‘PIGEON BERT REFLECTS ON A LIFE-TIME CAREER IN FOOTBALL……….’

If you’re trying to track down Robert Tait of a Monday morning, chances are you’ll find him raking leaves, emptying the rubbish bins, or tidying up the Yarrawonga rooms after the week-end’s footy.

His is a familiar tale, replicated by countless volunteers throughout the state ……. Of the old champ, having hung up his boots after a storied career, rolling up his sleeves and devoting decades of service to his beloved Club.

The majestic Murray River meanders alongside the Pigeons’ J.C.Lowe Oval…..Yet ‘Taity’s’ football fairytale was enacted about thirty-five miles upstream.

As a 17 year-old schoolboy he played his part in possibly the Ovens and Murray’s greatest rags-to-riches story – Corowa’s ascent from wooden-spooners to 1968 premiers………

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‘Bert’ was born and bred on a farm at Rennie – an equidistant 17 miles from Yarra and Corowa. The Hoppers are a proud bush Club; winners of 15 premierships and best known as the spiritual home of the legendary Jimmy Sandral.

“Kids from Rennie played their cricket in Yarrawonga and gravitated to Corowa for footy. So I lined up with the Corowa Under 15’s,” he recalls.

His progress was rapid, to say the least. At 14, he was elevated to the Spiders’ senior line-up for three games. He was still making his way in the game a couple of years later, when Corowa pulled off a stunning recruiting coup, landing Richmond’s reigning premiership skipper Freddie Swift as captain-coach.

“I remember how excited we all were when he came to watch us in the final round of ‘67. He wasn’t even deterred by the fact that Wangaratta belted us by more than 17 goals.”

Swift was given an assurance that incumbent coach John Hoiles would hang around. He helped the Spiders handpick recruits Ike Isley ( from Bendigo, via St. Kilda ), brilliant rover Jack Clancy (Heidelberg) and Lindsay Jacob (Walla).

Corowa were sitting fifth coming into the last round of 1968, and had to defeat fourth-placed Wangaratta by 10-12 goals to sneak into the finals…….They won by 15, to secure their spot.

They came from 22 points down at half-time to defeat North Albury in the First Semi…… were dead level at three quarter-time in the Prelim, against a physically-imposing Myrtleford, then went on to win by four goals……..

The Spiders were into the Grand Final……….

“We had a heap of young blokes under 21…….George Tobias, Terry Phibbs, Denis Hutton, ‘Chizza’, Freddie Longmire, Jeff McLean and myself……We were all in awe of what was happening, and the town was at fever-pitch…..We hadn’t won a flag in 36 years……..” Bert recalls.

“I remember us heading over to Wangaratta for the Grand Final, stopping at North Wang, stretching our legs, and getting back on the Bus where Ovens Ford’s now located……There were 12,000 people at the Rovers Ground that day, and the majority of them were convinced that Wodonga would belt us…..”

It certainly looked that way at quarter-time. The Dogs, the reigning premiers, kicked 4.5 to 0.3 with the aid of a strong breeze. But Corowa gained the ascendancy in the second, and it was nip and tuck from then on.

A great 50-yard goal from Kevin Witherden and a skilful snap from Lindsay Jacob sealed the game for the Spiders, who hung on to win a classic by seven points.

“On the trip home we got off the Bus at Wahgunyah, all climbed on the back of one of Bernie Bott’s semi-trailers and drove across the bridge, up the Main Street to the Town Hall, where they introduced us to an enormous crowd ……I was still at school; it was a bit hard to get your head around …….”

“The celebrations went on for a week……Geez, the older you get, the better it feels..It’s still like a dream……“

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Bert landed his first job not long after, with Livestock Company, Australian Estates, in Yarrawonga.

He spent the next couple of years travelling back to play with Corowa, then got called up for National Service, which took a slice out of his ‘72 season.

“Luckily for me, Gough Whitlam won the election later that year, and abolished National Service. When I got out of the Army I rang Mickey McNamara, with whom I was now employed, to see whether I still had a job.”

