INDEFATIGABLE HOPPER VETERAN SOLDIERS ON…

I fork over 10 bucks and enter the Moyhu Oval, on this chilly, forbidding late-July afternoon.

It’s a middle-of-the-road clash between the Hoppers and Bright. Both teams realise that they’ll need a minor miracle to force their way into the O & K finals.

But, for the loser today, it’s definitely curtains.

Doesn’t sound too riveting, does it ? But it develops into a darned good tussle and both sides handle the slippery conditions really well. It’s still in the balance early in the last quarter, but Moyhu gain some crucial possessions, kick a couple of vital goals and draw away to win by four goals.

I’m seeing a few players in action for the first time today, and it’s always interesting to put faces to the names you’ve read about.

Then there’s a trio of super-veterans from Moyhu. Andrew Balfour, Peter Sullivan and Anthony Welsh have all had terrific careers and are still picking up a kick or two.

“They call us the Three Fossils,” says Welshy, who, at 38, concedes a few years to 41 year-old ‘Balf’, a veteran of 359 games and 5 flags ; and ‘Sully’, 42, who has racked up 309 games.

Being a North Melbourne fan, Anthony Welsh is quite tickled when I suggest he reminds me of a poor man’s Todd Goldstein. “Ah well, I am a left-handed knock ruckman and a left-foot kick and I like to ruck all day. That’s about where the similarities end, though,” he says.

He admits he wouldn’t have minded being blessed with a portion of the 20 centimetre height advantage that ‘Goldy’ holds over him.

Most weeks he gives away height and weight to his opposite number in the ruck, but it’s a spring-heeled leap that stands him in good stead.

He got reported and sent off for tripping in the third quarter on Saturday. “First time ever,” he says.

The ump was convinced by the players that there was nothing in the incident, and rescinded the report after the game.

So he’ll be lining up for the crucial match against Tarrawingee on Saturday, and adding to the 170-odd games that he’s already played in the Green and Gold guernsey.

“It’s a good club, Moyhu, and they’ve been really good to me. I’m keen to reach the 200-mark.”

Sounds like you’ve got no intention of giving it away any time soon, I ask. “No, not when you love footy as much as I do.”

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When I catch up with him, ‘Welshy’ is wearing one of the special North Melbourne jumpers that had been produced to commemorate Brent Harvey’s record-breaking game against St.Kilda. He had just come from helping out at Auskick. I gather, once we get going, that he’d talk footy till the cows come home.

He’s from the northern suburbs of Melbourne, like ‘Boomer’. He was 13 when he headed down to Macleod Football Club to have a game. “The old man said, if you’re gunna play, you might as well take your brothers down as well. So they recruited 5 of us. My two sisters tagged along, too.”

He moved to Preston RSL to play in the U.15’s and U.17’s, playing in the ruck and palming the ball down to a tiny kid who sometimes ran the length of the field, bouncing the pill as if it was attached to him, dodging and weaving and kicking goals.

It was ‘Boomer’ Harvey.

“Neil, his dad, was the trainer. A real tough bastard who knew his footy and worked us hard, even though we were young kids.”

The next stop for ‘Boomer’ was the Northern Knights, then the AFL – and stardom. ‘Welshy’ also had a few runs with the Knights, but was dropped from their list and instead, moved to North Heidelberg, where he played a season, alternating between the Under 19’s and Reserves.

He took three years off, and it was only when he moved to Seymour, that he decided to have another kick. “My brother was playing at Nagambie. I went out to watch him one day, and one of the fellahs threw me a guernsey and said you might as well have a game too.”

In three seasons with the KDFL club he won a B & F and played in a losing Grand Final, then spent a year with Seymour, where he acquitted himself well.

“Kylie (his partner) has family in Wang, so we ended up here in 2004. I was working out at Merriwa Industries and Pete Hawkins asked if I played footy. The next thing, Damien Sheridan has visited me at the Parfitt Road Caravan Park and I’m training with Moyhu.”

It would be simple to say that the romance between ‘Welshy’ and the Hoppers was made in heaven, but that wasn’t quite the way it worked out. There have been plenty of ups and downs in the ensuing 13 years.

