‘ A HARD-MAN…… ON AND OFF THE FIELD…….’

Ray Burns was one of those larger-than-life characters of my growing-up years.

As a recently-arrived member of the constabulary, he soon earned the respect of the town’s miscreants and scallywags; maintaining decorum by dispensing the old-fashioned form of justice – a decent, well-directed toe up the arse……..

Accentuating his reputation as a ‘hard-man’ was a flattened nose, spread generously across his ‘lived-in’ dial….. giving rise to a rumour that he’d once been a Golden Gloves contender.

He’s from an era when country football clubs eagerly anticipated the annual influx of bank-clerks, school-teachers and policemen to their municipalities. They would pray that, amongst those who migrated, they might be fortunate enough to snavel a ready-made star or two.

That’s what happened in late-1957, when ‘Burnsy’ made Wangaratta his home…………..

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

He was just 16 when he left Shepparton and headed to the ‘big smoke’ to pursue his boyhood dreams.

Just as his brother Ted saw his destiny lying in the priesthood, Ray had his heart set on becoming a cop……and a star footballer.

But firstly, he had to ‘mark time’. He spent two years with the Railways before being accepted into the Police Academy.

By now he was well-entrenched at Richmond, where he’d had two years with the Third Eighteen, and was acquitting himself capably in the Two’s.

After playing a starring role in a Reserves Prelim Final in 1956, in which he received the plaudits of old Tigers for his three goals, a stint of National Service the following year took a decent slice out of his season.

Upon graduating from the Academy, and reaching the conclusion that League football was probably beyond his reach, he accepted his first transfer………

“The clubs came knocking, but there was no doubt where I was going to sign; I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play under Bob Rose,” he recalls.

“It was sensational….They were the Golden Years of Country footy……..I loved regaling my kids with the stories of climbing on the train to go to the Grand Finals in Albury.”IMG_4242

“When we came back, victorious, we were greeted at the Railway Station by hundreds of Rovers fans, and the Town Band, which escorted us down to the Ground for the celebrations. Talk about being big frogs in a small puddle !……..”

Bob Rose loved Burnsy’s’ toughness and redoubtable spirit . And besides, the Hawk ‘protector’ regularly produced on the big occasions.

He was a key contributor in the club’s first flag – a 49-point win over Des Healy’s Wodonga in 1958. When the sides squared off two years later, he was best-afield, as the Rovers prevailed in a tight contest.

Casting his mind back to the closing stages of the 1959 Grand Final against Yarrawonga, though, still produces a lump in his throat.

It’s raved about as one of the finest O & M Grand Finals of all time. Here’s how it unfolded :

The Pigeons, pursuing their maiden premiership, scarp out to a 39-point lead in the third quarter.

But the Hawks produce 20 minutes of champagne football, to boot seven goals in 20 minutes, and take a 3-point lead into the three-quarter time break.

The lead changes six times in a pulsating final term. With the clock counting down, and the Rovers attacking,  Max Newth takes possession near centre half forward, fumbles, then, with a deft flick-pass, unloads to the running Burns.

From 50 metres, he promptly slots it through the big sticks to regain the lead for his side.

But seemingly from acres away, the shrill sound of umpire Harry Beitzel’s whistle sends a hush through the 12,000-strong crowd. He adjudicates Newth’s  pass as a throw, much to the dismay of Newth, Burns and the rabid Rovers fans.

Yarra take the resultant free kick and the giant, Alf O’Connor, becomes a hero when he slots a major from the pocket just before the siren, to see the Pigeons home……….

“That was a travesty,” Ray says. “There’s no doubt the pass was legitimate, but old Harry pulled the wrong rein. I still replay that incident, 60 years later.”

Bob Rose usually handed Burns the task of tailing Yarra’s tough-nut Lionel Ryan when the sides met. The fiery red-head was a fearsome opponent. When the pair tangled it was akin to two gnarled, feisty old bulls going at each other.IMG_4243

“I picked him up again in this game, but Billy Stephen rung some changes when they were under siege. He shifted Lionel into the centre early in the last quarter.”

“I said to Rosey: ‘Do you want me to go with him ?’……’Nah, it’ll be right,’ he replied. I’d been ‘blueing’ with him all day. As it turned out, Lionel became a big factor in them getting back into the game. But that’s footy……”

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

After a magical three years with the Rovers, Ray was by now married to Judy ( ‘the best-looking girl in town’ ) and, having purchased a house in Swan Street, decided to try his hand at coaching.

Moyhu snapped him up. After reaching the Prelim Final in 1961, the Hoppers were all-conquering the following year, and went through the season undefeated. One of his prize recruits was a future O & M legend, Neville Hogan, who dominated the mid-field.IMG_4248

At season’s end, Ray received letters from two clubs – St.Arnaud and Nhill, sussing out his coaching availability.

“Wheat was big in the West in those days,” he recalls. “I’ll never forget this; a fellah called Ray Youthmire was showing me around the club’s facilities. Nhill had never won a Wimmera League premiership. He said: ‘If you take us to the flag, I’ll personally buy you a new Holden car.’ “

“That was irresistible. I told Moyhu I was keen to put in for it,  but instead of thanking me for keeping them in the loop, they sacked me !”

