Local boy fires in Croweater country by KB Hill

When I first spotted Luke Norman, he was performing acrobatics behind the wicket.

 

As an up-and-coming ‘keeper in Wangaratta, he had a bullet beside his name. The experts predicted that he was undoubtedly destined for higher honours.

 

He possessed all the attributes of a top gloveman – agility, an eye like a dead fish, clean hands – and an abundance of confidence. Medium-pacers who had the knack of troubling the batsman by way of swing and guile had an ally in Luke. He took them up on the stumps – and would have the bails off in a jiffy.

 

Like so many of his era, though, he drifted away from cricket – seduced by his first sporting love.

 

He was born to be a Magpie. An uncle, Basil Schubert, patrolled the wing in their 1961 Premiership team. His dad Tom was a tough-as-nails back flanker who played 150-odd games in some fine Wangaratta sides of the ’60s, including three losing Grand Finals.

 

It would have been four, only for Tommy, in a moment of madness, smacking Rovers hard-man Ken Boyd during a frenzied third quarter of the 1966 Preliminary Final.

 

There was an element of Tom’s toughness, and well-muscled physique, about Luke when he first arrived on the scene.

 

He’d played his junior football with Tigers, and graduated to the Magpies’ Thirds, providing a glimpse of his promise during an outstanding 1989 season. But he probably still reflects, with bewilderment, on what transpired at Morris Medal night that year .

 

Luke was one of six players who had finished equal top in the voting for the Thirds’ Award. The O & M opted for a count-back to decide the winner, and the young Pie was declared the Leo Dean Medallist.

 

Acting on advice from Wodonga Raiders the following day, League officials re-checked the team sheets and found that votes in one game had been allocated to the wrong players. Philip Partington, of the Raiders was handed three extra votes, to move him one vote ahead of the unfortunate Norman.

 

But that was a mere hiccup. He had debuted with the seniors that year, and was regarded as a star of the future. His first senior coach, Ray Card, saw his rapid improvement from one season to the next.

 

“All of a sudden, he developed from promising, to a player with the X-Factor about him… Strong overhead, rather impetuous, dynamic and adept on both sides of his body… I could see he had the potential to be a star,” Card recalls.

 

Norman was part of a Wangaratta side which scraped into the finals in 1993. Pumped up by hot-gospeller Brian Walsh, they comfortably accounted for Corowa-Rutherglen in the Elimination Final, then survived a thrilling First Semi against Yarrawonga.

 

“Walshy had us really convinced we were on the march to the flag,” Luke recalls. “It should have been a Rovers-Wang Grand Final. We had most of the play in the last quarter of the Preliminary Final against Wodonga, but couldn’t put them away. Jon Henry had a shot for goal with the last kick of the game, but it went out on the full. Wodonga had held on to beat us by four points.”

 

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A mate of Walsh’s put Melbourne in touch with Norman. They added him to their Supplementary List, and in 1994 he played 15 games with their Reserves, interspersed with occasional appearances back with Wangaratta.

 

The Demons had liked the look of him, and decided to give the bullocking utility his opportunity. Selected at pick 68 in the National Draft later that year, Luke Norman’s prayers had been answered.

 

He made 16 AFL appearances over the next two seasons. “I certainly wasn’t a standout,” he says. “I played some handy games, I suppose, and it was an enormous experience, but there were too many of my type of player on the list.”

 

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The highlight, in Luke’s opinion, was his final game – the so-called ‘Merger-clash’ between Hawthorn and Melbourne. “It was billed as a dress-rehearsal for the ill-conceived marriage of the two clubs, and there was a fair bit of hype surrounding it. Hawthorn got up in the dying stages, to beat us by a point, in front of 60-odd thousand.”

 

Flicked by Melbourne at season’s end, he was enticed over to Adelaide by a team-mate, Clay Sampson, who was heading back home, to play with the Crows.

 

Luke signed with Sampson’s SANFL club, South Adelaide, and played 38 games with the Panthers. Standing 6’0 and weighing a touch over 13 stone, he proved adaptable, and well-suited to the South Australian game.

 

Then came the call of home. Wangaratta had fallen on hard times, winning just the one game in two seasons. They pleaded with one of their favourite sons to help extricate them from the mire.

