“FORMER HAWK MAKES HIS MARK ON SYDNEY RACING SCENE……….”

Matthew Smith can almost sniff the smell of the liniment as he describes the pre-match ritual….He’d be nervously flipping the Sherrin around the rooms…..egging on his young team-mates with the usual jibberish………..visualising crashing through packs and booting near-impossible goals………..

He’s re-living his early football days……….It’s a long way from the W.J.Findlay Oval to the leafy surrounds and rustic ambience of Warwick Farm, where he now matches wits with the elite of Sydney racing.

I’ve caught up with him to share the roller-coaster ride of a fascinating sporting journey……..

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Like most sports-mad kids from country Victoria Matt was raised on a diet of Aussie Rules. He went to Galen College and played his early footy with Junior Magpies. Who better to guide him than one of the game’s characters, the late Ron Wales.

“ ‘Walesy’ was more than a coach; he was a father-figure; a terrific bloke…..I was really disappointed I couldn’t make it back to the re-union they held in his honour a couple of years ago,” he says.

One of Matt’s team-mates – and good friends – at Junior Magpies was Robbie Walker. They moved to the Rovers Thirds in the mid-eighties, just as an extraordinarily talented batch of youngsters were being blooded.

“Robbie, Matt Allen, Nick Goodear and Rick Marklew soon graduated to the seniors; then a few others, like Howard Yelland, the Wilson brothers, Paul Grenfell, Scott Williamson, ‘Chuck’ O’Connor and Robbie Hickmott began to make their mark……..”

“In fact, those kids formed the nucleus of the great Rovers teams of the late-80’s and early 90’s……..As you know, some of them became Club legends…….”

Matt was a member of Daryl Smith’s 1985 Thirds premiership team which rolled Wodonga. He took over the captaincy mid-way through the following year, as the Hawks reached another Grand Final, under the coaching of Rex Allen.

“Wodonga belted us early; we held ‘em in the last half, but couldn’t claw the lead back,” he says.

He was named the Rovers’ best player in the six-goal defeat……….It was to be his last game in Brown and Gold.

A healthy number of his team-mates graduated to senior ranks, but one of the more unique pieces of sporting trivia is that in Matthew Smith and Robbie Hickmott the side also produced two Group One-winning racehorse trainers…………

Wangaratta Rovers Thirds Grand Final side 1986. Robbie Hickmott is at left. Matthew Smith is holding the ball (at right)

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By now footy had begun to take a back seat in Matt’s sporting priorities.

His father Chris, a well-known local Fuel Distributor, raced a few horses with prominent trainer Dennis Gray, and was a committeeman and President of Wangaratta Turf Club for several years.

“I started going to meetings around the area with Dad; to places like Corowa, Benalla, Wodonga, Deniliquin……….I loved the atmosphere, and closely studied the horses…..It prompted me to dream of some sort of involvement in racing,” he says.

But firstly, he moved to the city to begin an apprenticeship with OPSM in Chadstone ( also playing a season of Amateur footy with Prahran), before being transferred back in Wangaratta.

“I knew by now though, that my heart was in the racing game, so I teed up a month or so’s work with John Sadler’s training enterprise in Flemington……..He wouldn’t have even known I was there, I reckon, but I loved the experience…….It made me want to pursue a career in the industry…..”

To satisfy his urge he decided to embark on a working holiday, to England and Ireland. Initially, he found a job with Specsavers, but he knew that, if he wanted to satisfy his ambition to become involved with any of the leading British trainers he needed to learn to ride trackwork.

“I had some friends who had eventing horses……Through my association with them I did a fair bit of riding……enough to enable me to ride my share of work……”

“That gave me the confidence to land a job with an Irish Trainer, Pat O’Donnell who was predominantly involved with Jumps horses…….I did a bit of everything for about eight months….In the Yard….. Road-Work…..Putting the horses over the Jumps….that sort of stuff.”

Matt first came across famous Irish Trainer Aidan O’Brien when he sought a job at Ballydoyle, in county Tipperary, regarded as the world’s finest horse-training complex, and owned by Irish magnate John Magnier.

Aidan had recently quit his career as a National Hunt trainer/ rider to become Coolmore’s head trainer.

“He was predominantly a Jumps Trainer at this stage, and shared a Yard at Piltown, in Kilkenny, with his Father-in-Law Joe Crowley. All of the horses were in Aidan’s name, even though he and Joe shared a training partnership.”

“So he sent me up there to assist with breaking-in and educating the young horses for a couple of months.

“But I was grateful to get back to Ballymore. Even though I enjoyed working with the Jumpers at Piltown, I was really more interested in flat racing…..I spent the next two years there. ”

“It was a great experience……Aidan’s a similar age to me; a brilliant operator and couldn’t have been more supportive. I really enjoyed my time in Ireland and he and his wife Anne-Marie were unbelievable……In fact, their daughter Sarah is now doing my Veterinary work at Warwick Farm…..”

