FAREWELL TO A PAIR OF STAR DEFENDERS…..

The famed hostility between the Magpies and Hawks had just reached its zenith when Bernie Killeen and Bob Atkinson made their way into Ovens and Murray football.

They were to become sterling defenders for their respective clubs.

Killeen, the high-marking , long-kicking left-footer, held down a key position spot for most of his 13 years with Wangaratta. ‘Akky’, wearing the Number 33 of his beloved Wangaratta Rovers was a back flank specialist, uncompromising, hard-hitting and renowned for his clearing dashes upfield.

Both passed away in the past week or so, after lengthy illnesses……………

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Bernie Killeen returned home from St.Patrick’s College Sale in 1956 and walked straight into the Wangaratta side. He was just 17.

Dame Fortune shone upon him, as the Magpies were in the throes of developing a powerful line-up . His form was solid enough to hold his spot in the side and bask in the glory of the ‘57 Grand Final, alongside such experienced team-mates as coach Jack McDonald, Bill Comensoli, Graeme Woods and the veteran ‘Hop’ McCormick.

It was an unforgettable day for Killeen, who was named on a half-forward flank. Wangaratta came from the clouds, thanks to a last-minute goal from champion rover Lance Oswald, to overcome Albury by two points.

This early taste of success would have given Bernie an inkling that that it was to be a forerunner of things to come.

Fate intervened. Four years later, a debilitating knee injury struck him down. He spent most of 1961 on the sidelines, and could only watch on as the ‘Pies scored a huge win over Benalla in the Grand Final.

Killeen fully recovered, and reached his peak in 1963, when was rated among the finest centre half backs in the competition. He took out Wangaratta’s Best & Fairest Award and the Chronicle Trophy, and represented the O & M against South-West League.

Perhaps his most memorable performance came in the 1964 Second Semi-Final, when he was like the Rock of Gibralter in the key defence position, pulling down 19 towering marks against the Rovers. It was a bad-tempered match, with the ‘Pies pulling off an upset, to march into the Grand Final.

A fortnight later, when the teams again tangled, Killeen found himself matched up at the opening bounce by Hawk coach Ken Boyd, whose intent was to niggle, and put the star off his game.

Boyd later moved into defence, but as the match progressed, Bernie found himself continually out of the play. The Rovers’ strategy was obviously to prevent him from ‘cutting them off at the pass’ as he’d done so effectively in the Semi.

Wang fell short by 23 points – the first of three successive heart-breaking Grand Final losses.

Bernie Killeen was a model of consistency over 13 seasons and 226 senior games with Wangaratta. He was installed as a Life Member of the ‘Pies in 1966…………

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As an angry, milling group of players swapped punches in the second quarter of the 1972 Ovens and Murray Grand Final, one of the central figures in the melee slumped to the turf.

His face was splattered in blood……. He tried in vain to resist the efforts of trainers, who were trying to escort him off the ground….. Eventually, sanity prevailed.

It was always going to be Bob Atkinson’s last game in Brown and Gold. But it wasn’t supposed to finish so abruptly ! At least, when he’d gathered his equilibrium after the game, his team-mates consoled him with the news that he’d added a sixth premiership to his collection……………

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‘Akky’ arrived at the City Oval in 1959 – a product of the South Wanderers. If there seemed to be a touch of maturity about the swarthy apprentice Motor Mechanic, it was understandable. During the last of his four years with the Junior League Club he’d already announced his engagement, to Fran, his future wife.

Young footballers of the modern era wouldn’t be so accepting of the patience that he displayed, as it took the best part of five years before he was able to nail down a permanent senior spot.

Maybe it was the proliferation of talent at the Club that saw the youngster deprived of opportunities…… Bob Rose may possibly have felt that he’d developed bad habits that needed rectifying…….like continually trying to dodge and weave around opponents.

Whatever the reason, Rose was unable to tailor a suitable role for him.

After making his senior debut in 1960, he’d played 49 Reserves, and just 26 Senior games.

His rejuvenation came in 1963, when Ken Boyd inherited a side bereft of many of its stars. His challenge to the younger guys was to place their stamp on the Club. In ‘Akky’, he found a player who relished responsibility, and jumped at the opportunity of shutting down dangerous opposition’s forwards.

