“THE ‘MILESTONE MEN’ OF THE O & M………….”

Jack King’s marathon journey towards 300 Ovens and Murray games – and beyond – began in 1895, on a rough, tussock-laden paddock behind the family home…….When Wangaratta’s Daine Porter reached the target a fortnight ago it was on a floodlit oval, in front of a large, adoring home crowd, which cheered his every possession……..

The ‘paddock’, on which King honed his footy skills, was re-shaped to become Barkly Park, home of the famous Rutherglen Redlegs.

Of the seven King brothers who played their part in helping the ‘Glen become a behemoth at the turn of the century, Jack was the pick of them.

St.Kilda lured him to their Junction Oval for a brief eight-game stay in 1904. But he was content to ply his craft back home, chalking up 11 premierships in a 26-year career, before hanging up his boots, aged 47, in 1926…………….

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In fact King is the only member of the O & M’s exclusive 24-Member ‘300-Club’ to have played League football……Would a few of the others have made it, had they so desired ?………Maybe, but that’s purely hypothetical…..

Robbie Walker, for instance, simply reckons he wasn’t good enough. He was invited to play with North Melbourne’s Thirds and Reserves, but homesickness got to him……..307 Games later, with four Premierships, 12 Wangaratta Rovers Best & Fairests and 5 Morris Medals behind him, he retired as a Legend of the local game.

It’s said that Essendon made overtures at one stage, and Footscray offered to draft him, with the promise of senior games, but he resisted.

After winning his fifth Medal in 2003, a debilitating back injury cut him down whilst there was still plenty of footy left in the Walker legs.

At various stages in his career, Walker played alongside six other 300-Gamers in the Hawk line-up – including the unflappable Mervyn Holmes.

Holmes, a Carboor farmer, was the epitome of the tough-as-teak country footballer. He also provided ample leadership. When Robbie Walker was making his way in the game, it was ‘Farmer’ who was his coach and inspiration.

Michael Wilson took over Holmes’s prized Number 16 locker and did it proud. For 17 years, and 316 senior games Wilson ran harder, and tackled and harassed more ferociously than anyone. He was acclaimed as the model clubman at the W.J.Findlay Oval, and wore the Black and Gold O & M jumper on 23 occasions.

Wayne Pendergast was one of the opponents who often crossed paths with Merv Holmes. He had the unique distinction of playing in premierships with three clubs – Wodonga (1981), North Albury (1984) and Lavington (1986) in his 312 games.

When his son Matthew started coming through the ranks at Lavington, the good judges salivated. Matt was more skilful than his dad, ultra-competitive, and almost as tough. A regular inter-league rep and five-time Lavi B & F, he made 262 appearances with the Panthers, and a further 38 with Wodonga Raiders.

Kerry Bahr had the distinction of playing with both of the Pendergasts. He was recruited to Lavington from Walla Walla in 1987 and played in a losing Grand Final against Wang Rovers the following year. A skilful left-footer and renowned on-baller, he morphed into a dogged tagger, and played a key role in two Panthers flags in the early-2000’s.

Mark Booth arrived on the scene just as the Rovers embarked on their Golden Era of the ‘70’s. They didn’t come much tougher – or more durable – than the 13-time O & M rep, whose first flag came in 1974…..and his fifth 17 years later.

He would have added another in 1988, only for a moment of madness in the final home-and-home game, which saw him rubbed out for the finals……

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Talking of ‘hard-men’, there were few who played with the spirit and endeavour of Johnny Smith, who hailed from the hill-country, up near Mitta. Smith first stripped with Rutherglen, under the coaching of his brother-in-law, Frank Hodgkin, before moving on to North Albury, Wodonga and Myrtleford.

His sole flag came in 1980, when he played a starring role in a North victory which prevented the Rovers’ bid to win four in a row.

Smith won four B & F’s, represented the O & M 33 times and clinched a Morris Medal in 1973.

He was poised to play in a flag that year, but the Hoppers were upstaged by Benalla, and Smith’s legacy from the game was a six-week suspension.

It cost him another Medal, as he also topped the count in 1974, but was ruled ineligible……It was the major disappointment of his 315-game O & M career………

Johnny Hunt’s game was based around gut-running and speed……He patrolled the wing at the Lavington Oval for nigh-on two decades, played in two flags for the Panthers, won a Did Simpson Medal and a B & F in a premiership year………So he was no slouch…..Year after year, when Hunt’s demise was predicted, he kept producing, playing a league-record 420 games.

