“…….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

MICKEY WHO ?…….

The sun shone brightly on that late September day in 1971, when a decade of dominance in Ovens and Murray football began.

If you were a long-term Wangaratta Rovers fan, you might remember the Hawks coming from the clouds to storm to victory in a last-quarter onslaught that turned the Grand Final on its ear.

If pressed, you may recall many of the blokes who wore the Brown and Gold. Some of them were to become legends of the Club ; a couple went on to play League football.

Mickey McDonald was proud to line up alongside them.

Mickey Who? you might say……………

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Michael Andrew McDonald maintains a low profile these days.

He worked at Bruck for many years…but retired about three years ago. Now he keeps himself busy pottering around his Irving Street backyard.

You used to be able to catch him regularly blowing the froth off a coldie at the Sydney pub, but the doctor warned him last November that it’d be a good idea to give the grog away. The alternative, he said, would be a one-way trip out to South Wangaratta.

If you’re in the foyer at the Rovers rooms you’ll see him in the 1971 team photo, wedged between two blokes with a similar sense of frivolity, Steve Norman and Ric Sullivan. Mick occasionally reminds himself of the emotion that overcame him when the final siren blew and the fans went berserk…………

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.Mick’s days at St.Patricks School were, in short, forgettable. There’s little doubt that his teachers, Miss Finck and Sister Annunciata shared a sigh of relief when he walked out of the gates for the last time.

The lunch-time breaks, when he could kick the footy around, were about the only time he got serious. He was one of eight kids and his dad had a bread-round. Mick occasionally hopped onto the horse and cart and helped him with his deliveries, but had no designs on following in his footsteps.

His mum, Marge, started following the Rovers when they joined the Ovens and Murray League. Her and a great mate, Iris Perso, were probably the most vocal -and fiercest – supporters the Hawks had in the fifties and sixties.

So she was a trifle disappointed when Mick, after showing plenty of promise with Centrals, headed out to Whorouly. I ask him how that came about.

“I was walking down Reid Street one day when Johnny Welch drove past and yelled out : “I want to see you.” He had just accepted the coaching job at Whorouly and asked if I’d like to join him. “I thought, Why not? ”

Even though Welchy had just the one year with the Maroons, Mick enjoyed himself so much that he stayed for three.

It was 1970 – and Neville Hogan had just succeeded Ian Brewer as coach, when Mick belatedly found his way to the City Oval – much to his mum’s delight.

Ask any contemporary for a description of the Hawks’ new recruit and the following adjectives would flow : ” tough…hard-at-it….a team-man….rugged….feisty……stricken with white-line-fever…..”

He cracked it for his first senior game twelve weeks into the season. Named on the bench against Rutherglen, he was given his chance in the third quarter. Twenty seconds after his arrival on the ground, he found himself in the umpire’s book.

“I just got a bit excited,” says Mick, who triggered an all-in brawl when he connected with Redleg ruckman Tim Reeves.

He was back at Rutherglen’s Barkly Park three days later, for the tribunal hearing, rather apprehensive about facing the ‘judiciary’.

What made him even more nervous was that the Yarrawonga player whose case preceded his, stormed out of the tribunal room in a fury, slammed the door, and simultaneously uttered “F…… me dead, four f……n weeks.”

He was dragged back in and given another two.

The three elderly gentlemen facing Mick across the table, were sympathetic towards him, gave him a good hearing – and suspended him for a fortnight. They probably wondered what the hell a stocky 5’7″ rover was doing, taking on a 6’4″ beanpole.

Mick proved a handy spare-parts man and made the most of his opportunities in the senior side in his first couple of years. But salt-of-the-earth blokes like him also enrich the club off the field, and he proved a popular figure.

The players were distracted by some vicious, swooping magpies during his first pre-season, and after being dive-bombed a couple of times himself, he decided to do something about it.

He eliminated the problem one Sunday morning, before training.

Mick hit form at the pointy end of the 1971 season. He had been outstanding in the two’s ( good enough to pick up the B &F after playing just 11 games) and knocked the door down for senior selection in the Finals.

With a couple of goals in the Hawks’ win over Myrtleford in the first semi, he played his part, and also savoured a convincing 33-point Prelim Final victory against Benalla.

Nevertheless, he held his breath when the Grand Final side, to clash with Yarrawonga, was named. But there he was – named as 20th man.

Mick didn’t recall much about the game itself. When I remind him that the Hawks were 20 points down at three quarter-time, then booted 7 goals to one in the final term, the memories start to flood back.

“I didn’t come on until deep in the last quarter. I got a run when Simon Goodale came off with cramp. With my first kick I hit Norman on the chest, lace-up,” he jokes.

When the siren blew, the Rovers had triumphed by 17 points.

“My Yarra opponent asked if I’d swap guernseys. I said, no. It’s been my ambition to get one of these bastards all my life and I’m not gonna let it out of my sight.”

And Mick meant that literally. He says he wore that treasured jumper for a week. There was no argument about who earned the 3 votes for the best performer during the premiership celebrations.

“I was working as a brickie’s labourer for Alfie Stevenson and he caught up with me on the following Friday. He asked : ‘Any chance you might get back to work some time soon ? ”

The Rovers Ball was held not long after. It used to co-incide with the Wangaratta Show, and Mick occasionally accepted the challenge to fight a member of the visiting boxing troupe.

This time the drums were loudly beating and his mates cheered, as he climbed onto the platform and the old promoter, Roy Bell, screamed: ” Your local football hero fights this session………”

To complete the festivities, Mick headed off on the Rovers trip-away – a cruise around the Pacific Islands. He nods in agreeance when I ask him to confirm the story that he saw the sun come up every morning.

“Old Jack Maroney was still President and was on that trip. I think it was his mission to keep an eye on me. Much to Jack’s dismay, I’d bought a grass skirt and a matching bra at one of the ports and wore it a couple of times. He probably feared I was on the verge of causing an international incident ! ”

Mick played two more seasons with the Rovers before heading out to Moyhu for a couple of years, and then concluding his career at North Wangaratta.

He still enjoys watching his footy, but thought his number might be up late last year. He got the ‘silver service’ treatment, when he was rushed to Melbourne, via air ambulance, for an emergency operation.

He survived, after ‘the worst fortnight of my life.’

Yes, the hell-raising days of Mickey ‘Mac’ are long behind him. But that Flag of ’71 still brings a lump to his throat……….