‘Boydie’ also admired his aggressiveness and spirit. He urged him to attack the ball……..”And if anyone happens to get in your road, just bowl ‘em over,” he said. The re-born back flanker didn’t need too much convincing, and responded by finishing runner-up to Neville Hogan in the B & F.

This ‘Vigilante’ of the backline had some handy sidekicks in ‘Bugs’ Kelly, Lennie Greskie and Norm Bussell who were all football desperadoes.

The Rovers won 15 games straight in 1964, before hitting a road-block. They dropped the next four matches and were seemingly on the road to nowhere. That they were able to recover, and take out the flag was a tribute to Boyd and the character of his players.

They repeated the dose in 1965, again taking down Wangaratta in a tense encounter. The fierce opening of the Grand Final was highlighted by an all-in brawl, which saw a few Magpies nursing tender spots. Twice, in the dying stages, Wang had chances to win the game, but they fell short by three points.

The Hawks remained there or thereabouts for the next three years, including contesting the 1967 Grand Final.

But Bob had an itch to coach, and when lowly King Valley came knocking in 1969, he accepted their offer. The Valley had finished last, with just two wins, the previous season. They’d never won a flag.

‘Akky’s’ arrival coincided with the construction of the Lake William Hovell Project. Several handy recruits landed on their doorstep almost overnight.

It enabled them to sneak into the finals in his first year. But 1970 was to provide Valley supporters with their finest hour.

After thrashing Milawa in the final round, they went to the top of the ladder, but their confidence was eroded when the Demons turned the tables in the Second Semi.

The Valley made no mistake in the Grand Final. It’s handy when you have a full forward like Ray Hooper, who boots 11 of your 14 goals. Hooper, a burly left-footer, was a star, as was his fellow Dam worker Tony Crapper.

‘Akky’ was inspirational, and with the scent of a premiership in his nostrils, drove his players in the last half. His old Rovers team-mate Barry Sullivan also held sway in the ruck, as King Valley stormed to a 34-point victory………

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Bob returned ‘home’ to the Rovers, and lent his experience to a youthful side, under the coaching of Neville Hogan. The following year he was appointed vice-captain.

“It was probably the best thing that happened for his footy at that stage of his career, as he got fully involved,” recalls Hogan. “The discipline he showed provided a great example to our young players.”

One of those was Terry Bartel, who was a fellow car-salesman at West City Autos. ‘Akky’ once recounted the story about Bartel telling him he couldn’t be bothered driving to Yerong Creek to represent the Ovens & Murray in an Inter-League game:

“I’m probably going to be sitting in a forward pocket all day. I don’t reckon the other pricks will give me a run on the ball,” said Bartel.

“You never let anyone down. Jump in that car and get up there,” I told him. “I’d give my left Knacker to play in one of those games. You don’t know how lucky you are.”

“And, you know, the little bastard’s gone up and kicked 9 goals……..”

Bob capped a fine 1971 season by finishing fifth in the B & F and playing a key role in the Rovers’ 19-point premiership victory over Yarrawonga. He’d lost none of his venom, and at a critical part of the game upended Pigeon ruckman, the formidable Jimmy Forsyth.

‘Akky’ lived ‘by the sword’. He knew that retribution might come one day, and when big Jim flattened him twelve months later in his swansong game, the 1972 Grand Final, he accepted that as part of footy.

After such a hesitant start, he’d made a huge impression at the Rovers. He’d played 175 senior games, figured in four senior and one Reserves flag, was a Life Member, and had earned a reputation as one of its finest-ever defenders.

He succumbed to the temptation of coming out of retirement two years later, when he played several games with Tarrawingee.

Finally, though, ‘Akky’ decided it was time to pull the pin……………

‘THE OBJECT OF MY DESIRE………’

I happened upon the object of my desire many, many years ago.

She was destitute, unloved; forever being compared unfavourably to her sassy neighbor across the road, who attracted, and courted, numerous suitors.

Noses were turned up whenever her name was mentioned. Jokes were made about her unsophistication. She’ll amount to nothing, they scoffed.

