” BIG MACCA – LACKADAISICAL……..BUT MAGICAL…..”

Good full forwards come packaged in a variety of shapes and forms.

You have the athletic type who has explosive pace off the mark. He’s able to lead into space, take chest and diving marks not too far from goal – and convert with unerring accuracy…….

Or the player with a sixth sense; slightly-built, almost frail-looking. He can lull his opponent into a false sense of security…….. Until he sneaks away and repeatedly finds his own space, taking easy marks. At the end of the day it staggers you to learn that he’s snagged half a dozen ‘sausages’……

There’s the burly, seemingly overweight, stay-at-home customer, who out-bodies the full back and pulls down big ‘grabs’ in the square; showing a surprising turn of speed when required. He never misses with those ‘clutch’ shots in the vital moments ……..

And the under-sized ‘decoy’, lightning on the lead and with an innate understanding of his role in attack. He opens up the forward line and allows the ‘monsters’ to drop into the goal-mouth…..

Then there’s blokes like Neale McMonigle………..

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‘Big Macca’ was an O & M star in the late-eighties/early-nineties. He was the spearhead in some fine Rovers sides, and a prolific goal-kicker, despite being variously panned by the critics as lazy, unpredictable, moody and ultra-casual .IMG_4078

But the boy could play. As a self-acknowledged member of the ‘Macca Fan Club’, I once attempted a thumb-nail sketch of a day in the life of a football enigma:

“It is an hour before an important match, and the Rovers rooms are abuzz with activity. Balls are being flipped around , hamstrings stretched, players yapping with nervous excitement, skipping and jumping; supporters offering encouragement..

Beneath his number 18 locker, Neale McMonigle sits impassively, munching slowly on a P.K ( he even chews slowly !). You wonder whether he is psyching himself up, or contemplating how the first leg of the double went.

The forward line is Macca’s podium. He will lead with a pace that belies his tall, angular stature and hoof a 60-metre drop-punt through the ‘big sticks’; will move around the square, seemingly with the sulks, position himself in front of a pack, then throw himself forward in a dead-set ‘stage’.

He can hold out an opponent with one hand and balance a miraculous mark with the other. A snap goal, which can come from nothing, will have the fans raving one minute. The next, he is leaning on the post yarning to the goal-umpire, as play swings further afield.IMG_4066

A miss from a set-shot can be equally as frustrating. Then, with hands on hips, he will look skyward and saunter back to the square; privately querying God’s injustice to full-forwards.

He can never really come to terms with umpires who fail to protect forwards, upfield players who ignore his leads, and niggling defenders. Apart from that, he acknowledges, footy’s not a bad game………..

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We catch up for a yap late last week, before I slip down to watch training. Meanwhile, outside, the long-awaited storm has arrived, and the rain’s bucketing down.

“No way known I’d be training in these conditions,” the big fellah says. “I used to ring Laurie (Burt) and say: ‘Mate, I’m snowed under at work. Sorry, I can’t make it.’ “

Training, and a penchant for fitness, was never on his list of priorities. “I often used cricket-practice as an excuse to get out of a bit of pre-season work. I know ‘Burty’ was a wake up to me, but I didn’t want to burn out ! ………“

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I still have visions of Neale’s dad, ‘Long John’ McMonigle, dominating the big-man duels in his 52-game stint with the Rovers.

Clad in the long-sleeved number 24 jumper, the quiet, wavy-haired gentle giant was a vital cog in Bob Rose’s plans. ‘Rosey’ believed his ruck star – one of three Glenrowan players he recruited for his first premiership side – could have played League football, but for his attachment to the bush.IMG_4077

Neale didn’t see John play, and says he’s never elaborated much on his career, other than to once admit that St.Kilda were pretty keen on him…… And that he became well-known for thumping the footy well clear of the centre bounce.

“Apparently he belted the pill so far one day, that his team-mate at centre half forward took it on the full, and the umpie unwittingly paid the mark,” Neale says……..

‘Macca’ won a WJFL Medal, playing with Junior Magpies, then graduated to the Rovers Thirds. The next season, aged 18, he was lining up in the O & M Grand Final, in just his fourth senior game.

“I was pretty raw. Fair dinkum; after Daryl Smith’s pre-match speech the hairs on my neck were standing on end. They picked me at centre half forward, with instructions to just run my opponent around.”IMG_4076

“It worked out alright too, because I was able to ‘snag’ three and we knocked over the warm favourites Benalla, who’d won 15 on the trot.”

