Almanac (Footy) Memoir: “Come on Cliff!”

 

 

by Richard Griffiths

 

Following my brief sojourn at the Hawthorn Football Club in the first half of 1978 it was abundantly clear that my football career was at the crossroads – at the tender age of eighteen! I had perfected the art of being where the ball ain’t in my attempt to mitigate any further embarrassment on the footy field, but I loved the game and wanted to continue playing at some level. This is where my brother came to the fore.

 

Mike was a very influential figure and I looked up to him in so many respects. He also loved the Hawks and enjoyed trying to play the game although he too should have adopted the ‘be where the ball ain’t’ philosophy as he was genuinely challenged by the skills of Australian Rules Football. His ability to capture the ball in flight was problematic and if he did happen to gain possession his eye hand co-ordination in disposing of the ball was in the Alle DeWolde, David Polkinghorne and Bernie Jones category. It is important to note that to this day he has no major problems with arthritis in the fingers or hands which could be as a result of a) having adroit ball handling skills or b)  never getting near enough to the pill to place said fingers and hands in jeopardy. No doubt the latter is the case. But what he did have was enormous energy and enthusiasm for the game which was infectious both on and off the field.

 

My brother was an accomplished surfer (board rider) and spent almost every weekend travelling to the surf coast past Geelong to capture some waves at beautiful Point Lonsdale – just a few Jeff Fehring torpedo punts from the quaint seaside town of Queenscliff.

 

Like all country towns Queenscliff had a footy club and they played in the Bellarine and District Football League. Towns like Ocean Grove, Torquay, Anglesea, Drysdale, Leopold and Port Arlington all had teams in the league. Plenty of former Geelong players scattered the comp and even the likes of wee Georgie Bissett from Footscray had a stint as Captain-Coach of Port Arlington.

 

My brother convinced me to join him at the Barracoutas with the prospect of some enjoyable footy and even more enjoyable times in the town on a Saturday night. In fact my brother became the clubs quasi recruiting officer luring his mates from Swinburne Tech down the highway including the accomplished Hawthorn-East Melbourne opening batsman Mark Sunny Sundberg (resplendent in his Geoff Blethyn spectacles), the dashing Mark Laidlaw and for club morale and social interactions Joe Gill and Len Bingham provided much appreciated post-match conviviality. I was lured mid-season with the club agreeing to put me up on a Friday and Saturday night at a nearby caravan park with beautifully furnished bungalows resplendent with dark brown and beige furnishings, a tiny fan heater, paper thin towels and musty old blankets to keep me warm during the freezing winter nights. When the Swinburne Tech boys joined me our pre-match preparation on a Friday night was not what it should have been and there was the odd occasion where we would arrive at the ground with mild headaches. Nothing that couldn’t be cured by a can of Coke and one of the magnificent cream buns on offer at the club canteen.

 

I would drive down the highway on a Friday night over the Westgate Bridge, through Little River (of LRB fame) past the You Yangs followed by the church tower of Geelong Grammar then the scattered oil refineries approaching Geelong and of course the iconic Ford car plant. Around Corio Bay to the Bellarine Highway then a further thirty minutes to Queenscliff. It was always a very nervous drive as I had little confidence in my third hand Cortina getting me their safely or getting me there at all. Such was my lack of confidence I would often ask dad if I could take the far more reliable family Valiant.

 

Like most newcomers to the club I had to earn my stripes through the dew kickers – the Reserves. One day in my first or second game during the quarter time huddle one of my teammates, Steve Sands kept imploring Cliff to do better; every few minutes during the coach’s address he would yell out “Come on Cliff!” I kept looking around the huddle trying to identify which of my new teammates was Cliff. This went on for weeks and yet I still couldn’t work out which one of my teammates was Cliff. I didn’t train with the team during the week as I was living and studying in Melbourne, so I was finding it hard to know all the players’ names.

 

Eventually, I’d had enough and rather than embarrass myself by asking one of the local players which one was Cliff I decided to ask my brother after a game over a beer and meat pie.

