I’ve always regarded Mickey Bone as a latter-day version of Lou Richards. They had plenty in common. Both were cheeky Collingwood rovers…….Pint-sized…Ruthless……Effervescent……..Irrepressible……… Always a quip on the tip of their tongues…….

I first laid eyes on Mick at Victoria Park. We’d just finished a Country Week cricket match, and this young fellah was leaving pre-season training, bag slung over his shoulder, cheerily whistling, as he waltzed blissfully out of Magpie-land………

Three years later I met him at close quarters, in the 1967 O & M Grand Final. A ‘blue’ started; naturally the little number 24 was in the thick of it, zeroing in on the first Brown and Gold Guernsey he came across…..

He coached Wodonga to their first-ever Premiership that day, thus entering the ranks of the immortals at Martin Park.

Mick hasn’t lost his happy-go-lucky demeanour, half a century on. “Rosie (his wife) goes crook at me; tells me I should take life more seriously. But the more you laugh, the better you are,” he says……………..

Mick’s a city boy – one of a tribe of seven who all grew up loving their footy. Dad, a ‘salt of the earth’ type, was a plumber, and his mum, who was born in Easy Street, near the Victoria Park station, had a lifelong passion for the Mighty Magpies.

She passed it onto all of the kids. One of them, John, tried out for Collingwood and, despite booting four goals in a practice game, was ditched. “They told him: ‘Many come, but few are chosen’ “ said Mick. John was later to have a season under the great Morris Medallist Jimmy Deane, at Myrtleford.

Mick originally lined up alongside his mates at Thornbury. He used to play with the CYMS side on Saturday, and the Thornbury YCW every Sunday.

Undeterred by his brother’s ‘cold-shoulder’ from the ‘Pies, and when barely old enough, he rode his bike down to Victoria Park, to train with their Thirds.

He describes the reception he received upon his arrival:  “Someone asked: ‘Who invited you ?’ I said : ’Listen, I’m as good as any of these blokes’ “.

“ Anyway I trained all right, but one of the officials – Charlie Pannam, I think it was – told me I’d have to stop playing with the YCW. I said: ‘Righto, I’m off then. Those kids are all my mates.’ “

“He said: ‘Ah well, let’s see how you go’. So I kept on with the YCW on Sundays, and played in a Premiership with Collingwood Thirds. Seven or eight of the kids in that side went on to play VFL footy in the next couple of years.”

The same Charlie Pannam later predicted that Mick was headed for ‘a brilliant VFL career’.

He played a season with the Reserves and was rewarded with senior selection the following season.

His ferocious attack on the ball – approaching every contest as if his life depended on it – soon made him a favourite with Magpie fans.

The Bone-David Norman roving combination was considered one of the reasons for
Collingwood’s success in Mick’s third season -1964- but he was surprisingly named on the bench for the Preliminary Final.

His outstanding last half, when unleashed onto the ground, earned him a spot for what was to prove a highly dramatic Grand Final, against Melbourne.

He again played well, but will always remember the dying stages of the game.

“There were only a couple of minutes to go and we were two points up. I was resting, and thought I’d go down and see if I could get a kick. I dived for a mark, missed it and their back pocket, Neil Crompton, who’d followed me down, kicked a goal.”

“If only I’d kept my nose out of it, we’d have won.”

Mick played with Collingwood for another two seasons, and admits he didn’t hit it off all that well with coach Bob Rose.

“He gave me the arse in the end, but I reckon he played favourites a bit. ‘Gabbo’ and his brother Kevin were in the first ruck, I was their rover. Trouble is, Kevin used to sit back 30 yards behind the play, as a loose man. I told Bob: ‘ If you’d get your bloody brother into the centre, where he should be, we’d be a lot better off.”

“So I was on the outer. We were playing Carlton late in 1966, and this bloke John Ryan, a mad Collingwood fan who came from up this way, sidled up to me at half-time and whispered: ‘Would you be interested in coaching Wodonga ?”

”I said: ‘Piss off, will ya, I’m trying to get a kick.’ “

“I didn’t even know where Wodonga was. Dad brought me up and we met the officials at the Carrier’s Arms Hotel. Things went along okay, until they said: ‘We reckon you’re too dear.”

