Nic Conway is the first to admit he wasn't the most talented player in the O&M. But there is no doubt Conway got the best out of himself in his 300 plus matches for his beloved Wodonga Raiders. Conway caught up with The Border Mail's BRENT GODDE during the week.
BRENT GODDE: You are well-known for your nickname 'Narra' as is your father Tony. What is the origin behind the nickname?
NIC CONWAY: I was at Wodonga Demons one day and the coach went around and asked each player what their nickname was. I was about 17 at the time and I didn't have one so Paul Twycross came up with it straight away and said your nickname is 'Narra'. It's funny, now Paul is coaching my 15-year-old son in the juniors and has christened him 'Narra' as well.
BG: Your father, Tony, played more than 100 matches with Wodonga with former Collingwood champion Des Healy among his coaches?
NC: Dad is like me and is a fanantical Collingwood supporter who loves his footy. When he talks about his Wodonga teammates it's as if they were Peter Daicos and Nathan Buckley. If dad had his way he would have had all Wodonga players in the O&M Team of the Century.
BG: You have fond memories of Wodonga as a kid and looked up to star Bulldogs Des Richardson, Bob Craig and Wayne Pendergast?
NC: I went to the footy every single week from as young as I can remember. Dad was heavily involved with Wodonga when he retired from playing and I always used to get a lift to away games with somebody if Dad was busy with work at the sports store or the funeral director's. I used to wear Des' number 9, 'Pender' was 34 and Bob was 10.
BG: Your father used to have some handy contacts while running the sports store in Wodonga?
NC: When he was president of Wodonga Demons in the early 1980s he used to organise Peter Knights and John Hendrie from Hawthorn to take training when they could. They both were sales representatives for Puma and would come up to Wodonga to sell dad shoes for the sports store.
BG: You attended Assumption College in Kilmore as a teenager. Did any of your schoolmates go on to play AFL?
NC: A couple played a handful of games and guys like Barry Young and Tim Powell were a bit older than me at school and had successful AFL careers. I remember Jon Henry was in my year and kicked 201 goals in Year 12 and made 1000 runs in cricket and was an unbelievable sportsman. Jon needed 12 goals in the last round to get to 200 and kicked 13.
BG: The school footy at the time was of a high standard?
NC: Yeah I wasn't a senior player at Assumption and it was a really high standard of footy. There was no TAC Cup back then so all the good players in the country went to Assumption College.
BG: Despite your father playing for Wodonga, you play juniors for Wodonga Demons in the TDFL?
NC: While I was a Wodonga supporter, the TDFL introduced fourths into the league in 1984 and I was the right age at the time so I decided to play for the Demons.
BG: I believe that fourths side was the first to play at Birallee Park?
NC: That's right, previous to that the Wodonga Demons played all their home matches at Martin Park, similar to Wodonga Saints these days.
BG: The Demons dominated the fourths competition initially?
NC: We won a flag under Les Lee in the first year and the Demons went on to win three consecutive flags and were undefeated in that time. Culcairn beat them in the grand final in 1987 which was their first loss.
BG: During that era it was hard to get a game at Wodonga with a lot of talented juniors including Stephen Clarke crossing the Border to get a game with rival clubs in the O&M?
NC: That's why people like my dad, John Perry and Frank Richardson who were prominent figures at Wodonga were the driving force behind getting another Wodonga team in the O&M. Guys like Stephen Clarke, Ant McIvor, Paul Wolk, Danny and Pat Murphy ended up at other O&M clubs because they couldn't get a game with Wodonga Bulldogs.
BG: The move of Wodonga Demons to Wodonga Raiders and entering the O&M in 1989 didn't happen overnight?
NC: The move was knocked backed several times but through a lot of persistence finally eventuated in 1989. I remember there was a lot of resentment from quite a few rival O&M clubs at the time.
BG: You made your senior debut for Wodonga Demons in 1988?
NC: I got suspended from school in 1988 for five weeks, so I was at home and asked dad if I was allowed to go to football training. Dad reluctantly agreed because he wasn't happy about me being suspended. So I rocked up to training and Bert Hollands picked me for my senior debut. I ended up playing the last seven matches of the season before switching leagues the following year.
BG: What did you get suspended for?
NC: Next question.
BG: What are your memories of your senior debut?
NC: It was against Tallangatta and I played on a wing and lined-up against 'Porky' Plemming. 'Porky' is a mate of mine now but I was a bit intimidated by him back then. I was only a skinny teenager and playing on 'Porky' who was solidly built, with a mad beard and even madder eyes. Luckily I was faster than him and it's fair to say that I didn't rack up too many hard-ball gets that day.
BG: You were playing when there was an unusual incident that season in Wodonga Demons' last ever match in the TDFL against Barnawartha involving umpire Ken Wright?
NC: Both Bert Hollands and Maurice Eames got sent off early in the match. Anyway Ken went to send them both off again later in the match and they simply refused to go off. There was a standoff between them and after about five minutes Ken decided to throw the ball-up and play continued with both Bert and Maurice still on the ground.
BG: Wodonga Demons had some high-profile coaches during their time in the TDFL?
