‘THE OBJECT OF MY DESIRE………’

I happened upon the object of my desire many, many years ago.

She was destitute, unloved; forever being compared unfavourably to her sassy neighbor across the road, who attracted, and courted, numerous suitors.

Noses were turned up whenever her name was mentioned. Jokes were made about her unsophistication. She’ll amount to nothing, they scoffed.

But I could see something in her. She possessed a rare charm which turned me on. I grew to love her more and more. It’s an affair that has never abated.

Through no fault of hers, my emotions still occasionally overflow in her presence. I find myself scaling the heights one minute, then plummeting to the lowest of lows the next.

Permit me, if you will, to recount a few of the cherished milestones of this dear old friend of mine ………….

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WELCOMING A NEW GUEST

I’m no more than four or five, and nipping at dad’s heels, when I’m first introduced to the new home of the Wangaratta Rovers.

They’ve received permission to use a ten-acre patch in Evans Street that had been handed to the Council way back in 1859. The specification of the Lands Department at the time was that it be used for sporting purposes.

It was un-named, but colloquially dubbed ‘The Cricket Ground’, and used sparingly over the next 91 years, for cricket and the occasional game of footy. Precious little had been done to improve it. The ‘paddock’ was rough-hewn, full of tussocks and mostly unkempt. A ramshackle building, which comprised a roof and two and a half sides, was occupied by a local swaggie, Tommie Clack.

Tommie used the floorboards of one part of the ‘pavilion’ as firewood, to provide some element of comfort in the harsh winter months.

He continued to squat, even when the Rovers began training there in the early fifties. The process was that they’d undress in the Industrial Pavilion under the old Showgrounds Grandstand, climb through an opening in the tin fence, and begin ball-work shortly after.

They continued to play Home games at the Showgrounds whilst spending thousands of hours -with Council assistance – grading the oval, rolling and sowing grass, and re-developing the surrounds of their new home.

“We had to grub out large trees; the oval had to be re-fenced. I recall we had to cart gravel from Eldorado for the banking; we had as many as 50 at working bees,” Rovers stalwart Frank Hayes once said.

“ And every evening and week-end for months, carpenters, plasterers, bricklayers and labourers worked like beavers to convert the dilapidated building into presentable Clubrooms.”IMG_3242

In 1952, in time for their third Ovens and Murray season, the Hawks are finally settled into their new headquarters…………….

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STAGING THE ‘BIG SHOW’

Just four years after its christening as an Ovens and Murray venue, ‘The Cricket Ground’ is chosen to host the eagerly-anticipated Grand Final encounter between North Albury and Wangaratta.

More than 11,000 fans pack in, and are treated to a classic contest which fluctuates throughout. It’s really a ‘coming-of-age’ for 18 year-old Magpie champion, Lance Oswald (later to become a VFL star). In a best-afield display, he boots five of his seven goals in the third quarter, to bring Wang back into contention.

But the ‘Hoppers steady, and hold a slender four-point three-quarter time lead. ‘Mother Nature’ seems to turn against Wang in the final term, as ideal conditions give way to a gale-force storm which blows towards North’s goal. The turning-point comes late in the game, when North’s Arthur Pickett sends one through the big sticks from the centre of the ground. They hang on desperately to win by 10 points – 13.15 to 13.5…….

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A CENTRE-STRIP

A centre-square of black turf is laid, lovingly-nurtured, and comes into use for the first time in January 1955. It survives flood, drought, plagues, vandals, under and over-indulgent curators and some footy coaches who regard its presence as a necessary evil.

The Rovers Cricket Club springs up and soon becomes a vital component of the Oval.

With shared tenants, Combined Schools and United, which morph into the merged Rovers-United, then Rovers-United Bruck, they snare a total of 23 WDCA senior flags……..

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Another WDCA flag returns to the Findlay Oval

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MR. FOOTBALL ARRIVES IN TOWN

Everyone with the remotest connection to football in the vicinity, is abuzz with anticipation in late-1955, as news spreads that Mr.Football has arrived in town.

Bobby Rose, unanimously touted as the best footballer in Australia, has been lured as captain-coach of the Rovers.

The battling Hawks are astounded at the extent to which he transforms their fortunes. A crowd of over 1,000 flock to watch him in action in the club’s first practice match. Membership shoots up by more than 300%. The outlay of 35 pounds a week for a man who was a ‘marketer’s dream’ is deemed a fabulous investment.

