When FRANK RAVENNA arrived in Culcairn from Italy as an eight-year-old in 1960, he couldn't even speak English and had never previously heard of Australian Rules. But it didn't stop the tough-as-nails midfielder going on to play more than 300 senior matches with Culcairn, Osborne and Walbundrie. Ravenna caught-up with The Border Mail's BRENT GODDE.
BRENT GODDE: You were born in Italy?
FRANK RAVENNA: I migrated to Australia with my parents in 1960 as an eight-year-old.
BG: I'm guessing you wouldn't even have heard of Aussie Rules then?
FR: I attended St Joseph's School at Culcairn and I couldn't speak a word of English, let alone play football.
BG: Some of your schoolmates were quick to take you under their wing?
FR: Blokes like Terry and Des Clear, Ross Brand, George Chomatek and Paul Schultz looked after me.
BG: You basically learnt how to speak English by hanging out with your school mates?
FR: A lot of my school mates are still close friends which I'm grateful for.
BG: How long was it before you started playing Aussie Rules?
FR: Not until about 1964, initially I played rugby league on Saturday mornings in the Group 13 juniors. I remember playing against a young David Purtell.
BG: What was your initiation to Aussie Rules?
FR: I used to watch my mates play on a Sunday in the Farrer league in the junior competition.
BG: You unexpectedly got a game one Sunday?
FR: I went to Henty to watch and Culcairn were short and talked me into having a game. I had to borrow some gear to play and I was instantly hooked and kept on playing.
BG: Aussie Rules has got some unique skills. Did you find any skill in particular difficult to master?
FR: Not really, I think after playing a bit of rugby league it helped with my ball handling and evasive skills.
BG: You were coached in the under-16s by club legend Gary Smith who was taken way too soon by cancer in the prime of his career?
FR: Obviously the Culcairn scoreboard is named in honour of Gary and I feel privileged to have been coached by the great man. Gary showed a bit of faith in me and made me captain.
BG: An inspired choice considering you won the flag as well as the best and fairest?
FR: Gary was excellent for my development but that was the only best and fairest I won during my career.
BG: Winning a best and fairest is still a phenomenal effort considering you had only been playing Aussie Rules for a short period of time?
FR: It was a bit of a thrill but it didn't compare to being picked in the seniors the following season in 1968 for my senior debut.
BG: You went straight from the juniors to the seniors despite only being a skinny 16-year-old?
FR: I played four reserves matches before getting the call-up to the seniors. I got to play alongside some club legends in Harry Gardiner, Bill Box, Gary Smith, 'Banjo' Pattison and Pat Adams who were stars of the competition.
BG: The Lions also had some handy teenagers running around in the seniors?
FR: There were blokes like Paul Schultz, Ross Brand, Garry Sheather and Terry Watson.
BG: No doubt you would have felt bulletproof with big 'Boxie' who was your coach and had previously played VFL/AFL for Essendon?
FR: 'Boxie' was feared throughout the league and led by example and would fly the flag for teammates if any of the opposition crossed the line. I sort of modelled myself a bit on 'Boxie' and tried to look after my teammates later on in my career.
BG: You were lucky enough to win a flag in your first season of senior football?
FR: Turns out it would be the only senior flag I would win throughout my career.
BG: It was a thrilling second semi-final in 1968?
FR: Lockhart were the flag favourites but we knocked them off in the second-semi after Max White kicked the winning goal after the final siren. We played Lockhart again in the grand final and won by five goals.
BG: You were only 16, how did you celebrate the win?
FR: I remember the town went berserk and they closed the road off between the main street and the pub. Even though there were a few of us that were too young to drink, we snuck a few longnecks and drank them to celebrate.
BG: You cherished being able to win a flag alongside Gary Smith?
FR: I had to pinch myself and I rate Gary as one of the best players at Culcairn of all time and one of the best blokes that I have ever met. It was hard to fathom that Gary had coached me the previous year in the juniors and here I was playing in a flag alongside him.
BG: Do you remember when Gary passed away from cancer?
FR: It was in 1974 and it was an enormous shock and a huge loss to both the town and football club. A great man taken far too young and still in the prime of his footy career.
BG: Culcairn winning the 1993 flag with Gary's sons Dean and Paul part of the senior premiership side meant a helluva lot to you?
FR: Because of their father, I followed both the boys careers fairly closely as they played juniors and then seniors. To see Dean and Paul have the ultimate success and win a flag was quite an emotional moment for me.
BG: After spending more than a decade playing in the Farrer league, Culcairn crossed to the Tallangatta league in 1981?
