‘THE WIRY, TOUGH AND TALENTED NEVILLE POLLARD….’

Our footy post-mortems were often held at the Sale-Yards, around 6.30am on foggy, crisp Monday mornings. Still  a touch seedy after a week-end of playing, celebrating or commiserating, we’d conduct a thorough review before  the Sheep Market rudely interrupted us.

He was a precociously talented utility player who’d taken on a job as captain-coach at the ripe old age of 20…… I was his coaching adversary; a plodder, reaching the end of my tether………..

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Forty-odd years on, I again catch up with Neville Pollard.

He’s had a rough time of it lately, has old ‘Nifty’. Nearly five months ago he was diagnosed with a rare fungal infection behind the left eye.

Two corneal transplants failed to rectify the problem; nor did a series of injections. His surgeon put forward a few scenarios of further treatment. One of them – the most radical – included removing the eye.

“I decided that was the most risk-free way to go. So they whipped it out a fortnight ago,” he says.

I’m sure he welcomes changing the subject when I suggest having a yarn about his lengthy, varied, 400-game footy career………

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

The Pollards were domiciled at Buln Buln, in the heart of Gippsland dairy country, when nine year-old Nev debuted with the local Thirds.

He later made the odd appearance with the seniors, but, going on 15 – and mid-way through the season – moved over to play with Drouin in the stronger West Gippsland League.

He finished the year with their Thirds, who were pipped by a point in the Grand Final, then booted 72 goals with the seniors the following season, to win the League goal-kicking award.

Under the VFL’s old zoning system, Drouin was part of Hawthorn’s territory. The Hawks helped themselves to a host of players from this lucrative recruiting area, including, of course, the famous Ablett family.

Neville had played alongside Geoff Ablett in the Drouin Thirds side, and also received an invitation to train ‘down town’.

But, in the meantime, his parents Arthur and Ruby, sold their farm and re-located to Bobinawarrah. He was momentarily out of Hawthorn’s clutches…….

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

“Pollard was one of the few players I went out of my way to recruit when I was coach,” says Wangaratta Rovers legend Neville Hogan.

“I remember heading out Milawa-way to see him early in 1973, then bringing him to training a couple of times, as he still didn’t have a licence.”

“Gee he could play. He came to us as a full forward, but we started him in the back pocket because we wanted to fit him into the side.”

“There’s always conjecture about whether this bloke or that would have played League footy. Sometimes it boils down to being at the right club at the right time. But I think Neville would have given it a really good shot………..”

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

He was a touch under 6 foot and as adaptable as they come. Proving himself ultra-capable down back, Hogan swung him into attack at one stage of the 1974 Grand Final. He booted two quick goals, to put the game completely out of Yarrawonga’s reach.IMG_4035

Andrew Scott recalls the coach’s plea to his side at three quarter-time of a soggy ‘75 decider against North Albury: “We led by 5 points in a real tight one, and ‘Hogan’s last words were: ‘Make sure you bring the ball to ground at all times.’ “IMG_4036

“In the opening minutes of the last quarter, Pollard’s caught off balance and brings down a spectacular one-hander across the half-back line, completely contrary to the coach’s instructions. It might have been one of those things that inspired us because we went away to win by 19 points.”

Scott and Pollard were members of the O & M team which trounced the VFA by 56 points that year.

“We played 18 a-side in the first half and reverted to the VFA’s version of 16 a-side in the second. I was playing on the wing and was supposed to go off at half-time, but Billy Sammon (our coach) decided to keep me on for the rest of the game. It was a terrific experience,” Neville recalls.

At season’s end, North Melbourne invited several potential recruits to play in a practice game at Arden Street. Hawthorn’s three-year hold on Pollard had expired and the Roos chief, Ron Joseph was keen to get hold of him.

“I’ve only got vague memories of the practice match,” he says, “.. but I do recall Scotty driving me down and getting pulled up for speeding. He was a cop at the time, and managed to talk his way out of it in convincing fashion.”

The Rovers were half-expecting to lose the youngster to North. He’d played three stellar seasons; featured in two flags….. But to their dismay, he accepted a coaching appointment at Milawa in 1976.

“I had a lot of mates out there, but may have been a bit naive taking the job on so young. In hindsight, I still don’t know whether I did the right thing,” Nev says.

“We were a young side; not over-tall, but they gave everything. I’d like to think I was honest and approachable as a coach, but it was tough……. I had to be an amateur psychologist, doctor and mentor besides concentrating on my own game.”IMG_4032

Milawa had won just three games the previous season, but again became a force under Pollard, and eventually ‘bombed out’ in the Preliminary Final.

They reached the Prelim in three of the first four years,  plunged to the bottom, then recovered to reach successive Grand Finals in his seven seasons in charge.IMG_4038

He was their dynamo, and took out the O & K’s Baker Medal ( as well as the club B & F ) in 1978 and 1980. Some old-time Demons rate him their best-ever player.

