‘Demon Robbie reflects on ’73 flag…’ by KB Hill

 

 

 

 

A winding country road…….cattle graze contentedly on lush paddocks, greened-up by recent rains…..The blissful calm is punctuated by a small, tight bunch of cyclists zooming past, kitted in form-hugging lycra…….. pushing their ageing bodies to the limit…….

 

It’s probably the determination to peel off the kilos after a period of inactivity that leads retired sportsmen to invest in the latest Road ( or Gravel ) Bike and hit the bitumen………….Maybe it’s the need to sate the competitive urge that drove their careers in bygone days…….Or, perhaps, they yearn for the companionship of old footy mates ?…………

 

Robbie Allen ticks all of the above boxes; but for him cycling is also medicinal……….

 

***

 

Robbie’s a Benalla boy, born and bred. He rose through the local Junior League to fulfill his dream…..playing a handful of games in the Reserves, then being thrust into the Demons’ senior O & M side, aged 16.

 

 

 

It was an era when all of the old premiership heroes of 1961 and ‘62 were handing over the baton to a new bunch of youngsters:

“ We had ‘Butch’ Sherwill, the Symes’s, Levy’s, big Emmie de Fazio, Chrissy Elliott and all that crew coming through under the coaching of ‘Bronco’ Johnson and John Waddington,” he says. “We were as thick as thieves……”

 

By the early seventies the Demons had the makings of a top-notch side, which had coincided with the arrival of a champion full forward, Vern Drake.

 

Drake was a larger-than-life personality. His initial project was to he comb through the District Leagues and invite all the likely kids to pre-season training. He unearthed some terrific prospects and worked them like ‘billio’.

 

“ He played hard and trained hard” says Robbie……”On Saturday nights and Sundays he’d obliterate himself. He and I used to have a hit of squash on a Monday night. He’d sweat out all the piss and not have a beer for the rest of the week……..”

 

“ ‘Drakey’ was the sort of guy you either loved or hated………A terrific fellah once you got to know him……Attracted loads of people to the Club……”

 

“He was well before his time with tactics, and implemented a running game, which suited our mosquito fleet. Our two key forwards lapped up the delivery.”

 

Benalla rose from eighth to sixth in his first year; then clinched second spot in 1971, before bombing out in straight sets.

 

But they were coming !

 

In ‘72, with Drake kicking 120 goals and centre half forward Michael Stilo chipping in with 61, they won 15 games, to again secure the double chance. Impressive on-baller Chris Elliott also enjoyed a break-out season, finishing third in the Morris Medal.

 

The Demons sensed they had ‘arrived’ when they tossed Wangaratta Rovers in a Final, but a fortnight later, with a few players under a cloud with the ‘flu, were forced to lower their colours to the Hawks ( the eventual premiers ) in a tight Prelim.

 

Robbie had, by now, made his name as a forward pocket/ flanker with a fascination for the big sticks. He’d topped the goal-kicking in three of Benalla’s late ‘60’s struggling years, but now slotted in on a wing, with occasional bursts in attack.

 

As 1973 approached, the Demons knew they had the talent to go all the way. But suddenly, they were faced with the task of replacing their dual-pronged match-winners. Drake accepted a coaching job at Tasmanian club Cooee, and the highly-promising Mick Stilo was recruited by North Melbourne.

 

“We had to find 180-odd goals from somewhere,” says Robbie.

 

“A tall kid from the Thirds called Denis Conners lined up at full forward in ‘Drakey’s’ spot. He was learning to drive trains, which meant a fair bit of shift work……He didn’t like training much, so we had to pick him up to make sure he got there….. But he did the job that year….. I think he only played for three seasons, then gave it away……..”

 

“And Bart Jacques, all 5’10” of him, proved a terrific find at centre half forward. He hailed from Echuca, and was a master at directing play. That was our style……little blokes, moving the ball quickly…..”

 

Ken Roberts, a football journeyman from the Riverina, via Tasmania, was handed the coaching job.

 

“He was just an average O & M player, Kenny, but I rated him as a good coach,” Robbie says.

 

“He really struggled to get a kick, and there was talk of dropping him when we got to the business end of the season…….Just as well we didn’t.”

 

Benalla finished on top, with 15 wins, and met North Albury in the Second Semi-Final. It proved a tense battle, made all the more enthralling by inaccurate kicking from both sides. The Hoppers’ champion full forward Stan Sargeant, who’d already booted 78 goals for the season, couldn’t find his radar, and finished with 2.11 for the game.

 

The Demons prevailed – 9.17 (71) to North’s 7.20 (62).

 

The Hoppers won the right to play in the ‘Big One’ at the Wangaratta Showgrounds by tossing the Rovers in a crowd-pleasing Preliminary.

 

The stage was set for a sensation-packed Grand Final which was to keep the crowd of 15,000 on their toes from go to whoa……………….

 

***

 

I’ll let Robbie continue the tale: “Joe Ogden ( Benalla President ) was good mates with VFL umpire Ian Coates, who was assigned to the game. He said to him beforehand: ‘Just keep an eye out because the word is North are going to go the knuckle.’ ”

 

“Sure enough, they began to use their physical strength to counter our pace, and every time they hit someone there was a free kick.”

 

“ ‘Trout’ (Billy Sammon) and ‘Smithy’ (Hopper champ Johnny Smith) didn’t like each other. A blue developed and there were a few spot fires going on…… Trout and Smithy were into it…….I’ve gone in to break it up and Smithy went ‘Bang’…..Sat me on my arse……”

 

The aftermath, of course, was that Smith – the 1973 Morris Medallist – went into the umpire’s book. His subsequent suspension, which he served the following season, cost him the ‘74 Medal.

