”Big Macca – Lackadaisical but magical” by KB Hill

Good full forwards come packaged in a variety of shapes and forms.

 

You have the athletic type who has explosive pace off the mark. He’s able to lead into space, take chest and diving marks not too far from goal – and convert with unerring accuracy.

 

Or the player with a sixth sense; slightly-built, almost frail-looking. He can lull his opponent into a false sense of security…….. Until he sneaks away and repeatedly finds his own space, taking easy marks. At the end of the day it staggers you to learn that he’s snagged half a dozen ‘sausages’.

 

There’s the burly, seemingly overweight, stay-at-home customer, who out-bodies the full back and pulls down big ‘grabs’ in the square; showing a surprising turn of speed when required. He never misses with those ‘clutch’ shots in the vital moments.

 

And the under-sized ‘decoy’, lightning on the lead and with an innate understanding of his role in attack. He opens up the forward line and allows the ‘monsters’ to drop into the goal-mouth.

 

Then there’s blokes like Neale McMonigle………..

 

‘Big Macca’ was an O & M star in the late-eighties/early-nineties. He was the spearhead in some fine Rovers sides, and a prolific goal-kicker, despite being variously panned by the critics as lazy, unpredictable, moody and ultra-casual.

 

 

But the boy could play. As a self-acknowledged member of the ‘Macca Fan Club’, I once attempted a thumb-nail sketch of a day in the life of a football enigma:

 

“It is an hour before an important match, and the Rovers rooms are abuzz with activity. Balls are being flipped around , hamstrings stretched, players yapping with nervous excitement, skipping and jumping; supporters offering encouragement.

Beneath his number 18 locker, Neale McMonigle sits impassively, munching slowly on a P.K ( he even chews slowly !). You wonder whether he is psyching himself up, or contemplating how the first leg of the double went.

The forward line is Macca’s podium. He will lead with a pace that belies his tall, angular stature and hoof a 60-metre drop-punt through the ‘big sticks’; will move around the square, seemingly with the sulks, position himself in front of a pack, then throw himself forward in a dead-set ‘stage’.

He can hold out an opponent with one hand and balance a miraculous mark with the other. A snap goal, which can come from nothing, will have the fans raving one minute. The next, he is leaning on the post yarning to the goal-umpire, as play swings further afield.

A miss from a set-shot can be equally as frustrating. Then, with hands on hips, he will look skyward and saunter back to the square; privately querying God’s injustice to full-forwards.

He can never really come to terms with umpires who fail to protect forwards, upfield players who ignore his leads, and niggling defenders. Apart from that, he acknowledges, footy’s not a bad game.

 

 

We catch up for a yap late last week, before I slip down to watch training. Meanwhile, outside, the long-awaited storm has arrived, and the rain’s bucketing down.

 

“No way known I’d be training in these conditions,” the big fellah says. “I used to ring Laurie (Burt) and say: ‘Mate, I’m snowed under at work. Sorry, I can’t make it.’ “

 

Training, and a penchant for fitness, was never on his list of priorities. “I often used cricket-practice as an excuse to get out of a bit of pre-season work. I know ‘Burty’ was a wake up to me, but I didn’t want to burn out ! “

 

I still have visions of Neale’s dad, ‘Long John’ McMonigle, dominating the big-man duels in his 52-game stint with the Rovers.

 

Clad in the long-sleeved number 24 jumper, the quiet, wavy-haired gentle giant was a vital cog in Bob Rose’s plans. ‘Rosey’ believed his ruck star – one of three Glenrowan players he recruited for his first premiership side – could have played League football, but for his attachment to the bush.

 

 

Neale didn’t see John play, and says he’s never elaborated much on his career, other than to once admit that St.Kilda were pretty keen on him…… And that he became well-known for thumping the footy well clear of the centre bounce.

 

“Apparently he belted the pill so far one day, that his team-mate at centre half forward took it on the full, and the umpie unwittingly paid the mark,” Neale says.

 

‘Macca’ won a WJFL Medal, playing with Junior Magpies, then graduated to the Rovers Thirds. The next season, aged 18, he was lining up in the O & M Grand Final, in just his fourth senior game.

 

“I was pretty raw. Fair dinkum; after Daryl Smith’s pre-match speech the hairs on my neck were standing on end. They picked me at centre half forward, with instructions to just run my opponent around.”

“It worked out alright too, because I was able to ‘snag’ three and we knocked over the warm favourites Benalla, who’d won 15 on the trot.”

 

 

Neale played just a handful of senior games the following season, and was then surprisingly lured out to North Wangaratta in 1980.

