“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.
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…………
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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…………….