John ‘Shorty’ Martiniello became an institution at the Benalla Showgrounds, after making his senior debut in 1977. The tiny rover’s first – and only – opportunity to play in a premiership came the following season, when the highly-fancied Demons were belted by Wang Rovers in the Grand Final.

‘Shorty’ was forever burrowing feverishly around the bottom of the packs and won six Club B & F’s. He finished runner-up once and third twice in the Morris Medal, and represented the O & M on eight occasions during his 316-game stint in the Red and White guernsey.

Sixteen year-old Anthony Pasquali walked into a sports-store owned by two Wang Rovers stars in 1983, and asked how he could go about joining the club. They could scarcely believe their luck. ‘Pas’ was to become a champion, sharing in three flags, and representing the League 12 times.

He finally cracked it for a Club B & F when coaching GV club Benalla ( he also won the Morrison Medal ), then returned to lead the Hawks for three years.

Nic Conway’s was a different story. He grew up as a mad Wodonga fan ( where his dad had been a star ) but played his junior footy with Wodonga Demons. When the Raiders ( who originated from the Demons ) finally gained acceptance to the League in 1989, young Nic went with them.

He rode all of the highs and lows of the fledgling club but his loyalty was vindicated when he helped them to a flag in 1998.

Like Conway, Matthew Allen’s dad also made his name with a rival club. Rex played in Wangaratta’s 1957 premiership, but the young fellah was enticed ‘over the road’ to the Findlay Oval, in 1983.

A strong-marking defender, with an ungainly, but effective left-foot kicking style, Matthew Allen played the last of his 416 O & M games in 2010, amidst universal acknowledgement of his consistency and effectiveness. He even showed his adaptability by booting 83 goals in 1992 in a rare foray up forward.

Interspersed with his time at the Rovers was a three-year spell with Corowa-Rutherglen, and a season in the Bendigo League, with Northern United.

Ross Hill’s boyhood dreams were realised when he lined up alongside his heroes in 1995. Unfortunately for him, the Rovers era of prolonged success was drawing to a close, but he became a stalwart- and long-term skipper during an 18-year career with the Hawks.

Denis Sandral had a hard act to follow, treading in the footsteps of his famous triple-Morris Medal-winning father, Jim.

But he made more than a decent fist of it, and is recognised as one of the competition’s finest-ever defenders.

Denis showed early promise when he played in Wangaratta’s 1977 Grand Final side whilst attending Champagnat College. He then returned home to become the cornerstone of Corowa-Rutherglen sides for almost two decades.

Like his father, he was a five-time B & F winner, and represented the O & M 21 times.

Playing alongside Sandral for a good portion of his career was Paul Bartlett, a talented, pacy all-rounder. Proof of ‘Barty’s’ consistency was his ten consecutive top-three finishes in the Club B & F. He broke through for a win in 1989.

Persistence was also a Bartlett trait. He tried out with five AFL clubs before coming to the conclusion that it just wasn’t to be.

Undoubtedly his career highlight was playing in the Roos’ record-breaking premiership victory over North Albury in 2000.

Brendan Eyers also ticked that box. The giant ruckman toiled manfully in the ruck – sometimes against the odds – after making his senior debut for Corowa-Rutherglen in 1989.

The arrival of Peter Tossol as coach introduced a degree of professionalism which hadn’t been seen at John Foord Oval and, in turn, led to the Roos two memorable flags- 2000 and 2003. Eyers was a crucial component of those line-ups.

Matthew Fowler was recruited to Albury from Hume League club Walbundrie at the age of 16, just in time to slot into one of the Tigers’ finest eras. A bulky forward with a booming right foot, he played his part in a hat-trick of flags in 1995-‘97, and was there when they repeated the effort in 2009-‘11.

With six premierships, 812 goals, captain of the Tigers for a decade, and 354 games to his credit, he earned a ranking as one of the O & M’s finest forwards.

There was always conjecture among the good judges as to where Daniel Leslie was best suited. He could hold down centre half forward or CHB with ease, and had all the attributes – power, pace for a big man, and a prodigious kick……..

He played an important part in North Albury’s 2002 premiership, after having debuted on a wing two years earlier.

Leslie became a key man for the Hoppers’ for a decade and a half, captained the side for eight years, and booted 354 goals in his 300 games.