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Word-of-mouth had got around that Matt was ready to spread his wings and was keen to study the American racing scene.

“I wanted to take the opportunity to see what they do over there whilst I was overseas…Just to gain some more experience, basically,” he says.

He received a good reference from Ballydoyle and was lucky enough to land a job with Irish-born trainer Niall O’Callaghan who ran a large operation at Churchill Downs, Kentucky.

“Again, I was so fortunate to learn from such a professional as Niall. It was completely different to the Irish and English systems…….”

Matt says he intended to return to Australia at some stage in the near future, but the timing of a phone call he received worked out perfectly:

“Bart Cummings was attending a Yearling Parade at Coolmore’s Home of Racing, at Jerry’s Plains,” he says.

“He just happened to mention to a few people: ‘I’m looking for a Stable Foreman….Do you know anyone who might be appropriate for the job ?’ “

“The boys at Coolmore said: ‘Oh, Matt Smith’s one bloke who could be interested. He’s worked for Ballydoyle and he’s been in America for a couple of years…..You should give him a call….”

“One of his office-staff rang out of the blue one day…I thought it was a mate taking the piss out of me. Then Bart gave me a follow-up call and I accepted the job……It couldn’t have worked out better…”

He spent five years with Bart and says that, like Aidan O’Brien, he couldn’t have found a better boss:

“Hard but fair…….You weren’t there to muck around…..He didn’t readily dish out advice……unless you asked…….He had a great work ethic and a methodical approach……”

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Matt was working with Bart Cummings when he met his now-wife Melissa, who was employed by Wm. Inglis & Sons. They’ve proved a formidable combination.

“She’s amazing…. She’s an experienced horse person and was riding at a very early age……I probably wouldn’t be training if it wasn’t for her….Melissa’s a great support to me in training, as well as being a terrific mum to our two kids…..”

His first winner, after taking the plunge, and obtaining his Trainer’s licence, was Adventurous Rose, which saluted in February 2003.

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The maiden Group 2 win came in 2008, when Krupt won the Todman Stakes. High hopes were held for the colt, but he went amiss shortly after and had to be retired.

He’ll always remember his first Group 1 winner in 2011, when Hurtle Myrtle swept down the middle of the track to win the Myer Classic at Flemington.

But undoubtedly the stable star has been Japanese-bred Fierce Impact, which won five races, for a total of $3.3 million.

His wins included three Group 1’s over 1600 metres – the 2019 Toorak Handicap; the Kennedy Cantala Stakes of 2019; and the 2020 Makybe Diva Stakes…….He was retired to stud in March last year.

Matt says the last two seasons have produced the stable’s best results. Stake-money has totalled $3.9 and $3.5 million respectively.

“We were struggling slightly, prior to 2015/16…….maybe we didn’t have the horses, but when you analyse it the results were slowly improving…..”

“Then we picked up $1 million in prize-money in 15/16 ; and it’s gone up every year since then……… the number of runners has increased in five years, from 155 , to 540 runners last season.”

“Accordingly, it’s only in the last five or so years that I’ve become well-established as a metropolitan trainer,” he explains………“It’s a really tough game, to be honest with you, and you’ve got to stick at it. It doesn’t take much to drop off the perch…..”

His stats, prior to Christmas, showed that the stable had produced 496 winners and 999 placings from 4,208 starts.

“Matt and Melissa bought a property at Luskin Park, in the Lower Hunter Valley, in 2021. It was already set up for spelling and they’ve just started to convert it into a Pre-Training Centre.

As a reminder of his experience with jumps horses in Ireland all those years ago, he had his first runner over Hurdles at Warrnambool last year.

“With a bit of luck I might have a few more jumpers in 2022,” he says.

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One of Matt’s footy contemporaries recently pointed out what a unique achievement it’d be if he happened to emulate the feat of his old Rovers Thirds team-mate ‘Hicky’, and train a Melbourne Cup winner……

“I tell you what” he says “……….If it happens, the first thing I’ll do is bring the Cup back to Wang, plant it on the Bar of the Pinno and celebrate like there’s no tomorrow………”

“REGRETS…….I’VE HAD A FEW……….”

I remember him all those years ago……..He was an emerging football prodigy……After a handful of scintillating performances talent-scouts hurriedly etched his name into their note-books……He was a long, lean, loping lad, destined for stardom…….

Thirty-five years later we re-connect. When I introduce myself he hesitates; wondering if I’m about to deliver bad tidings about something that’s happened in his old home town .

“No, just looking to re-trace your footy career.”…..“Not much to talk about there,” he jokes.