Neale played just a handful of senior games the following season, and was then surprisingly lured out to North Wangaratta in 1980.

“I spent the next five years there…….It was probably too early to leave the Rovers, but they’re the sort of decisions you make when you’re a young bloke,” he reflects.

Jason Gorman recalls McMonigle’s first stint with the O & K Hawks: “Robbie Hickmott, Luke Norman, me and my brother all lived near the North ground. We were in our early teens and would ride our bikes there, just to watch ‘Macca’ pulling down his skyscraper marks.”

“There was a strong wind blowing down the ground one game, and he stayed at one end all day. Took about 30 marks. You could hear the opposition yelling out: ‘Don’t kick it near ‘Macca’…….”

He won North’s B & F in 1980, ‘82 and ‘83, and also shared the 1983 Baker Medal . There’s no doubt he had now blossomed into the star he was expected to be, despite his seemingly lackadaisical approach to the game.

So he was talked into returning to the Findlay Oval in 1985. As the Hawks made a charge to the finals, McMonigle was one of their key weapons. His tally of 84 goals during the home-and-away rounds included ‘bags’ of 11 and 10.IMG_4073

He added another 10 in the first two finals, and needed just six goals in the Prelim against Albury to top the magical 100.

“I remember glancing at the honour board on the Thursday night before that game, and thinking: ‘Heck, I don’t deserve to be up there as a Centurion alongside the great Steve Norman’. As it turned out, we lost the Prelim, and I finished up with 98.”

After he followed with another 60 goals in 1986, the Northerners came knocking, and appointed him playing-coach for two seasons.

That was an experience he savoured, but at the end of it, he succumbed to the wiles of Laurie Burt, who convinced him to again pull on the Rovers guernsey.

He didn’t need his arm to be twisted: “I was looking forward to playing under Laurie. He was a coach before his time, such was his knowledge of the game and its tactics.”

“He’d fill our brains with so much info at his game-eve meetings, I’d have to go home and relax with a few beers. I often dragged a couple of the boys along for a drink, too.”

The Hawks batted deep into the finals in 1989 and ‘90, but by 1991, had a superbly-balanced side which rightfully assumed flag favouritism from early in the season.

Never at any stage, though, did Neale ‘stress out’ about his footy. He was about as laid-back as you could be; kicking back with an ale or two and laying a few bets was his way of taking his mind off the game.

“Old Jack Prendergast knew I liked a punt. At the breaks he’d come up to me and say something like: ‘What’d you back in the Third at Caulfield, ‘Macca’……’Number 2 Jack. How’d it go.’ ….’You lucky bugger, it got up by a nose’. “

Neale played his part in the Hawks’ dominant 1991 season by winning the Doug Strang Medal. They recovered from a shock Second Semi-Final defeat to Yarrawonga to blitz the Pigeons in the Grand Final.

At three-quarter time it was feasible that Yarra could still win the game, but ‘Macca’ had other ideas, as he slammed through a 50m drop-punt in the opening minute of the final term. He kicked 4 goals in the last quarter, to finish with seven – and a season tally of 88.IMG_4069

Two of his premiership team-mates, ‘Gormo’ and ‘Hicky’ had been entranced by his high-marking at North Wang a decade earlier.

After 105 games – and 377 goals – with the Rovers, Neale accepted the job as captain-coach of O & K debutants Rutherglen.

“We were near the bottom, at 1-4 after five games. An official said to me one night: “The Committee want to speak to you after training. I thought: ‘Shit, they’re pressing the panic button a bit early here.’ I said: ‘Look, have a bit of faith. Stick with me. And remember: It’s my way or the Highway’.”IMG_4072

Fittingly, on the siren in the final home-and away game, Neale took a mark and slotted a goal to put the ‘Glen into their first finals series.

After two years with Rutherglen, he spent his final year as a player back at North Wangaratta in 1994. He’d chalked up 150-odd games in three stretches at Sentinel Park.

After helping Mark Kilner at Greta for a couple of seasons, he coached King Valley for two seasons, then led Glenrowan in 2007-08.

“I enjoyed playing a part in the development of young kids in the four clubs I was at,” he says. “I regarded it as an honour when each of them approached me to coach.”

‘Macca’s’ most recent sporting involvement was watching his daughters play Netball at Tarrawingee. He and Helen have four girls – Rachelle, Brooke, Kelly and Sarah.

