‘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

 

 

 

 

DEDICATION TAKES VALLEY YOUNGSTER TO THE TOP ……

Old-timers around Whitfield joke that they discovered a magic elixir in the cool, crystal-clear waters of the King River, in the early 1990’s.

That’s why, the wags say, a spate of talented young footballers began to emerge, much to the excitement of the King Valley faithful, who hadn’t had much to cheer about for a decade.

At one stage the ‘Roos weren’t able to muster the numbers to field an under-age team. And when they eventually did, they were on the receiving end of some fearful hidings.

Within three years the Valley had won a Thirds premiership and bold predictions were being made about a few of the kids who wore the Blue and White with distinction in 1993.

The assessments were spot-on:

Lanky, blonde-haired Leigh Newton, was to win the O & M’s Morris Medal in 1996, and go on to play 13 AFL games, before injury cruelled his career at Melbourne…….

The long and winding journey of his younger brother, Mick, would include time with the Murray Kangaroos, a couple of stints in the O & M, and coaching roles with the Valley and Milawa…….

Bruce Hildebrand would move on to the Rovers, then to Coburg, where he was to earn selection in a VFA Under 23 team………

But probably the pick of them was a beanpole ruckman, who would, in the years to come, lock horns with the best big men in the land, and establish a reputation as a lion-hearted performer……

His name ? ………. Mark Porter.

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The Porter tale is one of extraordinary dedication.

Yarns have been passed down by his old Wangaratta High School mates, of his lunch-time weight sessions……… downing tub after tub of yoghurt …………..always toiling away on his fitness.

His first senior coach, Gary Bussell, once recalled: “I actually watched him in a Thirds Grand Final when he was 15. He looked like a gangly calf. He could hardly stand up.”

“Mark actually worked on his strength one whole summer. He pushed his chest out 10 centimetres and built his arms up like you wouldn’t believe.”

The result was, that at 17, in his first senior season, he matched wits – and physicality – with the best of the O & K’s ruckmen – and came up trumps.

It was all rather heady stuff for the Year-12 student, when he received an invite to the League’s vote-count – and shocked the crowd by taking out the Baker Medal. He had created history by becoming the youngest Medallist ever.

The anticipated calls came from Ovens and Murray clubs. He was in demand.

Wang.Rovers coach Laurie Burt headed the queue. When Mark explained that he would be shifting to Melbourne to undertake a Physical Education degree, Laurie organised for him to train at his old club, Coburg.

The suggestion, of course, was that Mark might return home each Friday night and spend the season with the reigning premiers.

But his dad, Merv, wasn’t keen on that idea.

“Laurie said : ‘That’s okay, but can you at least play a practice match with us ? ‘ I came home one week-end and had a run against Wodonga, but I’d more or less decided that I was going to stick with Coburg,” Mark said the other day.

It proved an inspired decision.

“I was a bit lucky that one of the big men got injured and another one walked out,” he says of being thrust into the role of number one ruckman.

He enjoyed a magnificent season and handled the huge step from the O & K to the VFA with ease. So much so that he was awarded the Round-Fothergill Medal as the VFA’s Rookie of the Year.

In his two years with Coburg, Mark represented the VFA against Tasmania and NSW and had become firmly established as one of the competition’s ‘big guns’.

His coach, Kevin Breen, rated him “probably the best tap ruckman going around.”

So it wasn’t surprising that Carlton’s recruiting manager Shane O’Sullivan, was on his hammer. He was eager for the big fellah to play a Reserves game towards the end of 1996 , but was unable to make contact.

When they did eventually meet up, he invited Mark to do a pre-season.    Suitably impressed, the Blues nominated him as their sole selection in the ’97 Rookie Draft; a ‘project player’, alongside established ruckmen, Justin Madden and Matthew Allen.

Four years earlier, he had guided King Valley Thirds to a flag. Now the lad with the imposing  6’7″, 105kg frame, was on the cusp of League football.

Unfortunately, a broken bone in his hand at the start of the season cost Mark six weeks and he was fully expecting to play the rest of the year in the two’s. But he had ‘come on’ so rapidly that he was the obvious replacement for regular number one ruckman Matthew Allen, who had been ‘rubbed out’ for charging Demon Leigh Newton ( yes, Mark’s old team-mate ! ).

As he became more familiar with the intricacies of the big man’s craft at the highest level, Mark continued to develop. His tap-work was lauded, but he knew he needed to have more strings to his bow.

“You’ve got to earn your stripes in the AFL. If you haven’t got all the tricks you get left behind. I had to play aggressively and tackle strongly. And then start to take a few ‘grabs’ ,” Mark said.

A knee injury in a 1999 practice match ruled him out for a season, and halted his progress for most of the following year.