But I could see something in her. She possessed a rare charm which turned me on. I grew to love her more and more. It’s an affair that has never abated.

Through no fault of hers, my emotions still occasionally overflow in her presence. I find myself scaling the heights one minute, then plummeting to the lowest of lows the next.

Permit me, if you will, to recount a few of the cherished milestones of this dear old friend of mine ………….

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WELCOMING A NEW GUEST

I’m no more than four or five, and nipping at dad’s heels, when I’m first introduced to the new home of the Wangaratta Rovers.

They’ve received permission to use a ten-acre patch in Evans Street that had been handed to the Council way back in 1859. The specification of the Lands Department at the time was that it be used for sporting purposes.

It was un-named, but colloquially dubbed ‘The Cricket Ground’, and used sparingly over the next 91 years, for cricket and the occasional game of footy. Precious little had been done to improve it. The ‘paddock’ was rough-hewn, full of tussocks and mostly unkempt. A ramshackle building, which comprised a roof and two and a half sides, was occupied by a local swaggie, Tommie Clack.

Tommie used the floorboards of one part of the ‘pavilion’ as firewood, to provide some element of comfort in the harsh winter months.

He continued to squat, even when the Rovers began training there in the early fifties. The process was that they’d undress in the Industrial Pavilion under the old Showgrounds Grandstand, climb through an opening in the tin fence, and begin ball-work shortly after.

They continued to play Home games at the Showgrounds whilst spending thousands of hours -with Council assistance – grading the oval, rolling and sowing grass, and re-developing the surrounds of their new home.

“We had to grub out large trees; the oval had to be re-fenced. I recall we had to cart gravel from Eldorado for the banking; we had as many as 50 at working bees,” Rovers stalwart Frank Hayes once said.

“ And every evening and week-end for months, carpenters, plasterers, bricklayers and labourers worked like beavers to convert the dilapidated building into presentable Clubrooms.”IMG_3242

In 1952, in time for their third Ovens and Murray season, the Hawks are finally settled into their new headquarters…………….

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STAGING THE ‘BIG SHOW’

Just four years after its christening as an Ovens and Murray venue, ‘The Cricket Ground’ is chosen to host the eagerly-anticipated Grand Final encounter between North Albury and Wangaratta.

More than 11,000 fans pack in, and are treated to a classic contest which fluctuates throughout. It’s really a ‘coming-of-age’ for 18 year-old Magpie champion, Lance Oswald (later to become a VFL star). In a best-afield display, he boots five of his seven goals in the third quarter, to bring Wang back into contention.

But the ‘Hoppers steady, and hold a slender four-point three-quarter time lead. ‘Mother Nature’ seems to turn against Wang in the final term, as ideal conditions give way to a gale-force storm which blows towards North’s goal. The turning-point comes late in the game, when North’s Arthur Pickett sends one through the big sticks from the centre of the ground. They hang on desperately to win by 10 points – 13.15 to 13.5…….

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A CENTRE-STRIP

A centre-square of black turf is laid, lovingly-nurtured, and comes into use for the first time in January 1955. It survives flood, drought, plagues, vandals, under and over-indulgent curators and some footy coaches who regard its presence as a necessary evil.

The Rovers Cricket Club springs up and soon becomes a vital component of the Oval.

With shared tenants, Combined Schools and United, which morph into the merged Rovers-United, then Rovers-United Bruck, they snare a total of 23 WDCA senior flags……..

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Another WDCA flag returns to the Findlay Oval

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MR. FOOTBALL ARRIVES IN TOWN

Everyone with the remotest connection to football in the vicinity, is abuzz with anticipation in late-1955, as news spreads that Mr.Football has arrived in town.

Bobby Rose, unanimously touted as the best footballer in Australia, has been lured as captain-coach of the Rovers.

The battling Hawks are astounded at the extent to which he transforms their fortunes. A crowd of over 1,000 flock to watch him in action in the club’s first practice match. Membership shoots up by more than 300%. The outlay of 35 pounds a week for a man who was a ‘marketer’s dream’ is deemed a fabulous investment.

