‘Pressure brought out the best in this sporting star of the Seventies…’ by KB Hill

Paul O’Brien savours life as a part-time farmer these days……Domiciled at Reserve Road, Greta, he makes the occasional foray into town ……It’s a far cry from the heights of his professional career, when he was a globe-trotting financial controller with technology giant I.B.M.

Even when things were at their most hectic, Paul ensured that he found time for sport……He was a star of the seventies……. A robust footballer who could be thrust into multiple roles…..and a brutal left-hand batsman capable of savaging an attack…….


The legacy of the O’Briens, Tanners and Delaneys of Greta can be likened to that of the Lappins and Peakes of Chiltern, the Johnstones of Moyhu and the Allans of Milawa…….large sporting clans who served their villages with distinction…..

Yet the O’Brien name first came under notice at Moyhu, when four of their members (Maurie, Larry, Bill and Jack) , along with seven Johnstones (Terry, Jim, ‘Spot’, ‘Poss’, ‘Skin’, Jack and Eric) helped an all-conquering side take out the 1929 O & K premiership, then defeat O & M side Benalla in a post-season Challenge Match.

“There were 14 in Dad’s family and 11 on mum’s side, so they were good breeders…. It was inevitable, I suppose, that I’d have seven siblings,” Paul says.

Bill (Snr) and Rita had settled on a farm which was just 500m from the Greta Recreation Reserve……Sport was an integral part of the kids’ growing-up years….

“We’d all head over to training most nights during footy season…….In summer we’d mow a cricket pitch in the front paddock and play ding-dong games……Crikey, they’d get serious; it was full-on….”

“Tennis was also a big deal…….I think there were 12 teams in the Glenrowan & District comp at that stage, which included 2 from Hansonville, 2 from Greta, 2 from Greta South and 2 from Greta West……Those courts are rarely used now…..”

When the boys were old enough they fulfilled their dream of wearing the Purple and Gold Greta guernsey ……Bill finished with 317 senior games, Greg (‘Ab’) chalked up 98, Paul 143, Francis 209 and Gerard, who was only a lad when he copped a split kidney which cut short his career, tallied 45.


 The O’Brien boys at a Greta Re-Union: Bill, Greg (‘Ab), Paul, Francis and Gerard.


“Carmel and Patricia played in some of those good Greta Netball sides, whilst Mary was the exception…..She wasn’t really sports-minded……became a Nurse and travelled the world……”


But education was a priority in old Bill O’Brien’s eyes. He reckoned the boys would knuckle down to their studies if they went into town to board at Champagnat College.


Paul O’Brien in action


It suited Paul okay……One of the side benefits was that he played in three successive Junior League flags with College………But the regimented boarding life wasn’t down ‘Ab’s’ alley…..He finished his schooling at the Wang.Tech…..

His older brother Billy had already played in two flags for Greta ( during the ‘Bumper’ Farrell era) by the time Paul saddled up alongside him. He was doing a Bachelor of Business Studies/Accounting at Uni, and travelled home to play in 1973……

The following year he walked straight into a strong Wangaratta Rovers side, starting off in a back pocket before migrating to the back flank, the mid-field, and playing on-ball.

“I was dead lucky to be at the Rovers at that time,” he says…….”We didn’t have many superstars, but a good, even team….A few of the blokes playing alongside me in the backline – Holmes, Porter, Rosser, Gardner and Pollard were as tough as old boots…..”

The Rovers finals chances appeared to have nose-dived at three-quarter time of the Second Semi-Final that year, when they trailed Yarrawonga by eight goals…..

“I can remember going into the huddle at the break,” Paul recalls. “Normie Bussell got around us: ‘You just never know, fellahs, the bastards might get struck by lightning’…..”

Well, almost…….

The Hawks came home with a rush to finish just eight points short…..Then, a fortnight later they blitzed the Pigeons in the Grand Final to lead by 45 points at quarter-time before going on to record a 10-goal win.

By now his brothers had also joined him in O & M ranks…….Bill played initially with Wangaratta, then moved on to Myrtleford, as did Francis…….’Ab’ played in the Rovers 1975 flag, then enjoyed a break-out season in 1976 when he was adjudged a joint winner of the Morris Medal.


Greg (Ab) O’Brien after being awarded the retrospective 1976 Morris Medal


“ ‘Ab’ really stood out with his black, bushy beard…..He was flashy and skilful….. could take a screaming mark and kick a 70-metre goal……He wasn’t the most consistent player, but the umpires loved him.”

“He went to Myrtleford the next year; did a knee early on and hardly played…….then married Jenny Sherwill, a Benalla girl, and enjoyed a few good seasons with the Demons……..”


Paul earned a reputation as a big-occasion player in his 90 games with the Rovers.

He was voted their Best Finals Player in 1976 and ’77 and was, what you’d term in the modern-day footy vernacular, a ‘mid-field bull’…..

“My take on it was, if you get into the finals, that’s when you get fair dinkum…..you may as well win ‘em,” he says.

After playing in that ‘74 flag, he was also part of the Hawks’ hat-trick, from 1977-1979, but holds a special place in his heart for the victory over Benalla in 1978.

“They’d won 15 straight going into the Grand Final, and were hot-favourites…..The rumour got around that they felt we were a bit soft……For some reason they came out fighting….”

“I remember Chris Porter copping an elbow to the head early in the game……’Clang’ was one bloke who could absorb that sort of stuff..….He just got up, shook his head and kept going in harder….Glenn James, who was umpiring, kept on paying free kicks against them……the game was over by half-time…”


The 1978 Wang Rovers Premiership team. Paul O’Brien is seated (second from right)


If there was a Did Simpson Medal for BOG that day, Paul would have been a contender……The Border Morning Mailreported that: ‘O’Brien, taking advantage of his vast finals experience, was a clear winner in the centre……He added lustre to his performance by taking many strong marks around the ground…..’

By 1980 he was living and working in Sydney, and flying home to play footy. Half-way through the season he decided it would be more practical to return to Greta.

After a 13-year premiership drought, they stormed home in the last half to defeat Whorouly by 27 points in the Grand Final…..It was his fourth flag in succession.

“Besides the thrill of being involved in a flag with your home club, it was terrific to share it with Bill and ‘Franny’,” he says.


The culmination of a dream: Greta’s 1980 PremiershipPaul O’Brien is seated (third from right), Bill is far right. Francis is fifth from left (back row)


Six years later he played in another decider, this time against Bright, who took the honours by five points in a real nail-biter.

“I was flying around a bit at that stage, and wanted to get home by Friday morning……I finally arrived from Japan on the day of the game and performed like a turkey……If you think you can get on and off a plane, then play….You can’t…


Paul reckons he’d have been no more than 15 when he made his debut with Greta Cricket Club.

“All the local kids loved the chance to be able to fill in alongside the old fellahs, like John Tanner, George Hillas, Max Newth, Maxie Corker, Richie Shanley and Jimmy Fisher….”

“They enjoyed each other’s company and Bill, ‘Ab’, myself, Greg and Barry Tanner, Rusty Harris, James Corker and Tony Fisher, would make up the numbers……It was great fun……Social cricket was pretty strong in those days, too.”

Those dinky-di battles on the pitch in the front paddock paid dividends for the O’Brien boys as they all developed into more than useful cricketers.

Francis, a stylish, prolific left-hand bat, represented Vic. Country against two West Indies touring teams – captaining one of them. ‘Ab’ was one of the area’s most fearsome bowlers.

“He was erratic, but quick,” Paul says……”It was a bit daunting to face him when he had a full head of steam…..and when neither he, nor the poor batsman, knew where the ball was gonna go….But, like his footy, when he was on his day he could do a lot of damage….”

Paul first appeared in the WDCA with Magpies, then Moyhu, and made four trips to Melbourne Country Week with Wangaratta.

One of my favourite CW memories concerns a Provincial Group match at Punt Road in 1975, when he and Greg Rosser shared a blistering 245-run fourth-wicket partnership against Dunmunkle/Grampians.

After Wang had lost three early wickets the pair went blow for blow on a greenish strip, in amassing the second-highest CW stand in WDCA history.


Melbourne Country Week: Wang ‘Keeper Paul O’Brien snaps up Outtrim-Wonthaggi’s John Dixon, off the bowling of Brian Fisher


Paul later transferred to Benalla club Diggers, scored 6 centuries, and was a regular BDCA Country Week rep.

He unwittingly became the central figure in a controversy which rocked Benalla cricket in 1983.

“It’s crazy when you think of it now,” he recalls. “I made a ‘ton’ against Swanpool in the semi-final which entitled us to meet Footballers in the Grand Final.”

“But someone protested about the legality of me playing with Greta at the same time I was at Diggers….. The BDCA executive, who’d been quite happy for me to be playing rep cricket with them, and were aware I was involved in dual competitions, disqualified us.”

“So three teams, Swanpool, Diggers and Footballers rocked up for the Grand Final……’Franny’ who was our captain, and a few of the other Diggers blokes, staged a ‘sit-in’ protest on the pitch before the game…..”

“It was a bit embarrassing, particularly for Swanpool captain Robert Sherwill, who didn’t agree with the protest, and initially refused to lead his team onto the ground…..He said: ‘No, Paul’s been playing all year…..we were beaten fair and square.’ “

“But eventually, the Diggers players abandoned their sit-in and the Swanpool-Footballers game went ahead….”

That brought the curtain down on Paul’s career with Diggers….He continued with Greta until the Sunday competition folded in the late nineties….


Paul spent more than 30 years with global technology company IBM, initially as a cost accountant and, ultimately, a financial controller.

“When the plant shut down in Wangaratta I worked from home for 4-5 years, then spent 3 years consulting in China and the Czech Republic….I was really lucky work-wise….” he says.

In an ill-fated move, he was elected to the Wangaratta Rural City Council in 2012……….

“I thought I could make a contribution to the community,” he says…..”But in the end I felt I was belting my head against a brick wall…..”

“I was surprised at the lack of integrity and independence in local government…….Actually, I did mention at one meeting that I thought the ‘Yes Minister’ show on television was a comedy until I sat on Council….”

The Rural City Council was sacked – almost a year after being elected – in September 2013…….


Several of the succeeding generation of O’Brien’s continued to make a sporting impact…..

Zac started his footy with Wang.Rovers, and went on to play 13 AFL games with Brisbane Lions, before continuing with West Adelaide;

Simon, a left-arm fast bowler has played 16-years of Premier cricket with St. Kilda and Camberwell-Magpies, which includes two premierships with the Saints;

Mark Dwyer ( on of Carmel ) played 53 Premier cricket First XI games with Camberwell-Magpies over a 16 year period;

Jeremy, totalled 209 O & M games with Yarrawonga and Wang.Rovers, shared in two Pigeon flags, and later coached Tungamah;

Paul (Jnr) played in the 1999 Murray Bushrangers premiership, went on to coach St. Kevin’s in Melbourne school football, and is now Head Sports coach at St. Ignatius’ College in Sydney;

Matt figured in a Glenrowan premiership side, a Yarrawonga Grand Final team and A-Grade Amateurs finals teams.

It’s a dynasty which served a tiny township faithfully…….As the years roll on, the family has also moved on……The days of the Greta footy line-up containing numerous O’Briens – or Delaneys and Tanners for that matter – have long gone…………


Zac O’Brien


Jeremy O’Brien


Simon O’Brien


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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