The last of his 141 games with the club was in the ‘Bloodbath’ Grand Final of 1982.

“We were 19 points up at half-time against Chiltern, and looked to be travelling well. But we just got hunted. At one stage there was talk of calling the game off. It was the worst match I’ve ever been involved in.”

In the end, the Swans ran away to win by 74 points. Neville was one of several who appeared at the resultant Tribunal hearing the following week and was quizzed about  one incident.

“I told them I’d got belted from behind. They gave the bloke one week…… I couldn’t believe it.”

“I decided to have another crack with the Rovers the next year. It wasn’t because of what happened in the Grand Final…..I just wanted to test myself back in the higher standard before I got too old.”

“I’d thought about coming in a couple of years earlier, but I suppose I got a bit stubborn and decided to stay.”

At 27, Neville was probably a better-equipped player than in his previous incarnation with the Hawks. He enjoyed stints in the midfield and on-ball and took out Best & Fairests in 1983 and ‘84.

A regular selection in the O & M side, he was voted the League’s best in a Country Championship semi-final clash against Ballarat. He lined up in the centre, alongside another old Drouin boy, Gary Ablett, who started on the wing.IMG_4033

That year,1983,  signified Pollard’s return to the top, as he also finished runner-up in the Morris Medal.

Again emphasising his versatility, he kicked 10 goals from centre half forward, in a memorable match against Albury  three years later.

His old mate Andrew Scott also booted 10 that day. They still debate the merit of their respective performances.

“Well, I kicked 10.7 and Scotty, who wasn’t fit enough to move out of the goal-square was gifted a handful. I reckon he touched a couple of my shots on the line !” he says.

After 13 years in the livestock game, Neville and Judy bought a property at Tocumwal and moved over with the four kids – Krystal, Carly, Elise and Ash. It signalled the end of his 139-game career with the Hawks.

“I’d fully intended to play with ‘Toc’, but on the first night of training only about eight fellahs turned up. It didn’t get much better for the next couple of weeks.”

“ Laurie Burt kept in touch and was keen for me to travel over and keep playing for the Rovers. I said: ‘Look, just reject the first clearance application. We’ll see how it goes.’ “

But he decided to stick it out . Tocumwal endured a gloomy, winless season and didn’t fare much better in in the next. Neville picked up successive B & F’s, however, and continued to star, as the Bloods began to gain momentum.

They thrived under the leadership of rugged Stuart Roe, who had come across from Shepparton to coach.

He took them to Grand Finals in 1989 and ‘90. They took the next step in 1991, after Philip Nicholson had succeeded Roe.  Pollard was part of a lethal half back line at this stage, and picked up his third flag when he starred in the Bloods’ premiership win over arch rivals Finley.IMG_4034

He continued to serve Tocumwal long after his glittering career had drawn to a close. ‘Nifty’ was 38 when he decided to pull the pin in 1992, but then spent seven years as Chairman of Selectors and six years as coach of the Thirds.

One of his biggest thrills in football came twenty years later, when fleet-footed Ash burst onto the scene in the first of his 40 senior games with the Rovers.

‘Nifty’ – O & K Hall of Famer, veteran of Buln Buln, Drouin, Wang Rovers, Milawa and Tocumwal – would be tickled pink if the young bloke again donned the Brown and Gold.

“All you can do is hope,” he says “…..but he might have left his run a bit late……”IMG_4039

JEZZ’S FOOTBALL JOURNEY……..

It’s match-day……..and the atmosphere in the Rovers rooms fluctuates between frenetic activity and silent contemplation……

The strain shows on the first-year co-coaches, who have plenty on their plate. They impart last-minute instructions to this youthful group; re-iterating the importance of the task ahead.

A variety of emotions flash through their minds…………anxiety, excitement, adrenalin…..and worry…..

Are they ready ? Have we picked the right team ? Will they start well ?

I notice a carrot-topped fellah with a friendly face, engaging in quiet conversation with a few of the boys, who respond with a nod of the head and a smile. It’s obvious that he, too, has a role to play, as siren-time beckons and momentum builds……….

He’s Jeremy Campbell…….

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

‘Jezz’ deems forging relationships as the essential aspect of coaching. It excites him to see young players develop and if he can be an extra pair of eyes and ears to Andy Hill and Sam Carpenter, so be it.

“It’s refreshing to work with two young coaches. In my opinion, they’re going great guns. I just run ideas past them and lend support whenever I can,” he says.

He helps with the rotations and does a bit of one-on-one with the players. “They’re a really coachable group.”

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

‘Jezz’ prefers to stay out of the limelight, but I was keen to uncover his outstanding footy pedigree.

It extends back to his home club, Lockington-Bamawm United, where he played in three junior flags, before being snapped up by Goulburn Valley League club, Rochester.

