‘Farewell to a Pair of Star Defenders…..’ by KB Hill

The famed hostility between the Magpies and Hawks had just reached its zenith when Bernie Killeen and Bob Atkinson made their way into Ovens and Murray football.


They were to become sterling defenders for their respective clubs.


Killeen, the high-marking , long-kicking left-footer, held down a key position spot for most of his 13 years with Wangaratta. ‘Akky’, wearing the Number 33 of his beloved Wangaratta Rovers, was a back flank specialist, uncompromising, hard-hitting and renowned for his clearing dashes upfield.


Both passed away in the past week or so, after lengthy illnesses.




Bernie Killeen returned home from St.Patrick’s College Sale in 1956 and walked straight into the Wangaratta side. He was just 17.


Dame Fortune shone upon him as the Magpies were in the throes of developing a powerful line-up. His form was solid enough to hold his spot in the side and bask in the glory of the ‘57 Grand Final, alongside such experienced team-mates as coach Jack McDonald, Bill Comensoli, Graeme Woods and the veteran ‘Hop’ McCormick.


It was an unforgettable day for Killeen, who was named on a half-forward flank. Wangaratta came from the clouds, thanks to a last-minute goal from champion rover Lance Oswald, to overcome Albury by two points.



Bernie Killeen, pictured left, middle row. Rex Allen and ‘Rinso’ Johnstone are alongside him.



This early taste of success would have given Bernie an inkling that that it was to be a forerunner of things to come.


Fate intervened. Four years later, a debilitating knee injury struck him down. He spent most of 1961 on the sidelines, and could only watch on as the ‘Pies scored a huge win over Benalla in the Grand Final.


Killeen fully recovered, and reached his peak in 1963 when he was rated among the finest centre half-backs in the competition. He took out Wangaratta’s Best & Fairest Award and the Chronicle Trophy, and represented the O & M against South-West League.


Perhaps his most memorable performance came in the 1964 Second Semi-Final when he was like the Rock of Gibralter in the key defence position, pulling down 19 towering marks against the Rovers. It was a bad-tempered match, with the ‘Pies pulling off an upset, to march into the Grand Final.





A fortnight later, when the teams again tangled, Killeen found himself matched up at the opening bounce by Hawk coach Ken Boyd whose intent was to niggle and put the star off his game.


Boyd later moved into defence but, as the match progressed, Bernie found himself continually out of the play. The Rovers’ strategy was obviously to prevent him from ‘cutting them off at the pass’ as he’d done so effectively in the Semi.


Wang fell short by 23 points – the first of three successive heart-breaking Grand Final losses.


Bernie Killeen was a model of consistency over 13 seasons and 226 senior games with Wangaratta. He was installed as a Life Member of the ‘Pies in 1966.




As an angry, milling group of players swapped punches in the second quarter of the 1972 Ovens and Murray Grand Final, one of the central figures in the melee slumped to the turf.


His face was splattered in blood……. He tried in vain to resist the efforts of trainers who were trying to escort him off the ground….. Eventually, sanity prevailed.



It was always going to be Bob Atkinson’s last game in Brown and Gold. But it wasn’t supposed to finish so abruptly ! At least, when he’d gathered his equilibrium after the game, his team-mates consoled him with the news that he’d added a sixth premiership to his collection.




‘Akky’ arrived at the City Oval in 1959 – a product of the South Wanderers. If there seemed to be a touch of maturity about the swarthy apprentice motor mechanic, it was understandable. During the last of his four years with the Junior League Club he’d already announced his engagement to Fran, his future wife.


Young footballers of the modern era wouldn’t be so accepting of the patience that he displayed as it took the best part of five years before he was able to nail down a permanent senior spot.


Maybe it was the proliferation of talent at the Club that saw the youngster deprived of opportunities…… Bob Rose may possibly have felt that he’d developed bad habits that needed rectifying…….like continually trying to dodge and weave around opponents.


Whatever the reason, Rose was unable to tailor a suitable role for him.


