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Former player, now recruiter recognised

Matt Burgan  December 14, 2017 5:57 PM


IT’S FAIR to say Noel ‘Kelly’ O’Donnell played in a fascinating era for the Melbourne Football Club.

Success was difficult to come by, but it was a colourful period when he featured, highlighted by the return of the great Ronald Dale Barassi as coach in 1981.

O’Donnell, who was presented with Melbourne life membership on Thursday night, after playing 80 matches from 1979-84, and working with the club since 2007, reflected on what he said an “amazing era”.

“I was a kid growing up in the bush [and played for Kyabram] and all I ever dreamed about was playing either Test cricket or VFL footy as it was then,” he told  

“To get the chance [to join Melbourne] in 1979, I had the bags packed before the phone call had finished [asking me to join the club]. I came down and Carl Ditterich was my first coach and I was lucky enough to strike a bit of form and come straight into the senior line-up.

“It all happened pretty quick, but it was a dream come true. I’ll never forget the smell of the rooms and see [players I had watched] on television, like Greg Wells and Robbie Flower and they were saying ‘g’day’. It was just an amazing experience.”

After spending his first two seasons under Ditterich in 1979-80, O’Donnell was coached by Barassi for the rest of his career at the Demons. He said the football legend would “give you a cook, but then give you a solution on how to get better”.

“[Peter] ’Crackers’ [Keenan] used to say ‘if he’s (Barassi) in a mood and he’s marching out [at the break], just grab a towel and try not to make eye contact’,” he said with a smile.

“He was fantastic, Barass. If you had a dip, trained hard and put your head down, then he gave you a go. That’s all you can ask as a player.

“He was the biggest name in footy, coming back to his home club, so there was a lot of expectation. He was a heat of the moment bloke, but I found him fantastic.”

O’Donnell said Melbourne simply wasn’t good enough in the early 1980s, but he was adamant Barassi played a critical role in setting the club up to play finals later in the decade.  

And while O’Donnell was a good player for the Demons in the early 1980s, he didn’t get to taste finals, adding to a career he felt was “a bit unfulfilled”, as injury also struck.

“It started well and I ran into a few issues, but it is what it is. You can look back or you can look forward. I’ve only ever thought ‘it was what it was’ and it ended pretty quick,” he said.

“In the end, I had four or five good years and then one bad year. But I got a chance to go to Fitzroy [in 1985] under Wallsy (Robert Walls) and I really enjoyed that. I didn’t play much footy there, with injuries again, but you have your time and that’s it.

“It was disappointing we didn’t make finals [at Melbourne].”

Along with Barassi, O’Donnell was part of a Melbourne era, which featured some of the game’s biggest characters. 

“There was one occasion when I was in the centre bounce and I looked at our forward line and it was ‘Crackers’, Mark Jackson and [Brent] ‘Tiger’ Crosswell – that’s a pretty crazy forward line,” he said.

“There were some characters – real characters – in the ‘80s.

“I think that’s defined by the brutal footy. The characters made it and people loved them. I think Barass liked coaching those players.”

After his VFL career, O’Donnell went travelling during 1986-87, before returning to the game to play for Nightcliff in the Northern Territory. He then represented the NT in the 1988 Adelaide Bicentennial Carnival – a State of Origin tournament, held early that year.

“It was quite a big carnival – the bicentennial. We were rank underdogs, but it was a very, very good team. Maurice [Rioli], [Michael] ‘Magic’ McLean and a young Michael Long played, so there were some really, really good players,” he said.

“We ended up winning second division, so it was a good experience.”

After his playing career, O’Donnell moved into coaching and in 1992 became the inaugural coach of the Murray Bushrangers in the TAC Cup. He guided the Bushrangers to their first premiership in 1998.

O’Donnell then became an assistant coach under Damian Drum at Fremantle for the 2001 season. He remained at the Dockers, when his former Melbourne teammate Chris Connolly took over at the end of the 2001 season.

At the end of the 2007 season, O’Donnell returned to Melbourne, where he remains today.

He was initially a member of the club’s coaching panel, before he shifted into recruiting in 2012, where he has since been the club’s pro-scout.

O’Donnell said he had relished being in recruiting and working with a close-knit team at Melbourne.

“I’ve really enjoyed the recruiting for the last six or seven years. It’s a great team to work with – it’s really positive. The fellas are so team orientated and park the egos at the doorstep and get to work,” he said.

“We take the first round pick or the fourth round pick as seriously as each other.”

In reflecting on his time as a player at Melbourne, O’Donnell said the late, great Robert Flower was the “standout” performer and “just a quality person”.

“He was a great player and a great man,” he said.

O’Donnell said the likes of Peter Giles was “always good fun”, Peter Maynard was “a lifelong friend” and ‘Crackers’ was “hilarious and mad as hell, but would always look after you”. And Mark Jackson was “interesting, but a good player”.

He rated Fremantle great Matthew Pavlich as “a class act” and the best player he has coached. But he also “loved” coaching Jeff Farmer and Peter Bell, who was “a champion who got the most out of himself”.

At Melbourne, O’Donnell highlighted best and fairest winners Brent Moloney and Aaron Davey as two players he enjoyed coaching, as they took on some advice and changed the way they played.

Now, with a life membership to his name, O’Donnell said it was an honour that meant “a hell of a lot” to him.

“It’s been a long journey. I love the game. I love the club and when I got the phone call from [chairman] Glen Bartlett, it was really touching. I was just really humbled by it and appreciative that the club has seen fit to recognise me in this manner,” he said.

“It’s an amazing honour … not many people get the honour to be a life member of an AFL footy club and I certainly don’t take it lightly.

“Glen said it was one of his favourite times of the year – to make the phone calls – because people are genuinely happy and rapt. And that’s how I am.”

As for how he got his nickname ‘Kelly’, which he was universally known as, O’Donnell said it came about when he was a youngster.

“My eldest brother gave me the nickname because he thought I was as mad as Ned Kelly, when I was a kid, on the farm,” he said.

“That’s what they tell me – and that’s all I’ve ever known. They’ve only ever called me Kel or Kelly. It would’ve been [when I was] about four years old.

“I was always Noel at school, but kids started coming home and hearing me called Kel or Kelly. It’s better than Noel.”