DARRELL BUTLER was a talented big man who was a dual best and fairest at both Tallangatta and North Albury. But his crowning glory was leading his hometown club Tallangatta to the 1998 flag. The Hoppers dedicated the flag triumph to popular team-mate Andrew Strode who was tragically killed in a car accident on the eve of the season. Butler caught-up with The Border Mail's BRENT GODDE.
BRENT GODDE: You played all your junior football for Tallangatta?
DARRELL BUTLER: I think my first match was in 1977 as a 10-year-old. Tallangatta was in the Albury-Wodonga juniors back in that era and we wore the Magpies jumper.
BG: In 1979 the club changed to the Hoppers?
DB: That was when we merged with Bullioh and became Tallangatta Valley.
BG: Your family has strong ties to the club?
DB: My grandfather, Gib, was premiership captain in 1939. My father, Mac, is a life member of the club.
BG: You made your senior debut for the Hoppers in 1986 under coach Neville Brand?
DB: That was my first year after finishing playing in the thirds.
BG: The Hoppers boasted two quality big men in Brand and Rod Page?
DB: Big Rod is quick to tell everybody that he taught me everything that I know about rucking which could be stretching the truth a bit.
BG: How long did it take you to establish yourself as a senior regular?
DB: As a teenager I was fairly gangly so I spent a lot of time in the reserves in my debut season in 1986.
BG: What was your playing weight in your prime?
DB: Between 95 to 100kg.
BG: I think Con Madden replaced Brand as coach in 1987?
DB: Con was really good for my development and coached for two years. I cemented my spot in the seniors during that time.
BG: You predominantly played in the ruck throughout most of your career?
DB: As a junior I was pretty much a key forward but spent most of my senior career in the ruck.
BG: My spies tell me you were a lot more skilled than most big men and had a good kicking technique?
DB: As a kid I practiced a lot on kicking both sides of my body and it did come to me naturally. I certainly wasn't blessed with any speed and my ability to read the play was probably one of my biggest assets.
BG: Madden was a prodigious kick of the football?
DB: Con was a thumping kick of the football. Probably Heath Naughton at Tallangatta in the mid 2000s is the only other bloke that I've seen who could kick a ball further.
BG: Despite your size, you were fairly quiet and reserved on the field early in your career?
DB: I remember Con wanted me to show a bit more aggression on the field. We were warming up one day and Con threatened to get Barney Brown to slap me around the face a few times to fire me up. I declined the offer.
BG: You decided to have a crack at the higher standard in 1989 and joined North Albury?
DB: Looking back, I wish I had waited another 12 months. The club appointed Bert Hollands as coach and went on to win the flag which was a bittersweet feeling at the time.
BG: Any particular reason you chose North Albury?
DB: I went in there with a couple of mates in David Healy and Jonathon Thomas. Steven Paton and Paul Hindle were already at Bunton Park and were recruited from Tallangatta.
BG: You credit North Albury ruckman Roger Peters as having a big influence on your career?
DB: Roger is a laconic bloke but he taught me a lot about the art of rucking, especially how to be a good tap ruckman. I thought he was the premier tap ruckman in the league during that era.
BG: Wodonga big man Steve Murphy gave you a reality check the first time you rucked against him?
DB: It's fair to say big Murph treated me like a ragdoll and gave me a harsh lesson. It made me realise I needed to hit the gym and bulk up a bit to compete with the big boys in the O&M.
BG: How long did it take you to become a senior regular for the Hoppers?
DB: My first season I only played four senior games and the rest in the reserves. Martin Cross was my first coach.
BG: You were a big fan of Cross as coach?
DB: Being a big bloke, Cross knew that I would take longer to develop and I think that's why I played a lot of reserves in my first year and he wanted to nurture me along.
BG: The following season in 1990 you established yourself as a senior regular?
DB: We had a fairly ordinary side in 1990 after a few departures. Cross left and was replaced by Jeff Cassidy.
BG: You almost quit the club in 1990?
DB: It was mid-season and I was picked in the seniors but when I arrived at the ground I was told I would be playing reserves because it had rained and the conditions wouldn't suit me.
BG: You disagreed?
