‘DIAMOND DES………’

It was the famous American humorist Mark Twain who once pronounced that : ‘Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated……’.

Des Griffin relates to this line. He was flicking through the national newspapers one Monday morning in 1974, when he read that he’d been killed in a car accident two nights earlier.

“I felt pretty crook,” he jokes. “But I wasn’t that bloody crook……..”

I’ll let ‘Diamond’ take up the story.

“ We’d been down to watch Hawthorn play their first game at their new ‘home’ – Princes Park – and it’d been a pretty solid day….and night. I don’t remember much about what happened, but from all reports I went through the windscreen of a car on the corner of Reid and Murphy Streets around about midnight, and ended up in hospital.”

“Apparently, when the journos rang the nurses to receive an update on my health the next day, they were told I’d suffered facial injuries. They misinterpreted that to be fatal injuries.”

He spent 4-5 days in hospital, and the docs patched up his dilapidated dial with 173 stitches. All he was interested in at the end, was ‘going home to see Mum’. Long-suffering Pat Griffin, who had enough on her plate keeping tabs on eight kids, gave him a good dressing-down – and a lecture on the perils of the demon drink…………
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That’s just one of the many adventures of ‘Diamond Des’, who enlivened local sport for more than three decades…. He was solid – and unspectacular – on the field, but a gem off it….. Someone who could brighten the darkest moments and find a way to bring the shyest of kids out of their shell.

The Griffins were raised on a Boorhaman farm, but when Des’s dad became ill they moved into town. That’s when he ran into Norm Minns, a rep for Dickens and Carey (a homewares firm), who occasionally visited the family home in Greta Road.IMG_3946

Norm, a football disciple, if ever there was one, invited 15 year-old Des to have a run with Junior Magpies. A year or so later, he gave his recruit – and his mates – the imposing task of finding a new Junior League coach, to fill a vacancy on the eve of the season.
“I’ll give you a week to find one,” said Norm.

“We started hunting around, and got a few knock-backs. Finally, we went to see Ron Wales and told him how desperate we were. He said he’d try it for a year. Nearly two decades later, he was still coaching………….”
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But Des didn’t hang around long enough to soak up much of his new coach’s footy wisdom, as he joined the Rovers five weeks into the season. At the time, he was the ‘baby’ of the all-conquering United WDCA cricket side, and several of his team-mates were Hawk stars. So that’s where he headed.

He loved his four years at the Rovers, but when his cricket captain John Welch, who had taken the footy coaching job at Tarrawingee, put the hard word on him to play, he couldn’t resist.

“I signed up for two dozen Long-Necks, and it was the best decision I ever made,” says ‘Diamond’, who was to spend 16 years with the Tricolors.

He was occasionally tempted to leave. He had a cousin playing with Hopefield-Buraja, and was talked into signing Clearance Forms to go there a couple of times. But, when it came to the crunch he stayed – particularly when, on each occasion, a box of Long-Necks was dangled in front of him.

In fact, Des timed his arrival perfectly at Tarra. They hadn’t won a flag for eleven years, but coach Welch, who was a master-recruiter, had assembled a quality line-up.

“We lost the first two games, though, and, as a result, Welchy, who hadn’t played for some time, surprisingly selected himself in a forward pocket. He just wanted to set the example of how to attack the ball ferociously, even though he had a bung leg.”IMG_3951

“We soon got the message, and turned the corner…..Then he hung up his boots again,” Des recalls.

Beechworth were the form side in ‘75, but Tarra overcame them in the Second Semi – thanks to a six goal haul from diminutive rover ‘Curly’ Kerris.

And the Bullies were too tough and tenacious when the sides tangled again in the Grand Final. Des played a starring role in the centre, and managed to overcome some close attention from his Bomber opponent, fearsome Frankie Marinucci.IMG_3953

It had been 11 years since the flag had flown at Tarra, and the club celebrated accordingly. With talent in abundance, you’d think that more premierships would follow, but they succumbed to Beechworth in successive Elimination Finals and were to wait 15 years for another tilt at the flag.

But ‘Diamond’ continued to be one of their shining stars.

Local sporting legend Mick Wilson recalls watching him play in the late-seventies:

“He was Tarra’s captain for a few years and a real spiritual leader, “ Mick says. “Strong and fearless; a bit of a hero to us kids – and a terrific role model. No matter how bad the situation got on-field, ‘Griffo’ always remained positive…….Then, after games, with sufficient liquid fortification, he’d grab hold of the mike and belt out his repertoire of songs, like ‘Johnny Be Good’ or ‘Get a little dirt on your hands’……..”IMG_3948

“He coached Tarra Thirds when they started up. He’d pile a few kids in the back of a Panel Van and head off to away games. Myself, my brothers Joe and Waldo, and Robbie Hickmott were only little tackers then, but he made sure we were just as much part of the group as the older kids.”

