“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…….”

‘CHEWING THE FAT WITH ‘CHIZZA’………

Of all the personalities with whom he came into contact in a lifetime of football, Peter Chisnall retains a soft spot for his first coach…….

“She was a Catholic nun – Sister Mary Elizabeth Clancy………I remember she used to tuck her long, flowing, black habit into her belt and spear out accurate left-foot passes to us little tackers,” ‘Chizza’ recalls.

“I was in my forties when I returned to a school re-union at St. Mary’s Primary School, and caught up with her again……. She told me she’d got to see me play a couple of games at the MCG…….then presented me with a scrapbook that she’d compiled, detailing a lot of my footy highlights. I was tickled pink ………”

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‘Chizza’s’ a ‘people person’……..friendly, enthusiastic, exuding positivity, and blessed with a liberal dose of charisma. And boy, does he love a yarn!……I’d promised not to annoy him for too long…….Two and a bit hours later, we were still at it, despite him facing a lengthy drive back home to Numurkah…….

He does some work for the Justice Department these days; supervising offenders on Work Projects. He had a crack at retirement for a while, he explains, but drove himself up the wall with boredom. So he started going around to jails giving talks to prisoners. Then this job was offered to him. He loves it….. Loves being involved, and helping people.

His long-term trade was as a Butcher, but he’s also been a Grain Representative, a Promotions Officer, had stints on talk-back Radio and TV, and operated a corner-store . He and his wife Helen bought a run-down pub in Burrumbuttock many years ago, built it up and sold it, then ran the Tungamah Hotel for more than a decade. I can just picture him engaging in repartee with the patrons from behind the bar of a pub. They’d have stayed for hours, I’m sure.

But I’m keen to explore ‘Chizza’s’ footy resume’….. that’s a fascinating story in itself……………

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The Chisnall’s are a famous Corowa footballing family. Two of Pete’s uncles were part of the Spiders’ first premiership, way back in 1932. His dad Bill, who lost a fair bit of his footy to the war years, also played a lot of games, and later coached South Corowa. An older brother Adrian had been a star, so expectations were high when the lad debuted, aged 16.

“John Hoiles, the ex-Footscray defender, was coaching at the time. ‘Hoilesy’ could be pretty brutal, but he was good for a young fellah like me. He kept hammering into us to ‘put your head over the ball’. We were short on talent though, and won just two games in each of my first two seasons.”

“Thankfully, we picked up some classy recruits in 1968; the club was able to snap up Richmond captain Freddie Swift as coach, and ‘Hoilesy’ agreed to stay on as a player. A big change came over the place,” he recalls.

Peter had done a pre-season at North Melbourne, and played on match-permits in the opening two rounds – a win at Footscray, and a 19-point defeat at the hands of Essendon.

“It was weird to be playing on blokes like Barry Capuano and Russell Blew. You’d been running around collecting their footy card only a couple of years earlier. But ‘Swifty’ and ‘Bluey’ Crisfield came down to see North, and said they’d like me to go back,  play the season at Corowa, and return for good the next year. So that’s what I did.”

It proved a dream season for ‘Chizza’. He played in the Ovens and Murray’s Country Championship win over Wimmera, and was a constant source of drive on the wing for the Spiders, as they surged dramatically towards an improbable finals berth.IMG_3662

Their Round 18 clash with Wangaratta carried huge stakes, as the clubs were vying for the vacant fourth spot. Corowa needed to get up by seven goals or more…..They stormed home to win by 92 points.

Then they overcame North Albury and Myrtleford in successive weeks, thus earning the right to challenge powerful reigning premier Wodonga in the Grand Final.

It was a classic. The Dogs led by 26 points at quarter-time, but Corowa, with a strong breeze at their back, booted six goals to nil in the second to gain the ascendency. It became a nip-and-tuck affair from then on.

In the dying stages, Wodonga maintained a slender lead, but a superb 50-metre goal from Kevin Witherden and a ‘pearler’ from the pocket by left-footer Lindsay Jacob, sealed the Spiders’ first flag for 36 years…….