What follows, I think, proves somewhat cathartic, as my subject seems to appreciate exorcising a few old ‘demons’…………….

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Paul Bryce moved seamlessly through junior ranks. A product of the Imperials, he shone under the coaching of Darryl Smith in a season and a half with the Rovers Thirds.

His six goals for Wangaratta High in a Herald-Shield Final against Wagga’s Mount Austin High was noted by the North Melbourne hierarchy who were at VFL Park that evening, preparing for the Roos’ Night Series clash with Footscray.

They duly included him on a list of 50 youngsters to whom they had access in their zone, but deleted him when he bypassed the early part of the 1985 season to play for Vic Country at the National Under 18 Basketball Carnival.

You can imagine their approach: ‘Well, if the young prick wants to put basketball in front of footy there are plenty of other kids who are looking for an opportunity…….”

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But that soon changed when Paul burst onto the O & M scene. His arrival went something like this……..

The Rovers slot the 16 year-older in against Myrtleford in Round 8. Moments after coming onto the ground in the second quarter he soars above the pack in the goal-square to mark and convert.

His six ‘sausages’ on debut are heralded, but a month later he lines up against the O & M’s premier backman Denis Sandral. Slotting four first-quarter goals, he sees off four opponents in snaring 10 for the day.

Three other ‘bags’ of five have the kid’s name on everybody’s lips, but on the eve of the finals he approaches his coach Merv Holmes and asks: “Can you give me a crack at centre half back ?”

The Hawks are facing North Albury in an Elimination Final and are rank outsiders, but Bryce excels, with 18 marks and 25 kicks in his first-ever game as a key defender.

“You would have to go a long way to see a more sensational marking exhibition,” raved the Border Morning Mail, as the youngster leads his side to a 27-point win.

The following week he completely outplays highly-touted ex-Collingwood big-man Mick Horsburgh. The Rovers hold off determined Benalla by five points.

Albury stitch up the Preliminary Final with a comprehensive 63-point win, but Bryce’s effort can’t be faulted. He’s thrown from defence, into attack and onto the ball in a bid to stem the tide, chalking up 20 kicks and 10 marks……….

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Paul cherishes the memories of those 14 senior games with the Hawks, and loved the ‘apprenticeship’ he served:

“I had a fantastic coach…… Holmesy was awesome…..I’d admired him for a long time. His knees were shot, and he really shouldn’t have been playing. But gee he was tough……”

As well as Bryce, the Rovers blooded skilful on-baller Nick Goodear and a pair of promising blonde-haired kids from Junior Magpies – Robert Walker and Matthew Allen – during 1985. Versatile Peter Tossol was another acquisition….The nucleus of a side – about to embark on a Golden Era – was being formed.

But Paul Bryce wouldn’t be sharing it with them. He was headed for Arden Street.

North Melbourne had arranged for him to complete his H.S.C at Trinity Grammar whilst playing Under 19’s. The ‘Joeys’, full of talent – a fair portion of it from their country zone – fell at the final hurdle, on Grand Final day.

Several of them found a spot on the senior list in 1987, where they came under the influence, the imposing figure and booming voice of the legendary John Kennedy.

“He reminded me a bit of Merv Holmes, actually,” Paul recalls. “When he spoke you listened. He was hard, but fair……… I just wish I’d appreciated then how lucky I was to be in his company.”

Progress was steady for the youngster, but his senior opportunity came in Round 13, against Collingwood at Waverley.

“It was pissing down, and I’ve held onto a mark up forward early in the game. I thought, Hell , this is alright…..a goal with my first kick…….I missed, but we ended up belting the Pies………”

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A positive senior debut…..a 54-point win against the old enemy……a dream fulfilled…….the sky’s the limit for an impetuous 18 year-old. Well, sometimes things aren’t as rosy as they look……..

North were light-on for big timber, and for the first couple of years Paul was shunted into different roles around the ground. But injuries – particularly twangy hammies – would regularly interrupt a run of games.

“I loved the on-field aspect of it, and was playing fair footy” he says, “….but I didn’t really feel an accepted part of the group.”

“ I tried on a few different personalities, but felt like I never really fitted in. Eventually I developed a pretty ordinary attitude and acted like a bit of an arrogant ‘dick’, to be honest.”

“It’s easier these days because Clubs have got people to help you deal with these matters…….I didn’t handle the whole League football thing very well……I had no real mates.”

He decided to throw himself headlong into summer training prior to the 1990 season.

“ I did a lot of work by myself and got super- fit…..the best I’d ever been. I even gave up the booze. The result was that I had a really good year.”

With tall, blossoming stars like Wayne Carey and John Longmire settling in up forward, and Ian Fairley down back, the Roos had the luxury of playing the 195cm Bryce as a ruck-rover, partnering ball-magnet Matthew Larkin.