He was doing Year 12 and playing his first season with the Tigers, when he came under the influence of the legendary David ‘Dirty’ Williams.

‘Dirty’ was a born-and-bred Rochy boy, who played 67 games with Melbourne, then returned to coach his home club for 16 years. He was an imposing figure, led from the front and his game was exemplified by his fierce attack on the ball.

“Rochester’s a great family club, not dissimilar to the Rovers in a lot of respects. We were pretty young and mostly all locals, and ‘Dirty’ harped on the fact that it was ‘Rochy against the Rest’ . He was demanding, but had a knack of being able to develop players. It was a joy to play football under him,” Jeremy recalled.

He played 7 senior games and about the same number in the thirds in that first season – 1996. Despite Rochy’s seniors finishing second-bottom, there were promising signs for the future.

When he moved to Melbourne to attend Uni, it only seemed natural for him to return home each week-end, to play with the Tigers, who were developing a top-notch side. He continued the round-trip for nine years.

“We had five – and up to nine – blokes (all Rochy boys) travelling back. That stemmed from the culture  that had been fostered at the club,” he says.

Jeremy had ‘started his apprenticeship’ in the back pocket, moved to the back flank and finally worked his way into the mid-field.

“In 1999 we broke through, and ran away from Shepp United, to win the flag by 40-odd points. It was a great reward for our coach, his assistants and volunteers around the club, who had worked so hard. But also for the team as a whole, who had endured two losing Grand Finals, in 1997 and ’98. It was a very resilient group,” he said.

“A week after the Grand Final, unfortunately one of our team-mates, five years older than me, and one of my idols, lost his life in tragic circumstances.”

“He was a vital part of the club, always first on the track and the last to leave  after his usual  post-training  weights session. He was a very special person and his death took the wind right out of our sails.”

“People weren’t sure what reaction it would have on the playing group, but we battled on and reached the Prelim Final the following year.”

Bruce Watson recruited the young Campbell to Rochester, coached him in the Under 18’s and saw him play most of his 195 games with the Tigers.

“Outside of our club, Jeremy never got the accolades he deserved. He was hard at it -an absolute animal – and was a real athlete. He would run all day.”

“Craig Scholl, the North Melbourne premiership player, rated him one of the toughest blokes he’d played on. Scholl played in Echuca sides which beat us in Grand Finals in 2001 and ’02, but Jeremy had some great battles with him.”

“And besides that, he was highly admired, on an off the field,” Bruce added.

Recognised as one of the GV’s most reliable and consistent on-ballers, Jeremy wore the League’s Purple and Gold jumper six times, captained the League and won VCFL representation in 2002.

In his only previous sojourn on the W.J.Findlay Oval – in 2003 – he was voted best afield in GV’s convincing win over an O & M side coached by Mick Wilson.

It was a wrench to leave Rochy after a highly successful era. He had played in five Grand Finals and loved the club, but decided to accept a position as assistant-coach of Drouin, in the Latrobe Valley League.

However, he was keen to coach in his own right and when someone mentioned, the next season, that there was a job going at Blackburn, he decided to apply.

“I’d heard on the grapevine that Brett Ratten was in for it, so I wasn’t hopeful. But then, he took what seemed a more attractive option at rival Eastern.F.L club Norwood and I landed the job,” he recalls.

“They were a family club, with a friendly environment. They’d been up in Division 1 for three years and had just staved off demotion each year. We won 6 games in my first year and 8 in the second.”

Ben Kneebone spent a couple of years at Blackburn and was taken by ‘Jezz’s’ leadership and work-rate. “Before the first bounce in most games, he’d be in the face of the opposition’s star, just to set the agenda for the day. He was as tough as they come.”

In 2008, his third year of coaching, Jeremy reverted to a non-playing role. Blackburn recruited well and won 11 games, to reach the finals for the first time since 1975. They defeated East Ringwood in the first final, but their flag hopes were thwarted by Noble Park.

He was voted the Eastern League’s Coach of the Year, further enhancing his growing coaching credentials.

When he and his partner Bree decided to return to the country, Jeremy was approached by the Rovers. He expressed a keen interest in the vacant coaching position and was urged on by his Dad, who reminded him the Hawks had a great tradition and would be a fantastic club to coach.

“It resonated with me a bit, but I’m a believer that things fall into place for a reason. Moving to Wang just didn’t suit at that stage.”

Instead, they moved to Shepparton, where Bree got involved in netball and Jeremy taught at the Deakin University campus at Dookie.

Apart from playing a few games for Dookie over the next couple of years, his active involvement in footy dissipated until they moved to Wangaratta and he helped out his brother, Ash, who was coaching the Magpies Thirds at the time.

His full-on job as principal of Oxley Primary School precludes him from spending as much time as he’d like on footy, but he enjoys his involvement.

It may be seven years after he rejected the coaching job, but Jeremy Campbell is firmly entrenched in the Hawk camp……