‘THE INTRICACIES OF COACHING……’

I’m a sucker for a good old  footy  coaching story……..

……..Like that of the rough and tumble back pocket player, born and bred in Richmond. He joins the Tigers, but over a period of six years never really establishes himself as a regular senior player.

Frustrated and unfulfilled , he spends a season with Richmond Amateurs, then decides to head to the bush, accepting a coaching position with Shepparton. His tenacious attitude and devotion to fitness turns the club into a winner. They narrowly lose the Grand Final in his first year, but snare three flags in a row.

The Mighty Tigers, looking for a replacement coach, cast the net and eventually turn to the formerly unfashionable defender. Relishing the opportunity, he gains the confidence of players, raises their fitness levels to new heights, and preaches his philosophy- ‘Kick the Ball Long…..’

Richmond win four flags under Tommy Hafey, and he is voted their Coach of the Century. He later leads Collingwood, Sydney and Geelong, in a fabulous 522-game coaching career…….

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A diminutive 5’4” rover moves from Murtoa to pursue what seems his impossible dream of playing League football with St.Kilda. He appears in 87 matches on either side of World War II before being struck down with tuberculosis of the spine.

For months he is in a coma and near death. When he recovers he is left hunchbacked. But his love of football and desire to coach St.Kilda inspires him to walk again. He is a big little man of courage and conviction, who openly loves his players, and his speeches become a precious part of the folk-lore of the game.IMG_3726

Overcoated and with tie askew, he patrols the boundary on match day, urging on his players and brandishing a towel to inflame the emotions of his club’s rabid fans.

Alan Killigrew’s coaching route takes him via East Ballarat and Golden Point, to St.Kilda, Norwood, North Melbourne and Subiaco. It ends with a premiership at QAFL Club Wilston-Grange. He says of his wanderings: “Wherever I go I’ll love my football. But I can only love one club – St.Kilda. It’s like a marriage – I’m married to one club …………

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A handy half-forward from Finley is promised six games with St.Kilda. He’s perceptive enough to realise that, at the expiration of those match permits, he’ll probably end up back in the Murray League.

He surprises himself and becomes a Saint regular until a rib injury forces him into early retirement. Two years later, aged just 27, he is thrust into the St.Kilda coaching job, after impressing as a fill-in with the Reserves.

The side clicks. In his first season in charge they sneak into the four – the Saints’ first finals appearance since 1939.

In 1965 they reach the Grand Final, but this is only the prelude to one of the most historic of all football moments, when a rushed snap for goal from Barry Breen hands them a one-point victory – and the 1966 premiership.IMG_3732

He has the reins at St.Kilda for sixteen years, basing his coaching philosophy on fierce discipline and the basic tenet that ‘either we have the ball, the opposition has it, or it is in dispute’.

Alan Jeans’ later appointment as coach at Hawthorn raises eyebrows , but he becomes a much-loved father-figure at Glenferrie, guiding the Hawks for a further nine seasons, during which they land three flags…………..

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A shy 16 year-old from Nyah West is first lured to Melbourne to fight a three-rounder at West Melbourne Stadium. He impresses, and over the next couple of years disposes of a variety of opponents.

On one of those visits to the city, he is invited to train with Collingwood. Years later he admits his clearest memory was of the green grass underfoot ; such a stark contrast to the drought-affected clay surfaces that he was used to in the Mallee.

He debuts with the Magpies in 1946 and becomes a instant hit. Modest to the extreme, he takes the game by storm, winning four B & F’s with the Pies and starring in their 1953 premiership.

The Brownlow Medal that most people feel is his due, never comes. He finishes runner-up in 1953, but is handed the pseudonym of ‘Mr.Football’, and acknowledged as one of the greatest players of all-time.

The football world reels in late-1955 when he announces that he is turning his back on a 152-game VFL career at age 27, in favour of a coaching job at Wangaratta Rovers.

He turns around the fortunes of a struggling club, capturing the imagination of the locals in the process, particularly the large contingent of Italian fans, who dub him ‘Bobby Rossa’.IMG_0549

He guides the Hawks to flags in 1958 and 1960 and wins the Morris Medal in both years. His 126 games in Brown and Gold are of rare quality, but equally acknowledged is his understanding of the game and the esteem in which he’s held.