Xavier Leslie, likewise, is held in the highest esteem by all at Yarrawonga. The classy small man played his first game for the Pigeons, aged 16, in 2002. He featured in Yarra’s 2006, 2012 and 2013 premiership teams.

He also achieved the personal highlight of his glittering career in 2013 when he took out the Morris Medal by four votes.

Smooth-moving Darrell Spencer came across the border in 1987 from his home town of Rutherglen, to try his luck with the Roos.

He never left…..A magnificent kick who rarely missed a target, Spencer was appointed captain in 1998, just as Corowa-Rutherglen were entering a new era. Two years later he held the premiership cup aloft……in 2003 they saluted again.

Spencer finally retired with 333 games to his credit……equaling the club record of champion Denis Sandral.

Last week-end, he and Sandral handed the record over to Kade Kuschert, a hard-working, strong-marking defender, who has been part of the furniture since he arrived at Corowa-Rutherglen from Buraja in 1999.

His team-mates strove valiantly to clinch a win against power team Albury, to honour the contribution of their 38 year-old team-mate.

Much to their dismay, the Roos fell short by two points…….

“REGRETS…….I’VE HAD A FEW……….”

I remember him all those years ago……..He was an emerging football prodigy……After a handful of scintillating performances talent-scouts hurriedly etched his name into their note-books……He was a long, lean, loping lad, destined for stardom…….

Thirty-five years later we re-connect. When I introduce myself he hesitates; wondering if I’m about to deliver bad tidings about something that’s happened in his old home town .

“No, just looking to re-trace your footy career.”…..“Not much to talk about there,” he jokes.

What follows, I think, proves somewhat cathartic, as my subject seems to appreciate exorcising a few old ‘demons’…………….

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Paul Bryce moved seamlessly through junior ranks. A product of the Imperials, he shone under the coaching of Darryl Smith in a season and a half with the Rovers Thirds.

His six goals for Wangaratta High in a Herald-Shield Final against Wagga’s Mount Austin High was noted by the North Melbourne hierarchy who were at VFL Park that evening, preparing for the Roos’ Night Series clash with Footscray.

They duly included him on a list of 50 youngsters to whom they had access in their zone, but deleted him when he bypassed the early part of the 1985 season to play for Vic Country at the National Under 18 Basketball Carnival.

You can imagine their approach: ‘Well, if the young prick wants to put basketball in front of footy there are plenty of other kids who are looking for an opportunity…….”

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But that soon changed when Paul burst onto the O & M scene. His arrival went something like this……..

The Rovers slot the 16 year-older in against Myrtleford in Round 8. Moments after coming onto the ground in the second quarter he soars above the pack in the goal-square to mark and convert.

His six ‘sausages’ on debut are heralded, but a month later he lines up against the O & M’s premier backman Denis Sandral. Slotting four first-quarter goals, he sees off four opponents in snaring 10 for the day.

Three other ‘bags’ of five have the kid’s name on everybody’s lips, but on the eve of the finals he approaches his coach Merv Holmes and asks: “Can you give me a crack at centre half back ?”

The Hawks are facing North Albury in an Elimination Final and are rank outsiders, but Bryce excels, with 18 marks and 25 kicks in his first-ever game as a key defender.

“You would have to go a long way to see a more sensational marking exhibition,” raved the Border Morning Mail, as the youngster leads his side to a 27-point win.

The following week he completely outplays highly-touted ex-Collingwood big-man Mick Horsburgh. The Rovers hold off determined Benalla by five points.

Albury stitch up the Preliminary Final with a comprehensive 63-point win, but Bryce’s effort can’t be faulted. He’s thrown from defence, into attack and onto the ball in a bid to stem the tide, chalking up 20 kicks and 10 marks……….

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Paul cherishes the memories of those 14 senior games with the Hawks, and loved the ‘apprenticeship’ he served:

“I had a fantastic coach…… Holmesy was awesome…..I’d admired him for a long time. His knees were shot, and he really shouldn’t have been playing. But gee he was tough……”

As well as Bryce, the Rovers blooded skilful on-baller Nick Goodear and a pair of promising blonde-haired kids from Junior Magpies – Robert Walker and Matthew Allen – during 1985. Versatile Peter Tossol was another acquisition….The nucleus of a side – about to embark on a Golden Era – was being formed.

But Paul Bryce wouldn’t be sharing it with them. He was headed for Arden Street.

