DAZZLING DESMOND – THE FOOTBALL MAGICIAN

He is just 18 when he runs out onto Victoria Park, behind football luminaries like Weideman, Tuddenham and Gabelich, to play his first game of League football.

It’s Easter Monday 1962, and the crowd of 42,000, packed to the rafters, roars its approval of their Black and White heroes. His nerves are already taut and he feels as if his head is about to explode, such is the wonderment of the occasion.

Two and a half hours later, as he trudges from the field, there is stunned silence. The ‘Pies have lowered their colours to St.Kilda at home for the first time since 1919. The mood is sombre….angry. This is not the way the script was meant to play out…..
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Seven months earlier, Des Steele was home on school holidays from Xavier College when he was slotted onto a wing by his home-town team, Wangaratta, for their Grand Final clash with Benalla.

He had made an impression in the strong Public Schools competition and Wang coach Neville Waller wanted to ensure that such a precocious talent would be made available for the finals.

The youngster was just one of a number of stars who glistened on that sweltering day at Martin Park.

Wangaratta got away to a flier and belted the Demons by 63 points in a dominant display, which had complemented their earlier finals victories of 40 and 52 points.

Des had already signed a Form-Four, which tied him to Collingwood. He had been spotted in a school game by Magpie mentor Phonse Kyne and admits that no arm-twisting was required for him to sign on the dotted line.

“I had no career path in mind. My only ambition was to be a star footballer, ” he recalled.

So, along with four other team-mates from Xavier – Trevor Gowers ( Richmond), Brian Sierakowski (St.Kilda), Brian Brushfield (Geelong) and Des Meagher ( Hawthorn) – he advanced to League ranks.

Collingwood organised a clerical job with an oil company. He thrived in the environment and, after three games in his first year, looked forward to establishing himself as a regular player.

He was ‘on fire’ in a practice match in his second season when he jarred a heel, which he couldn’t get right and was out of action for 8 weeks. Working his way back to full fitness, he regained his senior spot for the last five games.

In the final home-and-home match of 1963, Des waged a great battle with Essendon’s star winger Barry Capuano and was awarded Collingwood’s trophy as the best player in their 27-point defeat.

It was to be his last VFL game.

Collingwood had undergone considerable change in 1964, with a new coach, Bob Rose, and a revitalised playing list. They went within a whisker of winning the flag, but Des spent the season in the Reserves, battling injury for most of it.

He had become disenchanted with life in Melbourne and thought it was time for a change. “I didn’t have a car ; was living in Clifton Hill, travelling to work at Spotswood, then had to make my way back to Victoria Park for training. It got to me a bit, ” he said.

He regarded his aborted League career as ‘a missed opportunity’, but was keen to move on.
Preston approached him but instead, he opted to return to Wangaratta, where he regained his form and a renewed zest for football.

Old-time Magpies will recall dazzling Desmond prancing, dodging, weaving and dancing his way around the Norm Minns Oval with the alacrity of a ballet dancer.

He was Wangaratta’s version of Footscray’s 329-game Hall of Famer and champion of the eighties, Dougie Hawkins.

There was little doubt that he was one of the pre-eminent mid-fielders in the Ovens and Murray. In his first season ‘back home’ he won his club’s Best & Fairest and the Chronicle Trophy and played in the Grand Final, which the ‘Pies lost to the Rovers.

Wang were there or thereabouts during most of Des’s years with them and contested ‘The Big One’ again in 1966 and ’69. He notched up his second B & F and represented the O &M in a stellar 1970.

With a hankering to coach he took on the job at Milawa for two years, then returned to the ‘Pies for his third stint, in 1975.

He was now an ageing star, but had lost few of the tricks that characterised his artistry in the midfield.

His form was still solid (if a little inconsistent), but he was to play a vital part in a cherished Magpie moment, when they swept to a famous premiership triumph over their arch-enemies, the Hawks, in 1976.

“I had the feeling we were on the verge of something big that year, and with Phil Nolan taking charge and players like Rod Cobain coming on board, we developed into a formidable side. To win the flag was fantastic.”

It was an ideal way for Des to round off his O & M career. With premierships in his first and last seasons at Wangaratta (albeit 15 years apart ), 191 games to his credit and subsequent membership of the club’s Team of the Century,  he headed out to Greta as playing-coach for a two-year term.

He stayed on as a player for another season and was sure that he had reached the end of the road, only to be talked into having one last fling, in 1980, by new Greta coach, Geoff Lacey.

“Lacey was a good leader and I was glad I agreed to continue, as we won the flag.”

His son Darren was now beginning to make his way in the game and Des strapped himself in for what turned out to be a terrific ride.

Darren’s rise was meteoric. A talented schoolboy, he was an All-Australian Teal Cup player and, in his only season with Wang, in 1982, aged 16, rose through the Thirds and Reserves, to play 8 senior games.

North Melbourne eagerly grabbed him and he chalked up 119 games as a more than handy utility player and tagger over 11 years. The ‘Roos were becoming concerned with his continuing run of injuries and swapped him to Geelong, where he strung together another 18 games before retiring at the end of 1994.

“Darren missed out on the big money in football, but did well professionally, ” Des explains. “North put him through school, at Essendon Grammar, and he continued on to gain a Masters in Accounting.”

“He and his family spent 7 years in England and returned home three years ago. He’s now the CFO of Fonterra Milk Company.”

Des’s pursuit of a VFL career had put his cricketing talents on the back-burner. He was originally intent on being a wicket-keeper, but when he returned to Wangaratta in the mid-sixties, established a substantial reputation as a classy right-hand batsman and leg-spinner.

He played in a WDCA premiership with United, then transferred to Magpies, where he was a key figure in another three titles.

Then tennis took over. He’s a man of action, is Des Steele and now that he’s retired he manages to fit in tennis three days a week and a decent ride on the bike three mornings a week.

There was an interruption to this busy schedule about six months ago, when he skidded on some loose gravel and came to grief.

The result? Four broken ribs and a brief spell from his sporting pursuits.

But that was a mere interlude for the man who must be one of Wangaratta’s fittest 71 year-olds.

 
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