“I’d found my niche, but the trouble was, after having a good year, I started to cruise a bit…….And I didn’t fancy ‘Schimma’ (Wayne Schimmelbusch) who’d succeeded ‘Kanga’ Kennedy as coach. At the end of the day, he was a Club legend; I was just a young upstart…..So I decided to leave. We just didn’t get on.”

Paul went to North and advised them he ‘wanted out’.

“I approached a few clubs personally and liked the look of Melbourne, who seemed to be on the way up. They worked out a deal with North and I became a Demon,”

“John Northey was coach…..a great motivator, whom I related to.But I’d been a bit lazy over the summer. I was overweight and it cost me…..Another stupid decision on my part…….”

Thus, it was mid-way through the season before he’d established himself in the side. But once settled he played his part in the Demons’ surge towards the finals, which eventually saw them overpowered in the Semi, by West Coast at Waverley.

The last of Paul’s 26 games with Melbourne came when he dislocated a shoulder the following season. He now knew he was skating on thin ice.

“I carried a shitty attitude into 1993 Pre-Season, and ended up getting the sack…….. Next thing is I find myself drafted to Sydney.”

The Swans were in turmoil. A few games into the season coach Gary Buckenara was sacked and Ron Barassi installed as his replacement . Even the great Barassi was unable to turn their fortunes around.

“I liked ‘Barass’,” Paul says. “I think I frustrated him, but we got along pretty well. It’s just that I hated Sydney.”

Their only win for the season came against Melbourne. And with 18 kicks, 7 marks and 7 handballs Paul played his best game against his old side.

He says he can remember packing up the van carrying all of his possessions, going to the Swans’ Best & Fairest count, leaving about 10.30pm, and driving straight back to Melbourne.

“I sent a letter telling ‘em I was finished. I had a pretty good year, but wasn’t particularly popular, and had an ordinary attitude……. At 25 I was ‘done’……I’d had enough of League football………..”

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In fact his AFL career, which comprised 91 games ( 48 with North Melbourne, 26 with Melbourne, and 17 with Sydney) was shut to the back of his mind.

It was only when an old North Melbourne team-mate, Kenny Rainsford, began pestering him that he began to have second thoughts about playing again.

Rainsford had taken on the coaching job at Moe.

“ ‘Come down. Play one game and see whether you like it ’, he said. “I’d completely lost my love for footy, but I had a run and really enjoyed it. I had two fun years. We played finals and I was lucky enough to play in the Latrobe Valley League’s Country Championship win at Swan Hill.”

“Kenny then went down to Tassie. I didn’t have a great job in Melbourne, so I followed him down, and played with Launceston in the Statewide League, for two years.”

When the Statewide League was disbanded, Launceston reverted to the NTFL and appointed Paul as playing-coach.

“I enjoyed it, and learned a lot of lessons. But I found it difficult dealing with different personalities when I was still a kid myself,” he says.

After relinquishing the coaching job he played another season, then, at the tender age of 30, Paul Bryce called time on his football career.

With work now occupying more of his time, he took up fly-fishing. It became his hobby, developing into an obsession, sometimes taking him out 3-4 times a week.

Fishing the streams of Tasmania, with the birds chirping and the sun shining, was, I suppose, eons away from the manic pressure and screaming crowds of AFL footy.

Paul accepted a work transfer back to Melbourne in 2001, but that failed to rekindle his love of the game.

He’s involved in the golf industry, and handles all the Victorian on-line sales of the Golf Clearance Outlet which, he says, has developed into a thriving business.

Paul and his wife Rebecca ( who is a lecturer in Exercise Physiology ) and kids Lucy (11) and Mitch (9) are firmly entrenched in Melbourne, but he sometimes harks back to the days when his football journey began.

“I often think I’d like to stand in front of kids,” he says,”…and tell ‘em what it’s like to have ability and not fulfil that……..and then live with some regret……It’s hard…it’s bloody hard…..Bloody hell, what a waste…….”

“…….KARL…….”

“Just a tip,” they said ……”When you ring him it’ll dial out……But don’t bother leaving a message. He never returns your call.”

So I took this advice on board, and kept trying……Once, twice…..four times. A minute or so after the fifth, later in the night, the phone rings. His inquisitiveness must have got the better of him.

“Karl, here…………”

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When we meet up, he’s just come from receiving some treatment on a calf that’s been causing him some grief.

The massive 116kg frame of Karl Norman, has let him down at times this year. Any wonder…..he turned 35 a couple of months ago. But he’s confident that, with a bit of tender care, he’ll be right to guide Glenrowan through another finals series.

He’s been known as one of football’s after-dark larrikins, although he admits he’s slowing up in that department. But on the field he’s as passionate as they come. It’s always been the feature of his game.

