Mark McSweeney was a talented kid who made his senior debut at the tender age of 13. By the time McSweeney was 18 he had won his first flag and best and fairest. McSweeney retired at 37 after having won seven flags and four best and fairests - two at both Tallangatta and Holbrook. McSweeney caught-up with The Border Mail's BRENT GODDE during the week.
BRENT GODDE: It's unheard of these days but you made your senior debut for Tallangatta in 1974 as a 13-year-old?
MARK McSWEENEY: I started under coach Allan Curtis and I played on a wing and Steve Smith was on the other wing and was the same age.
BG: That's an impressive effort?
MM: It gets better. I made my senior interleague debut for the TDFL as a 15-year-old and got best on ground at Condobolin of all places which is 400km from here. I have still got the paper clipping in my scrapbook to prove it.
BG: How many matches did you rack-up over your career?
MM: I retired when I was 37 so I'm only guessing but between 400 and 500 matches.
BG: You won your first senior flag at Tallangatta in 1979 and also won the club's best and fairest as an 18-year-old?
MM: Mick Maddox was the coach and we beat Kiewa-Sandy Creek.
BG: You rate Maddox highly as a player?
MM: Mick was a gun and his silky skills had to be seen to be believed. He was a tough little prick too.
BG: The following year you go back-to-back against Wodonga Demons?
MM: Mick had just led the club to consecutive flags yet the hierarchy said the players were sick of him and needed a fresh voice. So Mick signed as coach of Mitta United and I followed him as an assistant coach.
BG: You were relatively young to be an assistant coach?
MM: I was but you have to take into account that by 1981 I had been playing senior football for six-years and had played more than 100 matches.
BG: It seems bizarre that Tallangatta would part ways with Maddox after he just delivered back-to-back flags?
MM: Mick loved to train and most of his sessions would go for two-and-a-half hours. Maybe the players did get a bit jack of that. But he could certainly teach blokes how to play footy.
BG: Maddox's game plan was based on a lot of run with extensive use of handball?
MM: When he got to Mitta their game plan was stop-start but he introduced his handball and running game.
BG: I believe some of the locals weren't convinced with Maddox's game plan?
MM: In 1982 we played Culcairn in the last round before finals and got flogged by 50-points. That night back at the pub we had most of the side wanting to fight Mick and I out the front.
BG: What sparked the controversy?
MM: The Hodgkin boys and a few of the other players told Mick his game plan sucked and it wouldn't stack-up in finals. It was funny looking back because Mick was on crutches and had a drip in his leg because he copped a bad corkie that day and the Hodgkin boys wanted to belt him.
BG: Was there a punch-up over it?
MM: No but it was fairly heated there for a while. Mick just told them to trust him and said "I'll prove to you I'm right."
BG: Maddox had the last laugh because you scored a convincing win against Culcairn in the grand final?
MM: We won by 10 goals and the Hodgkin boys had to eat a bit of humble pie.
BG: You never had a crack at the O&M?
MM: I was going to in 1983 with Wodonga but I injured my knee in the pre-season so I hardly played that year.
BG: Do you regret not playing O&M?
MM: Not really, I enjoyed the social side of football and a few beers on a Friday night so I probably didn't have the discipline to be a good O&M player.
BG: So you would have quite a few beers most Friday nights during the season?
MM: Yeah, I loved it and it wouldn't be unusual for me to get home at midnight from Carrier Arms on a Friday night.
BG: Did your coaches know about it?
MM: It was probably the worst kept secret during my time at Mitta. I remember at home games I would drive to Mitta and Hughie Giltrap would be working on the gate and look at me and just shake his head.
BG: Did he say anything to you?
MM: No the look was worth a thousand words. I was that scared of him I just knew I had to play well or I would have copped it from him. We laugh about it now we are retired but he often says how many times I turned up with bloodshot eyes and reeking of alcohol.
BG: What about during the finals?
MM: Before the 1982 grand final I didn't get home from The Ritz nightclub until 3am on the Sunday morning. The grand final was on a Sunday that year for some reason.
BG: Are you serious?
MM: Yeah I went to the races on the Saturday at Albury and had every intention of not drinking because the grand final was the next day.
BG: What changed your mind?
MM: Peter Tobin had a tip at Albury, so I had $50 each-way and it's lobbed at 12/1 and I pocketed $800. So I had two beers to celebrate. I was with Mick Hodgkin and a few of the boys and they said 'Mark you have to play in a grand final tomorrow.'