“I went ahead and accepted the job, subject to getting a transfer in the Force. But the cop who was leaving the Nhill police station changed his mind, and my transfer fell through.”

“To rub salt into the wound, Nhill won two of the next three flags, but luckily for me,  Brien Stone, the President of Tarrawingee offered me their job.”

It had been ten years since the Bulldogs’ last premiership, but they set the pace for most of 1963. The Grand Final was a gripping affair, and they just staved off a defiant Moyhu, to win 7.18 (60) to 9.5 (59).IMG_4250

Tarra again triumphed in 1964, this time against a Greta side which was on the rise. The following year, Greta, despite kicking just five goals in another nail-biter, were able to pip Tarra – who kicked 4.15 – by two points.

One of the highlights of his last year as coach was nurturing an overweight, easy-going kid called Michael Nolan, who was to rise to the heights of VFL football.

“I was close to buggered by now, and handed over the reins to Neil Corrigan. I thought it would be best to spend a year just concentrating on playing.”

And that was it for Burnsy – or so he thought.

The Rovers were keen for him to act as a guiding-hand for their youngsters, and appointed him Reserves coach in 1967. But on finals-eve, with injuries mounting, they thrust him back into the senior line-up.

IMG_4246
Ray Burns ‘flies the flag.l

A broken leg to coach Ian Brewer in the second quarter of the Grand Final placed the self-confessed ‘broken-down hack’ in an invidious position. He was now the on-field leader.

IMG_4245
Ray Burns receives instructions from Rovers’ injured coach Ian Brewer during the 1967 Grand Final

He threw his weight around, and was involved in a big dust-up in the third quarter. “I was lying on the ground after it, when a New South Wales copper came onto the ground and said: ‘If you don’t behave yourself, I’ll lock you up’. I don’t know how he came to that conclusion. I finished with the free kick……”

The Rovers were eventually overpowered by Wodonga, and Burnsy promptly hung up the boots.

After 13 years in the Police Force, he embarked on a new career, as the licensee of the London Family Hotel.

Situated opposite the wharves in Port Melbourne, it was a ‘7am to 7pm’ pub, and favoured watering-hole of Wharfies, Painters and Dockers and ‘colourful identities’.

“It was an interesting place, that’s for sure……And talk about busy ! We averaged 50 barrels a week.”

Controversial Dockers such as ‘Putty-Nose’ Nicholls, Pat Shannon, Billy ‘The Texan’ Longley, ‘The Fox’ Morris and ‘Ferret’ Nelson were numbered among his clientele. ‘The Ferret’ finished up wearing ‘cement boots’, and another notorious figure met his end after being gunned down outside the pub.

“We were there for a touch over ten years and although I was on good terms with the wharfies,  I did the ‘modern waltz’ quite a few times, with some of the local ‘intelligentzia’. And my head was used for a football on more than one occasion………They sure kept me on my toes.”

Ray went on to spend some time as a rep for Carlton & United Breweries, ran Wangaratta’s Railway Hotel for three years, then moved the family to Adelaide, where he operated the Half-Way-Hotel, a busy establishment with 40 poker machines and a thriving bar trade.

After a hectic 11 years, they sold out and he and Judy decided to put their feet up. They retired to his old home town of Shepparton, where Ray admits they’re now doing life ‘on the bit’. They spend a fair bit of time these days keeping tabs on their six kids ( Di, Mick, Karen, Paul, Shane and Mark ), and 14 grandkids.

He’s been doing volunteer work for many years with a few old mates, mowing the lawns and tending the gardens of Ave Maria Hostel.

” I’d always reckoned there were two jobs that’d really suit me. One was holding up the Stop/Go sign  for the CRB.  I never achieved that ambition, but I’ve been able to tick off  on the other one – driving a Ride-On Mower !………….”IMG_4247

‘WATCHING THE GAME FROM THE GATE….’

I wake up on Sunday morning with a queasy feeling in the stomach.

No, it’s not from last-night’s over-indulgence……Worse…It’s Derby-Day, and I can’t see how my Hawks, who’ve been competitive this year, can be any match for a rampant Wangaratta.

I can only go on media reports and local scuttlebut, which indicate that they’re flag favourites, boasting a side chock-full of talent. Aside from an aberration up at Tigerland, they’ve swept all opposition aside with consummate ease.

To further aggravate matters, I’m working on the Gate, and will have to contend with chirpy Magpies filtering through – all with that look of smug satisfaction on their dials – their only irritation being that they have to begrudgingly hand over some of their ‘hard-earned to these Rovers pricks’………

Being on gate-duty once the siren blows, is like watching life unfold through the bars of a dingy prison cell. You peer across, and catch a glimpse of the scoreboard -if you can -through the heavily-populated bank to the right of the Hogan Stand.

