‘THIS RUNNING LIFE……..’

Bernie Grealy was just 8 years old when his dad Frank, drove he and his brother Laurie in from Eldorado to watch their first Wangaratta Carnival.

It was Australia Day, 1950; and like the thousands of other fans who had jammed into the Showgrounds that night, he was excited about the prospect of watching the American sprinter, Barney Ewell.

The reigning Olympic Gold Medallist, was dubbed ‘The Ebony Flash’, and had been heavily promoted as the Carnival’s feature attraction. As the unbackable favourite, off scratch, for the Gift Final, all eyes were trained on him when the lights dimmed and the runners crouched to await the starter’s pistol.

Barney, and another champion, Frank Banner,  appeared to break, but the field was recalled…which only added to the dripping suspense of the occasion.

He got away perfectly in the re-run, to edge out Carlton footballer Laurie Kerr by a matter of inches, in a run timed as one of the quickest and most memorable-ever on the Wangaratta track…………..
…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

If Bernie still needed any convincing that athletics was to be his chosen sport, it was pretty much decided for him that night.

And over the next forty years or so, he was to place his own stamp on Carnivals such as his beloved Wangaratta – and beyond……….
…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

“I was no great shakes at footy or cricket at school – even though I liked them both. But I found out I could leave most of the kids for dead when the running events were held at the school sports. So that’s the path I chose,” he recalls.

A few years later, when he was about 16, and working at the Woollen Mills, he set himself for the Mill Gift, which was held as part of their Christmas break-up. He won, and a couple of months later, went out to Easter Saturday’s Milawa Sports, and took out that Gift as well.

His dad advised him: “If you’re going to run, you ought to be fair dinkum about it.”

So he measured out a sprint track on the Eldorado sports ground and spent hours honing his talent.

“There were about 30 or 40 blokes who used to run at the unregistered Meetings which were held in February-March each year during the early sixties. Places like Whorouly, Moyhu, Tatong, Hansonville and Thoona, “ Bernie says.

“Then the Harriers started up in Wang and a fellah called Bill Eaton got onto me about turning amateur. I’d won something like 10 pounds as a pro, which seemed to be a bit of an obstacle, but he managed to get me re-instated.”

“After about two years – and competing in country championships and the like, I discovered there were a few blokes a fair bit better than me. I thought, gee, I might as well see if I can earn a few quid. “

That’s when he decided to turn professional, aged 18.

Not that prize money was ever his sole objective.

“I think the largest purse I ever got was $1,500 for winning the Oakleigh Gift. There wasn’t that much dough around.”

The biggest plus you get out of the running game, he says, is the friendships you cultivate.

Although, on the face of it, running appears to be an individual sport, there’s a unique camaraderie among the athletes.

It’s what inspired Bernie to keep going for all those years…………
………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

That – and the support of Robyn, his wife and greatest fan.

Bernie’s got an affectionate country drawl, which adds a bit of flavour to the stories he tells. He loves a yarn about sport. So does Robyn.

She used to follow him around the circuit and sit up in the stands, jotting down every race result – the times, scratchings and any other incidentals. When the runners gathered around the camp-fire of a night to chew over the day’s happenings, they’d refer to Robyn for the finer details.

Bernie’s always had a fascination for Stawell. He first went there in 1963. He and Robyn have hardly missed a meeting since.

He won his Gift heat for seven successive years and reached two finals – which still sit indelibly in his mind.

In the first of them – 1967 – in front of a crowd of nearly 14,000, he came up against the great Bill Howard, who stormed to his second successive win. Bernie ran strongly to finish third.

“People were coming up to congratulate me and say how well I’d run. To tell you the truth, I was shitty…Thought I could have done better…….”

Four years later, when Fitzroy footballer Treva McGregor took the honours, he hit the line in fourth place.

“I’d won the Yarroweyah Gift the week before, and took a few days off work, to keep off the concrete floor, and give myself the best possible chance. Did okay too…. I didn’t miss out on third place by much and was pretty happy with my effort.”

Bernie diverts to chat about Jack King, the wise old running coach, whose brother Chris won Stawell in 1908. Jack apparently lived for running and had trained five winners of the famous Gift on a cinder track he’d constructed at the family property, just off the Three Chain Road.