He still follows the footy from a distance, but reckons they’d have  left him  for dead if he’d had to put in the work they do these days. “I just wasn’t made that way,” says ‘Big Macca’…………………..IMG_4074

‘THE ULTIMATE TEAM-MAN…………’

The prized Number 16 locker at the Wangaratta Rovers Football Club belonged to just two players over a 32-year period. The first of these was the inimitable Mervyn ‘Farmer’ Holmes, who held sway in defence for 302 games.

Upon his retirement in 1986 a slightly-built 17 year-old asked if he could have the privilege of taking over the number.

For the next 17 years Mick Wilson played with fearsome determination. He ran harder and tackled and harassed more ferociously than anyone, and after 316 senior games, earned the universal acclaim of country football folk when his playing career drew to a close in 2004.IMG_3996

In an era when loyalty in footy was treated contemptuously, he led by example as the consummate team-mate.

He was the advance welcoming party when new recruits arrived; the pace-setter at pre-season training; the long-term trip-away organiser; the sympathetic listener to aggrieved players; and was ever-ready with a tip on fitness or tactics for grateful youngsters……….
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The three Wilson kids – Mick, Joe and ‘Waldo’ – were just whippersnappers when they wandered down Nolan Lane, Tarrawingee, to train with the Bulldogs’ newly-formed Thirds team.

“I think I was about 11, and the coach, Des Griffin used to let us join in. Then, on Sundays we’d head across to play with the Whorouly Midgets,” says Mick.

“I always thought it would’ve been more convenient to go into Wang and play in their Midget comp, but Chas (Dad) joked that there was less chance of him being pulled over by a breathalyser this way. And besides, he said, there were three pub stops on the way home – at Whorouly, Milawa and, of course, Tarra’s Plough Inn.”

His parents, Chas and Toni, are legendary figures in local sport.

“Chas, in particular, had some off-beat philosophies,” Mick recalls. “For instance, after a good rain, he’d gather a heap of snails; weigh them, number them and put them in an old microwave one by one, to see how long it took them to explode. He was trying to justify some mathematical formula that he was working on.”

But Chas and Toni couldn’t have been more rapt when their offspring began to show signs of obvious potential.

Mick had been filling in with Tarra Thirds, on and off, for a few years. He went in one day to watch his uncle, Paul Nolan, strutting his stuff in a practice match with the Rovers Thirds. They were short, and he was pressed into action.

Later in the year, he was slotted in for a couple of games on permit at the urging of coach Darryl Smith; held his spot for the finals, and played in a Premiership side.

He was 16 when he had his first full season with the Thirds, and showed enough to attract the attention of new Hawk senior coach, Laurie Burt.

“Laurie picked 10 debutants for the opening round of 1987, and most of us had come up through the Thirds. It was the dawn of a new era for the Club,” Mick says.

“Laurie was 10-15 years older than most of us. He had the complete respect of everyone, and was still playing great footy. He cared about us as people. Although he was super-professional, he could have a bit of fun, too.”

The Rovers were dubbed ‘Burt’s Babes’. They strung together a succession of wins, which ultimately swept them into the 1988 Grand Final. Their opponents, the star-studded and vastly more experienced Lavington, were expected to have too many guns for them in the Big One.

“I remember my opponent grabbing me in a headlock and throwing me to the ground early in the first quarter,” Mick says. ” I looked upfield and there were ‘spot-fires’ raging everywhere.”

“It was obviously a plot by Lavi to put the pressure on us. But we proved a bit quicker; a bit more skilful. After the game, when we went up to receive our medals, I overheard some fellah say: ‘ I can’t believe how young these blokes are’.”IMG_3990

It was a famous Hawk victory, but the one that gave Mick special satisfaction came three years later, when they belted Yarrawonga: “Joe was in the ‘88 side, but ‘91 was ‘Waldo’s’ first flag. It was a real thrill to share it with them.”IMG_3991

“Yarra had beaten us in the second-semi, and they were really fired up when we met them a fortnight later, at the Showgrounds. They targeted Anthony Pasquali and Peter Tossol for some reason. Big Brett Jukowicz’s eyes were rolling around in his head. He went right off. But I think we won by something like 12 goals.”

Mick was to become synonymous with inter-league football, after making his debut in 1990. The challenge of lifting to a higher standard always brought out the best in him. He was to represent the league on 23 occasions (6 times as captain) – and play at two Australian Country Carnivals.

An example of his fabled durability came when he hobbled off during a clash against the Latrobe Valley, at Traralgon. Two days later, the Rovers were due to meet Myrtleford. He got home, set his alarm, and iced his dicey ankle every two hours in order to be right to line up against the Saints.IMG_3994

Probably the highlight of his representative career came in 1994, when the Wilson trio were selected to wear the Black and Gold O & M guernsey at Sunbury.