Suddenly, the Rovers are front-page news and recruits eager to savour the champ’s wisdom, sign on. History will record him as the club’s most esteemed figure………

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‘LET  CELEBRATIONS BEGIN……’

The biggest party in the Ground’s history begins soon after the siren blares to signify the Hawks’ 51-point win over Wodonga in the 1958 Grand Final – their first O & M flag.

The game is a triumph for the dynamic Rose, but there are numerous heroes. The players return to Wangaratta by train and are led down to the Ground by the Town Band.rosey

At the open-air Dance and Barbecue, a crowd of more than 3,000 is there to greet them. They devour 3,000 steakettes, 1,000 steaks, and the caterers carve up two large bullocks. The crowd is still at it in the wee hours of the morning…..

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A YOUNGSTER IN THE WINGS

As a keen cricketer, Bob Rose is an integral part of three premierships with Rovers. His greatest fan is a tiny 7-8 year-old, who diligently uses his own score-book to record each game. .

And at each break in play he grabs a bat and pleads with somebody to throw a few down to him. Years later, the kid seems destined to wear the baggy green, as he progresses to become a prolific Sheffield Shield opening batsman. However, a tragic car accident puts paid to Robert Rose’s highly-promising career……

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THE CHALLENGE MATCH

The Rovers’ victory over Wodonga in the 1960 Grand Final prompts a challenge from Oakleigh, who have taken out the VFA flag.

The match, played on the newly-named City Oval the following Sunday, attracts huge interest from the football public. Several city book-makers – keen Oakleigh backers – sense an opportunity to clean up and find multiple ‘takers’ when the word is put around .

But it’s a one-horse race. The Hawks lead from the first bell, running away to win 14.17 to 3.10…..

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COMFORT FOR THE FANS

With support from the Rovers in 1960, the Council submits plans for a Shelter, which is to be built in two stages and will cover the whole embankment to the right of the Clubrooms. It provides a vast improvement in supporter comfort and becomes possibly the most identifiable feature of the City Oval.IMG_4287

Many of the Ground’s most rabid fans make the new Shelter their home, and it is later named ‘The Neville Hogan Stand’, after a Club icon.

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THE BOYD – TUCK CLASH

It’s early 1964, when an incident occurs which is still imprinted in the minds of those who were there – although, to this day, you’ll get different versions.

Rovers coach Ken Boyd, one of the most controversial figures in the game, and Corowa leader Frank Tuck, the ex-Collingwood skipper, clash on the score-board side of the ground. To most it seems like a legitimate shirt-front which costs Tuck a broken jaw, but it triggers hitherto-unseen demonstrations at half-time.

Spiders supporters hurl abuse at ‘Big Ken’ as he walks from the ground and several, with fists raised, try to push their way through the packed crowd.

The ‘Melbourne Herald’ reports on the incident in their edition the following Tuesday, with the headline: ‘KEN BOYD IS NAMED’. Boyd subsequently sues for libel, and the aftermath is played out in the Supreme Court two years later.IMG_4282

Against all considered opinion, Boyd wins the case and is granted substantial damages. He retires later that year, with two flags to his name and a reputation as a charismatic and inspiring coach…..

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THE SECOND STOREY

The Rovers undertake a substantial renovation to the clubrooms, beginning in late 1964, and complete the task in ‘65. A second story is added to the humble abode that had been constructed twelve years earlier.

The players are to the forefront of this, as coach Ken Boyd marshalls them to lend support to the voluntary ‘tradies’ who had been at it every week-end for months.

It’s called the ‘Maroney Pavilion’, as a tribute to one of the club’s stalwarts, who has been at the forefront of the project ………..

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THE LOCAL DERBY

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Rinso Johnstone marks spectacularly in a Local Derby. Half-a-century on, his grandson, Karl Norman would become a familiar figure at the Findlay Oval.

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Neville Hogan gets his kick away, in front of a large Local Derby crowd.

O&M Wangaratta Rovers vs Wangaratta (10)

72 epic editions of the ‘Local Derby’ have been staged at the City Oval to date, but none have carried the consequences of the 1976 Grand Final.

