“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……………
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 blossoming 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 goals 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………..