicket stand of 65 with Geoff Kneebone.

Then, for good measure, he sent down 18 overs, to capture 3/44, backing up Robin Kneebone’s 6/68, to ensure victory.

A painstaking innings of 80 in the decider against Magpies the following year, along with figures of  3/25, further underlined his value as an all-rounder in this feared United machine……..
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Versatility was the hallmark of ‘Skimmy’s’ footy career. His coaches had the luxury of flinging him around the ground, aware that he’d adapt to any role.

Centrals was his Junior League club. Having  commenced a Telecom Technician’s course in Melbourne in 1959 , he spent half a season with South Yarra YCW. After completing his commitments with Centrals  the following year, he slotted straight into the Rovers Reserves line-up, being selected for the first of his 6 Grand Final appearances with the Hawks.

‘Skimmy’ broke into the senior side in 1961 and was to become a permanent fixture for the next decade . At a little over 6’1” and handily-proportioned, he had pace, and all the skills – bar one.

Surprisingly, he never attempted to kick with his left foot, instead, mastering a side-ways right-footer, which got him out of trouble and was nearly always effective.

He began as a full back, but after receiving a ‘touch-up’ from Magpie ‘Bushy’ Constable one day, was replaced by burly Teddy Pearse, and shunted to the back pocket. They became a formidable combination in the last line.

‘Skimmy’ was one of the youthful brigade who responded to the inspirational coaching of Ken Boyd, who succeeded Bobby Rose in 1963.

Within a year, the Hawks were playing an aggressive, spirited brand of footy which had them ranked as hot flag favourites mid-way through 1964.

But first they had to overcome a worrying slump in form, then a Wangaratta side which had hit top form at the business end of the season. They broke the shackles in a dominant third quarter, to defeat the Pies by 25 points in the Grand Final.

They repeated the dose the following year, this time outlasting the Pies at Martin Park. An O’Brien goal late in the final term had seemingly iced the game, but Wang kept coming and fell short by just three points in a riveting clash.

‘Skimmy’s’ best season with the Hawks came in 1967, when he polled 10 votes in the Morris Medal, playing principally as a winger or centreman. The season, however, ended in Grand Final disappointment, as did his final full year as a player – 1970.

He was appointed coach at Chiltern in 1971 and admits there were some misgivings.
“Especially early on, when I had a yarn to an old Chiltern stalwart, Donny Stephenson. He said: ‘Skim, being an outsider, it might take a while for the players to accept you. I think you’ll probably have to win ‘em over.’ “

“But everyone was great. I just set down one rule: ‘No grog in the pub after Tuesday night.’”

“Old Bill Cassidy, the Chairman of Selectors,  came to me after training one night and took me aside: ‘A couple of the boys have been spotted down at the Grapevine Hotel.’”

“So I walked into the Bar and nabbed ‘em. You could have hung buckets off their eyes, they were that surprised. I said: ‘All right, I’ll have one with ya and then, on your way. And remember, I’m going to run shit out of you at training next week.’”

Chiltern went on to meet Milawa in a Grand Final that had everything. The Swans, with stars Jock and Rowdy Lappin turning it on, regained the lead twice in the final term, to defeat the gallant Demons by six points.

There was no-one more relieved than ‘Skimmy’, that Chiltern had hung on. He’d  played a solid game at full back, but a late Milawa goal – and a drawn game- would have thrown his planned wedding to Marlene the following week into chaos.

So he finished his O & K sojourn with a perfect record.

“They were great people and we made long-lasting friends in our time there. But I was missing the Rovers. I decided to head back home.”

He played just three games in Brown and Gold the next season, before his hamstring gave way.

After 174 senior games with the Hawks, his playing career was over.

He spent three years on the committee, and coached the Reserves into a Grand Final in 1975, before the lure of the Golf course saw this staunchest of Rovers clubmen end his time at the City Oval.

Since then, belting the white ball around has been ‘Skimmy’s’ solitary sporting pursuit. “I don’t hit ‘em as well as I used to, but the game still gets me in,” he says…………..

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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LITTLE MAN – BIG PERSONALITY

What happens when the roar of the crowd has faded away ?…………When the adrenalin-rush that led to you performing deeds of brilliance in the greatest competition in the land;  in a game that had consumed you since you were a little tacker, is there no more……….

Some are unable to cope with the demands that confront them in football’s after-life. Others, like former Magpie Danny Craven, adapted well to this new frontier. This is the story of the perky, tiny, confident, likeable Craven…………

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The fact that he is height-challenged was never a problem to Danny Craven. He had a self- assuredness and a lively personality that made him a magnet to team-mates. And the fact that he had a great love for footy and knew how to pick up a kick, didn’t hurt, either.

He spent most of his winter week-ends during his formative years chasing the Sherrin with Chiltern in under-age competitions. He would play in the U.13 Wodonga JFL on Saturdays and was just 12 when he first lined up in the Swans’ U.17 team each Sunday.

