AFTER starting his football with a flag at home club Walla, Darren Holmes went on to star in the Ovens and Murray before playing 63 AFL matches. He was front and centre in the 1990 bloodbath grand final between Lavington and Wodonga. Holmes, 49, caught up with The Border Mail's BRETT KOHLHAGEN this week.
BRETT KOHLHAGEN: I must admit I was shocked when I heard you had been appointed coach of Yackandandah this year as you absolutely hated football when you finished playing didn't you?
DARREN HOLMES: I didn't want anything to do with footy for a long time. Injuries had gotten the better of me and I just felt I'd given my whole life to it. I felt I was doing what was expected of me rather than what I wanted to do. Don't get me wrong I loved playing footy but I always felt that pressure.
BK: So the strain had taken its toll when you came back to Lavington after playing 63 matches for Sydney and Fitzroy?
DH. Pretty much. I went to North Ballarat as an assistant-coach before returning to Lavi. I kept tearing quad muscles at Lavington and then I cracked my teeth in an incident at Lavington. I'd already snapped the top half of my jaw at Sydney and did a heap of damage and I just thought enough is enough.
BK: You didn't hang up the boots though and came out of retirement to have one last year with some mates at Mitta
DH: It was a great club with great blokes but I shouldn't have played. 'Swinno' (Jamie Swinnerton), 'Mickers' (Craig McMillan), 'Willo' (Brett Wilson) and Doug Mitchell were there which was great but I remember cracking some ribs a few weeks before the finals. I missed a couple of games but came back and I couldn't even be physical during a final against Barnawartha. I was embarrassed to play my last game of footy like that. I felt I'd let Mitta down. Physically and mentally I was shot.
BK: And it was over for a long time wasn't it?
DH: Yep, I had nothing to do with footy at all for about 10 years. I didn't watch AFL on television and wouldn't have known who was playing in grand finals if it wasn't for the media saturation. I just concentrated on my work and family and kept as far away from it as possible.
BK: That carried over into your son Will's football too didn't it?
DH: Will said he wanted to play Auskick and he kept at us and at us while we were in Melbourne. My wife and I tried to talk him into playing soccer and hockey and tennis and everything else we could think of (laughs).
BK: But he wore you down?
DH: Eventually we signed him up for Auskick. There were kids going everywhere on his first night and I just sensed this wasn't going to end well. Anyway, someone kicked a footy and it hit him in the head and just lifted Will off the ground. He started bawling his head off. Deep down I was probably thinking: 'You beauty, this could be the end of the footy again'
BK: So what happened from there?
DH: Once things settled down I told him you couldn't give up after one run so we took him back` He refused to join in though and went right off the sport until we moved from Melbourne to Yackandandah. He got right into it then and has loved it ever since.
BK: And so have you?
DH: Yack asked me to go away to a footy camp as a parent and someone asked if I could help out with a drill and it just went from there. Then I started to get into teaching the kids to kick properly and before I knew it I was coaching the under-14s. I still blame Sam Pan as he got me back helping out that first time.
BK: It's one thing coaching the juniors but another coaching a senior side
DH: Nobody is more surprised than my wife, Brenda. The league got me to do a junior inter-league side last year and I really enjoyed it. Then I was watching the senior footy one day at Yack and I found myself getting right into it. I knew the club was looking for a coach so I put my hand up and here I am.
BK: You haven't had the chance to coach a game yet due to COVID-19 but how have you found it?
DH: I love the blokes. I'm 100 per cent in. We are a young side and hopefully we can build ourselves back up. I'm lucky to be surrounded by great people like my assistant coaches. I enjoy seeing kids improve. We have a kid at Yack who came over from the Kimberley two or three years ago who had hardly kicked a footy. He has improved his footy out of sight . He's always getting knocked arse over but keeps getting up with a big grin on his face. It's been one of my biggest thrills seeing him and others improve.
BK: Take us back to your playing days. You played in Walla's last premiership in 1987 only three weeks after turning 17. That's a great start.
DH: It was my one and only premiership. I probably thought at the time they were easy to win.
BK: Walla won that game against Jindera by five points after David Schirmer kicked a goal with 12 seconds left on the clock.
DH: Yep, big 'Curl' (Schirmer) put that one through thankfully. I was too young to remember much about it but it was a great season. I was given a lot of opportunities.
BK: Big night of celebrations for a 17-year-old?
DH: I remember we went back to the Walla footy ground and they were calling everyone up on the back of the truck to sing the club song. They called my name and I didn't hear it as I think I must have been talking to the girls or something as you did as a 17-year-old. I still remember my old man getting stuck right into me for it.
BK: What are your best memories of that year?
DH: Pissing myself laughing every time our coach Doug Norton-Smith got into a fight and had to put his glasses back on properly.
BK: How did you get to Lavington the following year?
DH: Jeff Cassidy came and spoke to me during the year which was pretty nerve wracking. I thought I'd give it a go
BK: You played some good footy during the next three years at Lavington
DH: I loved the place. I hardly had any injuries besides some broken fingers and everyone looked after me coming in from the country. I think they thought it was funny that I would have two hot dogs and a can of coke at half-time of the ressies and things like that.
BK: The 1990 bloodbath was your last game for the club wasn't it?
