Ninga and Darby: Two Eaglehawk FNC legends
By Richard Jones
As a footy nursery Eaglehawk must rank up in the Top Eight and as an overall ‘finalist’ in Victorian country football history.
The Crapper brothers, Eddie ‘Moots’ Esposito, George Ilsley, Peter Pianto, Rod Ashman, Des English and Jack Slattery all went on to play VFL/AFL football.
Then there’s other champions, members of the BFNL Hall of Fame, such as Alan ‘Bruiser’ Williams, Harry Morgan, Brendan ‘Herbie’ Keane, Phil Byrne and Gary Evans.
Not to forget legendary trainer Herb Milburn, player-coach Basil Ashman (vice-captain of the Team of the Century) and the late, great player and coach John Ledwidge.
And we shouldn’t overlook Kevin Smith and George Ennor along with forwards Mancel Davies and Greg Kennedy, both multiple winners of the BFL goalkicking award.
Not to forget one of the BFNL’s all-time hard men, Peter ‘Roggo’ Rogerson.
And this list only scratches the surface.
This week I want to concentrate on two recent champions, both BFNL Hall of Fame members and absolute legends out at Canterbury Park.
Key defender Robert ‘Ninga’ O’Connell and on-baller Neil ‘Darby’ Monro were the heart and soul of the Two Blues sides of the 1980s although both had started their careers much earlier.
Darby started off in the under-18s in 1969 and at the tender age of 16 made his senior debut the next year.
Ninga played his junior footy at Eaglehawk in the under-13s and under-15s before making the move to play under-18 footy with Golden Square, his Dad’s old side.
He played in the Square under-18s in 1972 and ’73 before he moved up to the top rank to play six seasons and 111 games with the Bulldogs including senior premierships in 1975, 1976 and 1979.
We’ll come back to Ninga shortly but let’s re-trace Darby’s history.
He was mainly used as a small forward in his early years, but went into an on-ball role at times roving to such key big men as the late Mike Hammond and Bryan Clements.
By 1971 Darby was a fixture in the Two Blues senior line-up and played in that season’s BFL premiership side, coached by the late John Ledwidge.
But then came the other side of footy for Darby.
The great Hawks’ side gradually disintegrated as players left for other clubs until the Canterbury Park administration revved up a gear or two with the club centenary approaching.
Under playing coach Denis Higgins Darby again received a premiership medallion as Eaglehawk collected the 1980 flag.
Only just, but as they say there’s no percentage in finals and especially not in grand finals. Winning is all that matters.
Darby and his teammates celebrated a 17.20 (122) to Golden Square’s 19.6 (120) victory to set the seal on 100 years: 1880 to 1980.
And then in late 1982 Neil decided it was time to leave footy and hang up the boots.
He’d bought a new business and sadly had failing sight in one eye, but there was another twist in the Darby Monro tale.
Northern United coach Tony Southcombe heard of Darby’s decision and visited him, hoping to lure him out to Raywood.
It was early 1983 and once Eaglehawk ‘heavies’ heard of the development they also visited Neil. You can imagine the vast relief felt by Two Blues’ teammates, committeemen and supporters when Darby Monro ran out in the Eaglehawk colours for the famous club at the start of the ’83 season.
New playing coach Jeff Fehring handed Darby a different role, moving him into the back pocket to pick up the opposition’s resting small men.
Despite criticism from within the change room and outside with Eaglehawk’s vocal followers the Fehring-inspired move certainly prolonged Darby’s playing career.
Like his other teammates such as Ninga, Darby was to endure a frustrating Eighties decade.
Southcombe’s Swallows won four consecutive BFL premierships, three of them against Eaglehawk: in 1984, 1986 and again in 1987.
Darby remembers how frustrating it was in the ’84 play-off when the Hawks held United scoreless during normal time in the opening two quarters only to see the Swallows bang home vital majors in ‘red’ time in both terms.
“And we’d played our fourth final that year while United got a week’s rest after the second semi,” he recalled.
In 1989 Darby took over the player-coaching role from Robert O’Connell before handing out instructions from the sidelines as non-playing coach in 1990.
“I still loved playing so I had a kick in the Reserves and enjoyed that greatly,” he said.
At the end of 1990 Darby finally hung up the boots and retired from footy at all levels.
He’d racked up an amazing 325 senior games for the Hawks with three premierships to his name from six grand final appearances.
Darby also represented the BFL Blue and Golds on four occasions to round off a spectacular career.
Ninga made the switch from Square to Eaglehawk in 1980 and had immediate success as the key centre half-back in the 1980 and ’82 premiership sides.
He was installed as the 1985 senior coach, but a large part of that season was ruined for him through injuries.
O’Connell returned to full fitness for the start of the ’86 season and led the Hawks to the 1986 and 1987 grand finals against United.
He still regards the preliminary final wins in both those seasons as among his finest achievements.
“They were big matches against Sandhurst and Castlemaine and I reckon we got up both times because of the roars from our supporters,” he recalls.
And 1987 was special on a personal note for Ninga. He ran out for his 250th BFL game and although he did pull the boots back on later in his career the O’Connell body was wilting.
After a short stint at Mt. Pleasant Ninga returned to help a desperate Eaglehawk in the 1995 and 1996 seasons.
The club was on its knees in deep financial bother in what was a rebuilding phase for the Two Blues.
Ninga O’Connell was also a great supporter of inter-league footy.
He wore the famous Blue and Gold colours on no less than 13 occasions and was Bendigo skipper in 1986 and 1987.
A few seasons earlier he’d received the ultimate accolade of being named the VCFL centre half-back for the 1983 campaign.
He was actively involved with the Eaglehawk past players association and was on hand as the guest speaker at the 2007 grand final breakfast before the Hawks took on Gisborne.
As the morning’s M.C. I recall interviewing him and taking him back to some of the club’s earlier glory days.
He was named as the centre half-back and the captain of the Eaglehawk Team of the Century in 2005 at a packed function at the All Seasons venue.
There can be little doubt among supporters and oppositions alike that Ninga O’Connell rates as one of the greatest centre half-backs in BFNL history.
In actuality the name ‘R. O’Connell’ [on countless team sheets] was a must-read for footy followers as he made the position his own, ruling footy fields from centre half-back for more than a decade.