“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…….”

‘BACK IN ’77………’

“Would you be interested in being secretary of the Rovers? ” he asked.

It was early 1977. At 29 the aches and pains from a dicey back had confirmed that my uninspiring footy career was stuffed.

Having dreamed of amassing an obscene number of games, starring until early middle-age, then riding off into the sunset, the curtain-call came too quickly.

“What an honour to be asked” I said to Moira, who was too busy tending to the two babies to effect much interest. She would soon be pregnant with a third nipper (an ‘Irish twin’, she called him, who would arrive later in the year) and rolled with the punches when I told her I might go back to help the Hawks……………….

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I asked him what the job entailed.

“Ah, nothing much. Mainly taking down the minutes of the meetings and scribbling out a few letters.”

Who does the recruiting ?

“You’d do a bit of it. You just have to sell the club. You’ll do it on your ear,” was the response.

As a glass half-empty sort of bloke, I soon felt I’d let the club down.  My first two recruiting targets – North Wangaratta full back Alan Bodger and ex-North Melbourne and Wodonga ruckman Neil Brown ignored my somewhat naive approaches and decided to sign with Wangaratta.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. I’d better explain the lead-up to the summer of ’77……….

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There was a suggestion from outside the Hawk camp that they could be on the wane.

Following the glory years of the early ’70’s they’d uncharacteristically struggled for form and fitness during a hazardous 1976. At one stage, in mid-season, they dropped seven games out of 10 to tumble down the ladder, but recovered sufficiently to squeeze into the finals by half a game.

Coach Neville Hogan had battled a nagging hamstring which cost him 10 games; key position player Daryl Smith was sidelined after a serious knee operation. The spark that ignited their legendary team-game was flickering weakly.

But, after surviving a drawn Elimination Final against Wodonga, they turned it on in the next three cut-throat games, to secure a Grand Final berth against Wangaratta.

The ‘Pies, on one of their most memorable days, ran away from the Rovers in the last quarter, to clinch the flag by 37 points.

It seemed to confirm the popular assumption –  that the old champs had courageously psyched themselves for one last crack at the title, only to be outdone by the bold new challengers…………….

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Hot on the heels of Neville Hogan stepping down from the coaching position after seven years, club icon Jack Maroney relinquished the Presidency.  ‘Old Wally’ had been a constant in times of trial and tribulation. He handed over the baton to a man less than half his age – Brian Sammon.

Neville became Thirds coach and intended to play on.  Surprisingly, despite all of the big-name outsiders who were touted on footy’s grapevine, including the favourite, classy Preston small-man Peter Weightman,  Daryl Smith was handed the plum job.

Considering that Smithy was still experiencing some difficulty with his knee rehab it was a bold appointment.

“I must say I was a trifle apprehensive how the knee was going to stand up,” Daryl recalled the other day. “The coaching side of things was okay – the players were really switched-on and gave me plenty of support.”

What struck me about the playing group, on returning ‘home’ to the City Oval, was their self-belief. And, having been involved in a winning culture for some time, they didn’t need much geeing up . Their mission was to make amends for ‘dropping the ball’ in that Grand Final – only the third loss to the ‘Pies in their last 19 meetings.

Another plus was the depth of the list. The Hawks were the reigning Reserves premiers and departures had been minimal. The only major loss was defender Greg O’Brien (the joint Morris Medallist) who decided to pursue his career at Myrtleford.

The recruitment of Gary ‘Sticks’ Allen, the talented Milawa ruckman, compensated for ‘Ab’s’ departure.

If there was any doubt about the Rovers ability to remain around the top they snuffed that out by winning the Pre-Season title, then belting Corowa by 34 points in the opening game.

Albury brought them down to earth the following week in an absorbing clash at the Sportsground, but the news that the great Neville Hogan had finally yielded to Father Time just two games into the season, provided a double whammy.

He had notched up 246 quality games at the Club and exerted a huge influence on many of the current players.

But the Hawks had convinced most critics, by mid-season, that they were the team to beat. With stars on every line, they dropped just three and a half games to finish clearly on top.

They avenged a one-point loss in the final round to Wodonga, to eclipse them by 33 points in the Second Semi-Final.

There to meet them in the Grand Final was a rampaging Wangaratta. The Pies had come from ninth spot mid-season to win their way into the ‘Big One’ and were confident of again turning the tables on the old enemy.

Daryl Smith approached the encounter with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. He had experienced a season from hell after recovering from his knee op. In succession he copped a broken nose, a torn hamstring, broken ribs and a severe ankle sprain which in total limited him to just 5 games.

He named himself on the bench for the Grand Final, and the line-up looked like this:

Backs: Greg Rosser,  Denis Hill,  Robert Lowe.

Half Backs: Chris Porter,  Merv Holmes,  Gary Bell.

Centres:  Barry Cook,  Paul O’Brien,  Peter Booth.

Half-Forwards:  Leigh Hartwig,  John Iwanuch,  Mark Booth.

Forwards:  Trevor Bell,  Steve Norman,  Eddie Flynn.

Rucks:  Gary Allen,  Andrew Scott,  Phil Stevenson.

19,20:  Greg Elliott,  Daryl Smith.

The game started in explosive fashion when ‘The Enforcer’,  Merv Holmes, flattened Magpie rover Craig Godde, prompting a spill-over of tensions and an all-in ‘barney’.

It resembled a tank battle and the upshot was that ‘Pie big man Neil Brown went into the umpire’s book.  But, just as significantly, Holmes had made a giant statement. He was to go on and  collect 22 kicks at centre half back and keep his opponent, Chris Schubert, kickless, in a best-afield performance.

Wang kept pace with the Hawks, to trail by just a point at quarter-time, but the second term belonged to the Rovers.

They stretched their lead to 29 points at the big break and from that point on were never challenged. John Leary, who had been a Pie hero in 1976 with 5 goals, was shut out of the game by Denis Hill and picked up his sole possession, a free kick, in the third term.

Hill, Robbie Lowe, Greg Rosser and Chris Porter collected just 19 kicks between them for the game, but were ‘Scrooge-like in defence.

It was a multi-pronged forward line which did the damage for the Hawks. Steve Norman (8 goals), John Iwanuch (3),Eddie Flynn (3) and Trevor Bell (3) reaped the rewards of the brilliant work of on-ballers Paul O’Brien, Andrew Scott, Phil Stevenson and Gary Allen.

Norman and Iwanuch had been outstanding in attack all season and between them booted 184 goals (Norman 115, Iwanuch 69).

The Hawks ran away in the second half, to win : 20.16 (136) to 12.12 (84).

The speedy, systematic Rovers Reserves virtually had their flag sewn up by quarter-time. Two long goals from ruck-rover Paul Hogarth set the pattern early. Hogarth finished with five in the 45-point victory over Myrtleford.

Fringe senior players Neville Allen, Peter McGuire, Phil O’Keefe, Gary O’Keeffe and Keith Rowan all shone out. As did the talented youngster Graeme Bell, who must have been dead unlucky to have missed out on senior selection.

The Rovers Thirds fell short of making it a trifecta for the Club when they lowered their colours by 35 points to Wodonga. Lanky ruckman Neale McMonigle was their star…………..

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So a season that had begun with a degree of uncertainty produced almost a clean sweep for the Hawks. They had finished Minor Premiers in all grades, won the Pre-season, the Club Championship and two flags.

It was, indeed, a Year to Remember…………..

 

 

P.S: Memories of 1977 will be evoked at a re-union of the Premiership teams at the Findlay Oval on Saturday. The Rovers 2007 Reserves Premiership team, coached by Bob Murray, and including three presents-day players, will also be re-assembling.