” ‘Bater’ closes in on 250…” by KB Hill

 

 

 

 

A tiny five-year-old weaves his way through the throng of prancing, dancing players and supporters celebrating an unlikely flag ………….

Amidst a sea of Blue and White he makes a bee-line for his old man, who’s spent his entire career at Bright, and can scarcely believe he’s a part of this dramatic last-quarter turnaround, which has swept them to victory over Chiltern………

Twenty-five years later, the lad, now chunky of frame, shaven-headed, and somewhat of a bush footy legend, experiences his own euphoria when he figures in Wangaratta’s 2017 premiership……….

***

The Bright of Matt Kelly’s formative years was, in his terms, an idyllic ‘Sleepy Hollow’……..

The Kelly residence backed onto popular tourist spot, Centenary Park……The Ovens River meandered through the township……

“I’d ride up to school, which was at the other end of town,” he recalls. ”We used to have a competition to see if we could roll all the way back home without having to pedal….we’d cruise through the town and try to dodge people on the footpaths……Everyone knew everyone……”

Matt grew up around Pioneer Park, the home of the footy club……”Saw it all happen…..I remember the antiquated rooms; the ordinary facilities……the battered old floorboards….. the wood fire in the corner…..”

His Dad, Darren (Dasher) played over 200 games with the Mountain Men…..His Mum, a long-serving netballer, is a Life Member of both the Junior and Senior Clubs, and operated the canteen for many years ……….

One of his team-mates as he was coming through the junior grades at Bright was his now-coach Ben Reid…….

“Although ‘Reidy’s’ a bit younger than me they used to play him up a level due to his size and prodigious talent…….He was the best junior kid I came across…” Matt says.

After a season at Imperials in the Wang Junior League (where he played alongside his now-business partner, Shane Gaston) Matt re-joined Bright for his final junior season when they were admitted to the WJFL..

Cricket played a big part in his teenage life…..He was an outstanding WDCA junior and one year took out the Con O’Callaghan Trophy, awarded to the competition’s most promising player.

In fact, cricket was one reason for him being lured to Wangaratta…..

“I played a bit of rep cricket with a couple of kids I got to know pretty well – Timmy Wood and Sam Higgs – and they talked me into coming down to play with the Magpie Thirds in 2004,” he says

The rest is history……..

 

 

***

 

He was handed his O & M senior debut two matches into the 2005 season….

“The previous season, under Jon Henry’s coaching, they made the finals for the first time in 11 years…… They were on the rise, and it was exciting to be a part of……Jonny McCormick had also come back in 2005…….We were on top of the ladder halfway through the season, then Jonny ‘did’ his knee…..We were the walking wounded when Lavington beat us in the Prelim…..”

It’s no mean feat, I suggest, for a slender 17-year-old to hold his spot in an O & M finals combination…..

“Well, I think they gifted me a few too many games…..there wasn’t much of me, and I was playing as a small forward pocket….” he says.

Matt travelled down from Bright in 2005-‘06 ..…..He’d train each Thursday and the occasional Tuesday night…….

“I was a second-year apprentice carpenter with Craig Martin, a Bright footballer……We were working long days, and it was getting a bit much, travelling down to Wang for training in mid-winter……So I decided to spend a couple of seasons back home…..”

There was a touch of irony about the timing of his departure from the Magpies nest as he missed out on the opportunity to feature in their 2007-‘08 premierships….

“I followed them pretty closely, and they deserved that success, considering where the Club had come from….But I think my time with Bright helped shape my development as a player…….”

Premiership success eluded Bright in successive years, as Whorouly came back from a five goal deficit at half-time to pip them in 2007, whilst the unbeaten Tarrawingee proved too strong in the 2008 Grand Final.

But there were no qualms about Matt’s form…..He polled 33 votes to finish runner-up to Moyhu’s Anthony Welsh in the 2007 Baker Medal, and shared the gong with Tarrawingee’s Finton Eames the following year.

His 40 games back at his home club had fulfilled a dream……..and steeled his determination to get the maximum from himself as a player……

***

The inevitable ‘phone call from Wangaratta coach Jason Lappin prompted his return to the Norm Minns Oval in 2009…….He moved down here to live permanently halfway through the season.

“Work was the only reason that I’d left Wang…… but I decided I was gonna have a real crack when I came back…..The first thing I did was to give cricket away to enable me to focus on footy……”

“And, if I was going to become an in-and-under player, I needed to build my body up……So I trained 2-3 nights a week and attended the gym regularly…..”

Matt rose to another level in 2009…….He was now regarded among the O & M’s elite and finished runner-up – along with Sam Carpenter and Albury star Chris Hyde – to Yarrawonga’s Mark Stevens, in the Morris Medal.

He was a key figure in Wang’s 71-point victory over Corowa-Rutherglen in the Elimination Final that year, in which they booted 11 unanswered goals……It appeared that their form had peaked at the right time and a rare hat-trick of flags wasn’t out of the question……

Unfortunately, Jon McCormick’s knee again caved in (which signalled the end of the champ’s career with the ‘Pies)…..It was a dire blow……They battled valiantly, going down to Wodonga by a goal in the First Semi-Final the following week……

As rapid as Wangaratta’s ascent had been, their slide down the ladder was just as swift, as they made just one brief finals appearance in the next seven years (an Elimination Final exit in 2011)……….