Bob Rose, football legend,  heads back to Collingwood and takes over the coaching job in 1964. He proves to be a wonderful coach, but luck eludes him in his 10 years in charge, with three heart-breaking Grand Final losses. He also leads Footscray for four seasons…….

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The Rovers embark on a search for Rose’s replacement ; a Herculean task in itself.

Their enquires lead them to South Melbourne’s Lake Oval, where they have arranged to interview a 23 year-old, bony, confident, rapid-talking ruckman.IMG_1493

He’s become a ‘human-headline’ during his brief, controversial VFL career, principally because of his knack of getting into trouble on the field.

After all, he’s been rubbed out for a total of 30 games and has played just 60, many of which have contributed to his reputation as the ‘Wild-Man’ of football.

Several weeks earlier, he had copped a 12-week suspension for ‘snotting’ John Nicholls in a fiery Carlton- South Melbourne game. This followed on from the six weeks he’d been given for smacking ‘Big Nick’ and John Heathcote in the prior Carlton clash that season.

But still, informed sources had led the coaching sub-committee to believe that this fellah was a quality person and would be well worth the punt. He was, they said, ideal coaching material.

He tells them that he’d received 40-odd offers from around the nation, but sounds interested in what the Hawks have to say. Twenty minutes into their conversation, they’re certain that they’ve got the right man for the job.

Within 18 months Ken Boyd has become renowned as a popular, charismatic leader – loved by the Rovers; hated by opposition fans. He coaches for four years, wins two flags, and his capacity to create headlines remains undiminished………

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It’s early-October 2018…….. The Wangaratta Rovers have come off the worst season in their 68-year O & M history.

Winless and firmly entrenched on the bottom of the ladder, they are searching for a formula to return this famous club to its former glory.

And, not for the first time, they’re realising how difficult it is to entice recruits and potential leaders when things are seemingly ‘on the nose’

Already Hawk recruiting manager Barry Sullivan has sounded out Gold Coast on-baller Michael Barlow,  Nigel Lappin and Jarred Waite, among others. His list of names ‘as long as your arm’ is thinning rapidly.

He knows how hard it has been, over the last decade or so, to entice outsiders. Apart from the bold seven-game experiment with Barry Hall in 2012, several other players with sizeable reputations – including Lindsay Gilbee, Josh Fraser, ex-Demon Paul Wheatley and Patrick Rose, have eventually rejected the Rovers’ approaches.

In time, the trail leads to a retired 244-game Sydney Swan, who, during his career, was known as ‘smart, strong and unflinchingly brave’…..A Tasmanian and Sydney Swans Team of the Century Member, who had coached extensively since hanging up the boots – most recently at Wodonga Raiders………..IMG_3724IMG_3725

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“ ‘Carps’ (Sam Carpenter) suggested getting in touch with ‘Crezza’.” said ‘Sully’. “And ‘Rosco’ ( Hill, his co-coach of the past two seasons) fully supported the idea. They have had a good relationship with him and reckoned it’d be worth a try.”IMG_3734

“So I sent a text and arranged a convenient time to talk. He was in London when I caught up with him, but it sounded promising. He said he’d originally been planning to take a year off, but was excited by the challenge of taking over a young list and building the club up.”

“He’s 24/7 when he commits, and he’s big on player development, so he’ll be ideal for our group. But he’s also got a wide recruiting network and will look to see where we can fill a few holes.”

“He asked if he could have a few days to have a yarn to his wife, and have a think about it. When I contacted him again, he was rearing to go.”

“I think it’ll be fantastic for the club. The reaction has already been so positive and I know the players are excited by the prospect of being coached by Daryn Cresswell…………

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So the bombshell news that was dropped last week-end, is still being digested by stunned O & M fans. For the first time in 51 years the  Hawks have a coach from outside the club’s ranks….……Only history will decree whether it’s another of those good footy coaching stories…………IMG_3733

” THE ENERGISER………”

Barry Sullivan’s a ‘Man on a Mission’……….

He rattles along at 100 miles an hour……forever exuding positivity……responding to the mobile phone that beckons incessantly……squeezing meetings, interviews and networking into his hectic schedule.

