I don’t mind if you call me a Mallee boy by KB Hill

 

Consider, if you will, these two contrasting pathways to League football…

 

(1). The exquisite talent. He’s uncovered at an early age and ushered through the elite Development programs. He’s deemed the prototype of the modern-day player and ticks the boxes in all categories – attitude, body size, physicality, approach to training. All the experts agree: “this kid will be a star”. Finds his way into state rep squads, shines in the Under 18 competition and is fawned over by player managers, recruiters and the media. They nominate him as a sure-fire first-round pick in the upcoming draft…

 

(2). The 18 year-old shy, red-haired lad from the bush. He has moved to the city to pursue his education, but is finding it difficult to adjust to life in the ‘big smoke’ at this early stage. After a long day of lectures at uni, he takes the long walk to Arden Street one late afternoon, to watch one of his mates from the Hostel, Ken Fyffe, who is training with North Melbourne.

 

An official nonchalantly asks if he plays football . Yes, he says, he doesn’t mind having a kick. The boot- studder fishes out an old pair of boots and in a jiffy he’s out on the track.

 

Five weeks later, in early April 1957, this unassuming ‘visitor’ is lining up for his first VFL match against Richmond…

 

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

Keith Robertson grew up in Tempy, a tiny whistle-stop on the Sunraysia Highway, which boasted a silo, hall, school and sporting oval.

 

His dad, Henry, who was as tough as those proverbial Mallee roots he used to gouge out of the red dirt, lived by the philosophy that : “…you should get one good season every seven years.”

 

Universally known as ‘Ginger’, wheat-cockie Henry was somewhat of a sporting legend and played good footy until he was 49. He lost count of the number of games he played for Tempy over 33 years, but others estimated it to be well in excess of 500.

 

So it was no surprise that his six kids grew up wanting to emulate his deeds.

 

It was a huge buzz for Keith when he took his place alongside ‘Ginger’ in the Tempy side. He soon made his mark, taking out the club Best and Fairest and finishing runner-up in the Mallee League award.

 

But, at 18, a career beckoned and he moved to the big city to study commerce and commence a Diploma of Education.

 

A letter from Collingwood had arrived a year or so previously, to which he had given only a passing thought.

 

Originally, he felt he might try his luck with one of the Under 18 sides when he moved to ‘town’, but it all changed after that fateful night at training.

 

There was just one other bit of drama……He had forgotten to sign the Form Four before he had left the ground on season’s eve and a North official chased after him and caught him at the tram stop, where he put his signature on the dotted-line.

 

He was now a Kangaroo.

 

Keith played the first three games, was dropped, then returned for a couple more in mid-season. The silver lining of spending most of the year in the two’s was that he became eligible for their finals campaign and played in the Reserves premiership team.

 

Fitting training in with the demands of uni lectures and study had become increasingly difficult. After the first couple of games in 1958, he pulled the pin on League footy and, instead, made the 560-mile round-trip to play with Tempy for the next two seasons.

 

Many at North were resigned to the fact that a highly-promising talent had slipped through their fingers.

 

But by 1960 Keith’s work-load had eased and he was back at Arden Street.

 

North fans now savoured the skills of a top-class player with electrifying pace, safe hands and beautiful delivery, who was to justify his ranking as one of the league’s finest wingers over the next four seasons.

 

He was at his top in 1962, when a run of consistently good form saw bookmakers install him as a surprise mid-season Brownlow Medal favourite.

 

It had been another demoralising season for the ‘Roos, as they notched just four wins, but Keith was honoured with selection in the Victorian side against South Australia and Tasmania. As runner-up in North’s B & F he was the recipient of a frypan.

 

You’d have thought that a lengthy sojourn at the top level lay ahead for the speedster. Alas, a year later, at the age of 24, and after 69 games with North, he called it a day and decided that his teaching career and the country lifestyle took precedence over the glamour of the VFL scene.

 

With wife Gwen and a growing family he headed back to the Mallee, to a teaching job at Hopetoun.

 

Keith played a couple of seasons with the locals, one of which saw him win the Southern Mallee League Medal. But by the time he’d accepted a teaching transfer to Mildura, his active playing career was over.

 

Instead, he was enticed behind the microphone, covering Sunraysia League games for radio station 3MA.

 

He sated his sporting appetite by playing cricket, which he’d always loved with a passion. He established his reputation as a aggressively quick bowler and hard-hitting batsman and was rated among the stars of the Sunraysia Association.

 

News of Keith’s appointment to Wangaratta High School travelled quickly among cricketing circles in early 1976 and he and his talented sons, Rohan and Shane threw in their lot with Magpies.

 

The sight of the volatile paceman, his red hair flapping in the breeze as he charged to the wicket, became a fearsome sight for edgy WDCA batsmen.

 

Keith played a key role in Magpies’ 1975/76 premiership and the two boys shared finals appearances with him during a successful era for the ‘Pies. This included the memorable ’77/78 flag, in which he routed Rovers, by taking 12/121.

 

He later transferred to United and remained a leading light in the Association through the early eighties.

 

With the boys developing nicely at the Wangaratta Rovers, Keith maintained a solid link with footy.

 

He spent a couple of years as secretary of the Hawks and had a long-term involvement with the Ovens and Murray Schoolboys, overseeing many of the area’s finest as they progressed through the ranks and graduated to League football.

 

Included among them were Rohan and Shane, who created AFL/VFL history, when they debuted together, against Carlton in 1985.

 

Shane was versatile and a smooth-mover, but was cruelled by injuries throughout his time at North. Rohan, elusive and with a spearing left-foot, proved a handy player in his 26 games with the Roos and later became heavily involved in recruiting.

 

Keith and Gwen Robertson now enjoy keeping in touch with the sporting pursuits of their six grandkids. Two of the girls were fine North Albury netballers, whilst Billy, who had a stint with the Murray Bushrangers is currently at uni and is having a run with Cheltenham.

 

Their daughter Lisa and her husband, Dale Weightman, the ex-Richmond champ, have three boys who are also mad-keen on footy. Liam is injured at present, whilst Kyle, who has trained with the Tigers’ Development Squad, plays at Strathmore with the youngest lad, Jess.

 

Keith’s a hard task-master and you can be assured that the kids won’t receive any faint praise. But deep down, the old fellah would be quietly proud of his clan…

 

 

 

Keith Robertson at North Melbourne

 

 

KB’s original article can be read here along with other fine works at his site, “On Reflection” here.

 

Comments

  1. Rocket Singers says:

    Another great piece. Thanks KB.

    For a moment I thought you’d strayed from Wang…

  2. Warwick Nolan says:

    Just sperb KB. Thank you.
    So many untold stories of players who were influential at local level. I wonder how many young fellows’ lives were changed for the better because Keith didn’t continue with his VFL career.

    As an aside, did spend some time in the Mallee myself mid 70s. Played in a couple of inter league games over that time at either Speed, Goya, Patch or may very well have been Tempy. Huge rivalry between Northern and Southern leagues. Huge steak at the pub afterwards also. Just great people too.

    A part of the world (and my life) just so special.
    Thank you fir reminding me KB.

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