DB: I loved playing in the wet because it brought everybody back to my speed. I thought my skills were as good as anyone's and just because you are big doesn't mean you can't handle the conditions.
BG: Did you have words with Cassidy?
DB: I was fuming but copped my medicine and played reserves. I was determined to prove him wrong and played well in the reserves. I was never dropped again during my time at Bunton Park.
BG: Cassidy only coached for one season?
DB: Jeff was replaced by the legend in Merv Neagle in 1991.
BG: No doubt a huge story at the time?
DB: Merv had not long finished in the VFL and it was a huge coup. Unfortunately we didn't get many other recruits and had a fairly ordinary side.
BG: Neagle didn't mind flogging the players on the track after a bad performance?
DB: The opening round we got pumped by Benalla. At training on the Monday night we had to run Nail Can Hill which was fairly gruelling.
BG: Neagle wasn't finished?
DB: Once we got back to Bunton Park we thought that would be it for the session. But Merv then made us run 100 50m sprints.
BG: You rate Neagle as one of the most inspirational coaches you had?
DB: I recall one match he broke three ribs early and didn't go off. Everytime he got tackled or hit he would grimace in pain and you could see he was in agony. But no way was he going off.
BG: Neagle could also deliver a spray if you didn't perform?
DB: I recall one team-mate who had a bad match the previous week and his wife came to pick him up from training. As they were walking out of Bunton Park, Merv yelled out to his wife 'can you pack your bag and play this week? You couldn't be any worse than your husband.'
BG: Was the comment warranted?
DB: One of Merv's non-negotiables as a coach was never to shirk an issue. If you did, he would let you know about it.
BG: You enjoyed a breakout season under Neagle to win your first senior best and fairest?
DB: I got a bit of confidence out of 1990 and that probably led to me winning my first B&F as a 23-year-old.
BG: The Hoppers didn't win a match under Neagle?
DB: The club was in the midst of its worst losing streak in history. We lost 36 matches straight from 1991-93.
BG: Neagle was replaced by Kim McAuliffe in 1992?
DB: There was a fair turnover of coaches during that era and Kim was my fourth coach in four years.
BG: A young Brett Kirk was starting to emerge?
DB: 'Kirky' was only a teenager at the time but I still remember his unrivalled work ethic. He had the ability but to have the AFL career he did was through sheer hard work in my opinion.
BG: You represented the O&M in 1993?
DB: It was good to get the reward after three years of consistent football. We played the Goulburn Valley at Benalla in a night match.
BG: You also made it back-to-back best and fairests at Bunton Park?
DB: To win two B&Fs is something that I'm proud of.
BG: You nearly made it a hat-trick in 1994 but were denied by Steve Paton who beat you by one vote?
DB: It was good to see another Tallangatta boy in Steve win it. I think it came down to the last vote card of the final round. I wasn't at the count because I was having an operation for a smashed knuckle.
BG: You are a big fan of Paton?
DB: Steve was a loyal servant of North Albury and was captain for six years. His son, Ben, plays for St Kilda and has racked up more than 30 matches.
BG: After 76 matches with the Hoppers you head back to Tallangatta in 1994?
DB: Tallangatta approached me about coming back and after not playing finals with North Albury, I was craving a bit of success.
BG: It proved to be a smart move because Tallangatta won the flag under Geoff Jackson?
DB: The club targeted a few locals like myself and Mark Kirk and we had a fairly handy side.
BG: You suffered a dislocated elbow early in the year and missed a large chunk of the season?
DB: I was fortunate enough to make it back for the grand final but I think I can count the number of possessions I had in the decider on one hand.
BG: You shouldn't have played?
DB: I was right to play, I just couldn't get near the ball. But it was still a huge thrill to win my first senior flag. Especially with a few good mates in Dave Healy and Jonathon Thomas.
BG: The following season in 1995, club legend Barney Brown replaced Jackson as coach?
DB: We made finals in 1995 but Kiewa and Mitta were the two dominant sides that season.
BG: The following season in 1996 Tallangatta faced Mitta United in the decider?
DB: It was a heartbreaking result after getting rolled by two points.
BG: You were forced to miss the second-half after copping a heavy knock shortly before the main break?
DB: I copped a knee in the back. I got X-rays the following week which revealed that I chipped a vertebrae in my spine. I basically couldn't bend over, so I had to watch from the bench.