It’s breathtaking even to watch him in action. In his time, ‘Sully’ has adroitly rubbed shoulders with Captains of Industry, political heavyweights and ego-maniacs.

But to me, he’s no different to the 18 year-old kid who rolled up to the Rovers’ opening pre-season training session in 1981……………

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He tagged along that night, he says, with an Everton neighbor, Gary Allen ( a dual-premiership ruckman ), who was considering a come-back with the Hawks.

“ ‘Sticks’ didn’t last; he headed back to play with Milawa. However, I liked the feel of the place and decided to hang around………”

But Sully was lucky he was there. A few years earlier, he’d endured an farmyard accident which almost had dire consequences:

“We had an old electric motor which generated our windmill. Sometimes it was hard to get the V-belt moving, so I gave it a bit of a whack, my hand went around the pulley and  my fingers got caught. They were so badly-cut, there was talk of amputating a couple, but thanks to Dr.Fraser and the surgeon, Hal Stanistreet, they managed to keep ‘em intact.”

He was mad on sport, but not over-eager to follow in the footsteps of his dad Kevin, who was a prominent racehorse trainer. Instead, he started an engineering degree at Monash University and would travel home each week-end to play with the Rovers.

“It wasn’t ideal. I didn’t do a proper pre-season for years, and I’d train with different clubs around the suburbs close-handy. Once they started putting pressure on me to play with them, I’d move to another club.”

So he continued to be a fleet-footed, energetic winger/half-forward with the Reserves, in between dealing with a succession of soft-tissue injuries. But he knew, half-way through his third year at the Rovers, that he must be getting close to that eagerly-anticipated senior berth.

“There was a place in the city – Magill’s Newsagency – that sold the ‘Border Morning Mail’. I didn’t have enough money to buy a paper, so I’d go in there and flick through the O & M sides.”

“And there it was – Wangaratta Rovers: In – B.Sullivan (debut). I waltzed out of the shop and floated back to Wang that night.”

He thought nothing of the travel. “I just reckoned it was worth the effort to get back home and play with the Rovers and catch up with my mates. I didn’t even realise, for the first four years or so, that you could put your hand out for travelling expenses.”

He played in the Hawks’ Reserves premiership teams of 1983 and ‘84, but his break-out season was 1985, when he cemented a permanent spot in a side which included a few handy debutants in Tossol, Walker, Allen, Goodear and Bryce.

Word subsequently filtered through to Melbourne that this ‘bush dasher’ had something special. ‘Sully’ was invited to train with the Demons during the season, with a view to possibly joining them in 1986.

“It’s hard to describe the exhilarating feeling when you walk out onto the MCG for the first time,” he says. “All the big names were there….Alves, Robbie Flower, the Healy boys, Kelvin Templeton, Brian Wilson and, of course, ‘Barass’……I felt a bit inadequate, but the first few night were magic and I didn’t feel out of place.”

“Then I did a ‘hammy’, and was restricted to weight work. They dropped right off me….”

So it was back to the Rovers……and reality.

‘Sully’s’ engineering degree, in which he majored in electronics, proved a handy tool. The Computer Age was upon us and he found himself in demand. Fate fell his way when, after spending some time at the electronics firm E-Mail, he was offered a position at the Wangaratta division of IBM.

Within a fortnight of starting, he was sent to Florida, to work in their development laboratories. And for the next few years his pre-season training plans would be thrown into disarray when he’d be somewhere in the U.S for two or three months, on assignment.

By 1988, Sully reasoned that there were exciting times ahead, with all the young talent starting to emerge at the Rovers…..maybe even a chance of a premiership, sometime in the future.

Two games into the season – after an 80-point whalloping from Wodonga – he headed off to the States for another lengthy stint. He followed, enviously,  from afar, as the Hawks stormed into the finals.

Safely ensconced in bed, at about 3am on Grand Final night, he awoke, startled, to the phone ringing…….His initial reaction was: ”Shit, don’t tell me they’ve won it !”

“The boys proceeded to excitedly tell me what I’d missed out on. Ronnie Ferguson was screaming down the phone: “I told you this was the year…..! “

Sully’s meteoric rise through the leadership ranks at IBM certainly hadn’t affected his zest for footy.