Suddenly, the Rovers are front-page news and recruits eager to savour the champ’s wisdom, sign on. History will record him as the club’s most esteemed figure………

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‘LET  CELEBRATIONS BEGIN……’

The biggest party in the Ground’s history begins soon after the siren blares to signify the Hawks’ 51-point win over Wodonga in the 1958 Grand Final – their first O & M flag.

The game is a triumph for the dynamic Rose, but there are numerous heroes. The players return to Wangaratta by train and are led down to the Ground by the Town Band.rosey

At the open-air Dance and Barbecue, a crowd of more than 3,000 is there to greet them. They devour 3,000 steakettes, 1,000 steaks, and the caterers carve up two large bullocks. The crowd is still at it in the wee hours of the morning…..

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A YOUNGSTER IN THE WINGS

As a keen cricketer, Bob Rose is an integral part of three premierships with Rovers. His greatest fan is a tiny 7-8 year-old, who diligently uses his own score-book to record each game. .

And at each break in play he grabs a bat and pleads with somebody to throw a few down to him. Years later, the kid seems destined to wear the baggy green, as he progresses to become a prolific Sheffield Shield opening batsman. However, a tragic car accident puts paid to Robert Rose’s highly-promising career……

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THE CHALLENGE MATCH

The Rovers’ victory over Wodonga in the 1960 Grand Final prompts a challenge from Oakleigh, who have taken out the VFA flag.

The match, played on the newly-named City Oval the following Sunday, attracts huge interest from the football public. Several city book-makers – keen Oakleigh backers – sense an opportunity to clean up and find multiple ‘takers’ when the word is put around .

But it’s a one-horse race. The Hawks lead from the first bell, running away to win 14.17 to 3.10…..

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COMFORT FOR THE FANS

With support from the Rovers in 1960, the Council submits plans for a Shelter, which is to be built in two stages and will cover the whole embankment to the right of the Clubrooms. It provides a vast improvement in supporter comfort and becomes possibly the most identifiable feature of the City Oval.IMG_4287

Many of the Ground’s most rabid fans make the new Shelter their home, and it is later named ‘The Neville Hogan Stand’, after a Club icon.

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THE BOYD – TUCK CLASH

It’s early 1964, when an incident occurs which is still imprinted in the minds of those who were there – although, to this day, you’ll get different versions.

Rovers coach Ken Boyd, one of the most controversial figures in the game, and Corowa leader Frank Tuck, the ex-Collingwood skipper, clash on the score-board side of the ground. To most it seems like a legitimate shirt-front which costs Tuck a broken jaw, but it triggers hitherto-unseen demonstrations at half-time.

Spiders supporters hurl abuse at ‘Big Ken’ as he walks from the ground and several, with fists raised, try to push their way through the packed crowd.

The ‘Melbourne Herald’ reports on the incident in their edition the following Tuesday, with the headline: ‘KEN BOYD IS NAMED’. Boyd subsequently sues for libel, and the aftermath is played out in the Supreme Court two years later.IMG_4282

Against all considered opinion, Boyd wins the case and is granted substantial damages. He retires later that year, with two flags to his name and a reputation as a charismatic and inspiring coach…..

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THE SECOND STOREY

The Rovers undertake a substantial renovation to the clubrooms, beginning in late 1964, and complete the task in ‘65. A second story is added to the humble abode that had been constructed twelve years earlier.

The players are to the forefront of this, as coach Ken Boyd marshalls them to lend support to the voluntary ‘tradies’ who had been at it every week-end for months.

It’s called the ‘Maroney Pavilion’, as a tribute to one of the club’s stalwarts, who has been at the forefront of the project ………..

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THE LOCAL DERBY

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Rinso Johnstone marks spectacularly in a Local Derby. Half-a-century on, his grandson, Karl Norman would become a familiar figure at the Findlay Oval.
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Neville Hogan gets his kick away, in front of a large Local Derby crowd.

O&M Wangaratta Rovers vs Wangaratta (10)

72 epic editions of the ‘Local Derby’ have been staged at the City Oval to date, but none have carried the consequences of the 1976 Grand Final.

The Rovers are in the midst of their fabulous ‘Super Seventies’ era when they meet a confident Wangaratta side which has hit peak form.

The Hawks are considered likely to hold an advantage, playing on their own dung-hill , but it’s not to be. The ‘Pies produce power football from the first bounce and lead by 25 points at half-time.

The capacity crowd settles down to watch a predictable fight-back from the champs, but it fails to eventuate. They’re dismantled to the tune of 36 points……….

