FICKLE FANS FRAZZLED FORMER BLUE…….

I remember the night Ian Nicoll’s football career turned around…………

It was a mid-September evening in 1968. We’re shoe-horned into a packed Festival Hall for Johnny Famechon’s Commonwealth title bout with the Canadian featherweight, Billy McGrandle.

The crowd erupts, as the national hero appears from a darkened corridor, sparring and bobbing his way down the aisle. Shortly after, amidst the razzamataz and pre-fight hubbub, the ring announcer calls the crowd to attention:

“Ladeez and Gentlemen…..Before we begin proceedings, For the benefit of the football fans here, I have an important announcement to make…..There has been a late change to the Carlton team for tomorrow’s Second Semi-Final clash with Essendon.”

“Ian Nicoll has been named to take the place of the injured Dennis Munari……….”
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For a bloke who had ‘come from the clouds’ to play League footy, this was a rare opportunity.

Ian knew that, in the ‘pressure-cooker’ of a VFL final, in front of a crowd exceeding 100,000, he would need to produce his best.

We watched on, as he turned in a more than serviceable performance. The Blues booted seven goals to one in the last half, to run away from the Bombers by 36 points.

Inevitably though, the classy Munari regained full fitness a fortnight later, and took his place as second rover in the Grand Final line-up. The boy from Whorouly was consigned to the sidelines, as Carlton snatched a thriller by three points, over a valiant Essendon.

But a sniff of the finals atmosphere had convinced Ian Nicoll that he had the prerequisites to acquit himself capably in League football………..
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He grew up among cricketing bluebloods at Whorouly, inheriting a sporting pedigree from his father Wils and uncles Ron, Ernie and Vic, who set prodigious batting records at the Memorial Oval,some of which still stand.

Ian was conspicuous as a youngster, with his slight build, horn-rimmed glasses and shirts  buttoned to the wrist to protect a delicately pale skin.

“I didn’t have the batting technique of Dad, or my brother Peter,” he says. “Uncle Ron once said to me: ‘Just give it a good crack, son,’ And that’s what I did.”

Ian’s most famous contribution to local cricketing folklore is the double century he scored, which included 24 fours and a six. The fifth-wicket partnership of 302 with his cousin Lex remains a WDCA record for any wicket. His second century came up in just 40 minutes.

So his slot in the assembly-line of a famous cricketing family was well-recognised . Not so obvious was his prowess as an up-and-coming footballer.

He played about 100 games with Whorouly.

“About half of those were with the Seconds,” he says. “When I broke into the Seniors, Terry Burgess was coach, then Ron Critchley took over. It was because of Critchley, who had moved on to coach Wangaratta, that I was talked into having a run with the Magpies in 1966.”

Aged 19, he enjoyed an outstanding season with Wangaratta, who looked to be the only likely challenger to Murray Weideman’s all-powerful Albury.

The Pies really took it up to the Tigers in a thrilling second semi, and were doing all the attacking in the final stages. At the 29-minute mark, Nicoll streamed goalwards,  but his kick veered off-line, to leave the ‘Pies one point down. Critchley had just about got his foot to the ball for another shot at goal when the siren sounded. Albury had won by a point.

The Tigers made no mistake in the Grand Final though, and controlled the game throughout, to win by 55 points……….
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Ian had ‘nibbles’ from Richmond, Collingwood and Carlton at season’s end. He had accepted a transfer to the city in his job as a clerk with the Railways and hadn’t given much thought to his football future.

“I had no great pretensions about my footy ability, but Dad said: ‘Why don’t you have a run at Carlton. You just have to turn left there on Sydney Road. It’ll be the most convenient for you.”

“I hadn’t signed anything, but after the second practice match old Jack Wrout (Chairman of Selectors) pulled me aside and said: ‘Look Ian, we’re going to put you on the list. If you work your butt off I reckon you’ll make it.’ “

He was a relative lightweight, tipping the scales at just 73 kg and standing at 179cm, but possessed a couple of prized assets – pace to burn and a distance-devouring left boot.

Progress was slow – a token senior game in 1967 and scant opportunities for most of ‘68. Things were looking bleak……until the selectors threw him that life-line in the Second Semi-Final………

Ian put in a red-hot pre-season in 1969 and knew that he wasn’t far away from senior selection.

His big chance came in a Round 2 match against Hawthorn. He was one of a heap of stars who glittered, as the Blues booted 12.6 in the final quarter, to amass 30.30 to the Hawks’ 12.10.