The Rovers are in the midst of their fabulous ‘Super Seventies’ era when they meet a confident Wangaratta side which has hit peak form.

The Hawks are considered likely to hold an advantage, playing on their own dung-hill , but it’s not to be. The ‘Pies produce power football from the first bounce and lead by 25 points at half-time.

The capacity crowd settles down to watch a predictable fight-back from the champs, but it fails to eventuate. They’re dismantled to the tune of 36 points……….

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CLUBROOMS EXPAND

A further re-modelling of the ‘Maroney Pavilion’ is undertaken between 1981-82, which increases the floor space of the complex by almost 40 per cent, and crowd capacity from 200 to 350.IMG_4289

Thirty-odd years later, a further step in the Clubrooms project is completed when a Balcony, covering the perimeter of the upstairs building is constructed, offering arguably the O & M’s best viewing facilities.

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THE LIGHTS GO ON

The first match for premiership points, under new lighting, is played at the City Oval in 1993. Whilst the Rovers’ performance in their 80-point win over Yarrawonga, is bright, the same can’t be said for the lights.

Supporters from both clubs fume that they’re unable to identify players on the far side of the ground,

But the dim lights don’t deter Hawk spearhead Matthew Allen, who slots nine majors in a scintillating display…..

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A FINAL NAME – CHANGE

The City Council, in consultation with the Rovers, re-names City Oval the ‘W.J.Findlay Oval’, in appreciation of the contributions of a former Postal Clerk, long-term Councillor, Mayor, Parliamentary candidate, author, Rovers committee-man, Life Member and ardent Hawk supporter.

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Four legends of the Findlay Oval – Bob Rose, Neville Hogan, Robbie Walker and Andrew Scott

‘Old Bill’, who has passed on a couple of years earlier, had first-hand experience of the evolution of a decrepit patch of dirt into a sporting mecca …………..

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BACK TO THE PRESENT

Darkness falls early on this bitter, early-August Tuesday evening……A curtain of misty rain glistens as it sweeps across the floodlit Oval……Brown and Gold-clad figures flip the pill around with precision, egged on by a demanding figure with a stentorian voice.

I’m propped under the giant gum-tree, which has probably hovered here longer than the 160-year existence of this sporting Oval.

If only it could tell the tale it may be of: “….. People who come and find seats where they sat when they were children, and cheered their heroes….. And watch the games as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters……..The memories are so thick they have to brush them away from their faces……..This field, it’s part of our past……..”IMG_2470

MORE THAN A ‘SECOND BANANA’…….

The name – Brian Patrick O’Brien – invokes connotations of a bearded, whisky-swigging Irish poet……or perhaps a loose-piselled Gaelic footballer.

Slot the pseudonym ‘Skimmy’ somewhere in there and seasoned locals will automatically recall a star sporting all-rounder of the sixties and seventies.

He’s got a fair idea of the derivation of the nickname. The kids at Glenrowan State School thrust it upon him, he says, probably because his old man, Des, was a dairy farmer, and it had something to do with skimmed milk.

So he’s been ‘Skimmy’ ever since………….
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He remembers riding the bike to and from the farm at Greta West to attend school and play tennis at Glenrowan on week-ends. His resultant disdain for cycling has continued to this day.

When the family moved in to Docker Street, Des, thinking young Brian would continue to work on his promising all-court game, invested in a membership of the Wangaratta Tennis Club for the eldest of his two sons.

But he never got around to treading the hallowed turf of Merriwa Park.

Instead, cricket and football were to become his passions…………..
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‘Skimmy’ became an ‘overnight success’ as a medium-pace bowler of quality, mid-way through his career, when he unleashed a couple of outstanding performances at Melbourne Country Week.

He’d long been typecast as the ‘second banana’ to more highly-rated quicks of his vintage; the sort of bloke who could tie things up, whilst the ‘big guns’ did the damage at the other end.

To be truthful, he’d been under-valued. A prolific wicket-taker in club cricket for years, his outswinger to the right- hander was lethal. It was just that he was a touch unfashionable.

On his first two trips to Melbourne, the selectors overlooked him. He copped it on the chin, he says, but admits it hurt deep-down.

