Neville Hogan’s football accomplishments are widely-renowned. But it was a fiercely-fought squash match that, he reckons, embodied everything he loves about competitive sport.
Re-wind some 40 years ago : He’s pitted against the ‘unbeatable’ Terry Longton – rated among the best two or three players the town has seen.
They’re at it – ‘hammer and tongs’. In the fourth game Neville senses that he could be on the verge of a rare upset win . Then, gradually, the champ wrests back the initiative and, in a classic arm-wrestle, fights him off, to clinch the contest.
“I was knackered, and just slumped on the court for a minute or two. The game had drained everything out of me. Someone said “you must be disappointed” . I replied: ‘Not at all. I know I gave it everything. I just wasn’t good enough………..
Tom and Tess Hogan and their tribe of nine kids landed in Callander Avenue, via Yerong Creek and Moyhu, in 1951.
When a young neighbor – Pat McDonald – spotted a few of the six boys having a kick, he convinced them that the Rovers were the team to follow because they were the underdogs in town.
“We all played with South Wanderers, in the Junior League, then when my older brother, Maurie, started at the Rovers I rarely missed watching a training night. I dreamed of playing with them and was mesmerised by Bob Rose and his training methods.”
He had played 50-odd games with the Wanderers when he was involved in the first of his nine footy flags, in 1960. A move to Melbourne the following year, to do his PMG technician’s training, saw him link up with Hawthorn 4ths. The only game they lost was in the opening round.
Despite the expectation that he would head to the City Oval when he returned home, Neville signed with Moyhu. “I just felt I needed a season of open-age footy under my belt before playing in the O & M,” he says.
After Moyhu had gone through unbeaten and he had won the Best & Fairest in 1962, he finally made the move to the Hawks.
In an underwhelming start for the prize recruit he was named as 19th man in the opening round. He then proceeded to win the first of his four club B & F’s.
He made an impression on Footscray’s recruiting officer Joe Ryan, who had popped up to watch him in action. But the Dogs’ were unable to pounce, as he was still tied to Hawthorn.
Another enthusiastic approach came from North Melbourne several years later, when they took over the O & M as part of their recruiting zone. ” I was in my mid-20’s and wasn’t keen on uprooting my life to play a handful of games of League footy,” he says.
His name crops up regularly, as another of those reluctant bush champs who bypassed the glamor and celebrity of the ‘big-time’. Neville has no regrets, though.
“I just loved the game and having a kick, and never felt I was too good for where I was playing. I copped my share of hidings from star players over the years, so I mightn’t have been up to it.”
Instead, he settled down to carve out a storied 15-year career with the Rovers, which was notable for his unyielding dedication towards training and match-preparation.
For those who missed seeing him in action, it’s apt to describe Neville as a 60’s version of recently-retired St.Kilda and North Melbourne star Nick Dal Santo…….. Silky skills…. unhurried…..hardly-ever caught……brilliant awareness…..and a deadly left boot which rarely failed to find its target.
And he just had the knack of finding the football. He had a huge fan in new Rovers coach Ken Boyd, who appointed him vice-captain at 19.
Later that year – 1964 – the Hawks overcame Wangaratta in a tight tussle, to win their third flag.
“It was memorable, because we were all young blokes -very close – and Boydy had us playing for him. We came back from Albury by train and a large crowd met us at the station. The celebrations lasted for weeks.”
The Rovers made it a double the following season. But one downside for Neville was that he lost his greatest supporter. His dad Tom collapsed with a heart attack, watching a match at Albury and died two days later.
He’s in no doubt that his finest personal year as a player came in 1966. By joining the immortals as a Morris Medallist, he had confirmed his status as a star of the game.
Three years later, Neville was confronted with a perplexing decision. Despite his intense loyalty to the club, he had become disillusioned with the coaching of Ian Brewer and felt that the Hawks were marking time. He considered, momentarily, the possibility of applying for other coaching jobs.
“We weren’t fit and change was definitely needed. I suggested to a couple of officials that they should chase Hawthorn’s Graeme Arthur as coach, but in the meantime he took on a coaching job at Echuca.”
“They had interviewed Richmond big man Mike Patterson, then our secretary, Ernie Payne, persuaded me to put in for it too.”
“Most of the other O & M clubs had high-profile coaches, so it was a big decision for them to appoint me.”
Any doubts about his qualifications were erased in the opening round of 1970. The Hawks belted Wangaratta by 80-odd points in front of a big crowd. Suddenly, the expectations of the fans rose and the players were right behind him.
“Fear of failure was the thing that drove me. Even at the end of the first year, when we finished runners-up, I suggested to Jack Maroney (President) that I might give it away, as it was affecting my playing performance. The stress was the hardest part. ”
“Obviously Jack didn’t take any notice of me.”
Just as well. The Hawks won flags in 1971,’72, ’74 and ’75 and played in Grand Finals in all but one of the seven years he was in charge.
The 1974 title gave him the most satisfaction. “We’d been thrashed by Yarrawonga in the second-semi, being 9 goals down at three-quarter time. We won the Preliminary Final against North Albury, by a point, after trailing badly early.
“By quarter-time in the Grand Final we were 8 goals up. Everything just fell into place and I think we only lost in one position on the ground. It was a dream game,” he recalls. In a tactical masterstroke, Neville played as a ruck-rover and kicked 6 goals , whilst his replacement in the centre, Tony Hannan, picked up 34 kicks.
“I decided to step down from coaching in 1977 so I could concentrate on playing. But I dislocated an elbow, which cost me 6 weeks. Then a knee in the backside turned into a ‘hammy’ and my season was over.”
Neville was 33 and had played 246 games when he reluctantly retired. He was also coaching the Thirds at the time and feels that may have affected his fitness.
He was still in demand as a coach, though. Myrtleford persisted in their approaches. “I told them they needed a playing-coach, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer,” he says.
He coached the Saints for four years, then the Magpies came calling. “They had an ordinary list and I told them the same thing, that they needed an on-field leader. Again, they kept asking. I took their job on for two years.”
Neville’s standing as an O & M Legend and revered football figure probably casts his other sporting qualifications into the background.
Wangaratta has produced few better all-rounders. He excelled in squash and table-tennis, played inter-town basketball and has shaved his golf handicap down as low as 6 at different stages.
As a well-organised, enterprising, right-hand batsman and brilliant fieldsman, his 11 WDCA centuries are testament to an outstanding performer. His tactical nous and leadership also saw him captain Wangaratta at both Melbourne and Bendigo Country Weeks.
Neville still fervently loves sport – and yarning about it. Half a century on, he can pluck out an obscure moment that swung a game of football…. and describe, in intricate detail, the playing-style of a veteran whose star has long-ago faded……….or even debate a controversial decision that halted a match-saving innings……
Sport has been his life……