Bob Craig's sporting resume is the envy of many. The legendary Wodonga footballer and cricketer had no shortage of success in his playing days and he carried it on into coaching. Craig led the Ovens and Murray to interleague success in three consecutive years and also delivered Yarrawonga its first senior flag in almost two decades. He caught up with The Border Mail's BEAU GREENWAY this week to chat about his astonishing career.
BEAU GREENWAY: You played 223 senior games at Wodonga, but I believe it could have been a very different story?
BOB CRAIG: I started in 1971. I played all my football at Wodonga except when I had a year coaching Wodonga Demons before they came into the O and M. In 1973 I moved to Cobram to start work in the bank. Ken Fraser was a school teacher and was the incumbent Yarrawonga coach. Billy Sammon had taken over from him. I used to catch a lift with Ken Fraser from Cobram to Yarra to train because I didn't have a licence. In the end I agreed to play with Yarra and put in two clearances, but they both got knocked back. Leo Burke was president of Yarra and brought me a car for when I got my licence.
BG: So the car wasn't enough to get you over the line?
BC: In the end, Mick Bone talked me into travelling back to Wodonga. They wouldn't clear me until I'd spoken to them and when I'd spoken to them I decided to stay. I was getting a bit of heat from the Cobram Football Club as well, living and working in the town and not playing for them. In the end I transferred to Melbourne in the bank and travelled up and down the freeway for a couple of years. I used to travel up and back with Ron Montgomery because he was playing at Wodonga too.
ALSO IN SPORT:
BG: Did you get to keep the car?
BC: The interesting thing about the car was Wodonga didn't have any money and I had to pay Yarra back for the car because that was my playing fee. Wodonga took out a custom credit loan and they were paying that off when I was travelling up and down the freeway. I wasn't get paid there either, but at the end of the year they stopped paying the loan and I had to start paying for the vehicle. I stuck it out at Wodonga.
BG: You had to wait a decade until your first premiership in 1981 at Wodonga, how did that feel?
BC: It was a long time in the making. We played a preliminary in 1977 and a grand final in 1979 and lost both of those. We also played in another grand final in 1984 against North Albury.
BG: You had to overcome a big loss to Albury in the second semi-final of 1981?
BC: Albury trounced us in the second semi. We finished on top of the ladder and won our first 12 games from memory. It got really wet and the grounds were very heavy and our side sort of morphed into a bigger-bodied, slower unit. We had the first week off in the finals and it sort of dried out and Albury were just too quick. We made seven changes to the team by the time we got back to the grand final and we were a different team altogether.
BG: You got seriously injured in the 1979 preliminary final, from all reports it should have put you out for a year?
BC: I ruptured my larynx in the 1979 prelim. It was a bit scary when it actually happened, I couldn't get my breath. I was lucky a nurse jumped the fence and freed my airway and got me going again. I went to hospital and I couldn't talk for about three months. I got out and got to play in the grand final.
BG: So you played the grand final without a voice?
BC: I was a bit of a loud mouth and used to talk a lot. Going from everybody hearing you to nobody knowing you're there, it sort of changes your personality a bit.
BG: You went on to coach Wodonga's reserves to a premiership under Jeff Gieschen. Was that a good time to be at the club?
BC: I'd retired from the seniors and took up the coaching of the reserves under him. We played in three grand finals in a row and won one of those. They were pretty good times at Wodonga in the Gieschen era.
BG: You're regarded as one of the most successful Ovens and Murray interleague coaches, how did you get involved?
BC: I was out of it for a bit and Peter Tossol was coaching interleague and got me involved at the match committee level as a selector. I worked with him for a couple of years and took over for the next four interleague campaigns.
BG: You had a pretty impressive record didn't you?
BC: The Ovens and Murray won four in a row. I was involved with Tossol on the match committee in the first one and I was in charge for the next three. I was able to bring in some good people in Rod Mullavey and (the late) Neil Davis was there under 'Toss' and stayed on. We sort of developed into the 11th team of the Ovens and Murray. We won 13 times out of 15 games when I was coaching. I think the combined Amateurs team beat us by three points at Waverley and we beat them there following the year. In those three years we played 108 different players, which really showed the depth of the competition at that stage.
BG: It must have been great to play at the MCG and Waverley Park?
BC: It was super to be part of it. It was back when VCFL was run by itself and the support they got from the AFL at that stage was really positive. A lot of players were really keen to be involved in those events and I'm sure that had a lot to do with our success during the season.
BG: No doubt the win in extra time against Geelong at Birallee Park in 1998 was a highlight, with Tim Sanson kicking a goal on the siren to keep the game alive?
