Paul O’Brien played 90 games for Wangaratta Rovers during their ‘Golden Era’ of the seventies. Mid-sized, burly and super-competitive, he was an ideal spare-parts man, who could be thrust into a variety of roles with telling effect.

Some would say he timed it to perfection when he made the move from Greta in 1974, but it was no accident that he was to figure in four premierships in his six years at the Findlay Oval.

O’Brien was a strong personality; the archetypal big-occasion player, who could take a game by the scruff of the neck. In short, he was born to play in finals.

One of his best performances came on a warm late-September day in 1978………….


The memories come flooding back when we start reminiscing about that Grand Final.

“I know we weren’t expected to win,” Paul says. “ Benalla were the form team. But, as with a couple of those other premierships in the seventies, we weren’t necessarily the most talented side. It was a matter of being able to produce it on the day.”

“The game had an extra dimension to it for me, because ‘Ab’ ( his brother Greg, who had tied for the 1976 Morris Medal during his stint with the Hawks) was lining up in the back pocket for Benalla.”

“ There was talk of a fair bit of money being thrown around by their backers……and a few of our supporters lining up to accomodate them………..”


The Demons started the season in less than emphatic fashion. They’d finished seventh in 1977, but recruited well, and were expected to be among the big improvers.

After four rounds they were lying second-bottom, with just one win. To accentuate the pain, they were reeling from a 79-point belting at the hands of the Rovers.

From that point on, they’d strung together fifteen straight wins, including an exciting 13-point victory over North Albury in the second semi-final. Brilliantly led by favourite son Billy Sammon, and with players like Martiniello, Hyde, Ellis, Symes and De Fazio at their peak, they were in rare form. They’d been so irresistible that few tipsters dared to go against them.

The Hawks’ finals prospects appeared ‘shot’ when North Albury gave them a ‘touch-up’ in the Qualifying Final. But they recovered strongly, with impressive performances against Albury and the Hoppers in successive weeks, to win their way into their eighth Grand Final in nine years.

The stage was set for a classic at the Wangaratta Showgrounds……..


Rovers coach Darryl Smith was in his second year at the helm. Eighteen months earlier, and still laid up after a knee ‘reco’, he was surprisingly appointed as Neville Hogan’s successor.

“My first year as coach was a nightmare,” he recalls. He battled his way through ’77 , suffering a succession of niggling injuries, and started on the bench in the decider, in which the Hawks thrashed Wangaratta.

Although still not playing with the freedom of his earlier years, Smith was still happy enough with the on-field contribution he’d made in 1978, and was looking forward to performing a role in the Grand Final.

“I had my leg propped on a rub-down table, doing a few stretches before the game, when I felt something go in my calf. I thought,’Shit, that feels no good at all,’ and asked our trainer, Johnny Spence, if he could have a look at it.”IMG_3443

“He went away and grabbed a glass of water, handed me a tablet, and said: ‘Here, take this.’ It worked wonders and I didn’t feel a thing after that.”

Smith and his selectors sprung a surprise when they punted on an 18 year-old beanstalk, Neale McMonigle, who had played just three senior games.

His dad, ‘Big John’ had been a premiership ruckman for the Hawks twenty years earlier, and was remembered as a highly-talented, nonchalant character. The lad inherited similar traits, but had forced his way into the side with some exhibitions of fingertip marking and long kicking. Nonetheless, it was a risky selection, the critics surmised.

The inexperienced Graeme Bell was handed one of the toughest assignments. He had the responsibility of trying to nullify potent Demon ruck pair, Emmie De Fazio and Malcolm Ellis. In another crucial match-up, long-kicking left-footer David Spence lined up on dangerous Demon spearhead Brian Symes……..


The Hawks got away to a flier, kicking two goals in the opening minutes. But it was the mid-field fisticuffs, as much as the football, that fired the fans in a frenetic opening term. When the dust settled, umpire Glenn James had booked Benalla’s Stephen Hide for striking back flanker Chris Porter.

“Why would you want to job ‘Clang’,” said one team-mate. “It was like whacking a slab of cement. Whenever someone had a crack at him he’d just shrug and get on with the job.”

No-one was better suited to handle such a delicate situation than Umpire James, who was among the VFL’s finest and most respected men in white, and had a great rapport with the players.

At the height of the melee, young Hawk rover Peter McGuire, who had called him a ‘black prick’, was promptly informed that he was also ‘in the book’. At the end of the quarter McGuire apologised to James, who winked and whispered: “If you start getting a few kicks I’ll forget about it.”

The Rovers, at this stage, were 19 points in front, and in complete charge of the game. By half-time it was as good as over.