And it’s not a happy tale……

The roar of the crowd is a sure-fire indicator. Sounds like it’s all one-way traffic, after a promising start. The Pies pile on the goals. To my surprise, one fan is departing, even though it’s only half-way through the second term….or maybe, he’s going out to fetch something from the car.O&M Wangaratta Rovers vs Wangaratta (17)

“Want a Pass-Out ?” …..”Nah. I’ve seen enough. They’re too slow……Keep turning the ball over. It’s gonna be a belting.”

Gee, that doesn’t sound promising. Am I seeing right ?…..Looks like it’s blown out past six goals.

To confirm this, I switch on the trannie, and pick up Gambie and Omo on OAK-FM. They’re full of praise for the Magpies, who are chopping up the Hawks through the mid-field. And big Josh Porter is causing headaches up forward……… Then they utter the words I didn’t want to hear : “……the Rovers are flat-out trying to keep tabs on their classy opponents, and seem to be losing control…….”

Just before the half-time siren blows, we start packing up, and see that there’s only four goals in it. Are the Rovers slowly creeping back into the game……or will the Pies run away with it? For verification, I consult a couple of knowledgeable experts in the rooms, and, though they’re usually ‘Glass Half-Full types’, they’re of the latter opinion.

Wang are too strong all over the ground, they tell me; they’re using the ball better, and have capitalised on the Rovers’ skill errors…………….

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

So I take up my usual position, leaning on the inter-change box in front of the rooms. From this vantage-spot you can also watch the ‘Crezza Show’. He’s in fine form today. Fully-animated…. gesticulating….arms waving….offering priceless morsels of advice to youngsters coming off…..and a blast to those of his players who’ve deviated from the game-plan.IMG_4149

He couldn’t be any closer to the action, and you can see by his body language, that he likes what he sees in the early stages of this third-quarter.

The Hawks are kicking to the ‘Gum-Tree End’. After hearing the prognostications of those at half-time, I’m staggered by what I’m seeing. Early on, diminutive Patty Hourigan takes possession of the pill deep in attack, and snaps a ripper, which enthuses the packed Rovers supporters on the balcony.

Then the ‘Brodie-Filo look-alike’, Matt Medcraft contemplatively takes a long-range shot from deep on the far flank. It evades flailing hands and bounces through. A miracle goal…..and what a team-lifter.

A change has certainly come over the game which, those around me say, has gone to another level. The tackling and ferocity is Ovens and Murray footy at its best from both sides.O&M Wang Rovers vs Wangaratta (17)

But the momentum is certainly with the Hawks. When dashing Jack Gerrish bolts through the middle of the ground, bouncing and skilfully keeping control of the ball at full-pace, it illustrates what a game of inches it is.

Had he faltered, the ball would have been quickly rebounded to the other end. But he steadies, and it ends up in the hands of his 2018 Thirds team-mate, Sam Allen, who slots a major, mid-post high, through the big sticks.

Amazingly, the Hawks have drawn level, and there’s a buzz around the ground reminiscent of those fabled Derby clashes of days gone-by.

Minutes later, young Sammy pops another one through, once again demonstrating his forte – a lethal right foot – and proving that  a footballer can be transformed. from a ‘turd to a camellia’ in a matter of twenty minutes.

The Rovers hold the ascendency by a goal at three quarter-time, and both camps are reasonably confident of their chances.

Will the Pies steady, and with their big-game experience, regain the upper-hand ? Or, with adrenalin pumping in their veins, and taking their chances, can the Hawks hold on?

Wang do most of the attacking in the early-to-mid stages of the final term, but can’t land the blow which would swing the game their way.O&M Wangaratta Rovers vs Wangaratta (10)

In one of the key moments, the big fellah, Ed Dayman, tackles and scores a free kick, then lines up a pressure shot for goal. This shot’ll test him surely, I surmise. No problems, it doesn’t deviate. He’s a gun, young Ed.

Matt Grossman, who has been thrust forward by the Pies, is free-kicked, and the 50-metre penalty which follows, aids him in nailing their first goal in a half.

They boot four successive behinds; the last of them a flying shot which causes the post to shake like most of the nervous fans. It reduces the margin to two points, but it’s only when Stuart Booth runs in to hammer a goal home with less than two minutes remaining, that the game is finally put to bed.O&M Wangaratta Rovers vs Wangaratta (18)

The siren, which brings finality to a contest and a half, prompts an overflowing of emotion, as the players congregate in mid-field.

Apparently one player gave a bit of lip, which prompted Maggie Daniel Boyle to react. Nothing wrong with that, I reckon. More to the point, it’s nice to know that the old home-town rivalry is alive and well.

What is worth a rap, though, is his effort to come into the Rovers rooms to apologise. That’s character for you……………..O&M Wangaratta Rovers vs Wangaratta (20)

Special thanks to Melissa Beattie of the Wang. Chronicle, for the photos.

” BIG MACCA – LACKADAISICAL……..BUT MAGICAL…..”

Good full forwards come packaged in a variety of shapes and forms.

You have the athletic type who has explosive pace off the mark. He’s able to lead into space, take chest and diving marks not too far from goal – and convert with unerring accuracy…….