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Peter returned to Arden Street and established himself in the North Melbourne side over the next two seasons, but by 1971 the winds of change were blowing. Brian Dixon had taken over as coach and proceeded to exert his authority.

“I was asked to attend a meeting, and when I walked in he said: ‘I want to see you upstairs.’ I thought ‘here’s trouble’. He greeted me with: ‘Well, make up your mind. Do you want to be a League footballer….. or a butcher for the rest of your life ?’”

“I thought that was a bit harsh. Here I was, starting work in the Butcher Shop at 4am to cram in footy training. Along with four or five other players who’d been given a similar directive, I walked out on North.”

He moved to Sandringham without a clearance, and played with the Zebras for the next two seasons. When the VFL and VFA declared a Morotorium to eradicate their clearance stand-off, he was forced to serve a one-year penalty.

By now Peter and Helen had moved to Albury. They’d recently lost their first-born, Brad, through cot-death, and were rapt to be back near their respective families. He acted as a runner for Albury coach Timmy Robb in 1973.

But a visit from a North delegation, Ron Barassi, Alan Killigrew and Ron Joseph, changed their path. ‘Chizza’ was about to embark on the ride of his life……

“ ‘Barass’ said: ‘Have you thought about playing VFL footy again ? I can tell you, if you come down and do a pre-season, you’ll play in my team.’ That was good enough for me.”

“I’d always considered myself a bit of a battler. I had speed, and could mark, but the game didn’t come naturally to me.”

“We had a pack of good small men around the middle, led of course, by Barry Cable. Our job was capitalise on the ruckwork of big Mick Nolan, who had the marvellous ability to direct the ball anywhere.”IMG_4229

“It was unbelievable to be a part of North’s journey, as we got to our second-ever Grand Final, then in 1975 knocked over Hawthorn, to win the Club’s first flag.”

What obviously also appealed to Barassi was that his winger; a popular, engaging figure within the club, played on the edge once he crossed that white line.

He had a day out in the Grand Final, collecting 22 kicks, 5 marks, dishing out 5 handballs, and continually pumping the pill to the point of the square.IMG_4226IMG_4227

‘Chizza’ also featured in the ‘76 Grand Final, in which the Hawks were able to exact their revenge. But in the first practice match of 1977 his 80-game League career came to a sad end, when he was involved in a head-on collision and suffered a fractured skull.

That setback may have put paid to his time at the top, but over the next thirty years, he was to embark on a coaching odyssey which would further re-inforce his footballing CV………

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The first stop was to Tasmanian club New Norfolk, whom he guided to a Preliminary Final in 1978.

“I was on a two-year contract, but was released from it when Dad got badly injured in a truck accident, and needed my support. I made a vow that I’d return to Tassie one day.”

“But I’d no sooner arrived back home when Hec Francis, who’d been tied up with Rutherglen, approached me and said: ‘Look, we’re gone. We’re going to amalgamate with Corowa and we’d like you to be Corowa-Rutherglen’s first coach.”IMG_4225

“They were three terrific years. I also coached the O & M side in ‘79, and combined the role with a job as North Melbourne’s Zone Development Officer.”

After working with Barastoc Feeds for several years, he was back operating a butcher shop in Port Melbourne when the famous VFA club had a coach pull the pin on the eve of the 1986 season.

“I’d been doing some Skills Coaching at Essendon, but Port asked if I’d slip into the job. It was a privilege to be involved with such an iconic Club……..They’re great people. I handed over the reins to a Port stalwart, Georgie Allen, at season’s end.”

‘Chizza’ fitted in one final season as a player at East Ringwood, aged 39, as a favour to an old Port Melbourne mate, ‘Buster’ Harland. He then moved on to coach Old Caulfield Grammarians for two years.

He honoured his promise to return to New Norfolk, as non-playing coach in 1990. They’d been on the brink of bankruptcy, and had lurked around the bottom reaches of the ladder for several years.

The Chisnall arrival inspired great optimism and the Eagles, playing with renewed intensity, headed the ladder at one stage, before fading out in the Elimination Final. He worked on morning radio with TTT-FM, made regular appearances on TV, and coached the Tasmanian State side.