North Melbourne had arranged for him to complete his H.S.C at Trinity Grammar whilst playing Under 19’s. The ‘Joeys’, full of talent – a fair portion of it from their country zone – fell at the final hurdle, on Grand Final day.

Several of them found a spot on the senior list in 1987, where they came under the influence, the imposing figure and booming voice of the legendary John Kennedy.

“He reminded me a bit of Merv Holmes, actually,” Paul recalls. “When he spoke you listened. He was hard, but fair……… I just wish I’d appreciated then how lucky I was to be in his company.”

Progress was steady for the youngster, but his senior opportunity came in Round 13, against Collingwood at Waverley.

“It was pissing down, and I’ve held onto a mark up forward early in the game. I thought, Hell , this is alright…..a goal with my first kick…….I missed, but we ended up belting the Pies………”

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A positive senior debut…..a 54-point win against the old enemy……a dream fulfilled…….the sky’s the limit for an impetuous 18 year-old. Well, sometimes things aren’t as rosy as they look……..

North were light-on for big timber, and for the first couple of years Paul was shunted into different roles around the ground. But injuries – particularly twangy hammies – would regularly interrupt a run of games.

“I loved the on-field aspect of it, and was playing fair footy” he says, “….but I didn’t really feel an accepted part of the group.”

“ I tried on a few different personalities, but felt like I never really fitted in. Eventually I developed a pretty ordinary attitude and acted like a bit of an arrogant ‘dick’, to be honest.”

“It’s easier these days because Clubs have got people to help you deal with these matters…….I didn’t handle the whole League football thing very well……I had no real mates.”

He decided to throw himself headlong into summer training prior to the 1990 season.

“ I did a lot of work by myself and got super- fit…..the best I’d ever been. I even gave up the booze. The result was that I had a really good year.”

With tall, blossoming stars like Wayne Carey and John Longmire settling in up forward, and Ian Fairley down back, the Roos had the luxury of playing the 195cm Bryce as a ruck-rover, partnering ball-magnet Matthew Larkin.

“I’d found my niche, but the trouble was, after having a good year, I started to cruise a bit…….And I didn’t fancy ‘Schimma’ (Wayne Schimmelbusch) who’d succeeded ‘Kanga’ Kennedy as coach. At the end of the day, he was a Club legend; I was just a young upstart…..So I decided to leave. We just didn’t get on.”

Paul went to North and advised them he ‘wanted out’.

“I approached a few clubs personally and liked the look of Melbourne, who seemed to be on the way up. They worked out a deal with North and I became a Demon,”

“John Northey was coach…..a great motivator, whom I related to.But I’d been a bit lazy over the summer. I was overweight and it cost me…..Another stupid decision on my part…….”

Thus, it was mid-way through the season before he’d established himself in the side. But once settled he played his part in the Demons’ surge towards the finals, which eventually saw them overpowered in the Semi, by West Coast at Waverley.

The last of Paul’s 26 games with Melbourne came when he dislocated a shoulder the following season. He now knew he was skating on thin ice.

“I carried a shitty attitude into 1993 Pre-Season, and ended up getting the sack…….. Next thing is I find myself drafted to Sydney.”

The Swans were in turmoil. A few games into the season coach Gary Buckenara was sacked and Ron Barassi installed as his replacement . Even the great Barassi was unable to turn their fortunes around.

“I liked ‘Barass’,” Paul says. “I think I frustrated him, but we got along pretty well. It’s just that I hated Sydney.”

Their only win for the season came against Melbourne. And with 18 kicks, 7 marks and 7 handballs Paul played his best game against his old side.

He says he can remember packing up the van carrying all of his possessions, going to the Swans’ Best & Fairest count, leaving about 10.30pm, and driving straight back to Melbourne.

“I sent a letter telling ‘em I was finished. I had a pretty good year, but wasn’t particularly popular, and had an ordinary attitude……. At 25 I was ‘done’……I’d had enough of League football………..”

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In fact his AFL career, which comprised 91 games ( 48 with North Melbourne, 26 with Melbourne, and 17 with Sydney) was shut to the back of his mind.

It was only when an old North Melbourne team-mate, Kenny Rainsford, began pestering him that he began to have second thoughts about playing again.

Rainsford had taken on the coaching job at Moe.

“ ‘Come down. Play one game and see whether you like it ’, he said. “I’d completely lost my love for footy, but I had a run and really enjoyed it. I had two fun years. We played finals and I was lucky enough to play in the Latrobe Valley League’s Country Championship win at Swan Hill.”