But he played superbly in 2001, and it was somewhat surprising that, after 55 games with the Blues, they traded him to North Melbourne, as part of a swap for Corey McKernan.

Mark fitted nicely into the Kangaroos’ set-up, alternating in the ruck with Matthew ‘Spider’ Burton, and chalking up another 55 senior games in his three-year stay at Arden Street.

The Porter work-ethic had not just been confined to the field of football. Mark had been studying assiduously and completed a degree in Financial Services and Master of Business and was more prepared than most for life after football.

The end came, for him, at the top-level, when North delisted him at the end of  the 2004 season.

“I was still keen to keep playing the highest standard I could, so I signed with North Ballarat and spent a season back in the VFL. Then Anthony Stevens talked me into joining him at Benalla in 2006 “, Mark says.

A couple of locals who saw Mark play at Benalla, reckoned  that the slower style of footy suited him down to the ground. He dominated the big-man duels and knocked up taking marks.

He helped the Saints to their first Grand Final in years, but they were outplayed by a strong Seymour side.

” Stevo decided to retire after that, but I lined up again. Things were going okay until I broke my arm and ended up in the Wang Base Hospital after Round 10. That was the finish for me. I was needing knee surgery, so it was time to pull the pin.”

Life has remained pretty hectic for Mark Porter. Married, with three young kids, he spends a lot of his professional time, along with Brad Wira, the ex-Bulldog and Freo Docker, co-ordinating the AFL Player’s Association’s Financial Education program. It is designed to instruct young players on how to maximise their financial potential.

The pair are also advisers for the AFLPA and AFL Industry Superannuation Plan and Mark is continuing his Financial Planning studies.

The young man who was dubbed ‘an old-fashioned blue-collar ruckman’, has transitioned perfectly into the white-collar world.

It’s seemingly light years away from the idyllic surrounds of the King Valley cattle farm………

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOSTALGIC VISIT FOR OLD HAWK

Once a year, Dean Harding pays a nostalgic visit to his spiritual football home – the W.J.Findlay Oval.

His old mates gather – many with a link from school, or Junior League days, or the Rovers Thirds, where he first began to reveal his exquisite talents.

And there might be the odd former drinking or punting companion from a group that has ‘stuck fat’ throughout the years.

On Saturday he’s back again – as Wodonga’s coach.

Twenty-six years after his last game in Brown and Gold, he still finds it hard not to have a bit of an emotional ‘pull’ towards the Hawks. But when his Bulldogs are in combat with them they are the mortal enemy.

A couple of blokes had a bit of a chuckle when they sneaked over to his quarter-time rev-up last year, and heard him bellowing : “……..they’re an arrogant mob, these blokes……Get into ’em’ ”

That’s all part of footy with ‘Hards’, whose long and winding journey in the game that he loves, was touched upon by the ABC’s ‘Coodabeen Champions’ last week-end.

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The Hardings were a staunch Rovers family. Dad Neville was a long-time supporter ; Joan, Dean’s mum, was a member of the Social committee, and his younger brother Terry was to play over 100 games in all three grades.

Dean came through the Tigers, the junior league team which also produced AFL players of the calibre of Paul Bryce, Luke Norman and Chris Naish, during the same era.

The good judges agreed. This slimly-built kid had the goods – he was classy, self-assured, had a bit of the larrikin about him. He’ll probably be a star, they surmised.

You come across youngsters who are just naturals. Besides also being a talented wicket-keeper/batsman, he seemed capable of turning his hand to anything. The only doubt was whether he had the application to ‘go on with the job’.

He arrived at the Rovers as a Golden Era dawned. The Hawks, with a youthful senior team, swept to the flag in 1988. Dean played in the centre in a Thirds side – comprising several future O & M stars – which won the Grand Final by 14 goals.

His progress was steady. The next year he had a few games in the Thirds, but spent it mostly in the ‘twos’. There was talent galore ; he just had to bide his time.

In 1990, after a couple of reserves games, his opportunity finally arrived. His body had matured and he looked every inch a senior player. Even then, his education, at the hands of Laurie Burt, was not complete.

“With Laurie, you had to earn your spurs. The first couple of weeks I did a fair bit of bench-warming, but then, he started to give me more time on the ground. He was good for me, Laurie. I loved his coaching”, Dean says.

The Rovers ‘lucked’ out in the finals series. A brutal Elimination Final saw them overcome Benalla, but they met their match against Yarrawonga in the first-semi. ‘Hards’, however, had provided a ray of sunshine amidst the disappointment.

Laurie Burt recalls a clever, creative player, who had the capacity to influence a game: “I saw a lot of Joe Wilson in ‘Hards’ “.