“Jack walked into the bank in Rutherglen one day, where Bill Howard had just been transferred, and said to him: ‘Son, would you like to win a Stawell Gift’. He’d seen him playing footy and reckoned he had the makings of a runner. “

“Bill was backed in from 100 to 1 when he won his first Gift. He was pulled about 3 yards the next year and ran 11.6, to win it again. I picked up the princely sum of $140 for finishing third.”

“One thing I regret, in hindsight, was not going over and training under old Jack when I was about 16.”

Bernie’s first-ever victory in pro ranks was at Maryborough, in 1967, when he took out the quarter-mile ( 400 metres ). He saluted again in 1970.

The 400 turned out to be his specialty. He won it on four occasions at Wangaratta – 1970, ‘74, 1980 and ‘84. The event is now called the ‘Grealy Family 400 Metre Handicap.’

A framed photo, depicting each win, takes pride of place on the Dining-Room wall. It’s about the only show of pretension from the illustrious Grealy running career.

“Robyn doesn’t like displaying too much of that stuff,” he says. “But it is special, winning a race in front of your home crowd.”

Bernie first started coaching around 1980. Greg O’Keeffe was his first ‘recruit’.
Greg recalls the day he was jogging along Edwards Street when a car pulled up alongside, and an instantly-recognisable voice called out: ‘….Ow ya goin…..’

It was Bernie, who asked him if he’d like to start training with him.

They hit it off straight away and became great mates, sharing countless memorable sporting moments over the years.

“There were a fair few who trained with us over the years. I think all of them won a race at some stage.”

“I remember Wally Pas coming down with his Rovers team-mate Nick Goodear. The first time he came out of the blocks I thought: ‘Wow, this bloke’s got something.’ “

“Of course, he won a Wang Gift, as did Greg and Jason Boulton. They all became pretty-well infatuated with the sport.”

Bernie was also a finalist in four Wang Gifts. The closest he got to bringing home the chocolates was in 1976, when he finished a close third to Warren Vines.

He retired from running when he was 55, but still remained heavily involved. For quite a few years he competed in Veterans Games.

Then he took up cycling and enjoyed the competitive aspect of Hume Veterans events.

But a couple of heavy falls, the last of which badly damaged his shoulder, broke some ribs, and caused a stint in hospital, convinced him that it was time to give away the bikes.

With the Carnival looming, he’s been doing a bit of work on the Showgrounds track and will be there in an official capacity next week.

He thinks back to those days when the Carnival attracted 140 bikies and something like 300 athletes, and the town would be buzzing for weeks beforehand.

It’s just that, with the passage of time, circumstances have changed, he says. Regardless, it still gets the adrenaline of this sporting junkie rushing, just like it did 68 years ago…………..

THE FOOTBALL MISSIONARY……….

One of the last times I spoke to Norm Minns, the conversation was short and sweet.

A new footballer, by the name of Michael Caruso, arrived in town and had accepted an invitation to train with the Rovers. It was January 1987 and the school-teacher from Maryborough was looking the goods at the first night of post-Christmas pre-season.

A phone call distracted our attention. The voice was instantly recognisable, even though it remained anonymous: ” Would Mick Caruso be there please ?”

“Nah, sorry.”   I promptly hung up.

He’s a bastard that Minnsy, I thought. Here he is, trying to make a last-ditch attempt to snavel our prize recruit and lure him over the road. You wouldn’t put it past the old bugger to try anything.

Norm died later that year, and left behind a sporting legacy that is hard to match in local sport, as a footballer, administrator ……..and the toughest of competitors……………

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Norm Minns had the Midas Touch when it came to winning football premierships. In one stretch, in the late-forties to early fifties, he played in seven straight. Call it luck, or being in the right place at the right time, but his exquisite talent and fanaticism for the game played its part too.

He was reared in Chiltern, but moved to Melbourne at a young age and played with Fairfield, in the Melbourne Boys League.

A four-year stint in the Army during the war years halted his progress somewhat, although he still managed to find a game here and there, to sate his thirst.

