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………

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE KING OF COBURG WHO CONQUERED THE BUSH


You’d be hard-pressed to find a more fervent football disciple than Laurie Burt.

He posesses a boyish enthusiasm for the game. It came to the fore last Saturday, when his old side, the Hawks, clinched the unlikeliest of victories.

I’ve seen him entranced by games at all levels. Even when he sights two little fellahs fondling the Sherrin, you can see his brain ticking over and dreaming of their potential.

If it was my task to appoint a Football Ambassador, Laurie would be my man…….
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His attitude to footy now is no different to that of the squat, dumpy 9 year-old kid who turned up to play with St. Andrews Under 13’s in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.

Ron Taylor, who coached him at junior and senior level, saw players of the calibre of dual Brownlow Medallist Keith Greig and champion goalkicker Geoff Blethyn go through the club, but rates Laurie the most dedicated he has seen.

He was determined to extract the best of his ability and headed to Coburg, where he was soon to make his mark, despite his unlikely stature.

Channel 10’s live Sunday afternoon coverage of matches during the ’70’s and ’80’s drew a cult following to VFA football and Laurie was one of its biggest personalities.

Harold Martin, who played with and against Burt in this era, gave this summation of the Coburg on-baller :

“He looked more like a hairy Sumo wrestler than a footballer, but boy, could he play ! He was tough at the ball, skilful and had no fear. He was always at the bottom of the packs, taking courageous marks by backing into packs or standing his ground.”

“The umpires loved him, everybody loved him. He was undoubtedly one of the top three VFA players in that era. He was the King of Coburg.”

Laurie played 157 games with the Lions, was Best and Fairest in 1978, ’79 and ’81, captain for three years, runner-up in the VFA’s 1978 J.J.Liston Trophy and a regular and dependable VFA representative.

His only taste of premiership glory came in 1979, when Coburg broke through to win their first Division One flag in 51 years.

The only time that his unflinching loyalty to Coburg had deviated was in his early days, when he was invited to do a pre-season at Essendon. He lasted a few weeks at Windy Hill before returning home.

But by the end of 1983 his beloved club had slipped badly on and off the field and there were rumours of discontent in the camp.

As luck would have it, there was an approach afoot from the Rovers. Let me explain how it crystallised.

The incumbent coach, John Welch, had indicated that if the club could find a replacement, it would be in  their best interests to have a change.

Akin to the Hawks’ present scenario in their hunt for a messiah, they searched high and low. Among the many possibilities who were fanned was a dogged Richmond back-pocket player, Michael Malthouse.

But after Mick had expressed some interest, the news came through that he had accepted the job at Footscray.

You’ll do anything for a lead when you reach a dead-end – like contacting prominent VFA media identity Mark Fiddian out of the blue and quizzing him about any likely coaching prospects.

“Well, there are two standouts”, he said. “Graeme ‘Swooper’ Anderson from Port Melbourne is a good player and has plenty of experience. But there’s a fellow at Coburg called Laurie Burt who would make a sensational coach. I reckon he might be receptive to an approach “.

A bit of detective-work was done and the response from all who were asked was the same: ‘Lovely bloke, top footballer, fine clubman.’

Laurie rejected the coaching offer, but warmed to the idea of joining the Hawks as a player, which he did in 1984.

The stern judges who congregated at the bar-end of the Hogan Stand adopted him immediately. They loved his toughness, the way he burrowed in after the ball.

This was no ‘blow-in’ coming up for an easy kick and a quick quid. And he wanted to be involved in everything that was happening within the club.

He was Best & Fairest in 1985, represented the League and was a great support to Merv Holmes, who was steering the Rovers through two difficult, but improving years.

So, when the legendary ‘Farmer’ decided to retire, his successor was a no-brainer – it had to be Burt.

Laurie and his wife Cheryl decided to give it a go and moved to Wangaratta to live in 1987. He accepted a transfer in the Education Department to Barnawartha Primary School and adapted perfectly to life in the bush.

He loved the feel of the town and enjoyed the fact that the locals were so passionate about the footy club. It was different to anything he’d experienced in the city.

All of the Rovers’ champions of the ’70’s (except Mark Booth) had, by now, moved on and there were plenty of spots to fill.

But there was a bevy of young, emerging talent around the club and a couple of experienced players – Maryborough school-teacher Michael Caruso and North Melbourne reject John O’Donoghue – landed on their doorstep.

And it was a big help when classy Robert Walker was lured back from the Kangaroos.

The young, group engendered a good spirit and responded to their inspirational coach.
In his first eight years they clinched four flags and at one stage chalked up 36 wins in succession. It was one of the most dominant periods in O & M history.

Walker spoke of Burt years later: ” Laurie was just what we needed; the right bloke at the right time. He was fabulous for our club and the whole town.”

“He was always reinforcing the team aspects – the guys who were injured or others who had missed out, the supporters who’d backed us and the whole community that was behind us.”

“We weren’t playing just for us, he’d say, but for them as well. The flags weren’t just ours, they belonged to the whole town.”

When Albury broke the Rovers’ sequence of 36 wins early in 1985, a new challenger to their throne had emerged. Indeed, the Tigers did become the pace-setters from that point on, but the Hawks fought ferociously to hang onto that mantle.

Laurie’s coaching reign had spanned a club-record 11 years when he decided not to seek re-appointment at the end of the 1997 season.

He had coached in 230 games for a remarkable success rate of 74.3 which saw the Hawks only miss the finals twice. He had played 152 games and had influenced the lives of a couple of hundred young men who played under him and absorbed his sage football advice.

The gongs that had come his way in a stellar career included induction to the Coburg, Wangaratta Rovers and Ovens and Murray Halls of Fame and membership of Coburg’s Team of the Century.

In the ensuing years Laurie has undertaken a number of roles on football’s periphery and thrived on the involvement.

This year he collected another sporting trophy – a share of Wangaratta Table Tennis Association’s B-Grade doubles title. He was overshadowed by his son Ashley, who took out the A-Grade championship.

I don’t know what it’s like facing him on the other side of the net, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have been half as daunting as having him bearing down on you on the football field.

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