‘….A STAR FROM THE VFA’S HALCYON DAYS……..’

“Just be careful,” said Colin Hobbs.

Hobbsy was an ex-Fitzroy player with a take-no-prisoners demeanour, and a fierce forearm that bounced off the head of opposition players with the dexterity of a violin bow: “There are some blokes in this competition who can be very nasty.”

A Preston ruck-rover by the name of Rod Cobain had gone mental, first accusing me of ‘sinking the slipper’, then yelling ‘I’m gonna get ya’ with such rapidity I had every reason to believe he meant it………….”

From: ‘Cleary, Independent,’ by Phil Cleary.

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Hey, surely this couldn’t be the same ‘Coey’, who’s always come across – to me, anyway – as a mild-mannered, cheerful souI. I seek clarification…….

“Yes”, he admits, “I did go off that day. I’d actually played with Colin Hobbs at Fitzroy, but he was Coburg’s captain at the time. Phil Cleary had done the wrong thing by one of my team-mates, Peter Weightman. My blood boiled, and I sought a bit of retribution.”

The early seventies were the halcyon days of the VFA . Sunday football was in its infancy; Channel 0 used to broadcast the game of the day; the competition cultivated personalities such as Freddie Cook, ‘Frosty’ Miller,  Bob Johnson and Harold Martin. Big crowds, big betting, plentiful fisticuffs and ample blood-letting were the order of the day.

And Rod Cobain was one of its stars…………..

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He was just a nipper when he began his regular winter Saturday routine; venturing along to watch South Melbourne in action. His grandfather had played a game or two with St.Kilda earlier in the century, but his dad was a passionate Swan and decked the young bloke out in a Red and White guernsey, with the number 32 of his favourite player – Ken Boyd.

Rod began with Preston Scouts, home club of the legendary Ronald Dale Barassi. With three of his mates – Barry Padley, John Benison and Paul O’Brien, he attended Lakeside High School. They all moved on to Fitzroy Thirds, and were later to play VFL footy together with the Lions.

He was rewarded with his first League game in 1966. Named on the bench, against Collingwood at Victoria Park, he got his opportunity after half-time, and sidled down to the forward pocket, to be confronted by the gargantuan figure of the Pies’ resting ruckman, Ray Gabelich.

‘Gabbo’s’ greeting was hardly conciliatory: “Have a look at what they’ve brought on here,” he sniggered to his side-kick, full back Peter Rosenbrock.

“Thankfully, our coach Billy Stephen shifted me to centre half forward shortly after, and I felt a bit more at ease,” Rod says.IMG_3417

Stephen, who had led Yarrawonga to the 1959 O & M flag during his seven years with the Pigeons, was ‘Coey’s’ coach for the entirety of his VFL career.

“He was a lovely, caring fellah, Bill. Very sincere. But, at the end of the day, he was probably too nice to be a League coach.”

“Our only win for the season came a fortnight after my debut. It was against Footscray, at the Western Oval. I’ve lined up at centre half back, on Ted Whitten, who was every bit as fierce as they say. I had the temerity to mark over him once and, as I tumbled to the ground he muttered: “You do that again and I’ll knock your f…….  head off.”

Later that year, the Lions’ bade adieu to their spiritual home – Brunswick Street Oval. In another promising display – and against the odds – 20 year-old Cobain picked up 17 possessions and five marks in an 84-point whalloping by St Kilda.IMG_3423

“It was an emotional day for the fans, for sure. But the issue that dominated post-match discussion was the report of Big Carl Ditterich for ‘snotting’ our mid-fielder Daryl Peoples. It kept Carl out of St.Kilda’s premiership side a few weeks later,” Rod recalls.

At 6’0” and 13 stone, he reckons he was best suited to the centre, or ruck-roving, but the Lions had a dearth of talent and he was used in most positions.IMG_3425

They finished last, 11th, 11th and 10th in his three and a bit seasons, and savoured success on just five occasions in his 27 games. But the memory of playing on such icons as Barassi, Whitten, Baldock, Denis Marshall and Sergio Silvagni as a slight youngster in his first couple of VFL seasons, ranks among his fondest footy memories.IMG_3426

When Cobain and Fitzroy parted company mid-way through 1969, he was recruited to Box Hill and produced some blinding form. In the eight games remaining, he finished third in the VFA’s Second Division Field Trophy.

He had been one of their guns in a 44 game, 3-year stint, but Box Hill plunged into deep financial trouble and were confronted with with a mass player walk-out. Preston, the neighbourhood club of his boyhood days, snapped up he and his old Fitzroy team-mate Garry Smith.

There was a fair lift in standard between the Second and First Divisions, but Rod fitted in comfortably  with the Bullants.

“It was good footy; nice and tough, and Preston were a fairly strong side. The coach there was Bob Syme, a former Essendon star and a bit of a character. He was as rough as a pair of hessian underpants, and fairly demanding.”