He trained with Melbourne and was keen to throw in his lot with the Demons, but, being in Collingwood’s zone, was told that if he wanted to play League footy, it would be in Black and White – there would be no clearance.

“I didn’t like Collingwood’s approach,” he said many years later. Instead of persisting with his ambition of playing at the highest level, he headed back to Chiltern for a couple of seasons, and played in their 1947 premiership side.

The following year, Norm accepted a coaching appointment at Brocklesby and, besides leading them to the flag, finished runner-up in the Hume League’s Azzi Medal.

In the opinion of a couple of his surviving contemporaries, he was as good a player as there was going around in country football at the time – a VFL talent wasted.

But the urge to give it a crack had passed Norm by . Hotly pursued by Rutherglen and Wangaratta, he chose the Magpies.

That proved a master-stroke, as they were about to embark on a run of success which, almost 70 years later, still sees them bracketed among the greatest O & M combinations of all-time.

Minns could play in any position, but was used mostly in the centre or at centre half forward in those sides of the ‘Holten Era’.

A strong mark, beautiful kick and a shrewd analyst, he was a great disciple of Mac Holten, whose ‘gospel’ of handball and team-first football revolutionised the game in this area.

The Magpies went on to win four flags in succession – from 1949 to ’52 – and, being the big occasion player that he was, Minns starred in each of them.

He always rated the 1951 premiership side the best he played in. Any wonder. The goal-to-goal line comprised evergreen full back Jack Ferguson ; Lionel Wallace the dairy farmer from Greta who was impassable at centre half back ; Minns in the middle ; Ken Nish, a marvellous key forward, despite his profound deafness ; and spearhead Max ‘Shiny’ Williams, who booted 90 goals for the season.

After Wang snuck home by 20 points over Rutherglen to win the 1952 premiership, Norm was approached by Benalla, who were seeking a playing-coach.

Again, good fortune favoured him. The Demons had finished eighth the previous season, but improved dramatically under his leadership in 1953. When they ended the Magpies’ remarkable run of success in the Prelim Final, Norm knew that the premiership was within reach.

Benalla held on in a dramatic last quarter, to defeat Albury by seven points and win their first O&M flag.

They reached the Grand Final the following year and met Rutherglen, the side they had eclipsed in the second semi. However, despite Minns kicking six of his side’s 10 goals, the Redlegs proved too strong.

He had been a regular inter-league player, but his personal highlight came when the O & M clinched the 1955 Country Championship. With 11 goals in the Semi and 6 in the Final against the Ballarat League, he enjoyed two brilliant cameos at full forward.

Corowa, who hadn’t enjoyed success for years, handed Norm the coaching position in 1956. But his somewhat tempestuous relationship with the Spiders ended acrimoniously, when they sacked him with one game remaining in the 1957 season. The inference was that he had been trying to induce one of their players to transfer to Wangaratta.

Norm denied the claim, but it was an underwhelming way to conclude his playing career. In the end, he said, he was glad to leave John Foord Oval. “The only good thing about it was that I got my money.”

A month later, he was on the Wang committee. It re-ignited a love affair with the club, which continued for another 30 years, and saw him act as a selector, recruiter and consultant on all things football.

The Rovers realised that, if a potential recruit lobbed in town, the signature wasn’t going to be easy to obtain. If he hadn’t already got under their guard, Minnsy would probably be hot on their heels, selling the Magpie cause and being a general ‘pain in the arse’ to the boys from over the laneway.

As time wore on, he became heavily involved with the O & M, as an inter-league selector and Board member. His love of football and interest in developing young talent prompted him to get behind the formation of the Ovens and Murray Schoolboys team, with whom he was associated for 20-odd years.

His name was synonymous with the game in Wangaratta. He was a sort of football missionary.

Norm and an old Magpie team-mate, ‘Hopper’ McCormick recognised the need to teach kids as young as five, and up to 12, the fundamentals of football. Thus, they kicked off the Wangaratta Midget and sub-junior League, a forerunner of today’s Auskick.