When he finally ‘hit his straps’ in 1970, he did it with a bang, bowling unchanged in oppressive conditions on successive days.

Operating in tandem with his clubmate Robin Kneebone, he sent down 22 overs from the Railway-line End at Glenferrie Oval, to capture 4/58 against Maryborough.  Kneebone snared 4/60, as they restricted their opponents to an easily-accessible 9/127.

The following day, he completed another marathon performance, to snare 9/91 off 23 overs at Richmond’s Punt Road Oval. Central Gippsland ( 203 ), just failed to overhaul Wangaratta’s 5/222.

It remains the only Country Week ‘9-for’ by a Wangaratta bowler. ‘Skimmy’ had finally won the respect of the wider cricket public………..
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His entry to cricket was low-key. The first three years were spent with Housing Commission in the Social competition, alongside good friend Pat Heffernan and such erstwhile characters of the Sunday game as Rob McCullough, ‘Lofty’ Bracken and Bernie Mullins.

Little wonder that an impressionable lad, in his mid-teens, learned plenty, both on and off the field. Moving into the WDCA, he spent time with both Wangaratta and Rovers, before settling on United.

It was a stroke of fortune for both parties. The fledgling club was on the rise – destined to dominate local cricket for more than a decade. And he was to play a key role in its run of success.

In WDCA history, only the Corowa sides of the late-‘80’s and nineties, can rival this United unit for its depth and overall talent. At one stage, eight of their players were walk-up starts in Wangaratta’s representative teams.

‘Skimmy’ played in six premierships in his first eight seasons – and won the competition bowling average in four of them.

Nagging accuracy, consistent pace – and that hooping swing – made him a difficult proposition.

He went to Melbourne to represent the Victorian Postal Institute against the VRI once, he says, and caught the eye of one of the coaches with his ability to ‘move the cherry’.

“But can you control it, lad,” the coach asked. After half an hour  in the nets, into a difficult breeze, he conceded: “You’ve got one of the most crucial parts of a fast bowler’s armoury.”

A couple of his most memorable efforts in WDCA Finals were produced with the willow. He dragged United from a precarious 9/125 to a more comfortable 205 in 1968/69, thanks to his knock of 60, and a last-wicket stand of 65 with Geoff Kneebone.

Then, for good measure, he sent down 18 overs, to capture 3/44, backing up Robin Kneebone’s 6/68, to ensure victory.

A painstaking innings of 80 in the decider against Magpies the following year, along with figures of  3/25, further underlined his value as an all-rounder in this feared United machine……..
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Versatility was the hallmark of ‘Skimmy’s’ footy career. His coaches had the luxury of flinging him around the ground, aware that he’d adapt to any role.

Centrals was his Junior League club. Having  commenced a Telecom Technician’s course in Melbourne in 1959 , he spent half a season with South Yarra YCW. After completing his commitments with Centrals  the following year, he slotted straight into the Rovers Reserves line-up, being selected for the first of his 6 Grand Final appearances with the Hawks.

‘Skimmy’ broke into the senior side in 1961 and was to become a permanent fixture for the next decade . At a little over 6’1” and handily-proportioned, he had pace, and all the skills – bar one.

Surprisingly, he never attempted to kick with his left foot, instead, mastering a side-ways right-footer, which got him out of trouble and was nearly always effective.

He began as a full back, but after receiving a ‘touch-up’ from Magpie ‘Bushy’ Constable one day, was replaced by burly Teddy Pearse, and shunted to the back pocket. They became a formidable combination in the last line.

‘Skimmy’ was one of the youthful brigade who responded to the inspirational coaching of Ken Boyd, who succeeded Bobby Rose in 1963.

Within a year, the Hawks were playing an aggressive, spirited brand of footy which had them ranked as hot flag favourites mid-way through 1964.

But first they had to overcome a worrying slump in form, then a Wangaratta side which had hit top form at the business end of the season. They broke the shackles in a dominant third quarter, to defeat the Pies by 25 points in the Grand Final.

They repeated the dose the following year, this time outlasting the Pies at Martin Park. An O’Brien goal late in the final term had seemingly iced the game, but Wang kept coming and fell short by just three points in a riveting clash.