He still loves playing, and can’t see any reason why he should give it away just yet. It’s some of the other parts of footy that he’s not totally enamoured with. Watching from the sidelines, says Karl, has never really turned him on.

Apart from his flirtation with the big-time, he reckons he would have only been to half-a-dozen other AFL games and rarely watches it on telly. Once we broach the subject of footy and other matters, though, I realise there’s more to Karl Norman than meets the eye…………

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He says he wasn’t big on Aussie Rules when he was a nipper. Despite his dad’s feats as a champion full forward, he was more into soccer and tennis. “Mum thought I’d get sick of it if I started too early,” he says.

But his obvious talent, which showed through once he took a fancy to the Sherrin, saw him debuting with Greta’s senior side at 15. The following year he followed his step-father Andrew Smith over to Glenrowan.

Approaches came from the Murray Bushrangers when he moved in to the Rovers Thirds in 2000. “Mum drove me up to training at Wodonga a few times. I’d been working on the family orchard since I was 16 and it was fairly tiring. The Bushies sort of suggested that I should apply myself a bit more if I wanted to get anywhere. Bugger that, I thought, I want to enjoy my footy.”

He was a standout with the Thirds, won their B & F, and was blooded in a couple of senior games. Then it was back out to Glenrowan for another season – and another B & F.

One reason Karl was lured back to the Findlay Oval in 2002, was to satisfy the urgings of his dad, Steve, whose feats as a 242-game player with the Wangaratta Rovers are still spoken of in reverential terms.IMG_3554

1016 goals ( a Club record ), seven premierships ( a Club and League record). Inducted to both the Rovers and O & M Halls of Fame. One helluva player. Spearheads of his calibre come along only once every couple of generations.

Expectant club die-hards ran the rule over the young bloke and concluded that he stripped more like his grand-father – former Magpie full back ‘Rinso’ Johnstone – than his old man. At 190cm and a finely-proportioned 86kg, the romantic notions that he would line up in front of goal were cast aside when he began to shine in a key defensive role.

At 19, he took on – and outpointed most of the O & M’s gun forwards. “The thing about Karl was he that had an ideal temperament. Nothing phased him. It was just ‘See ball- Get ball’,” recalled an old team-mate.

The game that probably defined him to the broader O & M public was a Rovers – Corowa-Rutherglen clash, when he pulled down 15 marks at centre half-back in a thrilling drawn game.

His good form continued, and he was scarcely hindered when he suffered a broken hand in a late-season game. Two days after it had been set, Karl calmly cut the plaster off so that he could play his part in the Hawks’ finals campaign.

The Rovers pulled back a 41-point North Albury lead in the third quarter of the Grand Final, to briefly hit the front early in the final term. But the Hoppers then blew them away with six goals in 17 minutes.IMG_3556

Norman and the peerless Robbie Walker were the Hawk stars. In fact, Karl had been dominant in each of the three finals, and capped his season by finishing runner-up to Walker in the B & F.

He had no idea that there had been any interest in him from AFL recruiters. “But I did hear later on that Carlton were up at Lavington for the Grand Final,” he says.

So when the Blues grabbed him as a ‘smokey’, chosen at pick 79 in the November draft of 2002, it was a surprise. Rarely does a player in the modern era arrive in League football from beyond the elite system. Thus, Carlton fans surmised, this bloke must be something special.IMG_3548

His improvement was steady. Solid form in defence with the Northern Bullants earned him seven AFL games in his first season.

Then things went awry. His name was emblazoned across the sporting pages early in 2004, when he and Laurence Angwin had an ‘all-nighter’ and arrived for Sunday morning training under the weather.

Angwin was sacked, Norman was given a reprieve and proceeded to repay the faith that the Blues’ senior players had shown by hanging onto him. A brilliant rebounding game against Geelong earned him a Rising Star nomination. A solid 2004 saw him make 16 senior appearances and be spoken of as one of the key planks in a possible Carlton revival.

But after four early games the following season, he was relegated to VFL ranks, where he continued to churn out consistent performances.

“Peter Dean and old ‘Libba’, who were coaching at the Bullants, kept telling me to keep battling away; that my form was pretty good. We ended up getting done in the Preliminary Final that year. I got a bit disheartened, though. I just hated the city….And the total emphasis on football…. It was a relief, in a way, when they delisted me. I couldn’t wait to get out of the place.”IMG_3555

“Steve Johnson’s dad, Terry, reckons I’d have been better suited to Geelong, where it’s not so much of a rat-race……Maybe….But no use dwelling on the past……”

He says Leigh Matthews left a message for him, asking him to discuss a possible move to Brisbane. “But I didn’t ring back.” The Western Bulldogs invited him to do the 2006 pre-season. …. “Great”, I said. “How’d that go ?” “I didn’t turn up.”

