“THE COLLECTOR……..”

The Aussie flag in the front garden of this neat Yarrawonga residence is flying at half-mast today……..

Understandable……..It’s not even a week since the untimely deaths of Shane Warne, Rod Marsh and Dean Woods rocked the nation……So what sporting ‘nut’ worth his salt wouldn’t offer his tribute to a trio of legends…….

“Fair dinkum………..you’ll be staggered when you see this bloke’s collection of sporting memorabilia,” Robert Tait tells me. “He’s spent a lifetime pulling it together…..”

‘Bert’s’ mate is Ray Humphreys, a Corowa-born ( “I prefer to say North Rutherglen” he quips ), and now retired Post-Master, who spent his working career officiating in Australia Post Offices around the North-East.

Ray’s a 70-plus, talkative , instantly-likeable fellah, who introduces me to his off-sider…….an emerald green Eclectus Parrot which is also certainly not short of a word.

‘Mister Eccles’, he says, ensures that nothing happens in the Humphreys household without his approval…………

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‘Bert’ and Ray go back thirty years or so, to when he was coaxed onto the Yarra Footy Club Past Players & Officials committee . They’re President and Secretary/Treasurer respectively, and are proud of the role that their 240-member organisation plays in supporting the Pigeons.

Of course, the fact that ‘Bert’s’ an old Corowa player, and Ray retains his boyhood ‘Glen leanings, prompts plenty of banter between the two:

“I’m still crooked on one Club,” Ray says……”It came to a head in 1979 (when Corowa and Rutherglen merged)……The Redlegs and Spiders used to be hammer and tongs at one another…..On Saturday arvo they’d brawl and fight, and bash each other…….That night the Corowa blokes would head over to Rutherglen to continue the fight……When they’d meet again, the Rutherglen fellahs would return the ‘favour’……”

“You know what those bastards done ?…….They built a new bridge between Rutherglen and Corowa……You know why ?……..So they could get our money quicker……Then they had the cheek to suggest that we join forces………”

“We saved the ‘Glen,” jokes ‘Bert’……”They were gone……..The old Spiders came and resurrected you…..”

“No you didn’t……..You were a bunch of imposters,” replies Ray. “Just remember, before Federation, Corowa was known as North Rutherglen……”

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Ray’s dad farmed some land between Rutherglen and Howlong…….”Our family was Redlegs and nothing else…..The ‘Glen rarely won when I was growing up……….But we’d say: ‘Oh well, we got beat today but we’ll beat ‘em the next time……Then you’d tune into 2CO to see whether Corowa got beat…..If they did, it’d make you feel good….”

He got the appetite for collecting sports memorabilia when he was a whippersnapper.

An uncle, Ray Renshaw, who never married, would always be invited for Christmas Dinner, and started buying he and his brother a sports book each Christmas.

“The first one he bought me was ‘Slasher Opens Up’ ( by Test all-rounder Ken Mackay ). He gave my brother ‘Captain’s Story’, by Bobby Simpson.”

“I thought: ‘How good’s this ?’…..When I started work I began to put money away each week to buy another book……My library just kept growing……Now I’ve gotta save up and buy the unit out the back, so I can store the 5,000-odd books I’ve got !……..”

He ushers me up to a second-storey room which is a shrine, comprising books, framed items, medals, DVD’s, caps, programmes, cards….You name it, he’s got it…….

“I’ve got a real thing about Boxing,” Ray explains.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s two blokes fighting at, say, the Wangaratta Town Hall…..I go……I score ‘em and all that stuff. I back-track the next day on what I’ve written, and check the judges scores against my scoring….”

“I wanted to see a World Heavyweight title bout……so I flew over to the Phillipines to see Ali and Frazier fight the ‘Thrilla in Manila’, back in 1975………..Doesn’t get any bigger than that….I was gonna make sure I got a decent seat, so I paid $400 (Aus) for one at ringside…..bought 20 T-shirts to give my mates….got all the relevant memorabilia, which I reckon is now worth about $10,000…….”

“One of the great days of my life, it was……”

He headed over to England for an Ashes Tour in 1985 and, when he landed in London, read that the Irishman Barry McGuigan was scheduled to fight Eusebio Pedroz from Panama, for the world Featherweight crown later that night.

“It was being staged at the Queen’s Park Rangers soccer ground. I said to my friends : ‘I’ve got an appointment………So I got on the tube and called in to every pub in the vicinity, asking if anybody had a ticket.”

“A fellah said: ‘Listen buddy, I don’t know how good a seat it is, but you can have it for what I paid for it – 30 pound………..We had a beer together and I got into the fight…….McGuigan’s dad, who was a famous Irish singer, gave a rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ as the two fighters entered the ring……It was an incredible atmosphere…….”

“I bought a T-shirt that night……Said to Marg ( his wife ) a few months ago: ‘You know what’ll happen to this when I pass away……It’ll be used for a feather duster…….So I got it framed…”

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Ray’s collated all his books in sections: Cricket Biographies, Touring Books, General Cricket, Boxing, Football…every conceivable sport.