BG: Was the knee to the back deliberate?
DB: I have watched the incident on video but I will let people make up their own minds if it was deliberate or not.
BG: No doubt it would have been frustrating watching from the bench with the match so close?
DB: We had plenty of chances but Leigh Clarke choked and missed a couple when he shouldn't have.
BG: Scott Carroll also choked?
DB: Scottie was in the centre in space in the dying minutes and let the ball roll between his legs and straight to a Mitta player.
BG: How did you find Barney Brown as a coach?
DB: Barney was as tough as nails who thrived on the physical nature of the Tallangatta league.
BG: Brown suffered from whiteline fever?
DB: You could tell when he was about to erupt because his eyes started rolling around in his head.
BG: Brown could handle himself in a stoush?
DB: One of the best fights I saw was when he went toe-to-toe with Yackandandah forward Sharn Lensing. They just stood there trading blows for what seemed like five minutes.
BG: Nobody stepped in to break it up?
DB: I don't think anyone was game because there were some brutal punches being thrown and it was like two heavyweights slugging it out.
BG: Who won the stoush?
DB: I hate to admit it but if I was the judge I would have awarded it to Sharn in a points decision. It was probably the only time I saw someone get the better of Barney.
BG: The following season in 1997 you once again met Mitta in the decider?
DB: We had a similar side to the previous year and we were a couple of goals in front at the last change.
BG: Brown delivered a memorable spray at the final change?
DB: Leigh Clarke had had a quiet match and was in the firing line. Barney delivered an expletive ridden spray in Leigh's direction which included calling him a passenger.
BG: Clarke ended up with a new nickname?
DB: The Wesley Snipes movie Passenger 57 was popular at the time so we all started calling Leigh Passenger 57.
BG: Brown's spray had the desired effect?
DB: To Leigh's credit he kicked a couple of goals in the last quarter and we ended up winning by eight goals.
BG: Barney's son, Colin, also played in a flag with Tallangatta 1994 as an 18-year-old?
DB: It was funny at the time but Barney used to wear number 33. Colin wore 99 because he claimed he was 'three times better than his old man.'
BG: You rated Mitta as your biggest rival during that era?
DB: For sure, most of the Mitta players I went to school with at Tallangatta high school. The games were always tough and close and fantastic footy to be involved with.
BG: After winning your second flag, you were appointed coach the following season in 1998?
DB: I was assistant coach under Barney the previous year and jumped at the chance to coach my home club.
BG: How did you find the challenge of coaching?
DB: It was probably something I could never see myself doing early in my career. But once I got the job I grew into the role.
BG: There was a fair player exodus over the off-season?
DB: We lost 11 players from the premiership winning side, so we were expected to slide down the ladder.
BG: The club boasted a fair bit of depth in the reserves?
DB: We had a few young blokes in the reserves like Nathan and Simon Bosse and Tim Johnson who all thrived when given senior opportunities.
BG: There was also another hidden gem emerging through the junior ranks?
DB: A 15-year-old Adam Butler played on a wing. We just used to kick it out to him on a wing where Adam would dominate.
BG: Adam is obviously your relation?
DB: His father Clive played a lot of footy for Tallangatta and is Ian's brother.
BG: The club was also rocked by tragedy on the eve of the season?
DB: Andrew Strode who played in our 1997 flag was travelling home from his girlfriend's place in Albury the night before a practice match against Henty. He was killed when his car hit a cow on the Riverina Highway.
BG: Andrew was one of the most popular players at the club?
DB: Andrew was one of the most likeable blokes you could meet. It was certainly a tragedy on the eve of the season.
BG: The tragic accident galvanised the playing group?
DB: It did, there were a couple of players who were thinking of leaving in Mick Mooney and Leigh Clarke but stayed after the accident.
BG: Strode had the nickname 'Ox'?
DB: Our mantra during the year was 'Let's do it for 'Ox'.
BG: You copped a spanking from Dederang-Mt Beauty in your first final?
DB: We did and they let us know all about it. We copped a heap of phone calls at the Tallangatta pub on the Saturday night from Dederang players.
BG: Any memorable sledges from the Dederang players?