“On a cold day, he’d occasionally produce a bottle of Scotch, wrapped in a paper bag, and pass it around the three quarter-time huddle. You had to be careful that there wasn’t a TV camera pointed in your direction.”

Rod had played 58 games with Preston, and was entrenched as a teacher at Box Hill Tech, when he gave consideration to a couple of job offers. One was at Sunshine Tech; the other came from Wangaratta – and sounded appealing.

Unbeknowns to him, Keith Bradbury, the local MLA – and a Magpie supporter – was doing a bit behind the scenes to facilitate a transfer to Wangaratta. In the blink of an eye he’d been transferred to Wang Tech School and accepted the role as assistant-coach of the ‘Pies.

Wangaratta had been there or thereabouts for the previous four years, without posing a serious threat to the dominant Rovers. But, with a new coach, Phil Nolan, a Morris Medal-winning centreman in Jack O’Halloran, and an emerging group, they overcame all obstacles to march into the 1976 Grand Final.

There to meet them were the Hawks, who had battled through a bruising finals series, and still remained an ominous foe.

Wangaratta took charge of the game early, and at half-time led by four goals. The huge crowd settled down in anticipation of another spirited Rovers comeback. But this time it didn’t eventuate. The Pies cruised to the line, winning by 37 points.

For Rod Cobain, it was his maiden flag; a memorable moment in a fine career.

He had barely finished celebrating when Yarrawonga came knocking. They were searching for a replacement for their retiring leader, Bill Sammon, and were adamant that ‘Coey’ was their man.IMG_3432

The prospect of coaching sounded attractive, and he admired their approach. “From the moment I took the job on, the Yarra people were terrific,” he recalls.

“We finished in the finals both years, and I really enjoyed my time there. Leo Burke, the President, was a lovely fellah and really looked after us. After home games we’d socialise at the Clubrooms, then at Leo’s pub. “

“Around one o’clock I’d retire to my room. Shortly after, there’d be a knock on the door and Leo would be holding a huge crayfish and some Crown Lagers. Then we’d replay the game.”

“If you asked me for a summation of my coaching though, I’d say I was a bit too easy on the players.”

Rod returned to Wangaratta in 1979, and limped through the season. His 33 year-old body was ‘shot’, and he decided to hang up his boots.

He embarked on the next chapter of his football journey when 3NE approached he and Peter McCudden to call the O & M’s Game of the Day, in the early eighties.

Both TAFE teachers, and well-versed in the nuances of footy, they became the voice of the local game for 15 years or so. Their coverage was often jovial, sometimes opiniated, mostly spot-on, and easy on the ear.

Additionally, they ran a Thursday evening program with Mike Walsh. Besides announcing the teams for Saturday’s games, interviews were conducted with many of footy’s biggest names, including Sheedy, Kekovich, Whitten, ‘Crackers’ Keenan, Parkin and a host of local personalities.

When 3NE controversially pulled the plug on football, the ‘Cuddles and Coey Show’ was shelved. Rod drifted away from footy. But his enthusiasm was re-ignited a few years ago, when his son Ryan began to make his way through the Bushrangers, and into the Rovers senior side.IMG_1534

He and wife Jenny agree that the silky-smooth left-footer is clearly enjoying his best season, despite the obstacles of settling into a new job, and travelling home from Melbourne each Saturday.

As for Rod, he still gets the same buzz out of footy  that he did when he was a little tacker, following the fortunes of the Swans at the Lake Oval……………….IMG_3421

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOSTALGIC VISIT FOR OLD HAWK

Once a year, Dean Harding pays a nostalgic visit to his spiritual football home – the W.J.Findlay Oval.

His old mates gather – many with a link from school, or Junior League days, or the Rovers Thirds, where he first began to reveal his exquisite talents.

And there might be the odd former drinking or punting companion from a group that has ‘stuck fat’ throughout the years.

On Saturday he’s back again – as Wodonga’s coach.

Twenty-six years after his last game in Brown and Gold, he still finds it hard not to have a bit of an emotional ‘pull’ towards the Hawks. But when his Bulldogs are in combat with them they are the mortal enemy.

A couple of blokes had a bit of a chuckle when they sneaked over to his quarter-time rev-up last year, and heard him bellowing : “……..they’re an arrogant mob, these blokes……Get into ’em’ ”

That’s all part of footy with ‘Hards’, whose long and winding journey in the game that he loves, was touched upon by the ABC’s ‘Coodabeen Champions’ last week-end.

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The Hardings were a staunch Rovers family. Dad Neville was a long-time supporter ; Joan, Dean’s mum, was a member of the Social committee, and his younger brother Terry was to play over 100 games in all three grades.

Dean came through the Tigers, the junior league team which also produced AFL players of the calibre of Paul Bryce, Luke Norman and Chris Naish, during the same era.