He was voted the Hawks’ Best First-Year player and shaped as a potential champion of the Club in his 18 senior games. With a steady job in the Commonwealth Bank and as a popular member of the playing group, he looked a long-term proposition.

He was in the Rovers’ usual haunt, the Pinsent Hotel, having a relaxing few ales with his mates over the summer, when Hawk identity and ‘Pinno’ barman, ‘Crusher’ Connolly, calmly delivered the news: ” ‘Hards’, apparently you’ve been drafted.”

“Be buggered !”, was the reply.

Indeed, it was true. The downtrodden Fitzroy had chosen him with their pick number 78. Essendon plumped for a kid from Canberra, James Hird, with pick 79.

‘Hards’ couldn’t wait to get down to Melbourne and experience the blue-chip facilities and rarified atmosphere that, he imagined, prevailed at every AFL club.

Instead, the Lions shared their training base at the old Brunswick Street Oval with frisbee-throwing adults, yuppie dog-walkers and kids playing around the boundary.

But he fitted in beautifully to a club which was scant on resources, and huge in spirit. In his first season, 1991, playing on a wing or up forward, he made 12 senior appearances.

Undoubtedly the highlight was the final round, at Princes Park, when Fitzroy hosted West Coast, who were sitting 4 games clear on top of the ladder. The Lions, entrenched on the bottom, had won just three games for the season.

The match was proceeding according to the script, as the Eagles coasted to a 26-point half-time lead ; their hapless rivals having been kept to a solitary goal.

It was big-hearted Matty Rendell’s final game for Fitzroy, and in the third quarter his team-mates found something, to boot 6.5 to three points in the third quarter, and lead by 12 points at lemon-time.

‘Hards’ snared one of those goals, but, to the accompaniment of raucous cheering from the delerious, but sparse crowd, he kicked three more in a pulsating final term, as the Lions held on to win a true boilover by 10 points.

Dean was plagued by hamstring and thigh injuries over the next two seasons. He managed just two games in 1992 and five in ’93 and sensed that his cards were already marked – ‘injury-prone’.

He toyed with offers from both Port and South Adelaide. The Rovers were more than eager to get him back home, but he finally decided on a move to Wodonga.

“Two of my good mates, Robbie Hickmott and Dean Stone had joined Wodonga and the club made me an offer with work and footy that was pretty hard to refuse”, he says.

Apart from one season, when he was enticed to coach Rutherglen, he has been at Martin Park ever since.

After 80 games, again interrupted by injury, but highlighted by a couple of Grand Final appearances and three inter-league jumpers, he has served the Bulldogs on the football-front for more than two decades.

His first coaching stint was with the Under 18’s, whilst he was still playing. He has been a selector, assistant-coach and ‘general dogsbody’ around the club.

‘Hards’ was helping in the gruelling search for a coach in late-2014 when somebody suggested : “What about you ? ”

“So here I am. It’s been hard work, but really enjoyable. I love being involved with the young fellas”.

He runs his own Financial Planning business and, combined with family and footy, life is pretty hectic. But it’s hard to imagine the laid-back ‘Hards’ letting it get him down.

As he wanders through the gates of the Findlay Oval on Saturday and sees some familiar faces – many of them perched exactly where they were when he was just a fledgling Hawk – he’ll probably cast his mind back to those days of yore……….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE KING OF COBURG WHO CONQUERED THE BUSH


You’d be hard-pressed to find a more fervent football disciple than Laurie Burt.

He posesses a boyish enthusiasm for the game. It came to the fore last Saturday, when his old side, the Hawks, clinched the unlikeliest of victories.

I’ve seen him entranced by games at all levels. Even when he sights two little fellahs fondling the Sherrin, you can see his brain ticking over and dreaming of their potential.

If it was my task to appoint a Football Ambassador, Laurie would be my man…….
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His attitude to footy now is no different to that of the squat, dumpy 9 year-old kid who turned up to play with St. Andrews Under 13’s in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.

Ron Taylor, who coached him at junior and senior level, saw players of the calibre of dual Brownlow Medallist Keith Greig and champion goalkicker Geoff Blethyn go through the club, but rates Laurie the most dedicated he has seen.

He was determined to extract the best of his ability and headed to Coburg, where he was soon to make his mark, despite his unlikely stature.

Channel 10’s live Sunday afternoon coverage of matches during the ’70’s and ’80’s drew a cult following to VFA football and Laurie was one of its biggest personalities.

Harold Martin, who played with and against Burt in this era, gave this summation of the Coburg on-baller :

“He looked more like a hairy Sumo wrestler than a footballer, but boy, could he play ! He was tough at the ball, skilful and had no fear. He was always at the bottom of the packs, taking courageous marks by backing into packs or standing his ground.”