“ ‘Jeez,’ I told ‘em. ‘I’ve wasted a couple of days getting up here and you tell me that.’ I made out as if I was heading off. Until I heard: ‘Hang on, You’ve got the job.’ “

So Mick, Rosie and baby Simon packed up and headed for the bush……..

Mick had never given much thought to coaching, but adapted immediately. “The Wodonga club was terrific…..all good family people. I was everybody’s mate.

But as soon as I put my coach’s hat on, I was the boss. Friendships didn’t come into it……..”

He took over the reins of a Wodonga side which had been under-achievers, and moulded them into a powerful unit.

Those 1967 Bulldogs would stand tall alongside any of the great O & M teams. With stars of the calibre of Gary Williamson, Brian Gilchrist, Dick Grimmond, Ronnie Hill, Ken Goyne and Eddie Rogalski, they were well-balanced, disciplined and skilful.

And inspirationally-coached.   Bone personally enjoyed a terrific season, and finished equal-fourth in the Morris Medal, nine votes behind his champion team-mate, ruckman Williamson.

The ‘Dogs lost just three games during the home-and-away rounds, finishing 6 points clear of second-placed Myrtleford, who they belted by 61 points in the Second Semi.

12,000 fans flocked to the Albury Sportsground to watch the Wodonga-Wangaratta Rovers Grand Final clash. ‘Dog fans shuddered when Williamson, a key to their hopes, broke down in the warm-up.

Little separated the teams all day. As the Hawks fought back strongly in the closing stages , Brian Gilchrist stood firm, pulling down seven marks in the last stanza. Wodonga held on, to win by 18 points.

Amidst the euphoria of that first premiership, the popular assumption in O & M circles was that a dynasty had been created.

As the dominant side of that era, Wodonga were to snavel two flags, but it
could realistically have been four in a row.

Corowa, which had snuck into the finals on percentage, came from the clouds to pinch the flag from them in 1968. They were always in charge against Wangaratta the following year, but the one that always sticks in Mick’s craw is 1970.

“We were unbeaten going into the Second Semi and had won 27 games on the trot. Trouble is we got a bit ahead of ourselves. The Rovers shocked us, then Myrtleford knocked us off in the Prelim.”

“It was heart-breaking.”

He says the Corowa fans never let him forget that 1968 boilover. “They gave us a hard time every time we played ‘em , and there were usually a few stoushes. After one game,  a woman hurled a shoe at me. I just picked it up and kept walking…..”

“You know, they invited me to their Premiership re-union a few years back. I took a shoe with me. When I got up to talk, I held it up and said: ‘That lady that hit me with her shoe 40 years back, here it is ! “

Neville Hogan regarded Bone as one of his most uncompromising opponents, yet gained new admiration for the hard-man when he played under him in inter-League sides.

Mick once told me: ‘When you’re only 5’6” you fight with everything you’ve got….Anything goes…’ recalls Neville.

Mick elaborates: “I used to cheat as much as I could. I whacked plenty of blokes, but some people just got in my way……And they claimed I kicked on purpose….. I wouldn’t say that, but then, I never jumped over anyone to avoid them….”

The eight-year Bone coaching reign ended in 1974. He played on for another couple of years at Wodonga, under Johnny Smith, before finally hanging up the boots, after 144 games with the ‘Dogs.

And Wodonga’s where he and Rosie propped. They raised Simon, Justin, Josh, Megan and Jessica in the town and Mick worked for himself, as a Plumber, until he retired just on ten years ago.

He goes on the gate at Wodonga two or three times a year, but spends a lot of time on the golf course these days. That, and keeping tabs on his kids and grandkids.

If you happen to run into a chirpy character with an engaging personality, it’ll be the old Magpie who became a legend of the bush……….


P.S: Mick and Simon Bone have been inducted into the O & M’s Hall of Fame.  Josh and Justin both played at the Wodonga Raiders for several years.




I love the pulsating, rollicking sound of a footy club belting out its theme song ; delirious fans screaming in unison as they celebrate the unlikeliest of triumphs.

My girls reckon I should have left behind my child-like obsession with the game thirty years ago, but I tell them they should have been in the Rovers rooms tonight. It was dripping with emotion and excitement.

In case you haven’t heard by now, the Hawks won by 5 points, which, on the face of it, is nothing to get carried away with.

But when you’ve been slaughtered in the first half and go in 49 points down against an emerging Myrtleford, this is an extraordinary victory.

