Michael Caruso knew a bit about premiership success. He was an on-ball dynamo in four Wangaratta Rovers flags – in a Golden Era which stamped the Hawks as quite possibly the outstanding club in country Australia.And when he put his hand up to coach the club of which he had become a legend, he was on a quest to return it to its former greatness. Flags have always been the measure of success at the Rovers and he was constantly being reminded that it had been 17 years – the longest drought in its history – since the Club had achieved the ultimate.
The careers of his two most senior players, Andy and Ross Hill were almost intertwined. For more than a decade and a half they had ridden the fortunes of the Hawks. Apart from a Grand Final appearance in 2002, ( ironically, Andy spent that year at Collingwood) it was an era in which the Rovers had been competitive, without being a genuine contender.
Caruso’s first season at the helm was somewhat of a disaster if you look at it from a results point of view. The Hawks won just 4 games and narrowly avoided the indignity of their first wooden-spoon in 61 seasons.
However, much work had been done and some valuable game-time put into young bodies. But if you looked at it from the angle of the Hill boys, the dream of a premiership was just that – a dream. Old Father Time looked like beating them to it.
“I know I may be dreaming, of a world…
Far from present-day reality. But I’ll keep on dreaming…….”
Things just seemed to come together beautifully for the Rovers in 2012. Their recruits all fired and they got away to a flier. Players who had looked immature the previous season were now playing with the assuredness and confidence of stars. Escaping deep scrutiny, probably because the public felt they were playing above themselves, the Hawks announced a huge signing – football’s firebrand full forward, Barry Hall.
From then on, they looked the real deal and that elusive premiership began to loom invitingly within reach….
The Rovers announced themselves in a stunning finals performance against Albury. The fearsome Hall, despite running into umpire trouble, which earned him 20 minutes ‘cooling-down’ time on the bench, re-appeared and ignited the game. He inspired his team-mates, as they ran away to win by 15 points.
The Rovers played out of their skins in the second semi-final, as Yarrawonga struggled to keep pace with them. ‘Big Bad Barry’ was again unbeatable. The further the game progressed the better they performed. 10 minutes into the last quarter the lead was 34 points and building. A Grand Final spot beckoned.
Suddenly, a subtle change came over the game. Led by the dangerous Craig Ednie, the Pigeons began to take their chances. They kicked a goal against the trend of play, then another, in quick succession. Momentum, such an oft-used word in today’s football dialogue, had shifted to Yarra. The circus that is the Brendan Fevola Show began to crank up after being an irrelevance all day.
The Pigeons hit the lead by less than a kick in the dying stages. The unlikeliest of victories appeared likely.
Then, in the final passage of play in the match, Hawk star Sean O’Keeffe, with the poise of the seasoned campaigner that he is, grabbed the ball and weighted a pass beautifully, to the leading Hall, with just seconds to play.
As he prepared to kick for goal from no more than 20-25 metres out, with no angle to speak of, the siren blew. An eerie hush fell over Norm Minns Oval.
History records that Barry Hall is the only AFL footballer to twice kick the winning goal after the siren. He had a well-earned reputation of conversion, which saw him kick 746 goals in 289 League games and become the only player in history to win the goalkicking at 3 different clubs.
It seemed a foregone conclusion that he would nail the goal and send the Hawks into the Grand Final and warm-favouritism for the 2012 flag.
He stopped mid-way through his run-up when the siren blew. The old pro hesitated and hastily re-set. And then he missed!
“Oh darn that dream…..
It haunts me and it won’t come true…..”
Amidst scenes of chaos, Yarrawonga players and supporters were ecstatic, their opposite number were devastated. There were consoling words for the players from the shattered Caruso and a reminder that: “…it’s all about fighting back next week in the Preliminary Final. Let’s focus on the week ahead.”
But deep down you knew that this was a crushing blow that sometimes cannot be erased, even over a summer. Would it play havoc with their minds in preparing for the Prelim?
Seemingly it did. Albury led by 66 points at half-time in the Preliminary Final and the Hawks were the ‘walking wounded’. That they kicked 11 goals to 5 in the last half was testament to their character, as they threatened valiantly in a supreme, but vain, effort.
“The sun still shines way up above……..
But it don’t matter now, because the dream is gone……..”
That was to be Andy Hill’s final game. He carried a severe neck injury into the finals series and, after an operation, was advised to hang up the boots. He had played 254 games and was a 5-time Best and Fairest winner.
Caruso’s swansong came after a semi-final loss the following season. He had announced his retirement some weeks previous and, as a heart-warming tribute from players and fans, was chaired off the ground, alongside Ross Hill, who had also called it a day, after 306 games.
“Oh, darn that dream…..”