“The umpires loved him, everybody loved him. He was undoubtedly one of the top three VFA players in that era. He was the King of Coburg.”

Laurie played 157 games with the Lions, was Best and Fairest in 1978, ’79 and ’81, captain for three years, runner-up in the VFA’s 1978 J.J.Liston Trophy and a regular and dependable VFA representative.

His only taste of premiership glory came in 1979, when Coburg broke through to win their first Division One flag in 51 years.

The only time that his unflinching loyalty to Coburg had deviated was in his early days, when he was invited to do a pre-season at Essendon. He lasted a few weeks at Windy Hill before returning home.

But by the end of 1983 his beloved club had slipped badly on and off the field and there were rumours of discontent in the camp.

As luck would have it, there was an approach afoot from the Rovers. Let me explain how it crystallised.

The incumbent coach, John Welch, had indicated that if the club could find a replacement, it would be in  their best interests to have a change.

Akin to the Hawks’ present scenario in their hunt for a messiah, they searched high and low. Among the many possibilities who were fanned was a dogged Richmond back-pocket player, Michael Malthouse.

But after Mick had expressed some interest, the news came through that he had accepted the job at Footscray.

You’ll do anything for a lead when you reach a dead-end – like contacting prominent VFA media identity Mark Fiddian out of the blue and quizzing him about any likely coaching prospects.

“Well, there are two standouts”, he said. “Graeme ‘Swooper’ Anderson from Port Melbourne is a good player and has plenty of experience. But there’s a fellow at Coburg called Laurie Burt who would make a sensational coach. I reckon he might be receptive to an approach “.

A bit of detective-work was done and the response from all who were asked was the same: ‘Lovely bloke, top footballer, fine clubman.’

Laurie rejected the coaching offer, but warmed to the idea of joining the Hawks as a player, which he did in 1984.

The stern judges who congregated at the bar-end of the Hogan Stand adopted him immediately. They loved his toughness, the way he burrowed in after the ball.

This was no ‘blow-in’ coming up for an easy kick and a quick quid. And he wanted to be involved in everything that was happening within the club.

He was Best & Fairest in 1985, represented the League and was a great support to Merv Holmes, who was steering the Rovers through two difficult, but improving years.

So, when the legendary ‘Farmer’ decided to retire, his successor was a no-brainer – it had to be Burt.

Laurie and his wife Cheryl decided to give it a go and moved to Wangaratta to live in 1987. He accepted a transfer in the Education Department to Barnawartha Primary School and adapted perfectly to life in the bush.

He loved the feel of the town and enjoyed the fact that the locals were so passionate about the footy club. It was different to anything he’d experienced in the city.

All of the Rovers’ champions of the ’70’s (except Mark Booth) had, by now, moved on and there were plenty of spots to fill.

But there was a bevy of young, emerging talent around the club and a couple of experienced players – Maryborough school-teacher Michael Caruso and North Melbourne reject John O’Donoghue – landed on their doorstep.

And it was a big help when classy Robert Walker was lured back from the Kangaroos.

The young, group engendered a good spirit and responded to their inspirational coach.
In his first eight years they clinched four flags and at one stage chalked up 36 wins in succession. It was one of the most dominant periods in O & M history.

Walker spoke of Burt years later: ” Laurie was just what we needed; the right bloke at the right time. He was fabulous for our club and the whole town.”

“He was always reinforcing the team aspects – the guys who were injured or others who had missed out, the supporters who’d backed us and the whole community that was behind us.”

“We weren’t playing just for us, he’d say, but for them as well. The flags weren’t just ours, they belonged to the whole town.”

When Albury broke the Rovers’ sequence of 36 wins early in 1985, a new challenger to their throne had emerged. Indeed, the Tigers did become the pace-setters from that point on, but the Hawks fought ferociously to hang onto that mantle.

Laurie’s coaching reign had spanned a club-record 11 years when he decided not to seek re-appointment at the end of the 1997 season.

He had coached in 230 games for a remarkable success rate of 74.3 which saw the Hawks only miss the finals twice. He had played 152 games and had influenced the lives of a couple of hundred young men who played under him and absorbed his sage football advice.

The gongs that had come his way in a stellar career included induction to the Coburg, Wangaratta Rovers and Ovens and Murray Halls of Fame and membership of Coburg’s Team of the Century.

In the ensuing years Laurie has undertaken a number of roles on football’s periphery and thrived on the involvement.

This year he collected another sporting trophy – a share of Wangaratta Table Tennis Association’s B-Grade doubles title. He was overshadowed by his son Ashley, who took out the A-Grade championship.

I don’t know what it’s like facing him on the other side of the net, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have been half as daunting as having him bearing down on you on the football field.

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