After more than 70 matches with North Albury, Steve Hetherton decided to head bush at a relatively young age. Hetherton quickly established himself as a prolific goalkicker who played an instrumental role in flags at both Henty and Murray Magpies. The high-flying forward caught-up with The Border Mail's BRENT GODDE during the week.
BRENT GODDE: You played most of your junior football at Bunton Park before your parents relocated to Melbourne?
STEVE HETHERTON: I joined Tullamarine in the EDFL and was lucky enough to play in three flags in two years. I played in two grand finals in the under-16s and the second year I sat on the bench in the under-18s because they needed 2 extra players. I was on the bench the whole match but still got a medal.
BG: You then returned to Bunton Park and played a year in the thirds before making your senior debut under coach Jeff Cassidy?
SH: I made my senior debut in the second round of 1991 and I was around 72kg and played on a wing. I got a couple of kicks and held my spot in the side for the remainder of the season.
BG: It's fair to say the Hoppers were going through a rebuilding phase at the time?
SH: It was the post Martin Cross era where there were a lot of retirements by the senior core of the group. So we had a young side that struggled for about three years.
BG: It coincided with a tumultuous time at Bunton Park where there were four different coaches in as many seasons.
SH: I played under Cassidy, Merv Neagle, Kim McAuliffe and Martin Cross. As a young player who wanted to learn, it wasn't ideal.
BG: The late Merv Neagle was a legend in the VFL/AFL. What was he like to play under as a developing forward?
SH: I got along really well with Merv and I took an instant liking to him probably because of his high-profile. He seemed to spend a lot of time with me compared to other blokes my age which I appreciated at the time.
BG: Neagle was past his prime but how did you rate him as a player in the O&M?
SH: The way he went about his football was still inspirational even though his body wouldn't allow him to do what he wanted. He was carrying a calf injury for most of the season but his tackling and hardness at the contest was fantastic to watch. He obviously didn't coach the following year for whatever reason but I was too young to understand the reasons behind the decision. But it was exciting to have someone with the profile of Merv coaching.
BG: Cross was able to transform the club into being final contenders when he was appointed for a second stint at Bunton Park in 1995?
SH: Crossy made an immediate impact and was able to attract some quality recruits in Matt Chilcott from Myrtleford, Martin Cross Jnr and Dean Lupson. The previous year the club also signed Wes George and Ben Jones. So we boasted a handy side and made finals that year.
BG: Chilcott was an entertainer both on and off the field?
SH: There's no doubt he was a different cat and some of his antics off the field were questionable to say the least. But he was a talented footballer and one of the best finishes I've seen. I had lunch with him in Shepparton a few years back and he told me he regrets some of the things he did while at North Albury.
BG: You decide to head out to Henty in 1996 after more than 75 matches at Bunton Park?
SH: My main motivation was I enjoyed playing football with my mates and Mark Eyers was offered the coaching job. So I headed out there with Brenden Maclean, Darren Eyers and Jason Vildovas.
BG: It proved to be a smart move with the Swampies winning their first flag since 1984?
SH: Henty has always boasted a lot of home grown talent and with the recruits had a very good team that year.
BG: One of those talented kids was a 16-year-old Brent Piltz?
SH: 'Piltzy' was only a pup but even back then you could tell he was going to be a gun player. I don't know why but I still have a vivid memory of him having a shot for goal late in the grand final. Despite being 60m out we all told him to take the shot, we had that much confidence in him. He missed the goal but he was such an athletic player with a raking left foot. What you saw him do right throughout his career was what he was doing when he was 16.
BG: You also kicked the first ton of your career that season?
SH: I was on the end of some first-rate delivery that year but it meant a lot more to win my first senior flag.
BG: Apart from 'Piltzy' who were some of the locals you rated highly?
SH: Dale Macreadie, Dennis Kane, Darren Willis and Neil Terlich could have easily played O&M if they had chosen to.
BG: You were a huge fan of Macreadie in particular?
SH: Dale could have been anything and was one of the best footballers I've ever played with or seen play in the country.
BG: You got a shock at the 1996 Azzi medal countwhen you polled 15 votes in the first five rounds to be a tearaway leader?
SH: It was funny because I went there thinking I would poll a few votes but history says full-forwards rarely win the medal. If you played inter-league during the season, you received complimentary drinks at the count and it's fair to say I took advantage of that and by the time the count started I had had a few beers. When I was in front so early I thought 'geez I better slow down on the fluid intake a bit, I might have to do a speech here.'
