“PURE FANTASY ?……HAWKS AND PIGEONS IN A NAIL-BITER…….”

Rovers fans have been sweating on this day for more than four months.

After another fruitful recruiting campaign, which has netted more than a dozen newcomers, there’s an air of optimism at the Findlay Oval.

And you pick up the positive vibe as you walk into the ground. They’re doing a roaring trade in Member’s Tickets and you detect a buzz about the place. It’s great to catch up with some of the old-timers who have been seemingly welded to their favourite vantage spots for more than 30 years.

Rex Hartwig is one who has a spring in his step. Old Rex celebrated his 90th birthday during the footy hiatus . But he has a glint in his eye, akin to the focus he had in his halcyon sporting days when he’d face off against tennis legends Kramer, Segura, Gonzales and Sedgman.

Of course, there’s a good reason for Rex’s enthusiasm. His grandson Tyson is back, after a sabbatical of four years. Tys has done it all with the Hawks – Captain, champion defender, Best and Fairest, All-Australian Country rep…… Now he just wants to add to the 139 games he has accumulated…and play a part in the revival of his home club.

I stumble upon another permanent fixture; perched on the steel railing to the left of the Hogan Stand. That’s been Steve Norman’s domain ever since he hung up the boots.

He used to say how handy it was because he was within reaching distance of the Can-Booth, and right in the midst of the most one-eyed section of the crowd. Most of his fellow-protagonists of yore, like Herbie Day, Alfie Onslow, ‘Spud’ Patat, Theo Hall and Ken Johnstone have gone to their mortal coil, and others have drifted off, to be replaced by fans of a more tolerant bent.

No one was able to split the big sticks at his spiritual home quite like ‘Superboot Steve’. He had a sixth-sense. You don’t boot 1016 O & M goals without possessing something out of the box. He ‘owned’ the 50-metre arc, and his team-mates upfield could read him like a book.

There’s another bloke hobbling past who delivered a fair few of those ‘lace-up’ passes to Steve. It’s Andrew Scott, who’s become synonymous with the Rovers since he arrived in town as a ‘cop’ 45 years ago.

Geez he could play. In his first year with the Hawks he won the Morris Medal and became the idol of those hard-boiled fanatics around the Bar.

And he was so adaptable. In the latter part of his career he had a turn on the forward flank. He snagged a lazy 10 one day against Lavi, to the delight of the ‘diehards’ . The other thing about ‘Scotty’ was that he always rose to the big occasion when he was needed.

Get yakking to him and you wonder at first if he’s still carrying the weight of the footy club on his shoulders. But then he emits a huge belly-laugh, to lighten the situation. He’s continued to contribute to the Club, has this ‘rough-nut’ plumber . What an institution……. !

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Anyway, I’d better pop into the rooms to wish Sammy Carpenter all the best. Playing his 100th game today, is ‘Carps’. I don’t recall too many mediocre ones in that lot, either.

I know the veteran rates the ‘ton’ as a real highlight. He’s been a bit of a journeyman and must be nudging the 300-mark in his glittering career. There wouldn’t be a fan anywhere who doesn’t admire what ‘Croc’ has achieved.

I interrupt a chat with his old man – and greatest fan – Leigh (who also has young Sonny in tow), to shake his hand. He’s suitably chuffed and says he’s honoured to join the greats of the Club.

Heck, he’ll play an important role in this clash with Yarrawonga. His cool head will be a crucial asset, particularly considering there are so many new faces in the side.

There’s an electric atmosphere in the rooms. The Reserves have their game well in hand, so the fans have been drifting in to catch ‘Crezza’s’ pre-match build-up. It’s packed in here; you could cut the air with a knife.

One of the stars of the pre-season, in my book, has been the boy from Manley-Warringa, Tyrone Armitage. He’s a damaging left-footer who played with VFL club Northern Blues at one stage. I love his zest on the track and he seems to have fully ingratiated himself into the Club. It’ll be really interesting to see how he performs in this footy. I’m tipping he’ll be a star.

Glancing across the rooms, I guess this must be one of the tallest Rovers sides for some years. Besides young Ed Dayman and ‘Gatto’, there’s another giant in the ranks, Nick Redley from Langwarrin. Could be a surprise packet, this fellah.

I notice Ryan Stone edgily flicking the pill from hand to hand. It’s great to have him back. He developed into a top-flight player at Heidelberg since leaving the Hawks after the 2013 season. I’m sure he’s relishing the opportunity to play his first Senior game with the Rovers alongside his young brother, Dylan.

I sneak outside for a bit of fresh air and spot a familiar face ; underneath that trademark Pigeon cap, he’s wearing his usual pre-game furrowed brow. It’s old ‘Jinxy’ Clarke himself – one of Yarra’s best-known fans.

“Whattya reckon Jinx ?”. “Ah well, you blokes have had all the publicity about your recruiting, but we’re happy with what we’ve got,” he replies.

“Just remember,” he adds, “apart from those couple of hiccups last year, we had the wood on you for more than 10 years.”

I do remember, because ‘Jinx’ would remind me every time. “What’s that up to now ?…. 23 on the trot…….. ?”

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Not long after, the siren sounds to launch the 2020 opener.

It’s the usual nervy, frenetic start, but the Pigeons appear to have settled down nicely. Their first major comes from tall Matt Casey, who’s managed to find a yard on Hawk champ Nathan Cooper, and nails one from just 20 metres out.

