” BIG MACCA – LACKADAISICAL……..BUT MAGICAL…..”

Good full forwards come packaged in a variety of shapes and forms.

You have the athletic type who has explosive pace off the mark. He’s able to lead into space, take chest and diving marks not too far from goal – and convert with unerring accuracy…….

Or the player with a sixth sense; slightly-built, almost frail-looking. He can lull his opponent into a false sense of security…….. Until he sneaks away and repeatedly finds his own space, taking easy marks. At the end of the day it staggers you to learn that he’s snagged half a dozen ‘sausages’……

There’s the burly, seemingly overweight, stay-at-home customer, who out-bodies the full back and pulls down big ‘grabs’ in the square; showing a surprising turn of speed when required. He never misses with those ‘clutch’ shots in the vital moments ……..

And the under-sized ‘decoy’, lightning on the lead and with an innate understanding of his role in attack. He opens up the forward line and allows the ‘monsters’ to drop into the goal-mouth…..

Then there’s blokes like Neale McMonigle………..

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‘Big Macca’ was an O & M star in the late-eighties/early-nineties. He was the spearhead in some fine Rovers sides, and a prolific goal-kicker, despite being variously panned by the critics as lazy, unpredictable, moody and ultra-casual .IMG_4078

But the boy could play. As a self-acknowledged member of the ‘Macca Fan Club’, I once attempted a thumb-nail sketch of a day in the life of a football enigma:

“It is an hour before an important match, and the Rovers rooms are abuzz with activity. Balls are being flipped around , hamstrings stretched, players yapping with nervous excitement, skipping and jumping; supporters offering encouragement..

Beneath his number 18 locker, Neale McMonigle sits impassively, munching slowly on a P.K ( he even chews slowly !). You wonder whether he is psyching himself up, or contemplating how the first leg of the double went.

The forward line is Macca’s podium. He will lead with a pace that belies his tall, angular stature and hoof a 60-metre drop-punt through the ‘big sticks’; will move around the square, seemingly with the sulks, position himself in front of a pack, then throw himself forward in a dead-set ‘stage’.

He can hold out an opponent with one hand and balance a miraculous mark with the other. A snap goal, which can come from nothing, will have the fans raving one minute. The next, he is leaning on the post yarning to the goal-umpire, as play swings further afield.IMG_4066

A miss from a set-shot can be equally as frustrating. Then, with hands on hips, he will look skyward and saunter back to the square; privately querying God’s injustice to full-forwards.

He can never really come to terms with umpires who fail to protect forwards, upfield players who ignore his leads, and niggling defenders. Apart from that, he acknowledges, footy’s not a bad game………..

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We catch up for a yap late last week, before I slip down to watch training. Meanwhile, outside, the long-awaited storm has arrived, and the rain’s bucketing down.

“No way known I’d be training in these conditions,” the big fellah says. “I used to ring Laurie (Burt) and say: ‘Mate, I’m snowed under at work. Sorry, I can’t make it.’ “

Training, and a penchant for fitness, was never on his list of priorities. “I often used cricket-practice as an excuse to get out of a bit of pre-season work. I know ‘Burty’ was a wake up to me, but I didn’t want to burn out ! ………“

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I still have visions of Neale’s dad, ‘Long John’ McMonigle, dominating the big-man duels in his 52-game stint with the Rovers.

Clad in the long-sleeved number 24 jumper, the quiet, wavy-haired gentle giant was a vital cog in Bob Rose’s plans. ‘Rosey’ believed his ruck star – one of three Glenrowan players he recruited for his first premiership side – could have played League football, but for his attachment to the bush.IMG_4077

Neale didn’t see John play, and says he’s never elaborated much on his career, other than to once admit that St.Kilda were pretty keen on him…… And that he became well-known for thumping the footy well clear of the centre bounce.

“Apparently he belted the pill so far one day, that his team-mate at centre half forward took it on the full, and the umpie unwittingly paid the mark,” Neale says……..

‘Macca’ won a WJFL Medal, playing with Junior Magpies, then graduated to the Rovers Thirds. The next season, aged 18, he was lining up in the O & M Grand Final, in just his fourth senior game.