This was during a period when the Rovers had assembled one of the greatest of all O & M sides.

They chalked up 36 wins on end and were rated near-invincible. At the height of it, they took out the ‘93 and ‘94 premierships and their reign was showing no signs of stalling.

Alas,  that triumph of 1994 was to be the Hawks’ most recent flag.

“It seems strange to say,” says Mick,”……but during that winning era, it started to become a bit boring. You had to really psyche yourself up some weeks.”

“But when I looked back in the late nineties, I came to realise how hard flags are to win. In some of the ones we missed out on, we were close to – or as good as – the sides that won them.”

“In those ‘nearly’ years, the connection mightn’t have been as strong off the field as it could have been. The odd blokes might have been playing for themselves, maybe worried about their positions, or form, or whatever…….”

“There was a high correlation, with the teams that won flags, where we really gelled as a group.”

The lasting memory of Mick Wilson is of him setting off downfield from the half back line, and launching the ball deep into attack – or throwing himself into a pack with courage. His fitness was famous and he trained with rare intensity.

“When we had those great sides, there were some ding-dong battles on the track. We liked to set the standard for the younger blokes at training,” he says.

He still played an important role in the Hawks’ most recent Grand Final appearance – in 2002, but two seasons later, realised that Father Time had caught up with the body that he had punished year after year.IMG_3999

“It was the opening game of the season, and someone from Corowa-Rutherglen was tagging me in the Seconds. He was giving me a hard time, and I couldn’t be bothered retaliating. I knew it was time to give it away.”

“I could’ve gone back to Tarra, but instead, kept training and did the running for ‘Toss’, who was coaching. I just didn’t play again.”

So he hung up the boots after a devoted career in Brown and Gold. He and his brothers (Joe 240 games, and Andrew ‘Wal’ 258) amassed 814 senior games. They’re Hawk Life Members, as are parents Chas and Toni……
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In 2007, the Bulldogs finally lured their favourite son home as coach. He had no set coaching plans, other than trying to make Tarra a really enjoyable place to be.

“They were probably expecting me to be really strict, but on one of the first training nights I produced a couple of slabs after training. We tried to prioritise things like the players keeping the rooms clean, always thanking the volunteers, and making the netballers inclusive.”

“I had good support on the footy side of things; that part of it was really easy, and the club was well set up off-field.”

The Dogs broke an 18-year premiership drought when they overcame a persistent Bright in the 2008 Grand Final. They were hot favourites the following season, having won 39 games on the trot.

But Milawa got the jump early and held on to win a thriller.

The 2010 decider was also a nail-biter. In a game that went down to the wire, Tarra got up by two points in one of the greatest of all O & K Grand Finals.

With that, Mick Wilson decided to walk away from coaching,

He had already become somewhat of a sporting icon at Tarra, having captained five of their cricket premiership teams over 20 years, but old Dogs, who had become used to years of heartache appreciated his role in returning the Club to the upper echelon……..IMG_4001
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Mick is now involved in his ‘dream job’ as Talent Identification Manager of the Murray Bushrangers. In this role he’s charged with the responsibility of uncovering the cream of the region’s young football talent, and giving them the opportunity to impress the nation’s recruiting scouts.

The Wilson kids, Brylee, Kelsie and Darcy are showing plenty of promise in football, Netball, cricket and athletics, and appear to have been endowed with a healthy dose of the family’s renowned sporting genes………

(With help from Rosco & Fix’s Podcast  ‘”I like the Cut of your Jib”)IMG_4015

” 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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‘LIFE – WHAT A RIDE……..’

(With thanks to guest blogger – Simone Kerwin)

HISTORY is peppered with the stories of young footballers who moved to the ‘big smoke’ to try their luck at the highest level, only to walk away disillusioned by the process or unable to gel with the lifestyle. But there is only one among their number who has gone on to train two Melbourne Cup winners.

The Robert Hickmott story reads like something that might have been dreamed up by a sports-loving youngster mapping out his life… first I’ll play junior footy with my mates, in between helping Dad train horses, then when we’re teenagers, my mates and I will win a senior country footy premiership together; I’ll get noticed by a couple of league clubs, give it a whirl in the AFL, play a bit more footy, then get back into the horses and help guide a couple of them to take out the richest race in the land for a wealthy, generous owner.