There’s no doubt that the big wraps on their gun recruits Willie Wheeler and Leigh Masters are spot-on. Wheeler – and his brother Harry – are in everything in the mid-field, negating the ruck effectiveness of Dayman and Redley.

In fact, the Hawks look listless and a couple of sloppy turnovers prove costly. You can detect the blood of coach Cresswell rising, as normally cool customers make mistakes under pressure.

He gathers his troops at the quarter-time break for a good, old-fashioned rev. They’re 22 points down, the Hawks, and look a far-cry from the glamor-side they have been pronounced in pre-season tittle-tattle………..

Things don’t improve much early in the second term, either. But an intercept from veteran defender Sean O’Keeffe finds the ball in the hands of Carpenter, who feeds off to Sam Allen.

The long kick from the youngster – well beyond the 50-metre mark, sails through for a timely goal. Surely that will have the Hawks up and about.

Slowly they begin to creep back into the contest, despite not making a huge impact on the scoreboard.

Mark Whiley, Yarra’s first-year coach, has been in everything, as has the evergreen Xavier Leslie. Whiley is certainly an inspiration and Cresswell will need to make a move to shut down his effectiveness.

Despite the Rovers’ best efforts, the lead has crept out to 31 points at half-time.

The Hawks are quickly ushered into the coach’s room. Meanwhile, shell-shocked fans wait about, but it’s a good 12 minutes before they file out – suitably chastened and grimly determined……..

The third term produces a stunning turn-around. Shaggy-haired Will Nolan has been swung onto Whiley, and curbs his influence. And Tyson Hartwig begins to create a presence up forward.

Yarra’s dominance around the ball, which has given them control of the game, now wanes, as the dynamic Charlie Thompson, Jamason Daniels and Raven Jollife continually get their hands on the pill.

In a 16-minute burst, the Hawks have reduced the margin to less than a kick. By three-quarter time it’s the Pigeons who are looking rather ragged……..

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But they’re not done with yet……

They register early last-term goals through Jess Koopman and talented youngster Jack Sexton, to regain the ascendancy. Then, dashing Jack Gerrish takes possession from just beyond the half-back line and scoots off, dodging and side-stepping in typical fashion.

He’s within kicking distance ( there’s a player loose who he doesn’t see), and lines them up.

Goal !……… The faithful in the Maroney Pavilion rise as one.

The Hawks slot another, after Armitage swoops on the ball and kicks truly with his left boot from the angle.

It then becomes goal-for-goal, in what has become a classic contest.

Entering time-on, the Pigeons hold a slender four-point lead. Both sides are tired, but desperate, as the ball bobbles between the respective half-back lines.

I’m tuned in to OAK-FM and ‘Gamby’ breathlessly informs us that there are less than 15 seconds left.

Suddenly, Carpenter, the 100-gamer, retrieves the ball out of nowhere and spots Ed Dayman. A pass, delivered with surgical precision, thumps the young fellah on the chest….15 metres out….straight in front….just as the siren blares…….

What pressure !……..Big Ed lines them up and sneaks it through.

It’s a Hawk victory by two points……..!

“….’WOOSHA’ FIGHTS BACK….”

THE SCENE : Rovers cricket nets…..any summer Saturday arvo…..Mid-to-late eighties………

Two energetic kids are oblivious to whatever drama is playing out on the W.J.Findlay Oval, where their dads are engaged in battle…..The tall, blonde lad can sure bat a bit…..For over, after over, after over, he flails everything that the whole-hearted right-armer can hurl at him.

The budding speedster bends down to retrieve the pill at one stage, and mutters something about being ‘nothing more than a friggin’ bowling-machine’. He’s confident, though, that if he can just pierce that defence he’ll get to have his turn with the willow ……But it never happens……….

Some years later, they both strut the hallowed turf of the Findlay Oval. Decreed by birth that they’ll wear the Brown and Gold of the Wangaratta Rovers, they become footy team-mates for a decade.Their cricket also flourishes, as they star for Rovers-United….until the partnership is broken….. The blonde bloke is lured to District cricket……….

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Shane Welch’s only sporting regret is that he was denied a Premiership at the Clubs he held dear to his heart .

He was just coming of age as a footballer, having been a rabid fan of the Hawks through a Golden Era, when they won four flags in seven years. They handed him a brief taste of senior footy in 1994 – mid-way through an O & M record 36 wins on the trot – the year the Club won the most recent of its 15 titles…….

And when he finally heeded everyone’s advice to try his luck with Carlton Cricket Club, his old side Rovers-United promptly nailed successive flags.

“That’s fate, I suppose. It’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time,” he says.

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Shane came through local cricket’s junior ranks, and was in his first year of Under 14’s when he also played as a keeper/batsman for Rovers-United’s C-Grade team. His old man Geoff ( whose aching body had now restricted him to wheeling down guileful, accurate, slow-medium left-armers ) and Greg Rosser ( batting legend ), were the elder statesmen of the side.

His rise was meteoric. At 16 he’d become a regular A-Grade player and a candidate for any form of rep cricket that was going.

That included being part of Wangaratta’s U.21 Mac Holten Shield side which, he reflects, was probably the most enjoyable cricket he played.