“He was one of those priceless fellahs who was capable of lifting morale about the place – always happy-go-lucky. He just knew how to mould team spirit,” says one of his coaches, Laurie Burt. “And don’t forget, he was a more than handy player, ever-dangerous around goals and very hard to play on.”IMG_3609

The Sullivan resume’ includes a bag of seven goals and one of six in the 149 goals he booted in his 112 senior games.

But the achievement he cherishes most was his involvement in the Hawks’ 1991 flag. And he got there the hard way:

“ I did a posterior cruciate early in the season. It was a tedious process of treating it with Condie’s Crystals and hot baths, and I  got back a couple of weeks before the finals. I was just holding my spot. Then, lo and behold, I felt a twinge in the hammy before we met Corowa-Rutherglen in the Prelim Final.”

“ Luckily I cruised around, did a few handy things in the Prelim and, at one stage managed to ‘run down’ ‘Juicy’ Kingstone, which impressed the coach. So I made the cut for the big one. It was a matter of keeping out of Laurie’s way, in case he forced a strenuous fitness test on me.”IMG_3607

The Hawks, having fought their way through to the Grand Final after a shock loss to Yarrawonga in the Second-Semi, steamrolled the Pigeons by 69 points. Yarra still had a slim chance at three-quarter time, but when Neale McMonigle snagged the first of his four last-quarter majors, and Sullivan ran into an open goal, it was all over.IMG_3605

By now, Sully had become Manufacturing and Engineering Manager at IBM, but footy and tennis were his outlets. He played another 13 senior games in 1992, and in eight Reserves appearances, showed enough to finish third in the B & F.

That drew the curtain on the Sullivan playing career with the Hawks. It had been a triumph of perseverance and dedication, interrupted by those darned soft-tissue injuries, and marked by a lengthy apprenticeship in the Reserves .

For the next two years he travelled through Europe, Asia and the Americas, as part of a world-wide computer task-force. When he returned home, a good mate, Peter Mulrooney, coaxed him into having one last season – at Greta.

The Blues dropped just one game on the way to the 1995 flag, and proved too strong for a persistent Beechworth. For Sully and ‘Mul’ it was as good a time as any to hang up their boots.

Just to add a further string to his academic bow, he gained a further qualification when he completed a degree in Business Studies at Stanford University, in the U.S.

IBM was booming at this stage, and, as site General Manager, Barry had more than enough on his plate. As the largest manufacturer of electronic goods in the country ( with a turnover of $600 million – $400 million of that exported ), the company was an intrinsic part of the local economy.

It was mind-boggling to imagine the consequences should they happen to depart. But alas, IBM signalled their intention to wind down their Wangaratta operations in 1998.

Along with two U.S partners, Barry initiated the purchase of the plant and they started up Bluegum Technology in its place. He was installed as General Manager.

“Talk about pressure in football……..That was pressure !” he jokes.

“My mind was racing so much, I’d get up at 3am and hit the streets of Wangaratta. It was the only way I could relieve the stress. At least it helped get me fit…..I ran the Melbourne Marathon in late 1998.”

He was invited to partake in Victorian Premier Steve Bracks’ ‘Breakfast Club’ – a ‘Think-Tank’  of 20 of the state’s leading industry and business figures. The list included identities such as Lindsay Fox, Joe Gutnick, Ted Kunkel and Solomon Lew. “Gee, I was way out of my depth there,” he says.

After operating successfully for some time, the consortium received an offer, and sold Bluegum to Selectron, a global electronics company.

He had a break for a while, to re-charge the batteries, but admits he started looking for another challenge. “I’m driven….I need routine.”

So he joined ADI ( now Thales ), as explosives manager, before eventually becoming General Manager, in charge of more than 1,000 staff throughout Australia.

Some time ago, Sully decided it was time to assume more control of his life and retreat from the rigours of the corporate world. He now operates his own business advisory company. It means he’s still in demand, but can work at his own pace (which is flat-chat).

It also allows him more time to devote to the things about which he’s passionate – family, tennis, fishing and footy.