FR: Culcairn did but I decided to follow Rob Mackie who is a good mate of mine out to Osborne when he was appointed coach in 1978.
BG: It was a tough decision for you?
FR: It was considering I had been playing seniors for the previous decade.
BG: Did Osborne splash some cash your way?
FR: It wasn't about the money but there was a little bit of travelling money involved. I never received a cent at Culcairn except when I coached in 1984 and I never expected to.
BG: Mackie was able to lure quite a few Culcairn players to Osborne?
FR: Jim Lee, George Chomatek, John Pannach and Paul Schultz also signed.
BG: You don't regret going to Osborne?
FR: I loved my time at the club and got to meet club legend Gary O'Connell who is one of the best blokes that I have come across. I also made quite a few lifelong friends.
BG: Were Culcairn officials dark on Mackie for taking so many Culcairn players to Osborne?
FR: They were and it ruffled a few feathers but they eventually got over it. I knew I would always come back to Culcairn and we weren't in the same league back then.
BG: No doubt you would have had some memorable road trips home from Osborne with that crew?
FR: We did, especially with DUI rules not as stringent during that era but we were fairly sensible and didn't do anything stupid.
BG: You went on the Osborne trip away in 1978 to the VFL/AFL grand final?
FR: We stayed at Preston and went to the nightclub afterwards. One bouncer was being a hero and we ended up having words.
BG: You ended up getting belted?
FR: One of the bouncers grabbed my arms and held them behind my back while the other bouncer belted me and split me above the eye.
BG: It sparked an all-in-brawl at the club?
FR: It was like a scene out of a country western with tables and chairs flying everywhere.
BG: Rob Mackie, Jim Lee and yourself ended up in the office of the nightclub manager?
FR: The manager said 'I don't want to know who started it, but I want you to leave right now.' As he was saying that he pulled a gun out from his top draw and sat it on his table.
BG: What happened next?
FR: We couldn't get out of there quick enough. I probably thought I was bulletproof at the time but I wasn't sticking around to find out.
BG: After a two-year stint at Osborne you joined Walbundrie in 1980?
FR: I spent two years at Walbundrie. I was good mates with Brian Schilg who was instrumental in me signing with the Tigers and Tim Robb was coach. I ended up good mates with John Fowler and Gordon and Les Habermann.
BG: Robb decided to appoint you captain?
FR: It was an honour to be named captain. We made consecutive preliminary finals but weren't quite good enough to take the next step unfortunately.
BG: In 1982 you returned to the Lions den under coach Dallas Kotzur in the Tallangatta league?
FR: I regard Dallas as the best player I saw at Culcairn during that era.
BG: Kotzur's son Jayden played in a flag for the Lions in 2007. Which Kotzur do you rate the highest?
FR: I don't like comparing players of different eras but I'll say Dallas.
BG: What was your first impression of the Tallangatta league?
FR: It was a bit of an eye opener in it was a lot more tough and contested than the Hume league. But I loved the Tallangatta league.
BG: Most sides during that era had a couple of enforces running around who would fly the flag for teammates?
FR: If you didn't look after yourself, you would soon get found out. I found out if you showed any sign of weakness the opposition would try to exploit it.
BG: Who did you regard as some of the toughest opposition players?
FR: There were two blokes that I would never cross and that was Hughie Giltrap and another bloke who played for Tallangatta Valley in Darrel Riddington. I knew when not to get my ambitions mixed up with my capabilities.
BG: You had numerous stoushes with Mark McSweeney when he was playing for Mitta United?
FR: I remember in 1982 when we played Mitta United at Eskdale, Dallas wanted me to tag McSweeney. Having spent the past four years in the Hume league, I didn't know who McSweeney was.
BG: You soon found out?
FR: I didn't even know what he looked like until we played Mitta. I went to him at the first bounce and by half-way through the first-quarter I thought to myself this bloke can play a bit.
BG: You thought you might try and rough McSweeney up a bit in a bid to put him off his game?
FR: The next contest I tackled him and roughed him up which turned out to be a mistake.
BG: What happened?
FR: McSweeney got up swinging and we exchanged a few punches. I thought to myself, not only can this bloke play, he can fight a bit as well.
BG: McSweeney earned your respect straight away?
FR: I think we both had a bit of mutual respect for each other after that. We both played it hard and once I got to know him off the field, I thought he was a ripping bloke. McSweeney would have been a handy player in the O&M if he had wanted to.
BG: Did you socialise with the opposition after matches?