DB: They just kept asking how the commiserations were going and it must feel like we were at a wake ceremony.
BG: Did you see the funny side at the time?
DB: All I know is that it's always dangerous to go the early crow and quite often it comes back to haunt you.
BG: You beat Mitta by a point in the preliminary final to earn another crack at Dederang?
DB: It was one of the weirdest games that I ever played in. Mitta had first use of a howling breeze and opened up a couple of goal lead at the first change.
BG: The Hoppers dominated the second quarter with the breeze?
DB: We kicked 10 goals to nothing to lead by 50 points at the main break. Mitta reduced that back to five goals at the last break.
BG: You had the wind in the last quarter?
DB: That was the bizarre thing, a storm hit and the wind turned the other way so Mitta had the advantage. They came storming home to get within a point.
BG: Mitta should have won after the umpire missed an obvious free kick?
DB: Jonathan Thomas was deep in defence in the dying seconds and literally threw the ball to Mick Mathey under pressure. I think everyone on the ground saw it, except the umpire. If he paid the free kick, I've got no doubt we lose the match.
BG: You faced Dederang in the decider?
DB: Dederang were coached by 'Mamba' Crisp who I had to play against in the ruck. A lot of the league stalwarts reckon it was the wettest ever grand final at Sandy Creek.
BG: Tallangatta produced a stunning turnaround from the previous time you met the Bombers?
DB: We won by six goals which was a huge upset.
BG: No doubt a memorable moment to lead your home town club to the flag?
DB: To coach a flag at a club that my father is a life member of and that my grandfather, uncles, brother and cousins all played at is something that I rate as the highlight of my career.
BG: It was also an emotion-charged victory in memory of your team-mate Andrew Strode?
DB: We were all ecstatic to get the win for 'Ox' and the Strode family who were all at the grand final.
BG: The Dederang pub copped quite a few phone calls during the premiership celebrations?
DB: We took great delight in ringing the Dederang pub and giving it to the Dederang players.
BG: You also played alongside prolific goalkicker Troy Hawkins who was an enigmatic character?
DB: I remember watching a replay of the 1998 grand final with all the boys and Troy took a fairly impressive hanger. He started calling himself 'Hawk-ulenko' after Alex Jesaulenko.
BG: Hawkins had the ability to do some freakish things on the field?
DB: Geez he could play and he kicked 116 goals that season. He was one of the best finishers that I've seen. If he was having a shot, I would start walking back to the centre because he never missed.
BG: Hawkins could also take some freakish marks?
DB: One day at Bethanga he took two of the biggest hangers I've seen, basically 10 minutes apart. I've never seen two bigger marks anywhere. He was just a freak.
BG: You suffered a badly broken leg the following season in 1999?
DB: It was against Barnawartha at Birallee Park. I went to snap a goal and big 'Patto' from the opposition came running through as I kicked the ball and broke my tibia and fibula.
BG: Did you kick the goal?
DB: I did but the goal umpire thought it was touched but the noise was from my leg getting snapped.
BG: You were rushed to hospital?
DB: I went to Albury but there was no orthopedic surgeon, so I ended up at Wangaratta.
BG: You made a comeback the following season?
DB: I continued to coach in 2000-01 and stepped down after four years and was replaced by Darren Mathey. We lost the grand final to Barnawartha in 2002.
BG: Did you go on many footy trips away during your career?
DB: I'm a big fan of trips away and organised my fair share during the back end of my career.
BG: You went to Hawaii as a 21-year-old?
DB: That was my first trip away when I was at North Albury. It was a bit of an eye-opener for a country boy off a dairy farm.
BG: You regard Karl Elliott as one of your most entertaining team-mates?
DB: His nickname is 'Nutter' for a reason. He is the only man I know that only drinks vodka and doesn't touch beer.
BG: Elliott pulled a funny prank in 1989 when Bert Hollands was coach?
DB: I was at North Albury but during the warm-up Karl decided to pull his pants down and do a browneye through the hole in the handball target. Bert started him on the bench for his prank.
BG: Elliott had a few party tricks?
DB: Karl has got a hole in the cartilage in his nose. Quite often he puts a straw through his nose to drink his vodka or has a coat hanger hanging off his nose.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.