Instead, a mate, Steve Aloi, talked Karl into playing at Mooroopna, under ex-Geelong player Derek Hall. He spent two years there before his inevitable return to the Rovers.

His form was patchy at first, and he had limited impact as a key forward. Then a switch into the ruck brought about the transformation that made him an all-powerful figure in O & M football over the next five seasons.

And a larger-than-life character within the club. ‘Karl Tales’ are still told, and probably embellished. A team-mate recalls the playing group huddling together on the ground for a last-minute pep-up before one game. “Get a whiff of ‘Normo’s’ breath,” someone said .

The popular assumption was that, having climbed aboard the tractor to knock the frost off the cherry trees earlier that morning, he’d taken along a couple of cans of Johnnie Walker for company.

“Never affected him, though. He went out and took charge; rucked all day.”

It’s worth detailing his record in his second-coming at the Findlay Oval. Top-five in the Best and Fairest in all but one year, he was runner-up twice and took out the coveted Bob Rose Medal in 2012.IMG_3549

Twice an O & M rep, he finished third in the Morris Medal in 2011 and fifth the following year. For my money, Karl lifted his game to another level in 2012.

He recalls it with mixed emotions. “We’d come off almost being wooden-spooners the previous season, but the side comprised mostly locals who seemed to come of age. Barry Hall just topped us off, I suppose.”

“And to be nearly six goals up early in the last quarter of the Second-Semi, with a spot in the Grand Final within reach, and lose the game……..Gee it hurt…..I think about that after-the-siren kick of Barry Hall’s nearly every day……..”

There was considerable anguish in the Rovers camp, when, after 121 games, Karl headed back to Glenrowan in 2014, in pursuit of that elusive premiership.

He was about to write another chapter in his career – that of a roaming centreman cum relief-ruckman.

The Kelly Tigers had never come remotely close to being a premiership threat since being elevated to the Ovens & King League. Pitied for their uncompetitiveness, they had been on the end of some fearful beltings.

Suddenly they were up and about. People can debate how they’ve achieved it, but to maintain the momentum to win four successive flags is a remarkable effort. It’s never been done before – and, don’t forget- they rate a good chance of making it five in a row.

Karl has been one of the principal reasons. I’ve seen him manipulating things from the centre square in each of those Grand Finals …..reading the play, bringing team-mates into the game with a deft tap, a long handball into the open, or a deep, well-placed kick.

He has been runner-up for the O-K’s Baker Medal three times, third once, and won three Glenrowan B & F’s in that time.

He’s got a bit more on his plate these days; with work on the orchard, doing up a house he recently bought in Wangaratta and running a few cattle, things are pretty busy. But, come September, the big fellah will be doing his best to lift the Tigers to another flag…………….IMG_3552

THE MAN WHO KEPT THE FUN IN FOOTBALL ………..

Funerals are coming thick and fast for Ron Wales these days.

Little wonder, I suppose.  Walesy’s going on 87 and plenty of his old footy mates and business acquaintances have headed off to their mortal coil. Like the two fellahs who spotted him when I was having a yarn with him a couple of years ago…….

Both were hobbling along with the aid of walking sticks and, to put it bluntly, had seen better days. But their eyes lit up when they saw their old Tarrawingee coach.

“Have a look at these two buggers will ya,” he said, as they wandered towards him. “They were my ruck combination at Tarra ….No wonder we struggled ! ”

He was joking, of course. Ray Warford and Col Briggs were outstanding players in their day. But within a year, Ron had farewelled them, too……….’
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He still has an obsession with football, although his wife Mavis admits it tests him sometimes.

“I’ll be doing the dishes while he’s watching a Geelong game, and I’ll hear him yell : ‘Kick the bloody thing !’ “

Ron explains: “You’re talking to a bloke who only handballed about twice in his life, I can’t understand why they persist with these dinky little handballs to someone a metre or so away. That, and kicking backwards…..They’re the only things that bug me.”

He’s a die-hard Cats fan. Has been since he was a little tacker, up Leitchville way………….
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‘Walesy’ doesn’t treat life too seriously. In fact, about the only time I detect a frown on his cheerful visage is when he tries to unravel the path he took during his marathon football journey.

He was a mere lad when he was elevated into Leitchville’s senior side. By the time he was 20 he was starting to attract attention from a few VFL clubs.

Carlton, Melbourne and Hawthorn contacted him. He trained with the Blues for three weeks, then headed out to Glenferrie Oval, where he played in Hawthorn’s final practice match.

They promised him half-a-dozen Seconds games “to see how you go”. After one he decided to head back to Leitchville.

“I’d started going with Mavis, and she wasn’t too keen on the city,” he says. But, after picking up his third club B & F and finishing runner-up in the Northern League Medal, he joined some mates at VFA club Prahran.