“ He emphasised getting enjoyment out of the game. They’d be getting belted, but he’d say: ‘Don’t worry about the scoreboard, just play footy’……….“
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Des juggled playing seniors and coaching the Reserves for the last three years of his 300-game career with the Dogs, then was enticed into Wangaratta, to coach their Reserves for two seasons.

Again Tarrawingee came calling. He coached for three years ( 1992-94 ) during some fairly bleak times. “ ‘Diamond’ could coach, no worries about that, but we just didn’t have the cattle,” said one old Dog.IMG_3950

He returned to Wang for another two-year stint as Reserves coach, then headed across the laneway to be Runner and assistant to an old mate, Greg Rosser, with the Rovers Twos.

His son Trav was, by now, playing at King Valley, so Des found himself linked up with the Roos, as Chairman of Selectors to Mick Newton.

Then it was back to his original ‘home’ again, as the right-hand man to Rovers Thirds coach, Johnny McNamara……
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Footy clubs recognised that ‘Diamond’ was a good man to have around, and the same could be said about his lengthy involvement in cricket.

He was a left-hand bat, and didn’t deem it necessary to wear gloves, thigh pad or helmet. It would be an apt description of his batting that he wielded the wand with reasonable proficiency. But his greatest asset was as a team-lifting captain.

There was always plenty of mirth amongst he and his team-mates when they were batting. In the field, he’d be forever talking things up and encouraging the youngsters.

He played six years for the newly-formed Tarrawingee when they joined the Sunday competition, but spent most of his career with United, which morphed into Rovers-United in 1988/89.

“A few of the old United blokes weren’t too happy when the merge came about with the Rovers. We were always arch rivals. But I didn’t mind it one bit,” he says.

He was handed a new nickname – ‘Dezzy Whites’ – when he’d follow up the after-match drinks with a session at the ‘Pino’, then a Mixed Grill at a Murphy Street cafe – still clad in full cricket regalia….. And in his younger days, a visit  to the Saturday night dance in his grass-stained whites was also on the cards.

He ran the club’s juniors for five years, eventually playing with most of them after he’d slid back through the ranks to be captain of the C-Grade team.

In his last season – 2001/02 – he led them to a flag. They’d scored three for plenty  after the first day’s play, and the opposition enquired as to whether a declaration might be in the offing, early on the second day.

“Yeah, about 10-to,” he replied. “Okay, 10-to what ?, “ they queried.  “10 to 6……..”
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‘Diamond’ prized the Life Memberships he received from Tarra Football and Rovers-United Cricket clubs.

A new job with Veolia, required him to travel the nation, overseeing the materials required to repair Kilns and Furnaces on Mine-Sites. A mine shut-down sometimes took four weeks, so he was away for long periods.

He’s still working, but taking things a bit easier now, giving he and Carol time to spend with their four kids and 10 grand-kids. And he still keeps a close eye on the fortunes of his old clubs……IMG_3943

CONFRONTING LIFE’S OBSTACLES…..

He was the proverbial ‘Young Man in a Hurry’…………operating his own bread-contractor’s business at 18………..Wangaratta’s Country Week cricket captain at 19………..an O & K football coach at 22…

He was a dynamic package. A team-lifting footballer and a cricketer who could carve up an attack with his forceful stroke-play.

Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, his life changed. Beset by drowsiness, his car veered off the Ovens Highway, near Tarrawingee, and slammed into a tree.

With both legs badly broken and facing a lengthy period of rehabilitation, his active sporting career was in ruins.

But people underestimated the steely determination of John Welch…..
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John Welch and Eric Cornelius grew up just around the corner from one another in what was then the backblocks of Wangaratta.

They did everything together………went to West End Primary, played endless games of cricket in the Welch’s Scott Street backyard and spent nights kicking the footy on Appin Park Oval.unnamed

Moving on to High School, they played with South Wanderers in the Junior League and worked after school at Bob Rose’s Sports Store, shared football and cricket premierships and, in time, when it came to business, even took over the Sports Store…….

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Rose, the football immortal, had a profound influence on the young Welch. They formed a lifelong friendship. Both had the knack of being able to draw people to them. From early on, John was stamped as a ‘born leader’.

A lively footballer with loads of spunk, he could be switched from roving to the midfield, or up forward. Ken Boyd, who had inherited the Rovers coaching job from Rose, loved his adaptability and he was a key player in the successive flags of 1964 and ’65.

He was the sort of player, Hawk fans gleefully anticipated, who would be a champion of the Club for years to come.

Alas, in 1967 he slipped away. Eager to try his hand at coaching he took on the job at Whorouly and recruited a few of his cricket mates in the process. Having satisfied that urge, he rejoined the Hawks.

In the meantime, he had become established as possibly the town’s highest-profile cricket figure.

He was the lynchpin of the United Cricket Club, which had gained admission to the WDCA in 1961/62.

Apart from one season, when he was lured down to District club Fitzroy, he was the dynamo of a group which was to enjoy a decade and a half of spectacular success.