FR: That was one of the things I loved most about that era in the Tallangatta league. There were some mean machines running around but once the siren went, you didn't worry about what happened on the field and you would have a beer together.
BG: In 1982 Culcairn and Mitta United played in the grand final which proved to be a fiery encounter?
FR: We had high-profile VFL/AFL umpire Peter Russo officiate the match.
BG: You got reported in the opening quarter?
FR: There was an all-in-brawl and both sides were swinging a few punches. I had my fist cocked ready to throw one and Russo yells out 'the next bloke to throw a punch is reported.' I couldn't resist swinging one and got pinned straight away.
BG: You thought you were stiff to get reported?
FR: It was an all-in-brawl and there were plenty of punches being thrown by both sides, yet I get reported.
BG: You also got reported again in the final-quarter?
FR: McSweeney and I had been going at it for most of the match and a brawl broke out during the final quarter. I could see the umpire wasn't looking, so I thought it was my chance to get McSweeney so I decided to give him a headbutt. I couldn't believe my luck but the boundary umpire saw me do it and he reported me.
BG: McSweeney also got reported?
FR: McSweeney was also reported for striking me.
BG: You ran into the boundary umpire the other day?
FR: His name is Peter Tracey and we had a bit of a laugh about it.
BG: Mitta won the decider?
FR: Unfortunately we got beat and it's a funny game football. We beat Mitta at home in the last round by 10 goals but we must have poked the bear because we got beat convincingly in both finals including the grand final.
BG: During that era you had to front the tribunal straight after the match in a shed on the hill overlooking the Sandy Creek ground?
FR: I think it was because there was an VFL/AFL umpire in charge, it was too hard to get them back to the tribunal at a later date, so they did it straight away.
BG: How many weeks did you cop?
FR: I was found guilty of two incidents and copped four weeks. It didn't worry me too much at the time and I just wanted to get back to Culcairn and have a beer.
BG: McSweeney was also found guilty and got two weeks?
FR: Mark had just won a flag so I don't think he cared about getting suspended.
BG: Did you get reported much throughout your career?
FR: Not really. Twice in that grand final and once when I was playing for Osborne and I was found not guilty.
BG: There is one other time that you regret?
FR: I got reported for striking Peter Rossiter from Holbrook after a late, crude tackle. I got four weeks and I do regret my actions. If Peter happens to be reading this, I apologised then and I apologise again now. I just snapped that day and did in no way Peter deserve what happened.
BG: In 1982 Culcairn went on a trip away to Ulladulla and you decided to kidnap Jimmy Lee on the way who had coached the reserves that season.
FR: Jimmy pulled out at the last minute and I was a bit disappointed. I found out he was working at Holbrook on the Friday morning and hatched a plan to kidnap him on the way.
BG: You first went round to his house to get some clothes?
FR: 'Chief' Smith and I saw his wife, Judy, who packed some clothes and even gave us some spending money for Jim.
BG: Did your plan work?
FR: I had organised four of the young blokes to grab him. We got to Holbrook and Jim was up a pole working. Once he saw us, he climbed down the pole, jumped on the bus and said 'where's my beer?' We had a great trip.
BG: Culcairn also made the grand final in 1984?
FR: Neville Brand was coach and we came from the elimination final but got beat by Kiewa-Sandy Creek in the decider. I rated Neville as one of the best ruckmen I have seen.
BG: You coached Culcairn the following season 1985?
FR: I was on the committee at the time and was involved in trying to find a new coach. I thought we were close to signing Alan Bongetti but he decided to join Mitta United.
BG: It was a tough gig trying to find someone?
FR: It was and Max Lee was our president. After we got a few knock backs, Max came up to me one night and said 'I have found our new coach, it's you.'
BG: You reluctantly agreed?
FR: I thought to myself I may as well have a crack at coaching. I only did it for one season and was happy to step down the following year when Mick Thorneycroft was appointed.
BG: You injured your knee in 1985?
FR: I had to have an arthroscope and missed six weeks but returned for the elimination final. With hindsight I shouldn't have played and we got beat by Holbrook.
BG: The knee injury plagued you for a few seasons?
FR: I only played a handful of matches over the next three seasons. I was lucky enough to play my 250th match for Culcairn in 1988 and retired shortly afterwards.
BG: You ended up playing more than 320 senior matches?
FR: I did after two seasons at both Osborne and Walbundrie.
BG: You were often the victim of racial slurs?
FR: Obviously there were no racial vilification rules back then and I was targeted most weeks.
BG: How did you deal with it?