With a string of consistent performances during the season, Ian had now supplanted Denis Munari as the second-string rover to Adrian Gallagher.

One of the highlights of the Blues’ 36-point win over minor-premiers Collingwood in the semi was Nicoll’s exhilarating, team-lifting run around the Member’s Stand wing, and a spearing pass up forward.

Old rivals Carlton and Richmond tangled in front of 119,000 fans to decide the 1969 premiership. “We led by four points at three quarter-time, but they ran over us in the last quarter. They kicked 4.7 to our two points. It was a huge disappointment,” Ian recalls.

“That was the day Billy Barrott was switched to full forward and kicked some telling goals, and big John Ronaldson snagged a couple from well out.”

Ian again shone during 1970, but after two average games towards the end of the season, Carlton coach Ron Barassi rung the changes and he made way for utility Bert Thornley in the semi-final ine-up.

And Thornley held his place for the famous Grand Final, which saw the Blues come from 44 points down to bury Collingwood.

Ian knew deep-down that his League career was over. “I was physically and mentally worn out. To be truthful, I never came to terms with all the glamour, the publicity and worst of all, the fickle supporters.”

“It was a great thrill to play alongside the likes of Nicholls, Silvagni and Jesaulenko and the like, but you know when you’ve had enough.”

So after 41 games with the Blues he headed to VFA club Preston for a couple of seasons.

Then he decided to play locally, with Mount Evelyn. “I had a bit of a link with a few of their fellahs. I met them when they came up to Wang for a footy trip a few years earlier.”

“There was no money involved. I just enjoyed the Club and must have played about 130 games over the next 10 years.”

Ian finally hung up the boots at the age of 34.

Although he admits he’s not a great spectator, he did follow the sporting exploits of his son David, who played in 3 footy Grand Finals at Boronia, and was a more than handy cricketer. His daughter Sarah also played good quality Netball for many years.

It was at a Carlton Re-Union many years ago, that an old team-mate, Kevin Hall, precipitated a change of direction in Ian’s life.

“He ran a successful Printing business and suggested  I should buy a Vehicle and come and work with him. He had another crack at me a while later, so I decided to take the plunge.”

“I delivered Stationery for Kevin for 24-25 years. I’m still working as a delivery driver for a firm in Knoxfield.”

What a long and winding journey  it’s been for the boy from Whorouly……………

 

 

 

 

CHARISMA, LEADERSHIP…… AND WHITE-LINE FEVER.

The Rovers ground was ‘home’ to my mates and I when we were growing up in the fifties.

We would spend hour after hour down there and knew every inch of its terrain. Most of our time was spent taking ‘spekkies’, wrestling for possession of the footy, having hundreds of shots for goal, following the stars around, revelling in the glorious victories and shedding a tear or two when the Hawks lost.

It was our piece of heaven. Our dream was to follow in the footsteps of the many champions who had worn the Brown and Gold and, one day, run out onto that hallowed turf as a member of the senior side.

My opportunity finally came mid-way through 1966.

It was, of course, long before social media had been conceived. You learned of your selection either in Friday morning’s ‘Border Morning Mail’, or by perusing the Team lists which were placed on the windows of some of the Rovers-oriented businesses around town.

Sure enough, my name was there.

I was thankful that our coach Ken Boyd had presented me with an opportunity ( deserved was improbable ; possibly more for encouragement, I guessed ). Nevertheless, a senior career, notable for its mediocrity, was about to begin.

It was a ‘gentle’ initiation. Named as 19th man against our arch rivals, Yarrawonga, at home, I pulled off the dressing gown sometime through the third quarter and was given the simple instruction: ” Go down to the forward pocket. You’re on ‘Pascoe’ Ellis.”.

What !! I’d heard enough about old ‘Pascoe’ to know that he had a reputation as a ‘dirty bastard’ -one of the O & M’s genuine tough-men.

As I jogged onto the ground towards him, I caught sight of his fearsome visage. Grizzled face, thick-set frame, oiled arms,  thighs like tree-trunks. I wondered what sort of a reception would greet me.

My angular physique tensed. Be prepared…… he could do anything.

His hand shot out to greet me.   “Good luck, son. Ken Ellis is the name”, was the gruff introduction.

What a gentleman, I thought. Maybe he’s mellowing in his old age…..But it could have also have been the presence of Ken Boyd, lurking in the area, that prompted him to mind his manners………

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I ran into ‘Pascoe’ recently. He’s a genial guy with a gift of the gab – a prominent figure at Pigeon-land, who has served the club for decades.