John often wonders what may have been, had he decided to stick it out for a while longer in the ‘big smoke’.

“Fitzroy legend Bill Jacobs invited me down after watching me bat at Country Week. They offered me a job as assistant-curator, which suited me fine. But Mum had visions of me achieving far more than being a glorified green-keeper and put her foot down. So I came home to stay.”

John was at his peak in the mid-sixties. At one stage he scored centuries in three consecutive knocks on the Showgrounds – 120 in a semi-final, 151 in the 1966/67 Final against Tarrawingee and 184 in the opening round of the following season.

An enterprising stroke player, he was always eager to ‘take on’ the bowling. Almost from the first ball he would be stealing quick singles with daring running between wickets.

Anointed as Wangaratta’s Country Week skipper, he added a touch of flair to the role. It was an era when the locals were trading blows with the best in the bush.

And with the visit of the West Indies looming, he entertained the exciting prospect of leading Country Victoria against Gary Sobers’ tourists.

He was in hot form in the early rounds of the 1968 O & M season, fitting seamlessly back into the Rovers’ line-up. They were sitting at 5 -1 and atop the ladder, at the time of his fateful accident, but fell right away, to win just 4 more games for the season.

John spent 13 weeks in hospital and was bluntly advised that his sporting career was over.

But during his lengthy recuperation, the thoughts of getting back onto the cricket field began to drive him. What’s it matter if one leg’s shorter than the other ? Surely a little hindrance like that wasn’t going to deter him ?

About 18 months later he returned to the crease, wearing a specially-made boot , initially using a runner, then going ‘solo’.

In no time it had become just a minor inconvenience to him and he adapted to the extent that, in 1971/72 his 605 runs gave him the WDCA batting aggregate.

He was to continue playing for another 17 years and retired with an enviable record – 6740 runs, 9 Premierships, 15 trips to Country Week ( including 11 as captain ), induction into the WDCA Hall of Fame. To an extent, he was a central figure in Wangaratta cricket for almost 30 years.

John had played 88 games with the Rovers when his O & M career was nipped in the bud. He missed the cut and thrust of footy and entertained the thought of coaching again.

Trouble is, in the 70’s no-one was really interested in non-playing coaches.

“So I dropped in to the Plough Inn pub to say g’day to old Pete Nolan one day and gave him a bit of a ‘hard sell’ that I might be the man for Tarra’s vacant job.” he recalls.

“Not really, John, I think they want a playing-coach”, was Pete’s reply.

“Anyway, apparently Pete’s son Mick put in a good word for me and I found out that I had the job a fortnight or so later.”

He is as proud of the four years that he spent at Tarrawingee as any of his other sporting achievements. But if he had his time over again, he wouldn’t have pulled on the boots, which he did for half-a-dozen games in his first season.

“I thought I’d make a difference, poking around the forward line. All I did was get in the road. The ultimate insult came when an opponent called me a Spastic. I thought it was time to retreat to the bench,” he said.

The camaraderie that developed between players and coach was as good as you could get.

One of his players, for example, had been tempted with an assistant-coaching offer from a Riverina club. “Let’s jump in the car and have a look at the place. You don’t want to commit before you check it out,” the coach suggested.

They arrived at a tiny place about 12km from Wagga, conspicuous for its wheat silo, general store, sports oval – and not much else.

John drove slowly into the ground,which was almost knee-high with grass, approached the dilapidated Clubrooms and flung open the unlocked door, just as a startled sheep, trapped inside, darted for the exit.

The player decided to stay at Tarra.

The culmination of his coaching reign was the 1975 Grand Final, which saw the Bulldogs out-point Beechworth by 16 points. With that, he called it a day.

His inevitable return to the Findlay Oval saw him lead the Thirds to the 1980 premiership and, two years later assume the role as Senior Coach.

The Hawks were in a transitional stage. Most of the stars from the famous 1970’s era had retired, or were nearing the end of the road. Strong emphasis needed to be placed on recruiting.

As the Rovers’ first-ever non-playing mentor, John threw himself into the role with gusto. He guided them to two Preliminary Finals in his three years in charge and introduced two future coaches – Peter Tossol and Laurie Burt – to the Club.

At the end of his second season, he suggested to the Board that it would be wise to begin the search for a ‘big name’ playing-coach.

He arranged interviews with Richmond’s Mick Malthouse and Essendon defender Ron Andrews.

“Mick was quite keen, on the proviso he could bring another player with him. He thanked us for our approach and professionalism and we left it at that. In the meantime, Footscray snapped him up, so we fell short and I continued coaching for another year.”

He remained actively involved in local sport for a few more years, but eventually moved away. His sons Darren (Carlton) and Mark (University) were both playing District cricket and his expanding Insurance and Financial Planning business interests lay in Melbourne.

unnamed-3Now retired and residing in Myrtleford, golf is  the principal sporting passion of John Welch, but he still retains a fervent interest in local footy and cricket.unnamed-2