PETER COPLEY was a star at Lavington during its golden era in the 1980s, playing in flags in 1983 and 1985. The classy Copley then headed bush to coach and boasts one of the most enviable coaching records in country football. The playing coach won flags with Holbrook in 1991 and Culcairn in 1993 before retiring from playing. The man with the midas touch is a dual premiership coach with Mitta United (2004-05) and also led Thurgoona to its first flag in 2016. Copley caught up with the Border Mail's BRENT GODDE during the week.
BRENT GODDE: You arrived at Lavington in the early 1980s after playing for South Melbourne under-19s. How close were you to playing VFL/AFL?
PETER COPLEY: I wasn't close at all. I won the under-19s best and fairest in 1979 and did a full pre-season with the seniors the following year. I had a hernia operation on the eve of the season. I seen the development of David Rhys-Jones during this period who I had played juniors against.
BG: It was during your time at South Melbourne you met your good mate Ray Mack?
PC: I don't know if it's a good or bad thing as he has led me astray many times over the years, but yes that's where we originally met. He was a big, blonde hair, country lad nicknamed Bomber as he was a bit of a leader and had played the year before. We ended up living together in South Melbourne in a boarding house where Terry Daniher and Peter Murray previously lived before us.
BG: Rhys-Jones strikes me as an entertainer. Have you got any stories you can share about the Norm Smith medallist?
PC: It was funny back then when Rhys-Jones was playing for Sydney Swans, the only live VFL we got on the Border was the Swans playing every Sunday. Rhys-Jones would more often than not clock someone and opposition supporters used to love to hate him. Anyway I became fairly good mates with him and one weekend he was in Albury and called me to see if I wanted to go out. Rhys-Jones was on the prowl so I took him to "Sportees" at Lavington Sportsclub for the Sunday night disco. So he tried chatting to a few females and after about an hour he said to me 'Can we go downstairs mate? Every sheila in the building hates me and thinks I'm a dirty prick." So we spent the rest of the night downstairs dropping a few middies.
BG: How did you end up at Lavington?
PC: I was doing a pre-season at St Kilda and Ray invited up to Albury for a weekend to catch up. So I went up there and trained with Lavington and they happened to be having a intra-club practice match and I kicked five goals. Anyhow Lavington was playing North Albury who were the reigning premiers on the Sunday and I got coaxed into playing. I didn't get a touch but geez I had good Saturday night out on the town.
BG: So you ended up signing with Lavington?
PC: Yeah my parents were living in Queensland at the time so I decided I would play for Lavington for a season. I only intended to play one season but I'm still here.
BG: You played in your first flag in 1983, what are your memories of the decider?
PC: Albury had beat us the previous year in 1982 which was a fairly fiery grand final. Albury kicked the first five goals of the match and Doug Norton-Smith got Daryl Bakes and it was on for young and old as you did in those days. But our start cost us and we could never peg back those five goals.
BG: So it was sweet revenge in 1983?
PC: It was a hot year of football because that was the year Gary Ablett Snr was playing for Myrtleford. Myrtleford had a jet side with Ablett and made the preliminary final. Albury knocked the Saints off and we faced the Tigers in the decider for the second year in a row. The highlight was the national anthem and listening to Tom Doolan give it to Mick Stagg about his lack of ability. It motivated Staggy who played a ripping match. Thanks again for that Tom. The last quarter the party hats went on and the feeling between the group on the field and getting revenge on the Tigers was priceless. It made it all worthwhile for guys like Brian Chalmers who had battled the courts to get Lavington into the O&M originally. It was a highlight to celebrate with Brian and all the other volunteers that made it possible.
BG: You also won a flag in 1986, what are your memories of that season?
PC: We had a consistent season and still had a fairly similar group to 1983 with Jeff Cassidy as the coach. We were red-hot favourites in 1985 but got rolled by Albury by three points. I don't why back then but it seemed we would lose a grand final and then bounce back the following season and win it. We played North Albury who was coached by Martin Cross at the Albury Sportsground and we played great team footy on the day to claim the flag.
BG: Do you think the club should have won more flags during that era, considering the star-studded line-up it boasted?
PC: Absolutely we should of but then there were times during that era also when we defied the odds to make the grand final as well.
BG: Lavington was the richest club during the 1980s with the poker machines a goldmine for the club. As a player did you feel resentment from the opposition clubs and supporters?
