Just before the moths did too much damage, Alan Bell packed away an old Black and Gold footy guernsey. It’s survived a couple of house-shifts, is 63 years old…..and is a reminder of the day he tangled with the greatest ruckman he’s ever seen.
It was July 1954. Proudly representing the Ovens and Murray for the first time, he glanced across the centre circle at the Albury Sportsground, and spotted a lithe, dark-complexioned fellow from East Perth – not overly-tall and seemingly still in his teens.
“He’s proceeded to jump all over me for a half. He was deftly palming the ball left, right and centre, and seemed to have mental telepathy with his rovers. I couldn’t get near the footy.”
“John Zeibarth from Albury saved me at half-time. ‘Give me a crack at this bloke,’ he said. But he fared no better.”
“It was my introduction to ‘Polly’ Farmer………..”
Alan was a butcher for the entirety of his working life. His dad, Les, opened Bell’s Butchery in Warby Street way back in 1929, and for as long as he can remember, Alan was helping out. At the tender age of nine a basket was fixed onto his bike and he began delivering meat before school.
And when he started working full-time, one of his many tasks was to yoke up the Horse and Lorry and be ready to head to the Market before 6am.
“We lived just around the corner, in Moore Street. I loved my footy, so when I was old enough to play in the Junior League , I joined Imperials, to whom I was residentially tied,” he says.
Imps won the flag in 1948 and Alan took out the League Best & Fairest. His next move, he thought, was to the Magpies.
“But they obviously didn’t rate me very highly on the strength of a couple of training runs. Fate intervened; your Dad ( Len ) was coaching the Rovers and asked me if I’d like a game. Best move I ever made.”
He played at full back in the Rovers’ 1949 O & K Grand Final loss to Myrtleford. The following year he lined up at centre half forward for the Hawks’ debut match in the O & M..
With fellahs like Les Clarke and ‘Demon’ Ottrey, ‘Dinger’ helped to create, and drive, the playing culture of the Wangaratta Rovers in the early fifties.
In tough times, they were the heart of the Club. Wins were scarce in the first couple of years, and when they did cause the occasional upset, celebrated it with gusto.
“Most Saturday nights, after the pubs closed, we’d head up to the Taminick Gap. I’d grab an armful of sausages from the shop, we’d set fire to a Blackboy and have a ‘barby’, washed down with a few cleansing ales. They were good times,” Alan recalls.
For the next seven years he was a constant in the side, playing at either end of the ground, or – despite standing only 5’11” and weighing 14 stone – proving a tough obstacle in the ruck. To coin a phrase, he was a more than useful utility player.
He spent the entirety of his playing career in Brown and Gold , except for one year – 1955.
At 23, and not long married to Joan, he accepted the coaching position at Whorouly. “I wasn’t hitting it off too well with the Rovers coach at that time, and thought it’d be good to have a break.
“The coaching aspect of it was fine. They were a great club, but it was the wettest winter we’d had for decades.”
“I’d drive Dad’s car out, and had to take the detour to North Wang, because of the floods, then go via Bowman’s Forest to get to Whorouly for training. It proved a long year.”
He stepped back into the senior side and was inspired, as the brilliant ‘Mr.Football’ weaved his magic, and became the catalyst behind the Hawks’ rise to the top.
Alan again represented the O & M, against the South-West League in 1958, but was starting to struggle for fitness. The long hours at work began to take effect and he was squeezed out of the Hawks’ side on the eve of their glorious 1958 finals campaign.
Like a few other stalwarts, he had dreamed of sharing in a Rovers Premiership. He received some consolation the following week, when he and his mate Keith Ottrey led the Reserves to an easy flag win over Albury.
Alan took over the running of the Butchery later that year , which meant that he’d no longer be able to cope with the hefty demands of footy training. After a couple of senior games early in 1959, he spent his last two years helping out the Reserves.
His old mates often joked that the biggest contribution he made to the Rovers, was to sire a trio of star footballers.
Alan admits that the boys gave he and Joan a terrific ‘ride’, as their careers stretched from the Findlay Oval – and beyond……..
Gary was barely 16 when he was thrust into the Rovers senior team upon the completion of a season with Junior League club, Tigers. He’d played just six games when he lined up on a half back flank in the 1972 O & M Grand Final.
“It was a bruising affair, that one,” Alan recalls. “Someone ran through Gary early on, but he bounced back and ended up playing fairly well.”
“The next night there was a knock on the door. It was North Melbourne Secretary Ron Joseph, who’d been at the game, and thought he was tough enough and good enough to be invited down to Arden Street.”
He returned to the Rovers to play his part in three more flags. After 107 games with the Hawks, he headed to Milawa as assistant-coach.
Gary was working at Dartmouth, when he was tragically killed in a vehicle accident in 1984. “The saddest day of our lives,” Alan says. “You never get over it……..”
Graeme and Trevor, of course, are identical twins. They often twisted this to their advantage, particularly on the cricket field. Alan laughs about the day that Trevor -the better bowler of the pair – once sent down four overs in succession ( two from each end).
Graeme, who was regarded as superior with the willow, then opened the batting, and also took Trevor’s spot at number eight in the same innings.
They’ve always had a keen sibling rivalry. When I asked Trev if he agreed with my summation that they were: ’ ….Tall and lean…adaptable…strong in the air…superb on the deck…and with ample pace….’ he said that sounded okay, but suggested I point out that he had a touch more ability………
They’d been part of the furniture at the Findlay Oval since they could walk. And when the O & M’s Thirds competition started in 1973, were the first pair to sign up.
At 17, Trevor slotted in as full back in the Rovers senior line-up. Moved upfield in succeeding years, he received the umpire’s accolade as BOG in the 1977 and ‘78 Premiership wins.
After he had starred in another flag triumph, he was wooed by SANFL club, Norwood.
“ The night before Trev had to make his decision about moving to Adelaide, he sat in his bedroom and, as he mulled it over, drank a bottle and a half of wine. He couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the Rovers,” Alan recalls.
He was lured back to the Hawks in 1980, before clearances closed, in their pursuit of a fourth successive flag, but returned to Norwood the following year.
After three seasons with the Redlegs, he had six years with Athelston, in the Adelaide Hills competition. Trevor still runs his own electrical business in Adelaide.
Graeme also developed into a fine all-round player. His greatest thrill in footy was undoubtedly figuring in the 1978 and ‘79 Premiership teams, alongside Gary and Trevor.
A Life-Member of the Club, like his dad, Graeme’s involvement continued long after retirement, with the Past Players Association.
It’s been a tough year for Alan Bell, who lost Joan, his wife of 64 years, a few months ago. When the family gathers at Christmas there’ll no doubt be some sombre moments, but you can back it in it won’t take long before they start to see the brighter side of life………………