Oak Park Football Club – dreams on offer

J.P Fawkner Reserve spreads itself out at the bottom of Francis Street.  Home for two football grounds and a tennis centre, the reserve is bordered by Moonee Ponds Creek and the steep streets of Oak Park.

 

The suburb of Oak Park sits on land acquired by John Pascoe Fawkner in 1839.  Fawkner was born in England in 1792.  He came to Australia aged 10 with his convict father, eventually settling in Tasmania where he found trouble as a convict sympathiser.

 

He moved to Melbourne in 1835, becoming a businessman and politician.  He lived in Collingwood and despite being married, died childless in 1869.

 

His piece of land, eleven kilometres north of Melbourne, went undeveloped until his estate was auctioned in the 1950s.  Developers split the land, quarter acre blocks for housing and large slabs of land for industry and commercial purposes.  The first houses went up around 1955.

 

My father Bill grew up in Oak Park in a house built by his father.  For a long time it was the only house on the street.  Open land went all the way down to Moonee Ponds Creek.

 

About 30 years later when I was born, Oak Park was suburbia.  Oak Park Primary School was a minute walk up Willett Avenue.  Oak Park High School was ten minutes away, across the railway tracks.  J.P Fawkner Reserve was five minutes away by bike.

 

Oak Park could have been called Hill Park.  The suburb was filled with long ascents and steep descents.  Riding around Oak Park required stamina and a reasonable bike.

 

In 1977, I made my debut for Oak Park at J.P Fawkner Reserve.  I was six.  I’d watched VFL footy on television but didn’t have a team.

 

My life changed when I was handed the jumper in the rooms before the game.  Oak Park played in North Melbourne jumpers.  I’d watched North on television.  By the time I pulled on the jumper I was a North Melbourne supporter.

 

I remember getting two kicks in my first year and crying because another was smothered.  I probably had two kicks in my second year.  One of those kicks was the winning point in a close game.  I dreamed of playing like Phil Baker, Malcolm Blight and David Dench.

 

I wanted to be the best.  I trained hard, developing my skills and learning how to kick on my left foot.  I could get the ball at training and in school footy.  If only I could get the ball during a game…

 

Oak Park Football Club was formed in 1957 as more houses went up around the district.  The origins were meek, just one junior club playing Under 15s.  By 1960, a B-grade senior team entered the Essendon District Football League (EDFL). The junior teams joined the EDFL in 1962.

 

The club was zoned to North Melbourne.

 

In 1964, when a senior (open age) reserves team was formed, Peter Davison became Oak Park’s first player to be recruited by North Melbourne.

 

Dreams were coming true at J.P Fawkner Reserve.

 

Davison wore 39 on his back.  He was 19-years-old and stood 180cm tall, weighing 76kg.  His career was brief, four games in 1964.

 

In 1967, 20-year-old Wally Buhaj went from Oak Park to Essendon.  Buhaj was a rover, 174cm tall and 70kg.  In his first season he wore number 53 before moving up to number 2.  He played 15 games across three seasons and kicked three goals.

 

Stan Mitchell was 19 when he went to North Melbourne in 1971.  Midfield height and weight at 180cm and 75kg, Mitchell played five games in his debut season with 49 on his back.  The Kangaroos finished ninth.  In 1972, he wore 35 and played 13 games, all of them losses.

 

North finished last.  Mitchell, despite having what appears to be a good season, was finished too.  His career consisted of 18 games for just one win.

 

Ron Montgomery was given number 28 when he went to North in 1972.  He was 19-years-old, a key position player at 188cm and 90kg.  He played one game, gathering two kicks, one mark and one handpass in a loss to Footscray in round 14.

 

By 1974, North Melbourne was building a premiership list under Ron Barassi.  Despite being zoned to North, they let Alan Mangels go to Carlton.

 

Mangels was a rover, 179cm and 83kg.  He played a part in the beginning of Carlton’s golden era, debuting in number 10 in 1974.  Back then the Blues had a horde of rovers.  Still, Mangels played 88 games for Carlton, including finals in 1975 and 1976.

 

He crossed to Geelong in 1981 and retired in 1983, having kicked 31 goals in 101 games.  That same year, Oak Park won its first senior premiership in B-Grade.

 

North Melbourne’s era of success in the seventies might’ve been better if they’d been able to recruit Wayne Harmes.

 

Harmes stood 177cm tall and weighed 85kg.  He was stocky, powerful, smart, strong overhead and capable of the mercurial.  He became a triple premiership player with Carlton.