He’s a Country Week tennis stalwart of more than twenty years, and his wife Maree is a triple Club singles champ. Zach ( now 20) has also inherited a love of the game.IMG_3598

Sully took the opportunity to merge his sporting and business acumen when he was enjoying a fishing trip on the stunning Gulf of Carpentaria coastline with a friend, ‘Bomber’ Farrell.

‘Bomber’ met Geelong champ Patrick Dangerfield, who was  involved in a footy clinic at Groote Eylandt at the time, and indicated that he was keen to ‘dangle a line’.

“ He took Pat and his dad out for a fish and mentioned that we were interested in doing a fishing show. ‘Danger’ was keen on the idea. It took a while, but we eventually got around to creating a company called ‘Athletes of the Sea’ and started filming. The objective was to have a bit of fun and enjoy each other’s company, as well as showcasing Groot Eylandt.”IMG_3591

“Earlier this year, Channel 7 broadcast four episodes of ‘The Last Cast’. It rated well. Another offshoot is that ‘Danger’ and Aaron Hobgood are now conducting a fishing show on SEN radio. We’re also introducing a fishing apparel line which will be out later this year.”

After his playing days wound down, Sully remained firmly entrenched in the Rovers camp. His succession of roles have included stints as Runner, Board Member, Football Director and Vice-President.

He’s now heavily involved in recruiting and is well aware of the monumental challenge facing he – and others – to help drag the Hawks from their unaccustomed position at the foot of the O & M ladder.

There couldn’t be a better man for the job………
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‘….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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘THE UNSUNG HEROES……….’

For every sporting champion who revels in the fanfare and the roar of the crowd, there is the unsung hero.

If you delve deeply enough into his background you’ll uncover an uplifting story. He’s probably a battler who overcame the odds, achieved the ultimate, then returned to the humble surrounds from whence he came. Or perhaps he sought nothing more than the buzz of belonging to a team, and shied away from the glory that attached itself to others.

You may not have heard of Archie Fisher, Henry Johnson or ‘Scotty’ McDonald. This is their story……………….

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A timely piece of advice from a city doctor was the catalyst to launch Fisher’s dazzling sporting career.

Lying seriously ill in a Melbourne hospital for twelve months, he was shaken when told sternly by the medico: “If you don’t do something about your health, you’ll die here.”

Tiny Archie, his nerves in tatters, asked what he should do.IMG_3322

“Take up Golf, it’ll do you the world of good,” came the reply.

And so began a love affair with a sport which saw him become one of the finest Victorian golfers of his era…………

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Archie Fisher was born in 1897 at Bowman’s Forest, the son of a cricket enthusiast who managed to transmit his love of the game to his other sons, Clem, Clyde and Harry.

But Archie showed little aptitude for sport, apart from being quite fleet of foot, and having the occasional game of football.

In another contrast to his volatile brothers, who were notorious for their unyielding behaviour on the cricket field, Archie was a docile fellah, with a lovely nature. But within, lay a fiercely competitive spirit, which was to unveil itself on the golf course.

The family’s move to a farm at East Wangaratta created a mountain of work, with cows to be milked by hand and heavy manual labour to be undertaken.

It started to take its toll on Archie, who suffered two nervous breakdowns before golf arrived as the perfect form of therapy.

He stood just five foot five and weighed a little under nine stone, but, from the time he first struck a ball he showed great timing and touch.

Completely self-taught, he would travel to Melbourne to analyse the technique of the visiting American professionals, then practice for hours to implement them into his own game.

He was spectacularly successful, as he won the first of his 13 Wangaratta Club Championships in 1930 and repeated the dose in 1933, ‘37 to ‘46, and 1948. He then captured Jubilee crowns in 1950 and ‘51.

Strangely, he found the North-Eastern title elusive and was only able to get up once, in 1947.

A brilliant Country Week player, he captained North-East on 12 occasions. In this time the team was to capture the Leader Shield five times.

Archie was Victorian Country champion in 1937 and ‘38.

His short game was superb, and his form on the green moved one critic to label him the best putter he had seen.

He was certainly ‘hot’ in one competition event at Metropolitan, when he established a club record by having four twos in the one round.

Facing a 25-inch putt for the fourth, a bystander remarked: “I shouldn’t say this, Archie, but if you hole this shot you’ve got the record.”