It’s the biggest-ever comeback in the club’s history. They were 44 points in arrears in the 1993 second semi-final against Wodonga and got up by 22 . They trailed by 40 points against Albury at three-quarter time in 1998 and snuck in by 2.

But this was a side that had dropped it’s opening three games, and the O & M public – and particularly the media – were reserving their judgement about their standing in the pecking-order

By half-time their minds were made up – the Rovers were gone -and it was becoming increasingly obvious that they were warming for favouritism for the wooden-spoon, to which most experts had consigned them during the pre-season.


After the opening nine minutes Myrtleford had scored 5.1 to nil. The Hawks had barely touched the ball. Fired by dynamic skipper Brad Murray, creative West Aussie small man Willie Thorn and goal-kicker Brodie Ricardi, they looked irresistible, as they cut a swathe through a lethargic defence.

And it appeared that if the brakes weren’t applied after half-time, things could get decidedly ugly.

What brought about the turn-around.?

Plainly, coach Paul Maher spelt out a few home truths. “I wanted to remind the players of a few things, so we went into the coach’s room. I didn’t want to berate them in public”, he said later.

But, it was a credit to the self-belief of the team that they were able to come out and reverse the trend of the game almost immediately. Not just the stars, but the complete unit.

Players who had been furtively glancing sideways to dish off  hurried, ineffective handballs  now became the epitome of positivity and showed faith in their ability to find a team-mate further afield.

‘Chopper’ McCullough, who had been one of the absentees in the first half, produced 50 minutes of magic – including seven goals from the top-shelf- to help revitalise the forward line……. Shane Gaston again took control of the big-man duels………Tyson Hartwig, switched onto the damaging Jarrod Hayze, was a colossus and time and again cleared the ball from defence.

Sean O’Keeffe, had got his hands on the ball pretty regularly, early on, but made a lot more of his kicks count……..Lochie Dornauf ranged around the ground and was always dangerous…..James Smith and Ryan Cobain, both tall and agile and conspicuous with their long left-foot kicking, were key players in the revival.

But it’s worth giving a bit of a ‘wrap’ to the youngsters, who probably learnt more in the second half of the contest than they had during their brief footy careers.

Tyler Lowe (1 game), Brydon Robbins (2), Stuart Booth (4), Charlie Davies (12), Dylan Stone (10), Brad Collihole (6), and Nick Henderson (9) all made telling contributions and possibly got an indication that they are capable of cutting the mustard in O & M football.

Robbins, in particular, announced his arrival on the stage with his willingness to take the game on. Several strong marks and a timely goal gave indication that the former ‘Bushies’ squad member could become a crowd- favourite. Young Lowe also ran the ball  out of defence impressively.

The Rovers still trailed by 21 points at three-quarter time, but seasoned observors noted that the Saints might be running on empty.

Murray, ran himself ragged picking up possessions; Nathan Cossignani and the classy Thorn did their utmost to will their team-mates over the line. But with five minutes to play, the Hawks hit the front for the first time, via a Brad Collihole snap, to the roar of the home fans.

But wait. There was one final act to be played out. The siren blew with the ball in Myrtleford’s possession from a mark. They were 5 points down.

Hell, he couldn’t kick this, could he ? It’s more than 60 metres out.  But then I recalled Gary Ablett lining up and nailing a goal after the siren from the same spot, 32 years ago.

Fortunately, history was not to be replicated and the shot fell short.

It was an important win for the club, as it convinced the players that their attitude must be spot-on; the youngsters realised that they should back themselves, and the supporters acknowledged they have a group that are worth investing in.

Yes, everything in the world is rosy. I’m reflecting on a famous Rovers victory and basking in the glory of the Western Bulldogs 4-1 record, as I nod off with the sound still ringing in my ears….”Oh, we’re Wangaratta Rovers………”

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Brown and gold blood coursed through the veins of ‘Demon’ Ottrey.

On the field he was tenacious, feisty and an opportunist ; after-dark he was full of fun, humorous and a cultivator of team spirit – an ideal person for a coach to have in his corner.

Keith was too young to play in the Rovers’ O & K premiership side of 1948 and by the time the Hawks had gathered sufficient manpower to win their first Ovens and Murray flag in 1958 Father Time was knocking on his door.

In between, he carved out a terrific career. He was a seriously good player.

