” ‘Stabber’ …the mini-marvel from Maryborough” by KB Hill

‘Michael Angelo Caruso’…….

 

The name slides off the tongue as smoothly as ‘Sergio Silvagni’, ‘Mario Bortolotto’ or ‘Vinnie Catoggio’, three of the Carlton premiership heroes to whom he’d formed an attachment in the blissful days of his youth.

 

He dreamt of playing League football, but it wasn’t to be. The closest he came to attracting the attention of talent scouts was possibly when Carlton Under 19s played a match against the cream of young Bendigo/Ballarat talent at Eastern Oval, Ballarat.

 

He won a fair bit of the Sherrin that day but admits: “……..Kids my size were a dime a dozen. …Besides, I wasn’t good enough for the next level”.

 

 

Instead, ‘Stabber’ proceeded to carve out a brilliant country footy career….. 481 senior games, six flags and inclusion in three ‘Teams of the Century’/ ‘Halls of Fame’……earning widespread recognition as an out-and-out champ………

 

***

 

His mum, Maureen, belonged to a famous sporting clan – the Noonans of Maryborough. Of solid Irish stock, there were 5 boys in the family….. followed by 5 girls.

 

“There would probably have been a few more,” says Mick,” only that Pop died in his early forties……” Several uncles became stars at Royal Park, the Maryborough Magpies and surrounding clubs …..So did a fair swag of his 40-odd cousins.

 

Maureen was a colourful personality, and loved the game. When Mick started to make his way, she and Giovanni – his dad – were readily identifiable, and sometimes vociferous, figures on the sidelines.

 

The Royal Park ground, Hedges Oval was, conveniently, just a stone’s throw from the Caruso household. Mick had a rapid ascension at his home club. He played in three U15 flags, and another in the Reserves, before cementing his senior spot.

 

He capped his four years – and 76 senior games – with a premiership in 1981. The fond memories of ‘Bushie’ Park still linger. He and at least ten old ‘Bushies’ head off for a weekend every year, and ‘chew the fat’ about old times……..

 

***

 

Several of his mates were already playing for Maryborough when Mick rocked up at the Ballarat League Club in 1982.

 

He was 20 and became an immediate success. The attributes that served him well throughout his career were already evident; supreme fitness, the knack of being able to run all day, and work like a beaver in extracting the pill from the congestion.

 

“Princes Park’s a lovely little ground, but like all of them over there, you learn to play in-tight. And you develop strong quads……. The conditions are horrific sometimes…….. mud half-way up your lower legs, hailstones pelting down horizontally…..”

 

“We’d play at Daylesford, for instance, and carve mud and stones off our legs after the game, then go to the showers…..and they’d be dripping cold water….”

 

After a fine debut season, Mick represented the Ballarat League in 1983 and won the Club B & F. He was appointed captain of Maryborough the following season – a stint which lasted seven minutes.

 

“I fell over someone in the opening game, broke my Tib and Fib and needed screws and plates.” He’d graduated from Ballarat Uni after four years and was teaching P.E/Maths at Maryborough Tech School, with the leg encased in plaster.

 

Completely recovered, he again won his way into the rep side, which met the Ovens and Murray in a Country Championship semi-final at Wangaratta.

 

“The thing that struck me was how nice the Showgrounds looked. It was a pleasure to be playing on top of the ground, in fine conditions.”

 

The following season he received the first of several phone calls from Rovers President Sam Perna. “I’m not sure what prompted him to contact me. Maybe he’d got my name off someone after the Inter-League game,” Mick says.

 

There’s no doubt he was an established BFL star (and automatic inter-league selection). But Maryborough struggled. “We never played finals whilst I was there, but had the occasional cracking win. In the last game of ‘86 we knocked over North Ballarat, the ‘gun’ side, who went on to win the flag.”

 

After picking up his second B & F, he thought: ‘Heck, I’m 25 and still in Maryborough. Maybe I need a change.’ That’s when he relented after another of those Perna phone calls and decided to throw in his lot with the Rovers.

 

“Originally it was only going to be a one-year thing. I’d been talking to Ronnie Wearmouth, the ex-Collingwood player, who was coaching in Brisbane, and there were also some nibbles from WAFL club Subiaco.”

 

“But the Rovers found a teaching position for me at Rutherglen High. It was a great school and I stayed there for 17 years. I fitted in well with the Rovers – and met Michelle ( and we had the kids, Rikki, Sam and Ben)……. As they say, the rest is history………….”

 

***

 

At first, Mick found it awkward adapting to the open spaces and extra pace of O & M footy.

 

“To be honest, I started slowly. But I had a good yarn with Neville Hogan, our Chairman of Selectors, who suggested playing smarter footy, rather than ball-chasing. They even threw me in as a ‘tagger’ for a while. That taught me more about the craft of cutting angles.”