He attended Galen College and joined Wangaratta in 1984, playing five years and about 60 senior games with the Pies. “I’ve got great affection for Wang and I’ve always regarded it as my home club…….and I’ve been connected with a few over the years”, he says.

1988 was his break-out season. A seven-goal, best-on-ground performance for the Ovens and Murray against the Essendon District League was the highlight. But his consistent form also saw him finish fifth in the Morris Medal, and threw him into draft calculations.

He was duly picked up by St.Kilda, and at 162cm,  became the 11th-smallest player of all-time to line up in League footy when he made his debut early in 1989. It was just before his 22nd birthday. Before he had much of a chance to make an impression, he suffered a badly broken leg when a player fell on him.

It was his fourth senior game and there was to be a lengthy recovery. He missed the rest of that season and all of the next and when he was selected in the opening round of 1991 his opposite number in the Richmond side was his old Wangaratta roving partner, Chris Naish.

Danny’s come-back game was a huge success. He picked up 32 possessions and was able to land the ball on the ample chest of a leading ‘Plugger’ Lockett on a few occasions. Naish was equally impressive, with four goals and 19 ‘grabs’, further enhancing his reputation as a dynamic small forward.

Danny averaged 20 disposals in 1991, his finest AFL season, and became somewhat of a cult hero, whilst rubbing shoulders with champions like Harvey, Bourke, Winmar, Leowe and, of course, Lockett.

I queried him about a tale that has grown legs over the years. It goes something like this:

…..He and ‘Plugger’ are sharing the bench and Danny, hyperactive bloke that he is, gets up and jogs along the boundary-line…. up and back a couple of times. Just as he passes the Saints fans, a huge roar erupts, he raises his arms in acknowledgement, only to realise that,  at that very moment ‘Plugger’ is peeling off his track-suit and preparing to come onto the ground !……..

“Can’t remember”, he laughs.

‘Plugger’ and he became good mates. Danny inherited the number 14 guernsey that the big fellow vacated when he changed to the familiar number 4.

And Craven occasionally reminisces about the bullet-like pass that he delivered to ‘Plugger’, which brought up his 100th goal towards the end of 1991.

Two seasons later, after 33 games with St.Kilda, Danny moved to the Brisbane Bears, where he was to chalk up another 25 senior appearances,  before his AFL career ended in 1995.

He and his wife Kim (a Wangaratta girl) were well-settled in the Sunshine State by now,  and decided to take the plunge into business, investing in a Captain Snooze franchise.

21 years later it is still flourishing.

But Danny has also continued to maintain his football passion in a few diverse areas. To those who were familiar with him, it would be no surprise that he took to coaching like a duck to water.

His first appointment was as coach of  wooden-spooners West Brisbane, which he took to a flag in his first season in charge – 1996.

In the restructure of Queensland football that was in vogue at the time, Wests folded a season later and in 1998 he became the playing captain of the Brisbane Lions Reserves, and assistant-coach to Roger Merrett.

When Leigh Matthews was appointed coach of the Lions later that year he brought in his own coaching panel.  Danny did the running for ‘Lethal’ for a season, before heading to North Brisbane as assistant-coach. Then, in 2002, his second year as coach of Mt.Gravatt, he steered the club to its maiden AFLQ title.

He was at the helm of the Queensland State side for four years and was also involved with the State U18 team.

He has also found time to be a special-comments man for the National Indigenous Radio Service, covering the Lions’ home games over the last 15 years or so.

Last season, with his son Jasper coming up through the Reserves, he took on a role as Football Manager of Mayne, one of Brisbane’s oldest and traditionally successful clubs.

They had fallen on hard times and hadn’t won a flag since  they were triumphant in 1982, under the guidance of a famous ex-Wangaratta boy, Mick Nolan.

The Tigers won the seniors and reserves premierships and, according to Danny, are looking good for back-to-back flags in the coming Northern AFLQ season, with former Albury star, Sean Daly in charge.

Danny and Kim are taking a keen interest in the sporting progress of their two boys . Xavier and Jasper have both represented the nation in under-age handball . 17 year-old Jasper, who played in Mayne’s Reserves premiership side last year, is showing plenty of promise.

Danny’s most recent visit to Wangaratta was in December,  for the birthday of an old Magpie team-mate. As happens on these occasions, tales tall and true are told and reference is sure to have been made to the famous Craven competitiveness.

They say that he hates being beaten,  a trait which was obvious in his footy career. It  can carry through  even to a game of golf, which starts in a leisurely fashion and ends in a full-scale contest.

Just as Mick Nolan, the ‘Galloping Gasometer’,  proved  a god-send to Queensland football when he headed up there in 1981, Danny Craven has also been a wonderful ambassador for the code.

 

Danny Craven and Chris Naish (next week's 'On Reflection ' subject) at a Magpuie re-union.
Danny Craven and Chris Naish (next week’s ‘On Reflection ‘ subject) at a Magpuie re-union.

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