Sounds like pie in the sky stuff, but essentially that’s how life has played out for Rob, or Hicky, as he is better known locally. Of course, a life viewed in hindsight can often seem like a fairytale, but even the laidback subject at the heart of this story can appreciate the great fortune and long-lasting memories that have come his way over 49 years.

Rob was born and raised in the Wangaratta district, and developed a passion for racing in his very early years, while helping out around his father John’s stables at Eldorado.

“Dad was a real estate agent at the same time, so we’d get up early and do the horses, then I’d go to school and he’d go to work at about 8am,” he said.

While racing was a passion, Rob described footy as “an outlet”. He enjoyed the chance to spend time with his mates, including the three Wilson brothers, Mick, Joe and Andrew (Waldo), as they made their way through the thirds ranks to play senior football at Tarrawingee.

As Mick Wilson began to follow the path worn by his uncle Mick Nolan, from Tarrawingee to the Wangaratta Rovers, Rob was enticed to join his mate, who had been playing the occasional Sunday game for the Hawks after lining up with Tarra’s Bulldogs on a Saturday.

“Darryl Smith was coaching then; I came in in 1986 and played a couple of games, but we didn’t make the finals in my first year,” he said.

By 1987, word of Rob’s emerging ability had spread to talent scouts in Melbourne. He was invited to train with Hawthorn, but the day before he was due to report to Glenferrie Oval, persuasive Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy and Bombers team manager Kevin Egan knocked on the Hickmotts’ door.IMG_3587

“I can’t remember too much about it – he probably had a cup of tea with the old man out the back, and talked about a bit of money. I was a bit overawed, and I signed up with Essendon; Hawthorn wasn’t very happy,” he said.

But Rob found the world of senior AFL footy an uncomfortable fit: “I missed a lot of training because I was going to the races. I played the first two pre-season games at Essendon, then I got homesick and came straight home”.

“Change is a big thing in life, and it’s something that a lot of country kids don’t adjust to. There would be hundreds of stories like mine. I was talking to Kevin Sheedy one day about how he wanted to put it in the curriculum – dealing with change in all aspects of life,” Rob said.

“I went back and did a pre-season (with Essendon) in 1989, but I got de-listed because I wasn’t really putting in. Then Melbourne said if I continued to do everything right, they’d pick me up in the draft, so I went to Tasmania and played under an assumed name,” he said.

Rob was indeed drafted by the Demons, and played two senior games for the club in 1990, debuting against St Kilda in round 13, and playing the following week against North Melbourne.

“They were terrific at Melbourne, with blokes like Jim Stynes, Garry Lyon and Rod Grinter on the list. Then I busted my finger and it got infected, just as I was starting to get my head around things,” he said.

Though he remained on the Demons’ list in season 1991, Rob did not play another senior match. Footy on the big stage had not panned out as he may have hoped. However, Rob said some of his fondest sporting memories were borne from his Ovens and Murray career.

He describes the Rovers’ 1988 premiership win over Lavington as “probably my biggest thrill in football”. Coached by Laurie Burt, and known as ‘Burt’s Babes’, the ’88 Hawks had an average age of 21 and were in essence a bunch of local kids who just loved hanging around together.IMG_3588

“I will never forget the moment when that siren went, just the elation. You couldn’t move on the ground, and the after- party went on for the next two or three weeks,” Rob said.

He was named among the best players in the 26 point victory over the Blues, alongside a host of others who have become Rovers royalty – coach Burt, Robbie Walker, Mick Caruso, Scott Williamson, Mick and Joe Wilson, and Rick Marklew. After leaving Melbourne, Rob returned to the Rovers and played in a second premiership under Burt in 1991.

“It’s a great footy club. They were lucky with the blokes they got together in that era, including one of the best country footballers ever in Robbie Walker; it’s one of the best recruiting efforts you’ll ever see,” he said.

Time with Myrtleford and Wodonga, including playing in a grand final for the Bulldogs against his Rovers mates in ’94, was next on the agenda for Rob. He went back to the Rovers in 1996, before following his father to Murray Bridge in South Australia.

“I went to Dad’s and worked for him and played over there, but I broke my leg in an elimination final, then I went to Queensland and played four or five games at Southport, where there was this young forward coming up through the ranks named Nick Riewoldt,” he said.