Or the player with a sixth sense; slightly-built, almost frail-looking. He can lull his opponent into a false sense of security…….. Until he sneaks away and repeatedly finds his own space, taking easy marks. At the end of the day it staggers you to learn that he’s snagged half a dozen ‘sausages’……

There’s the burly, seemingly overweight, stay-at-home customer, who out-bodies the full back and pulls down big ‘grabs’ in the square; showing a surprising turn of speed when required. He never misses with those ‘clutch’ shots in the vital moments ……..

And the under-sized ‘decoy’, lightning on the lead and with an innate understanding of his role in attack. He opens up the forward line and allows the ‘monsters’ to drop into the goal-mouth…..

Then there’s blokes like Neale McMonigle………..

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

‘Big Macca’ was an O & M star in the late-eighties/early-nineties. He was the spearhead in some fine Rovers sides, and a prolific goal-kicker, despite being variously panned by the critics as lazy, unpredictable, moody and ultra-casual .IMG_4078

But the boy could play. As a self-acknowledged member of the ‘Macca Fan Club’, I once attempted a thumb-nail sketch of a day in the life of a football enigma:

“It is an hour before an important match, and the Rovers rooms are abuzz with activity. Balls are being flipped around , hamstrings stretched, players yapping with nervous excitement, skipping and jumping; supporters offering encouragement..

Beneath his number 18 locker, Neale McMonigle sits impassively, munching slowly on a P.K ( he even chews slowly !). You wonder whether he is psyching himself up, or contemplating how the first leg of the double went.

The forward line is Macca’s podium. He will lead with a pace that belies his tall, angular stature and hoof a 60-metre drop-punt through the ‘big sticks’; will move around the square, seemingly with the sulks, position himself in front of a pack, then throw himself forward in a dead-set ‘stage’.

He can hold out an opponent with one hand and balance a miraculous mark with the other. A snap goal, which can come from nothing, will have the fans raving one minute. The next, he is leaning on the post yarning to the goal-umpire, as play swings further afield.IMG_4066

A miss from a set-shot can be equally as frustrating. Then, with hands on hips, he will look skyward and saunter back to the square; privately querying God’s injustice to full-forwards.

He can never really come to terms with umpires who fail to protect forwards, upfield players who ignore his leads, and niggling defenders. Apart from that, he acknowledges, footy’s not a bad game………..

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

We catch up for a yap late last week, before I slip down to watch training. Meanwhile, outside, the long-awaited storm has arrived, and the rain’s bucketing down.

“No way known I’d be training in these conditions,” the big fellah says. “I used to ring Laurie (Burt) and say: ‘Mate, I’m snowed under at work. Sorry, I can’t make it.’ “

Training, and a penchant for fitness, was never on his list of priorities. “I often used cricket-practice as an excuse to get out of a bit of pre-season work. I know ‘Burty’ was a wake up to me, but I didn’t want to burn out ! ………“

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

I still have visions of Neale’s dad, ‘Long John’ McMonigle, dominating the big-man duels in his 52-game stint with the Rovers.

Clad in the long-sleeved number 24 jumper, the quiet, wavy-haired gentle giant was a vital cog in Bob Rose’s plans. ‘Rosey’ believed his ruck star – one of three Glenrowan players he recruited for his first premiership side – could have played League football, but for his attachment to the bush.IMG_4077

Neale didn’t see John play, and says he’s never elaborated much on his career, other than to once admit that St.Kilda were pretty keen on him…… And that he became well-known for thumping the footy well clear of the centre bounce.

“Apparently he belted the pill so far one day, that his team-mate at centre half forward took it on the full, and the umpie unwittingly paid the mark,” Neale says……..

‘Macca’ won a WJFL Medal, playing with Junior Magpies, then graduated to the Rovers Thirds. The next season, aged 18, he was lining up in the O & M Grand Final, in just his fourth senior game.

“I was pretty raw. Fair dinkum; after Daryl Smith’s pre-match speech the hairs on my neck were standing on end. They picked me at centre half forward, with instructions to just run my opponent around.”IMG_4076

“It worked out alright too, because I was able to ‘snag’ three and we knocked over the warm favourites Benalla, who’d won 15 on the trot.”

Neale played just a handful of senior games the following season, and was then surprisingly lured out to North Wangaratta in 1980.

“I spent the next five years there…….It was probably too early to leave the Rovers, but they’re the sort of decisions you make when you’re a young bloke,” he reflects.

Jason Gorman recalls McMonigle’s first stint with the O & K Hawks: “Robbie Hickmott, Luke Norman, me and my brother all lived near the North ground. We were in our early teens and would ride our bikes there, just to watch ‘Macca’ pulling down his skyscraper marks.”

“There was a strong wind blowing down the ground one game, and he stayed at one end all day. Took about 30 marks. You could hear the opposition yelling out: ‘Don’t kick it near ‘Macca’…….”

He won North’s B & F in 1980, ‘82 and ‘83, and also shared the 1983 Baker Medal . There’s no doubt he had now blossomed into the star he was expected to be, despite his seemingly lackadaisical approach to the game.