After concluding his three-year stint with New Norfolk, he moved north to coach State League Club Launceston for two seasons.

Completing the full circle, he and Helen settled back in the North-East, and he was snapped up by Yarrawonga to succeed Peter Foster in 1996.

Being back in the O & M environment appealed to ‘Chizza’ after a 15-year hiatus, but the Pigeons were on a ‘downer’ at the time.

“I decided to give the kids every opportunity, but became frustrated, and butted heads with a few people around the place. Suffice to say, I was unable to make a difference,” he says. Part of the way through his third season at the helm, he and the Club parted ways.

However, the ‘coaching bug’ continued to itch. He spent two years with Mulwala and one at Devenish, before the 350-game Chisnall coaching journey drew to its conclusion………

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Peter and Helen’s two younger boys chose divergent paths in life. Grant studied at Duntroon, became an Army Captain, and served at several overseas hot-spots . Guy, who’s now involved in the meat industry, enjoyed a fine footy career, played in Corowa-Rutherglen’s 2003 premiership side and won a B &F with the Roos.IMG_4223

The baby of the family, Natalie (Ramsdale) still plays Queensland State League Netball with the Whitsunday Sharks

The grandkids are now his pride and joy, but he still finds time to sate his unquenchable thirst for football.

Next month, along with hundreds of old Kangaroos, ‘Chizza’ will celebrate North Melbourne’s 150-Year Anniversary. He’s looking forward to being back in the thick of the action……………… Continue reading “‘CHEWING THE FAT WITH ‘CHIZZA’………”

‘SAINT RICK ABDICATES……..’

Dusk has already enshrouded the Findlay Oval on this balmy Thursday evening.
As the glow of the floodlights takes effect, eighty players or more burn up the track….. jabbering excitedly…..moving frenetically……footies zipping here and there, like tracer bullets……
A hardy group of regulars survey proceedings……Then we spot a lone figure…a massive fellah, who’s following the action intently, up in the shadows of the Hogan Stand.
Funny, we’d only been swapping yarns a few days ago, about the exploits of Michael Nolan, who first pulled on the Brown and Gold guernsey 50 years ago.  Someone jokes that, maybe the ghost of ‘Big Mick’ is re-visiting us ……..
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Well, not exactly, but Mick’s spirit will always live on whilst his eldest son is around.
Rick has forged a sizeable football reputation of his own. When I greet him he’s momentarily distracted by a post that has come through on his I-Phone, announcing his decision to relinquish the coaching position at one of Australia’s most famous footy clubs, St.Mary’s of Darwin.IMG_3265
He told them that he wasn’t going on about a month ago, he says, but they’ve only just made it public.

 

How does he feel ? “Yeah, I’m comfortable with it. After five years in the job, I could sense my energy levels dropping, but I’ve maintained good relationships with everybody. And I didn’t want to damage those by going on for an extra year.”
So he took the opportunity to escape down south for a week or so. Being the football ‘nut’ that he is, he watched three AFL games last week-end, caught up with a few people, then headed to Wangaratta, where his family roots are, of course, deeply-embedded.
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Rick’s has been a fascinating football journey .
He was just a whippersnapper when his dad, mum Nettie and the kids moved to Queensland.  Mick had drawn the curtain on a fine career at North Melbourne and was enticed to take up a coaching position with Brisbane club, Mayne, in 1981.
Charged with spreading the ‘gospel’ in this rugby-oriented state , Mick became the face of Queensland football, whilst turning the Mayne Tigers into a QAFL powerhouse.
Tracing his every step was young Rick, who began with Mayne’s juniors as a seven year-old and moved through the ranks, to play 50-odd senior games.
He had just left school, when an uncle, Graeme Smith, the vice-president of St.Mary’s, suggested that a season of summer footy in their Under-18’s would do him the world of good.
He loved it ; grew fond of Darwin and decided to hang around. When he was 21 he qualified as an Aviation Fireman – a job he’s held ever since.
And he began to make his mark as a strong, hard-working ruckman, protective of the will-o-the wisp, magical small men who abound in Top End footy.IMG_3263
Deceptively agile for his size, he inherited ‘Big Mick’s’ gift for deft tapwork and his sound understanding of the game.  Some also attested to his healthy appetite, which was again, a family trait.