“Mick said: ‘No worries. Come back, you’re welcome. I’ll fix you up with a car and get you out on the road.’ “

“When I told Mick I’d also get a clearance to play with Yarra he was very happy. He said :’ I’ve been hoping for two years that’d happen….Now I’ve got ya.’ “

So, after 76 senior games with Corowa ( his dad Bob, and brother Neville had preceded him there) Robert Tait was now a Pigeon…………

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He had, by now become a leading O & M ruckman. Yet his 193cm frame and handy big-man skills were negated when Yarra met the Rovers in a boggy 1973 First-Semi.

“The Benalla Showgrounds was a mud-heap….It poured all day. It was memorable for the fact that Neville Hogan picked up 50 kicks and his opponent Billy Nixon had about 49. I think they beat us 6.11 to 4.9.”

“Hogan was again one of our obstacles when we played ‘em in the Grand Final the next year. He parked himself in the forward pocket, alongside ‘Doc’ Doherty, who kicked a few in the first quarter. I think it was 8 goals to 1 at quarter-time……Game over ! “

“Neville brings it up occasionally. He says: ‘I loved roving to you, Taity !’ “

Bert’s finest year undoubtedly came in 1976. Despite missing four games with a twisted knee, he finished just three votes shy of the Morris Medal ( he also finished third two years later). His consolation came when he took out the Border Mail-2AY media award and Yarrawonga’s Best & Fairest.

He was runner-up in the Pigeons’ top gong for the next five years, bowing to Les ‘Salty’ Parish ( three times), Mark Booth and Johnny White, yet trailing by no more than three votes on each occasion.

And he became a regular, and proud, wearer of the O & M guernsey. The first of his eight games in the Black and Gold was against the VFA, when he lined up on the colourful Fred Cook and ‘Frosty’ Miller.

But perhaps his best inter-League performance came at Ganmain, when his strong marking in defence held out a charging South-West League, who fell short by 17 points:

“We were travelling well that day…..until they bought on an aboriginal called Sid Robbins, who they’d recruited from up north. Could he play ! He nearly turned the game for them. I was talking to their coach Tom Carroll after the game, as they announced that he’d won a Bag donated by South Melbourne, as their best player.”

“Tom said: ‘Do you know where that bag’ll finish up…..In the Murrumbidgee River. He lives on the river…….He’s a great player up here, but every time you pick a team you always have to name one extra, in case he doesn’t turn up !’ “

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After 176 games with Yarra, Bert took on the coaching job at Rennie, in 1983. It was a romantic homecoming of sorts, as his Grandfather had been their first coach, back in the early thirties. His dad played there, and he was taking over the reins from his brother Neville.

“Kay ( his wife ) said: ‘What am I going to do out there ?’ I said: ‘They’ve got Netball’. Well, she loved it. We made lifelong friends.”

In his five years as coach Rennie won two flags. In the first, they were undefeated, and belted Coreen by 103 points in the Grand Final….the Second came against Corowa-Rutherglen in 1985.

At the end of 1987 his old mate ‘Salty’ Parish enquired what he was doing about his footy.

“I said: ‘Well, I’m going on 36. I’m getting out while I’m reasonably sound.’ ‘That’s good,’ he replied. ‘I’ve just been appointed coach of Yarra, and I want you to come with me.’ “

“I’d always got on well with Salty….. used to look after him a bit….You know, he was a hell of a good fellah, but when he first came to Yarra he was a bit of a street kid…….he’d never wreck anything…..but once he had a few beers he could become a bit antagonising.”

“I told him I’d help him out…..I took over as his Chairman of Selectors; used to drive him to the footy, take him home after games…..keep him off the grog.”

Yarra finished fourth in 1988, but shaped as an improved side in ‘89 after the recruitment of Damien Sexton and Kerry Brain from Finley. On the eve of the season, the Committee approached Parish, requesting that he alter his Selection Panel.