So he was talked into returning to the Findlay Oval in 1985. As the Hawks made a charge to the finals, McMonigle was one of their key weapons. His tally of 84 goals during the home-and-away rounds included ‘bags’ of 11 and 10.IMG_4073

He added another 10 in the first two finals, and needed just six goals in the Prelim against Albury to top the magical 100.

“I remember glancing at the honour board on the Thursday night before that game, and thinking: ‘Heck, I don’t deserve to be up there as a Centurion alongside the great Steve Norman’. As it turned out, we lost the Prelim, and I finished up with 98.”

After he followed with another 60 goals in 1986, the Northerners came knocking, and appointed him playing-coach for two seasons.

That was an experience he savoured, but at the end of it, he succumbed to the wiles of Laurie Burt, who convinced him to again pull on the Rovers guernsey.

He didn’t need his arm to be twisted: “I was looking forward to playing under Laurie. He was a coach before his time, such was his knowledge of the game and its tactics.”

“He’d fill our brains with so much info at his game-eve meetings, I’d have to go home and relax with a few beers. I often dragged a couple of the boys along for a drink, too.”

The Hawks batted deep into the finals in 1989 and ‘90, but by 1991, had a superbly-balanced side which rightfully assumed flag favouritism from early in the season.

Never at any stage, though, did Neale ‘stress out’ about his footy. He was about as laid-back as you could be; kicking back with an ale or two and laying a few bets was his way of taking his mind off the game.

“Old Jack Prendergast knew I liked a punt. At the breaks he’d come up to me and say something like: ‘What’d you back in the Third at Caulfield, ‘Macca’……’Number 2 Jack. How’d it go.’ ….’You lucky bugger, it got up by a nose’. “

Neale played his part in the Hawks’ dominant 1991 season by winning the Doug Strang Medal. They recovered from a shock Second Semi-Final defeat to Yarrawonga to blitz the Pigeons in the Grand Final.

At three-quarter time it was feasible that Yarra could still win the game, but ‘Macca’ had other ideas, as he slammed through a 50m drop-punt in the opening minute of the final term. He kicked 4 goals in the last quarter, to finish with seven – and a season tally of 88.IMG_4069

Two of his premiership team-mates, ‘Gormo’ and ‘Hicky’ had been entranced by his high-marking at North Wang a decade earlier.

After 105 games – and 377 goals – with the Rovers, Neale accepted the job as captain-coach of O & K debutants Rutherglen.

“We were near the bottom, at 1-4 after five games. An official said to me one night: “The Committee want to speak to you after training. I thought: ‘Shit, they’re pressing the panic button a bit early here.’ I said: ‘Look, have a bit of faith. Stick with me. And remember: It’s my way or the Highway’.”IMG_4072

Fittingly, on the siren in the final home-and away game, Neale took a mark and slotted a goal to put the ‘Glen into their first finals series.

After two years with Rutherglen, he spent his final year as a player back at North Wangaratta in 1994. He’d chalked up 150-odd games in three stretches at Sentinel Park.

After helping Mark Kilner at Greta for a couple of seasons, he coached King Valley for two seasons, then led Glenrowan in 2007-08.

“I enjoyed playing a part in the development of young kids in the four clubs I was at,” he says. “I regarded it as an honour when each of them approached me to coach.”

‘Macca’s’ most recent sporting involvement was watching his daughters play Netball at Tarrawingee. He and Helen have four girls – Rachelle, Brooke, Kelly and Sarah.

He still follows the footy from a distance, but reckons they’d have  left him  for dead if he’d had to put in the work they do these days. “I just wasn’t made that way,” says ‘Big Macca’…………………..IMG_4074

‘THE WIRY, TOUGH AND TALENTED NEVILLE POLLARD….’

Our footy post-mortems were often held at the Sale-Yards, around 6.30am on foggy, crisp Monday mornings. Still  a touch seedy after a week-end of playing, celebrating or commiserating, we’d conduct a thorough review before  the Sheep Market rudely interrupted us.

He was a precociously talented utility player who’d taken on a job as captain-coach at the ripe old age of 20…… I was his coaching adversary; a plodder, reaching the end of my tether………..

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

Forty-odd years on, I again catch up with Neville Pollard.

He’s had a rough time of it lately, has old ‘Nifty’. Nearly five months ago he was diagnosed with a rare fungal infection behind the left eye.

Two corneal transplants failed to rectify the problem; nor did a series of injections. His surgeon put forward a few scenarios of further treatment. One of them – the most radical – included removing the eye.

“I decided that was the most risk-free way to go. So they whipped it out a fortnight ago,” he says.

I’m sure he welcomes changing the subject when I suggest having a yarn about his lengthy, varied, 400-game footy career………

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

The Pollards were domiciled at Buln Buln, in the heart of Gippsland dairy country, when nine year-old Nev debuted with the local Thirds.

He later made the odd appearance with the seniors, but, going on 15 – and mid-way through the season – moved over to play with Drouin in the stronger West Gippsland League.