 

“Hey Mike,” I said. “Can you point out Cliff to me?”

 

“What do you mean?” he quickly replied.

 

“I’m struggling to learn everyone’s name and Steve Sands keeps asking Cliff to try harder week in and week out? I don’t which one he is, and I think it’s important I know every player’s name?”

 

“You idiot!” he snarled back. Haven’t you worked it out? Cliff is short for Queenscliff. There is no Cliff! Queenscliff mate – Queenscliff!”

 

I shrugged my shoulders and said I thought we were the Coutas or Barracoutas a large, predatory fish known for its fearsome appearance and ferocious behaviour – not bloody Cliff!

 

After serving my time in the Seconds I eventually got a call up into the Senior team towards the back end of the season which prompted me to return the following year.

 

By 1979/80 the club was returning to its glory days of the mid-seventies and when former Premiership coach John Farrell returned to the club there was much optimism and hope that the Coutas (or Cliff if you prefer) would once again challenge for the flag. The prodigal son had returned to have another tilt at the Premiership. We had a bunch of star players including veteran Premiership ruckman Mike Birrell who was studying to become a doctor, the clever rover and highly skilled Robert Warren who was also a star cricketer. Warren was in the Charlie Pagnocolo, Arthur Karanicolas, Bruce Burgoyne mould – clever and nippy on-baller who was always beavering around the packs. In fact, Robert Warren remains arguably the Bellarine’s greatest ever sportsperson. He won the league medal in 1976 and won the club best and fairest five times from 1971 to 1977 including the premiership year of 1975.

 

Wally Johnson was a star player out of the middle and continually found the footy. We had Ian Duckworth up forward who possessed one of the best pairs of hands in the business. He had a shock of blond hair and with his distinct high-pitched voice and beaming smile Ducky was a true club legend. There was Ian ‘the whale’ Roberts resting up forward and giving Birrell a chop out in the ruck, wily veteran Barry Gladman on the wing who when it was a freezing cold day would tie a garbage bag around his mid-riff for insulation. Barry was also renown for having a fag at half time to help him catch his breath in preparation for the second half. There was Rod Lawrence who played just one season having served in the army – he had a crew cut, square jaw and a square head. Barry Orvis was a prolific ball winner and with Gerard Benchley and Mark Laidlaw streaming off the wings we were always going to be thereabouts.

 

I found myself usually playing full back or matching up on the tallest opponent in the forward line. While not a high possession winner on the last line of defence I prided myself on my spoiling tactics (I would’ve won the Golden Fist Award if it existed back in those days) and can say that I rarely had a big bag of goals kicked on me. There was one player however I always had trouble containing and his name was The Frog. Bruce Riches was recruited to Yarraville in 1977 from Geelong and District club Thompson. He was thought to have been the biggest ruckman in Australia at the time. The man was a Giant in the Andre the Giant mould of wrestling fame and when he left Yarraville to continue his playing days at Port Arlington, he instilled terror into every poor defender across the league including my good self.

 

One day when I played on him, I thought I would out-think him by mixing up my defensive positions. I would play metres in front of him to intercept the ball or come in from the side so I could run and jump into his massive torso and hopefully break his ribs. Or should I play a long way from behind and cannon into his back as I punched the ball away from his baseball glove sized hands. Suffice to say no tactic worked that day as he just stood there like the Rock of Gibraltar and marked everything that came his way. I distinctly remember one contest when the ball came in high and playing from behind, I jumped and with all my might attempted to fist the ball away. I made excellent contact with the ball, but his hands were so big and so strong that my fist literally ricocheted back off the ball as he marked with a vice like grip. I stood on the mark shaking my head and looking up to the gods for divine intervention as The Frog booted his sixth goal. Bruce ‘The Frog’ Riches was a legendary and much-loved figure in footy circles in and around Geelong. He died in May 2016 at the age of 69.