BG: With 15 votes in five rounds you would have been excited?
SH: I thought it was too good to be true and I only ended up polling in one more match and finished with 17 votes. Culcairn's Scott McGrath and Mick Killeen tied for first on 19 votes from memory. I remember my teammates give it to me that night about one of the biggest chokes they have ever seen at a vote count.
BG: The following year in 1997 Henty endured an injury riddled season but 1998 was a memorable season after making it to the grand final against the odds?
SH: From memory we lost four out of our first five matches before we started to get on a roll and pinched a finals berth.
BG: The Swampies produced a Houdini like performance in the preliminary final against Lockhart.
SH: It was one of the most memorable matches I have played in. Lockhart were coached by Shane Lenon and were red-hot favourites to make the decider. They got out to a six goal lead at half-time and we ended up beating them by six goals in one of the biggest comebacks in finals that I have been associated with. Eyers made some positional changes which had a big impact. But the guys I played with that year, again mainly locals, were just a wonderful group of mates who wouldn't give up.
BG: You were no match for Osborne in the grand final?
SH: We got flogged by eighty points and Cameron Male got his jaw broken in an off the ball incident which the club was filthy about. Osborne were just too classy that year.
BG: I'm not sure if it's a record but you were Henty's only goalscorer with three?
SH: It doesn't mean much when you get flogged in a grand final.
BG: You broke your hand in the second week of the finals but still kicked seven, eight, seven and three to end up with 25 goals for the finals series?
SH: I always wanted to perform in finals and I would rather kick seven or eight in a final than 16 goals against a side that's on the bottom of the ladder.
BG: The following season in 1999 you joined the Murray Magpies as an assistant coach under Ted Miller for their inaugural season in the Coreen league. There was a fair bit of resentment throughout the league to the new kids on the block?
SH: From memory we played Jerilderie in the first round who were a powerhouse and we flogged them by 10 goals. It signalled that we were going to be contenders and rival clubs despised that.
BG: So it was an 'us versus them' mentality for the Magpies?
SH: I think the opposition resentment bonded us as a group and provided us with a bit of extra motivation every Saturday.
BG: Rival clubs would often park outside the ground at Urana Road and jump the fence so they wouldn't have to pay to get in?
SH: Because there was no fence on the side opposite to the change rooms people used to take advantage of that.
BG: Did the club try to stop intruders from jumping the fence at any stage?
SH: I think a few of the committee did try for a few matches but soon found out after a few threats it wasn't really a safe option.
BG: You were involved in some fiery matches during your time at Urana Road Oval?
SH: I'll be the first to admit it wasn't a good look at the time. But there was rarely a week that went by where there wouldn't be a fight of some description. Quite often tensions would boilover and there would be all-in-brawls, some were quite violent.
BG: One match against Coreen-Daysdale United was particularly bad?
SH: I remember it was close to the start of the finals and they were out of finals contention and we were on top of the ladder. I was coaching and seriously contemplated calling the match off at half-time, it was that bad. Several of our players got sent off defending themselves because they were being head hunted by the opposition. They knew they couldn't make finals and were determined to take a few of our players out.
BG: The Magpies make successive preliminary finals in your first two seasons at Urana Road?
SH: The first season we arguably should have made the grand final, the second year we weren't probably as good.
BG: You replaced Miller as coach in 2001. Did you land many recruits that season?
SH: We picked-up Greg Richter who was originally from Melbourne and had previously played for Lavington. Kade Duel was another prized signing. I was also able to lure Mick Minogue and Mark Eyers out of retirement.
BG: You suffer a sickening injury and get your jaw broken in two places against Jerilderie three rounds before the finals series?
SH: It was an off-the-ball incident. An elbow to the face which resulted in me having surgery and three plates inserted. It was a deliberate act which was intended to cause some damage. I won't name the bloke who did it but it was an ordinary act.
BG: The club cited the player responsible?
SH: He copped eight weeks at the tribunal and missed the grand final.
BG: Did you think your season was over at the time?
SH: I knew it was going to be a race against time but we were a genuine flag contender and I was determined to get back as soon as I could.
BG: How many games did you end up missing?
SH: I was told to miss eight weeks but I missed five and my first match back was the preliminary final?
BG: Did you lose much weight while you were on the sidelines?
SH: I went from 81kg to 73kg.
BG: It was fortunate you played because you kicked four goals and the Magpies are into their first grand final after winning by two points?