‘Skimmy’s’ best season with the Hawks came in 1967, when he polled 10 votes in the Morris Medal, playing principally as a winger or centreman. The season, however, ended in Grand Final disappointment, as did his final full year as a player – 1970.

He was appointed coach at Chiltern in 1971 and admits there were some misgivings.
“Especially early on, when I had a yarn to an old Chiltern stalwart, Donny Stephenson. He said: ‘Skim, being an outsider, it might take a while for the players to accept you. I think you’ll probably have to win ‘em over.’ “

“But everyone was great. I just set down one rule: ‘No grog in the pub after Tuesday night.’”

“Old Bill Cassidy, the Chairman of Selectors,  came to me after training one night and took me aside: ‘A couple of the boys have been spotted down at the Grapevine Hotel.’”

“So I walked into the Bar and nabbed ‘em. You could have hung buckets off their eyes, they were that surprised. I said: ‘All right, I’ll have one with ya and then, on your way. And remember, I’m going to run shit out of you at training next week.’”

Chiltern went on to meet Milawa in a Grand Final that had everything. The Swans, with stars Jock and Rowdy Lappin turning it on, regained the lead twice in the final term, to defeat the gallant Demons by six points.

There was no-one more relieved than ‘Skimmy’, that Chiltern had hung on. He’d  played a solid game at full back, but a late Milawa goal – and a drawn game- would have thrown his planned wedding to Marlene the following week into chaos.

So he finished his O & K sojourn with a perfect record.

“They were great people and we made long-lasting friends in our time there. But I was missing the Rovers. I decided to head back home.”

He played just three games in Brown and Gold the next season, before his hamstring gave way.

After 174 senior games with the Hawks, his playing career was over.

He spent three years on the committee, and coached the Reserves into a Grand Final in 1975, before the lure of the Golf course saw this staunchest of Rovers clubmen end his time at the City Oval.

Since then, belting the white ball around has been ‘Skimmy’s’ solitary sporting pursuit. “I don’t hit ‘em as well as I used to, but the game still gets me in,” he says…………..

‘GIVE THE HEMPS A GO…………’

The year is 1957. A young lad, reared in the western suburbs of Melbourne, achieves his lifelong dream when he’s selected to make his senior debut for his beloved Bulldogs.

He had jammed in to the MCG three years earlier to watch his hero, the human battering-ram Charlie Sutton, lead Footscray to their first and only VFL premiership.

Now he was to play under gnarled old Charlie in this Round 13 clash at Junction Oval, St.Kilda.

Or so he thought……Almost co-inciding with the selection of the team was the bombshell announcement that Sutton had been sacked and replaced by his 23 year-old protege, Teddy Whitten.

Bob Hempel could hardly have walked into a more volatile situation. There were divisions among the Footscray players ; many were unhappy that Sutton had been undermined. For instance, the reluctant appointee Whitten and the previous season’s Brownlow Medallist, Peter Box, were at odds and scarcely spoke to each other.

‘E.J’ was half-way through his first pre-match address when, in defiance of the committee, Sutton strolled into the rooms and said : “Good luck, son. In future, take your time when you talk to the players…….”

‘Hemps’ didn’t remember much else about his big day. He was steamrolled by St.Kilda’s ‘iron-man’, Eric Guy and carted from the ground. At that stage he was a lightly-built winger, had just come out of three months National Service training and really wasn’t equipped for League footy.

He played the next week, against Carlton, kicked a couple of goals, then was dropped to the Reserves………..

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Hemps was the youngest of eight kids. His dad left home for good, soon after he was born, and his mum, Emily, worked long hours to scrape together enough money to put tucker on the table.

He left the Footscray Tech School, aged 13, barely able to read and write, and reckons his real education “was obtained in the rough and tumble of the streets of Yarraville, where we were brought up to survive.”

His progression to the VFL was typical of any up-and-comer from the western suburbs……Footscray & District Under 19’s, to VFA club Yarraville for three years, then impressing the Bulldogs’ recruiters.

He was dismayed when his League career didn’t pan out the way he’d visualised. But he knew he was too light and lacked pace.