They provided a game for the youngsters and acted as de-facto babysitters when parents would drop them off early on a Saturday morning. It made for a huge day, as Norm would then move on to his commitments with the Magpies, which finished at around 5 o’clock that night.

His sporting passion during summer was ignited by spending hour after hour preparing the running tracks for the Wangaratta Carnival. He became involved at about the same time that the charismatic American Barney Ewell scorched up the track to win a memorable Gift in 1950.

That won him over and he was proud of the fact that the Carnival was recognised as one of the ‘blue ribbon’ sporting spectaculars in the state.

Literally hundreds of local footballers and athletes benefited from his extraordinary efforts – many advanced to the elite levels thanks to his interest and support.

It’s fitting that his name is perpetuated by the Medal that is struck each year for the O & M’s best player in inter-league matches.

And if you’re heading down Green Street, you’ll see the arch at the entrance to the Showgrounds, which immortalises the 40-odd year contribution that this sporting ‘nut’ made. It welcomes you to the ‘Norm Minns Oval’…….

 

 

 

 

OLD MARTY, THE ‘SHADOW KING’ & THE CHAMP

FullSizeRender (12)Hundreds of aspiring athletes – or maybe footballers looking for that vital extra yard – came under the tutelage of a wise old owl, who regarded the Showgrounds as his domain for  almost 50 years.

Marty Bean was his name. Although he was nothing more than an average runner himself, he had a terrific influence on the careers of several champions.

Marty was born in 1896 and was always interested in sport. He learned about the conditioning and tactics of running by asking questions of others involved in the sport. In time he became renowned as a superb judge of a runner.

He had played on a wing in Wangaratta’s 1920 premiership side and acted as Head Trainer for the Magpies for 17 years. Hence the tendency of many footballers to keep fit over the summer months by ‘doing a bit with Marty’.

One of his first ‘protege’s’ was a footy team-mate, Jim Larkings, who had incredible endurance and competed for 28 years, after first winning the 400 yard event at the inaugural Carnival, in 1919.

Gentleman Jim became known as the ‘Shadow King’, a nickname coined because of the regularity with which he filled the minor placings at Wangaratta.

In his prime there were few better runners in the state, but he just couldn’t greet the judge in the final of his home Gift. He finished second twice (1919 and 1926), third twice and fourth once.

He was a regular training partner of Mick Maroney, whom Bean guided to the Gift, off 12 yards, in becoming the first local winner of the event in 1930.

What’s more, there were always promising schoolboy athletes approaching the cagey veteran and asking him to take them under his wing.

One such youngster was Frank Seymour……..

 

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Seymour’s adolescent years coincided with the advent of World War II. The nation was pre-occupied by the goings-on of the battle-royal being waged on several overseas fronts, and sport had been placed on the back-burner.

But the lad was an ardent footballer and played his first senior games with Wangaratta in the Murray Valley Association, under the tutelage of a tough old ex-VFL star, George Robbins.

The cessation of hostilities saw Ovens and Murray football resume and Frank, at the tender age of 17, earned his share of senior matches with the Magpies.

Wangaratta went on to win the 1946 premiership and the youngster was a member of the line-up, which included Laurie Nash,Doug and Jack Ferguson, Tommy Bush and Kevin French.

By now, Marty Bean, the strict disciplinarian, had convinced Frank that he possessed the wherewithal to make his mark in the world of pro running. He gave him the advice that he no doubt passed on to all up-and-comers :

“Son, you have to be dead keen, not just to run, but to listen to what I tell you. If you’re half-hearted I’m not interested in you”.

Unregistered athletic meetings provided plenty of opportunities for runners to test their ability in those days. Handy pocket money was available at places like Eldorado, Whorouly, Stanley, Bowman’s Forest and Moyhu.

After some success against a few talented sprinters, Frank realised that he was good enough to give it a go in the pro ranks.

He enjoyed the atmosphere of the big meetings and the camaraderie which existed among the athletes.

Wangaratta was the big one for him, though. ‘Old Marty’ had been setting him for the Silver Jubilee Gift of 1947 and was confident that his charge could become the third local to take out the ‘Blue Ribbon’ at what was rated the best mixed Carnival in Australia.