“Our team was chock-full of characters. You’d be struggling to manufacture that spirit, even in a club side. We won everything, and after the games, would celebrate accordingly.”

Shane broke into the Colts at the same time as Jaden Burns: “We went through sport together; he was just like my little brother; spent heaps of time at our place in Park Crescent. In the midst of Year 12 exams I took one of those calls you never forget, advising that he’d lost his life.”

“The Burns family asked me to deliver a poem at the funeral. I was talking to the Colts captain Chris Tidd a few weeks later. He said to me: ‘That was great, that thing you did on Burnsy.’……Less than a month later, Tiddy was also gone.”

Shane was elevated to the captaincy. Wang never went close to losing for the next two years, as they cleaned up successive Shield Finals.

In the 1994/95 decider, they knocked over ‘danger-man’, outspoken future NSW and Australia ‘A’ ‘gun’ Domenic Thornley for 3, and restricted Albury to 7/223. .

The Welch innings of 93 in 115 minutes guided Wang to victory. Many who’d been following his progress rated that as his finest innings.

He gained priceless experience, as a member of three Melbourne and four Bendigo Country Week sides, but along the way, admits he learned a couple of valuable lessons.

He’d just turned 18 and had begun to put a few decent scores together, including his first WDCA ‘ton’ – an unbeaten 126 against Rutherglen.

“Up until then I’d hardly missed any rep team I’d gone for,” he says. “There was a pretty extensive selection process for the Victorian Under 19 team, but I’d done well in the trial games and had captained Vic Country. I felt comfortable playing with the likes of Brad Hodge and Brad Williams.”

“Out of the final squad of 20 they only picked one country bloke to go to the National titles in Brisbane, and I missed the cut. I was disappointed…..pretty shattered, but it taught me to accept things, and not to get too far ahead of myself.”

He says he was put in his place one day at the Findlay Oval, when he was dismissed cheaply, nicking down leg-side:

“It annoyed me….more so the manner of the dismissal. I mumbled a few things under my breath ….cracked the shits and whacked the bat on my pad as I walked off. I’d been in the rooms for a minute or so when Max Bussell, one of Wang’s most respected cricket figures, came in.”

“He said: ‘What’s happened to you ? Remember, you’ll get out in plenty of different ways than that in your career. Just cop it on the chin’.”

“I learned that ‘Pa’ didn’t like what he’d seen and said to Max: ‘If you don’t go in and have a word to him, I will.”

‘Pa’ (Arthur) was his greatest fan. The moment he’d stride to the crease, Arthur, who was a laid-back, wise-cracking personality of the local game, would tense up…… He’d embark on a couple of nervous laps of the ground…..once the young bloke had passed 30 or so, his normal demeanour would re-appear.

After a productive 1994/95, which featured 430-odd WDCA runs ( including another ‘ton’), Shane headed to the ‘big smoke’ to attend RMIT University. Carlton and Fitzroy-Doncaster both pursued him.

He opted for the Blues, principally because his cousin Darren had spent four seasons there. It seemed a good fit, and he looked forward to learning off players like Rohan Larkin and Ian Wrigglesworth who’d played at the higher level.

A couple of half-centuries in the Seconds earned him promotion. His debut First XI hand of 58 against Dandenong impressed the good judges, but they nodded sagely a few weeks later when he scored 108 against Fitzroy-Doncaster.

“I just thought the runs would keep coming,” Shane says, “….but it’s never that easy.”

After a very successful opening season he began 1997/98 with a bright 55 against Prahran. Four games later he was back in the Seconds with three or four other youngsters who had been touted as the ‘future of Carlton’.

“I ended up becoming a bit disillusioned; got down on myself. I decided I’d free the arms up a bit….try tonking the spinners and belt the cover off the ball…. ‘Pa’ summed it up. He said: ‘You’re batting like a bowler’. “

“Cricket had lost its charm for me. I gave it away at the end of that season……..”

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His football apprenticeship began at his dad’s old Junior League club, Combined Churches, followed by two years with the Hawk Thirds and one in the Reserves.

Along the way, the Murray Bushrangers slotted him in for a late-season game in which he snagged four goals as a floating forward.

By 1995 he was a permanent fixture in the Rovers line-up, alternating as a forward, tall defender or relief ruckman.

For the next ten years, Shane became one of those fellahs who are vital to the culture of a successful footy Club …..Reliable……Always giving 100%……Disciplined…….Willing to accept whatever role he’d been handed….Rarely in the limelight….And enthusiastically embracing the after-match festivities.

During that period, he was one of a group of 20-25 city-based country players who’d gather at the Princes Park No.3 Oval and improvise their own training schedule.

“Travelling back each week wasn’t a chore for me then, “ Shane says, “It was an easy drive. I enjoyed getting back home.”

His first year of teaching – 1999 – took him to Yea High School, where he politely declined the local club’s invitation to accept the coaching job.

Instead, he assumed ruck duties for the Hawks when the ‘dicky’ knee of big Paul Greaves caved in early in the season.

In 2002, the year the Rovers built momentum and developed into a flag threat, there were also plenty of stints in the ruck, relieving another ‘man mountain’, Aaron Schenke.

They had beaten North Albury three times that season, but the Hoppers got out of the blocks quickly in the Grand Final, and established a big lead. A dramatic fight-back ensued; the Hawks wrested the momentum, but eventually North ran away with the game.