But the performances of ‘Bater’ Kelly, the seemingly indestructible Number 11, remained one constant. The 2AY commentators, in particular, were fascinated by his hard-at-it style of play, and branded him the ‘Bald-Headed-Warrior’…….

Whilst things mightn’t have always been going the Magpies’ way, there was admiration for the little fellah who would forever be boring in, attempting to extricate the congested pill……

To add to his status as one of the League’s ‘hard-men’, Matt had become familiar with the company of a ‘tagger’ most weeks……..”It was something I just took for granted,” he says….

 

 

 

His earnestness and capacity to drag the side along with him made him leadership material. He shared the co-captaincy with Jai Canny in 2014 and Xavier Norden in 2015, and sensed there were signs of a resurgence within the ranks.

“When Brendan Cairns took over the coaching early in 2015 we seemed to be on the right track……’Cairnsy’ was a good communicator……..We picked up Mick Newton, Ben Douthie and a couple of other handy recruits the next year, and things grew from there……”

“That was also Joe Richards’ debut season……I’ll always remember the day he kicked 11 goals against Corowa-Rutherglen……I thought: ‘Geez, how good’s this kid ! ‘ “

“We had to beat Wodonga in the last game that year to clinch a finals berth……We attacked virtually all of the last quarter, but ended going down by a point……”

“When ‘Stoney’ took over as coach in 2017 I thought we’d probably go alright ……maybe make the finals….. possibly finish top 3 ….”

It proved the highlight of the glittering Kelly career…..He produced a succession of outstanding finals performances to be a key factor in a memorable premiership triumph……..

Entering the Grand Final as hot favourites, Albury were pursuing their fourth flag on the trot……But the Pies blitzed them with a 7.0 to 2.2 first quarter, in which their skipper ‘Juice’ Newton booted four of his eight goals.

The Tigers gradually whittled the margin back to eight points but, with just seven minutes remaining, Joe Richards weaved out of trouble, booted the ball forward, and Josh Porter snapped the sealer…….

“Joey had played just three games that year (because of Bushrangers commitments) before being brought into the Grand Final side…….He probably anticipated that this sort of thing was going to happen every year……Here I was, aged 30, wondering if it had passed me by……”

“People say: ‘They’re hard to win’……Well, they certainly are ! “

 

 

***

 

Matt and his mate (and Rovers 200-gamer) Shane Gaston operate one of the area’s largest building firms …….They’ve recently expanded to incorporate a Shepparton firm – Diverse Builders – into the business.

The company’s origins were humble enough……….A customer made enquiries about building a house ………..They decided to have a go at pricing it up, got the job……and Crown Carpentry was born in 2014……..Two years later they became Licensed Builders and transitioned to Crown Building and Constructions…….

In recent seasons, the responsibilities of operating a growing business, coping with an ageing body – and a touch of bad luck – have played havoc with Matt’s fitness.

“Even though I still love playing and being part of the Club, work has definitely had an effect – the same with ‘Gatto’……”

“After all, at the end of the day we’re just tradies, so it’s a big job to keep abreast of the business…..When something happens, sometimes you have to drop everything……Footy tends to go down the list of priorities…….It’s taken its toll mentally and physically, particularly over the last couple of seasons…….”

 

 

 

“Being banged up for a few years hasn’t afforded me the time to heal my body enough, either……I haven’t done a decent pre-season since 2017……”

A broken arm cost him 8-9 weeks in 2018; he did a medial ligament in 2019, depriving him of another eight weeks……he missed half of seasons ‘21 and ‘22 with niggling injuries……a bulged disc in the back cost him the first nine games this year…….

Even so, he has remained a crucial link in a Wangaratta side which has participated in a further three Grand Finals – including last season’s drama-filled encounter with Yarrawonga……

On the topic of the controversial 2022 flag that the ‘Pies have since been denied….What effect has it had on the playing group ?

“Personally, when the decision was made public, I had almost no emotion towards it……..I was super-busy……I just thought: ‘Yeah, whatever…..”

“But it has definitely been bandied about amongst the players…….It’s a bit of a driving factor, I suppose…….Considering the obstacles we’ve had to surmount we seem to be back on track, and playing pretty good footy at the moment ……”

***

Matt’s partner, Hannah Grady, has also had a decorated career as a Magpie, having played around 180 senior netball games, winning 5 A-Grade Best & Fairests, sharing in 2 A-Grade flags, captaining the O & M rep team….She’s currently the co-coach of the Netball Club.

As for ‘Bater’, he has his sights set on joining Daine and Judd Porter and Brett Keir as a member of Wangaratta’s elite 250-Game Club.

It has been a crawl in recent years…….. he currently sits on 240 games……Hopefully, his body will remain intact to enable him to get him over the line………It would be a reward for a fantastic O & M career…..

 

 

This story appeared first on KB Hill’s website On Reflection and is used here with permission.
All photos sourced from KB Hill’s resources unless otherwise acknowledged.

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