He’d played 98 games with his home club, and it was a big decision to transfer in his trade as a Sheet-Metal worker. In the tough environs of what was one of the VFA’s finest eras, he proved a star, and won Prahran’s B & F in the first of his two seasons – 1953.
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He and Mavis decided to settle in Wangaratta in 1955, partly due to the urging of her brother, Lou Finck, a keen Magpies supporter, who was a policeman in the town.

One thing led to another, and Ron agreed to throw in his lot with the ‘Pies.

So began the first of four separate playing stints in the Black and White guernsey. But there’s no doubt his first season – 1955 – was his best.

He was playing at his peak – mainly in the mid-field – and had the happy knack of being able to locate the Sherrin. With a rapier-like left foot, he invariably found a target.

He won the Chronicle Trophy, and was a key figure in Wangaratta’s march to a Grand Final berth.

The ‘Pies trailed by just three points midway through the last quarter, when a heavy storm converted the Albury Sportsground into a choppy mud-heap. Good footy was near-impossible, and North Albury were able to hang on, to win the flag by 10 points.

Lance Oswald (7 goals) and Wales, who had shifted from a wing to the centre at half-time, were the stand-outs for Wangaratta.

Ron decided he’d like to have a crack at coaching in 1956, and was snapped up by Tarrawingee.

Wang immediately blocked his clearance application.

“I wasn’t too rapt in that,” he says. “But I ended up getting to Tarra after we took it to the Appeals Tribunal.”

Two years later, he was back at Wang for another season. Then, in 1959, he again succumbed to the coaching bug.

“King Valley asked me to take over. They were four terrific years …..Great people…. We used to stay up at the Valley after every home game. Gee, they looked after us well.”

After another couple of seasons back at Wangaratta, he was approached by North Wangaratta, who were in desperate straits.

“They looked like folding and pleaded with me to get them out of a pickle and take the coaching job. What could you do ? Of course, I had to.”

“They had no money….hadn’t won a game the previous year. But they were good fellahs and we battled our way through the season . It was great that, within a few years they were a power, and went on to win their first O & K flag.”

“Mavis was a terrific back-up while I was coaching.  She’d been a top Netballer in the Wangaratta competition, and both the Valley and North Wang chased her up to coach their Netball sides.  She fitted that in besides keeping an eye on the four kids.”

Ron had another sojourn with the Magpies in 1967. He was working with H. G. Palmer’s, an electrical store, and couldn’t commit fully to training. So he made himself available for the Reserves and managed to win the O & M Reserves Medal, despite playing just eight games.

He moved the family to Albury after he accepted a transfer in employment. He’d half-decided to hang up the boots, but North Albury champion Stan Sargent was living four doors away, and coaxed Ron into stripping with the Hoppers.

Now entering the super-veteran category, he was expecting to just fill in with the ‘Two’s’. Instead, he played the next two seasons as a skilful, opportunist half forward in a good North Albury senior line-up.

“Funny thing, I suffered fairly bad asthma in Albury, but the moment we shifted back to Wang it disappeared and I’ve never had any recurrences,” he says.

Ron finally moved into the line of employment that many people remember him for – as a Car Salesman.

He was a natural and, after a spell with Carmody Motors, transferred to Alan Capp’s, where he was to remain for the next 30 years.

“I got on pretty well with the tobacco-growers and cow- cockies and spent a lot of time out on the road. We’d often seal a deal over a quiet beer. Two of my ‘offices’ were the Hibernian in Beechworth, and the Whorouly Hotel.

“I think it was only after I’d been there 20 years or so that ‘Cappy’ actually realised I worked there,” he jokes.

He has always been partial to a cool drink on a warm day, and his personality won people over.

Ron thought he had taken a step back from football until he had a knock on the door one day in the early seventies – not long after he’d hung up his boots.

“There were four kids there – Des Griffin, Col Nugent, Brian Johnston and Ronnie Graham – from the Junior Magpies, and they asked me if I’d mind coaching them. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’ll help you out this season.’”

“Fifteen years later, I was still going.”

He had a big influence on hundreds of kids. The fact that they won three flags was purely incidental. He was more interested in teaching them about footy, and making sure they enjoyed it.

One of his old ‘pupils’ recalls that he never heard ‘Walesy’ raise his voice. Another pointed out that, despite the ‘stand-outs’ who went through his hands, like O & M Hall of Famers Robbie Walker and Matt Allen, AFL player Darren Steele and many others who became O & M stars, he was just as interested in the ‘battlers’.

When the Wright boys – Trevor and Rod – were playing, their uncle Noel Godwin, who had Down Syndrome, was a keen follower, and a popular figure among the boys.

‘Walesy’ appointed him ‘Assistant-Coach’.