PC: I think one thing that I learnt about in football is you worry about yourself and what you can control and not what the opposition thinks. At Lavington we knew what each other was getting paid and it was a substantial amount less than what everybody thought we were on. A lot of the blokes just wanted to stick together because we were mates. It may be a similar situation at Albury over the past decade - I'm not sure. But once you get together and work hard as a group and form a bond, it's worth a lot more than money. I know a lot of us were offered a lot more money elsewhere but stayed together to be successful.
BG: Was 1982 the year Albury had "We don't need pokies to win this jackpot" on its banner?
PC: Yeah it's amazing how Albury are so sensitive about banners these days but we just rolled with the punches back then.
BG: Is it true you stole Albury coach Tom Doolan's premiership jumper after the 1982 decider on the Tuesday after the grand final?
PC: Yeah we were drowning our sorrows after the loss and ended up at a wine bar and most of the Albury blokes were still there celebrating. A few of the Lavi blokes wanted to leave but I said we may as well have a drink with them. The Albury blokes were drinking champagne at the time, so they popped open a bottle and we sprayed a few of them with it. Tom still had his premiership jumper on and it got soaked, so he took it off. We had won nothing that year, so we stole Tom's premiership jumper. I believe the jumper is still sitting on a scarecrow at Clinton Rixon's farm in the back yard.
BG: Were Albury your biggest rivals at the time?
PC: Definitely. Albury hated us because we had the pokies and hated us even more when we got to play the grand final on our home ground. But we all respected each other after the game and had a few beers.
BG: Lavington boasted a star studded line-up at the time. Who do you rate as the best player you played alongside?
PC: To be honest I wouldn't like to single one out. We probably had half-a-dozen superstars and it would be unfair to name just one.
BG: Sportees was pumping back in the the 80s and 90s. What are your memories of those days?
PC: Pumping is an understatement. I remember even on a Wednesday night there would be 500 people at the disco. On a Saturday and Sunday night there would be 500 lining up outside the club just to get into the joint. The footy club used to run the door back then and we got a few bucks which would go towards the footy trip away. We used to go overseas every second season back then.
BG: Did you use to go Lavington Sport Club on away matches or just after home games?
PC: We would always end up back there. I remember every away match out of town we would catch a bus. We played at Wangaratta one day and somebody bet Doug Norton-Smith couldn't drink eight cans before we got back to the Sportsclub. Well he dropped eight before we got to the traffic lights outside the Termo in Albury and then another two from there to the Sportsclub for good measure.
BG: Ha ha, that's not a bad lick. Was there any pranks involving Ray Mack that you can remember?
PC: Ray would undoubtedly be the most frugal teammate we had when it came to putting his hands in his pocket to shout a round. He even drove a mini minor back then because they were cheap to run. One day we had a Sunday training session and a few beers afterwards. Anyway, we were walking over to Sportees and Ray spots his beloved mini minor flipped upside down in the car park after a few of the boys decided to stitch him up. Ray got rid of that mini minor very quickly after that.
BG: Ha ha, that's a classic.
PC: It gets better. Ray thought he won lotto one day as well.
BG: What's happened?
PC: It's a long story but the short version is Wayne Jamieson and I were staying with Ray at his parents farm at Corryong. We had a big Saturday night, so Wayne and I borrowed Ray's car to go into town and get the papers and something to eat. Driving back we noticed Ray's lotto ticket in the console and changed the numbers. We got back to the farm and we sitting in the car reading the papers when Ray comes out and grabs his lotto ticket and grabs the paper and says he has won second division and runs inside. Ray has read the numbers wrong and runs outside yelling out to his parents "I've won lotto, I've won lotto." We let him go for about half-an-hour and he was buying us new cars and whatever else we wanted before Paul Chrisfield told Ray that he had been stitched up.
BG: Did you play in the 1990 Bloodbath, what are your memories of that?
PC: I was coming back from injury and played in the reserves. I remember Richard Bence kept tugging on Barry Wise's shorts and was told to stop doing it but didn't, so Wisey knocked him out. Bence got stretchered off during the seconds game. I was in the rooms after the reserves and I heard the crowd erupt so I just ran straight out and saw it all unfold. Usually a fight starts and everyone runs in. But this day for some reason there was spot fires all over the ground and you didn't know where to look. Blokes from both sides were getting king hit and it is easily the most brutal thing I have ever witnessed on a football field.