After making his senior debut in 1960, he’d played 49 Reserves and just 26 Senior games.


His rejuvenation came in 1963 when Ken Boyd inherited a side bereft of many of its stars. His challenge to the younger guys was to place their stamp on the Club. In ‘Akky’ he found a player who relished responsibility and jumped at the opportunity of shutting down dangerous opposition forwards.



‘Boydie’ also admired his aggressiveness and spirit. He urged him to attack the ball……..”And if anyone happens to get in your road, just bowl ‘em over,” he said. The re-born back flanker didn’t need too much convincing and responded by finishing runner-up to Neville Hogan in the B & F.


This ‘Vigilante’ of the backline had some handy sidekicks in ‘Bugs’ Kelly, Lennie Greskie and Norm Bussell who were all football desperadoes.


The Rovers won 15 games straight in 1964 before hitting a road-block. They dropped the next four matches and were seemingly on the road to nowhere. That they were able to recover and take out the flag was a tribute to Boyd and to the character of his players.


They repeated the dose in 1965, again taking down Wangaratta in a tense encounter. The fierce opening of the Grand Final was highlighted by an all-in brawl which saw a few Magpies nursing tender spots. Twice in the dying stages Wang had chances to win the game but they fell short by three points.


The Hawks remained there or thereabouts for the next three years, including contesting the 1967 Grand Final.


But Bob had an itch to coach, and when lowly King Valley came knocking in 1969, he accepted their offer. The Valley had finished last, with just two wins, the previous season. They’d never won a flag.


Akky’s arrival coincided with the construction of the Lake William Hovell Project. Several handy recruits landed on their doorstep almost overnight.


It enabled them to sneak into the finals in his first year. But 1970 was to provide Valley supporters with their finest hour.


After thrashing Milawa in the final round, they went to the top of the ladder but their confidence was eroded when the Demons turned the tables in the Second Semi.


The Valley made no mistake in the Grand Final. It’s handy when you have a full-forward like Ray Hooper who boots 11 of your 14 goals. Hooper, a burly left-footer, was a star, as was his fellow Dam worker Tony Crapper.


‘Akky’ was inspirational and, with the scent of a premiership in his nostrils, drove his players in the last half. His old Rovers team-mate Barry Sullivan also held sway in the ruck as King Valley stormed to a 34-point victory.




Bob returned ‘home’ to the Rovers and lent his experience to a youthful side under the coaching of Neville Hogan. The following year he was appointed vice-captain.



“It was probably the best thing that happened for his footy at that stage of his career as he got fully involved,” recalls Hogan. “The discipline he showed provided a great example to our young players.”


One of those was Terry Bartel, a fellow car-salesman at West City Autos. ‘Akky’ once recounted the story about Bartel telling him he couldn’t be bothered driving to Yerong Creek to represent the Ovens & Murray in an Inter-League game:

“I’m probably going to be sitting in a forward pocket all day. I don’t reckon the other pricks will give me a run on the ball,” said Bartel.

“You never let anyone down. Jump in that car and get up there,” I told him. “I’d give my left Knacker to play in one of those games. You don’t know how lucky you are.”

“And, you know, the little bastard’s gone up and kicked 9 goals……..”


Bob capped a fine 1971 season by finishing fifth in the B & F and playing a key role in the Rovers’ 19-point premiership victory over Yarrawonga. He’d lost none of his venom and, at a critical part of the game, upended Pigeon ruckman, the formidable Jimmy Forsyth.


‘Akky’ lived ‘by the sword’. He knew that retribution might come one day and when big Jim flattened him twelve months later in his swansong game, the 1972 Grand Final, he accepted that as part of footy.



After such a hesitant start, he’d made a huge impression at the Rovers. He’d played 175 senior games, figured in four senior and one Reserves flag, was a Life Member, and had earned a reputation as one of its finest-ever defenders.


He succumbed to the temptation of coming out of retirement two years later when he played several games with Tarrawingee.


Finally, though, ‘Akky’ decided it was time to pull the pin.




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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