‘THE BIG FELLAH’

Of all the characters you meet in sport, none could have been as genial, unaffected, charismatic or laid-back as Michael Nolan. He succumbed to cancer seven years ago, but left a huge legacy on and off the field of football.

I hope you don’t mind me re-counting this yarn that I penned on ‘Big Mick’, not long after his retirement from the game……..

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

It is the classic sporting success story.

The overweight kid, spurned by schoolboy and junior football teams, goes on to captivate the nation by controlling the ruck duels in a VFL Grand Final…….

One thing that Michael Nolan never lost throughout his football career was his total abhorrence of running, just for the sake of it.

As a boy, he held the basic philosophy that laps and sprint work were a complete waste of energy. Thus, his Junior League club, South Wanderers, relegated him to boundary umpiring duties. Even in this role he was lampooned for being too slow and lazy.

Mick recalled years later : “I did get picked as 19th man when we were short in one match, but they made sure they didn’t have to take anybody off to give me a run”.

The nine Nolan kids were reared in a blissful environment at Tarrawingee, where parents Pete and Mary ran the Plough Inn Hotel and the kids took it in turn to milk the cows that grazed on the adjoining acres.

Now, ‘time’ and ‘worry’ are two words that are not part of the Nolan vocabulary.

One thing they did care about, though, was the local footy team. Old Pete had been tied up with the club since he was a lad and was a prominent O & K official. The boys always attended training and, as they matured, joined in with the senior players.

Enter Ray Burns, the Bulldog coach, who recognised that, in Mick’s flabby body and awkward gait was a ruckman of substance waiting to emerge.

Burns nurtured Mick for a couple of seasons, making provision for his haphazard efforts at training and suggesting that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if he ‘gave the fags away’.

While the latter suggestion fell on deaf ears, he found a young man who gloried in the competitiveness of the game and was a ‘natural’ ruckman.

Mick was Tarra’s best and fairest in 1967 and was targeted by the two Wangaratta teams. He chose the Rovers, much to the relief of Hawk secretary Ernie Payne, who had almost worn himself out socialising at the ‘Plough’ in pursuit of the big fellah’s signature.

“What a player and clubman he turned out to be for us”, Payne once said. ” But I used to tear my hair out on match days, wondering where the heck he’d got to. Just when you were starting to despair, he’d wander in the gate, wondering what the fuss was about .”

He played 101 games with the Rovers and was best and fairest in 1971 and ’72 – both premiership years for the Hawks.

In an era of fine O &M ruckmen he was rarely beaten.

Neville Hogan coached Mick in three of his five years at the club and could only remember him meeting his match once, against Corowa’s Ray Willett.

“Willett ran in front of him all day and Mick steadfastly refused to change his angle,” Hogan recalled.   “I suggested he try it, but Mick just pointed goalwards and said : ‘No, that’s the way we’re kicking, that’s the way I run in.”

Hogan emphasised that, although Mick was the unfittest player at the club, he would chase until the last minute of the game.

“Although he didn’t outwardly show it, he had great determination and was really competitive. Strangely, he wasn’t highly rated by other O &M clubs.”

Rovers players noted that, in the big games he would ruck all day. When a match was ‘in the bag’ he would spend long periods in the forward pocket.

They noted his training routine. He would arrive long after everyone, open his battered bag and take out his ankle bandages. He would then proceed to roll them up carefully, fasten his ankles and put his gear on. It was an elaborate process, which seemed to take half an hour. He would manage part of a lap before blending into the anonymity of the ’round the circle’ exercise , which was already in full swing.

Mick played a rattling game in the 1972 Grand Final, when he took on – and outpointed – the highly-rated Yarrawonga big men.

An interested onlooker at that game was Bill Stephen, assistant-coach of North Melbourne, and an old Pigeon mentor.

Stephen reported that , even allowing for his physique, Nolan was a definite League prospect.

Mick had already sampled VFL pre-season training at Geelong a few years earlier, but decided that, this time he would give it a fair dinkum shot.

North’s coaching staff were shocked when they spied his torso early in 1973 and the detractors scoffed that he’d be too slow, too cumbersome. But they didn’t bargain on his determination and under-estimated his skills.

He had a part to play in the game at the highest level, in spite of his weight – 116.5kg – which made him the second heaviest player in League history.

His endearing personality , his physique, and the fact that he was pretty well an instant success, made him a folk hero and he was ‘immortalised’ by Lou Richards, who dubbed him ‘The Galloping Gasometer’.