NC: Tom Doolan, Kevin Richardson and Jack Clancy both coached the Demons.
BG: I know Jack didn't coach you but have you got any stories about him?
NC: I remember interviewing Jack on stage at a past players function. Jack said when he first coached Demons he used to take training on a Thursday night then head straight to the bar and let the other officials pick the side. He said he got away with it for the first six weeks before they made him sit in on selection.
BG: The following season in 1989 the Wodonga Demons joined the O&M as the Wodonga Raiders with Mark Turner as your inaugural coach?
NC: As I said the club has a history of luring high-profile coaches and Mark was no exception and played 35 matches for Hawthorn and coached for the first four seasons in the O&M.
BG: Despite having a high-profile coach there was plenty of pain early on for the Raiders who lost their first 23 matches including several 200-point floggings.
NC: Basically we were still a TDFL club in that first year. I look back now at a photograph from our first training run and no disrespect to anybody but there is Patty Williams, 'Moose' Eames, Norm Cowan and myself up the front of the group. So we were lucky to have a coach the calibre of Mark Turner and recruit Rudy Yonson but we just didn't have the cattle.
BG: Was it hard to attract recruits being the new kids on the block?
NC: I remember Drew Pevitt was transferred to Wodonga as a policeman and we tried to recruit him. Drew and Mark Turner were good mates and previously played together at Box Hill. But Drew didn't want to play for a struggling side and signed with Wodonga instead.
BG: Raiders finally secured their first win against Myrtleford early in their second season in 1990?
NC: It was huge at the time. It was a wet day and I remember we played Myrtleford in the final round the previous year and only got beat by 16 points which was our smallest losing margin. It turned out to be our only win of the season.
BG: It took until 1994 to notch your first local derby win against Wodonga?
NC: Wodonga beat us 11 times in-a-row before we finally beat them. Revenge was sweet though because then we beat them 13 times in-a-row.
BG: How would you describe the rivalry?
NC: While there was a rivalry, internally we didn't talk about it much. It probably meant more to Wodonga because we were the new kids on the block. But to us, everybody we played was a new side.
BG: I think a handy kid by the name of Fraser Gehrig played in your first win over Wodonga?
NC: Fraser was playing for the Murray Bushrangers and had the week off. To his credit he lined-up against Neil Cordy who obviously played AFL and kicked a few goals for us.
BG: You also played under high-profile coaches Simon Meehan and Jim Silvestro before Peter Copley arrived in 1994 and you play finals for the first time.
NC: Both Simon and Jim played VFL/AFL and Simon changed the culture of the club and introduced a bit more professionalism. He was the first coach in the O&M to get the players to wear a uniform and we had to wear trousers, a collared shirt with the club logo and tie to every match.
BG: But it was Copley who added the polish to transform the Raiders into a finals force?
NC: Copley came along and he has a history of success and although we didn't win a flag under him, Peter certainly helped laid the foundation for future success and guided us to our first finals win.
BG: The following year in 1995 I think from memory you just happened to play Wodonga in your first final?
NC: We played Wodonga at Albury Sportsground and I remember Daniel Bradshaw came off the bench for the Bulldogs in the second-half and kicked three goals back when he was a kid and you could tell he was going to be something special.
BG: You also played Wangaratta Rovers that year in a final at Myrtleford where the Hawks kicked the first five goals in the opening ten minutes?
NC: I didn't find out until after the match but the radio commentators that day said if any Raider supporters are still on their way to Myrtleford turn around now and go home because this game is over. I hope nobody listened because we ended up turning things around and won.
BG: Brendan McEvoy was the hero?
NC: Yeah the match was up for grabs late and Brendan missed a sitter which would have sealed the match for us. The Rovers then got a quick goal to hit the front and I thought we would lose for sure. Then Brendan redeemed himself with a banana from the boundary line that won us the match.
BG: In 1997 Darren Harris arrived from Western Australia and also brought some high-profile recruits with him?
NC: Darren had played in flags for Wodonga, Golden Square and West Perth and was a coach with simple philosophies. Darren just had a few non-negotiables and was really structured in how we played. Recruits Geoff Valentine and Ben Stewart had played in a flag in Western Australia. Darren also signed Rod Winner but just as importantly got Vin Glass and Andrew Nichols from Wodonga who helped drive the culture.
BG: You played Albury in the 1997 decider?
NC: Albury were probably favourites but I thought we were a huge chance after Ken Howe did his Achilles at the opening bounce. But Anthony Foubister went into the ruck and was nearly best on ground. We were storming home and seven points down and I remember Danny Daly was about to kick a goal and we could have been a point down but he slipped over.
BG: In 1998 you injured your knee in the pre-season and it takes a while for you to get back in the side?
NC: It was an eight week knee injury and it was a hard side to get into.
BG: You were able to force your way back into the side before finals?
NC: Fortunately yes and there were some blokes who were unlucky not to play in the flag that season. Brendan Way broke his leg and was the hard-luck story because he was only young and had really emerged as a handy O&M player that season.
BG: The Raiders finally won an elusive maiden flag in 1998 which is still the clubs only premiership?