“What was the story there ? “ I ask ‘Taity’.

“Well, they wanted to have five, instead of three Selectors.’ But ‘Salty’ wouldn’t have a bar of it. I went back to the Committee and offered to stand aside, to enable them to include someone else.”

“I said: ‘Don’t lose him over this. You know what he’s like; he’ll stick to his digs.’ ……..When I told ‘Salty’ of my suggestion he was adamant: ‘Nope. If you, Paul (Walker) and I can’t do it, then I’m out……”

“And that’s how Yarra came to part ways with its best-ever footballer ( in my opinion).”

It’s history how stalwart Neil Davis stepped into the breach and coached the Pigeons to a memorable flag. ‘Taity’ stayed in the background, but maintained 100 percent support for Davis.

He went back to Rennie the following year, when they couldn’t find a coach, then returned to Yarra for keeps.

“ ‘Davo’ said: ‘We’re trying to get a Past Players Group up and running. I’d like you to help out.’ He was the initial President, then I took over in ‘92……I’m still there…….”

It has become one of the League’s more vibrant PPOA organisations. One of their most satisfying projects was the launching of the Football/ Netball Club History, a glossy publication, which was three years in the making, and sold over 1,000 copies.

When ‘Bert’ returned to the footy Club Committee in the early nineties, Tracie Gillies suggested that he become involved with the Netball side of things, besides being Vice-President..

“She said: ‘Your girls are going to be playing, along with the four Davis girls, three Bourke’s and a couple of Tyrrell’s, among others. I’ll coach and I want you to be the Club’s Netball Rep.”

His daughter Bridget has played over 300 Club games ( including 250 A- Grade) for ten flags, whilst Janna has three, including Yarra’s first A-Grade title. Bert and Bridget are the sole members of the O & M’s Father-Daughter 200-Game Club.

“We’ve won a total of 17 premierships in all grades since Netball began in 1993. It’s become a vital part of our Club,” he says.

He has ridden all the ups and downs of footy, including the lows of the early 2000’s, and the highs of Bob Craig’s 2006 premiership side.

And he recalls the arrival of Yarra’s most famous recruit in 2012.

“Alan Tripp, who is a keen, and generous supporter, said to us: ‘You’ve gotta get someone who’ll kick 60-70 goals, otherwise you’ll never get over Albury. I’ve got just the bloke for you. I want you in Melbourne next Monday…..’ ”

“We had no idea who we were going to see……We walked into the room and Brendan Fevola was sitting there…….I said to Glenn Brear and Drew Barnes: ‘Geez, what are we doing here ?’ “

“On the way home, I said: ‘Shit, I dunno whether Yarra’s big enough for Brendan Fevola.’…..We spoke to Alan Tripp again and he re-assured us. ‘Leave him to me,’ he said. ‘I’ll look after him. I’ve told him he’s gotta play down the line.’ “

“Anyway, history shows that we won two flags, and crowds came in their droves….. On Fev’s first game, against Lavington, we took $120,000, with gate, canteen, membership and the rest. Don’t worry, Fev was great for Yarra, and the League……….”

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‘Bert’s’ been hamstrung lately, as he battles Charcot foot, a weakening of the bones in his left foot, caused by significant nerve damage.

“They gave me two options – continued treatment or amputation……. I chose the former……”

But this setback certainly hasn’t diluted his passion for footy, netball and Yarrawonga……..

‘THE ARTFUL DEFENDER……’

Jimmy Sandral occasionally casts his mind back to that late-September day in 1956.

A record crowd of 115,802 has jammed into the MCG for the Grand Final, between arch rivals Melbourne and Collingwood……….He runs, or rather, floats, onto the ground behind Demon skipper Noel McMahon, and alongside such luminaries as Ian Ridley, Bob Johnson, Stuart Spencer, Donny Williams and Ron Barassi……..

