Once a year, Dean Harding pays a nostalgic visit to his spiritual football home – the W.J.Findlay Oval.
His old mates gather – many with a link from school, or Junior League days, or the Rovers Thirds, where he first began to reveal his exquisite talents.
And there might be the odd former drinking or punting companion from a group that has ‘stuck fat’ throughout the years.
On Saturday he’s back again – as Wodonga’s coach.
Twenty-six years after his last game in Brown and Gold, he still finds it hard not to have a bit of an emotional ‘pull’ towards the Hawks. But when his Bulldogs are in combat with them they are the mortal enemy.
A couple of blokes had a bit of a chuckle when they sneaked over to his quarter-time rev-up last year, and heard him bellowing : “……..they’re an arrogant mob, these blokes……Get into ’em’ ”
That’s all part of footy with ‘Hards’, whose long and winding journey in the game that he loves, was touched upon by the ABC’s ‘Coodabeen Champions’ last week-end.
The Hardings were a staunch Rovers family. Dad Neville was a long-time supporter ; Joan, Dean’s mum, was a member of the Social committee, and his younger brother Terry was to play over 100 games in all three grades.
Dean came through the Tigers, the junior league team which also produced AFL players of the calibre of Paul Bryce, Luke Norman and Chris Naish, during the same era.
The good judges agreed. This slimly-built kid had the goods – he was classy, self-assured, had a bit of the larrikin about him. He’ll probably be a star, they surmised.
You come across youngsters who are just naturals. Besides also being a talented wicket-keeper/batsman, he seemed capable of turning his hand to anything. The only doubt was whether he had the application to ‘go on with the job’.
He arrived at the Rovers as a Golden Era dawned. The Hawks, with a youthful senior team, swept to the flag in 1988. Dean played in the centre in a Thirds side – comprising several future O & M stars – which won the Grand Final by 14 goals.
His progress was steady. The next year he had a few games in the Thirds, but spent it mostly in the ‘twos’. There was talent galore ; he just had to bide his time.
In 1990, after a couple of reserves games, his opportunity finally arrived. His body had matured and he looked every inch a senior player. Even then, his education, at the hands of Laurie Burt, was not complete.
“With Laurie, you had to earn your spurs. The first couple of weeks I did a fair bit of bench-warming, but then, he started to give me more time on the ground. He was good for me, Laurie. I loved his coaching”, Dean says.
The Rovers ‘lucked’ out in the finals series. A brutal Elimination Final saw them overcome Benalla, but they met their match against Yarrawonga in the first-semi. ‘Hards’, however, had provided a ray of sunshine amidst the disappointment.
Laurie Burt recalls a clever, creative player, who had the capacity to influence a game: “I saw a lot of Joe Wilson in ‘Hards’ “.
He was voted the Hawks’ Best First-Year player and shaped as a potential champion of the Club in his 18 senior games. With a steady job in the Commonwealth Bank and as a popular member of the playing group, he looked a long-term proposition.
He was in the Rovers’ usual haunt, the Pinsent Hotel, having a relaxing few ales with his mates over the summer, when Hawk identity and ‘Pinno’ barman, ‘Crusher’ Connolly, calmly delivered the news: ” ‘Hards’, apparently you’ve been drafted.”
“Be buggered !”, was the reply.
Indeed, it was true. The downtrodden Fitzroy had chosen him with their pick number 78. Essendon plumped for a kid from Canberra, James Hird, with pick 79.
‘Hards’ couldn’t wait to get down to Melbourne and experience the blue-chip facilities and rarified atmosphere that, he imagined, prevailed at every AFL club.
Instead, the Lions shared their training base at the old Brunswick Street Oval with frisbee-throwing adults, yuppie dog-walkers and kids playing around the boundary.
But he fitted in beautifully to a club which was scant on resources, and huge in spirit. In his first season, 1991, playing on a wing or up forward, he made 12 senior appearances.
Undoubtedly the highlight was the final round, at Princes Park, when Fitzroy hosted West Coast, who were sitting 4 games clear on top of the ladder. The Lions, entrenched on the bottom, had won just three games for the season.
The match was proceeding according to the script, as the Eagles coasted to a 26-point half-time lead ; their hapless rivals having been kept to a solitary goal.
It was big-hearted Matty Rendell’s final game for Fitzroy, and in the third quarter his team-mates found something, to boot 6.5 to three points in the third quarter, and lead by 12 points at lemon-time.
‘Hards’ snared one of those goals, but, to the accompaniment of raucous cheering from the delerious, but sparse crowd, he kicked three more in a pulsating final term, as the Lions held on to win a true boilover by 10 points.
Dean was plagued by hamstring and thigh injuries over the next two seasons. He managed just two games in 1992 and five in ’93 and sensed that his cards were already marked – ‘injury-prone’.
He toyed with offers from both Port and South Adelaide. The Rovers were more than eager to get him back home, but he finally decided on a move to Wodonga.
“Two of my good mates, Robbie Hickmott and Dean Stone had joined Wodonga and the club made me an offer with work and footy that was pretty hard to refuse”, he says.
Apart from one season, when he was enticed to coach Rutherglen, he has been at Martin Park ever since.
After 80 games, again interrupted by injury, but highlighted by a couple of Grand Final appearances and three inter-league jumpers, he has served the Bulldogs on the football-front for more than two decades.
His first coaching stint was with the Under 18’s, whilst he was still playing. He has been a selector, assistant-coach and ‘general dogsbody’ around the club.
‘Hards’ was helping in the gruelling search for a coach in late-2014 when somebody suggested : “What about you ? ”
“So here I am. It’s been hard work, but really enjoyable. I love being involved with the young fellas”.
He runs his own Financial Planning business and, combined with family and footy, life is pretty hectic. But it’s hard to imagine the laid-back ‘Hards’ letting it get him down.
As he wanders through the gates of the Findlay Oval on Saturday and sees some familiar faces – many of them perched exactly where they were when he was just a fledgling Hawk – he’ll probably cast his mind back to those days of yore……….