“Don’t worry,” said Fisher. “I’ll put it in for sure.”IMG_3323

And he did.

An ice-cool temperament was a tremendous asset in helping Archie to more than 100 tournament victories. He won 12 Yarrawonga events ( called the Ryan Trophy), every Open Championship in the area, and owned a host of North-Eastern course records.

Fisher played off scratch for 22-odd years and proudly claimed five holes-in-one.

Just as his career was winding down in the early fifties, that of his son Gordon was cranking up.

Gordon’s nine Wangaratta Championships, the first at the age of 17, were captured between 1948 and 1961. But increasing work commitments forced his departure from the game.

Archie’s grand-daughter (Gordon’s daughter) Kaye O’Shea, has continued the family’s golfing tradition, recently clinching her her seventh Jubilee Club Championship.IMG_3332

Archie Fisher died in 1952, aged 55.

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Henry Johnson battled away for many years before finally making his name in rifle-shooting.

He had a fascination for the sport from an early age, but this had to be put on hold when he enlisted in the army and went away to serve in the Great War.

He returned with a badly damaged arm and had to change his action from the right to the left shoulder.IMG_3320

The adjustment required perseverance and determination and it was a tribute to Johnson that he was able to master his handicap.

The King’s ( or Queen’s ) Prize, is shooting’s time-honoured Blue Ribbon event, and attracts shooters from all over Australia. Brains, tenacity of purpose and self-reliance are crucial ingredients in a sometimes gruelling contest.

It was conducted over three stages in 1934, and Johnson was well back in the field after the first round.

Relatively unknown, and given nary a chance, he put up an outstanding performance over the last two ranges of 800 and 900 yards, by obtaining possibles and coming from the clouds to outpoint shooting’s elite.

The long-standing tradition of the King’s Prize is that the winner is swept up onto a chair and, to the accompaniment of a Pipe Band, saluted by the remainder of the marksmen.IMG_3319

Amidst the euphoria of his victory, Johnson assured his rivals: “The old hat I’m wearing will still fit after this is all over.”

“Although I was well behind on the second day, I knew there was still some chance, and when I needed a big score on the last range, it felt remarkably easy.”

Johnson competed for many years after his big win, even though he was a veteran when he took out the King’s Prize…….

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Gordon ‘Scotty’ McDonald, born in 1900, was an enthusiastic footballer and cricketer, whose on-field exploits were matched by his input as an administrator.

He made his debut with the Wangaratta Football Club in 1919 and quickly became one of the most popular players among Magpie supporters.

Perhaps it was his tiny stature ( he stood only 5’4” and was slightly-built ) or his courage ( they said he was too brave for his own good ). Maybe it was his demeanour which appealed to everyone.

But he was a brilliant rover who always gave of his best. He was outstanding in the ‘bloodbath’ Grand Final in his first year.

It was after this game that the mayor of the town criticised the premiers, Eldorado, for their viciousness and brutality.

“Is it football or bull-fighting ?” asked Cr. Edwards. “I am satisfied it is now a rotten sport.”

McDonald’s continued improvement saw him win selection in a combined Ovens and King side which played Carlton in 1921.

Predictably, the Blues won by 83 points, but their skipper Horrie Clover, rated McDonald, Martin Moloney and Eric Johnstone as good enough to play League football. “McDonald is a finished footballer and a fine rover,” he added.

But ‘Scotty’ rejected frequent approaches to go to Melbourne. He was content in his lifestyle as a grocer at the Co-Store (a job he was to hold until his death), and playing with Wangaratta.

The Pies moved back to the Ovens and Murray League in 1922 and McDonald again impressed Horrie Clover with a smart display for an O & M team which met Carlton at the Showgrounds.

During Wangaratta’s highs (they played in six straight Grand Finals and were undefeated champions in 1925 ) he played consistently.

When they became financially crippled after a couple of years of big spending he volunteered to become secretary and helped to steer the Club through its crisis.

He was playing secretary from 1927 to 1930. At the same time, after years as a keen, but not outstanding cricketer, he took over as WDCA secretary. He carried out this job with his usual thoroughness for seven years.

McDonald retired from football and cricket in the mid 30’s.