The last-minute words of coach Norm Smith are still ringing in his ears: “…..I want you boys to lay your bodies in the line….Some of you are going to get hurt today; if you’re not prepared to get hurt, leave now !…….”

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Seven years earlier, Jim had just settled back on the family farm after completing his secondary education. He had to re-acquaint himself with the rudiments of footy, as he’d been boarding at St.Gregory’s College, Campbelltown, a traditional Rugby League stamping-ground.

Before his departure, he’d attended the local 11-pupil State school. With seven girls and just four boys, ‘Rounders’ had been the compulsory sport at Rennie Primary.

So when he debuted for Rennie, aged 16, in his first-ever fair dinkum game of football, he was, he admits, pretty rough around the edges. “I wasn’t even sure of the rules. I must admit I made plenty of mistakes,” he says.

But he cottoned on pretty quickly. In 1952 he won the club Best and Fairest award, was runner-up in the League Medal and played a starring role in Rennie’s premiership side.IMG_3486

In the following two years he won both the club B & F and the Coreen League’s Archie Dennis Medal.

It was late 1954 when Corowa invited him in to play a couple of late-season games on match permits. Jimmy adapted easily to the lift in standard and was persuaded to make the 25-mile trek in from the farm, to join the Spiders in 1955.

He was a natural, and took on all-comers at centre half back . Standing just under 6 foot, and weighing around 14 stone, he possessed a strong pair of hands . And – when he swept onto that left boot of his -he could hoof the Sherrin a country mile.

After just seven games with Corowa, Jim earned selection in the O & M’s Country Championship team. In what was an All-Star line-up, he was the stand-out, polling eight votes of a possible nine, to win the gong as Player of the three-game Series.IMG_3497

League clubs, of course, zeroed in. His dad, doing his best to be a bit protective, ushered a couple of scouts away, informing them that: “he’s not going anywhere.”

But when persuasive Melbourne secretary Jim Cardwell and recruiting manager Ken Carlon ( an ex-Demon 49-gamer and former Rennie coach) paid a visit to the Sandral property later that year, Jim was invited to be a guest of the club at the 1955 Grand Final.

“Not only that, but I had the privilege of sitting on the bench, beside the coaching staff. What a thrill. That was the day that ‘Bluey’ Adams ran full-steam off the bench in the final quarter and collided with Collingwood winger Des Healy.”

“Melbourne were pretty good to me, really,” says Jim. “When I headed down there, they teed me up with a job at the Hardware Company of Australia, packing stuff to send to the bush. Gee, I thought, this is a far cry from working on the farm.”

“Then I moved to Standard Containers, of Dawson Street, Brunswick. It was over the road from Miller’s Rope Works, where Norm Smith worked. I got on all right with old Norm, and he used to take me to training.”

I ask Jimmy if Smith was as tough as they say. “No doubt about that,” he says, as he recalls an incident at training one night.

“There was a bloke who’d just been cleared from Collingwood; ‘Icy’ Hamilton was his name, and he was reputed to have a bit of an ego. Anyway, he’s out on the ground, kicking the ball to himself, and dodging and weaving around imaginary opponents, when Norm leads us out onto the track.”

“Norm barked at him: ‘There’s no room for lairs in this place……Get back into the rooms.’ Big Bob Johnson said: ‘I reckon you’re a bit hard on him, Norm.’ ‘Shut up, or you’ll be in there with him,’ was Norm’s reply.”IMG_3505

It was no mean feat for Sandral to break into a Premiership team, and hold his place in his debut season. His form wavered a little at times, and he was named on the bench for the Second Semi-Final.

But his value was shown when he came on to replace Geoff McGivern at half-time. The Sun’s match report said:

‘One of Melbourne’s heroes was 19th man Jim ‘Little Bull’ Sandral, who charged into packs just as his nickname suggests. After the match Sandral – whose instructions were simply : Go in, Get it, Kick it’, said: ‘I kept thinking that if I get a chance to take the field, I can’t afford to make one mistake……(Then) after listening to Norm’s pep-talk at half-time, I felt better than at any time in my football career.’

