“The knock-about journo who made his mark” by KB Hill

There he is, rejoicing in the aftermath of the 1976 Grand Final, ……. Pandemonium reigns at Wangaratta’s City Oval…….. With long hair flapping, arms raised to the heavens, he flashes a gap-toothed grin, and acknowledges the cheers of the delirious fans.

 

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“I might have been saluting all you Rovers supporters, too…….! ” quips Phil Nolan.

 

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That was arguably Phil’s proudest sporting moment. Long after the event, he has become an iconic figure in Wangaratta – and beyond. Even veteran Hawks, who were once tantalised by his aggressive style of play, have come to accept that he’s a ‘top-notch bloke…..for a Maggie’.

 

Any wonder. He has made an immense contribution to sport and the community  over almost five decades.

 

When I suggest having a yak about his footy career, he’s initially reluctant. Someone had mentioned he might be difficult to pin down, as he’s not over-fussy about self-promotion.

 

But I think the old journo sympathised with my persistence.

 

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He was born into the bosom of the Echuca Football Club, so to speak. “Dad (Eddie), who had been a rear-gunner during the War, was a premiership player. I think the races ended up grabbing him more than footy, though,” says Phil.

 

Eight of his mum’s brothers – the Kenna’s – stripped for the Murray Bombers, including an uncle, Kevin (Grumpy) who was to become a coaching legend in the Goulburn Valley.

 

Phil moved through the Thirds, and figured in a Reserves flag in 1969. Luckily enough, he’d come under the influence of Hawthorn champ Graeme Arthur, who had taken over the coaching job, and was keen to bring on the youngsters.

 

“‘Mort’ Arthur made a difference to a lot of people – me included,” Phil says. “Not only on the footy side of things, but also by  placing particular emphasis on being a decent person.”

 

His introduction to Wangaratta came early in 1970, when Echuca played a practice match against the Rovers.  The energetic big man was keen to show his mettle.

 

Sides used to go in with four ruckmen in those days, and Phil was able to hang onto his senior spot for most of the season . Despite the loss of coach Arthur, with a broken  forearm , Echuca won their way into the Bendigo League Grand Final. They  met Sandhurst whom they had rolled in the second-semi.

 

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“The old Hawthorn hard-man ‘Delicate’ Des Dickson, was Sandhurst’s coach. He’d ‘fixed-up’ our centre half forward in the semi, and there was some concern that he may try to repeat it in the Grand Final.”

 

“Our back pocket player, Ray Murphy, a timber-cutter from Mathoura ( and the toughest bloke I ever played with), said: ‘Leave him to me’. Sure enough, he’s snotted ‘Delicate’. He stayed on the ground, but had no impact. We went on to win the flag.”

 

Phil was almost through his Journalism Cadetship with the ‘Riverine Herald’ when he received a phone call from an old colleague, Geoff Easdown, with the offer of a job at the paper in Devonport.

 

“Young and ambitious, I decided to take it up. I left the ‘Riverine Herald’ on the Friday, Kerry and I got married on Saturday, and we flew down to Devonport on Sunday.”

 

“The only thing I’d forgotten was to organise a roof over our heads. We were met at the Airport by officials from the Devonport Football Club, who queried where we were staying. ‘Ah, actually, nowhere yet’, I said. So they teed up a motel for a couple of weeks and I duly signed with them.”

 

Tassie football was really strong in the ‘70’s. The N.W.F.U, with which Devonport were affiliated, boasted players of the calibre of Darrell Baldock, Alan ‘Bull’ Richardson, Vin Waite, Max Urquhart, Bob and Barrie Pascoe and Geoff Cayzer.

 

But for the lean, lanky Nolan it was a valuable learning experience. He handled the role of lone ruckman with ease, representing the NWFU and taking out the club’s B & F in his first season. And he really responded to the coaching of Paddy Martin, the sage non-playing leader.

 

“Old Paddy’s still going strong; he’s just on 92, I think. A lovely bloke. I still catch up with him occasionally. He was named as a coaching ‘Legend’ in Tassie’s Hall of Fame a few years back .”

 

Phil found the going a bit tougher in his second year in Tasmania. As a key player , he reasoned he would need to adapt, as he was becoming a target in the big-man duels.

 

”When George McInnes, the former Corowa player, who was at Wynyard, knocked out my two front teeth, I decided I’d better start giving a bit back…. Just to let ‘em know I was around.”

 

His father’s serious illness in late 1972 persuaded Phil and Kerry to re-locate to the mainland, to be closer to the family. He sent away applications to half a dozen papers, and received two responses – from Camperdown and Wangaratta.

 

“We reckoned the Western District was too cold, so we settled on the Wangaratta Chronicle,” he says.