Neville Hogan, who was an impressionable youth when ‘Demon’ was in his prime, loved the way he attacked the game. He recalls a small man with spunk, ever-dangerous around goals, a beautiful, long drop-kick and someone who was prepared to stand up to opponents of all sizes.


He had just turned 19 when he spent his first full season with the Rovers, in 1949.   Actually, he had fleetingly trained there three years earlier, had a stint in the navy, then returned towards the end of 1948, pledging a life-long allegiance to the club.

The Rovers’ admission to the Ovens and Murray League was a god-send to players like ‘Demon’, Les Clarke, Ålan Bell and Ken Batey, who were all youngsters on the way up.

They never forgot some of the drubbings they received in the early years and it is easy to understand why they enjoyed the retribution which came in later years, as the Hawks clawed their way to the top.

Whatever happened on the field, their social life was outstanding and post-match and post-pub activities would often conclude with a barbecue in the Warbys’, where players, wives and girl-friends would congregate until the early hours of the morning.

Often, when suitably lubricated, he would produce a heartfelt  and throaty rendition of his favourite song, that Burl Ives classic : “The Foggy, Foggy Dew……”.

Keith claimed the honour of booting the Rovers’ first O & M goal. He kicked another 179 in his 134 senior games and the sight of the 5’6″ dynamo diving into packs and being flung around like a rag-doll was inspirational to his team-mates.

Jack Dillon, who shared the roving duties with him in the early years, dubbed him a ‘Big Little Man”.

Jack said: “He wasn’t much taller than me, but he was a ‘protector’. One of the Magpies’ enforcers whacked me across the bridge of the nose one day. ‘Demon’ was on the spot and re-assured me. “Don’t worry, ‘Dillow’, his chickens’ll come home to roost.”

“My eyes were still watery a couple,of minutes later, when I looked across and the bloke was doubled up in pain, as ‘Demon’ was leaving the scene. ‘ Leave the little fellahs alone, you dirty prick’, he muttered.

“When we won our first game in 1951, after a winless first season, Ottrey and I celebrated for two days”, Dillon recalled.

Until a couple of years ago, history recorded that Keith had been runner-up to ‘Curly’ Gleeson in the 1951 Best and Fairest. But an old newspaper report indicates that he had, in fact, polled the same number of votes and had been defeated on a count-back.

Asked if he could recall any conjecture about the voting, he said : “Nah. I think they just came out of the room and announced that ‘Curly’ had won it and I was second. It was okay by me.”

He was part of an all-star Ovens and Murray line-up which won the Country Championship at Bendigo in 1956.

I asked him last year if he could remember also wearing the Black and Gold guernsey at Echuca, in a match against the Bendigo League, in 1953. He said : “No, I only represented the O & M once.”

Upon being shown the team photo, he started to go through the players, giving me a profile of each one, enjoying the memories. “Gee, there were some good players in that side. I don’t know how I got in there, but it still doesn’t ring a bell with me.”

He could become a little more expansive, with the aid of a few beers, if you prompted him about his brief flirtation with League football, when he had a run with Melbourne and played handily in a couple of practice games.

But he returned home. It wasn’t for him, he said.

Keith’s only premiership with the Hawks came when and his mate Alan Bell steered the Reserves to the 1958 flag, the week after Bob Rose had led the seniors to victory over Wodonga.

By now he was a hard-hitting back-pocket player, giving guidance to the young blokes. He played all the next season in the two’s, missed a year, then made a come-back in 1961.

His good form in the Reserves and a couple of injuries saw him promoted for a handful of senior games during the season, in what proved a fitting farewell to the game.

And that was the end of his playing career.

He found his way onto the committee in 1963. His rapport with the players proved a great asset and he knew what made them tick.

He and a couple of other officials must have decided, at one stage that, with the players in a bit of a rut, they needed a bonding session. The usual Sunday morning ‘barrel’ was in full swing when the players joined in after training had wound up. Surprisingly a short while later, it was announced that ‘time was up’.

‘Demon’ and Ernie Payne gave the players a wink to ‘hang around’.  The crowd dispersed and the boys settled down to enjoy a great afternoon of conviviality on behalf of the club.

Whether it was the reason for a subsequent uplift in form is debatable, but that’s certainly what the players attributed it to !