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CLUBROOMS EXPAND

A further re-modelling of the ‘Maroney Pavilion’ is undertaken between 1981-82, which increases the floor space of the complex by almost 40 per cent, and crowd capacity from 200 to 350.IMG_4289

Thirty-odd years later, a further step in the Clubrooms project is completed when a Balcony, covering the perimeter of the upstairs building is constructed, offering arguably the O & M’s best viewing facilities.

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THE LIGHTS GO ON

The first match for premiership points, under new lighting, is played at the City Oval in 1993. Whilst the Rovers’ performance in their 80-point win over Yarrawonga, is bright, the same can’t be said for the lights.

Supporters from both clubs fume that they’re unable to identify players on the far side of the ground,

But the dim lights don’t deter Hawk spearhead Matthew Allen, who slots nine majors in a scintillating display…..

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A FINAL NAME – CHANGE

The City Council, in consultation with the Rovers, re-names City Oval the ‘W.J.Findlay Oval’, in appreciation of the contributions of a former Postal Clerk, long-term Councillor, Mayor, Parliamentary candidate, author, Rovers committee-man, Life Member and ardent Hawk supporter.

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Four legends of the Findlay Oval – Bob Rose, Neville Hogan, Robbie Walker and Andrew Scott

‘Old Bill’, who has passed on a couple of years earlier, had first-hand experience of the evolution of a decrepit patch of dirt into a sporting mecca …………..

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BACK TO THE PRESENT

Darkness falls early on this bitter, early-August Tuesday evening……A curtain of misty rain glistens as it sweeps across the floodlit Oval……Brown and Gold-clad figures flip the pill around with precision, egged on by a demanding figure with a stentorian voice.

I’m propped under the giant gum-tree, which has probably hovered here longer than the 160-year existence of this sporting Oval.

If only it could tell the tale it may be of: “….. People who come and find seats where they sat when they were children, and cheered their heroes….. And watch the games as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters……..The memories are so thick they have to brush them away from their faces……..This field, it’s part of our past……..”IMG_2470

‘THE WIRY, TOUGH AND TALENTED NEVILLE POLLARD….’

Our footy post-mortems were often held at the Sale-Yards, around 6.30am on foggy, crisp Monday mornings. Still  a touch seedy after a week-end of playing, celebrating or commiserating, we’d conduct a thorough review before  the Sheep Market rudely interrupted us.

He was a precociously talented utility player who’d taken on a job as captain-coach at the ripe old age of 20…… I was his coaching adversary; a plodder, reaching the end of my tether………..

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Forty-odd years on, I again catch up with Neville Pollard.

He’s had a rough time of it lately, has old ‘Nifty’. Nearly five months ago he was diagnosed with a rare fungal infection behind the left eye.

Two corneal transplants failed to rectify the problem; nor did a series of injections. His surgeon put forward a few scenarios of further treatment. One of them – the most radical – included removing the eye.

“I decided that was the most risk-free way to go. So they whipped it out a fortnight ago,” he says.

I’m sure he welcomes changing the subject when I suggest having a yarn about his lengthy, varied, 400-game footy career………

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The Pollards were domiciled at Buln Buln, in the heart of Gippsland dairy country, when nine year-old Nev debuted with the local Thirds.

He later made the odd appearance with the seniors, but, going on 15 – and mid-way through the season – moved over to play with Drouin in the stronger West Gippsland League.

He finished the year with their Thirds, who were pipped by a point in the Grand Final, then booted 72 goals with the seniors the following season, to win the League goal-kicking award.

Under the VFL’s old zoning system, Drouin was part of Hawthorn’s territory. The Hawks helped themselves to a host of players from this lucrative recruiting area, including, of course, the famous Ablett family.

Neville had played alongside Geoff Ablett in the Drouin Thirds side, and also received an invitation to train ‘down town’.

But, in the meantime, his parents Arthur and Ruby, sold their farm and re-located to Bobinawarrah. He was momentarily out of Hawthorn’s clutches…….

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“Pollard was one of the few players I went out of my way to recruit when I was coach,” says Wangaratta Rovers legend Neville Hogan.

“I remember heading out Milawa-way to see him early in 1973, then bringing him to training a couple of times, as he still didn’t have a licence.”

“Gee he could play. He came to us as a full forward, but we started him in the back pocket because we wanted to fit him into the side.”