 

Although Harmes played for Oak Park, he lived on the wrong side of the railway tracks, in Carlton’s zone.

 

A utility, Harmes played on the ball, in defence or deep forward.  He was 17 on debut for Carlton in 1977, wearing number 54 before switching to 37 the following season.

 

He was 19-years-old when he won the inaugural Norm Smith medal in 1979.  Harmes was solid in Carlton’s 1981-82 premierships.  He retired at 28, having played 169 games and kicking 86 goals.

 

Sometime after the 1979 grand final, I found out Harmes had played for Oak Park.  I couldn’t believe a kid who sat in the same clubrooms and played on the same oval had made it to the VFL.

 

Bill told me I could too, if I went and got the ball.

 

That seemed too hard.  I didn’t have the mettle for football and retired at the end of 1982 to become an umpire.

 

My dream of playing for North Melbourne had died at J.P Fawkner Reserve.  It didn’t stop me from going there.

 

I’d tell my parents I was going for a ride.  That meant anything.  It meant I could go where I wanted.  The only limitation was time.

 

Occasionally, if I didn’t go to football to watch North, I’d ride to Oak Park and watch the seniors play.

 

It was an unrestrained era.  Home games were a community event.  Hundreds of people.  Cars lining a sparsely grassed oval.  Men drinking.  People screaming.  Swearing, what are you fucking doing, why the fuck aren’t you playing, get outta my fucking way, no fucking bikes on the field.

 

Players smoked in the rooms.  Supporters smoked in the rooms.

 

Home games attracted dozens of unsupervised kids.  It was like a carnival.  Kids everywhere, waiting for breaks between quarters to kick their footballs or listen to the coach’s address.

 

Kids from school were there.  I knew some of the players.  George, who lived across the road, was there.  Men and boys were introduced to future girlfriends.  The old bloke who ran chalk around the boundary was in the crowd, wearing the same blue overalls.

 

It was intimidating noise and excitement.  The players and supporters were scary. Young men in old cars and old men in old cars.  People watched Oak Park play while sitting on their bonnet.  Others listened to the VFL on transistor radios or in their car.  The umpires were hated, the abuse foul, the football brutal.

 

It was mud and blood.  Occasionally I worked the scoreboard.  Other days I sat on my bike and watched, or kicked a footy with my mates.  Before the game we’d crowd into the rooms and listen to the coach roar.  One day at half time, the coach was angry at the lack of effort.  He kicked the footy across the room and it slammed into my legs.

 

I didn’t flinch.  No one laughed.

 

The coach rambled on as the football rolled to a stop.

 

In 2002, Oak Park won their first A-Grade premiership.  By then the club had sent other players to the VFL/AFL.

 

I went to school with Jason Harrington and played junior footy with him.  He lived a few streets away.  Jason was a friendly kid who loved a laugh.  He was a good footballer.

 

His brother, Tim, debuted for North Melbourne in 1984, wearing number 35.  Tim played full back, but was relatively small for a key position at 188cm and 84kg.

 

After eight games in 1984, North elevated him to number 23, which had been worn with distinction by David Dench.  Harrington was a booming kick, but North traded him to Collingwood in 1987.  By 1988, he was at Footscray where he spent two seasons before retiring.

 

Harrington played 46 games and kicked two goals.  In 1992 he returned to Footscray as assistant coach before assuming the same role at North from 1995 until 2001.  He became North’s list manager in 2007 then crossed to Melbourne in the same capacity for four years.

 

Harrington was six years older than me.  I don’t remember him playing for Oak Park.  I only met him once in those years, when I walked past him in the street.

 

‘Are you Tim Harrington who plays for North Melbourne?’

 

‘Maybe,’ he said, smiling.

 

I also don’t recall Peter German playing for Oak Park.

 

German made his debut for North in 1984 wearing number 53.  A solid midfielder, 182cm and 84kg, he could run all day.  In 1985 he was in number 29.  Skilful on both sides, German accumulated possessions, regularly getting 30 or more.

 

He was tough, hard, dependable and fair.  When he played well, North seemed to win.

 

German retired at 29 in 1994.  He played 185 games and kicked 201 goals.  Two years later North Melbourne won the premiership.  I thought it was a shame he wasn’t part of it.

 

Fijian-born David Rodan played junior football with Oak Park.  In 2002 he debuted for Richmond, an 18-year-old wearing number 18.  He was short, 173cm, but at 87kg was strong, powerful and clever.

 

A ferocious tackler with speed, Rodan applied pressure in the forward line.  In 2005, he suffered a serious knee injury.