BG: Did you listen to your mates?
MM: I wish I had but I didn't. I met some sheila from Darwin at the races, so I got on the drink with her and was still at The Ritz nightclub when it was shutting at 3am. I think by the time I got to bed it was 6am.
BG: Did you have a hangover?
MM: Like you wouldn't believe. I missed the team meeting and Mick Maddox gave me the filthiest look when I got to the change rooms. I was spewing in the dunnies when he was giving his pre-match address.
BG: I'm guessing you would have struggled to get a kick?
MM: I'm not lying but I was best-on-ground. I was too scared of the consequences if I didn't perform and we got beat.
BG: I think you and Culcairn enforcer Frank Ravenna tangled that day and you both got reported?
MM: Frank and I get on well now. We used to play it hard on the field and neither of us would take a backward step and then have a beer with each other after the game.
BG: You both got two weeks?
MM: Back in those days they held the tribunal after the match in the hall up on the hill at Sandy Creek. So I just said to Frank we will both plead guilty and cop our medicine. Two weeks wasn't a bad result.
BG: How many times did you get reported throughout your career?
MM: Only three. I got four weeks for hitting Stan Olejniczak from Yackandandah and two weeks for my run in with Ravenna. I should have gotten 10 weeks after I belted Mark West one year.
BG: 10 weeks, you must have given him a fair touch-up?
MM: When I was playing with Holbrook, Bruce and Mark Bird from Kiewa-Sandy Creek gave it to Laurie McInnes and myself and we copped a fair touch-up. I got eye-gouged and Mark Bird got me down and gave me about 20 punches to the head.
BG: I'm guessing you didn't get mad, you got even?
MM: The following year Ross Hedley took over as coach of Holbrook and we were playing Kiewa-Sandy Creek. As we were running out on the ground I told Ross 'I'm going to get reported today, I'm going to smack Bruce Bird.'
BG: Did you ruffle Bird's feathers so to speak?
MM: I got out there looking for him and it turned out he wasn't playing.
BG: So there was no revenge?
MM: There was still a big brawl in the first five minutes and I got into a punch-up with Mark West instead. I got reported for striking West to the head on 18 occasions.
BG: How many weeks did you get?
MM: I was expecting 10 weeks but I got tickled with a feather and only got two weeks.
BG: You and Dallas Kotzur had quite a few run-ins during your career?
MM: Yeah I used to try and give it to him when I could, simply because he was such a great footballer and I would try and slow him up a bit.
BG: Kotzur got belted fairly bad in 1982 by a Mitta player?
MM: Yeah we heard Culcairn was going to get David Brown to target Mick Maddox so we sorted Kotzur out on the side. We thought if our coach is going down, your coach is going down.
BG: Kotzur didn't talk to you for several years after the incident?
MM: No he wasn't happy and used to snob me whenever we crossed paths. Then a couple of years later we were both at the footy with Neville Hensel and he said 'it's about time you two sorted out your differences.' So we shook hands and we are good mates now.
BG: I think the send-off rule was introduced not long after in the TDFL to stamp out the unsavoury tactic?
MM: I think Mitta did it in a couple of grand finals in-a-row. After it happened to Ross Hedley one year the league introduced the send-off rule.
BG: You went back to Tallangatta in 1989 and played in a flag under Bert Hollands?
MM: Holbrook beat us in the second semi-final by 16 goals when Ross Hillary was coaching them. We then beat them two weeks later in the grand final.
BG: You were injured that day and sat most of the game in the forward pocket.
MM: Yeah I didn't want to come off so I went forward. I kicked four on Matty Whitley in the second quarter on one leg which I always remind him of when I see him.
BG: What was it like playing against Mitta after you left?
MM: Hughie Giltrap wasn't happy I left for another TDFL club. It probably took him a year or two to get over it. I went up to him at Shane Turner's 50th and I said 'Hughie I reckon you are the toughest bloke I've ever played footy with and we need to move on.' We've been as good as gold since then.
BG: How tough was he?
MM: I remember we were playing in the second semi-final in 1982 after having the first week of the finals off. Hughie broke his scaphoid in the last round and had his forearm in plaster.
BG: No doubt a huge loss, did you win?
MM: I was picking the side with Mick Maddox on the Thursday night and Hughie walks in and says 'where did you pick me?' We said we left you out because you are injured and he said 'I never said I was injured.'
BG: Surely he didn't play?