“There’s always conjecture about whether this bloke or that would have played League footy. Sometimes it boils down to being at the right club at the right time. But I think Neville would have given it a really good shot………..”

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He was a touch under 6 foot and as adaptable as they come. Proving himself ultra-capable down back, Hogan swung him into attack at one stage of the 1974 Grand Final. He booted two quick goals, to put the game completely out of Yarrawonga’s reach.IMG_4035

Andrew Scott recalls the coach’s plea to his side at three quarter-time of a soggy ‘75 decider against North Albury: “We led by 5 points in a real tight one, and ‘Hogan’s last words were: ‘Make sure you bring the ball to ground at all times.’ “IMG_4036

“In the opening minutes of the last quarter, Pollard’s caught off balance and brings down a spectacular one-hander across the half-back line, completely contrary to the coach’s instructions. It might have been one of those things that inspired us because we went away to win by 19 points.”

Scott and Pollard were members of the O & M team which trounced the VFA by 56 points that year.

“We played 18 a-side in the first half and reverted to the VFA’s version of 16 a-side in the second. I was playing on the wing and was supposed to go off at half-time, but Billy Sammon (our coach) decided to keep me on for the rest of the game. It was a terrific experience,” Neville recalls.

At season’s end, North Melbourne invited several potential recruits to play in a practice game at Arden Street. Hawthorn’s three-year hold on Pollard had expired and the Roos chief, Ron Joseph was keen to get hold of him.

“I’ve only got vague memories of the practice match,” he says, “.. but I do recall Scotty driving me down and getting pulled up for speeding. He was a cop at the time, and managed to talk his way out of it in convincing fashion.”

The Rovers were half-expecting to lose the youngster to North. He’d played three stellar seasons; featured in two flags….. But to their dismay, he accepted a coaching appointment at Milawa in 1976.

“I had a lot of mates out there, but may have been a bit naive taking the job on so young. In hindsight, I still don’t know whether I did the right thing,” Nev says.

“We were a young side; not over-tall, but they gave everything. I’d like to think I was honest and approachable as a coach, but it was tough……. I had to be an amateur psychologist, doctor and mentor besides concentrating on my own game.”IMG_4032

Milawa had won just three games the previous season, but again became a force under Pollard, and eventually ‘bombed out’ in the Preliminary Final.

They reached the Prelim in three of the first four years,  plunged to the bottom, then recovered to reach successive Grand Finals in his seven seasons in charge.IMG_4038

He was their dynamo, and took out the O & K’s Baker Medal ( as well as the club B & F ) in 1978 and 1980. Some old-time Demons rate him their best-ever player.

The last of his 141 games with the club was in the ‘Bloodbath’ Grand Final of 1982.

“We were 19 points up at half-time against Chiltern, and looked to be travelling well. But we just got hunted. At one stage there was talk of calling the game off. It was the worst match I’ve ever been involved in.”

In the end, the Swans ran away to win by 74 points. Neville was one of several who appeared at the resultant Tribunal hearing the following week and was quizzed about  one incident.

“I told them I’d got belted from behind. They gave the bloke one week…… I couldn’t believe it.”

“I decided to have another crack with the Rovers the next year. It wasn’t because of what happened in the Grand Final…..I just wanted to test myself back in the higher standard before I got too old.”

“I’d thought about coming in a couple of years earlier, but I suppose I got a bit stubborn and decided to stay.”

At 27, Neville was probably a better-equipped player than in his previous incarnation with the Hawks. He enjoyed stints in the midfield and on-ball and took out Best & Fairests in 1983 and ‘84.

A regular selection in the O & M side, he was voted the League’s best in a Country Championship semi-final clash against Ballarat. He lined up in the centre, alongside another old Drouin boy, Gary Ablett, who started on the wing.IMG_4033

That year,1983,  signified Pollard’s return to the top, as he also finished runner-up in the Morris Medal.

Again emphasising his versatility, he kicked 10 goals from centre half forward, in a memorable match against Albury  three years later.

His old mate Andrew Scott also booted 10 that day. They still debate the merit of their respective performances.

“Well, I kicked 10.7 and Scotty, who wasn’t fit enough to move out of the goal-square was gifted a handful. I reckon he touched a couple of my shots on the line !” he says.

After 13 years in the livestock game, Neville and Judy bought a property at Tocumwal and moved over with the four kids – Krystal, Carly, Elise and Ash. It signalled the end of his 139-game career with the Hawks.