 

The following year Richmond traded him to Port Adelaide where he spent six years, playing in the 2007 grand final.  In December 2009, Rodan blew out his knee again.

 

He went to Melbourne in 2013 and retired at the end of the year, having played 185 games and kicking 131 goals.

 

In 2003, Matthew Egan played five games with Oak Park.  His form ensured an offer from Geelong to do pre-season training.  The Cats drafted Egan with their last pick in the 2004 draft.

 

Egan stood 196cm and weighed 101kg.  He wore number 19 and won Geelong’s best first year player award in 2005.  In 2007 he broke the navicular bone in his foot in the last round.  Later in the year he was named at centre-half-back in the All-Australian team.

 

Egan’s injury required surgery.  His foot didn’t respond.  Comebacks were aborted.  By 2009, he was lost to football.

 

Had Egan remained injury free, he would probably be a three-time premiership player.

 

In 2010, Jake Melksham made his debut for Essendon.  Melksham played junior footy for Oak Park.

 

I went to school with his father, David Melksham.  I also played footy at Oak Park with him.  A year older than me, David was solid, tough and hard.  He was also a gifted cricketer too.

 

I last saw him in 1987.  Twenty-three years later, while watching Jake debut for Essendon, the resemblance was unmistakable.  Jake had the same attack on the footy, the same intent in his eyes.

 

Jake is fast, skilful and courageous.  He’s played 108 games and kicked 55 goals.

 

Watching Jake reminded me of the day I first pulled on Oak Park’s jumper.  The shock of wearing a jumper I’d seen on television ignited a love for North Melbourne I’ll keep forever.

 

In that instant, when I covered my skinny body with blue and white wool, I was overcome by certainty.  I was playing for North Melbourne, it didn’t matter it was by jumper only.  It doesn’t matter anymore that junior football was the closest I got.

 

A few months ago I was in Melbourne.  I went to Oak Park and bought fish and chips from Winifred Street, the same shop I frequented more than 30 years ago.

 

J.P Fawkner Reserve is less than a minute away.  I went there and ate the grease.  The club was locked up, the ground vacant.  I admired the renovation, new brick clubrooms with a small function centre.

 

I walked onto the oval, standing in those same spots where I actually got a kick.  Wandered down to the goals, remembering the day I couldn’t make the distance from the top of the goal square.

 

I went to the nets where I trained for the cricket team in summer and stepped out my run-up.  I went back to the goal square, thinking about the day I was named at fullback for the first and last time in junior footy.

 

I went to the centre and pondered those old dreams, of wishing I could play like Phil Baker.  I looked at stop marks in the turf then wandered back to the clubhouse, shaking my head at the memory of a day in the seventies when a mate and I talked about Star Wars for the whole game.

 

Neither of us got a kick.

 

I wandered off the ground.  The dream Oak Park Football Club offered me was on my mind.  I made the best of it.  So many kids I played with at Oak Park had the same dreams.  It doesn’t matter that none of us made it.

 

I stopped at the clubrooms and peered through the windows, hoping all the kids who wear Oak Park’s jumper for the first time believed, like I did, that they’d make it to the AFL.

 

 

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…

Comments

  1. Hi Matt Thanks for the recollections. Did you ever come across someone called Darren Pennay? He loved Oak Park and North Melbourne too and was good friends with Peter German. I worked with him at the ABS years ago. Sounds like Oak Park punching above their weight with all those players.

    cheers

    Noel

  2. Noel,
    I don’t remember Darren.
    Peter German was five years older than me, and he didn’t go to Oak Park primary or high schools.
    Oak Park have done well.
    A lot of suburban clubs would have similar history.
    Just shows how tough it is to make the grade, when you think about all those kids who come through the ranks.
    Cheers

  3. Warwick Nolan says:

    Enjoyed your piece enormously Matt. Great club both football and cricket as I recall.

    I remember a Murray Pennay fairly distinctly. Played a seconds Grand Final against him early 80s I would think. Stumbled into him the night before the big game at a restaurant. He was very polite, came across and wished me well. He also promised that if I showed up tomorrow I would be going home in the back of an ambulance! He was wrong of course but I didn’t get near too many contested possessions that day. Parkers won in a canter.

  4. Great Read mate. My Dad and I both played a lot of EDFL footy. Can you remember the name of a one of the reserves coaches at Oak Park. Mid 90’s. His Dad was a police officer that ended up in a wheelchair. I think he had a sister Penny.
    My Dad and I were trying to remember his name.
    I think the family were from Gladstone Park

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