“We had two or three blokes who were a bit proppy. We’d expended a lot of energy getting back into the game, and had nothing left when it counted,” Shane says.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….He played just four games in 2005, and was finding that other things in life had taken priority over football. Besides dealing with a niggling quad injury and heavy work commitments, the travel had now become a burden.

Additionally, Jo (his future wife ) was in the throes of transitioning from England.

Inevitably, he was resigned to pulling the pin with his beloved Hawks. After 160 senior games, Shane ‘Woosher’ Welch, Life Member and intensely loyal clubman hung up the boots.

He taught at the same Melbourne-based secondary school for 19 years, and says it took a heavy toll on his health.

“It wasn’t a harmonious place. You were basically just trying to control the kids. I didn’t read the warning signs of fatigue. A heavy VCE workload, high expectations and raising a young family in Melbourne contributed to my burnout / exhaustion.”

“It was an extremely challenging time – a real battle. At 41 years of age I had to dig deep to slowly regain a sense of self-worth.”

At the end of 2018, Shane, Jo and the kids, Rosie ( now 11 ) and Luke ( 8 ) packed up and moved back to his home town.

He maintained his passion for Physical Education. He’s now working at Galen College, has written, and overseen the curriculum for the Peak Football Academy, and is coaching the ‘talls’ at the Murray Bushrangers.

He’s in his second year back at the Rovers as their Phys-Ed Advisor, and has guided the players through a gruelling summer of fitness work .

He has also designed an Out-Door training Program , comprising circuit-based 50-minute sessions. It involves 12-15 stations, using resistance, weight, running and sporting equipment.

It’s his intention to launch it in the near future.

“Thanks to the support of family, colleagues and mates, I’ve been able to work my way back to now be able to make small contributions within the community,” he says.

“And I’m prouder of that than any of the centuries I made” ………………”

FAREWELL TO A PAIR OF STAR DEFENDERS…..

The famed hostility between the Magpies and Hawks had just reached its zenith when Bernie Killeen and Bob Atkinson made their way into Ovens and Murray football.

They were to become sterling defenders for their respective clubs.

Killeen, the high-marking , long-kicking left-footer, held down a key position spot for most of his 13 years with Wangaratta. ‘Akky’, wearing the Number 33 of his beloved Wangaratta Rovers was a back flank specialist, uncompromising, hard-hitting and renowned for his clearing dashes upfield.

Both passed away in the past week or so, after lengthy illnesses……………

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Bernie Killeen returned home from St.Patrick’s College Sale in 1956 and walked straight into the Wangaratta side. He was just 17.

Dame Fortune shone upon him, as the Magpies were in the throes of developing a powerful line-up . His form was solid enough to hold his spot in the side and bask in the glory of the ‘57 Grand Final, alongside such experienced team-mates as coach Jack McDonald, Bill Comensoli, Graeme Woods and the veteran ‘Hop’ McCormick.

It was an unforgettable day for Killeen, who was named on a half-forward flank. Wangaratta came from the clouds, thanks to a last-minute goal from champion rover Lance Oswald, to overcome Albury by two points.

This early taste of success would have given Bernie an inkling that that it was to be a forerunner of things to come.

Fate intervened. Four years later, a debilitating knee injury struck him down. He spent most of 1961 on the sidelines, and could only watch on as the ‘Pies scored a huge win over Benalla in the Grand Final.

Killeen fully recovered, and reached his peak in 1963, when was rated among the finest centre half backs in the competition. He took out Wangaratta’s Best & Fairest Award and the Chronicle Trophy, and represented the O & M against South-West League.

Perhaps his most memorable performance came in the 1964 Second Semi-Final, when he was like the Rock of Gibralter in the key defence position, pulling down 19 towering marks against the Rovers. It was a bad-tempered match, with the ‘Pies pulling off an upset, to march into the Grand Final.

A fortnight later, when the teams again tangled, Killeen found himself matched up at the opening bounce by Hawk coach Ken Boyd, whose intent was to niggle, and put the star off his game.

Boyd later moved into defence, but as the match progressed, Bernie found himself continually out of the play. The Rovers’ strategy was obviously to prevent him from ‘cutting them off at the pass’ as he’d done so effectively in the Semi.

Wang fell short by 23 points – the first of three successive heart-breaking Grand Final losses.

Bernie Killeen was a model of consistency over 13 seasons and 226 senior games with Wangaratta. He was installed as a Life Member of the ‘Pies in 1966…………

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As an angry, milling group of players swapped punches in the second quarter of the 1972 Ovens and Murray Grand Final, one of the central figures in the melee slumped to the turf.

His face was splattered in blood……. He tried in vain to resist the efforts of trainers, who were trying to escort him off the ground….. Eventually, sanity prevailed.

It was always going to be Bob Atkinson’s last game in Brown and Gold. But it wasn’t supposed to finish so abruptly ! At least, when he’d gathered his equilibrium after the game, his team-mates consoled him with the news that he’d added a sixth premiership to his collection……………

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‘Akky’ arrived at the City Oval in 1959 – a product of the South Wanderers. If there seemed to be a touch of maturity about the swarthy apprentice Motor Mechanic, it was understandable. During the last of his four years with the Junior League Club he’d already announced his engagement, to Fran, his future wife.