“I’d fully intended to play with ‘Toc’, but on the first night of training only about eight fellahs turned up. It didn’t get much better for the next couple of weeks.”

“ Laurie Burt kept in touch and was keen for me to travel over and keep playing for the Rovers. I said: ‘Look, just reject the first clearance application. We’ll see how it goes.’ “

But he decided to stick it out . Tocumwal endured a gloomy, winless season and didn’t fare much better in in the next. Neville picked up successive B & F’s, however, and continued to star, as the Bloods began to gain momentum.

They thrived under the leadership of rugged Stuart Roe, who had come across from Shepparton to coach.

He took them to Grand Finals in 1989 and ‘90. They took the next step in 1991, after Philip Nicholson had succeeded Roe.  Pollard was part of a lethal half back line at this stage, and picked up his third flag when he starred in the Bloods’ premiership win over arch rivals Finley.IMG_4034

He continued to serve Tocumwal long after his glittering career had drawn to a close. ‘Nifty’ was 38 when he decided to pull the pin in 1992, but then spent seven years as Chairman of Selectors and six years as coach of the Thirds.

One of his biggest thrills in football came twenty years later, when fleet-footed Ash burst onto the scene in the first of his 40 senior games with the Rovers.

‘Nifty’ – O & K Hall of Famer, veteran of Buln Buln, Drouin, Wang Rovers, Milawa and Tocumwal – would be tickled pink if the young bloke again donned the Brown and Gold.

“All you can do is hope,” he says “…..but he might have left his run a bit late……”IMG_4039

‘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

 

 

 

 

‘THE GREATEST OF THEM ALL………’

You’ve heard the story about the kid who used to plonk a rubbish-bin in a forward pocket at the Showgrounds. He’d drill 70 or 80 kicks at it, then drag it over to the other pocket and repeat the exercise.

Became a triple Geelong Premiership hero,  Norm Smith Medallist and media darling. They dubbed him ‘Stevie J’.

………. And the larrikin with loads of talent and spunk. North Melbourne officials lobbed at Myrtleford’s McNamara Reserve one night, whisked him off the training track and named him in their side the following Saturday.

Lou Richards was a fan and handed him a moniker that stuck. From then on he was ‘Slammin’ Sam’ Kekovich.

…………Sam played in the ‘Roos’ first Premiership with a hulking fellah from Tarrawingee, who made his name at the Wangaratta Rovers.  North’s talent scouts came up to a Grand Final to cast an eye over another lad- Johnny Byrne –  but were so impressed with the ruckwork of Michael Nolan that they signed the pair of them.

‘The Galloping Gasometer’ was to become a VFL cult hero.

………….Richmond recruiters took an immediate shine to Doug Strang when they saw him playing for East Albury in 1930. They thought they may as well invite his likely-looking brother Gordon down as well. In just his second game Doug kicked a lazy 14 goals and Gordon (‘Cocker’) dominated at the other end.

They figured in the Tigers’ Premiership victory the following year, alongside another O & M champ Maurie Hunter, who was by now a star of the game.

…………..A tall, blonde lad from Corowa-Rutherglen was just 16 when he booted 12 goals against Myrtleford in 1987. He was destined for the top, the experts proclaimed.

John Longmire had a striking physique, athleticism and an attitude beyond his tender years. Three seasons after his O & M debut he won the Coleman Medal and North Melbourne’s best and fairest. Subsequent coaching success with Sydney has added further lustre to ‘Horse’s’ burgeoning  resume’.

………….Fitzroy lured a star forward from Albury in the mid-thirties. Exasperated by his wayward kicking, they experimented with him at centre half back. Such was his dominance in the new position that Denis ‘Dinny’ Ryan took out the 1936 Brownlow Medal…………..

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It’s O & M  Hall of Fame time. Since its introduction in 2005 more than 60 champions have been duly honoured.

But who is the greatest home-grown product of them all ?

I’ve touched on a few, but the list of stars is as long as your arm. For argument’s sake, I’ll throw in a few more of the 350-odd who have ventured to the ‘big time’………Lance Oswald, Bert Mills, Don Ross, Daniel Cross, Percy ‘Oily’ Rowe, Fred Hiskins, Brett Kirk, Joel Smith, Daniel Bradshaw, Dennis Carroll, Fraser Gehrig, Dinny Kelleher, Ben Matthews, Lance Mann, Les (Salty) Parish, Norm Bussell and Jimmy Sandral.