A blistering-hot January day had reduced the afternoon attendance, but when dusk fell, the crowd had swelled to almost-capacity. You could literally hear the buzz around the oval, as Seymour and other members of the Bean stable – Jack O’Keeffe, Max Christie and Maurie Morley – were roared on by the local supporters.

And when Frank registered the fastest time of the day in his semi, to be installed as warm favourite for the final, he carried the weight of the crowd on his shoulders.

Morley also ran well to reach the final, but it was to be Frank Seymour’s night.

Running off seven yards, he breasted the tape, to edge out Sydney taxi-driver J.C.King, who was also well- fancied and well-marked off 10 yards.

A large contingent of Wangaratta footballers could hardly contain their excitement, having backed their team-mate for a sizeable sum.

Frank continued to compete on the pro circuit for many years, but this was to prove his greatest triumph.

He made the trip to Stawell on six occasions, but experienced little success. He was never comfortable, he reckoned, on the uphill camber of Stawell’s Centennial Park track.

His professional career lasted into the early ’50’s, before hamstring-related injuries forced him out of the game.

He focused, instead, on helping the enthusiastic Bill Eaton to get Wangaratta’s Little Athletics off the ground in 1957.

The emergence of many keen youngsters prompted them to organise training, and then meetings, which further enhanced their development.

Seymour sought re-instatement as an amateur, which permitted him to compete in the senior Harriers competition.

Just as his old mentor had done for decades, Frank Seymour continued to make a lasting contribution to the development of local athletes.

 

Footnote:

Some of the footballers who sought the assistance of Marty Bean, to ‘pick up a yard’, lacked the necessary patience to succeed.

He was well in his ’70’s when I reported to the running guru, and expected him to wave the wand which would magically transform me from a plodder to a pacy utility player.

Instructed to run a few laps, which seemed to go on for hours, I concluded that the ‘old bastard’ had either (a) forgotten about me, (b) reasoned that I was suited to distance running, or (c) deduced that I was one of those half-hearted blokes who were wasting his time.

I disappeared off the track after two nights, never to return…….

FullSizeRender (13)

 

 

 

 

 
FullSizeRender (14)

SENTIMENTAL FAVOURITE GETS THE CHOCOLATES…

Walter Pasquali wears a permanent grin on his welcoming Continental countenance.

He’s a jolly fellah, Wal. But if his smile could get any broader, it happened on a hot January evening in 1995, when he stormed home to win the Wangaratta Gift.

The sentimental favourite had scorched down the floodlit 120 metre track, to breast the tape in 12.21 seconds, and ignite wild celebrations. Hands held aloft, he commenced probably the longest celebratory journey in Gift history, and finished his ‘lap of honour’ by acknowledging the roar of the crowd in the Richardson Stand.

He still rates it as his finest sporting moment, even though he can entertain you with scores of other anecdotes and highlights of an eventful career which has hummed along for nigh-on 30 years……..

 

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

He was brought up on the family’s King Valley tobacco farm, one of three sport-mad kids. An older brother, Anthony, had fulfilled a long-held dream to come in and play footy with the Wang Rovers, where his name was to become indelibly etched into the club’s record books.

Wal was eager to follow suit and in 1985 featured in a Thirds’ premiership, alongside players of the calibre of Mick Wilson,  Howard Yelland and Rick Marklew.

His progress was steady. A lengthy apprenticeship in the Reserves included a Runner-up Best & Fairest trophy in 1987 and universal recognition as a terrific clubman.

A smaller edition of the lean, versatile ‘Pas’, he was mainly a winger, with pace to burn and a lethal left boot and was rewarded with 3 senior games in 1987, Laurie Burt’s first year of coaching.

“Wal’s bubbly personality helped create a positive vibe around the club. Everyone loved him.” Burt said.

“But I wasn’t in his good books one Thursday night when I announced the side and left him out. The next thing we heard was a loud bang. Wal had taken his frustrations out on the toilet door. I pointed out to the boys, that’s how much it means to him to play senior footy.”

It was on the suggestion of a team-mate, Nick Goodear, that Wal decided to have a crack at foot-running. The extra edge in pace would, he believed, be the weapon that would earn him a permanent senior spot.