The Demons stormed to the flag a fortnight later, winning by 73 points, after Collingwood had held a 5-point lead at quarter-time. The 1956 Melbourne team is still thrown up as one of the greatest of all-time.

Jim remembers, as much as anything, the over-flowing crowd, which had earlier lifted some of the gates off their hinges and swarmed inside the oval fence. “You had to be careful if you were chasing the ball near the boundary, that you didn’t end up plunging into the crowd.”

An ankle injury kept him out for a fair portion of the following season. Add that to a decent bout of homesickness and it’s not hard to understand why the wide open spaces of Rennie beckoned.

“I used to come out of a post-match ‘do’ and be greeted by the cold, empty stands of the MCG. Then I’d have to wait for a tram to take me out to Heidelberg. Moments like those made me pine for home……And I knew I was needed back on the farm. ”

Corowa jumped in and appointed him playing-coach in 1958. They were light on for personnel, but were inspired by their champion centre half back, who took out his first Morris Medal the following year.

“The two years of coaching was enjoyable, but it was a battle combining it with work on the farm. At the end of the ‘59 season, I went down to Melbourne with our President Alan McBride, to see if we could find a replacement.”

“We had three fellahs teed up – Freddie Goldsmith, Peter Lucas and Frank Tuck. Goldsmith ended up at Albury, and Collingwood appointed Lucas as their Secretary. ‘Tucky’ was keen on the job, and we were very lucky to land him as coach.”

The Spiders were a vastly-improved combination in the early sixties, and surged up the ladder. Tuck had a terrific lieutenant in the dynamic Sandral, who was to take out five successive Club B & F’s and add another two Morris Medals to his collection. He finished fifth in the Medal on another two occasions.IMG_3494

Corowa won their way into their second-ever Grand Final in 1963, with tight 10 and 7 point victories in the lead-up. Sandral’s battle with burly Demon forward Ian Hughes was to prove one of the highlights of the game. His side was in the contest up to its ears at three quarter-time, but Benalla blew them away with an eight goal to nil last quarter. The Spiders would have to wait another five years for their fairytale flag.

By this time, Jimmy Sandral was back at Rennie. He had left Corowa, aged 32, after 164 games, and a reputation as the greatest-ever player to wear the Black and Red guernsey.

For the next six seasons he coached his home club, and finished runner-up in the Archie Dennis Medal each time.

“I told Rennie that I’d do the job for nothing in 1970. They were pretty happy about that. As it turned out, it was one of my most enjoyable years of footy. I was still playing okay, and took out the club Best & Fairest. And in my last game we won the premiership……….”

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Seven years after Jim’s retirement, his son Dennis began a football journey which saw him chalk up 348 O & M games. Regarded as the finest defender in the competition in his day, he and Jim were named full back and centre half back respectively, in Corowa-Rutherglen’s Team of the Century. He also matched his dad’s feat of winning five club Best and Fairests.IMG_3507

Jim says it gave him a huge thrill watching the young bloke’s career closely. “A good, strong player, Dennis….Never let ‘em down…….Finished third in the Medal one year, and a terrific inter-League player.”

“But then, the other boys were handy, too. Michael did his knee early on, and young Jimmy had a bit of back trouble. When Dennis coached Howlong, Jimmy followed him out and won the League Medal.

Jim and Shirley also had two daughters, Bernadette ( O’Donnell ) and Joanne (IMG_3509 Reagan ). There are also 17 grandkids and eight ( soon to be 12 ) great-grandkids, so the Sandral footy dynasty is set to continue.

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Jimmy’s going on 86 now, and there’s no more respected figure in footy. This official Legend of the Ovens and Murray League could also be dubbed its unofficial Ambassador.

He can be found in his customary spot, perched between the kiosk and the interchange shed at the John Foord Oval each home game, or following Corowa-Rutherglen around, wherever they play. And he’s always  up for a yarn…………….IMG_3501