“Kenny then went down to Tassie. I didn’t have a great job in Melbourne, so I followed him down, and played with Launceston in the Statewide League, for two years.”

When the Statewide League was disbanded, Launceston reverted to the NTFL and appointed Paul as playing-coach.

“I enjoyed it, and learned a lot of lessons. But I found it difficult dealing with different personalities when I was still a kid myself,” he says.

After relinquishing the coaching job he played another season, then, at the tender age of 30, Paul Bryce called time on his football career.

With work now occupying more of his time, he took up fly-fishing. It became his hobby, developing into an obsession, sometimes taking him out 3-4 times a week.

Fishing the streams of Tasmania, with the birds chirping and the sun shining, was, I suppose, eons away from the manic pressure and screaming crowds of AFL footy.

Paul accepted a work transfer back to Melbourne in 2001, but that failed to rekindle his love of the game.

He’s involved in the golf industry, and handles all the Victorian on-line sales of the Golf Clearance Outlet which, he says, has developed into a thriving business.

Paul and his wife Rebecca ( who is a lecturer in Exercise Physiology ) and kids Lucy (11) and Mitch (9) are firmly entrenched in Melbourne, but he sometimes harks back to the days when his football journey began.

“I often think I’d like to stand in front of kids,” he says,”…and tell ‘em what it’s like to have ability and not fulfil that……..and then live with some regret……It’s hard…it’s bloody hard…..Bloody hell, what a waste…….”

A FAMILY TRADITION.

Brown and Gold blood courses  through the veins of Rick Marklew.

Any wonder. His family links with the Wangaratta Rovers can be traced back almost 60 years.

His grandfather was the secretary in a premiership year, and his dad played in a flag in his first senior season, at the tender age of 16. In 162 games with the Hawks there were few tougher, or more uncompromising players than Roley, who, by the way, also managed to forge a sizeable reputation at Tarrawingee.

Roley officiated in more than 500 games as a central umpire, upon hanging up his boots and remained oblivious to carping comments from fans. Perhaps it was because they had seem him previously eliciting unsociable deeds as a player.

And for the last couple of decades, on his return to the Club,  he has been the epitome of devotion.

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So it was a no-brainer that when young Rick began to show a bit of promise in the primary-schools competition,  his destiny had already been charted.

In 1985 the Rovers thirds won an unlikely premiership when they tossed previously undefeated Wodonga in the second semi and Grand Final. Rick was at centre half forward. He pulled down 12 marks and booted five goals to be best -on-ground in the decider. Two of his team-mates that day, Michael Wilson and Howard Yelland, were to share senior triumphs with him in time to come.

To underline his sporting talent, he also played in the first of successive  A-Grade flags with the Rovers Cricket Club, performing strongly as an all-rounder.

The following year, aged 17, Rick found himself lining up alongside such respected  champions  as coach Merv Holmes, Laurie Burt, Mark Booth and Leigh Hartwig. Within two seasons, he was part of an Ovens and Murray premiership team.

Although the Hawks had dominated the first half of the 1988 Grand Final, the scores were level at half-time. The youngsters were giving away considerable age, weight and a height advantage to the experienced Lavington. The expectation was that they would wilt under pressure as the game wore on. To the contrary, they lifted and ran away. Rick more than played his part, kicking four goals in the second half.

“One of them was sheer poetry”, recalled Chas Wilson…….”It gave the Rovers a breather after Lavington got to within 3 points half-way through the final term. Rick read an acrobatic leap and knock-on from Rob Hickmott, roved it perfectly at top-speed and nailed the goal on the run. Soon after, a frustrated Blue flung him to the ground after he had marked and the 50-metre penalty allowed the brilliant youngster to kick the goal that sealed the game….”

Rick’s studies then took him to Bendigo, where he signed with Northern United and played alongside a fellow Hawk, Matthew Allen. The pair figured in Bendigo League’s Country Championship triumph of 1989. It gave him particular comfort to star in Bendigo’s  convincing semi-final defeat of the Ovens and Murray League at Lavington.

He took another ‘sabbatical’ from the Hawks  in 1991, when he was living and working in Melbourne and decided to throw in his lot with Diamond Valley League club, Heidelberg. He doesn’t retain fond memories of that stint, particularly as he missed the Rovers’ flag triumph over Yarrawonga.

He re-joined the Hawks the following season and was a prominent member of their great 1993 and 1994 premiership teams, which chalked up 36 consecutive victories in a period of dominance.