 

One day we played an important game at the Queenscliff Recreation Reserve which was situated in the heart of the local caravan park on the edge of the water and in front of the Queenscliff lighthouse. We were playing archrivals Torquay who was coached by Ronny Roach. On this particular day poor Ron snapped his leg in two. I could hear the crack some 150 metres from my usual position at full back.

 

We were trailing by about four goals at three quarter time and as I approached the huddle thought it was going to be an uphill battle to get over the top of the Tigers. Then during his pep talk coach Farrell sprung a surprise move. “Griffo, I want you to go to full-forward and just jump at everything and create a contest for our small forwards.” I thought to myself he must be fucking kidding I’ve never played full-forward in my life! But as I made my way to the goal square all I had in my head was jump at everything and see what happens. If I follow the coach’s instruction at least I’ve done my bit.

 

As the quarter got underway our ruck division and mid-field started to get on top and suddenly the ball was being peppered into our forward line. As the ball came in on one occasion, I used my hips and body (I had watched a lot of Peter Hudson in my younger days) to mark surely and popped it through for a goal. Then I found myself in front on a lead and hugging my arms around the ball took a safe chest mark. I then wobbled another one through for a major. Our confidence was rising and with goals from Warren and Johnson we were back in the contest.

 

Now I was never a spring heeled jack but what was to happen next still amazes me to this day. Our veteran, fag-puffing wingman Barry Gladman had the ball on the wing and was streaming down the ground. He kicked it in long and high in my direction and with the coaches instructions ringing in my ears (jump at everything) I launched myself over the top of the pack in front of me and found my head in the clouds as I searched for the ball. I was higher than Cheech and Chong. I was so high I had to reach down to grasp the ball. I was so high all I was thinking about was my safety as I navigated my landing. Like G. Ablett’s famous mark over Garry Pert I doubt I held the ball long enough for the umpire to pay the mark but thankfully he had a sense of theatre and blew his whistle. Unfortunately, I failed to slot it through as I was still searching for oxygen having been in the stratosphere, but I did manage another two goals to seal a remarkable come from behind victory. As I made my way off the ground little kids came running towards me patting me on the back and lauding my speccy. Coincidentally, Richmond full-forward Michael ‘Disco’ Roach replicated my mark later that same year at the MCG to take out Mark of the Year….

 

A year ago, or so, I returned to the exact spot where I took the Mark-of-the- Year in sleepy Queenscliff and asked my poor unsuspecting partner Rebecca if she would help me re-enact my high-flying heroics of some 40 years ago. She’s a good sport Rebecca and although somewhat reluctant and not quite sure what was going on, she obliged by acting as a step ladder for a photo taken by my equally confused Aunt who happened to be travelling with us that weekend. I’m sure they thought I had made the whole story up, but I reassured them that my aerial feats that day had gone down in the annals of Cliffs’ history. In tandem they both asked who was Cliff?

 

The following week I was picked at full-forward following my stellar quarter of football in front of the big sticks but after failing to register a score in the first half was promptly banished to my customary full back position.

 

We made the Preliminary final the following year and on a cold wintry day against Port Arlington we led by seven goals at three quarter time and looked poised to make our way into the Grand Final. But we stopped to a walk and got totally obliterated in the final term to go down by two points. And I had a shocker with my opponent a fellow called King booting six majors. It was a devastating loss.

 

And with that I decided I had done my time with the Barracoutas. I had spent three years loving my football on the Bellarine Peninsula while studying but it was time to get a bit more serious and return to the city and ponder where to next. I had landed a teaching job at Brighton Grammar and had to decide where to continue my less than spectacular football career.

 

Enter Mervyn Harbinson….

 

 

Read Richard Griffiths’ story about his time at Hawthorn FC HERE.

 

 

Read Richard’s story about being caught in the race with Kennedy’s Commandos HERE

 

 

The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in 2021. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order HERE

 

 

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Comments

  1. Brilliant Richard. I have lived on The Bellarine as it is now called for 20 years. The Cliffs have ebbed and flowed, won 3 flags in a row about a decade ago. Portarlington have only ebbed.

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