Everything they did was a class above their disappointing opponents, and their disposal was spot-on, both by hand and foot. Unfortunately, the Demons chose the season’s biggest occasion to turn in a collective ‘shocker’.IMG_3440

One theory was that, having played just the one match in four weeks, they weren’t sufficiently battle-hardened to withstand the rigours of a boots-and-all Grand Final.

Their coach Billy Sammon picked up his share of kicks, but was nowhere near the destructive force of the bulldozing mid-fielder, O’Brien, who bobbed up everywhere.

‘Sam’ Symes proved a headache for the Hawks in attack, and Gary Walker was miserly in outbustling century goal-kicker Steve Norman, and keeping him to two majors.

Their best player – and leading possession-winner, however, was lightly-framed winger Adrian Fuhrmann

But Benalla couldn’t suppress the brilliant Andrew Scott. In his four years in the O & M he had snared a Morris Medal and twice finished runner-up, rapidly assuming cult hero status within the club. He again revealed all of his attributes in picking up 20 kicks, dishing out 6 handballs and taking 10 telling marks.IMG_3441

Many would have opted for him as best afield, but umpire James gave the gong to Trevor Bell, who also pulled down 10 fine ‘grabs’ in a dominant display at centre half forward. It was the second year in succession that the prodigiously-talented Bell had taken out the Award.

His twin Graeme, who reigned supreme in the ruck, wasn’t far behind. He repeatedly outleaped his opponents, to put the ball in the path of Hawk little men Eddie Flynn, Mark Booth, Neville Allan and Peter McGuire.

The questionable move of playing the ‘greenhorn’ McMonigle, paid dividends when he booted three goals and provided a handy target up forward.

The Rovers eventually cruised to the line, booting 15.18 (108) to Benalla’s 7.12 (54).

The team that got them there was:











# Darryl Smith woke up the morning after the ‘78 Grand Final with excruciating pain in his calf – the same pain he had experienced in the pre-match. He felt compelled to ask Johnny Spence just what sort of a pill it was, that had allowed him to get through the game. “A ‘Smartie’, was the reply.

# Eddie Flynn also felt a twinge in his knee during the match, but played on, to become one of the team’s stars. A fortnight later, the knee ‘went’ during a game of basketball. He had an operation in January, rehabbed frantically and went on to play in the 1979 Flag.

# Fifteen members of the 1978 Premiership team finished their careers at the Rovers with 100 games or more, including (3) 200-Gamers and (2) 300-Gamers.

# Eight players were later inducted to the club’s Hall of Fame. Five are members of the Ovens and Murray’s Hall of Fame.

# Long-striding winger Leigh Hartwig was declared the winner of the ‘Bob Rose Medal’ at the Best & Fairest count a few nights later. He repeated the feat in 1979.

# The Hawks continued their amazing run of success the following season. Topping the ladder with just four losses, they ran away from a plucky Wodonga side in the last quarter of the Grand Final, to prevail by five goals.

Chasing four-in-a-row in 1980, they were outplayed in the second half of the Grand Final by a North Albury side which had come the hard way, via the Elimination Final.

# Most of the stars of ‘78, will meet on Saturday for a 40-Year Re-union of a
famous Premiership.……….Sadly, they won’t include Garry Bell and Peter McGuire, who both lost their lives in motor vehicle accidents………..

# The function will also be a Re-Union of the club’s 1958 and ‘88 flag teams…….IMG_3445











Darryl Smith remembers the day he was set on the path to an illustrious football career.

He was 14 when his dad gave him two options: “You can either play footy or come cutting wood with me over the winter months”.

“It was a no-brainer, really”, says Smithy.


He’s a native of Hastings, a Westernport town, described as the ‘gateway to the lower Mornington Peninsula’.  In football parlance, it lays claim to be the launching-pad from which the legendary Essendon goal-kicker John Coleman began his journey to fame and fortune.

The biggest influence on Darryl, though, was a tough on-baller, Hastings 300-gamer and coach, Richard Everest, who lived and breathed footy and inspired the club’s youngsters to ‘follow their dreams’.

After a season in the Under 17’s he joined Everest in the senior side – an awkward boy, still growing into his body, but progressing quickly.

St.Kilda invited him to do a pre-season. His dad would drive him to Frankston; he’d be picked up by Saints star Travis Payze and transported to Moorabbin for training, then back home.

10 minutes into his first practice match he was knocked out and carried into the dressing-rooms, where he lay motionless, like a body in the morgue, until just before half-time. His dad found him and asked the obvious question. “What happened ?”

“Can’t remember”, was Darryl’s response.