“I love collecting local sports History books …..”If City Colts or Dederang-Mount Beauty or someone produce their history, I’ll be the first one to buy it….” he says.

“See the end section over there; a fair portion of that is devoted to Essendon……There’s hardly a thing that’s been produced about the Bombers that I haven’t got….”

I notice the life-size portrait of Gavin Wanganeen standing guard in the corner, and some individual portraits hanging above the book-shelves.

“Yeah, there’s 26 of those……..Each of those fellahs played in either, or both, of Essendon’s ‘62 and ‘65 premiership teams…….including the late Ian ‘Bluey’ Shelton, my favourite Bomber of all-time……”

He pulls out a glossy publication, and says it has a special place in his heart…..The history of the Yarrawonga Football Club, published in 2003…….

“It’s as good as any country club history I’ve seen….It took us two to three years to produce. We sold 1,000 copies and could easily have got rid of another 500.”

“The last 18-19 years history of the Pigeons in footy and netball in staggering……We’ll have to think about doing a follow-up soon…….The information’s all being collated…”

Ray proudly tells me he’s just acquired the final volume, to complete his collection of Ring Magazine publications; first produced in 1927.

“To my knowledge mine is only the third collection of its kind in Australia…..Marg got the last volume for me for my birthday….She won’t tell me how much it cost her !…..”

He points to a photo of his favourite boxer…….Jimmy Carruthers.

“I suppose I was at an impressionable age in 1952, when he won the World Bantamweight title. In those days it took 40 or so fights to earn a tilt at a World crown……He beat the South African Vic Toweel in his 14th bout…..Threw 147 punches in 2 minutes 14 seconds before they stopped the fight….”

“You wouldn’t have met a better guy than Jimmie…..A real gentleman. But in saying that, I don’t want to diminish Rose, or Famechon. They were lovely fellahs to talk to.”

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Ray pulls out catalogues and folders of footy cards, dating back to the forties.

“Mum encouraged me to keep them all; from the cereal packets, Petrol companies and the like….I’ve got nothing against the modern-day cards, but I love those from the ‘40’s, 50’s, 60’s…..

They’re real works of art…… I’m always looking out for them…”

Every event he goes to, he makes sure he collects the program….”I tell kids when they come through the gate at Yarra these days: ‘Take your Critic home and put it under the bed……Keep it…You won’t regret it….”

When he heads off to an away footy match……say, to Myrtleford, he might pop in to North Wangaratta on the way for instance, to pick up a piece of their memorabilia, maybe one of their caps…..He has a burgeoning collection of those, from most Clubs he’s been to.

He escorts me downstairs, to the garage, which is chock-a-block with Scrapbooks, Critics, Footy Records, programmes from every game he’s attended, any item he deems worthwhile.

He followed three Ashes cricket Series – 1981, ‘85 and ‘89……..”England is a lovely place to watch sport.” he says. “…I saw every day of that 6-Test Series in 1989, went to Wimbledon, the British Open, watched several Soccer games, and went to the races at Ascot…..”

He has also attended Tests in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, and watched the Aussies play Pakistan in Dubai a few years back.

“I was all set to travel to South Africa to watch the now-notorious Sandpapergate Series, but fell off a ladder and broke my leg. That was fate for you……..”

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I ask this dedicated sporting fanatic for his summation of the best O & M players he’s seen….

“Well, that’s a hard one…..I was brought up with Stan Sargeant and Brian Gilchrist…..How great were they !………..”Robbie Walker….. Billie Gayfer, the old Rutherglen boy…….And what about Kevin Smith; you’ve gotta have him in your side…….”

“There weren’t many better than Jonny McCormick…..Won one Medal and should have won another, except that he ‘did’ his shoulder and only played half a season….”

“Fev was probably the most influential player I’ve seen in O & M footy……behind Bobby Rose, that is…..Both beautiful to watch…..”

As for his Yarrawonga favourites, he singles out Les ‘Salty’ Parish, Johnny Brunner, and stars of the modern-era, Leslie and Ednie…….

“I always had a soft spot for the ‘Red Fellah’ – Noel Long……..Great player, but didn’t win a Club Best & Fairest, so that probably counts against him, I suppose, when you’re judging these things…..”

“But the one, if I was picking my best side from, say, 1972……this bloke would be first picked …….Tough as nails…bottom of every pack….would dish the ball out so that Craig Ernie could bounce it five times and get the breakaway……One of only three players who’s won a Medal, the Goal-kicking and a Premiership………His name is Tim Hargreaves…….”

Ray says maintaining his memorabilia is nearly a full-time hobby…..but immensely worthwhile.

“I love harking back to when I was 13 or 14, to about 29…..You can’t remember what happened yesterday, but you know who won the 1956 Melbourne Cup, who captained Australia in 1964, who won the 1959 VFL flag…….”

“You get a bit of a buzz out of it……I’ve got no idea what the collection would be worth……..The only question is, what’s gonna happen when I go……..”

‘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……..