Keith was secretary in 1964 and ’65, Vice-President in 1967 and was a selector for a good seven years or so.

He ascended to the Presidency in 1968 and, with his personality and ability to relate to people, he was a popular choice. But a heart-attack towards the end of the following year forced him to abdicate the role.

‘Demon’ remained closely aligned to the club over the years and watched with interest as popular clubman Mark progressed through the ranks and then his three grandsons, Ben and Jack Spence and Brad Ottrey continued the family tradition.

In 2003, Keith Edward Ottrey, one of the most beloved figures in the history of the Wangaratta Rovers Football Club, was inducted into the prestigious Hall of Fame, a worthy tribute to his unyielding devotion to the Hawks.

‘The Demon’ passed away last week-end.




*           It’s a vital WDCA semi-final. Rovers-United are under severe pressure, as an attacking batsman carves up the bowling. The game is slipping away. In an inspired move, the fieldsman at short leg shifts himself in so close that he could pick the plundering batsman’s pocket. Next ball, obviously distracted, the potential match-winner swipes wildly and is bowled. The game swings the Combine’s way in an flash.

*   A crucial stage in the last quarter of a tight O & M game. The Rovers’ number 10 shows ridiculous courage to back into a converging pack, ignoring the physical consequences. He is hammered, gets up slowly, but his example of commitment provides the impetus for the Hawks to fight on and close out the game against Albury.

*           Rain delays play in the 2006/07 WDCA Final, then ladder-leaders Rovers-United subsequently find themselves in deep trouble at 5/57. Desperate measures are required and a dogged Hawks’ left-hander drops anchor. Realising that his side have to keep occupying the crease, he bats on – and on – and on, until, late on the second day he is dismissed for 95. Rovers-United save the game and clinch the premiership.


The central figure in each of those random ‘snapshots’ was a legend of country sport. His name ? Peter Tossol.

Sometimes you’re dead lucky to arrive upon a bloke like ‘Toss’. In the case of the Wangaratta Rovers and Rovers-United it stemmed from a friendship he struck up with an old cricket rival, John Welch.

He had spent 3 years playing footy with Melbourne and desperately wanted to leave the ‘big smoke’. After an approach from Welch, whom he had opposed in North-East Cup cricket matches, he reckoned the Rovers were a good fit for him.

Besides, he had been a Rovers fan from afar. “I could remember listening in to the footy scores on the ABC every Saturday night when I was a kid and I started following the Rovers because they were always winning. So I developed a bit of a fascination with them”, he once recalled .

Tossol was born and bred in Thornton, one of four boys in a fanatical sporting family. His dad, also Peter, had trained with Melbourne as a lad and was a renowned sportsman in the mountain country.

The boys were educated at Assumption College and from there two of them, Peter and Johnny, were recruited to Melbourne. “Toss ” played 19 senior matches with the Demons and is sorry that he didn’t achieve more.

“I think that if I’d trained a lot more I would have done better, so I reflect on it with a bit of regret”, he said.

Despite his obvious talent as an all-rounder, he never seriously contemplated playing District cricket. During his time with Melbourne he returned each week to play with Thornton.

His career-high score of 210 came in a semi- final. He twice made double-centuries in Grand Finals in the Alexandra/Mansfield competition and played in a swag of premierships for his home club.

He was selected for six Australian Country  Cricket Carnivals (22 games), and earned an All-Australian cap one year. He also represented a Vic. Country XI team against the West Indies at Wangaratta in 1985 .

Facing the gauntlet of the fabled Windies pace attack, he scored an unbeaten 69 and later discovered that his hand was broken when a rearing Courtney Walsh delivery cannoned into his batting glove.

In his first season of O & M footy – 1985 – ‘Toss’ would travel over from Thornton in his dearly-beloved, but not always reliable, Citreon. With the eyes of the crowd trained upon him in his debut match in Brown and Gold, he marked in the opening quarter and sent a soaring torpedo punt through the Town End goals from beyond 60 metres.

He had won over the Hawk crowd instantly. And in each of his other 210 games he performed deeds which became the stuff of folklore. A ball-magnet, he was an ace on-baller, but could be switched to a key position when required.

‘Toss’ had interruptions. He missed the 1986 season, recovering from a knee op. and in 1988 he returned home to help Alexandra to a flag. But from 1989 until his retirement in 1998, he was part of the furniture at the Findlay Oval.