BG: Is it true you didn't mind a dart in your playing days?
PC: I used to buy a packet of Benson and Hedges 25s on game day and have a few on the Saturday night and the rest on the Sunday and then not smoke at all during the week.
BG: You were ultra competitive when it came to training and would be among the leaders in running drills?
PC: I used to love training. Being a sales rep I wasn't really active during the day and used to look forward to exercising and training as hard as I could.
BG: After the Bloodbath, you head out as coach of Holbrook in 1991?
PC: Originally Ray was going to coach and I was going to be assistant coach. Ray was working at the leisure centre at the time and couldn't end up coaching with his work commitments so I ended up doing the job.
BG: You won the flag against Bethanga in your first season as coach. What are you memories of that?
PC: Bethanga had a heap of high profile recruits that season with Peter Cross as coach, Peter Brouwer and Maurice Eames. But Holbrook boasted some talented locals in Cameron Jones, Russell Parker and Robbie Mackinlay. Laurie McInnes produced one of the best individual performances in the last quarter that I've ever seen as coach. He didn't train for six weeks in the lead-up and would have applied more than 10 tackles in the last quarter.
BG: It was a fairly fiery decider?
PC: It probably helped us but Maurice Eames come off the bench and cleaned one of our blokes up. In true Maurice form he came out the other side of the pack but saw Ray Mack waiting for him with his eyes rolling around in his head and ready to shape up. 'Moose' (Eames) ran at Ray and I remember Ray telling me afterwards that 'Moose's' head was like a dart board and he was never going to miss it.
BG: The following year in 1992 Ray finally got revenge on you for your lotto prank and misled you into believing you won Holbrook's best and fairest?
PC: Yeah I missed the actual vote count because I was coming back from Adelaide and got a couple of phone calls to say I had won the best and fairest but I was a bit skeptical. I was always going to drive out there when I got back from Adelaide and I remember picking up Danny Whitley as I drove through Holbrook. Danny says to me congratulations on winning the B&F and I thought to myself, "Geez I might have won it." I drive into the ground and everyone runs out cheering and clapping and I still thought to myself that didn't feel right. I went inside and am talking to a few blokes at the same time as counting the votes on the white board. Once I saw I had the most votes, I thought I must have won because I didn't think Ray would be smart enough to change the votes. So I thought I better make a speech and got a couple of minutes into it and Ray tells me that I had been set up. I will be the first to admit it was a good stitch-up.
BG: Looking back, how highly do you rate the prank?
PC: If you can't have a bit of a laugh at a footy club there is something wrong with you.
BG: You go from Holbrook in 1992 to Culcairn in 1993. What was the Brookers' reaction when you told them you were going to the arch rival?
PC: I met with Holbrook and told them I'm was going to another footy club. They said "Who is it?" I said "You know how you call Culcairn the town of a 1000? Well it's now the town of 1001, I'm coaching Culcairn."
BG: You lured Kerry Bahr out to Culcairn which was a huge recruiting coup at the time?
PC: Kerry actually rang me and said he wanted to come out and wanted a change of scenery. Obviously he was a great recruit for the club.
BG: What are your memories of the grand final?
PC: I remember we had both the seniors and reserves in the grand final that year. The previous year Walla beat Culcairn in the seconds and kept ringing up the pub and singing their song. So as pay back Culcairn decided if they were in front in the last quarter they would start a fight to pay Walla back. I remember we were warming up in the seniors at the time and all we saw was these Walla blokes getting belted. That was back in the old days when footy was a little bit different.
BG: You beat Bahry in the Azzi medal and best and fairest. I'm guessing you let him know about it?
PC: The count was on the Monday night before the grand final and to be honest we both wanted to win a flag and celebrate that as a group. KB became a member of the O&M Hall of Fame this year which was well deserved.
BG: I remember late in the season Culcairn beat Burrumbuttock by around 40 goals at Culcairn and you wanted the players to train straight after the match because you felt they hadn't had hard enough of a hitout?
PC: True story. There is only one player that objected and that was Brad Smith who said we would look like a pack of showoff's if we trained. I just wanted to see the attitude of the players. I'm glad "Poaches" (Smith) jacked up because I didn't really feel like training.
BG: You win a flag, Azzi medal and best and fairest in 1993. Did you ever play again?