A decent feed of Spaghetti Bolagnaise would be Rick’s standard post-match fare, along with a side dish of a couple of rounds of toasted cheese sandwiches.  His hangover-cure was a full Chicken, washed down with two or three stubbies.
Beneath a stern-looking visage  is a warm-hearted, friendly fellah. He loves yapping about footy – and is keen to elaborate when  I quiz him on the reason for St.Marys’ amazing run of success.
They’ve won 32 of a possible 65 NTFL flags since they entered the League in 1952, and have missed the finals only twice.  Rick says the Club was originally formed to give full-blood aboriginals on the Tiwi Islands the opportunity to play regular, organised football in Darwin.
At the time, none of the other clubs would allow full-bloods to play. Thus, a long line of Long’s, Rioli’s, Dunn’s and Virgona’s, among others, have helped create the Saints’ tradition, blending in with the diehard locals.
One of the legends of the Club is the patriarch of the Long family, Jack, who used to sell crocodile skins to Darwin businesses to pay his way from the Tiwi Islands, to play with St.Mary’s .
The assembly-line of champions who have worn the Green and Gold over the years includes 21st century stars Anthony and Iggy Vallejo, Peter ‘Noodles’ McFarlane, Xavier and Raph Clarke, John Anstess and the Illett brothers – Cameron and Jarred.
“People are envious of our great culture, but it’s a culture of hard work. We train harder than any club, but we also have unbelievable bloodlines,” Rick says.
“Every year you’ll be watching a junior game and a Rioli or a Long who’s been living on the island, will bob up from nowhere.”
Rick played in two flags in his 125 senior games with Saints. In between, he fitted in a season at SANFL club Woodville-West Torrens, then realised a long-held ambition when he spent a couple of months with the Rovers in 2001.
He dominated four or five Reserves games and, when belatedly swung into the senior side, fitted in like a glove in two finals matches. He wishes time had permitted him to play more.
He’s always been a keen student of the game, and did a couple of internships with AFL clubs. In the period he spent at the Gold Coast Suns, Rick noticed that Shaun Hart, one of the assistants, had a computer with him at all times.
“His computer was a vital coaching tool. I was pretty impressed. I reckoned that was the way to go,” he says.
Thus, he was instrumental in creating SportsClipMaker, a video analysis software program and sports coaching app.
“Many Victorian country clubs are using it, but it has the potential to spread world-wide,” he says. “Hopefully, I can now devote more time to promoting it.”
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Rick first put his toe in the coaching water, as an assistant at St. Mary’s. Then the opportunity presented itself to take on the big job in 2013.
He was apprehensive. “One of my best mates, Stewart Sceney, was putting a bit of pressure on me. He told me: ‘It takes courage to coach, but it takes extra courage to coach St.Mary’s.”
So he took the plunge. Sadly, not long after he’d been appointed,  Stewie, his wife Karmi Dunn and their two kids, died in a plane crash at Anson Bay, on the west coast of Darwin.

The news devastated the St.Mary’s club, but strengthened their resolve for the season ahead. The Saints took all before them and went through the season undefeated.IMG_3260
That was certainly a highlight for Rick, but the flag win he cherishes most came in March 2016.
He’d lost key players John Anstess and Ryan Smith in the lead-up, then Ben Long was rubbed out after a gruelling Preliminary Final.

“Within five minutes of the start, two blokes did ACL’s, and just before half-time one of our stars, Justin Cooper, broke a collarbone. Mickey Coombes, another key player, was out of the game with an ankle injury at three quarter-time.

When the last quarter started we had no bench, it was 33 degrees and 95% humidity. We were two goals down and barely hanging on”
“With a minute or so remaining in the game, Shannon Rioli threaded his way through a few Wanderers players and booted the goal that gave us victory by two points. It ranks as one of the best of our 32 flags.”

(to see vision:  https://www.youtube.com/watchv=lSwnIpEq3wk )

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The following season St.Mary’s belted old foes Wanderers by 57 points, to clinch Rick’s third title in four years.