He transferred to North Wangaratta in 2008, but lasted eight games. “I don’t think we were cut out for one another, ” he says, and leaves it at that.

Then there was his three-year stint with newly-admitted O & K club Tatong, from 2010-12, where he won a B & F, was runner-up twice and was rarely out of the best players..

But in his nine years with Moyhu he has played some outstanding football. His main attributes, I’m told, are that he’s never beaten, is a combined ruckman/ ruck-rover, picks up plenty of possessions and plays a kick behind play to perfection.

Damien Sheridan recalls that when he signed him,’Welshy’ was looking for a club to call home: “His contribution for two hours each Saturday has been unreal. He embraced the footy side of the club, but the social aspect doesn’t excite him that much.”

‘Shero’ points out that ‘Welshy’ has won four Best & Fairests, but it could have easily been five.

“I can only recall him missing a couple of games. One was with a broken knuckle. The other was when his dog cleared off one Saturday morning and he went looking for it . I called to pick him up and he was nowhere to be seen.”

“We had to go on without him. That game probably cost him the B & F, as he missed out by one vote. He won the Baker Medal in 2007, in what was a terrific year for him, but I believe the games that he’s defined by, were the ’05 and ’06 Grand Finals.”

” We beat Whorouly by 52 points in 2006. Gerard Nolan and Shane Moore kicked 10 goals between them, but ‘Welshy’ got the vote for best afield. He was fantastic.”

The newspaper report of the game lauded him: “…..Ruckman Welsh conceded height and battled for taps against Whorouly’s Adam Pascoe and Paul Glanville. But around the ground he was outstanding and drove the ball long with his left foot each time he got a possession…….”

Naturally, he celebrated the flag with considerable gusto.

Anthony Welsh says that his partner, Kylie, is his sternest critic. “She’s never missed a game and she well and truly lets me know if I’m playing below par.”

One of the Moyhu boys claims that if Kylie is unhappy with his performance, she’ll flick the car headlights on and off.

“That stirs him up,” he said .

Anthony Welsh has been one of the Ovens and King League’s most colorful characters and the Moyhu line-up without the gangling, long-armed number 55 wouldn’t seem the same to Hopper fans.

A solid 100 minutes of footy and a few frothies afterwards, is his ideal way of spending a winter Saturday ……..

TOUGHER THAN………BLUESTONE

The Wangaratta area has nurtured a host of champion footballers. You could argue for hours about who has been the pick of the bunch if you throw up names such as John Brady, Lance Oswald, Bert Mills, Steve Johnson and Nigel Lappin.

Each of them carved blue-ribbon reputations as genuine VFL/AFL champions among the 80-odd local players who tested themselves in the big-time.

But I want to profile a bloke who must surely lay claim to being the toughest of all-time.

His name? Robert Edwin Flanigan, or, to give him his popular pseudonym – ‘Bluestone’.

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Bob Flanigan was born at Myrrhee in 1914, one of 14 kids reared on the family farm. Most of the ten boys  started with Myrrhee, which numbered 160 residents at that stage,and were to become star footballers. Les (‘Tiny’) played at Peechelba, whilst most of the others, like Harold (‘The Kid’), Ron (‘Tup’), Ken (‘Plugger’) and Jack moved on to become part of the champion Moyhu teams of the thirties.

Bob always rated Harold as the best country footballer he’d ever seen. “He could high jump over six feet.He won foot-races all over the district.He kicked beautifully. The trouble was, Harold wouldn’t leave the farm.” Bob once said.

Bob went to work on his uncle’s farm at Carboor and was recruited to Milawa. He later played a few games with Wangaratta.

Jack was the first of the Flanigan boys to try his luck in VFL football. He cracked it for 5 games with Hawthorn in 1930.

He and Jim arrived home from Melbourne one week-end and insisted Bob come down to join them. The League lists had been completed when he arrived,so he stripped with Sunday League team, Alphington. In his first game with them he booted 17 goals and was soon swamped with offers from League clubs.