 

He gave them good value. Now nearing his 30s, Norman probably played his best footy in the black and white guernsey. A far more-rounded player, explosive, and difficult to contain, he was Best and Fairest in 2000 and ‘01, represented the Ovens and Murray League five times and won VCFL selection. And in 2001, he finished fourth, behind Robbie Walker, in the Morris Medal.

 

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But unfortunately, in his three years back at the Norm Minns Oval, the Pies remained entrenched on the bottom of the ladder; seemingly eons away from the glory that was to await them seven years later.

 

After chalking up 140 games with Wang, he and his now-wife Mardi (a South Australian) decided to head back across the border. A good mate, Ian Borchard, had taken on the West Adelaide coaching job, and was keen for Luke to join him.

 

It proved an handy decision. Borchard was succeeded by Sean Rehn in 2003, and Norman, now in the veteran stage, hit it off well with the big ex-Crow.

 

“He introduced an AFL touch to his coaching, and the players loved him. Opportunities were provided to a few young kids like Adam Cooney, Sean Tuck and Beau Waters. There were 11 players drafted from his three years as coach. We improved to the extent that we were a genuine challenger for the flag,” he says.

 

‘Westies’ nipped at the heels of the dominant Central District in the Second Semi, before going down by 18 points. Having earned the right to have another crack at them in the Grand Final, they weren’t quite strong enough. Districts controlled most of the game, to win the flag by 34 points.

 

Rehn appointed Norman captain in 2004, and he responded with a fine season, taking out the club Best and Fairest and Best Team Player awards.

 

He was again voted the Best Team Player the following year, but at the age of 34, knew that the end was nigh.

 

He retired at season’s end, after 67 games with Wests and a total 105 SANFL games under his belt. Sean Rehn, in farewelling him, said that : “……Norman was a player who extracted 100% effort from himself every time he played. As captain of West Adelaide, he typified the best qualities in a footballer and a person.”

 

Luke took on a role as Assistant and Forwards coach at Woodville-West Torrens in 2006. The SANFL colossus of the 2000s that was Central District were chasing their fourth straight flag. But WWT dismantled them by 76 points in a boil-over of a Grand Final, that shocked the large crowd.

 

Rick McGowan, who had been a fellow assistant at Torrens, was appointed coach of Sturt in 2007, and snaffled Luke as Reserves and Assistant-Coach of the Two Blues.

 

Then, when McGowan was lured to Hawthorn in 2009, Sturt opted for Norman as senior coach.

 

“There are only nine people who can coach League footy in South Australia, so it was a privilege, and a great opportunity,” he says.

 

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He took Sturt to the Grand Final in his first year, with a young, talented side, but found Central District too strong. It was Centrals’ eighth SANFL flag in 10 years.

 

“We reached the finals again in 2010, despite missing a bunch of kids who’d been drafted. Then we had to deal with the loss of 18 players at the end of the year. It put a hell of a hole in the list, and in 2011, I played 24 first-gamers. We finished equal-bottom.”

 

“I’d been busy recruiting for six or seven weeks when I was called in early in November and told I was being replaced. There was still a year to go on my contract.”

 

“But that’s footy. I was a bit hurt, but pretty philosophical about it. Coaches come and go… and the club’s bigger than the individual.”

 

“It gives me a bit of satisfaction that Sturt have won the last two premierships with many of those 24 kids we introduced in 2011 playing an influential role.”

 

“I loved coaching. It’s an emotional roller-coaster. There are a lot of negatives, of course, like telling a player he’s been dropped… But I enjoyed playing my part in educating kids about footy… and life.”

 

Luke stayed in touch with coaching during another two-year stint as Midfield Coach at Woodville-West Torrens in 2014-15, before moving over to Glenelg as assistant and forward coach last year.

 

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He’s been running his own business – Norman Family Transports – since he retired from footy. It involves plenty of interstate travel and long hours, and Luke and Mardi have been contemplating re-locating back to Wangaratta with the kids – son Carter and the girls, Tommi and Milla.

 

The ‘welcome mat’ would certainly be rolled out for this local boy made good.

 

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This piece first appeared on KB Hill’s “On Reflection” blog.

 

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Comments

  1. Thanks KB Hill. As a South Australian I’d certainly heard of Luke and appreciated reading more of his story. He’s clearly happy to take on new challenges and move about. An admirable trait.

    You mention the pull of cricketers to footy. Crow Alex Keath is one, but Alex Carey has gone the other way with success, and I reckon could become our national keeper across all forms.

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