NC: We were thrashed in two matches late in the year and our form leading into finals wasn't great. Lavington then pumped us by more than 10 goals in the second semi-final to go straight into the decider. Paul Knight and Scott Hedley who had both missed a lot of football came back into the side for the preliminary final. So in the grand final we were able to change a few of our match-ups compared to the second semi-final.
BG: What were some of the significant changes?
NC: Heath Mooney went on to Chris Stuhldreier and Paul Knight played on Tim Sanson and we were able to win by more than 10 goals which was a huge turnaround.
BG: Being the club's first flag, I imagine the celebrations were huge?
NC: There's no prizes for guessing that and looking back we probably got a bit carried away. We even had a 14-day reunion.
BG: Ha, ha, I haven't heard of that before. I heard the players may have bumped into Chris Stuhldreier on your mad Monday?
NC: Stuhldreier was a bit unlucky and I think on the Monday he was working late and went to Elgin's for a drink after he had finished his shift at the Wodonga cop shop at about 11pm. Anyway we turned up there after being on the drink all day and Vinnie Glass was giving it to Stuhldreier and dangling his premiership medallion in his face. I don't think Stulhdreier was too impressed at the time but he copped his medicine anyway.
BG: In 2005 Dean Lupson dropped you from the senior side for missing a compulsory team meeting?
NC: Yeah, in my defence I was at work and wasn't aware there was a compulsory meeting but I played seconds that week and copped my punishment.
BG: How did you find Lupson as a coach?
NC: I remember he was big on team bonding and mateship. Lupson organised for a pool table and dart board to be put in the clubrooms and didn't mind if blokes had a beer after training on a Thursday night and played a bit of pool. He was of the opinion that the O&M was getting too professional and players needed to enjoy the social side of football a bit more.
BG: Did you think it was strange at the time?
NC: I could see what he was trying to achieve. Don't get me wrong, blokes weren't getting hammered on a Thursday night, he just wanted the players to have a beer and hang out together after training instead of jumping in their cars and going straight home.
BG: In 2006 you play your 300th match for Raiders which is obviously a huge achievement?
NC: It was a huge honour but I'm a bit embarrassed about it as well. You look at some of the other players throughout the league who have also achieved the feat and I'll be the first to admit I'm not in the same bracket as those guys as a player.
BG: You were a big supporter of inter-league during you O&M career and played on the MCG and Waverley during the league's reign of four consecutive Country Championships.
NC: I thought I was fortunate to get a game because I knew I wasn't a star of the competition but could play my role. I got knocked out at Waverley so I don't really have any fond memories of that game.
BG: You played for the O&M on the MCG as the curtain raiser to the pre-season grand final between North Melbourne and Essendon one year?
NC: It was an unforgettable experience. I remember I took a mark 30m from goal and went back to have a shot thinking to myself how cool it would be to kick a goal on the MCG in front of this massive crowd. One of the more senior players called for the ball, so I passed it to him. I remember Neil Davis who was a selector told me at the huddle, next time you are in a position to have a shot back yourself. I think he knew I passed the ball because a more senior player had called for it.
BG: I believe Mick Wilson made a memorable speech to the crowd when the league was presented with the trophy?
NC: Everyone was anticipating the start of the grand final and weren't interested in listening to speeches. Anyhow Mick gets up and says 'I appreciate everyone coming to watch us today. You might want to stick around for the next match, there might just be a few good players running around.' We were all roaring with laughter and even some of the crowd could see the funny side of Mick's speech.
BG: You become club president in 2014 which coincides with coach Ken Stevenson stepping down after only one season?
NC: We had been on the bottom of the ladder for a period of time and I had a conversation with Paul Twycross and we were both of the opinion that the club was quickly becoming irrelevant within the competition. I had to make to hard decisions to turn that around.
BG: You were the driving force behind landing Daryn Cresswell as coach in 2015?
NC: I was talking to Scott Hedley who mentioned Daryn Cresswell was getting rave reviews for his coaching with Palm Beach. I called Tod Bryant and Chad Owens who were playing under Creswell and spoke highly of him. The rest is history I suppose you could say.
BG: Hindsight is a wonderful thing, did you make the right decision?
NC: Clearly Daryn is an outstanding coach and we went from the bottom of the ladder to a flag contender. Cressa was probably unlucky not to have got us to a grand final when we lost the second semi-final to Albury in 2018 after being in front with 40 seconds to go.
BG: You head out to Mitta United from 2007 first as an assistant coach for three years before coaching.
NC: I think I was 37 when I headed bush and was lucky enough to win a flag in my first year under Phil Packer by one point against Kiewa Sandy Creek. We kicked two late goals in the third-quarter to get within 28-points at the last change. Phil decided to roll the dice and made about five changes and I'll be honest, as an assistant coach I didn't agree with any of them at the time but kept my mouth shut. History says we won by a point.
BG: What is the secret to Mitta United's success?
NC: I think it's that they don't worry about anyone else and just worry about themselves. I remember going to selection and asking who are we going to play on this bloke? They would just say don't worry about that, let them worry about us.