DH: There are two sides to that story and one side hasn't been explored that much. Why was there so much bad blood between the sides? I know why I had bad blood. That was because I saw kids younger than me getting king hit during the 1990 season. Dean Greacen got king hit one day when I was 10 metres away and the noise of it was sickening.
BK: Were there other incidents?
DH: Yep. We played Wodonga one game and I was walking past their change rooms at Lavi and heading to the gym when I saw a piece of paper on the ground. I picked it up and they were Jeff Gieschen's notes. It had written on it: 'Grab their young blokes by the throat, intimidate them' and things like that.
I have two regrets about that day and would like to change. Firstly, I would have liked to have won and secondly I regret smacking 'Bear' (Brett) Allen
BK: You were in the thick of the action on grand final day at Albury with 68 weeks in suspensions handed out. You were given six of them for striking
DH: I have two regrets about that day and would like to change. Firstly, I would have liked to have won and secondly I regret smacking 'Bear' (Brett) Allen. I saw 'Bear' years later and he was talking to Brett Wilson and 'Bear' said if I talk to 'Willo' will you come over and jump on my back again. It's a big regret of mine. There is no bad blood now which is good. Wodonga won the premiership and history is written by the victors.
BK: Then you went to Sydney the following year with a six-game suspension hanging over your head?
DH: Col Kinnear rang me and said they were playing a practice game in Albury and asked if I'd like to play. I said I guess so probably without a lot of enthusiasm. Anyway, I played and got a few kicks and then I rang him up the following week and asked if I could play for them as the Swans were playing in Wagga. I signed up after that and played a few Lightning Cup matches which counted in my suspension.
BK: What was it like going from Walla to Sydney?
DH: It was an eye-opener. I remember seeing Noel Wilksch (former secretary) back in Walla one day and he asked me how long it took to get from one side of Sydney to the other and he just said: 'Geez, it must be a big place' (laughs). I was working night shift as a sprinkler fitter in fire protection and trying to get training and interstate games. It was horrific. The place I was working for couldn't care less about AFL.
BK: You played under a number of coaches didn't you. Any stand-outs?
DH: Mick Nunan was good at Fitzroy and Jeff Cassidy and Richard Hamilton in the Ovens and Murray. 'Hammo' (Hamilton) was made out of granite, he was just so hard. He taught me about the physical game and I tried to copy him. If Jeff Cassidy had the footy, you knew he would hit you with it from anywhere.
BK: You lived with Matthew Primus when you were at Fitzroy. Tell us about the microwave incident.
DH: Matty came to Fitzroy from Adelaide as our ruck saviour. He was a big unit and nice guy. One night we were getting ready to go to footy training and I yelled out: 'Come on Matty, what's going on'. He said everything was alright but I could smell rubber burning in the kitchen. I went out and had a look and could see this liquid rubber oozing out of the microwave. Matty had put his runners in there to dry out but overcooked them a bit.
BK: Primus went on to coach Port Adelaide. Did that surprise you?
DH: I was very surprised but obviously there was something here. He just wasn't great in the kitchen.
BK: You made the national news for tackling a pig while playing for Fitzroy at the SCG in 1993. Do you ever get tired of talking about it?
DH: Yes and no. There have been a few times were complete strangers have approached me and said stupid things. I remember a bloke in a pub in Albury said something once and I'd had a few sherbets and got into him and he really cracked the shits. This bloke thought I was a good bloke until then. Most of the time I just laugh it off.
BK: You still hear about it then?
DH: All the time. Whenever it comes on television my mates start texting and have a laugh at my expense, saying it's the best thing I ever did in footy and stuff like that. It's all good fun.
BK: Did you enjoy your time in the AFL?
DH: It was hard. I would find myself playing key position at 85kg. David Neitz stood on my head all day long one day. He made me look like an under-14s player.
BK: I think you hold the record for playing in five AFL wooden spoons from 1992 to 1996. You had a big turnover of coaches didn't you?
DH: Not counting interim coaches, I had Col Kinnear, Gary Buckenara and Ron Barassi in my four years at Sydney and then Bernie Quinlan and Mick Nunan at Fitzroy.
BK: And Nunan was your pick of them?
DH: He saw me one pre-season after looking at some stats and asked if I only went after the ball when I thought I could get it. I said I hadn't really thought about it. He then started playing me in the middle which worked alright until I got injured.
BK: In one game you had 28 handballs which was a record you shared with Robert Harvey for a while?
DH: That was my best game by a mile. It was a bit embarrassing holding a record with Robert Harvey though because he was just a freak. I played in the middle for a few weeks, then got injured and had surgery again.
BK: How hard was it at Fitzroy?
DH: The week we were told it was over by the AFL some bastard broke into our Coburg rooms and stole all the gym equipment. I think there were four or five games left. Fitzroy had good people doing the best they could in a tough situation.
BK: You weren't a fan of how the AFL broke the news to the club were you?
DH: Ian Collins from the AFL came in to tell us the news. I was pretty emotional and asked him some questions. He ended up giving me a spray in front of everyone. He said something like: 'don't give me that shit mate, I can get that anywhere'. I just wanted to ask some questions, but we were dismissed like that.
BK: Finally, what's the one thing you would like to change in country footy?
DH: I have had blokes wanting $500 a game and saying they don't need to train as they are naturally fit. I just say: 'Seeya later mate'. The whole system is arse about. I reckon $40,000 should go to the seniors and $40,000 should go to developing kids. That's the future.