Lou wrote: ‘………North Melbourne recruited a ruckman in its quest for success in the 70’s, a bloke with a more than ample girth and a thirst that was without equal. His name was Mick Nolan and a nicer bloke you’d never meet. Mick was a terrific tap ruckman and, according to Barry Cable, one of the best, but he looked terrible. He’d look good dressed in a Doona cover. He was large and rotund and, even at full stretch, would be out-sprinted by a geriatric tortoise…….’

The subsequent publicity, and his nickname, brought a job offer from the Gas & Fuel Corporation, a liaison which lasted for Mick’s entire stay in Melbourne.

As the ‘Roos gathered momentum in their surge to the top in 1975, their small brigade feasted on Mick’s FullSizeRenderdominance. He was an excellent player in their first-ever premiership victory.

In the earnest environment of league footy, he was a breath of fresh air. Only Mick could have got away with frequent absences from training around March each year. His repeated excuse of family bereavements began to raise a few eyebrows, particularly when it became obvious that it coincided with duck-opening.

He once accepted coach Ron Barassi’s condolences when someone piped up : “That’s six grandmothers he’s lost and they’ve all died at this time of the year.”

A group of his former team-mates dropped into Mick’s home to collect some 1974 Grand Final tickets he had teed up. Half a dozen empty beer bottles stood on the servery ( ” Had a few drinks with the neighbour last night “) as he hoed into a breakfast of six sausages and three eggs.

Later on, he informed a 3AW interviewer that he was ‘pretty toey’ about the big game and hadn’t been able to sleep or eat in the lead-up to the big game.

Mick missed North Melbourne’s other flag triumph in 1977 when he dislocated a shoulder in the preliminary final. It was his biggest disappointment in football.

North’s recruitment of Gary Dempsey relegated him to regular periods in the Reserves in the late 70’s.

Ever-popular at Arden Street, the Roos we’re sorry to see him go in 1981, when he accepted an offer to be captain-coach of QAFL club Mayne. He had played 107 games and kicked 40 goals.

Mick transformed Mayne from cellar-dwellers to premiers within two years. Queensland officials, looking for someone to boost the code, found him ever-ready to help.

He was still playing well when he decided to call it quits after 101 games up north, at the age of 36, but returned as non-playing coach a few years later, in Mayne’s hour of need.

At different times he had been coach of Queensland’s state side, a ruck coach for the Brisbane Bears and a Channel 7 boundary-rider.

FullSizeRenderIt’s rare for a bloke to play 100-plus games with three clubs, but when you couple it with Hall of Fame membership with  Wangaratta Rovers and a host of  other personal achievements, that’s some contribution to the game.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

When Federal M.P. Damien Hale rose in the House of Representatives to pay homage to a great Australian soon after his death, he spoke for many thousands of Australians who had been touched by the passing of the man simply known as ‘Big Mick’.

 

 

 

 

LITTLE MAN – BIG PERSONALITY

What happens when the roar of the crowd has faded away ?…………When the adrenalin-rush that led to you performing deeds of brilliance in the greatest competition in the land;  in a game that had consumed you since you were a little tacker, is there no more……….

Some are unable to cope with the demands that confront them in football’s after-life. Others, like former Magpie Danny Craven, adapted well to this new frontier. This is the story of the perky, tiny, confident, likeable Craven…………

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

The fact that he is height-challenged was never a problem to Danny Craven. He had a self- assuredness and a lively personality that made him a magnet to team-mates. And the fact that he had a great love for footy and knew how to pick up a kick, didn’t hurt, either.

He spent most of his winter week-ends during his formative years chasing the Sherrin with Chiltern in under-age competitions. He would play in the U.13 Wodonga JFL on Saturdays and was just 12 when he first lined up in the Swans’ U.17 team each Sunday.

He attended Galen College and joined Wangaratta in 1984, playing five years and about 60 senior games with the Pies. “I’ve got great affection for Wang and I’ve always regarded it as my home club…….and I’ve been connected with a few over the years”, he says.

1988 was his break-out season. A seven-goal, best-on-ground performance for the Ovens and Murray against the Essendon District League was the highlight. But his consistent form also saw him finish fifth in the Morris Medal, and threw him into draft calculations.