Young footballers of the modern era wouldn’t be so accepting of the patience that he displayed, as it took the best part of five years before he was able to nail down a permanent senior spot.

Maybe it was the proliferation of talent at the Club that saw the youngster deprived of opportunities…… Bob Rose may possibly have felt that he’d developed bad habits that needed rectifying…….like continually trying to dodge and weave around opponents.

Whatever the reason, Rose was unable to tailor a suitable role for him.

After making his senior debut in 1960, he’d played 49 Reserves, and just 26 Senior games.

His rejuvenation came in 1963, when Ken Boyd inherited a side bereft of many of its stars. His challenge to the younger guys was to place their stamp on the Club. In ‘Akky’, he found a player who relished responsibility, and jumped at the opportunity of shutting down dangerous opposition’s forwards.

‘Boydie’ also admired his aggressiveness and spirit. He urged him to attack the ball……..”And if anyone happens to get in your road, just bowl ‘em over,” he said. The re-born back flanker didn’t need too much convincing, and responded by finishing runner-up to Neville Hogan in the B & F.

This ‘Vigilante’ of the backline had some handy sidekicks in ‘Bugs’ Kelly, Lennie Greskie and Norm Bussell who were all football desperadoes.

The Rovers won 15 games straight in 1964, before hitting a road-block. They dropped the next four matches and were seemingly on the road to nowhere. That they were able to recover, and take out the flag was a tribute to Boyd and the character of his players.

They repeated the dose in 1965, again taking down Wangaratta in a tense encounter. The fierce opening of the Grand Final was highlighted by an all-in brawl, which saw a few Magpies nursing tender spots. Twice, in the dying stages, Wang had chances to win the game, but they fell short by three points.

The Hawks remained there or thereabouts for the next three years, including contesting the 1967 Grand Final.

But Bob had an itch to coach, and when lowly King Valley came knocking in 1969, he accepted their offer. The Valley had finished last, with just two wins, the previous season. They’d never won a flag.

‘Akky’s’ arrival coincided with the construction of the Lake William Hovell Project. Several handy recruits landed on their doorstep almost overnight.

It enabled them to sneak into the finals in his first year. But 1970 was to provide Valley supporters with their finest hour.

After thrashing Milawa in the final round, they went to the top of the ladder, but their confidence was eroded when the Demons turned the tables in the Second Semi.

The Valley made no mistake in the Grand Final. It’s handy when you have a full forward like Ray Hooper, who boots 11 of your 14 goals. Hooper, a burly left-footer, was a star, as was his fellow Dam worker Tony Crapper.

‘Akky’ was inspirational, and with the scent of a premiership in his nostrils, drove his players in the last half. His old Rovers team-mate Barry Sullivan also held sway in the ruck, as King Valley stormed to a 34-point victory………

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Bob returned ‘home’ to the Rovers, and lent his experience to a youthful side, under the coaching of Neville Hogan. The following year he was appointed vice-captain.

“It was probably the best thing that happened for his footy at that stage of his career, as he got fully involved,” recalls Hogan. “The discipline he showed provided a great example to our young players.”

One of those was Terry Bartel, who was a fellow car-salesman at West City Autos. ‘Akky’ once recounted the story about Bartel telling him he couldn’t be bothered driving to Yerong Creek to represent the Ovens & Murray in an Inter-League game:

“I’m probably going to be sitting in a forward pocket all day. I don’t reckon the other pricks will give me a run on the ball,” said Bartel.

“You never let anyone down. Jump in that car and get up there,” I told him. “I’d give my left Knacker to play in one of those games. You don’t know how lucky you are.”

“And, you know, the little bastard’s gone up and kicked 9 goals……..”

Bob capped a fine 1971 season by finishing fifth in the B & F and playing a key role in the Rovers’ 19-point premiership victory over Yarrawonga. He’d lost none of his venom, and at a critical part of the game upended Pigeon ruckman, the formidable Jimmy Forsyth.

‘Akky’ lived ‘by the sword’. He knew that retribution might come one day, and when big Jim flattened him twelve months later in his swansong game, the 1972 Grand Final, he accepted that as part of footy.

After such a hesitant start, he’d made a huge impression at the Rovers. He’d played 175 senior games, figured in four senior and one Reserves flag, was a Life Member, and had earned a reputation as one of its finest-ever defenders.

He succumbed to the temptation of coming out of retirement two years later, when he played several games with Tarrawingee.

Finally, though, ‘Akky’ decided it was time to pull the pin……………

‘DANNY RECALLS THE NIGHT HE CLINCHED THE BELT ….’

“Dan ! How ya goin’ ”.

There’s a pregnant pause on the end of the line, followed by a muffled, querulous : “Who’ve I got here ?”.

“ Remember me ?… Kevin Hill……What are you up to ?.”

“Ah… KB….To be quite honest, I’ve been on the drink this week-end……Relaxin’…..I’m pretty good at that, you know…………”

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I’ve got hold of Danny Carey in a round-about way. He’d originally made contact with the Chronicle, to find out if they could rustle up some clippings pertaining to the fleeting boxing career he pursued back in the eighties. Sorry, they said, but we’ll jot down your phone details, and give them to a fellah who might be able to chase something up………..

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So that’s how Dan and I happen to be involved in this somewhat garbled conversation.

