Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature

Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature
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Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature
Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature
Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Home : VFL: Memories Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature


 

 

Dipping the shoulder

A selection of grabs

Hobbs, Harper, and the man they called Buster

Colin Hobbs, an ex-Fitzroy player with a take-no-prisoners demeanour and a fierce forearm that bounced off the head of opponents with the dexterity of a violin bow, was captain of Coburg.


"Just be careful. There are some blokes in this competition who can be very nasty," he'd said, after a Preston player by the name of Rod Cobain went mental, first accusing me of "sinking the slipper" then yelling "I'm gunna get ya" with such rapidity I had every reason to believe he meant it.

The next year, in a game at Coburg, Hobbs had crumpled to the ground, his jaw broken after a late tackle by Dandenong fullback, Alan Harper. Little did I know, as I watched the seemingly indestructible Hobbs rise to his feat, hand rearranging a displaced jaw, that the apparent villain, the sandyhaired Harper would soon enter VFA folklore.

Three months later in the 2nd quarter of the 1976 Grand Final at the Junction Oval, Harper went berserk, king-hitting an unsuspecting Port full forward, Fred Cook, then repeating the dose on captain-coach, Norm Brown, before finding himself on the end of a "Buster" Harland round-arm, which it was claimed, had broken Harper's jaw.

For 20 minutes the estimated crowd of 30,000 and a massive television audience watched in disbelief as violation and retribution usurped a game of football. "Jesus Christ, am I glad I'm not out there," I thought as the mayhem unfolded.

 

The lady in red

Violence aside, the 1976 VFA Grand Final was a classic piece of television soap opera. The sight of the blonde Port Melbourne doctor, in bright red top and black flares, removing the hand of tearful veteran trainer, the late Alan Thomas, from her ribcage as she scurried from the field, having attended to her favourite player, the wounded Fred Cook, was a gripping moment in the annals of football broadcasting.

So too was the performance of Dandenong's official runner and recently retired ruckman, Eddie Melai. A big man with thick, dark eye brows, Melai planted the feet and, to the cheers of those who'd suffered at the hands of cocky Port full back Bob "Bullwinkle" Profitt, sent their nemesis to the turf.

While all this was happening the redoubtable, granite-headed "Gorgeous" George Allen, who came from a long line of Port Melbourne Allens, had sent Dandenong's lovable, goal-kicking wizard, Pat Flaherty, down for the count. It was retribution for the havoc Harper had wreaked at the other end of the ground. A left-footer with a facade of vulnerability designed to protect him from the assassins who roamed the VFA, Flaherty kicked goals in profusion.

Unfortunately, in Allen's Port Melbourne world, an injury to one was an injury to all. And as Flaherty was the nearest member of the enemy, he would pay dearly. This was a Grand Final to remember.

 

Harold, Keka and a bloke in white called Wenn

Harold Martin wouldn't have been surprised by the umpire's decision. As noble and uncompromising as a samurai warrior, he'd taken hatred of umpires to unprecedented levels during his reign as badman of the VFA.


"Ah umpires, mate, not human," he'd say shaking his head contemptuously. In the 1970s Harold, who stood about 6 foot 2 and wore a Mexican moustache in order to compound the fear engendered by his mere presence, was as terrifying as any bloke anywhere in a football jumper.


On one occasion in 1987 he became so incensed with what the umpires were doing to his team they were forced to barricade themselves in the changerooms at Box Hill. Outside Harold threatened all manner of retribution.
At the Tribunal Harold explained that he'd only wanted to discuss the umpires' interpretation of a couple of dubious decisions and they'd confused his desire for dialogue with evil intent. Suspended for a few weeks and therefore prohibited from entering the arena, Martin delivered his instructions from the bucket of a cherry picker.


In the 1978 VFA Grand Final umpire Wren had dished out free kicks to Prahan with such flair, Harold, who was playing coach of Preston, leaned over and told the man in white enough was enough.
"You can't do that, you didn't see anything," he growled from the corner of his mouth, the words drifting across the terrace where some wondered if he might just finish Wren off there and then. Finally, wounded by the injustice of it all he could take no more.

When the scone of former North Melbourne champion Sam Kekovich appeared in the cluster of agitated men Harold took to it like a bloke swatting flies. For a moment "Kekas" knees buckled but soon he was upright again and the Prahan supporters breathed a collective sigh of relief. At the tribunal Harold managed to collect a 6 week suspension. He never forgave them.

 

And then along came Mr Vergona

Groom was the first to strike. "I have to report you, Phil, and you're ordered off," he said, peeping behind me to check the number. Then out of the blue little Frankie arrived, sobriety and purpose written over his face.
"Sorry Phil, I have to report you too. No, you're gone, mate".
"Get fair dinkum, Frank, you were three hundred miles away. You're only pinching me 'cos the other bloke told you to".
"No, I had a perfect view, your ordered off. You must leave the ground immediately.'


'Ordered off...fifteen minutes in the sin bin and Harold after that. This isn't good,' I thought. As Coach Harold Martin made his way to the rooms at half time his mind was awash with anger. Now he was about to explain what it was that troubled him.
"Fancy letting one of those little pricks in white report you," he roared.
"Fancy letting `fucking' Frank Vergona and Roy `fucking' Groom do you over," he continued, his pacing of the floor hypnotising the crowd which had assembled in the rooms for the epistle.
`How many times have I got to tell you how much umpires love getting their name in the paper? Yeah, got Cleary, that's what they'll be saying in next door.'


So quiet and foreboding was the room, only the sound of Martin's voice reminded the assembled that we were at a football match, not a funeral. Once the tirade began it took the form of a stream of consciousness which revealed a man whose relationship with the bloke in white bordered on the pathological. Coming from the mouth of a bloke whose report sheet made Sydney and Carlton Tribunal addict David Rhys-Jones look like an altar boy, his sermon was a moment to behold.


Will he ever stop, I thought, as I sat on that wooden bench, shrinking under the force of his barrage. After half time we blew Port away, winning the game with a riveting last quarter. When I kicked the goal at the grand stand end which put us in front I was walking on air. Harold however, suspecting the worst, was subdued after the game.


"Make sure you're well prepared," he said.
When Umpires Frank Vergona and Roy Groom arrived at the Tribunal, Frank resplendent with a red carnation in the lapel of his suit, Harold's words flashed past me. For these men in white were on a mission. Like a couple of coppers about to "verbal" some hapless "crim" their stories were identical and well-rehearsed. It didn't seem to matter to the Tribunal Chairman that the video we produced proved they had the sequence of events wrong.


"Yes, player Wilkinson handballed the ball over player Cleary's head who proceeded to strike him with a fierce forearm to the face," said Vergona, a description corroborated by his offsider.
"Well, actually the video shows that player Cleary, not player Wilkinson, had the ball," explained my advocate, the inimitable Graham Douglas. At that point we chose to tender the video as evidence. It was a mistake - four weeks.

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