He had the knack of fostering the camaraderie which produces the team-spirit, which in turn cultivates team success. The footy – and cricket – clubs were always happy places to be around when ‘Toss’ was involved.

He was a four-time runner-up in the Best and Fairest and played in the premierships of 1991, 1993 and ’94. Whilst playing with the Rovers he coached the O & M for three seasons and led them to the Country title. He represented the League 13 times and the VCFL five times, thrice as captain.

And for good measure he was given the honour of captaining the All-Australian side in 1990.

It was always accepted that when Laurie Burt abdicated the Rovers coaching position, ‘Toss’ would step up. Much to the surprise of the football public, though, he took on the role at Corowa-Rutherglen. Within six years they would have two flags in the bag and would be transformed from middle-of-the-roaders to a power team. As a recruiter, motivator and man-manager he took the Roos to a new level.

The ‘marriage that was made in heaven’ eventuated in 2004 when he returned home to take charge of the Rovers. It remains a mystery why things didn’t work out and, after an ordinary year, he decided it was best for the Club if he moved on. He headed to Mansfield to coach for 3 years, then had another 3 years back at Corowa.

In the final wash-up of his glittering O & M career he had played/coached 386 games, contributed to 5 flags, was proclaimed Corowa-Rutherglen’s ‘Coach of the Century’ and had been inducted to the League’s Hall of Fame.

There was a heightened sense of expectation in the mid-nineties when the Tossol clan settled in Evans Street and Rovers-United finally had procured their ‘elusive recruit’. Here was a bloke who had done the lot in cricket, scored runs by the bucket-load and reportedly bowled like the wind.

The boys noted that the intensity, which had been the keynote of his footy, carried on into his cricket, both at the Findlay Oval and at WSCA club Tarrawingee. His attitude lifted the standards within the Club. Although he still ran in to bowl at a hundred miles and hour, his pace had dropped considerably, despite his efforts to prove otherwise.

But he was still more than handy and it was difficult to extract the ball from him when he got on a roll. He proved to be a run-machine, as expected. Single-minded at the crease and with extraordinary focus, he would re-play each shot three or four times, before settling in to face the next delivery.

He was extremely difficult to dislodge, with a game based around a sound defence. In the rare instance of his early dismissal he would drag someone down to the practice nets to bowl at him and ‘iron out the faults’.

‘Toss’ played in three flags in his 111 games with the Combine and, much to his chagrin, missed a fourth when a footy practice match intervened.

But he played his part in the victory in a roundabout way. Sensing that one of the overnight not-out batsmen, who didn’t mind a cool drink on a hot day, might be tempted to ‘unwind’ after his good knock, he was invited to partake of some of the Tossol hospitality that night.

It worked. Hostess Bronny fed him well, he had a few quiet drinks, and continued on the next day to guide the Hawks to an exciting one-wicket victory.

The Tossol sporting career yielded around 23 premierships and was the epitome of professionalism. Even now, in his early fifties, he would give anything to be able to spend a while at the crease or engage in a fair dinkum footy contest.




They were both on the rise in their respective fields when their paths crossed in the late summer of 1967.

Gough Whitlam, clad in a Collingwood guernsey, was pressing the flesh of all and sundry at the Victoria Park Social Club, as cameras whirred around him.

And when an embarrassed 15 year-old was pushed forward by Wangaratta’s Country Week cricket manager, Clem Fisher, the dialogue went something like this…..”Now, Mr.Whitlam, I’d like to introduce you to our up-and-coming fast bowler, young Geoffrey Welch”…….

The lad never aspired to politics. In fact his chance meeting with the towering figure who was to become Australia’s 21st Prime Minister was the closest he came to mingling with political royalty.

Rather, he went down the pathway of developing a stellar career in Education and Sport. Over a period of almost 50 years, he was to become renowned as a natural leader, an entertaining speaker, a clear-thinker and a diplomat. Ideal attributes indeed, that would have equipped him well for public life – had he not preferred to shy away from the limelight.



As a kid, Geoff Welch was a top all-round sportsman, who achieved distinction as an athlete and represented the state in under-age baseball.

He chose to focus, instead, on footy and cricket and took a wicket with his first ball at Melbourne Country Week at, yes , the age of 15. Two years later he was ‘standing’ the Ovens and Murray’s best full forwards in his role as the Wangaratta Rovers’ dour, close-checking full back.