He’s now domiciled at Taree, a town on the mid-North Coast of New South Wales, about 15km inland…. Says he’s been roaming around for a few years, but now resides in a Caravan, in the local Showgrounds’ precinct….

Just before I rang he’d knocked the top off another long-neck, he tells me, having returned from helping to round up a few horses They’ve been spooked by the plumes of smoke from the bushfires, which are looming ominously over the landscape.

“How long have you been in Taree, Dan ?,” I ask. “A bit over two years, but I hit the road a long time ago. When things turn a bit sour I just move on……..”

He’s whiling away the time by listening to some of his favourite Country and Western singers: “Ever heard Tom.T.Hall’s ‘Homecoming’ ? When you get off the phone you should google it up. And while you’re at it, listen to another one of his: ‘The Ballad of 40 Dollars’.”

He’s got a fancy for most of the Slim Dusty repertoire , in particular ‘Ballad of the Drover’. When I ask how that one starts off, Dan bursts into a rendition:

‘Across the stony ridges, across the rolling plain,

Young Harry Dale the Drover comes riding home again,

And well his stock-horse bears him, and light of heart is he,

And stoutly his old pack-horse is trotting by his knee………’

Dan had a lot of respect for his dad – also called Dan.

“He was a serious bugger, and fairly hard. But he had that way about him that you didn’t know whether he was jokin’ or not.”

“Dad’s was the last funeral I went to. I don’t like ‘em much. Don’t trust myself……. Might get all emotional and punch someone.”

When he queries me on some of the old local identities he knew, I mention that many of them have now passed on. “F……’, they’re all droppin’ off,” he quips.

Dan’s revelling in this bit of a chin-wag. Even though he’s now nudging 60 there’s no doubting that memory of his………..

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Dan was a strongly-built kid with recognisable footy talent when he arrived out at Moyhu in 1975. He reminds me I was his first coach. That probably proved to be a hindrance to his prospects of ever being a champion, I suggest…..

But he was good enough, and strong enough – at the age of 15 – to hold down a key position, which was a feat in itself. I found, for all his devilment, he was a good kid who you couldn’t help taking a shine to…….even though he was easily distracted and his training habits weren’t quite up to scratch.

After a couple of seasons with the ‘Hoppers he moved to Tarrawingee, back to Moyhu for another three years, over to Greta, then finally, back to Moyhu.

He reckons he saddled up in about 130 senior Ovens and King games, with the highlight being the Best and Fairest that he picked up at Moyhu in 1979.

Dan says he gained a fascination for the boxing game through watching the ever-popular ‘T.V Ringside’ on Monday nights.

“When I suggested to the ‘old man’ I’d like to have a go at it, he said: ‘Danny, it’s a ridiculous sport….. Blokes dancing around trying to belt each other in the head………But it’s so intriguing…….’ “

He started training under local legend Rossy Colosimo. They were an odd couple. Ross was short, muscly, and a fitness fanatic, who was the local symbol of the sport.

He treated his protege’, who towered over him, with plenty of ‘TLC’ and did his best to impart his fountain of knowledge to the feisty youngster. He particularly emphasised to this ‘loose cannon’ that he needed to be fair dinkum, and had to make a few sacrifices if he was going to make a go of it.

Dan got off to an unflattering start to his career with a loss on points in a three-rounder, to a tough old slugger – Billy Jones.

But his next four bouts were full of promise – three wins and a draw – which led to an offer to be matched up with cagey Reno Zurik, a fit, quick New South Welshman who had 51 fights to his name.

Their meeting at Beechworth, was Carey’s first 10-rounder, and Zurik showed the benefit of his experience to finish on strongly in the final rounds. The points decision was decisive, and led to him putting his Riverina Heavyweight Title on the line in the re-match at the Wangaratta Indoor Stadium, eight months later………..

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I remember it vividly. The Rovers had put their hands up to promote the ‘Boxing Extravaganza’, which was originally the brainchild of the late Denis Wohlers.

‘Mouse’ was an ideas man, but reckoned that ‘dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s’ was a job best passed on to someone else. That’s why, by the end of the night, I had aged a couple of years.

The early signs were promising. We were encouraged by the numbers who were rolling up to this strongly-advertised eight-bout program.

The first hitch came when, with time ticking away, there was no sign of the contingent of six Riverina boxers – including one of the principal attractions, Reno Zurik. Just as panic stations were setting in, and tempers were becoming frayed, four of them ambled in with their manager, a cagey old pro from Walla Walla called Kevin Kennedy. “Sorry fellahs,” he said, “two of the boys from Culcairn didn’t make the trip.”

“Shit…..Ah well, Thank Goodness most of you are here; now we can get on with the show,” we proclaimed.

“Have you got the Doctor organised,” said Kevin Kennedy. “What ?…..there’s been no mention of needing a Doctor.” “That’s one of the Boxing Regulations” he snorted……. “You must have a Doctor on hand……If there’s no Doctor, there’s no Fight Night.”

I reached for the ‘phone to ask a favour of the only person who might be a slight chance to pull us out of this predicament. Miraculously, Dr.Bruce Wakefield said he’d be down in a jiffy .

By now it was getting on, and the big crowd had become restless. So was our MC, Peter McCudden, who was rushing around wondering what he could say next, to pacify his audience.