“I was pretty raw. Fair dinkum; after Daryl Smith’s pre-match speech the hairs on my neck were standing on end. They picked me at centre half forward, with instructions to just run my opponent around.”IMG_4076

“It worked out alright too, because I was able to ‘snag’ three and we knocked over the warm favourites Benalla, who’d won 15 on the trot.”

Neale played just a handful of senior games the following season, and was then surprisingly lured out to North Wangaratta in 1980.

“I spent the next five years there…….It was probably too early to leave the Rovers, but they’re the sort of decisions you make when you’re a young bloke,” he reflects.

Jason Gorman recalls McMonigle’s first stint with the O & K Hawks: “Robbie Hickmott, Luke Norman, me and my brother all lived near the North ground. We were in our early teens and would ride our bikes there, just to watch ‘Macca’ pulling down his skyscraper marks.”

“There was a strong wind blowing down the ground one game, and he stayed at one end all day. Took about 30 marks. You could hear the opposition yelling out: ‘Don’t kick it near ‘Macca’…….”

He won North’s B & F in 1980, ‘82 and ‘83, and also shared the 1983 Baker Medal . There’s no doubt he had now blossomed into the star he was expected to be, despite his seemingly lackadaisical approach to the game.

So he was talked into returning to the Findlay Oval in 1985. As the Hawks made a charge to the finals, McMonigle was one of their key weapons. His tally of 84 goals during the home-and-away rounds included ‘bags’ of 11 and 10.IMG_4073

He added another 10 in the first two finals, and needed just six goals in the Prelim against Albury to top the magical 100.

“I remember glancing at the honour board on the Thursday night before that game, and thinking: ‘Heck, I don’t deserve to be up there as a Centurion alongside the great Steve Norman’. As it turned out, we lost the Prelim, and I finished up with 98.”

After he followed with another 60 goals in 1986, the Northerners came knocking, and appointed him playing-coach for two seasons.

That was an experience he savoured, but at the end of it, he succumbed to the wiles of Laurie Burt, who convinced him to again pull on the Rovers guernsey.

He didn’t need his arm to be twisted: “I was looking forward to playing under Laurie. He was a coach before his time, such was his knowledge of the game and its tactics.”

“He’d fill our brains with so much info at his game-eve meetings, I’d have to go home and relax with a few beers. I often dragged a couple of the boys along for a drink, too.”

The Hawks batted deep into the finals in 1989 and ‘90, but by 1991, had a superbly-balanced side which rightfully assumed flag favouritism from early in the season.

Never at any stage, though, did Neale ‘stress out’ about his footy. He was about as laid-back as you could be; kicking back with an ale or two and laying a few bets was his way of taking his mind off the game.

“Old Jack Prendergast knew I liked a punt. At the breaks he’d come up to me and say something like: ‘What’d you back in the Third at Caulfield, ‘Macca’……’Number 2 Jack. How’d it go.’ ….’You lucky bugger, it got up by a nose’. “

Neale played his part in the Hawks’ dominant 1991 season by winning the Doug Strang Medal. They recovered from a shock Second Semi-Final defeat to Yarrawonga to blitz the Pigeons in the Grand Final.

At three-quarter time it was feasible that Yarra could still win the game, but ‘Macca’ had other ideas, as he slammed through a 50m drop-punt in the opening minute of the final term. He kicked 4 goals in the last quarter, to finish with seven – and a season tally of 88.IMG_4069

Two of his premiership team-mates, ‘Gormo’ and ‘Hicky’ had been entranced by his high-marking at North Wang a decade earlier.

After 105 games – and 377 goals – with the Rovers, Neale accepted the job as captain-coach of O & K debutants Rutherglen.

“We were near the bottom, at 1-4 after five games. An official said to me one night: “The Committee want to speak to you after training. I thought: ‘Shit, they’re pressing the panic button a bit early here.’ I said: ‘Look, have a bit of faith. Stick with me. And remember: It’s my way or the Highway’.”IMG_4072

Fittingly, on the siren in the final home-and away game, Neale took a mark and slotted a goal to put the ‘Glen into their first finals series.