 

The Hawks were on the cusp of a ‘Golden Era’ and Caruso was to become a vital cog in the wheel of a powerhouse side. He lent valuable experience and class to an otherwise youthful line-up.

 

 

The Rovers swept to four flags in seven years. He enhanced his reputation as a big-occasion player by winning the Did Simpson Medal in two of them – 1991 and ‘93 – and contributing solidly in the others (1988 and ’94).

 

 

Mick was Best & Fairest in 1990 and assumed the captaincy when Laurie Burt retired from playing mid-way through 1991. He proved an inspirational leader. His penchant for fitness also enabled him to remain a valuable contributor as he moved into his thirties.

 

Mick Caruso meditates before a big Final

 

It was Burt who made the move to slot ‘Stabber’ into the back pocket around 1994. “I was usually matching up on the small, young quicks. So I had to use my footy smarts to try to prevent some carnage,” he jokes.

 

He injured his hand in his 200th game, on the eve of the ‘96 finals and knew, the moment it happened, it was a bad break. He nursed the injury – and a dicey hamstring – through the finals.

 

Mick finally relented to the persistent arm-twisting of Greta President Kevin Naish. He was keen to prove that he could cut the mustard as a coach; also sensing that he was struggling to keep pace with O & M footy.

 

His three years as coach of the Blues were spectacularly successful. He made a private pact not to snavel any Rovers players, but two long-term Magpies – Andy Haring and Chris Crimmins – proved valuable recruits.

 

“They’d been through five wooden-spoon years at Wang, and it was nice to be able to provide them with the opportunity to win a flag,” Mick says. “They gave great service to Greta and remained there long after I departed.”

 

The Blues lost to North Wangaratta in the 1997 decider, then unluckily bowed out in the Elimination Final to eventual premier Chiltern the following year.

 

After being a shaky 1-2 after three rounds of 1999, they remained unbeaten for the remainder of the season, holding out a persistent Moyhu by five points in a nail-biting Grand Final.

 

Greta, a proud old club with a rich history, hailed Caruso, the magician. He’d given them three stellar years, winning B & F’s in two of them…….

 

***

 

He returned to the Findlay Oval, ostensibly as coach John O’Donohue’s right-hand man. At 38, it was anticipated that his playing days at O & M level were behind him. But he soaked up the pre-season training and was coaxed into again wearing the Brown and Gold.

 

‘Stabber’ didn’t miss a beat. He was third in the B & F in his first season back, and played the majority of games over the next three years. His 250th was celebrated raucously – by the six veterans who had shared his journey with the Hawks that began 16 years earlier – and the young team-mates who idolised him.

 

 

The accolades continued to flow. He was invited to return to Maryborough, where he was named in the Magpies’ Team of the Century. The previous week-end he’d been similarly feted by Royal Park, who also included him in their Team of the Century.

 

It was hoped that the fairytale end to the Caruso career would be his participation in another glorious Rovers triumph – the 2002 premiership. The Hawks hit the front early in the final term, only to be over-run by an on-song North Albury.

 

That was that! He helped out with the Club’s fitness work the following year, and enjoyed being a keenly-interested onlooker.

 

But when the Hawks suffered a spate of injuries and were spluttering on the field early in 2004, coach Peter Tossol talked the battle-worn warrior, aged 42, into another come-back. He resumed service in the back pocket. At season’s end, though, after 265 games with the Hawks, ‘Stabber’ finally put the cue in the rack.

 

***

 

Following more than a decade as an assistant, he accepted the challenging role as the Rovers’ non-playing coach in 2011. The Hawks slumped to 1-8, but improved markedly in the latter half of the season. The encouraging factor was that several youngsters had developed significantly. And they continued to flourish the following year.

 

“We didn’t recruit extensively over the off-season, but the arrival of Barry Hall topped us off. We had an agile, unpredictable forward-line; the whole side grew in confidence,” Mick recalls.

 

“We were 16-3 going into that fateful Second Semi-Final.”

 

Does he still mull over the errant Barry Hall shot after the siren, which cost the Hawks the game?

 

 

“Well, it’s hard not to. Someone brings it up every week. But it wasn’t the missed shot so much; we were 34 points up in the last quarter, and let the game slip. What a roller-coaster of a finals-series it was….A huge disappointment.”

 

 

Mick had decided that his third year as coach – 2013 – was going to be his last : “I was running on empty. You under-estimate the time and effort that’s required. Other things, like work (with AFL SportsReady) and family, suffer.”

 

It was time for the Hall of Famer and Club icon to follow the Hawks from the sidelines………………

 

 

 

This story appeared first on KB Hill’s website On Reflection and is used here with permission. To read more of KB’s great stories, click here.

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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Comments

  1. Another cracker, KB! What gets me about many of the people you profile is the longevity of their playing careers – often into their 40s! I’m just surprised that his nickname was ‘Stabber’ and not ‘David’!

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