Rob played his last game of footy at the age of 29, but after his stint at Murray Bridge, he realised his future lay in the racing game. He took up a role at Caulfield with Colin Little, where he met his future wife Michelle, a track rider, and also worked with Tony Vasil and Alan Bailey, before moving to Michelle’s native Queensland to work for John Wallace. The couple spent four years on the Gold Coast, and welcomed son Josh, now 15 (who was followed five years later by daughter Sharnia).

Then Rob’s mate, Lincoln Curr, helped him secure a role with Team Williams, working under Graeme Rogerson at Flemington, until operations shifted to Macedon Lodge at Mount Macedon five years later. He is full of praise for Lloyd Williams, the high- profile boss he helped to win two Melbourne Cups, with Green Moon in 2012, and Almandin in 2016.IMG_3583

“His passion for racing is amazing. Obviously as the casinos were up and running and he was starting to get out of that, he had a more hands-on approach, and contact with him went from almost daily to two or three times a day,” he said.

“When we moved out to Macedon, it was different again, because he had a property across the road, so we’d speak five or six times a day. Over the years, you build up a rapport with someone, you understand them and vice versa; we got on well.

“His attention to detail is second to none; his approach was always, ‘you won’t trip over a boulder, but you might trip over a stone’. It’s taking care of the little things that he prides himself on, things we wouldn’t think of, he points out to you. He’s a very generous man, and really cares for people.”

Rob said he struggled to understand the fuss that was often made of the fact that while he was credited with training the Cup winners, Lloyd Williams and his son Nick were spokesmen for the team.

“It’s Lloyd’s business, so the spokesperson was always Nick or Lloyd – that’s their model. The press used to get their noses out of joint because they couldn’t talk to me, but I was happy with it that way. It’s obviously a by-product of the racing game, but I’ve never been a person who thrives on that sort of stuff,” he said.

Rather, Rob enjoyed seeing the smiles on the faces of his family as Team Williams enjoyed the success they knew he had helped achieve.IMG_3585

“That’s the most gratifying thing out of it – it’s more for the families, the chance for the kids to take the cup to school and get bragging rights,” he said.

“Because I was working solely for Macedon Lodge, it was like a team environment, so it was a bit like a footy team; the only difference is you are back to work the next day with racing. Lloyd is a big one for planning, so there wasn’t as much time to soak it in.”

He does have some great memories to add to his collection, though.

“Green Moon was the first one. He’d been bumped around in the Cox Plate and came out of that battered and bruised, so he had a very light 10 days leading into the Cup. That was the key to winning. The way the race was run suited him to a tee – he had a slow start, but came home strong. When he hit the front, it was amazing, just a great feeling,” he said.

“With Almandin, a lot of work and time went into him off a tendon rehab, so it was probably more gratifying in that regard. To get him back into form was a feather in everyone’s cap.”

Rob is hoping for more of those feelings in the years ahead, as he branches out on his own after departing the Williams stable late in 2017.

“Towards the end, I was getting a bit stale, and my passion started to waver. I needed some diversity to develop my own style. I thought it was the right time to leave. I’m looking forward to the next chapter,” he said.

Though his plans for the future are “still up in the air”, Rob is keen to secure boxes at Flemington for his stable, and continue with the success he experienced with the Williams family.

“I know how to produce a winner, as long as I get the right quality of horses. We’re going through that process now, and it’s exciting. It would be nice to secure a few from overseas, and target the Melbourne and Caulfield Cups this year,” he said.

There will also be plenty of time for family.  Josh, a rising star in the Calder Cannons’ under 16 Barry Davis squad, is showing interest in the family business, though Rob jokes, “I told him he’ll be picking up sh.. to start with.” In fact, Josh’s studies at Salesian College may be developing a homegrown media manager, so Rob can avoid the part of the racing game he doesn’t enjoy.IMG_3586

While Sharnia enjoys the race day aspect, taking her friends along for a day out, she is exhibiting talent as a soccer and netball player, singer and guitarist. And Rob said the benefits of having Michelle at his side are huge.

“It’s handy to have someone who understands the rigmarole, and how demanding the job can be,” he said.

“She stopped riding when she was pregnant with Josh – she was passionate about riding, but it just wasn’t worth (the risk of injury to continue). She has a dog- grooming business now, and has also trained to be a shiatsu massage therapist; to get her head around what she has to do that has been amazing. It’s amazing how people evolve.”

Indeed. And the evolution of Robert Hickmott has been a fascinating journey, still no doubt with plenty of twists and turns ahead………..

 

( ‘Life – What a Ride’  appeared in the Autumn Edition on North-East Living.  The Spring Edition is on the bookshelves next week.)IMG_3584

‘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