PC: Once. It was in the early 2000s for Corryong when Ray was coaching. Corryong were short and Ray asked if I would fill in. I said "Only if I am captain, can wear No. 1, get a new pair of shorts and socks and you find a pair of boots that fit comfortably." Ray obliged and I ended up wearing a jumper with the No. 1 on my back with masking tape. It was funny, we were playing Tumbarumba and there was a six goal breeze. I won the toss and told Ray. Ray says to the players we are kicking with the breeze and I let him go, telling the players how to use the breeze then interrupted and said "no we aren't, I decided to kick against it."
BG: In 1994 you end up as coach of Wodonga Raiders for two seasons?
PC: After 1993 I was going to go back to Lavington to play and Kerry Bahr went to Wodonga Raiders as assistant coach under Simon Meehan. I was trying to get Kerry to come to Lavington and it was around February and he asked me to meet him for lunch at the Termo on a Friday. So I walked into the Termo about six weeks before the season and the whole Raiders committee is there. I thought what's the go here? Turned out Meehan got a job transfer and couldn't coach, so they were on the hunt for a new coach.
BG: You led the Raiders into their first finals series. You must be proud of the achievement?
PC: We made the preliminary final and got rolled by Albury. The highlight was the players and supporters that had been at the club during the tough times, finally taste some success .
BG: Is not winning an O&M premiership the missing jewel in your coaching crown?
PC: Yes, it would have been great to win the flag as the guys worked hard as a group to make the preliminary final. To get beat when I believed we were on the pace with Albury and Wodonga was very disappointing for the club and players and myself personally.
BG: Some critics are quick to point out you have only coached clubs that were in the premiership window. How do you respond to the criticism?
PC: I've never picked which clubs I coached. They just happened to be the first to call me when I was available. The only club I had discussions with about coaching and didn't end up doing it was with Walbundrie.
BG: Did you find coaching at the higher level much different?
PC: There was a lot more work involved in doing your homework on opposition strengths and weaknesses a lot more preparation on opposition player profiles, training three nights a week, just for starters. We ended up getting the players at Raiders to fill in a survey each match about the opposition. We wanted the players to share their knowledge. Back in the mid 90s, the crowds were massive with more than 3000 spectators each week. There were plenty of former AFL players at the time including Bernard Toohey, Craig Smith, Robbie Walker, Peter Foster, Ronnie McKeown, Paul Spargo and Ernie Whitehead.
BG: You take a step back from footy after 1995 because of work commitments but end up at Mitta United in 2004-05 and claim back to back flags. What is the key to Mitta United's unrivalled success in the TDFL?
PC: The passion that has been handed down through the generations.
BG: Any good stories from your time up in the hills?
PC: They knew how to have a good time up there and I remember one mystery bus tour in particular was memorable. There was all different sorts of games like Survivor for points. It included log races across the netball courts and then you had to skull a can and shoot a goal. Next stop we pull up at a stockyard and its dark and in the middle of winter. There was also a bull and there was tape on its ears and tail and you had to try and get the tape off the bull. Another challenge was to milk a pint of milk from a cow and then skull the milk. It was an entertaining night. At one stage Ross Hodgkin was riding his bike nude in front of the bus.
BG: You take another break before being lured back into coaching by Thurgoona in 2015. Were you confident you still had your golden touch?
PC: To become Thurgoona's first premiership coach in 2016 was a highlight. It was a bit ironic because I remember playing against Thurgoona when I was at Holbrook and we used to belt them by at least 40 goals. I think Ray kicked 28 goals one day against them. But there is a real community out there and I don't know where they will end up long-term. With the growth out there and the amount of support, I can see scope for Thurgoona joining the O&M.
BG: You have five premierships as a coach. Who do you rate as some of the best rival coaches?
PC: I enjoyed the challenge of coaching against Paul Spargo and Ernie Whitehead who were both very smart tactically. Especially Ernie would also be doing something different like lining up with six blokes in the goal square and then you would have to try and combat it. I also enjoyed coaching against Peter Cross at Bethanga because we had played a lot of football against each other in the O&M.
BG: What do you love most about coaching?
PC: Football clubs are unique in that you have a group of guys that aren't mates initially and are from all different parts of society. They get together and work hard and bond and achieve things as a group and this is what it's all about. The most important thing is to be able to give something back to the volunteers around the club so they are part of the enjoyment for their hard work.
BG: Can you see yourself coaching again.
PC: It's unlikely with my work commitments.