“Well, have a shower and get your clothes on. We’re off home”.

“Two weeks later, a St.Kilda official rang to see where I’d got to. The old man tore shreds off him. Told him they can’t rate the young bloke too highly if it took them a fortnight to check up on what had happened to me “.

So that was the end of his crack at the big time.

Darryl returned to Hastings, had a fine year and won the Best & Fairest. He dislocated his shoulder in the finals, which kept him out of work for an extended period.

A friend, Bob Mayne, who was in the CFA in Wangaratta, suggested he make a fresh start. He said: “Come up and have a look around. I’ll arrange for you to meet both clubs”.

It coincided with the Rovers Premiership Ball. “I had such a good time there, I just about made up my mind on the spot. The Rovers seemed like a real good fit for me”, he recalls.

In common with a lot of Hawk recruits, he was lined up with work at Thompson’s Brickworks.

“It was the worst – and hardest – job I’d ever had. I reckon I did well to last six weeks”, he said. (I tell him I know how he felt. I left after one day ! ).

” I moved on to Canny’s, shovelling briquettes ; drove a truck for Howlett’s Transports, then was offered a job selling cars with Alan Capp’s. Work was certainly providing me with plenty of variety “.

On the footy front, he settled in perfectly. ” The support the club received from the public was incredible and it was run more professionally than anything I’d experienced. ”

Darryl made an immediate impact and his adaptability proved a decided asset.  At 6’1″ and 13 stone, he could be moved to a number of positions to plug gaps, but was probably at home at centre half forward, or back.

He was a star in the 1972 premiership win, then won successive Best & Fairests in the following two years.

After four years with the Hawks he had collected three flags and was an established star. Further emphasis of his class came when he booted five goals at full forward, for the O &M against a top-notch VFA representative team.

In 1976, however, he did his knee and required a reconstruction. He was still hobbling around when the Magpies deeply wounded the Rovers in the Grand Final.

It was to be Neville Hogan’s final game and drew the curtain down on one of the club’s most celebrated playing and coaching careers.

The question was: Who would succeed the champ ? There was the usual conjecture, and rumours pointed to a Preston rover, Peter Weightman, being the warm fancy.

Rovers stalwart Les O’Keeffe pulled Smithy aside and urged him to have a crack at it, but he wasn’t so sure.

He had nagging doubts about how his knee would recover, whether the players would accept him after being one of them for five years, and if he could live up to the standards set by Hogan.

He eventually put up his hand and was given the job.

Miraculously, he lined up in the first practice match of 1977. There were no after-effects from his operation, but he was  hampered by hamstring problems throughout the season. This increased the pressure on him and he suspected there were the inevitable comparisons with Hogan.

Luckily, the side performed superbly and the coach began to feel more comfortable in the role. Because he was still a bit underdone, Darryl started on the interchange bench in the Grand Final against Wangaratta, which the Hawks dominated.

His coaching performance had passed the pinch-test. Everyone appreciated his honest approach and, thankfully, he returned to his best playing form the following season. He had now added a harder edge to his game and acted as a ‘protector’ for his younger players.

By the end of his third year at the helm the Hawks had won a hat-trick of flags and were looking to become just the third O & M club to win four in a row.

It wasn’t to be. They led North Albury by a goal at half-time in the Grand Final.  Glory beckoned, but North kicked 6 goals to nil in a blistering third quarter, to win comfortably.

Darryl sensed that his message was starting to fall on deaf ears in 1981 and, even though his charges rallied to reach the Preliminary Final, he knew that his time was up.

He handed over the coaching reigns to John Welch and played on for one more senior season. He was still playing okay,  but recognised that he shouldn’t stand in the way of the youngsters coming through.

He had notched up 195 games, booted 185 goals and his achievements ultimately earned him entry to the Wang. Rovers and Ovens and Murray Halls of Fame.

But he reckons that his next role – as coach of the Third Eighteen for three years – gave him as much satisfaction as any of his playing deeds.

Many of the Hawks’ next wave of champions – such as Matt Allen, Rob Walker, Mick Wilson and Robbie Hickmott – thrived on the Smith coaching doctrine which culminated in the Thirds’ flag of 1985.

Darryl moved to the Bellarine area in the late eighties and continued his involvement in footy, with coaching appointments at St.Leonard’s (’89-’90) and Portarlington (’91-’92). But their lack of professionalism frustrated him. ” They just weren’t fair dinkum and this irked me”, he says.

He is moving back here in September and is excited about renewing his links with the Club and his old team-mates, many of whom have become lifelong friends.FullSizeRender

It’s the beginning of another chapter in the life of Darryl Smith..



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