Eventually he was coaxed to Footscray by their coach, Sid Coventry, who lived in the same street as his brothers.Coventry said : “I think I can fit you in”.

So he became a Bulldog in 1936 and he created an immediate impression. Standing 5 feet, 9 inches and tipping the scales at 11½ stone, he was a ball of muscle and attacked the ball with a frenzy that unnerved opponents.

One of his team-mates, Joe Ryan, labelled him ‘Road Metal”, because he reckoned he was as tough as a lump of rock.He settled in at centre half back,often conceding up to six inches to wary opposition key forwards.

Renowned tough man,Bob Chitty always said that, compared with Flanigan, he,Jack Dyer , ‘Basher’ Williams and ‘Tarzan’ Glass were mere creampuffs.

Flanigan once explained his playing style. “I was never very fast and was not a big fellow,so I had to make up for these deficiencies with pure aggression. Being tough was the only way you could survive in those days.”

“Times were bad and at least half the players were out of work. Most of us were playing for our tucker.The three pounds a week we were getting was about the only income we had.”

“You had to be mean,because if you weren’t,you knew there was always someone waiting to take your place.”

Although he held his own with football’s iron-men, there were many people who thought that the ‘human battering-ram’ was too tough for his own good.

Apart from inflicting plenty of damage on opponents,he managed to break a few of his own bones. Whilst at Footscray he broke his nose, collarbone, jaw and ankle.

But he proved worthy of his nickname during the 1937 season, when he was flattened at training one night by team-mate Stan Livingstone and carried off on a stretcher with a fractured skull.

He was transported to hospital, where doctors battled to save his life. Flanigan recalled years later that it was touch-and-go whether he would pull through. “The doctors told me that I was definitely washed-up as a footballer and that there could be some brain damage.”

“Road-Metal” Flanigan played again in nine weeks,prompting a public outcry that he should be forced to retire.

It was little wonder, with the number and severity of his injuries,that he played just 49 games in 5 seasons with the Bulldogs. And when he damaged the cartilage in his left knee, Footscray decided that he was no longer worth the risk.

“The club is tired of paying for everything bar his burial”, the Footscray Advertiser reported.

So Flanigan transferred to Essendon,in a move that was to revitalise his career. Bombers’ coach Dick Reynolds, who re-named him ‘Bluestone’, placed him on a half back flank and urged him to use his vigour and strength to advantage.

A left-footer, who loved charging downfield,he starred in the 1942 premiership win and played in the 1941 and ’43 Grand Finals. He was runner-up best and fairest to the legendary Reynolds in 1942 and won the Most Consistent and Most Effective awards.

Flanigan believed that he missed the publicity of the other renowned tough-men of football because he never got reported.

“I was reported only once in 10 years and beat the charge”, he recalled years later. But he reckoned he was lucky to get off the day he ‘pegged-out’ North Melbourne ruckman, Archie ‘Cast-Iron’ Kemp at Arden Street.

“I’d clashed with Kemp during the game,so he switched to the half forward line and started niggling me. He was about twice my size,but eventually I couldn’t take it any longer.”

“I still reckon that punch moved the big bloke about six feet.He got up again, but didn’t re-appear again after half-time”.

Flanigan retired from League football,aged 31, in 1945,having played 91 games. He accepted a coaching appointment in Morwell and finally hung up his boots in 1952.

There he resided until he lost a long battle with cancer in  1988.

The Flanigan footballing dynasty continued through the ages.Among the descendants, Ian played with Greta and the Rovers, Cliff with Greta and Tarrawingee; Laurie and Des were part of premierships with the Rovers, Darren was a 138-game AFL player with Geelong and, briefly, St.Kilda and Damien was a star with Greta.

And Hawthorn’s Mitch Hallahan, a great-great nephew of ‘Bluestone’, has already won a VFL Liston Medal, and made his debut with Hawthorn this year.

There may never be another ‘Bluestone’ Flanigan. The  reputation he created as a genuine Iron-Man of football will live on.
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DOODLES – A MAN OF SPIRIT

He was a connoisseur of a cold ale and a tall tale.