 

That was just one incident in a gruelling encounter. During the second term, Joe Ambrose, another Medallist, caught up with tall Demon back pocket Bruce Burnell.

 

Burnell began the season as a fringe player, but developed markedly over the season, and had chalked up 11 possessions in the first quarter. He was well and truly slowed up by the burly Ambrose, sparking another series of altercations.

 

At three-quarter time Benalla held a slender lead. An inspirational, long goal mid-way through the quarter from coach Roberts, stretched their lead to 18 points. North refused to submit, and Stan Sargeant, from 70 metres out, slotted a magnificent reply.

 

In time-on, Denis Fulford snapped another for the Hoppers. But Benalla, defending desperately, were able to hang on for a dramatic seven-point win………

 

There were many heroes for the Demons; not least their inspirational ruck-rover Billy Sammon, tireless ruckman Emmie De Fazio and the classy Chris Elliott. Robbie Allen, who’d earned a reputation as a big-occasion player, again proved his worth.

 

For North, the veteran Frank Hodgkin was magnificent, securing his fourth successive ‘best player’ honour for the finals series………..

 

 

 

***

 

Robbie Allen extracted every ounce of energy from his slight frame in his 247-game career with Benalla:

“I regret wasting a couple of my younger years. I was too worried about the Sunday barrels, the Footy-trips, and sitting around drinking piss with all these heroes I’d been following since I was a kid. I was probably a better player at 16 than 20, but didn’t understand the nuances of the game,” he says.

 

He figured in another Grand Final in 1978, which has proved to be a life-long disappointment. The Demons, who had won 15 games on the trot, were hot-favourites for the clash with Wangaratta Rovers.

 

 

 

“We went the man a bit that day…….We’d got ahead of ourselves…..They ran all over us…..”

 

For the last four years of his playing career he was also coach of the Thirds. “It was full-on. I never saw my two girls.”

 

He finally hung up the boots, aged 34, had a year off, then coached the Thirds for another four years, besides serving on the Committee.

 

“After a brief break away from the game my wife said to me: ‘You need to do something. The Murray Bushrangers have put an ad in the paper. They’re looking for a Team Manager.’ “

 

“So I spent the next 16 years with the Bushies……Terrific experience……a great involvement……..”

 

***

 

There’s no doubt the 1973 flag provided Robbie with his finest football experience.

 

He says they were a group of lads who went to school together, and knocked round together: “We just enjoyed each other’s company. We’d organise to go water-skiing, for instance, and a heap of blokes and their partners would turn up……..”

 

And they maintained that unique spirit. Benalla’s Past Players Association, initiated by Mick Stilo, is driven mainly by the ‘73 group.

 

“Just to illustrate the bond is the way everyone chipped in for Chrissy Elliott. He developed early-onset Alzheimer’s/ Dementia when he was living in Hervey Bay. He started to do a few silly things up there, so we brought him back to Benalla and set him up in a house.”

 

“We used to do something with him every week and looked after him for a few years……Three of those were good….the last was terrible for him…..He’s been gone almost four years now……..”

 

***

 

Robbie started work with the C.R.B in 1970, firstly in H.R and as a Payroll clerk. He then gravitated into Road Safety and Learner-Driver Programs, working in schools. The onset of Covid prompted his decision to retire mid-way through 2020, after 50 years.

 

Following his footy retirement he thought he’d have a crack at ultra-marathon running. “The first one I attempted nearly killed me ! “ he laughs. So he decided to jump on the bike, and he’s been riding about up to 50km four to five times a week ever since ( combining this with being a mad fisherman ).

 

Roughly six years ago he started to develop a little shake in his right hand, which, after a check-up, was diagnosed as the early sign of Parkinson’s. He takes medication, and says that regular check-ups indicate the twitching has only increased by around 5 per cent.

 

His Shepparton specialist recommended cycling as one of the ideal things to help arrest Parkinson’s, as it exercises a lot of muscles.

 

Rob’s great friend, Premiership team-mate and riding partner, Robert ‘Butch’ Sherwill, asked whether he’d mind if he organised an annual event to raise awareness of Parkinson’s disease……And that’s how ‘Robbie’s Ride’, a three-day tour around the North-East, originated.

 

 

 

 

“Everybody knows I’ve got it now. I’m quite open about it. I regularly see a Neurologist in Shepparton…He’s fabulous…..He says that if you’re going to develop Parkinson’s, the model I’ve got is a good one, as the shakes are a release.”

 

“Medication, exercise, a healthy lifestyle, a positive approach and a good network of people ( in my case, old footy mates) is as good a way as any to tackle Parkinson’s………..”

 

***

 

Robbie Allen is 70, and thoroughly enjoying life. Besides riding the bike, and taking the boat on regular fishing trips to Mulwala, Eildon or Murchison, he has a small share in five racehorses, which is a great interest.

There’s still plenty of life left in the old Demon……….

 

 

 

 

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.

 

To read more of KB Hill’s great stories, click HERE.

 

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Comments

  1. Roseville Rocket says

    Another great story from the Master!

    Good to see him leave the boundaries of Wangaratta to do this piece on a Benalla superstar.

    Sometimes run into the 1973 premiership coach Ken Roberts at Swans games at the SCG…
    nice to hear Robbie Allen speak well of him.

    Now that you’re out of Wang, more on the other O & M clubs please KB!

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