When the occasion suited, Ron would storm into the three quarter-time huddle and, in mock disgust, throw down his clipboard and announce : “I’ve had enough. Righto Noel, you take over.”

Noel would step up to the plate, puff out his chest and shout : “Go Boys”……..to an accompanying roar from the players.

Ron’s services to the Junior League were rewarded in 1988, with a  Life Membership.

You might see he and Mavis at Wangaratta home games these days, as they follow the progress of their grandkids , Xavier and Gabrielle, who is showing plenty of promise on the Netball court.

And they’re enjoying it as much as they did in those early days in Leitchville………………

 

 

FARMING, FOOTBALL & FOREHANDS – THE MATTHEW ALLEN STORY.

In early-December 1983, Rovers legend Darryl Smith was mid-way through topping up his Thirds team for the year ahead.

As he scanned his recruiting list he ticked off the ‘definites’ and put a question-mark beside those he regarded as ‘doubtful’ or ‘possible’. Two blonde-haired kids from Junior Magpies were filed into the latter category.

He knew he needed to put a bit of work into them and, from all reports it would be worth the effort. Some headway was being made with the first – a boy called Walker – and he arranged an appointment with the other lad – the son of a Wangaratta premiership player, Rex Allen.

As they headed home from a visit to Byawatha, his companion asked how he thought they’d fared: “…….They’re terrific people……….It’d be great to get him, but, when it comes to the crunch I reckon he’ll play for Wang……” was Smith’s reply.

History reveals that the resultant signatures he obtained, of the two kids born 8 days apart, were to prove a freak recruiting ‘coup’………..

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Thirty-three years later, Matthew Allen’s heart still beats strongly for the Wangaratta Rovers. He now coaches at Junior League club, Imperials, where his two boys – Sam and Joe – are taking great strides towards their ultimate aim – wearing the Brown and Gold guernsey.

Little wonder. They, and their sister Georgia, who plays netball for the Rovers Under-16’s, have been part of the scene at the Findlay Oval since they were born.

Matthew played the last of his 416 Ovens and Murray senior games in 2010, amidst universal acclaim for his longevity and consistency. He ranks highly among the League’s all-time great defenders – a view echoed by Tim Sanson and Matthew Fowler, two of his keenest combatants of the modern era.

Yet Darryl Smith recalls Matt’s dislike of being stereotyped as a backman in his earlier years. Like all kids, he had a fondness for kicking goals and relished the rare occasions he was pushed up forward.

But it was as a defender that he first broke into the Rovers senior side in 1985. Once he was in, he was there to stay. He enjoyed being part of the steady climb that the young group was making towards their eventual triumph – the 1988 premiership.

Matt was just 20 ( but with 76 games under his belt) when he lined up on Lavington coach Jeff Cassidy in the big one.

The former Geelong star took the points in the first half, but the youngster got the upper hand and won the duel conclusively, as the Hawks ran away to win by 26 points.

His Political Science studies took him to Bendigo for two years, where he represented the Bendigo League in a 34-game stay with Northern United.

On his return from an overseas trip in 1991, Matt made a couple of decisions. He would join his father on the family farm and would push for a game in attack with the Rovers.

The club was a little light-on for key forwards after Neale McMonigle had retired, and Matt was given his opportunity in front of goals. He kicked 83 in a prolific season, which included tallies of 13, 9, 8 and a couple of sevens.

But the good judges were unanimous. Although he was a very good forward, he had few peers as a backman. And that’s where he predominantly stayed for the next 17 years.

He was part of the 1993 and ’94 premiership teams, although his form wavered a little during 1994, as he struggled to throw off a knee injury.

However, it surprised many footy fans when he moved to Corowa-Rutherglen the following year. Matt’s three seasons with the ‘Roos produced two best and fairest awards and NSW representation.

When he returned to the Hawks in 1998 he brought with him a refreshed approach.

Not that he was at the front of the pack in pre-season training. His team-mates envied his training regime. Starting later than everyone, he never seemed to get out of first gear in running drills.

But once the competitive work started he was in his element. The weights-room was a definite no-go area for him and the boys joked that his stretching exercises involved nothing more than standing around with a bottle of water.

They put his fitness – and avoidance of soft-tissue injuries – down to wrestling frisky Merino sheep, or tramping around the rolling paddocks. The fact that he was one of the area’s finest tennis players was also handy for his conditioning.

The memories of vintage Allen performances flash back………His decade-long duels with the O & M’s best forward, Tim Sanson, come to mind. Asked for his opinion of his toughest opponent on the eve of his final game, Sanson plonked for Matt. “I’m glad I won’t have to put up with the bugger pestering me any longer,” he said. The pair exchanged guernseys after their final meeting.

Continue reading “FARMING, FOOTBALL & FOREHANDS – THE MATTHEW ALLEN STORY.”