After two years with Rutherglen, he spent his final year as a player back at North Wangaratta in 1994. He’d chalked up 150-odd games in three stretches at Sentinel Park.

After helping Mark Kilner at Greta for a couple of seasons, he coached King Valley for two seasons, then led Glenrowan in 2007-08.

“I enjoyed playing a part in the development of young kids in the four clubs I was at,” he says. “I regarded it as an honour when each of them approached me to coach.”

‘Macca’s’ most recent sporting involvement was watching his daughters play Netball at Tarrawingee. He and Helen have four girls – Rachelle, Brooke, Kelly and Sarah.

He still follows the footy from a distance, but reckons they’d have  left him  for dead if he’d had to put in the work they do these days. “I just wasn’t made that way,” says ‘Big Macca’…………………..IMG_4074

‘ANDREW GRESKIE’S FLING WITH THE SPORT OF KINGS…..’

Andrew Greskie first savoured the roar of the crowd back in 1973.

He was seven years old, and garbed neatly in Brown and Gold, when he led North Wangaratta through the streamers and balloons, and onto the field, for their first-ever Ovens and King League Grand Final.img_3886

His dad Len, who had enjoyed a stellar career with Wangaratta Rovers, had, four years earlier, been handed the unenviable task of resurrecting the Northerners.

Rock-hard Lennie, the epitome of on-field toughness, played 236 consecutive games -often with a splitting migraine- and figured in four premierships with the Rovers.

Relishing the challenge at his new club, he introduced a brand of ruthlessness and discipline which culminated in this long-overdue premiership.

He would have spared his most special thoughts for young Andrew – who was no doubt nipping at his heels amidst the wild celebrations – and hoped that sometime in the future, the lad might be able to follow suit………..
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But it wasn’t to be…..

“I played Midgets in the same team as North Melbourne’s Darren Steele, and against some future stars in Danny Craven, ‘Pas’ and Mark Stone. That’s my claim to fame. But I don’t think I had what it took to be a player. Besides, at that age, I was more interested in being a jockey.”

Andrew recalls Don Hackett, the sports teacher at Galen despairingly yelling out to him during a training drill: “Nah Greskie,…… You’re gonna be a jockey.”

His interest in the Sport of Kings had initially been fostered by a next-door neighbor Peter Taylor, who was a jockey; and by frequent visits to his uncle, Rex Greskie, the Clerk of the Course at Flemington. His grand-father George provided some of the genetics. He was an old bush ‘hoop’.

Andrew lived on the corner of Scott and Tudgey Streets, just a short jaunt to the Racecourse. He’d sneak through Hal Hoysted’s stables, head across the road, and hang around old horsemen like Paul Erwin, Donny Winzer and Dennis Gray – and the jockeys, Col Matthews, Robbie Beattie, Brian Creed, Brian Johns and Gaye Mullins.

“I loved the smell of the stables; it was just a natural thing. I was drawn to the racing game,” he says.

It was Peter Taylor’s wife Ann who first legged him up onto a horse.

“I was petrified at first. I just hung on for dear life, but after cantering around for a while I thought: ‘How good’s this.’ ”

The die was cast…….
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At the tender age of 15 he secured an apprenticeship with local trainer Dennis Gray. But, with one apprentice already in his stables, Dennis soon reasoned there weren’t enough horses to keep the youngster in work, so he transferred him to Epsom, under Bob Durey.

Then another complication presented itself. Durey decided he’d like to return to race-riding, which again left Andrew in a pickle. Fortunately, a Wangaratta connection, Stephen Aldridge, who was attached to the renowned Hayes stable, put in a good word for him.

Suddenly he was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime, and found himself at Lindsay Park, the plush’ training operations,  at Anguston, 80km from Adelaide, apprenticed to the great Colin Hayes.

“You can imagine; at 15, and so far from home. I was desperately homesick. Some nights, I used to sleep out in the paddock, I was that unsettled. But the Hayes family were really good to me, and, after all, I was living out my dream,” he recalls.

Andrew had created an impression with his talent and eagerness to learn, and had his first race ride just before his 18th birthday. He rode his first winner at Clare, not long after.