He finished the year with their Thirds, who were pipped by a point in the Grand Final, then booted 72 goals with the seniors the following season, to win the League goal-kicking award.

Under the VFL’s old zoning system, Drouin was part of Hawthorn’s territory. The Hawks helped themselves to a host of players from this lucrative recruiting area, including, of course, the famous Ablett family.

Neville had played alongside Geoff Ablett in the Drouin Thirds side, and also received an invitation to train ‘down town’.

But, in the meantime, his parents Arthur and Ruby, sold their farm and re-located to Bobinawarrah. He was momentarily out of Hawthorn’s clutches…….

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

“Pollard was one of the few players I went out of my way to recruit when I was coach,” says Wangaratta Rovers legend Neville Hogan.

“I remember heading out Milawa-way to see him early in 1973, then bringing him to training a couple of times, as he still didn’t have a licence.”

“Gee he could play. He came to us as a full forward, but we started him in the back pocket because we wanted to fit him into the side.”

“There’s always conjecture about whether this bloke or that would have played League footy. Sometimes it boils down to being at the right club at the right time. But I think Neville would have given it a really good shot………..”

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

He was a touch under 6 foot and as adaptable as they come. Proving himself ultra-capable down back, Hogan swung him into attack at one stage of the 1974 Grand Final. He booted two quick goals, to put the game completely out of Yarrawonga’s reach.IMG_4035

Andrew Scott recalls the coach’s plea to his side at three quarter-time of a soggy ‘75 decider against North Albury: “We led by 5 points in a real tight one, and ‘Hogan’s last words were: ‘Make sure you bring the ball to ground at all times.’ “IMG_4036

“In the opening minutes of the last quarter, Pollard’s caught off balance and brings down a spectacular one-hander across the half-back line, completely contrary to the coach’s instructions. It might have been one of those things that inspired us because we went away to win by 19 points.”

Scott and Pollard were members of the O & M team which trounced the VFA by 56 points that year.

“We played 18 a-side in the first half and reverted to the VFA’s version of 16 a-side in the second. I was playing on the wing and was supposed to go off at half-time, but Billy Sammon (our coach) decided to keep me on for the rest of the game. It was a terrific experience,” Neville recalls.

At season’s end, North Melbourne invited several potential recruits to play in a practice game at Arden Street. Hawthorn’s three-year hold on Pollard had expired and the Roos chief, Ron Joseph was keen to get hold of him.

“I’ve only got vague memories of the practice match,” he says, “.. but I do recall Scotty driving me down and getting pulled up for speeding. He was a cop at the time, and managed to talk his way out of it in convincing fashion.”

The Rovers were half-expecting to lose the youngster to North. He’d played three stellar seasons; featured in two flags….. But to their dismay, he accepted a coaching appointment at Milawa in 1976.

“I had a lot of mates out there, but may have been a bit naive taking the job on so young. In hindsight, I still don’t know whether I did the right thing,” Nev says.

“We were a young side; not over-tall, but they gave everything. I’d like to think I was honest and approachable as a coach, but it was tough……. I had to be an amateur psychologist, doctor and mentor besides concentrating on my own game.”IMG_4032

Milawa had won just three games the previous season, but again became a force under Pollard, and eventually ‘bombed out’ in the Preliminary Final.

They reached the Prelim in three of the first four years,  plunged to the bottom, then recovered to reach successive Grand Finals in his seven seasons in charge.IMG_4038

He was their dynamo, and took out the O & K’s Baker Medal ( as well as the club B & F ) in 1978 and 1980. Some old-time Demons rate him their best-ever player.

The last of his 141 games with the club was in the ‘Bloodbath’ Grand Final of 1982.

“We were 19 points up at half-time against Chiltern, and looked to be travelling well. But we just got hunted. At one stage there was talk of calling the game off. It was the worst match I’ve ever been involved in.”

In the end, the Swans ran away to win by 74 points. Neville was one of several who appeared at the resultant Tribunal hearing the following week and was quizzed about  one incident.

“I told them I’d got belted from behind. They gave the bloke one week…… I couldn’t believe it.”

“I decided to have another crack with the Rovers the next year. It wasn’t because of what happened in the Grand Final…..I just wanted to test myself back in the higher standard before I got too old.”

“I’d thought about coming in a couple of years earlier, but I suppose I got a bit stubborn and decided to stay.”

At 27, Neville was probably a better-equipped player than in his previous incarnation with the Hawks. He enjoyed stints in the midfield and on-ball and took out Best & Fairests in 1983 and ‘84.

A regular selection in the O & M side, he was voted the League’s best in a Country Championship semi-final clash against Ballarat. He lined up in the centre, alongside another old Drouin boy, Gary Ablett, who started on the wing.IMG_4033

That year,1983,  signified Pollard’s return to the top, as he also finished runner-up in the Morris Medal.

Again emphasising his versatility, he kicked 10 goals from centre half forward, in a memorable match against Albury  three years later.

His old mate Andrew Scott also booted 10 that day. They still debate the merit of their respective performances.