This year they started sluggishly, recovered, but were always just off the pace – bombing out in the First Semi Final against Nightcliff.
He concedes that coaching in the Top End is a tough gig.

“You’re allowed a maximum of four fly-in players ; there are the boys from the Communities, like Wadeye . You have to make sure they’re picked up, fed and accommodated .My wife Danielle was terrific in helping me with this.  “
“Additionally, the blokes from down south need to be settled in Darwin by October 1. You try to ensure that they all fit into the Club okay……And most of all, hope they can get a kick .…………”IMG_3266
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Rick likes to think his coaching methods were strongly influenced by watching his dad in charge at Mayne. His younger brothers, who  both made a considerable imprint on the game, have also carried the Nolan name with aplomb.
Dan started with Mayne, played 54 games with the Rovers, 100 at St.Mary’s, close to 200 with Heidelberg, and finished with two seasons at Mornington.
Dale’s career followed a similar trajectory – Mayne, St.Mary’s, Heidelberg and Mornington.

Rick will certainly find time this year to visit his 14 year-old son Noah, in Sweden. He’ll also take his usual trip to Bali, to play in the Over-35 Masters Football Carnival.
But the next stage of his career awaits. He’s unsure what it will involve at this stage, but there’s no doubt he’ll remain heavily involved in the game……………..IMG_3254

THE FLYING DOCTOR……….

“The Big Dance……”

It’s been at the back of your mind for months. What a thrill it would be if the Club could maintain its form and win its way into the Grand Final.

You start to make a few sacrifices – go easy on the grog, make a commitment to work a touch harder on the track, heed the coach’s advice to mentally prepare for each game.

The results are there to see. You experience a run of good form, start to snag a few goals, and the side gets it all together, finishing comfortably inside the Final Four, despite losing the Round 18 game by 50-odd points.

Facing the titleholders in the first semi-final, the experts predict that they’ll be too physically powerful, but the boys finish strongly and win in a canter.

The dose is repeated in the Prelim……… The flag is now within touching distance and, as you and your team- mates lock arms and belt out the team song, a nervous – and exciting – wait lays ahead……………

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In mid-September every year, Philip Doherty takes a moment to reflect on that day in 1971, when he helped to change the course of a game of football with some irresistible heroics – and in so doing, probably altered the direction of his life.

I track him down in Albany, the scenic Western Australian coastal city which overlooks the Indian Ocean. He’s been ensconced there for the past three years.

When I suggest that I’d like have a bit of a yarn with him, he reminds me that the last interview we conducted was very late one Saturday night, decades ago, when he was just tentatively emerging in the game.

The headline : “CARROT-HAIRED BEANSTALK IS A RIPPER”, accompanied the article, which detailed his rather tardy arrival on the football scene ; his improvement at Centrals, under a former Rovers player Jack Ramsay ; and his imageblossoming as a key forward with the Hawks.

They dubbed him the ‘Flying Doctor’. At 6’3″ and 13 stone, he was just 18 when he snagged six goals in a Reserves Grand Final. His 85 goals in the two’s had complemented the handy input of one of his partners in attack – a kid called Steve Norman.

Like ‘super-boot’ Steve, ‘Doc’s’ progress was steady.

But both were ready to explode in 1971, as they occupied the key forward posts in a developing Rovers side. Norman was the fast-leading, sure-kicking spearhead ; Doherty the high-leaping, skyscraper-grabbing, enigmatic centre half forward.

‘Doc’s’ a bit hazy about the lead-up to the Grand Final, so I quiz his old coach, Neville Hogan, who has an uncanny ability to recall events of the past at the drop of a hat. I ask him to outline the role that the lanky number 18 played in that finals series:

“One of the rules we implemented before the Prelim Final was that players had to wave their hands above their head when they were on the mark,” Neville says. ” I remember ‘Doc’ just standing there day-dreaming when his opponent, Benalla’s Brian Symes received a free kick early in the game. I screamed out: ‘Put your hands up’. ”

“Symes kicked the ball into him. He grabbed it, swivelled around and snapped a goal. He seemed out of sorts early, but didn’t look back from then on. Marked everything within reach and kicked four for the day – I’m pretty sure Steve kicked five and we went on to win easily.”

