Local Footy: Former AFL stars make impression in Bendigo league

By Richard Jones

THERE’S plenty of stories about former Bendigo and central Victorian footballers who’ve made the transition from local comps to the AFL.

For example the four Selwoods, Nick Dal Santo, Greg ‘Diesel’ Williams, Geoff Southby, Rod Ashman, Jimmy Buckley, Peter McConville and Trevor Keogh all made the trip down the highway to the VFL/AFL.

And that’s less than 12 of the dozens and dozens who have made the transition.

Some, like three of the Selwood boys, have played interstate.

But what about those who made the reverse journey, up the Calder Highway to central Victoria? Here’s a few of them and their tales.

Ray Byrne (South Bendigo, Golden Square): after 219 games with Carlton, Collingwood and Geelong (including no less than 22 finals) Ray signed with South Bendigo as assistant coach.

This was in 1987. He desperately wanted to play at least one season at the same club as twin brother, Phil.

Home ties called, though, so after 17 games in the red and white Ray returned to the club of his formative years, Golden Square.

It was a sound decision. The Wade Street Bulldogs ended Northern United’s run of four, consecutive BFL premierships with a 14-point grand final win over the Swallows in 1988.

Ray celebrated another premiership with Golden Square in 1989 as the Dogs beat South Bendigo, coached for the first time by former Essendon and Collingwood man, Peter Bradbury.

Administrative positions were next in line for Ray as he served the Gippsland Power in the TAC Cup for a decade before heading home to the Bendigo Pioneers. He’s been the Pioneers’ general manager since 2001.

Mick McGuane (Gisborne): the free-running Collingwood midfielder made his mark at Gisborne’s Gardiner Reserve, coaching Gisborne to the 2002 and 2003 BFL premierships.

A powerhouse in the Riddell League, the Gardiner Reserve Dogs had entered the BFL only in 2000. After a reasonable couple of debut seasons, McGuane stepped up the resolve and dedication of his charges.

Their home ground was such a formidable fortress for opposing clubs to breach it became known during 2004 as ‘the Graveyard’.

Gisborne amassed long winning streaks against most clubs, even longtime BFL success stories such as Eaglehawk.

McGuane assembled a super senior list and with players such as eventual Michelsen medalists Simon Elsum, Matt Fitzgerald (two) and Luke Saunders Gisborne became the league’s pace-setters.

The only blemish for McGuane came in 2004. The Dogs went down to Sandhurst in a crackerjack grand final.

Peter Foster (Kyneton): tough and fearless in 170 AFL games, 163 of them as Footscray’s centre half-back, Foster found the coaching caper more demanding in the BFL than in the Ovens and Murray.

Still, he had a pretty good list at the Kyneton Showgrounds in 2003 and the Tigers were in finals contention going into rounds 17 and 18.

Kyneton accounted for Eaglehawk at Canterbury Park –- 17.16 to 13.17 — and in the last home and away round, played in teeming rain, beat Castlemaine by two straight kicks: 9.15 to 8.9.

An elimination final berth awaited Foster and his fourth-placed troops (9 wins, 7 losses). Ex-West Coast Eagles midfielder Michael O’Brien was the Tiger ‘general’ but the Tigers succumbed to a wasteful Sandhurst by 29 points in the knockout final: 10.11 (71) to 13.22 (100).

Fossie was always good value on our regular Saturday morning radio preview shows. Not fussed about political correctness, he could be relied upon to provide a few memorable lines.

John Rombotis (Kangaroo Flat): the ex-Fitzroy, Port Adelaide and Richmond flanker didn’t arrive at Dower Park until mid-summer 2007.

As Roo senior coach he brought with him as assistant coach Marty Warry, who had kicked Fitzroy’s final goal in the AFL, and former Richmond and Essendon bad boy Ty Zantuck.

While Warry and Zantuck snagged a few goals in an ordinary season for the Roos, Rombotis was frequently sidelined through injury.

The Green and Whites couldn’t muster a win for the 2007 season, finishing 10th and in the BFL cellar: 12 premiership points behind 9th-placed Kyneton and 20 premiership points behind North Ballarat City.

However, in round 17 that year I saw the Green and Whites have their best quarter of the season. With Zanutuck slotting two of his five goals for the day and Warry nailing three of his four the Roos added 7.1 in the second term against Sandhurst.

A bit of a reluctant interviewee for the obligatory post-match coach’s comments, Rombotis was quite animated that late August afternoon.

Shane Robertson (Castlemaine): an uncompromising defender with Carlton during 80 AFL matches including the 1987 premiership year, Robbo brought a hard-nosed approach to the Maine.

The Camp Reserve Pies played off with Maryborough in the 1999 grand final. They made amends for eventual second place that day by snatching the 2000 flag by two, straight kicks from Kangaroo Flat.

New Castlemaine patron Eddie McGuire was delighted. Never mind the Roos’ appalling third quarter return of 2.11, Robertson had taken his side from a Round 1 loss to the Flat to 18 straight wins, including finals: a remarkable achievement at major league level.

But then, despite Robbo’s best efforts, the club settled back into the pack in 2001 and 2002, finishing sixth in both seasons. He was gone as Castlemaine coach by August, 2002 and headed off to the Central Highlands Football League.

Damian Drum (BFL chairman): after his 63 games with Geelong (1982-89) and 57 as Fremantle coach (1999-2001), Drummie also coached VFL side Bendigo Diggers for one season.

By now the National Party’s MLC for the northern Victoria region, he succeeded Central Goldfields Shire CEO Mark Johnston as BFL chairman in the mid-2000s. He’s been at the helm ever since.

Last December Drum presided over the BFL a.g.m., announcing the league had a $102,604 surplus, with the 10 affiliated clubs all to receive an increased dividend.

And in 2009 Drum’s board welcomed new club the Strathfieldsaye Storm into the league as well as staring down a third, concerted attempt by Ballarat to ‘poach’ Gisborne Football and Netball Club.

Additionally, Drum confirmed the Bendigo F.L. would form part of an integrated working party chaired by former Essendon CEO Peter Jackson and including representatives of the Bendigo Bombers, Bendigo and Adelaide Bank and the City of Greater Bendigo investigating the future viability of showpiece ground — the Queen Elizabeth Oval.

Still to come: ‘Fabulous’ Phil Carman (Kangaroo Flat), Peter Bradbury (South Bendigo), Vinnie ‘The Cat’ Catoggio (Northern United), Andrew Wills (Eaglehawk), Jamie Bond (Maryborough) and Peter Curran (South Bendigo).


  1. John Butler says

    You have to watch out for us Ballarat folk!

    Mind you, Gisborne is a fair hike from Bendigo.

    I look forward to the next instalment Richard.

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