FR: I sort of took it as a compliment that if an opposition player resorted to those tactics to put me off my game, that he must have rated me as a player. But some of the things said to me were highly offensive and I would be lying if I said they didn't hurt on occasions.
BG: You didn't mind doing a bit of extra training during your career?
FR: I would quite often go for a run wearing garbage bags to work up a bit of a sweat. I would also get my wife, Noela, to drop me off at Morven on a Sunday morning and I would run home.
BG: You also bought some ankle boots and would often hang upside down to do sit-ups?
FR: It's a bit unusual but that was part of my fitness routine.
BG: You started coaching the reserves in 1987?
FR: I coached the reserves for five seasons.
BG: 1990 was a huge occasion for the club after all four grades of football made the grand final?
FR: That is right up there as one of my fondest memories during my time at Culcairn. I was still coaching the reserves as well as on selection for the seniors.
BG: You were involved in luring former local Neville Hensel back to Culcairn to coach after a stint with Albury?
FR: Neville came back in 1989 and led the club to finals before winning the grand final in 1990.
BG: It doesn't get any better than coaching your hometown club to a flag?
FR: Neville was an inspirational coach. The most satisfying part was the side comprised mostly locals who had emerged through the junior ranks.
BG: History says you were the only coach to miss out on a flag that season?
FR: It would have been nice to get all four flags but Yackandandah who were coached by Greg Hooper were too good in the reserves.
BG: Both Hooper and yourself were non-playing coaches but came to blows in 1991 during the finals series at one of the breaks in the senior match?
FR: 1991 was an emotional year for my family and myself after we lost my nephew Damian Lee in a tragic accident in April. Damian's two older brothers, Darren and Brendan, were playing in my reserves side that season.
BG: The whole town was shocked by the news being such a close-knit community?
FR: You never get over such a tragic loss and it was an emotional time for everybody involved.
BG: You were hellbent on winning the reserves flag to honour Damian?
FR: All season we were desperate as a club to go one better than in 1990 and win the premiership. Culcairn had never previously won a reserves flag in the TDFL and the following year were joining the Hume league.
BG: Culcairn had to break a hoodoo against Yackandandah?
FR: Yackandandah beat us four times in 1990 and three times in 1991 including the second semi-final by a point.
BG: Everybody was gutted getting beat by a point?
FR: We were and that was the seventh time in-a-row that Yackandandah had beaten us. I went to the pub that night and thought to myself, I'm going to have to do something to change things around.
BG: You told a few blokes at the pub that night if you saw Greg Hooper the following day at Sandy Creek you would do something to him?
FR: It was premeditated. The seniors were playing in the first semi-final against Holbrook and I thought I would have a chance to cross paths with Hooper at some point.
BG: You ran into him at quarter-time of the seniors?
FR: I spotted him as I was walking onto the ground and decided to say a few words to him and try to provoke him. It was like waving a red flag at a bull and we went toe-to-toe for about a minute before it was broken up.
BG: Your plan worked a treat?
FR: We beat Dederang-Mt Beauty in the preliminary final and history says we scored a comfortable win against Yackandandah in the grand final. It was one of the more satisfying moments of my coaching career.
BG: Yackandandah ended up citing you for the incident?
FR: I went to the tribunal after the grand final and got fined $100. It was like getting tickled with a feather.
BG: What do you consider the highlight of your career?
FR: Playing in the 1968 flag and coaching that 1991 grand final, just because of the sheer emotion of the whole season. The club winning three flags in 1990 is unforgettable.
BG: You caught David 'Bedgie' Bedggood drinking at the pub one Friday night in 1990?
FR: 'Bedgie' was captain of the reserves and I went up to the pub to put my footy tips on and saw him drinking.
BG: Did you confront him about it?
FR: I didn't want to cause a scene but I went around to his place at 6am the next morning and got him out of bed and we both went for a run, so he could sweat some of the beer out.
BG: Was 'Bedgie' fuming when you woke him up?
FR: 'Bedgie' wasn't happy at the time but to his credit copped his medicine. He got in the best players that day which I thought wasn't a bad effort.
BG: Last question, who do you rate as Culcairn's greatest players?
FR: Harry Gardiner, Dallas Kotzur and Graham Fruean were the best of their era in my opinion. I also rate Gary Smith, Bill Box, Max White, David Badger, Brett Schulz, Jason Lawson, Mick Brown, Jamie Brand, Andrew Robertson, Scott McGrath, Brent Barber, Kieran Barber and Shannon Barber highly.