“There was a ‘blue’ in the first quarter of the Grand Final and a big fellah from Yarrawonga, Jimmy Bourke, whacked ‘Doc’. He was playing on a bit of a tough customer, Alan Lynch, who was as good a centre half back as there was going around.”

“He had kept him right under control. At three quarter-time we were in real trouble – 20 points down, and Yarra were playing like winners. They had kicked seven goals to one in the third quarter”

“In one of those moves born out of desperation, we shifted Brian O’Keefe to centre half forward and plonked ‘Doc’ in the pocket.”

” I can remember looking up at the scoreboard early in the last quarter. The clock had ticked over to the eight minute mark and ‘Doc’ was lining up for his third goal in five minutes, to give us the lead. He’d taken three spectacular marks and converted each time.”

The Rovers swept to victory, by the comfortable margin of 19 points at siren-time, thus triggering wild delight. It was the beginning of a decade of triumph for the Hawks, but it was to be Philip Doherty’s final game for the club.

North Melbourne secretary-cum recruiting guru, Ron Joseph had watched the finals and, in the midst of the premiership celebrations a few days later, invited him down to Arden Street for the 1972 pre-season.

“I was keen to have a crack at League footy, but sorry to leave my mates at the Rovers,” says ‘Doc’, who had played 43 senior games in the Brown and Gold.

So he left his job in the Spare Parts division of Alan Capp Motors, and walked into a similar role at Kevin Dennis Holden.

The VFL’s controversial zoning system had been in vogue for five years . The Murray Border district was North Melbourne’s allotted area, and other North-East boys, Sam Kekovich (Myrtleford),Vin Doolan, John Perry and David Pretty (Wodonga), Gary Cowton (Benalla), Phil Baker (Rutherglen) and Ross Beale (Yarrawonga) were also training.

‘Doc’s’ premiership team-mate, Mick Nolan and another young Hawk, John Byrne, were lured down to North a year later, so it had become a mini-O & M side.

It was to prove a sensational era of change for North Melbourne. Under the coaching of Brian Dixon, the ‘Roos were only able to snare one win in 1972, but ‘Doc’ would have been quietly pleased with his year.

He broke into the senior side for the last seven games, booted two ‘bags’ of four imagegoals and played a prominent part in the sole victory against South Melbourne.

The season had no sooner finished when it was announced that Ron Barassi was taking over as coach and three top-liners – Doug Wade, John Rantall and Barry Davis, had been lured to the club.

There was an instantaneous transformation, and the discipline instilled by the firebrand, Barassi, altered the culture of the club. They finished just outside the five in 1973, but for ‘Doc’ it proved a disappointment.

He managed just four more senior games, and when North began the wheeling and dealing to recruit W.A champion Barry Cable, his name was thrown up as possible ‘trade bait’ .

Eventually, he was included in a deal involving David Pretty, Michael Redenbach and Doug Farrant being cleared to WANFL club Perth, enabling the legendary Cable to cross the continent to line up with the ‘Roos.

The spacious grounds and near-perfect conditions suited ‘Doc’s’ style. He enjoyed a fine first season and helped Perth to a Grand Final berth against East Fremantle.

Fired by the superb play of first-year on-baller Robert Wiley and with David Pretty also in good touch, the inaccuracy of Doherty possibly contributed to East Freo being still in touch at three quarter-time.

He marked strongly up forward and finished with 5.6, but East ran away in the last term, to win by 22 points, in front of a crowd of 40,000.

After two more seasons with Perth, it was all over. He had moved on to selling cars, which began to consume more and more of his time. That, and an active social life, which he had always been keen to maintain, drew the curtain on the football career of Philip Doherty.

The car game has remained ‘Doc’s’ passion. He owned a business – City Toyota – at one stage and is firmly implanted in the West. He has returned home just four times in the last 42 years.

One of these included a nostalgic visit to the Findlay Oval a couple of years ago, when he enjoyed soaking up the memories of those days of yore………..

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‘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…….

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

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……….

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

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.