Old-timers never lost sight of the contribution he made on the field and in an official capacity to local sport.

He retired after 147 games and, many years later, would saunter down from his Grey Street home to watch his beloved ‘Pies, helping out with odd jobs on match-day. He loved yarning with old team-mates who could remember mosquito-sized ‘Scotty’ dodging, weaving and pumping pre use stab phases to grateful forwards……………

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‘IT’S ALL ABOUT SURVIVAL FOR ‘OKA’S’ BOYS………’

 

Gary O’Keefe twanged his hamstring on Saturday. Of course that can happen to the fittest of blokes……it was getting close to the final siren……his tired body stretched awkwardly…..the testy tendon gave way……
The 62 year-old North Wangaratta President had been pressed into action for his Club’s clash with Milawa. For a variety of reasons, the Hawks had nine absentees.
“I was planning to run the boundary. But they said: ‘ We’re short. You’d better pull the boots on.’ I stuck it out as best I could; played three and a bit quarters……until I felt it go…….”
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‘Oka’ has one of the most unenviable jobs in footy. He’s in charge of a Club that has no ground, no Reserves, hasn’t won a senior game in three years and is coming off a 337-point belting.
And yet , he remains optimistic.
“We’ve been able to fight back from near-oblivion two or three times in our history,” he says. “….And we’ll do it again.”
He’s at an age where he’s entitled to be sitting back, can in hand, and enjoying the footy – maybe reminiscing with his mates about ‘the good old days’. Instead he’s doing his bit to keep the club afloat.
“I just couldn’t walk away from it………..”, he says.
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‘Oka’s’ a football ‘nut’; always has been.
He chalked up close to 600 games in his marathon football journey. Over 150 of those were with North Wang’s Reserves, after he thought his playing days had well and truly passed him by. He used to fill in, he says, and still enjoyed it, so kept going.
You have to go way back to 1973, when he first broke into the Rovers’ senior side. His dad Max, and uncle, Les, had both played a handful of games in the fifties, so he was pretty well steeped in the Hawk tradition.
Rovers coach Neville Hogan had been impressed with the discipline he showed when he was playing in the Junior League finals with Junior Magpies one year, and thought he had a bit to offer.

 

A solid apprenticeship followed in the Hawk Reserves. But his break-out senior season came in 1975, when he settled onto a back flank. On a soggy Albury Sportsground, the Hawks resisted everything that North Albury threw at them, to clinch the flag.
“I’ll always have fond memories of that one,” he recalls. “I was 19, and had the privilege of playing alongside some of the Rovers greats. Have a look at that half backline….Neville Pollard, Merv Holmes, Gary O’Keefe. Gee, I was in good company there.”IMG_3304
His studies – and subsequent employment as a Phys Ed teacher, took him to South Bendigo for three seasons, Toobarac (Heathcote League) for one, and Moe ( Latrobe Valley League) for four years.
When he settled back in Wangaratta, with Claire and the kids (Sean, Paul, Daniel, Katherine and Erin) , eight years after departing, Rovers coach Laurie Burt convinced Gary that he was ideally suited to an important job as playing-coach of the Reserves.
There’s not too much glory attached to that role. You have a mix of players who have just been dropped, others who feel they deserve a senior guernsey, and youngsters who are just making their way in the game.

 