But disaster struck, in the guise of a damaged knee early in the 1988 season, which required a full reconstruction and effectively put the kibosh on a footy career which was really only just starting to crank up.

And, as his rehab progressed, so did the thoughts that he might focus on running. He was working as an electrical sub-contractor at the time, doing plenty of training under wise old Bernie Grealy and finding an adrenalin-rush in his adopted sport.

Within eighteen months he was lining up in the final of the illustrious Stawell Gift, on Easter Monday, 1990. It was to be the year of the brilliant West Australian Dean Capobianco, who blitzed a field which included two other eventual ‘Stawell’ winners.

Nerves got to Wal, who finished sixth . But he was richer for the experience.

For the next five years or so he was super-competitive, despite running off a tight mark. Always explosive off the blocks, he won successive Broadford Gifts, and took out the 70m events at Werribee, Bendigo and Broadford (twice).

During a big 1993 campaign, he finished fourth in the coveted Bendigo 1000, and was invited to contest Jupiter’s Gift in Queensland, where he ran a close second. He was fourth in the final of Adelaide’s rich Bay Sheffield Gift, regarded as second only to Stawell on the pro running calendar.

To top the season off, he took out the time-honoured Burramine Gift. So, with those sort of performances, there was little wonder that the handicapper was always scrutinising him closely.

He was flying in early 1995 and began to focus on the Wang Carnival even more intensely after his win in the Rye Gift two weeks prior.

“It meant a lot to me to run well at Wang, in front of my home crowd.  Mum and Dad, who didn’t usually attend the Carnival, were there, all my mates were egging me on and I felt good in the lead-up to the Final,” he recalled.

So how did it feel, Wal, when the ground lights were turned off, the floodlights were trained on the Gift track and commentator Eddie Bush gave your resume’ as you paraded down that familiar stretch of turf, just minutes before the big event ?

“I was pretty sure I’d do OK. It was all about getting away to a good start, which I did, and I was determined to catch the front-marker, Adrian Campagna, who was another local, by the 60-metre mark, then peg back the other blokes in front of me.”

” I’ve never run faster than I did that night and when I got to Phil Harloff, the Albury runner, I knew I was home. There was about a metre in it in at the finish. And then the celebrations started……..”

Wally started to experience trouble with his achilles the following season and it became a continual battle to get his body right.

But he kept running and his love of training and competing remained as strong as ever.

One ritual he maintained was his journey to Stawell every Easter. It was there that his romance with a star 400m runner, physiotherapist and his future wife, Anna Deery, blossomed.

Anna had been close to Australian selection as a junior, restricted only by a navicular foot injury. She was later in contention for a spot in the 400 relay squad for the Commonwealth Games, being rated No.5 in the squad and narrowly missing a spot.

So, with a mutual love of athletics, they had plenty to offer Wangaratta sport when they moved back here in 2009.

Wal re-ignited his considerable passion for the Brown and Gold and has helped out in several capacities. Of particular assistance has been his work in fitness and conditioning. He is held in high regard by the Hawk playing group.

Greg O’Keeffe, who has seen all of the top local runners come and go over the years, rates Anna as one of the hardest female trainers he has seen. She has a zest for junior development and is heavily involved with Little Aths.

Their contribution to the Athletic Club has increased by the year, both by sponsorship through their Optus business and their considerable physical input.

The whole Pasquali brood – Wal, Anna and the kids, Christian, Isabella and Sofia – will be competing this Saturday, when the Carnival kicks off.

And Wal will be forgiven a touch of nostalgia when the finalists are asked to take their marks for the running of the 95th Wangaratta Gift…..It’s 20 years ago, the butterflies are in the tummy and he’s the second back-marker… Oh,what a memory that is……….

 

 

FOOTNOTE:   The other Wangaratta winners of their local Gift have been: Maurice Maroney (1930), A.W.Whittaker (1938), Frank Seymour (1947), Jimmy Doolan (1958), Greg O’Keeffe (1985), Jason Boulton (1997 and 2006).
2015/01/img_0630.jpg
2015/01/img_0631.jpg