He was even contemplating retirement, when a chance phone call from Benalla coach Bill Luck changed the course of his life.

Bob jumped at a package from the Ovens and Murray Demons, which included a job as a salesman with ‘ Wardrop My Tailor’.

Playing as a half forward, he became a star,   and a regular O & M rep. He could cut a side to ribbons with half an hour of wizardry and was too smart for most back flankers.

Meanwhile, Hemps had surprised himself with his skills as a Menswear Salesman and, with an abundance of natural self-confidence, turned his hand to flogging Insurance.

As he admitted many years later, people didn’t need to ask how good he was ; he’d tell them himself !

He had taken on the coaching job at Euroa, after three successful seasons with Benalla, but didn’t fancy it all that much. A transfer in employment to Wangaratta relieved him of that obligation at season’s end.

Bob was immediately contacted by Rovers coach Ken Boyd, with whom he was acquainted. He needed little persuasion to become a Hawk.

Boyd saw ‘Hemps’ as a vital piece of the jigsaw. He had a young, talented side, but needed that extra bit of experience. He also knew that he was a ‘bit of a ratbag’, who would liven up the dressing rooms and cultivate the camaraderie in the group.

And so it proved. ‘Hemps’ was an excellent clubman and became the chief organiser of social functions and end-of-season trips. The Rovers Ball – a Hempel production – became bigger than Ben Hur.

The only time he’d be tempted by the demon drink would be on Ball Night, when things were in full swing. He would let his hair down, with disastrous consequences.

Unfortunately, a persistent thigh injury kept him to only 12 games in his first two seasons with the Hawks. But he finally got it right and played in both the 1964 and ’65 premiership sides.

Young Rovers players, seeking to improve their marking, would test themselves against ‘Hemps’ at training. His body-positioning and sure hands were hard to out-manoeuvre.

Not that training excited him all that much. He was often a late arrival, but must have decided that the pelting rain one bleak Tuesday night didn’t warrant him getting out on the track. It may have gone un-noticed, except that he drove down Evans Street and tooted his horn to the saturated group, as they completed their laps.

He was dropped two nights later.

‘Hemps’ was at his top in 1966. His brilliant marking, shrewd positional play and a touch of fire, were sparked by improved fitness. He was a real danger man on the flank and booted 44 goals for the season.

Three years later, as his career entered its twilight, he talked the selectors into trying him on a half back flank, which was shaping as a trouble spot.

If you can imagine a modern-day Easton Wood or Sean Dempster floating across the front of packs to take intercept marks, that was ‘Hemps’. At 33, he crowned a great season by taking out the Best & Fairest award.

He retired in 1970, after more than 100 games with the Hawks, then became President of the Rovers Past Players Association.

His next step in business was to start-up his own insurance brokerage. Ever the promoter, he took to wearing lairy red or gold jackets emblazoned with his company name on the pocket. He hit the air-waves, pleading with the public to ‘Give the Hemps a Go’.

They did, and they also supported him when he stood for council.

“I spent two learning years on council and had the ego knocked out of me,” he said. “I had no idea other people could have different opinions to mine”.

The fertile Hempel imagination then concocted a fresh idea. What about branching out into the tourism industry ? He disposed of his insurance business and created ‘Kellyland’, a 40-minute animated show depicting  Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, which he still operates.

The banks played hard-ball with him a couple of times, and he battled to keep his head above water . He once gave his version of confronting his toughest-ever opponent:

 

“My business is going down the gurgler; I can’t sleep or think. I owe a million dollars – everything is on the line. There’s no way out……But wait  a minute, how many times have I seen the Bulldogs down, with their backs to the wall ? ……And against all odds they got up and won !”

“The vultures are circling, ready to pounce and finish me off ! But Charlie Sutton would have said: ‘Lift your game…..Back yourself in…..come on Hempo….if Footscray can do it so can you……………….AND I DID ! ”

 

 

It’s been a hell of a journey for the old entrepreneur ……showman….larrikin…..’ratbag’…….right from the time he was a ‘nipper’, sitting around the kitchen table, eating rabbit stew and dreaming of wearing the Red, White and Blue……………

 

 

 

 

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……