Adaptability was the name of the game with Rick. He was able to be thrown into any position on the ground with effect, was a superb overhead mark and an accurate kick.

His total of 351 goals has him slotted fourth on the Rovers’ all-time list, behind Steve Norman, Rob Walker and Neale McMonigle. This includes a bag of 8, one of 7 and five hauls of 6 goals. A natural forward, he could ‘smell’ a goal, but on many an occasion was sent to shore up a backline under intense pressure.

He was one of those old-fashioned blokes who played for the comradeship and the opportunity to share the glory. He was rapt to spend the bulk of his career  alongside many long-time mates. In fact, when he ran out for his 200th, there were five other ‘double-centurions’ – Rob Walker, Peter Tossol, Anthony Pasquali, Michael Wilson and Ron Ferguson alongside him.

Rick’s 229th – and last- senior game came in 2000. He was battling injury and managed just 8 senior games for the season.

So he headed to the O & K Hawks, North Wangaratta, where a cluster of old Rovers were gathered. He spent three seasons at North and figured in one losing Grand Final, before returning ‘home’ for the closing chapter of his playing career.

It is a crucial ingredient of any successful team to have a vibrant, competitive Reserves group, applying pressure to the senior players, but also contributing to the spirit of the Club.

Rick, ageing though he was, played a vital part as the elder statesman of the group, sidekick to coach Bob Murray and an outstanding clubman. And he was still a very handy player. The ‘twos’ contested Grand Finals in 2005 and ’06, then broke through in 2007 for the club’s first Reserves premiership in 23 years.

It was another career highlight for the old-timer. He was highly-regarded by his team-mates and considered this an excellent way to bow out.

He was happy to ‘fill-in’ on a couple of occasions over the years, and a cameo appearance in 2014 was his last – 29 years after his debut with the Thirds.

His final Games tally for the Club stood at 347 – ( 229 with the Seniors, 101 in the Reserves and 17 Thirds appearances).

Rick continues to pull his weight in various capacities around the Club. Currently he is undertaking his third term as ‘Interim Secretary’.

He’d be rapt if someone volunteered to take over on a permanent basis, but until then he’s busy ticking off the 101 tasks that are part and parcel of a new footy season.

Rick’s son Alex is currently chasing his football dreams, as he attempts to nail down a permanent spot in Essendon’s VFL line-up. He spent most of 2016 with EDFL team Doutta Stars, but broke into the Bombers’ side towards the end of the season.

Possessive of loads of talent and with the good fortune of being adaptable, like his old man, Alex burst onto the O & M scene four years ago. He was touted as a star of the future in his 46 senior games with the Rovers and was voted the  O & M’s Rising Star in 2013.

In an ideal world, Alex will satisfy his football wanderlust, then return home to continue what was already shaping as a glittering career with the Hawks.

And further enhance the Marklew tradition at the Findlay Oval……….

 

 

 

 

 

FARMING, FOOTBALL & FOREHANDS – THE MATTHEW ALLEN STORY.

In early-December 1983, Rovers legend Darryl Smith was mid-way through topping up his Thirds team for the year ahead.

As he scanned his recruiting list he ticked off the ‘definites’ and put a question-mark beside those he regarded as ‘doubtful’ or ‘possible’. Two blonde-haired kids from Junior Magpies were filed into the latter category.

He knew he needed to put a bit of work into them and, from all reports it would be worth the effort. Some headway was being made with the first – a boy called Walker – and he arranged an appointment with the other lad – the son of a Wangaratta premiership player, Rex Allen.

As they headed home from a visit to Byawatha, his companion asked how he thought they’d fared: “…….They’re terrific people……….It’d be great to get him, but, when it comes to the crunch I reckon he’ll play for Wang……” was Smith’s reply.

History reveals that the resultant signatures he obtained, of the two kids born 8 days apart, were to prove a freak recruiting ‘coup’………..

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Thirty-three years later, Matthew Allen’s heart still beats strongly for the Wangaratta Rovers. He now coaches at Junior League club, Imperials, where his two boys – Sam and Joe – are taking great strides towards their ultimate aim – wearing the Brown and Gold guernsey.

Little wonder. They, and their sister Georgia, who plays netball for the Rovers Under-16’s, have been part of the scene at the Findlay Oval since they were born.