One of those blokes who are priceless within a footy club for the role they play behind the scenes and the levity they introduce when things start to get a bit grim. He was,as they say – ‘a bit of a character’.

Ken Dodemaide left us in 1999, but his links with the Rovers had stretched back to the club’s infancy. He could regale you with stories of the great players over the years, but remind you that he was right up there with them when talent was handed out.

‘Doodles’ joined the Rovers in 1945, after he had returned from repelling the Japs (‘almost single- handed’) in New Guinea.

He had played with King Valley and Moyhu before the war and claimed he once upended the toughest of them all, ‘Bluestone’ Flanigan, with a hefty shirtfront that he described in graphic detail.

He was a ‘rough-nut’, no doubt, and a valuable protector for his young team-mates, many of whom were still attending school. Kenny had the honour of being the Rovers first-ever best and fairest winner, in 1945.

He would have made it a double the following year, he said, only that officials had misplaced the voting card from one match. “Best afield by a country mile”, he always claimed.

He had taken a pause from fighting during the war to propose, via a letter, to his sweetheart, Betty. Three years later they tied the knot and settled in Orwell Street, where they raised their kids and spent the rest of their lives.

Many years later, ‘Doodles’ would testify that Orwell Street boasted more Ovens and Murray footballers per-capita than any other street in Wangaratta. “And the further up the street they got, the tougher they were. I lived at the top of the street.”

He was vice-captain of the Rovers 1948 premiership team and, as a hard-hitting utility, was a key player. He would have been a bugger to play on. My father, who was his coach, reckoned that there were better players than Ken, but none had more spirit. Dad rated him highly and maintained a close friendship with him over the decades.

I’m willing to bet that ‘Doodles’ would have been the star turn at the post-match just as he was when celebrating the Hawks’ other 15 flags.

He had played just on 90 games with the Rovers when they gained admittance to the Ovens and Murray League in 1950. Age, which is the great steadier, began to take its toll on him and, after 11 more senior games he decided to hang up his boots.

He acted as a trainer for four years. Imagine those hands, calloused from his work as a concreter and brick-layer, manipulating your tender hammy or calf !

When the club moved from the Showgrounds to the Cricket Ground in the early fifties, Ken and blokes like Harry Armstrong and Spud Patat spent countless hours converting a hovel of a building into what became the base of the present Clubrooms.

Just for good measure, they set to and constructed wooden seats which ringed the oval. And volunteered for any other jobs that needed to be done.

‘Doodles’ was a top seller of raffle tickets, but had to admit his efforts paled into insignificance compared to those of his sister. ‘Little Alice’, as everyone called her, was confined to a wheelchair, but this didn’t deter her from extraordinary devotion to the club.

She had been her brother’s greatest fan when he was playing, but, long after he retired, remained one of the most familiar figures around the club.

‘Doodles’ had an endless repertoire of stories which he was only too willing to expound upon. There were the two Eldorado Gifts that he won (“the tape bruised my chest I was travelling that fast”), the 500-odd games of cricket he played with West End (including 4 hat-tricks, the last of them at 59). He would tell of how he treated Doug Ring, later to play cricket for Australia, with disdain when he gave the champion leggie a mauling in a pick-up match in New Guinea.

A 10-rounder he fought during the war with the world number three Andre Famechon (Johnny’s dad), only to lose on points, always rated a mention. As did the day he took Footscray star Harry Hickey apart in a match in the sweltering conditions of the tropics.

He also excelled as a tennis player and woodchopper and the Council Club’s tug-of-war team would not have performed the deeds it did without him, he insisted.

But there was another side to him. For 40 years he made it his mission to visit veterans and war widow patients at the Hospital and people raved about his warmth and compassion in this role.

He would not allow a bad word to be said about the Rovers Football Club and its players. Many a critic was stopped in his tracks by a stinging outburst from ‘Doodles’.

He was nearing the end when he asked if he could be taken out of his bed to watch the Rovers play an important match against Wangaratta. He got a kick out of the players making a fuss of him before the game, but he couldn’t last the distance and had to be taken back to hospital.

A few days later, this toughest of old Hawks died.

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