And some, like Robbie Walker, Stan Sargeant, Brian Gilchrist,  Neville Hogan, ‘Curly’ Hanlon and Dennis Sandral  didn’t find the urge to leave home, yet are right up there when the experts compile a list of the ‘Best from the Bush’……….

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But there’ll be no argument about the Best-Ever.

Haydn Bunton won Brownlow Medals in his first and second years at Fitzroy – and  another, three years later.  Scribes of the thirties lauded the precocious talent of the lad from Albury, who had been forced to stand out of the game for a year. It was alleged that Fitzroy had paid him an illegal sign-on fee and thereby flouted the Coulter Law.

His brilliance had originally come to the attention of talent scouts when he starred for the O & M against a combined VFL team in 1928. He was still 16, but already exhibited wondrous skills.

Some years after his retirement, Haydn reflected on his early days and his entry to senior football:

“…..By the time I was 13, my two elder brothers George and Cleaver were playing for Albury and my younger brother Wally was already showing promise of doing the same.

That year – 1924 – I played football for the Albury School on Fridays and for Albury in the Ovens and Murray League on Saturdays.

In my last year at school I captained the school cricket team and hit 805 runs at an average of 201 and took 43 wickets. I’ve often been asked why I gave up cricket after only one District season with Fitzroy.

At times I wonder myself. I could get runs, but I was always a pretty stodgy bat. I had the chance. In 1927 I was chosen in the Riverina team to play Country Week in Sydney and made 3 centuries.

The next season I again got among the runs with 4 more centuries. Bill Ponsford came to see me at Albury and asked me to play for St.Kilda. I would have gone, but my mother was against my doing so.

In fact, when I did leave Albury to go to Melbourne to play football in 1930 it was still against my mother’s wishes. My father only agreed when he saw how keen I was.

It was around 1928 that the turmoil in my life began. For four years I’d been playing football with Albury………Four Buntons were in the Albury team. George was centre half forward and Wally centre half back. Cleaver took the knocks and the coach Bobbie Barnes, and I picked them up.

When I’d won the Best & Fairest for the team for three years -1926,’27 and ’28 – we played against a visiting Essendon side. Frank Maher, the State rover, was opposed to me. I had the better of him all day. At the time I thought I was king of the world. When I look back, though, I realise Frank was near the end of his time after a brilliant career. His legs weren’t as youthful as mine.

In 1929 the pressure was really on. Eleven Victorian clubs – all except Collingwood – came after me. They sent their men with all sorts of propositions, and they laid on the charm with a trowel.

It was pretty flattering and mighty bewildering. It would have been a game son who got a big head with my dad. In fact, his stern advice to me when I eventually left to play in Melbourne, was: “If you get swollen-headed don’t come back to this house. I want no son of mine to become too big for his boots.”

Looking back now, I almost blush with embarrassment when I think of how I arrived in Melbourne – a typical hick from the sticks’. My felt hat was dinted in four places, I wore a navy blue suit, the coat cut high at the back, the trousers almost bell-bottomed, cut-away double-breasted waistcoat, butcher blue shirt – and 4 shillings in my pocket when I stepped on to Spencer Street station.

Carlton officials were supposed to meet me. They were never at the station -although they claimed they were. I went straight to the head office of New Zealand Loan and asked for the manager. “Has my transfer been arranged to here from Albury, sir?” I asked. “What transfer, Bunton ?” was his staggering reply. I told him that Carlton had arranged it.

He rocked me again with his reply: ” I know nothing of any transfer, Bunton. In any case, we don’t transfer professional footballers.”

That was that. I was out of a job. I went out and immediately rang Tom Coles, the Fitzroy secretary. He got me a job straight away, working with Chandler’s, the hardware merchants. I signed there and then with Fitzroy…….”

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Because he was forced out of League football for a year, Haydn caught a train back to Albury each week-end of the 1930 season, to play for West Albury.

Then, almost from the time of his League debut, he became a celebrity.  In 119 games with Fitzroy, he kicked 307 goals, was twice their leading goal-kicker, twice club captain and was captain-coach for a year.

In 1938 he transferred to Subiaco, where he dominated the WAFL, winning three Sandover Medals in his four years in the west.

Haydn settled in Adelaide in 1945 and played his final season with Port Adelaide. He then went on to become a League umpire and, finally, a League coach with North Adelaide in 1947 and ’48.

He suffered serious injuries when his car veered off a road near Adelaide and hit a tree in 1955. The colourful life of the legendary Haydn Bunton was over at just 44 years of age………….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘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.