Matthew played the last of his 416 Ovens and Murray senior games in 2010, amidst universal acclaim for his longevity and consistency. He ranks highly among the League’s all-time great defenders – a view echoed by Tim Sanson and Matthew Fowler, two of his keenest combatants of the modern era.

Yet Darryl Smith recalls Matt’s dislike of being stereotyped as a backman in his earlier years. Like all kids, he had a fondness for kicking goals and relished the rare occasions he was pushed up forward.

But it was as a defender that he first broke into the Rovers senior side in 1985. Once he was in, he was there to stay. He enjoyed being part of the steady climb that the young group was making towards their eventual triumph – the 1988 premiership.

Matt was just 20 ( but with 76 games under his belt) when he lined up on Lavington coach Jeff Cassidy in the big one.

The former Geelong star took the points in the first half, but the youngster got the upper hand and won the duel conclusively, as the Hawks ran away to win by 26 points.

His Political Science studies took him to Bendigo for two years, where he represented the Bendigo League in a 34-game stay with Northern United.

On his return from an overseas trip in 1991, Matt made a couple of decisions. He would join his father on the family farm and would push for a game in attack with the Rovers.

The club was a little light-on for key forwards after Neale McMonigle had retired, and Matt was given his opportunity in front of goals. He kicked 83 in a prolific season, which included tallies of 13, 9, 8 and a couple of sevens.

But the good judges were unanimous. Although he was a very good forward, he had few peers as a backman. And that’s where he predominantly stayed for the next 17 years.

He was part of the 1993 and ’94 premiership teams, although his form wavered a little during 1994, as he struggled to throw off a knee injury.

However, it surprised many footy fans when he moved to Corowa-Rutherglen the following year. Matt’s three seasons with the ‘Roos produced two best and fairest awards and NSW representation.

When he returned to the Hawks in 1998 he brought with him a refreshed approach.

Not that he was at the front of the pack in pre-season training. His team-mates envied his training regime. Starting later than everyone, he never seemed to get out of first gear in running drills.

But once the competitive work started he was in his element. The weights-room was a definite no-go area for him and the boys joked that his stretching exercises involved nothing more than standing around with a bottle of water.

They put his fitness – and avoidance of soft-tissue injuries – down to wrestling frisky Merino sheep, or tramping around the rolling paddocks. The fact that he was one of the area’s finest tennis players was also handy for his conditioning.

The memories of vintage Allen performances flash back………His decade-long duels with the O & M’s best forward, Tim Sanson, come to mind. Asked for his opinion of his toughest opponent on the eve of his final game, Sanson plonked for Matt. “I’m glad I won’t have to put up with the bugger pestering me any longer,” he said. The pair exchanged guernseys after their final meeting.

Continue reading “FARMING, FOOTBALL & FOREHANDS – THE MATTHEW ALLEN STORY.”

‘ROBBIE WALKER………WHAT A CORKER ! “

I wasn’t the only one who felt disposed to offer up a silent prayer in that summer of 2004.

Other club stalwarts, who had gathered to cast their eyes over pre-season training, also considered reaching for the rosary beads, as they struggled to digest the latest news.

One even recounted the dream he’d had…..

……..He was staring wistfully towards the gates of the W.J.Findlay Oval……..Suddenly, out of the gathering dusk came an apparition…….It was the club’s legend, bag slung over his shoulder, belatedly, and against all expectations,  saddling up for another season…………

Alas, he woke up with a jolt and confronted reality……………The career of Rob Walker, the Ovens and Murray League’s most decorated – and one of its greatest-ever footballers, was over…….

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The 15 year-old was belting tennis balls around Our Lady’s courts when I crossed his path for the first time. Daryl Smith, the Rovers Thirds coach, had been on his hammer for a while and was keen to maintain contact.

“Just pop in to say hello and let him know we’re dead-set keen on him. He’s a shy kid ; you won’t get much out of him,” was Smithy’s advice.

He was polite enough, but you sensed that, deep down, he wished that everybody would just leave him alone.

Daryl’s persistence was eventually rewarded when he talked Rob into filling in on one of the days that the Thirds were short.

“And that was that….. But I still reckon he stayed in the Junior League for too long,” he recalls……….

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Daryl played through an era which produced several out-and-out Rovers champions, so he was not one to wax lyrical about promising newcomers. However, he knew that this kid with the obvious talent and superb physique, was one out of the box.