“Well, I kicked 10.7 and Scotty, who wasn’t fit enough to move out of the goal-square was gifted a handful. I reckon he touched a couple of my shots on the line !” he says.

After 13 years in the livestock game, Neville and Judy bought a property at Tocumwal and moved over with the four kids – Krystal, Carly, Elise and Ash. It signalled the end of his 139-game career with the Hawks.

“I’d fully intended to play with ‘Toc’, but on the first night of training only about eight fellahs turned up. It didn’t get much better for the next couple of weeks.”

“ Laurie Burt kept in touch and was keen for me to travel over and keep playing for the Rovers. I said: ‘Look, just reject the first clearance application. We’ll see how it goes.’ “

But he decided to stick it out . Tocumwal endured a gloomy, winless season and didn’t fare much better in in the next. Neville picked up successive B & F’s, however, and continued to star, as the Bloods began to gain momentum.

They thrived under the leadership of rugged Stuart Roe, who had come across from Shepparton to coach.

He took them to Grand Finals in 1989 and ‘90. They took the next step in 1991, after Philip Nicholson had succeeded Roe.  Pollard was part of a lethal half back line at this stage, and picked up his third flag when he starred in the Bloods’ premiership win over arch rivals Finley.IMG_4034

He continued to serve Tocumwal long after his glittering career had drawn to a close. ‘Nifty’ was 38 when he decided to pull the pin in 1992, but then spent seven years as Chairman of Selectors and six years as coach of the Thirds.

One of his biggest thrills in football came twenty years later, when fleet-footed Ash burst onto the scene in the first of his 40 senior games with the Rovers.

‘Nifty’ – O & K Hall of Famer, veteran of Buln Buln, Drouin, Wang Rovers, Milawa and Tocumwal – would be tickled pink if the young bloke again donned the Brown and Gold.

“All you can do is hope,” he says “…..but he might have left his run a bit late……”IMG_4039

‘THE ULTIMATE TEAM-MAN…………’

The prized Number 16 locker at the Wangaratta Rovers Football Club belonged to just two players over a 32-year period. The first of these was the inimitable Mervyn ‘Farmer’ Holmes, who held sway in defence for 302 games.

Upon his retirement in 1986 a slightly-built 17 year-old asked if he could have the privilege of taking over the number.

For the next 17 years Mick Wilson played with fearsome determination. He ran harder and tackled and harassed more ferociously than anyone, and after 316 senior games, earned the universal acclaim of country football folk when his playing career drew to a close in 2004.IMG_3996

In an era when loyalty in footy was treated contemptuously, he led by example as the consummate team-mate.

He was the advance welcoming party when new recruits arrived; the pace-setter at pre-season training; the long-term trip-away organiser; the sympathetic listener to aggrieved players; and was ever-ready with a tip on fitness or tactics for grateful youngsters……….
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

The three Wilson kids – Mick, Joe and ‘Waldo’ – were just whippersnappers when they wandered down Nolan Lane, Tarrawingee, to train with the Bulldogs’ newly-formed Thirds team.

“I think I was about 11, and the coach, Des Griffin used to let us join in. Then, on Sundays we’d head across to play with the Whorouly Midgets,” says Mick.

“I always thought it would’ve been more convenient to go into Wang and play in their Midget comp, but Chas (Dad) joked that there was less chance of him being pulled over by a breathalyser this way. And besides, he said, there were three pub stops on the way home – at Whorouly, Milawa and, of course, Tarra’s Plough Inn.”

His parents, Chas and Toni, are legendary figures in local sport.

“Chas, in particular, had some off-beat philosophies,” Mick recalls. “For instance, after a good rain, he’d gather a heap of snails; weigh them, number them and put them in an old microwave one by one, to see how long it took them to explode. He was trying to justify some mathematical formula that he was working on.”

But Chas and Toni couldn’t have been more rapt when their offspring began to show signs of obvious potential.

Mick had been filling in with Tarra Thirds, on and off, for a few years. He went in one day to watch his uncle, Paul Nolan, strutting his stuff in a practice match with the Rovers Thirds. They were short, and he was pressed into action.

Later in the year, he was slotted in for a couple of games on permit at the urging of coach Darryl Smith; held his spot for the finals, and played in a Premiership side.

He was 16 when he had his first full season with the Thirds, and showed enough to attract the attention of new Hawk senior coach, Laurie Burt.

“Laurie picked 10 debutants for the opening round of 1987, and most of us had come up through the Thirds. It was the dawn of a new era for the Club,” Mick says.

“Laurie was 10-15 years older than most of us. He had the complete respect of everyone, and was still playing great footy. He cared about us as people. Although he was super-professional, he could have a bit of fun, too.”

The Rovers were dubbed ‘Burt’s Babes’. They strung together a succession of wins, which ultimately swept them into the 1988 Grand Final. Their opponents, the star-studded and vastly more experienced Lavington, were expected to have too many guns for them in the Big One.