SH: I thought if we made the grand final I needed to have a bit of game time under my belt so that's why I played in the preliminary final. I think I played two-and-a-half quarters.
BG: It was blowing a gale in the preliminary final?
SH: I remember we were kicking against the wind in the last quarter. It was just a matter of trying to hang on. We spent the whole quarter chipping the ball sideways and backwards and using the boundary as much as we could. We had some very smart footballers in that team and we had practised for that scenario.
BG: You play Jerilderie in the grand final and they chose to taunt you on their banner?
SH: I didn't see it personally. But Jerilderie had won the previous two flags and were aiming for three-in-a-row. Apparently their banner read 'Let's make it three-in-a-row, it will be a real jaw breaker.'
BG: When did you find out about the banner?
SH: It wasn't until after the match that a few people told me.
BG: Jerilderie were the red-hot favourites in the decider and had beat you in the previous six encounters?
SH: They certainly had the wood on us but there wasn't a lot between the two sides.
BG: In an inspiring effort in the decider you kick eight goals to notch a ton and the Magpies win their first flag?
SH: I think I was on 96 goals and funnily enough because it was the grand final and I was coaching I didn't even realise I kicked my 100 until someone said something after the match. Our players all played well on the day which is why we won.
BG: The following season in 2002 you were forced to step down as coach and play due to a new career opportunity?
SH: I started a new job which required me to work on weekends so I had to give football away for a while.
BG: You did make a surprise appearance that season against Jerilderie?
SH: I did, I suppose I was still filthy on the Jerilderie player who broke my jaw. Ted was coaching and agreed to pick me and the plan was to go on after half-time if we were winning and I was basically going to tap him on the shoulder and say 'let's go.'
BG: What happened?
SH: I ran on just after half-time and went forward and the plan was to go and confront the Jerilderie player when I had a chance.
BG: Did you go toe-to-toe with him?
SH: I'm fairly sure he saw me when I ran onto the ground but we were at opposite ends of the ground initially. The ball was up his end of the ground and after the next contest he hurt his knee and 'hobbles' off to the bench. Not surprisingly, he didn't come back on.
BG: So you never got the chance to square the ledger?
SH: With hindsight I'm glad nothing ever eventuated because it would have been something I regretted.
BG: Are you surprised by the Magpies' lack of success considering their location and facilities?
SH: I am but it is hard to win flags. The year we won the flag we had nine players with previous experience in the O&M.
BG: The following season in 2003 you made a comeback to the O&M with North Albury. What was your motivation?
SH: I had a few regrets about not remaining at Bunton Park and missed out on a couple of premierships. That sort of weighed on me a bit and I wanted to try and win a flag at my home club. I had an injury riddled season but managed about 45 goals.
BG: In 2004 you had a huge pre-season and got yourself the fittest of your career?
SH: I think I was the fittest I had been since I was 23. But unfortunately it all came crashing down in the first 10 minutes of the season when I injured my knee in the opening round and required a reconstruction.
BG: After having the reconstruction you are appointed coach of Jindera in 2005.
SH: I knew my days in the O&M were over. I had close family ties to Jindera with Dad, my brother, uncle and cousins having all played at the club. So I always had ambitions of coaching at the kennel at some stage.
BG: In 2006 you badly injured your coccyx while celebrating the birth of your son?
SH: I went to the Zed Bar and had only had a couple of drinks. I went to sit down on one of the stools and some female I didn't even know and who had way too much to drink pulled the stool away and I landed awkwardly and damaged my coccyx bone. I missed a few games because of it.
BG: Full-backs are notorious for their niggling tactics. You made a point throughout your career to stand-up for yourself?
SH: A pet hate of mine was when opposition players would hold your jumper because I thought it was an unfair tactic. So I would warn the opposition not to do it but got a little cranky if they didn't. I ended up with a lot of stitches in the back of my head which wears you down after a while. I can honestly say I was never dirty but if somebody tried to intimidate me I would generally defend myself.
BG: Was there any full-back in particular that was annoying?
SH: I think all full-backs are annoying.
BG: How many goals would have you kicked throughout your career?
SH: I don't know for sure but it would be around 800.
BG: What is your biggest bag?
SH: I kicked 16 on a couple of occasions.
BG: You are an advocate for giving back to the game?
SH: I like to help out if asked. I coached Hume in the inter-league and was an assistant in both the O&M and NSW state sides. I was also on the committee with Strathfieldsaye in the Bendigo league and coach some junior sides.