Joe Pignataro – VAFA Commentator & Podcast Host
Earlier this week I heard Graham Cornes interviewed on RSN927’s The Breakfast Club.
Cornes was reflecting on his life in football dating back to the late 1950’s and the profound impact the game has had on him.
Throughout his interview he discussed playing with Glenelg & South Adelaide in the SANFL, being the inaugural coach of the Adelaide Crows, guiding the South Australians in State of Origin football, and serving in the Vietnam war as an infantry soldier with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment.
Throughout his interview, 14 words stood out like the proverbial. Words I’m sure many retired footballers will relate to: “I miss footy so much, I miss playing so much, that sometimes it aches.”
Retired local legends, one game heroes, club stalwarts and volunteers, current-day players in both the men’s and women’s competition, club administrators and coaches, we’re all missing the game we love so much that sometimes it does ache.
In Victoria, there’s a lot more than just football which we’re missing due to the global pandemic. However, from a local football perspective, the cancellation of the 2020 VAFA season left many with a gaping hole in their weekends.
The smell of deep-heat in the rooms, the pre-game playlist by the clubs designated DJ, the 8am arrival on a cold Saturday morning for Thirds, U19’s and some women’s teams, standing behind the goals poking fun at the opposition full forward or full-back, the singing of the club song arm in arm, the post-match beer and more post-match tunes reflecting on a ‘tough day at the office’.
During this time, to help fill the void of not playing ever so slightly, the VAFA has created a Mecwacare ‘Clubs in Focus’ podcast giving all 72 clubs the opportunity to put themselves in the spotlight and celebrate everything they’ve achieved throughout their history.
To date, we’ve delved into the history of 10 VAFA clubs, all with unique and colourful histories. I’ve picked out my #5 favourite stories that we have uncovered throughout this series.
Collegians Football Club – The Chief & his Sherrins
Alec O’Brien, 97, is affectionately known around Harry Trott Oval as ‘The Chief’.
He was the property steward at Collegians for 16 years through the 1990’s and early 2000’s. As far as property stewards go, Chief took us completely by surprise with his vibrancy, his excitement, passion, and love for the boys in purple.
When the Chief started in the role, he had 30 brand new Sherrin footballs. When he finished, he had the same 30 Sherrins – not losing one of them throughout his time. When he couldn’t find one at the end of training on Thursday nights, he’d have to go and inspect every drain around the ground – incredible to think how easily things get lost and go missing around a football club changeroom.
He is much loved and well respected at the club, telling us how fondly he remembers all the U19 boys going out of their way to thank him for his work after training.
Ormond Amateur Football Club – George Raphael re-lives 1950 Grand Final
The 12th oldest club in the VAFA was born in late 1931, playing their first games in 1932. They would reach A Section before the beginning of WWII in 1937 and after two A-Section losses to Uni Blacks in 1947 and 1949, it was their day in 1950 when they faced Uni Blacks who were aiming for seven premierships victories in a row.
George Raphael, one of the surviving members of that Ormond premiership side, recounted the final moments of the day that “stole” the flag. They were injury-riddled and down to 17 fit men at three quarter time. George was one of those injured players (severely rolled ankle) and was sent to the half-back line with Ormond having the aid of the famous Elsternwick Park breeze in the final term.
It was amazing listening to George re-live the final moments as though the game was played last weekend – with his barrel ending up in the hands of teammate Jack Boland on the siren. Suffice to say, Jack backed up his colourful language with a match-winning goal to hand Ormond a four-point win and the first of many A Section flags.
Old Xaverians Football Club – Jock McHale leads the Machine
Old Xavs were formed in 1923 but back then they weren’t quite the powerhouse we know them to be today. However, even in their formative years, they had the ability to attract the ‘big fish’ and throughout seasons 1928, 1929 and 1930 the coach of the senior side was the coach of the famous Collingwood Machine.
Jock McHale, the legendary Magpies coach, held both roles simultaneously through those seasons. He would attend Old Xavs training sessions on Wednesdays and Collingwood games on Saturdays. He would take Xavs to their first finals appearance in 1928, however, he couldn’t harness that form in 1929 as they fell to second-last on the ladder.
It all got a bit too much for Jock early in the 1930 season opting to spend his time solely at the Magpies – a move which proved fruitful for Magpie fans at the time as McHale coached the Pies to a record fourth straight premiership.
West Brunswick Football Club – The famous ‘Yoink’
Those who know West Brunswick will know they proudly wear the black and white stripes – just like a certain AFL club.
For those who know this certain AFL club, they’ll also recognise their tendency to earn a spot in the big dance and, more often than not, find ways to lose – 27 times from 44 grand finals to be exact.
In recent years, West Brunswick have gone the other way on the big stage, claiming ‘yoinking’ victories from the jaws of defeat. The 2014 & 15 senior premierships were both fourth-quarter comebacks against undefeated opponents. In 2015, they were 26 points down at three-quarter time vs Emmaus St Leos but finished with a burst to kick 4.6 to 0.3 in the final term, with club legend Billy Irving snatching a huge mark at the death and kicking truly.
The 2018 women’s reserves claimed an incredible comeback win of their own after three scoreless quarters. Trailing Old Geelong 0.0.0 to 3.4.22 at three-quarter time, WB kicked four goals straight to claim a two-point win and the club’s first-ever women’s premiership with howls of ‘yoink’ echoing around the ground.
St Bernard’s Old Collegians Football Club – Danny Byrne’s 2002 Grand Final Performance
When I’m asked about St Bernard’s greats, the first name that comes to my mind is Danny Byrne. And while biased in my judgement, Danny is arguably in the top three players to represent the club.
When the Snowdogs reached the 2002 A Section Grand Final, they were up against the almighty Old Xavs side who had two years earlier won their sixth straight flag and were searching for a seventh in eight years. St Bernard’s, burning on the inside from the disappointment of 2001, had a belief all year that they could win this premiership.
On the final training session before the game, club captain Nick Mitchell tore his hamstring and was forced out of the St Bernard’s side, making their task seemingly insurmountable.
Enter 19-year-old Danny Byrne, everything he touched on Grand Final Day turned to gold, accumulating 37 disposals, kicking five goals and claiming the Jock Nelson Medal for the best player on the ground as the Snowdogs claimed a 31-point victory and their second A Section title.
One to very rarely talk about himself, the most we got from Danny when we asked him about the day: “You’d have to say it was one of my better games I played, I was lucky I suppose.”
To hear all of the Mecwacare ‘Clubs in Focus’ podcast editions to date: