Real Neale

 

 

BY MARK BRANAGAN

 

 

Real Neale we called him.

 

At Assumption College Kilmore, Neale Daniher was captain of the 1st XVIII football team in 1978.  For good measure, he also led the 1st XI cricket team peeling off three 100s in a competition where historically scores of 30 or 40 runs carried the status of centuries.

 

As a footballer, Daniher had an incredible focus.  From an early age, he was able to concentrate on the flow of a game and see things before others did.  That capacity meant that he didn’t have to be super?quick because in a way he was already there.  The loping run, the lack of explosion did not hinder him at all because he could play the game in his own time.

 

I played my first game for Assumption’s senior line-up in Year 11 with Daniher as skipper.  It was a pre?season practice match at Kilmore hosting a bunch of swaggering visitors from Melbourne Grammar.  It was a rare event for us, an earthy country boarding school facing an exclusive private school from the Big Smoke.  We didn’t play in their competition so when schools like MGS came asking for a match it usually meant that they had a good side, like carpet-bagging hustlers they were out on the road ready to claim a famous scalp.  We were on high alert.

 

For my debut outing, our renowned coach Ray Carroll stuck with tradition and named me as one of two reserves.  Not 19th but 20th man.  In an era before interchange extended to all levels of football, selection as a reserve was like a substitute in soccer, meaning that you stayed on the bench for most of the game unless there was serious injury.  Despite my lowly ranking in the lineup, I could not have been more excited, playing an historic moment in such a famous jumper.  And my time on the sidelines gave me the opportunity to admire some of the great talents in the team.  Phil McEvoy, Mick Murray, Dick O’Connell, Jim Ward, Russell Dickson, Damian Hogan, Jack Tossol, Mick O’Sullivan and Tall Tone Corrigan.  But Daniher simply stood out, a tallish sort of onballer, a genuine “follower”, not quite a ruckman but controlling packs and marking strongly with his long socks up, pale skin, long sleeves, lean, angular face and bum?part hairstyle.

 

We at Assumption had been battle?hardened by a series of tough pre?season matches, often training and/or playing against open age competition throughout central Victoria against tough men at places like Echuca, Colbinabbin, Broadford, Kilmore and perennial competitors, the Assumption Old Boys.  But despite our pounding pre?season conditioning, we struggled on this day to hold off the dogged visitors.  In a move that hinted at a degree of increasing distress, the coach shifted Daniher from on-ball duties to centre half forward at the start of the last quarter.  The captain answered the call and with the visitors’ threat gradually diminishing, the coach took the opportunity to finally put me on the ground.

 

I was by trade and tradition, a nuggety back pocket, more suited to blocking a torp with hands, body or feet.  I had also been programmed to do just one thing – beat my opponent.  Or maybe a second thing – belt the ball upwards and out of defence.  Purely and proudly negative. Yet here I was on the greatest occasion of my football life about to be assigned to an entirely new position in attack of all places as a half forward flanker.  The move was on. “You right there Kid?” as the coach was prone to say “yeah, You.  On the flank. Next to Neale”.  No surname.  I didn’t have to ask.  I gasped.  More instructions boomed “just don’t get in his bloody way”.

 

Within seconds the great man shifted across from centre half forward towards me and pointed to the boundary line, “Go there. Just bloody stand there.”  I’m sure he didn’t know my name but I responded with a mental thumbs up.  More strategically, Daniher positioned me where I could do least damage whether in the next pack or ball?in.

 

I personally did nothing in the final 10 minutes of the match.  Shortly after my banishment to the boundary, I lurked on the side of the pack hoping for spillage, maybe a cheap kick.  It duly came my way but in my inability to acclimatise to the pace and higher standard football, I missed the chance and was left in the wake of the great man Daniher.  He collected, carefully weaved and set sale for home.

 

As he did so, I jogged dreamily in his wake before spotting a potential physical threat from an opponent to the right.  Instinctively I went into protection mode for the sake of our Dear Leader, shaping up to shepherd.  But sadly this was no brutal physical intervention by me, no Laurie Fowler on Big Nick incident.  I pathetically spread my arms out wide, perpendicular on both sides like a scarecrow figure in that classic Scanlen’s footy card shepherding pose.  The chasing defender barely noticed my efforts but it was just enough to distract him and adjust his step.  It was sufficient for Real Neale to break clear and ensure a passage to goal.  The win was ours.

 

When the game was over we celebrated in the pavilion with party pies, RC cola and the traditional local delicacy “red dicks” (cocktail frankfurts).  As skipper, Daniher made a speech welcoming our guests, praising our superb opponents before turning his attention to the volunteers who had prepared the feast, “and finally, I just wanna say thanks to all the ladies for The Spread“.

 

I admired him, thought he was so calm and so funny.  I also felt a bond that we had played in one game together.  The coach then said his words including a passing reference to first-gamers.  I was so proud but I was also embarrassed by my output.

 

In reality I hadn’t actually had a touch.  There were no kicks, no handballs and no marks.  I had not even laid a tackle.  My sole contribution was that shepherd and in those days that was not even a stat.  In modern footy-speak, that effort might have been rewarded with some glorious statistical description as a pressure act or perhaps in a moment of long?bow generosity, maybe even a score assist but in 1978 it was a blank canvas.  Zero.

 

As the crowd eventually thinned out after the speeches, I still carried these mixed feelings.  Daniher walked past me with a group of the leading players on its way back to the dormitories. Regal on the field, he was the Common Man off it, just happy to be one of the boys, “Well done mate”.  And then in that classic nasal country twang he turned back, “Nice shepherd too”.  Despite the laconic nature, Daniher had absorbed each little incident throughout the game and taken it all in. And true to his nature, he was happy to deflect every single credit and pass it on to everyone else.  I had done nothing but he made me feel good, a contributor.  He was genuine.  Real.  Real Neale.

**The Assumption College Team of the Century will be announced at a gala dinner on February 28. Details here.

Comments

  1. As a swaggering, carpet bagging Melbourne Grammar hustler may I point out that we NEVER swaggered against the Cath O’Lick schools (who mysteriously had beards in third form and drove to matches) because we hardly ever beat them. For instance, in my whole time playing school footy and then ammos, I only remember beating Xavs or Old Xavs once.

  2. Andrew Fithall says

    Great stuff Brano. Not insignificant that you were able to play 1st XVIII for Assumption in Form 5 (I don’t think it was called Year 11 in 1978). I assume you output was increased in your final year.

    AF

  3. What a terrific vignette, Brano. My brother, Bud (James), played for St. Pat’s ,Ballarat against Assumption in 1978 at Kilmore. All the pre-match talk seemed to be about stopping Neale Daniher. When the team bus arrived back at St. Pat’s at about 8pm on a bitterly cold night, the tuckshop was doing a roaring trade. It was interval of the Saturday night film night -a highlight of the week for the 220 boarders. Bud was one of the first off the bus and he proceeded to regale all and sundry with a description of The Blind Turn He did Around Neale Daniher (as it became known over the years in the family ). It was like watching a current cricket dismissal on telly. He must have described the event from 10 different angles .Finally, one young kid from Walpeup, shivering in his oversize lumber jacket had the temerity to inquire about the score. ‘Got flogged by 11 goals’ replied Bud. Daniher starred.
    I’m sure the 28th February event will be a cracking show, Brano. We know who the coach of the team will be. The big question is whether you will get a berth somewhere. I’m sure you would even be content with the bench

  4. Brilliant piece. Great insights into a great man, not just a great footballer.
    Thanks Mark.

  5. Good piece Branno.

    Shame we never saw him in red & white….

  6. Great story.
    Memories like this need to be told.
    They become part of footy folklore…

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