“It was a 10/1 shot, and wasn’t really expected to win. One of its stable-mates was the favourite, but when I passed the post first, I think everyone was shocked, more than anything.”

His first city winner followed soon after, when he piloted home Lindsay Park’s Arctic Thunder, which saluted in the Deloraine Graduation.img_3884

From then on, his progress was quite staggering. The winners came along with such regularity that he had already maintained a stranglehold on the Adelaide apprentice’s premiership….. That was until the management of Lindsay Park decided to send him across to Melbourne, in preparation for the Spring Carnival of 1984.img_3885

The consensus was that, as Hayes’ leading apprentice, they’d use Andrew in claiming races ( when apprentices were able to claim weight). It was all rather heady stuff for a lad of 18, to be thrust into the thick of things at the Mecca of racing.

At one stage he was having such a good trot that he was just behind the gifted Darren Gauci, as Melbourne’s leading apprentice.

One of those wins was on Nouvelle Star, which was of particular significance to the Hayes camp, as it was Colin’s first success in a newly-minted partnership with a mega-rich Sheik.

On one unforgettable day, Andrew rode a treble at Sandown and was just pipped for a fourth win at the same meeting. He was flying, and admits he enjoyed the glamour of it all.

“But then, there was the other side. If you were on the favourite and you got pipped, the punters would give you a hard time. So there was always heaps of pressure……”

There were times, also, when he fell foul of the stewards: “ I always tried my guts out when I was riding – especially as an apprentice – and it resulted in a few suspensions. I learned to control myself a bit more in later years.”

The danger attached to his profession was never far away. “I got knocked out at Murray Bridge one day, and spent a night in hospital. Then there was the time I went through the rails in a race at Victoria Park…… But that was all part of the game.”

He reflected that, whilst regular winners gave him confidence in his ability, it also made him a touch big-headed.

“I was playing up a bit, and started to put on weight,” he says. Inevitably, the stable elected to send him back to Adelaide.

His health began to detoriate , and he decided to return home to Wangaratta, where he eventually recuperated, resumed full fitness and got down to his riding weight.

So he headed back for another crack at Adelaide racing. The Hayes stable offered to take him back on board, but instead, he began riding freelance for a few years ; in particular, forming a fruitful association with leading trainer David Balfour.

“I had one of my best wins for David,” he says, pointing to a photo of the Adelaide Guineas of 1990, a Listed race, in which he guided Faraday to victory in a blanket-finish.img_3887

“Have a look at the blokes behind me there,” he says, with a hint of nostalgia……”Harry White, Greg Hall, Rod Griffiths, Peter Hutchieson…..All champs in their own right.”img_3888

Andrew enjoyed a high sporting profile in Adelaide, and loved the lifestyle.

“I always liked a good time,” he says. “I used to knock around with a few of the Glenelg footballers – blokes like Kernahan, McDermott, McGuiness, Cornesy and also the actor Gary Sweet, who was tied up with Glenelg.”

“We’d regularly go to a disco called ‘Lenny’s’. It’d be rocking of a week-end. I suppose that’s not ideal when you’re a jockey, and trying to keep your weight under control…………”

He was only 26 when health problems again intervened – and put paid to – his glittering career in the saddle. He’d ridden more than 500 winners – roughly 120 of those on city tracks…….
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Andrew re-settled in Wangaratta – to be back with his family. He remains a relatively anonymous figure in his home town, but on his regular visits to the races, is rapt to catch up with old acquaintances.

He was at a Wangaratta meeting about five years ago, when David Hayes, who had a couple of horses running, stopped for a yarn about old times and enquired about his health.

The following day he received a phone call from Tom Dabernig – David’s nephew and training partner – offering him a job at the stable’s re-located operations, 16km from Euroa.

He’s been there ever since, working on Track Maintenance at Lindsay Park, under manager Richard Nettleton. A usual day sees him up at 5.30am, making the hour-long trek to Lindsay Park, working until 3.30pm, before heading home to Wang.

“It’s a busy place,” Andrew says. “They’ve got about 120 horses there at present, and there’s always plenty going on……. I’ve just got to resist the urge to jump on a horse……..”img_3891

‘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