 

A former Echuca boy, Geoff Rosenow, held the coaching reins at Wangaratta, so that pretty much prompted Phil to throw in his lot with the ‘Pies.

 

He was introduced to O & M football in a fiery clash with Wodonga, when he brushed with feisty Bulldog coach Mick Bone. This was to be the first of many such entanglements which would earn him a reputation as one of the League’s ‘enforcers’.

 

But he also deservedly ranked among the finest ruckman in the game.

 

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The ‘Pies were there or thereabouts in his first two seasons, finishing fourth and third. They again reached the Prelim Final in 1975, under Harry Skreja. But when the star forward announced later that year, that he was relinquishing the coaching job and returning to Melbourne, it left the club in a pickle.

 

“They had to tee someone up in a hurry. Jack White ( President) fronted me and said: ‘Listen, son. What about it ?’ “

 

“I’d already given it a bit of thought, and, having been heavily-influenced by two of my former coaches, Graeme Arthur and Paddy Martin, I said: ‘Alright, I’ll have a crack at it.’ “

 

So Wangaratta had appointed its first coach from ‘within the ranks’ since Alec Fraser took the job on in 1940.

 

The players were in no doubt that he would make a go of it. He was highly-popular, a brilliant orator, and had proved an inspiration on-field in his first three years at the Club.

 

But it was also a matter of blending in with work ( he had recently taken on the Editorship of the Chronicle ) – and a growing family.

 

Righto, Phil, tell us about ‘76,  I ask…….”How many pages have you got left in that note-book ?,” he jokes.

 

“I remember being pretty toey before we ran out for the first game of the season. Bob Comensoli, our Chairman of Selectors, motioned me over. I thought to myself….. ‘this’ll be interesting’.”

 

“He pulled me close, clenched that boxer’s mitt of his, and muttered: ‘Phil, ya gotta look after ‘em a bit.’………I got the message. “

 

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“We certainly weren’t a team of stars. Jack O’Halloran was the stand-out, but we had a good even side, all decent blokes. And we played quite a few kids that year.”

 

The ‘Pies finished second after the home-and-away rounds, then belted North Albury, and snuck home from Albury in successive weeks, to march into the Grand Final.

 

The much-anticipated Rovers – Wangaratta clash  was a promoter’s dream. The Hawks, who had held sway through most of the seventies, had come from fifth, but rated their chances.

 

They’d won the previous 11 ‘local-derby’s’ and had snared six flags since the ‘Pies’ last success, in 1961.

 

But they were never really in the game, with Wang dominating early to lead 8.6 to 4.5 at half-time. As the crowd settled down in anticipation of another typical Hawk fight-back, it failed to eventuate. The Pies ran away, to triumph by 37 points.

 

“We’d had a run on the City Oval on the Thursday night before the game, and trained the house down,” Phil says. “I knew then that we were in with a real chance.”

 

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It has gone down in local folklore as a famous Wangaratta victory – maybe the most memorable in their history.

 

Wang, minus a few players in 1977, were second-last at the half-way mark, but scraped into the finals and battled their way into another flag-decider. There to meet them again were the Hawks, who exacted their revenge over a tired opponent, to win by 52 points.

 

Phil had led the O & M to victory over South-West League in the Country Championship clash that year, and also took out the ‘Pies B & F. He was at the peak of his form, but after another season in charge, he resigned as coach in 1978.

 

“I thought three years was enough. Besides, we now had three kids ( Kellee, Hayley and Annalee), so I decided to concentrate on playing,” he says.

 

Then, in 1982, he was asked if he’d like to have another stint as coach.

 

“I enjoyed coaching,” he says, “But I shouldn’t have taken it on again. My hammies were playing up and I was just about knackered.”

 

Half-way through the following season he finally hung up the boots, after 175 games with the Pies.

 

Phil says he gets his footy ‘fix’ these days by regularly watching O & M games, and being involved with the North-East Border AFL commission.

 

But he served footy dutifully, post-retirement, spending 14 years (1991 – 2004 ) as an Ovens and Murray Board member, a regular MC at sporting functions, and a member of a few Tribunals. As an old footy protagonist he’d have pre-empted the evidence of most Tribunal defendants, I would expect.

 

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Along the way, he’d been awarded an Order of Australia Medal, and been inducted to the Magpies’ and O & M Hall of Fames. In 2017 he was announced as the Rural City’s Citizen of the Year’: ‘for his unswerving loyalty to the community of Wangaratta’.  It took into account, of course, a staggering 31-year stint as Editor of the Chronicle, and the number of organisations with which he was involved.

 

That wasn’t a bad tribute, I reckon, for a bloke who landed in town 46 years ago, as a laid-back journo and knock-about footballer.

 

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This piece was originally published at KB Hill’s On Reflection blog.

 

For more KB Hill at the Almanac, CLICK HERE:

 

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