It was the dawn of the fabulous ‘Burt Era’, when the Rovers picked up four senior flags. ‘Oka’ hit it off well with the old guru, who realised the importance of having the Reserves in synch with the senior list and an experienced head guiding the side on the field.
He coached them into the finals in each of his seven years in charge, then played on for another two. He had tallied 251 games ( 32 Seniors and 219 Reserves) and was honoured with Life Membership, when he made the agonising decision to leave the Rovers and take on the coaching job at North Wangaratta.
The North side contained quite a few players that ‘Oka’ had been involved with at the Rovers and, being an experienced hand at the coaching caper by now, he fitted in seamlessly at Sentinel Park.
North lost a nail-biting final to Chiltern by a point, despite having five more shots at goal. They trailed the Swans by three points in the decider a fortnight later, but Chiltern overpowered them in the last half to take out the flag by 33 points.
But they made no mistakes in 1997. With the acquisition of a few more handy recruits, including the classy Jason Gorman, North pumped Chiltern by 66 points in the second semi, then disposed of Greta in the Grand Final by 83 points.IMG_3298
It was the end of a 21-year drought for the boys in Brown and Gold, and a tribute to their coach, who handled proceedings from the bench, as the players followed his instructions to a tee.
After another season at the helm, Gary returned to the Rovers and acted as senior runner for John O’Donoghue.
Then it was back out to North Wang for a few more years, filling an assortment of chores. His boys were saddling up in the Two’s, and he enjoyed one of his favourite footy moments when he played alongside Sean, Paul and Danny in the 2003 Reserves premiership side.IMG_3302
“We needed to win the last five games to secure a spot in the finals. Then we went on with the job in the finals. A couple of my old Rovers team-mates, ‘Bozo’ Ryan and Johnny ‘Hendo’ were also part of that side. It was a huge thrill to share it with the kids.”
Gary was enticed back to the Rovers for 2006 and ‘07, as coach of a talented Thirds side, which numbered among its ranks, present-day League stars Ben and Sam Reid.
Then North Wang, who had again fallen on hard times, pleaded with him to return as coach in 2008.
It was another rocky period for the Hawks. After picking up 5 wins in the first season, they plunged to the bottom in the following two.
“It just goes to show how quickly things can change,” Gary says. Three years after finishing without a win, we produced a team which was good enough to take out the O & K flag.
That was 2012. “We were able to entice David Steer, the star Magpie defender, to coach, but we had a really well-balanced side……..picked up some boys from Tennant Creek ( Phil ‘Barra’ O’Keefe, Nathan ‘Mudcrab’ Morrison, Andrew Baker and Owen Patterson), the Bell brothers, Jamie and Ben, and a few others. And a big guy, Richard Findlay, kicked the ‘ton’,” Gary recalls.
North broke the shackles, booting eight goals to two in the final term, to steamroll Whorouly by 47 points, and storm to their fourth O & K flag. The flamboyant ‘Barra’ O’Keefe booted six goals and was a star. ‘Oka’ ran the bench and was assistant-coach to Steer, who had been dominant in the back line all year……….
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Two years later, the ‘arse’ had again fallen out of the Hawks, as they suffered a mass exodus of players.
Gary took on the Presidency to help steady things, but they finished with two wins, and the wooden-spoon. He was still in charge when they were locked out of their ground.
“It was May 13, 2015. We won our last senior game a few weeks earlier, in Round 3, so it’s been a horror three years.”
Everyone is acquainted with the background to their temporary eviction, but Gary says it still leaves a sour taste in their mouths. “We suspect that a ‘do-gooder’ complained to the EPA, who were obliged to act.”IMG_3299
“The bottom-line, as you know, was that traces of shot-gun pellets were found on the oval, so all of a sudden it was off-limits to us. That’s despite the fact that Rifle-shooting has been conducted near the Oval precincts for decades, and nobody has been remotely affected.”
“We estimate it’s cost the Club 150 to 160 thousand dollars over the last couple of years. Some of our volunteers have been putting in 12-hour days; things like transferring our match-day equipment and canteen goods to other grounds – then returning them to our Clubrooms……. A few good people have been burnt-off.”
“The Rovers, Wang and Tarra have been fantastic in letting us use their facilities. This year, though, we’re purely in survival mode.”IMG_3300
“But we’re financially secure. We’ve always been in the black and we’ve got a terrific sponsor in the Wangaratta Club who have been with us for ten years.”
“Once we get our ground back things will start to fall into place. We can’t really talk to anyone about the future until we’re back home…….Look, we’ve proved before, that if you snare a good coach and recruit the right half-dozen players, you can quickly turn it around on the field……..”
Ever the optimist, ‘Oka’s’ a good man to be steering the ship. The football world will be geeing for the Northerners…………….
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       THE GARY O’KEEFE GAMES TALLY
Wangaratta Rovers 251 ( 32 Seniors, 219 Reserves)
South Bendigo. 46 ( Seniors)
Toobarac. 18 (Seniors )
Moe. 76 ( Seniors – Vice-Captain)
North Wangaratta. 202 ( 48 Seniors, 154 Reserves )IMG_3305