 

“I spent the next five years there…….It was probably too early to leave the Rovers, but they’re the sort of decisions you make when you’re a young bloke,” he reflects.

 

Jason Gorman recalls McMonigle’s first stint with the O & K Hawks: “Robbie Hickmott, Luke Norman, me and my brother all lived near the North ground. We were in our early teens and would ride our bikes there, just to watch ‘Macca’ pulling down his skyscraper marks.”

 

“There was a strong wind blowing down the ground one game, and he stayed at one end all day. Took about 30 marks. You could hear the opposition yelling out: ‘Don’t kick it near ‘Macca’.”

 

He won North’s B & F in 1980, ‘82 and ‘83, and also shared the 1983 Baker Medal . There’s no doubt he had now blossomed into the star he was expected to be, despite his seemingly lackadaisical approach to the game.

 

So he was talked into returning to the Findlay Oval in 1985. As the Hawks made a charge to the finals, McMonigle was one of their key weapons. His tally of 84 goals during the home-and-away rounds included ‘bags’ of 11 and 10.

 

He added another 10 in the first two finals, and needed just six goals in the Prelim against Albury to top the magical 100.

 

“I remember glancing at the honour board on the Thursday night before that game, and thinking: ‘Heck, I don’t deserve to be up there as a Centurion alongside the great Steve Norman’. As it turned out, we lost the Prelim, and I finished up with 98.”

 

 

After he followed with another 60 goals in 1986, the Northerners came knocking, and appointed him playing-coach for two seasons.

 

That was an experience he savoured, but at the end of it, he succumbed to the wiles of Laurie Burt, who convinced him to again pull on the Rovers guernsey.

 

He didn’t need his arm to be twisted: “I was looking forward to playing under Laurie. He was a coach before his time, such was his knowledge of the game and its tactics.”

 

“He’d fill our brains with so much info at his game-eve meetings, I’d have to go home and relax with a few beers. I often dragged a couple of the boys along for a drink, too.”

 

The Hawks batted deep into the finals in 1989 and ‘90, but by 1991, had a superbly-balanced side which rightfully assumed flag favouritism from early in the season.

 

Never at any stage, though, did Neale ‘stress out’ about his footy. He was about as laid-back as you could be; kicking back with an ale or two and laying a few bets was his way of taking his mind off the game.

 

“Old Jack Prendergast knew I liked a punt. At the breaks he’d come up to me and say something like: ‘What’d you back in the Third at Caulfield, ‘Macca’……’Number 2 Jack. How’d it go.’ ….’You lucky bugger, it got up by a nose’. “

 

Neale played his part in the Hawks’ dominant 1991 season by winning the Doug Strang Medal. They recovered from a shock Second Semi-Final defeat to Yarrawonga to blitz the Pigeons in the Grand Final.

 

At three-quarter time it was feasible that Yarra could still win the game, but ‘Macca’ had other ideas, as he slammed through a 50m drop-punt in the opening minute of the final term. He kicked 4 goals in the last quarter, to finish with seven – and a season tally of 88.

 

 

Two of his premiership team-mates, ‘Gormo’ and ‘Hicky’ had been entranced by his high-marking at North Wang a decade earlier.

 

After 105 games – and 377 goals – with the Rovers, Neale accepted the job as captain-coach of O & K debutants Rutherglen.

 

“We were near the bottom, at 1-4 after five games. An official said to me one night: “The Committee want to speak to you after training. I thought: ‘Shit, they’re pressing the panic button a bit early here.’ I said: ‘Look, have a bit of faith. Stick with me. And remember: It’s my way or the Highway’.”

 

Fittingly, on the siren in the final home-and away game, Neale took a mark and slotted a goal to put the ‘Glen into their first finals series.

 

 

After two years with Rutherglen, he spent his final year as a player back at North Wangaratta in 1994. He’d chalked up 150-odd games in three stretches at Sentinel Park.

 

After helping Mark Kilner at Greta for a couple of seasons, he coached King Valley for two seasons, then led Glenrowan in 2007-08.

 

“I enjoyed playing a part in the development of young kids in the four clubs I was at,” he says. “I regarded it as an honour when each of them approached me to coach.”

 

‘Macca’s’ most recent sporting involvement was watching his daughters play Netball at Tarrawingee. He and Helen have four girls – Rachelle, Brooke, Kelly and Sarah.

 

He still follows the footy from a distance, but reckons they’d have  left him  for dead if he’d had to put in the work they do these days. “I just wasn’t made that way,” says ‘Big Macca’.

 

 

For more of KB Hill at the Almanac, CLICK HERE:

 

This piece was originally published at KB Hill’s blog, On Reflection.

 

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