MM: Hughie turned upfor the final and his brother Mike took the plaster off and gave him a jab. Hughie played and then Mike put the plaster back on. We won the game and he did the same thing two weeks later in the grand final.
BG: That's unbelievable?
MM: Hughie did something similar in 1988 when I was at Holbrook and we played Mitta in the grand final. Hughie did his knee on the Thursday night before the second semi-final and spent a week in hospital. Somehow he got up for the grand final and rucked against Neville Lampe and was best-on-ground.
BG: What a legend?
MM: If you see Hughie now he's just about buggered and walks with a limp.
BG: Hughie always looked after the Mitta kids coming through the ranks?
MM: I remember when I was suspended after the 1982 grand final we played Culcairn early the next season and I was the runner. Anyhow Mick 'Dingus' Brown was giving it to one of our kids.
BG: Did Hughie square the ledger?
MM: I got talking to Mick one day after we had both retired and he told me Hughie walked out the following year and smacked him in the head and said 'That's for last year.' Mick said he thought it was fair enough but he said 'Hughie must have thought I had Alzheimer's because he did it to me for the next five years as well to keep reminding me.'
BG: Hughie was tough but he could also play and won three Barton medals?
MM: I remember one year that he won the medal we played Culcairn the last round and the league vote count was later that night. Anyhow Hughie knocked out either John Pumpa or Ashley Dyde that day. I was standing on the dance floor next to Hughie that night after he won the medal and one of the Culcairn players wives came up. I thought she was going to congratulate Hugh but instead kicked him in the shins and said 'that's for being a dirty prick today.'
BG: Is there anyone that could rival Hughie for his toughness at their peak?
MM: Yeah Craig Walsh is his name and he was a gun player and geez he could fight. Hughie even admitted to me once he would hate to play against him and go toe-to-toe.
BG: The league enforced Craig to play interleague one year?
MM: Craig was a cop in Melbourne but if you were picked for interleague those days and didn't play you got suspended.
BG: Did Craig play?
MM: Yeah the league flew him from Melbourne but Albury airport was fogged out so he landed at Wagga. Craig had to catch a cab from Wagga to Sandy Creek. He hardly got a kick and the only thing he did was punch Doug Norton-Smith and also had a punch-up with Kevin Mack. It was quite funny to watch two cops going for it. Unfortunately for Kevin he wore a couple that day.
BG: You also led Border-Walwa to back-to-back flags as playing coach in the early 1990s.
MM: It was sad to see them fold this year. We had a great side back then with Wayne Edwards and Rohan Evans, the Hunt boys and Stewie Greenhill. We also had a bloke by the name of Craig Reid running around.
BG: The same Craig Reid that was found guilty of murder in 2004?
MM: Yeah he killed his girlfriend at Holbrook and put her in the boot.
BG: What kind of player was he?
MM: Craig liked to call himself a 'tagger'. I could go and tell him to tag a bloke and he would knock them out straight away and he would say to me 'I tagged him'.
BG: Federal's Beau McKimmie got 'tagged' one day?
MM: Mark Aalbers was our centreman and was getting beat by McKimmie. So I told Mark to go forward and for Craig to 'tag' McKimmie. Less than two minutes later Craig said to me 'I tagged him' and you see McKimmie being carted off.
BG: One year in the grand final you were a couple of blokes short for most of the first-quarter?
MM: It was hailing and we had three Indigenous recruits that year. During the first-quarter I thought the opposition must have had some extra players on the ground because they seemed to have loose men everywhere. Then I looked over to the bench and the three Indigenous players were huddled together on the bench under a blanket.
BG: You had a nickname 'Gonzo'?
MM: That was from my butchering days because I had a big beak. It got smashed a few times on the footy field, don't worry about that.
BG: You coached Holbrook in the twilight of your career before retiring at the end of 1997, aged 37?
MM: Yeah I used to live on beer and cigarettes and then Ross Hedley took over as coach after me and he introduced training three nights a week and eating watermelon and snakes after a match. I knew then it was time to give it away.
BG: You used to love your time at Holbrook and would make it a long weekend quite often when you were coaching?
MM: Yeah Terry Hogan was the publican and used to look after me. So I would quite regularly head out to training on a Thursday night, have a sickie on the Friday, play on the Saturday and get back home on Tuesday night after training.
BG: Terry Hogan was a generous publican and a good bloke to know?
MM: I remember the first time Terry met my wife Helen he said I was the perfect coach. 'Mark is a good coach, good player, good bloke and most importantly supported the town and spent all his money in Holbrook.'