He was duly picked up by St.Kilda, and at 162cm,  became the 11th-smallest player of all-time to line up in League footy when he made his debut early in 1989. It was just before his 22nd birthday. Before he had much of a chance to make an impression, he suffered a badly broken leg when a player fell on him.

It was his fourth senior game and there was to be a lengthy recovery. He missed the rest of that season and all of the next and when he was selected in the opening round of 1991 his opposite number in the Richmond side was his old Wangaratta roving partner, Chris Naish.

Danny’s come-back game was a huge success. He picked up 32 possessions and was able to land the ball on the ample chest of a leading ‘Plugger’ Lockett on a few occasions. Naish was equally impressive, with four goals and 19 ‘grabs’, further enhancing his reputation as a dynamic small forward.

Danny averaged 20 disposals in 1991, his finest AFL season, and became somewhat of a cult hero, whilst rubbing shoulders with champions like Harvey, Bourke, Winmar, Leowe and, of course, Lockett.

I queried him about a tale that has grown legs over the years. It goes something like this:

…..He and ‘Plugger’ are sharing the bench and Danny, hyperactive bloke that he is, gets up and jogs along the boundary-line…. up and back a couple of times. Just as he passes the Saints fans, a huge roar erupts, he raises his arms in acknowledgement, only to realise that,  at that very moment ‘Plugger’ is peeling off his track-suit and preparing to come onto the ground !……..

“Can’t remember”, he laughs.

‘Plugger’ and he became good mates. Danny inherited the number 14 guernsey that the big fellow vacated when he changed to the familiar number 4.

And Craven occasionally reminisces about the bullet-like pass that he delivered to ‘Plugger’, which brought up his 100th goal towards the end of 1991.

Two seasons later, after 33 games with St.Kilda, Danny moved to the Brisbane Bears, where he was to chalk up another 25 senior appearances,  before his AFL career ended in 1995.

He and his wife Kim (a Wangaratta girl) were well-settled in the Sunshine State by now,  and decided to take the plunge into business, investing in a Captain Snooze franchise.

21 years later it is still flourishing.

But Danny has also continued to maintain his football passion in a few diverse areas. To those who were familiar with him, it would be no surprise that he took to coaching like a duck to water.

His first appointment was as coach of  wooden-spooners West Brisbane, which he took to a flag in his first season in charge – 1996.

In the restructure of Queensland football that was in vogue at the time, Wests folded a season later and in 1998 he became the playing captain of the Brisbane Lions Reserves, and assistant-coach to Roger Merrett.

When Leigh Matthews was appointed coach of the Lions later that year he brought in his own coaching panel.  Danny did the running for ‘Lethal’ for a season, before heading to North Brisbane as assistant-coach. Then, in 2002, his second year as coach of Mt.Gravatt, he steered the club to its maiden AFLQ title.

He was at the helm of the Queensland State side for four years and was also involved with the State U18 team.

He has also found time to be a special-comments man for the National Indigenous Radio Service, covering the Lions’ home games over the last 15 years or so.

Last season, with his son Jasper coming up through the Reserves, he took on a role as Football Manager of Mayne, one of Brisbane’s oldest and traditionally successful clubs.

They had fallen on hard times and hadn’t won a flag since  they were triumphant in 1982, under the guidance of a famous ex-Wangaratta boy, Mick Nolan.

The Tigers won the seniors and reserves premierships and, according to Danny, are looking good for back-to-back flags in the coming Northern AFLQ season, with former Albury star, Sean Daly in charge.

Danny and Kim are taking a keen interest in the sporting progress of their two boys . Xavier and Jasper have both represented the nation in under-age handball . 17 year-old Jasper, who played in Mayne’s Reserves premiership side last year, is showing plenty of promise.

Danny’s most recent visit to Wangaratta was in December,  for the birthday of an old Magpie team-mate. As happens on these occasions, tales tall and true are told and reference is sure to have been made to the famous Craven competitiveness.

They say that he hates being beaten,  a trait which was obvious in his footy career. It  can carry through  even to a game of golf, which starts in a leisurely fashion and ends in a full-scale contest.

Just as Mick Nolan, the ‘Galloping Gasometer’,  proved  a god-send to Queensland football when he headed up there in 1981, Danny Craven has also been a wonderful ambassador for the code.

 

Danny Craven and Chris Naish (next week's 'On Reflection ' subject) at a Magpuie re-union.
Danny Craven and Chris Naish (next week’s ‘On Reflection ‘ subject) at a Magpuie re-union.

IMG_0652