BC: That was an incredible victory. Tim Sanson was one of those blokes who had unbelievable faith in his own ability. He's a bloke that wants to be the guy to kick the goal after the siren. Everyone else was as nervous as all hell, but he was incredibly calm and kicked the ball over 50 metres to level the game. Brett Kirk was extraordinary in extra time. They sort of willed us over the line.
BG: What came next for you?
BC: I coached the VCFL for two seasons and the Vic Country team. We went down to Riverland to play in the national championships and got knocked off in that. I then came back and worked at Wodonga with 'Bencey' (Richard Bence) for a little while and that's when I caught up with Glenn Brear and he spoke about taking over at Yarra.
BG: No doubt there were challenges when Yarrawonga appointed you coach?
BC: We were just going along. Footy was changing a bit at that stage and we worked hard on recruiting with Glenn Brear. We'd spend days and days ringing hundreds of people, going to see people, following up and we finally got a list together. At that stage the depth of the club was pretty thin and we needed to make sure we looked after getting our reserves into a healthy position where players could go back and play roles rather than have to be the total match winners and do everything. We were lucky enough to get Gus Browning to come on board and he did a great job with building a strong bond between players. I think that allowed us to be a better club and a better team.
BG: You tasted ultimate success by winning the 2006 premiership against Myrtleford, with 10 goals coming in the first quarter.
BC: Myrtleford had beaten us twice that year and were the only team to beat us. We had the week off and tried to do 100 things to make sure we were doing everything right, but I think we were shot before we got to Wangaratta that day for the second semi. Myrtleford jumped us and never let us back in the game. We went to Wodonga and beat Lavi and got another chance at Myrtleford at Lavington and fortunately we turned up ready to play.
BG: Is it true you had 19 on the ground at the start of the preliminary final against Lavington? Could that have proven costly?
BC: Lavington thought there was 19 players on the ground at the start and tried to get a count going. Whilst there was some confusion, no scoring had taken place. It is something that's a talking point, but it certainly had no influence on the outcome of the game.
BC: You finished up at Yarrawonga after delivering the club its first flag in 17 years. How did you sum it up?
BC: I coached them for four years and the first year I lived and worked over there. I had to come back to Wodonga for business reasons and I'd travel three or four times a week. I had a few players that came with me, so we'd travel in a car together mostly and we did that for three years. Josh Frawley came along the year before we won the flag at about the halfway point of the year and we hardly lost a game after he arrived.
BG: Did you take a bit of a break after that?
BC: I joined Jarrod Twitt at Wodonga and that kept me involved. I wasn't looking to coach after that, but I was approached by North Albury and in the end I took that job on.
BG: How did you find it at North Albury?
BC: I could have been a premiership coach as a retiree, but I ended up with the wooden spoon (laughs). It was a good experience, I really enjoyed North Albury. With a little bit more luck we could have played finals in the first year, but in the second year they were very short of the means to be able to recruit or even maintain players.
BG: You also had a very successful cricket career, how did you manage to find the right balance?
BC: Every week of the year it was all about going into a competition, be it footy or cricket and you'd play a bit of basketball during the week. It was just what you did in those times.
BG: The 1977-78 season was particularly impressive, taking 66 wickets, including eight in the grand final. Was that the standout?
BC: It was a good year. I think we had Wodonga Maroon and Wodonga White and we were a very strong club at that time. We may have even won all grades that year. Wodonga Cricket Club has been a very strong club through history and I'm really stoked to have been a part of it. I'm still involved today.
BG: Who did you enjoy facing the most on the cricket field?
BC: Garry Purtell and Algy Arendarcikas were great combatants. I used to love playing against them and the battles we used to have were always very fierce. We'd always enjoy each other's company after the game.
BG: You finished with four senior cricket premierships?
BC: I played a fair bit of rep cricket, but I think it's the premierships you always look back on. Last year's (Wodonga Cricket Club) 150-year celebrations was a highlight. It was just a great culmination of a lot of hard work put in and people turned up and celebrated what had been achieved over the 150 years.
BG: Your son Jack is doing well with his cricket. Are you glad to see him take the step up to play in Melbourne next season?
BC: He's got an opportunity and he's taking it. It's a difficult time because he moved to Melbourne last week and he'll have to jump through a few hurdles to get to play any cricket I'd imagine.
BG: You're also in rare company as an inductee of both the Ovens and Murray and Cricket Albury-Wodonga Hall of Fame (both in 2018). No doubt a huge honour?
BC: There was a lot going on and I was a bit overwhelmed by all the attention. I've very grateful for the honour that has been bestowed upon me. It was very enjoyable.
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