Surely, the planets must have aligned for the Rovers in 1984, because two other lads who debuted with Robbie in the Thirds were his Junior Magpies team-mate Matthew Allen (destined to play 416 O & M games) and Tigers tall-man Paul Bryce ( whose career included 92 AFL games).

The renowned Walker thirst for the contest was on show early. In no time he rose through the ranks and made his senior debut early the following season. He played 11 senior games that year, but in his limited appearances in the two’s, stood out enough to win their B & F.

And so the evolvement of a champ had begun. North Melbourne enticed him down for a season with their Thirds ( and a premiership under Denis Pagan) in 1987, but he was back with the Hawks to play an integral part in one of their most famous flags, with ‘Burt’s Babes’ in 1988.

He took on all-comers at centre half forward and simply ran key defenders off their legs. After finishing third in the Morris Medal and taking out the Did Simpson gong in the Grand Final, it was only natural that North would be keen to lure him back to Arden Street.

He obliged, but the truth was that he couldn’t wait to get home after he had spent a season, marred by injury, with the ‘Roos Reserves.

Homesickness was always a bugbear for Robbie. He went away with the O & M Schoolboys one year and officials recalled that, after two days he’d had enough. They branded him ‘a bit of a sook’.

His response has always been : ” Not good enough”, when people inevitably ask why he didn’t have a decent crack at League footy. But my theory was that his attitude wasn’t exactly right – that he just couldn’t handle life in Melbourne.

Essendon made overtures to him and Footscray offered to draft him with the promise of senior games, but he resisted. Instead, over the next 14 seasons he was to re-write the O & M record books.

He adopted a manic summer ritual, which ensured that he was cherry-ripe when the season proper began. And he and his mates took intensity at training to a new level, as they swept the rest of the group along with them.

They say that if you can find a good centre half forward, you can build a side around him. And that’s what the Hawks did in Robbie’s case.

He was rarely, if ever, outmuscled and used his strength to hold out opponents and mark. His acceleration on the lead left opponents in his wake. He kicked lots of goals – and he never stopped running.

He won his first Morris Medal in 1991, polling a staggering 31 votes – 13 clear of the second place-getter. It was the year that the Hawks recovered from a second semi-final defeat by Yarrawonga, to demolish the Pigeons by 12 goals in the Grand Final.

Two years later, as they embarked on their run of 36 consecutive wins, Robbie was voted best afield in another premiership triumph. This time it was Wodonga who were on the end of a whipping.

A short time later, Bulldog officials flew to Perth to woo East Fremantle star Damien Condon, a son of former Rovers ruckman Brian.

At the interview they succinctly spelt out their mission. “There’s one bloke, we believe, who stands between us and the premiership and you may be able to stop him.”

“Oh yeah, who’s that ?,” said Damien.

“Robbie Walker…….he plays for…….”

“I know, I know. He plays for Wang Rovers – and he’s a gun.”

They had done their teaching training together before Damien headed to the west. Condon did, in fact, eventually line up with the Dogs , but not before the Rovers had grabbed another flag at their expense.

In the mid-nineties Robbie was released from the key position and spent the remainder of his career as a gut-busting on-baller. He was so good that he made stars out of average footballers.

He would become embarressed when people referred to his individual success. Instead,  the prospect of sharing the spoils of victory with his team-mates was the thing that motivated him, he said  .

Peter Tossol once described what it was like to line up alongside the incomparable number 12: “No matter who you played, you always felt you were a chance when he ran out beside you.”

“There were times in games when you were being challenged. You’d just look at his eyes as you ran back to the centre and you knew he was about to do something. He didn’t need to say a word.”

” When I coached against him, he was a nightmare. You virtually conceded that you couldn’t contain him.”

All of his contemporaries can pluck out their favourite Walker moments, but really, his 307 games and 475 goals provided a continuous highlights reel.

In what was to prove his final season – 2003 – Robbie chalked up his fifth Morris Medal. He had tallied 251 votes (at an average of 14.76 per season) over the journey.

To go with this were 12 Bob Rose Medals in 13 years, 16 O & M , 9 Victorian Country and 3 All-Australian jumpers, 4 Premierships and numerous other awards.

It was a degenerative neck and back condition that confirmed his worst fears – he had to reluctantly give football away.

So the great Robbie Walker faded into retirement with a minimum of fuss, much to the dismay of all at the Rovers and the disappointment of the general football public.

He is now feted as a Rovers Hall of Fame member and an Official Ovens and Murray Legend.

But his greatest achievement was that he remained the humblest of champions.