He doesn’t mind pumping Yarra up and delights in having a yap about the old days. And he’s not backward in propagating the stories about his he-man reputation, either.

But he dips his lid to ‘Boydy’ as probably the most frightening player he came across. I’m sure all O&M players of the sixties would agree…………

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I must admit, it had been a huge thrill to run out behind Ken Boyd. We young fellahs idolised him and lapped up all the details of his notorious past.

The newspapers had dubbed him as some sort of football terrorist – a sixties version of Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden all rolled into one.

It was true that he had been suspended for a total of 30 games in his 60-odd matches with South Melbourne. He decided to call it quits on his VFL career after being rubbed out for 12 matches for striking Big John Nicholls on an infamous day at Carlton’s Princes Park.

It coincided with the Rovers looking for a successor to the legendary Bob Rose, who advised that his body was ‘shot’ and that he had plans to return to the city after six fabulous years with the Hawks.

My dad was part of the sub-committee, which had been given surprisingly positive reports about this volatile ruckman with the incredibly bad rap-sheet.

They arranged to meet Boydy at South’s Lake Oval and were ushered into a small ante-room occupied by the Swans’ head trainer, Bill Mitchell, for the interview.

After 20 minutes they had decided on Rose’s successor. He came across as a sincere, honest, intelligent and charismatic young man ( he was just 23 ). They were certain that Big Bad Ken would guide the Hawks into a bright new era.

Ken had served four weeks of his suspension when he arrived in Wangaratta. The Rovers attempted to have the remaining eight weeks rescinded, but were unsuccessful. So Bob Rose agreed to continue on for another season, with Boydy playing out the 1962 season when he became available.

He took over in his own right the following year and inherited a youthful side with plenty of talent. Some of the young blokes had played in the Reserves flag in 1962 and were just starting their careers.

Boydy shaped them into a skilful, hard-hitting combination which, by the following season, was ready to ‘reach for the stars’.

He was never far from controversy and became somewhat of a ‘Human Headline’ with his ferocious play. There was no doubt about it, he had a hefty dose of ‘white line fever’. But his breezy easy-going manner made him a favourite with everyone in the club and he marshalled the troops with ease.

The Rovers became the first club to head overseas on an end-of-season trip, with much of the fund-raising initiatives coming from the coach.

A second-storey extension to the Clubrooms was undertaken and he ensured that he and his players were at the forefront of the working-bees during its construction.

The great camaraderie that the players had built up was a contributing factor in the Rovers 1964 premiership. The following year they repeated the dose, sneaking home by two points against Wangaratta.

He was the consummate team-player, not over-skilled, but with a real presence on the field. Aggression was a by-product of his fierce will-to-win.

It landed him in hot-water in a match against Corowa in 1964, when he tangled with Corowa coach Frank Tuck. The incident was the focus of a sensational article in the following Tuesday’s Melbourne Herald.

The sequel to this drama was played out in the Supreme Court two years later – when he sued the Herald and Weekly Times for damages. Against all considered opinion Ken won the case.

He battled a persistent back injury for much of 1966 and it was obvious that his career was drawing to a close. But he didn’t plan the stormy exit from the game that eventuated.

The Preliminary Final against Wangaratta was slipping away from the Rovers’ grasp when all hell broke loose in the third quarter. Ken was booked on four separate charges.

He announced his retirement after the game.

It was standing-room only at Rutherglen the following Wednesday night, as the local and national media converged for the Tribunal hearing – the final stanza of the Boyd career.

It was anti-climactic. Ken presented a statutory Declaration, called no witnesses and copped his punishment on the chin….Eight weeks.

He returned to Melbourne and was touted as a successor to the retiring Bob Skilton as coach of South Melbourne. But no, he said, he intended to concentrate on business.

Instead, he became a selector and confidant to incoming coach, Alan Millar, before finally exiting the game completely……

 

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Friday, March 18, 1916: The Rovers Guernsey Presentation and Hall of Fame Night. The place is chockers and bubbling with feverish expectation for the season ahead.

A swag of kids, embarking on their football journey with the Hawks, rise and are introduced to the crowd. A handful are possibly in line to make their senior debut. It is all about the future……

I glance across the room and catch sight of the Rovers oldest surviving Hall of Famer, surrounded by old team-mates and soaking up the atmosphere.

The great Ken Boyd is in his element……