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
"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
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
"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,"
"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
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
"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.