“Tell ‘em we’re not far off starting,” we said. “I mentioned that 20 minutes ago,” he replied.

Eventually, the first Prelim got under way, and the 700-strong spectators were mercifully forgiving. They were soon roaring themselves hoarse as the night unfolded. It was an ideal prelude to the ‘Big One’ – Zurik versus Carey………………

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German-born Zurik looked every inch the seasoned campaigner when he slid through the ropes, accompanied by a ripple of polite applause. The ‘local hero’ followed, a minute or so later.

Strongly-built, liberally-tattooed, and with an air of confidence, big Danny shed his Purple and Gold Greta footy guernsey, and raised his gloved-hands, to huge acclaim. He knew that, of all the moments in what had been to date, an unfulfilled sporting career, this was the one he’d remember forever.

But there was a job to do, and he used his height to advantage in pummelling the champ in the early rounds.

He certainly had the ascendancy. In the fifth, he unleashed a powerful right, which rocked his opponent.

Even so, the dogged Zurik fought back. The contest was evenly-matched until the ninth round, when Carey, finishing strongly, completely asserted his dominance over the fourth-ranked Australian Heavyweight contender.

Eighty seconds into the final round it was all over. Carey knocked the champ to the canvas and the referee, Max Carlos, stopped the fight – Carey by a TKO.

Danny soaked up the adulation of the home crowd, and the esteem of holding the Riverina Belt. 18 months later he again tackled Reno Zurik in a six-rounder at Wagga. This time his canny opponent was too good, and gained a unanimous decision on points.

That was the beginning of the end for Dan, who, in several succeeding bouts, never again scaled the heights to which he promised to ascend.

But even so, he can’t help harking back to that memorable July evening in 1981, when he became the toast of Wangaratta……….

“FLAG FLAMES AGAIN FLICKER AT THE ‘SHOWIES’………”

I’m regularly reminded of my greatest sporting disappointment when I spot a swarthy fellah striding down Murphy Street of a week-day morning.

It’s 49 years ago, almost to the day, that he pranced on to the Showgrounds Oval, and proceeded to become a decisive figure in Myrtleford’s electrifying, historic Premiership triumph.

The first thought that comes into my mind is usually: ‘There’s the little prick that helped cost us a flag’.

Johnny Bianco chuckles at this, and recounts the circumstances that ultimately delivered him a premiership Medal in just his ninth senior game for his home-town Club:

“I’d not long graduated from Uni as a teacher, and received a posting to Meadow Creek early in 1970. Moyhu came to see me and I said: ‘Yeah, I’ll play with you.’ I was driving an old Morris Major Elite at the time, and travelled over from Myrtleford each day.”

“Anyway, as luck would have it, the Morris ‘carked it’ and Dad gave me a loan to buy a brand-new Renault from One-Mile Motors. The only proviso was that I had to give up footy, and concentrate on my teaching career.”

“A few weeks later, though, a three-man deputation from Myrtleford – the coach, Martin Cross, President, Len Ablett and the Parish Priest, Father Frank Jones – arrived at the farm and convinced Dad that I should play with Myrtleford.”

After six games in the Reserves ( during which he picked enough votes to finish runner-up in the League Medal ) John broke into the senior line-up. He strapped himself in for a dream ride, as the Saints stormed into the finals, and comfortably won the First Semi against Wangaratta. They sensationally knocked over previous flag favourites Wodonga by a point in the Prelim, to set up a Grand Final clash with the Rovers.

There was a touch of romanticism about the meeting of the O & M’s two fledgling Clubs, who’d been jointly admitted to the League twenty years earlier. Hence, a mammoth crowd jammed into the Showgrounds – a large percentage of them adorned in Red, White and Black.IMG_4382

Alas, the fairy-tale appeared destined to end in tears. The Rovers had looked the better-equipped team, and held a decisive 17-point lead at three quarter-time.IMG_4398

But a withering last quarter saw the Saints storm back into the game. The elusive Bianco proved to be their ‘energiser’. He made his presence felt by snapping the first major and his fresh legs were a factor in their scintillating fight-back.IMG_4384

When Graeme Ward booted a goal from well-out at the 24-minute mark, the game had slipped beyond the grasp of the Hawks. The piercing sound of the siren was the signal for hundreds of Myrtleford fans to swarm the ground and release two decades of pent-up emotions……..

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Grand Finals always produce a back-drop of yarns that make each of them unique……..Some are tinged with sadness………others conspicuous for their stories of brutality……or brave performances against the odds………

Myrtleford’s Cinderella-like triumph in 1970 is the most memorable of the eight O & M Grand Final battles that have been waged at  Sunday’s venue – the Norm Minns Oval (The Showgrounds). It may be worth plucking out some snapshots from the others……….

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1947: ALBURY v. BENALLA

Tommy ‘The Turk’ Lahiff’s Albury are chasing their third flag in four years, and have convincingly outpointed Benalla in the Second – Semi.

But Benalla, with ‘Iron-Man’ Bob Chitty booting nine goals, storm back into contention with a 44-point win over Corowa in the Prelim.

It’s anyone’s game at lemon-time in a riveting Grand Final, as the Demons lead by a solitary point. Chitty has been dynamic in the first half, but begins to fade out of the game.

Albury’s forwards, who have been wayward, to say the least, begin to hit the target, and with classy left-footer Jimmy Matthews controlling the mid-field, prove too strong in the latter stages, winning 11.18 (84) to 10.9 (69)……….