“I remember my opponent grabbing me in a headlock and throwing me to the ground early in the first quarter,” Mick says. ” I looked upfield and there were ‘spot-fires’ raging everywhere.”

“It was obviously a plot by Lavi to put the pressure on us. But we proved a bit quicker; a bit more skilful. After the game, when we went up to receive our medals, I overheard some fellah say: ‘ I can’t believe how young these blokes are’.”IMG_3990

It was a famous Hawk victory, but the one that gave Mick special satisfaction came three years later, when they belted Yarrawonga: “Joe was in the ‘88 side, but ‘91 was ‘Waldo’s’ first flag. It was a real thrill to share it with them.”IMG_3991

“Yarra had beaten us in the second-semi, and they were really fired up when we met them a fortnight later, at the Showgrounds. They targeted Anthony Pasquali and Peter Tossol for some reason. Big Brett Jukowicz’s eyes were rolling around in his head. He went right off. But I think we won by something like 12 goals.”

Mick was to become synonymous with inter-league football, after making his debut in 1990. The challenge of lifting to a higher standard always brought out the best in him. He was to represent the league on 23 occasions (6 times as captain) – and play at two Australian Country Carnivals.

An example of his fabled durability came when he hobbled off during a clash against the Latrobe Valley, at Traralgon. Two days later, the Rovers were due to meet Myrtleford. He got home, set his alarm, and iced his dicey ankle every two hours in order to be right to line up against the Saints.IMG_3994

Probably the highlight of his representative career came in 1994, when the Wilson trio were selected to wear the Black and Gold O & M guernsey at Sunbury.

This was during a period when the Rovers had assembled one of the greatest of all O & M sides.

They chalked up 36 wins on end and were rated near-invincible. At the height of it, they took out the ‘93 and ‘94 premierships and their reign was showing no signs of stalling.

Alas,  that triumph of 1994 was to be the Hawks’ most recent flag.

“It seems strange to say,” says Mick,”……but during that winning era, it started to become a bit boring. You had to really psyche yourself up some weeks.”

“But when I looked back in the late nineties, I came to realise how hard flags are to win. In some of the ones we missed out on, we were close to – or as good as – the sides that won them.”

“In those ‘nearly’ years, the connection mightn’t have been as strong off the field as it could have been. The odd blokes might have been playing for themselves, maybe worried about their positions, or form, or whatever…….”

“There was a high correlation, with the teams that won flags, where we really gelled as a group.”

The lasting memory of Mick Wilson is of him setting off downfield from the half back line, and launching the ball deep into attack – or throwing himself into a pack with courage. His fitness was famous and he trained with rare intensity.

“When we had those great sides, there were some ding-dong battles on the track. We liked to set the standard for the younger blokes at training,” he says.

He still played an important role in the Hawks’ most recent Grand Final appearance – in 2002, but two seasons later, realised that Father Time had caught up with the body that he had punished year after year.IMG_3999

“It was the opening game of the season, and someone from Corowa-Rutherglen was tagging me in the Seconds. He was giving me a hard time, and I couldn’t be bothered retaliating. I knew it was time to give it away.”

“I could’ve gone back to Tarra, but instead, kept training and did the running for ‘Toss’, who was coaching. I just didn’t play again.”

So he hung up the boots after a devoted career in Brown and Gold. He and his brothers (Joe 240 games, and Andrew ‘Wal’ 258) amassed 814 senior games. They’re Hawk Life Members, as are parents Chas and Toni……
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
In 2007, the Bulldogs finally lured their favourite son home as coach. He had no set coaching plans, other than trying to make Tarra a really enjoyable place to be.

“They were probably expecting me to be really strict, but on one of the first training nights I produced a couple of slabs after training. We tried to prioritise things like the players keeping the rooms clean, always thanking the volunteers, and making the netballers inclusive.”

“I had good support on the footy side of things; that part of it was really easy, and the club was well set up off-field.”

The Dogs broke an 18-year premiership drought when they overcame a persistent Bright in the 2008 Grand Final. They were hot favourites the following season, having won 39 games on the trot.

But Milawa got the jump early and held on to win a thriller.

The 2010 decider was also a nail-biter. In a game that went down to the wire, Tarra got up by two points in one of the greatest of all O & K Grand Finals.

With that, Mick Wilson decided to walk away from coaching,

He had already become somewhat of a sporting icon at Tarra, having captained five of their cricket premiership teams over 20 years, but old Dogs, who had become used to years of heartache appreciated his role in returning the Club to the upper echelon……..IMG_4001
……………………………………………………………………………………………………………….,,,.

Mick is now involved in his ‘dream job’ as Talent Identification Manager of the Murray Bushrangers. In this role he’s charged with the responsibility of uncovering the cream of the region’s young football talent, and giving them the opportunity to impress the nation’s recruiting scouts.

The Wilson kids, Brylee, Kelsie and Darcy are showing plenty of promise in football, Netball, cricket and athletics, and appear to have been endowed with a healthy dose of the family’s renowned sporting genes………

(With help from Rosco & Fix’s Podcast  ‘”I like the Cut of your Jib”)IMG_4015