Not blessed with truckloads of footy ability, he earned the respect of opponents by playing the game hard.

Statistics are not the only measure of a player’s contribution and Geoff was one of those blokes who were vital to the fabric of the side – on and off the field. He helped to ‘create the culture’, as they say.

He was a member of the Rovers’ 1971 and ’72 premiership sides, despite a ‘dicky’ knee that was already giving him trouble.

Eventually, after 100-odd senior games, he bowed to the inevitable and handed over his number 17 guernsey, opting to help out his brother John, who was coaching Tarrawingee.

On one fateful day, at Beechworth’s Baarmutha Park, he reckoned his life passed before him when he and a star Bomber, and  ‘boarder’ at the local Gaol, Frankie Marinucci, became involved in a fierce embrace. Those close to the confrontation in the centre of the ground swear they saw Geoff’s eyes rolling, as muscly Marinucci threatened to…..”knock your f…… head off, Golliwog”.

He survived, but later that season his knee finally ‘caved in’ later and he returned to the Hawks’ Nest, where he joined the Board and took on the role of coaching in the lower grades. In a 12-year stint as a coach he guided the Club to seven flags – five with the Reserves and two as the Thirds mentor.

His was a mixture of firmness and friendly guidance and it worked a treat. Players swore by ‘The Cat’ and in another era he’d have made an ideal senior coach.

A rare example of his discipline going awry came when he consigned a young Thirds player to the bench for the first quarter of a practice match in 1982, as a penalty for arriving just minutes prior to the first bounce.

It was only after Geoff had sought an explanation at half-time that Jurgen Schonafinger apologised and told him he’d had to ride his bike in from King Valley and mis-judged the time of the journey!

As a menacingly quick left-arm bowler, Geoff created havoc right from his first season in the WDCA, as a 14 year-old. An early haul of 5/30 signalled his arrival.

He had a strong physique and, with a long, rythmic run-up, threw everything into his delivery stride. He could cause the ball to move and bounce and he was decidedly quick. And he thrived on bowling!

In his first full season of senior cricket he took 121 wickets – at one stage playing for a month non-stop at Benalla, Bendigo and Melbourne Country Weeks, WDCA and Social cricket.

A couple of years later, he ripped through the heart of the powerful Victorian batting line-up in a match at Benalla. In his first over he all but claimed the wicket of Ian Redpath with a ‘pearler’. He had Ken Eastwood caught, Bob Cowper lbw and Keith Stackpole caught on the hook, to boast the heady figures, at one stage, of 3/18.

Naturally, Geoff was coaxed to District cricket and had a season with the new ball at North Melbourne. But his heart was always back home, and he returned to spearhead United’s formidable attack and represent Wangaratta in rep cricket. And in a career highlight, he matched wits with the West Indies’ finest at the Showgrounds in 1969.

The evolution of Geoff Welch the bowler went as follows: Stage One was the lightning quick who could almost decapitate you. Then, as his knee became more troublesome, he became a slippery medium-pacer, relying on movement. With the limp becoming more pronounced, he reverted to a steady ‘stockie’ with guile and accuracy.

The gift that he never lost was his competitiveness and a streak of meanness and inner-confidence.

He took 788 WDCA wickets and was twice the Cricketer of the Year, but one of his fondest memories was of a swashbuckling, unbeaten 87 that he hammered at Beechworth. His modus operandi with the willow was not to poke around but, in a powerful United batting line-up he was rarely required.

Geoff’s service to football and cricket continued long after his playing days had expired. He coached, managed and organised representative teams. There was no-one better to keep exuberant youngsters in check. Hundreds of kids benefited from his steadying influence and sage advice.

He served a marathon 17-year tenure as the WDCA President and was handed a list of gongs as long as your arm for service to sport. Of particular fondness to him were his induction to the Wangaratta Rovers and WDCA Halls of Fame.

As to the connotation of his nickname? It stemmed back to his days as a Uni student, when he and a mate, Bruce Desmond, would return home for the holidays and do some work for a good friend, tiler Lionel Hill.

Lionel likened the sight of Geoff clambering across the tiled roofs to that of a big, black cat on the prowl.

There’s an old saying that no one’s irreplaceable in sport, but in the case of ‘The Cat’ I wish to disagree.
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