The good judges agreed. This slimly-built kid had the goods – he was classy, self-assured, had a bit of the larrikin about him. He’ll probably be a star, they surmised.

You come across youngsters who are just naturals. Besides also being a talented wicket-keeper/batsman, he seemed capable of turning his hand to anything. The only doubt was whether he had the application to ‘go on with the job’.

He arrived at the Rovers as a Golden Era dawned. The Hawks, with a youthful senior team, swept to the flag in 1988. Dean played in the centre in a Thirds side – comprising several future O & M stars – which won the Grand Final by 14 goals.

His progress was steady. The next year he had a few games in the Thirds, but spent it mostly in the ‘twos’. There was talent galore ; he just had to bide his time.

In 1990, after a couple of reserves games, his opportunity finally arrived. His body had matured and he looked every inch a senior player. Even then, his education, at the hands of Laurie Burt, was not complete.

“With Laurie, you had to earn your spurs. The first couple of weeks I did a fair bit of bench-warming, but then, he started to give me more time on the ground. He was good for me, Laurie. I loved his coaching”, Dean says.

The Rovers ‘lucked’ out in the finals series. A brutal Elimination Final saw them overcome Benalla, but they met their match against Yarrawonga in the first-semi. ‘Hards’, however, had provided a ray of sunshine amidst the disappointment.

Laurie Burt recalls a clever, creative player, who had the capacity to influence a game: “I saw a lot of Joe Wilson in ‘Hards’ “.

He was voted the Hawks’ Best First-Year player and shaped as a potential champion of the Club in his 18 senior games. With a steady job in the Commonwealth Bank and as a popular member of the playing group, he looked a long-term proposition.

He was in the Rovers’ usual haunt, the Pinsent Hotel, having a relaxing few ales with his mates over the summer, when Hawk identity and ‘Pinno’ barman, ‘Crusher’ Connolly, calmly delivered the news: ” ‘Hards’, apparently you’ve been drafted.”

“Be buggered !”, was the reply.

Indeed, it was true. The downtrodden Fitzroy had chosen him with their pick number 78. Essendon plumped for a kid from Canberra, James Hird, with pick 79.

‘Hards’ couldn’t wait to get down to Melbourne and experience the blue-chip facilities and rarified atmosphere that, he imagined, prevailed at every AFL club.

Instead, the Lions shared their training base at the old Brunswick Street Oval with frisbee-throwing adults, yuppie dog-walkers and kids playing around the boundary.

But he fitted in beautifully to a club which was scant on resources, and huge in spirit. In his first season, 1991, playing on a wing or up forward, he made 12 senior appearances.

Undoubtedly the highlight was the final round, at Princes Park, when Fitzroy hosted West Coast, who were sitting 4 games clear on top of the ladder. The Lions, entrenched on the bottom, had won just three games for the season.

The match was proceeding according to the script, as the Eagles coasted to a 26-point half-time lead ; their hapless rivals having been kept to a solitary goal.

It was big-hearted Matty Rendell’s final game for Fitzroy, and in the third quarter his team-mates found something, to boot 6.5 to three points in the third quarter, and lead by 12 points at lemon-time.

‘Hards’ snared one of those goals, but, to the accompaniment of raucous cheering from the delerious, but sparse crowd, he kicked three more in a pulsating final term, as the Lions held on to win a true boilover by 10 points.

Dean was plagued by hamstring and thigh injuries over the next two seasons. He managed just two games in 1992 and five in ’93 and sensed that his cards were already marked – ‘injury-prone’.

He toyed with offers from both Port and South Adelaide. The Rovers were more than eager to get him back home, but he finally decided on a move to Wodonga.

“Two of my good mates, Robbie Hickmott and Dean Stone had joined Wodonga and the club made me an offer with work and footy that was pretty hard to refuse”, he says.

Apart from one season, when he was enticed to coach Rutherglen, he has been at Martin Park ever since.

After 80 games, again interrupted by injury, but highlighted by a couple of Grand Final appearances and three inter-league jumpers, he has served the Bulldogs on the football-front for more than two decades.

His first coaching stint was with the Under 18’s, whilst he was still playing. He has been a selector, assistant-coach and ‘general dogsbody’ around the club.

‘Hards’ was helping in the gruelling search for a coach in late-2014 when somebody suggested : “What about you ? ”

“So here I am. It’s been hard work, but really enjoyable. I love being involved with the young fellas”.

He runs his own Financial Planning business and, combined with family and footy, life is pretty hectic. But it’s hard to imagine the laid-back ‘Hards’ letting it get him down.

As he wanders through the gates of the Findlay Oval on Saturday and sees some familiar faces – many of them perched exactly where they were when he was just a fledgling Hawk – he’ll probably cast his mind back to those days of yore……….