Of the 689 players who have trod the hallowed turf as senior representatives of the Wangaratta Rovers Football Club, I have seen a large percentage of them. Does that make me an expert? Far from it.
But between Jackie Dillon, Freddie Booth, ’Doodles’ Dodemaide and my dad, who were part of the very first O & M team, to the latest debutant, a skinny, shaggy-haired 18 year-old boy called Mitch Horwood, there has been an enticing cavalcade of stars.
I had the job of selecting ‘22 of the Best’. There was only one proviso. They had to have played 60 games or more. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
Well, the more I deliberated, the more complicated it became. So many famous Hawks had a legitimate claim for selection that I weakened. What if I include two teams and label it ’44 of the Best’? Here is the first instalment- 1-22:
MATTHEW ALLEN was a champion full back with a strong pair of hands and an unorthodox, but efficient, kicking style. The Byawatha farmer, after dominating in defence for years, spent a couple of seasons at full forward, kicking 14 goals in a game and 80 goals in a season. Retired as the O & M’s games record-holder (416).
MARK BOOTH was a nuggety and skilled rover who was born to be a Hawk. Broke into the Rovers side at 16 and played more than 300 games. He figured in 5 premiership teams. It should have been 6, but for a moment of uncontrolled passion against a Yarrawonga player in 1988. A triple Best & Fairest winner.
A bustling centreman and prolific kick-winner despite his lack of pace, LAURIE BURT was recruited from Coburg in 1984.he took over as the Rovers’ playing-coach in 1987 and remained as coach for 11 years. Renowned for his football nous, superb tactical brain and great determination. He coached 4 flags and was a renowned leader of young men. Played 152 games.
NORM BUSSELL debuted with the Hawks in 1961. Seven years later he joined Hawthorn, where he played 114 games and was centre half back in their 1961 premiership team. He returned to the Rovers in 1974 as assistant-coach and had a huge influence. A strong and rangy key defender, he played 143 games, won 2 B & F’s and featured in 4 premiership teams.
MICHAEL CARUSO was a rover with fitness and nous and had pinpoint disposal. Originally from Maryborough, he established a reputation as one of the club’s greatest small men. Won two Simpson Medals as best afield in the 1991 and ’93 Grand Finals and played in 4 flags in his 265 games. Coached the Hawks with success for three years.
Labelled the ‘Iron Man’, LES CLARKE was a fearless and flexible utility player who plugged many gaps in the struggling Rovers sides of the early ‘50’s. His durability was legendary. He was vice-captain to Bob Rose in the 1958 and ’60 flags, and best afield in the 1958 decider, slotting into a role in the back pocket. Played 179 games.
Built like an Italian weight-lifter, LAURIE FLANIGAN could withstand the rough-house tactics of frustrated opponents, then calmly rip the heart out of a side with a burst of inspired football. He possessed an explosive left foot which netted him 238 goals from 129 games. A big occasion player, he starred in two premiership wins.
LES GREGORY dazzled crowds with his artistry on the wing in his 186 games. Lightning fast and able to turn on a three-penny bit,he was highly-regarded by Bob Rose, who said he would be a walk-up start to play League football. He had a few games with St.Kilda in 1959, but returned home. He played in 4 premiership teams.
With a distinctive loping running gait, LEIGH HARTWIG had a deceptive turn of pace which enabled him to match the fleetest of opponents. He became a champion winger, but was able to be swung anywhere with ease. Had an ungainly kicking style, but was accurate enough to kick 187 goals. Was rarely out marked. Played in 5 flags and won 2 B & F’s in his 252 games.
Tough, versatile and, at times, spectacular, ANDREW HILL was the Hawk’s outstanding player post-Walker, but would have been a star in any era. He was drafted to Collingwood in 2002, but returned after one season. A 5-time Best and fairest winner, he played 254 games – and rarely a bad one.
A gifted centreman, NEVILLE HOGAN was a prolific ball-getter and deadly accurate left-foot kick. His list of honours include 4 Club Best and Fairest awards and the 1966 Morris Medal. His 6 premierships included four as a highly-acclaimed captain-coach. His 246 games were of the highest class. Inducted as a Legend of the O & M.
A plain-speaking dairy-farmer from Carboor, MERV HOLMES played 302 uncomprimising games at centre half back from 1972 to 1986. He featured in six premiership teams and coached the Hawks for two years. Opponents quaked in their boots at the prospect of lining up on ‘Farmer’, who took no prisoners and was the epitome of toughness.
MICHAEL NOLAN played 101 games for the Rovers. His hefty frame, which was sometimes the subject of derision, belied the deftness of his tap work. His casual manner was transformed into ultra-competitiveness once he crossed the white line. Controlled the centre bounces in 2 flag wins and was a dual B & F. Later to become a cult figure at North Melbourne.
The Rovers played largely with makeshift forwards until the emergence of athletic STEVE NORMAN, who kicked 1016 goals in 242 games. Norman had the knack of finding open space on the lead and was a deadly-accurate kick for goal. He topped the century in 3 seasons and played in 7 premiership teams.
The sublimely-skilled NEVILLE POLLARD enjoyed two stints at the Rovers, sandwiched between a seven-year coaching term at Milawa. The younger Pollard was the focus of League talent scouts. In his second-coming he was a dependable, seasoned champion. He won two B & F’s and played in two flags in his 139 games with the Hawks.
BOB ROSE was rated the best footballer in Australia when he was appointed coach in 1956. He transformed the culture of the Club. One of football’s legendary figures, people would travel long distances just to watch him play. Won 2 Morris Medals, 4 B & F’s and coached two flags in his 126 unparalleled games.
A classy ruck-rover and half forward, ANDREW SCOTT played 6 games for Hawthorn before moving to Wangaratta in his job as a policeman in 1975. He enjoyed a brilliant debut season with the Rovers, winning the Morris Medal and playing a match-winning last quarter in the Grand Final. A crowd-favourite and great clubman he numbered 4 premierships among his 181 games.
Versatile DARYL SMITH was recruited from Hastings in 1972. Earned his reputatuion as a centre half forward, but was adept in most positions. Strong, and a good leader, he succeeded Neville Hogan as captain-coach in 1977 and guided the Club to the first of 3 successive flags. Won 2 B & F’s and 6 flags in his 195 games.
You would back RAY THOMPSON against anyone in a marking contest. With hands the size of meat-plates, he could kick the ball a country mile. Played his early football as a back-pocket/resting ruck man, but later became a top centre half forward. A knee injury cut short his career after 143 games, three premierships and a B & F.
PETER TOSSOL was recruited from Melbourne in 1985 and proved a brilliant, strong and courageous ruck-rover. Had a great ‘feel’ for footy, was the ultimate team-man and gave everything in 211 games. A four-time runner-up B & F and regular inter-league rep, he played in 3 flags and returned as coach in 2004 after a successful stint at Corowa-Rutherglen.
In numerical terms, ROBBIE WALKER is indisputably the most decorated footballer in O & M history. He won 12 club Best and Fairests and 5 Morris Medals. He played in 4 premierships as a hard-running centre half forward before playing another decade as a midfielder. Throughout his career he was considered the best country footballer in Australia. Played 307 games.
His two brothers were also stars, but JOE WILSON had the ability to turn a game with his unique skills. Slightly-built and best-suited as an on-baller, he was brilliant at stoppages. He spent time at the Brisbane Bears and should have played League football. Played 240 games, won one B & F and shared in 4 premierships.
NEXT WEEK: PART II (Players 23-44)