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1962: BENALLA v WANGARATTA ROVERS

Much of the pre-game hype centres around the ‘Swansong’ appearance of Rovers maestro Bob Rose, who has overcome mid-season injury to lead the Hawks into the ‘big-one’.

And he’s in rare touch, picking up 26 kicks by half-time, as the Rovers lead a battle of attrition, three goals to one.

Rovers fans ponder why Rose has left incumbent coach Ken Boyd to cool his heels in the back pocket for much of the game, whilst Benalla’s Alf Sikora and Terry Putt are playing such a key role in the big-man duels.

The Hawks still lead by five points – 4.8 to 3.9 at three quarter-time, but it’s obvious, in this battle of the defences, that the Rovers are tiring.

Demon star Neil Busse nails an early goal, and Putt scoops in a magnificent mark in the goal-square, to give the Demons the lead. Johnny Hogan kicks the sealer in the dying stages to give Benalla the flag – 7.14 (56) to 6.10 (46).

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1973: BENALLA v NORTH ALBURY

The fists fly early in a series of sensational flare-ups, as North use their physical strength in an attempt to counter the Demons’ pace and slick teamwork.

Brilliant Hopper mid-fielder John Smith is the first to go into umpire Ian Coates’ black book. The report is to have consequences for Smith the following year, as it costs him consecutive Morris Medals. Burly Joe Ambrose is also reported, but Benalla are able to withstand the pressure, and go into each of the breaks holding a narrow lead.IMG_4395

There are thrills aplenty for the crowd of just on 15,000 in the final term. Benalla slip out to an 18-point lead, but a 70-metre goal from Stan Sargeant and a snap from Fulford in time-on reduce the margin.

Benalla, desperate in defence, hold on to win a classic – 12.12 (84) to 11.11 (77).

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1978: BENALLA v WANGARATTA ROVERS

Benalla enter the Grand Final as raging favourites after chalking up 15 consecutive wins. But when the chips are down in the opening stanza it is the Rovers who take command.

They’ve made several pre-match positional changes which seem to catch the Demons on the hop, and by half-time the game is as good as over.IMG_4389

Benalla issue a brief challenge in the third quarter and, for a while, halt the Hawks’ supremacy. But their moment of glory is short-lived and their opponents sprint away again, to notch their sixth flag in eight years, winning by 54 points – 15.18 (108) to 7.12 (54).

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1991: YARRAWONGA v WANGARATTA ROVERS

Yarrawonga out-play Wangaratta Rovers in the Second Semi, and earn favouritism when the two sides meet at the Showgrounds a fortnight later.

This time the Hawks are well-prepared and blitz the Pigeons with a dominant first quarter which almost puts the game beyond doubt.

It’s typical Grand Final football, with plenty of tackling and smothering, which makes the job of kicking goals a difficult proposition. Robbie Walker is on fire at centre half forward, and the Pigeons swap several players onto him without success.IMG_4391

At the last change it is feasible that Yarra may still pinch the match, but the Hawks put it to rest by adding another 7.7, to win effortlessly – 17.16 (118) to 7.7 (49).

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1994: WANGARATTA ROVERS v WODONGA

A blustery wind blowing across the Norm Minns Oval eliminates the long-kicking, high-marking game for which both sides are renowned.

But the unbeaten Rovers signify their intentions early by hitting the ball hard and tackling ferociously. They kick five goals to nil in the first quarter, and continue their dominance. The third quarter becomes somewhat farcical, as the Dogs initiate several stoushes and are minus three players thanks to the umpire’s yellow card.

Did Simpson Medallist Robbie Walker is unstoppable and the usual suspects – Tossol, the Wilsons, Caruso and O’Donohue – reap the rewards of Wodonga’s ill-discipline, as the Hawks go on to win 14.14 (98) to 5.9 (39).

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2018: ALBURY v WANGARATTA

Albury, the League’s pace-setter for the best part of a decade, have to fight like the Dickens to preserve their unbeaten record in a riveting match.

With a strong breeze reaching almost 40kmh at times, both teams struggle to master it. The Tigers lead by 21 points at half-time, but the ‘Pies perform brilliantly to force their way back into the game, and trail by just 3 points at three quarter-time.IMG_4388

Albury get some breathing space through a piece of Jake Gaynor magic, but a Michael Newton goal- a snap for his third – cuts the lead back.

The game is full of desperation – particularly when Jimmy Grills marks on the goal-line to prevent a Magpie goal with just three minutes left.

In one of the most thrilling Grand Finals for years, Albury hang on to win: 11.12 (78) to 10.10 (70).

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POST-SCRIPT:   The 1970 Grand Final was Johnny Bianco’s last game for his beloved Saints. His profession took him to a variety of towns throughout the state, where he continued playing footy. In 1977 he shared in another flag, with Rushworth, under the coaching of former North Melbourne star Bernie McCarthy.

He settled in Wangaratta in 1984 and became renowned over the next 30 years as a much-loved teacher and musician. Last November John’s world was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with cancer.IMG_4396

“It’ll probably get me in the end,” he tells me. “But in the meantime I’m enjoying life as best I can. Hopefully,  I can live long enough to see Myrtleford’s second premiership………..”IMG_4387