Hills are alive with rivalry

The Bombers and Brookers have been inseparable for generations - both on field and off. Picture: COURTESY OF ROBYN KUYS

It’s almost unfathomable – a Gembrook Cockatoo senior player deliberately wearing his old Emerald colours, with his Bombers premiership tattoo also proudly on display at training at Brooker-land… but that’s exactly what Shannon Richardson would do to get a rise out of the boys before they’d meet the old enemy.

That typifies one of the great sporting rivalries anywhere in the hills – even though these guys are great enemies, they’re often the best of mates. It’s almost a brotherhood in some cases, and no one wants to beat anyone more than his close friends or brothers.

‘Richo’ is one of three instrumental Brooker figures who spoke to the Mail for this week’s second part of the story of the club’s famous rivalry with the Bombers – along with his great mates Matt ‘Creeper’ O’Neil and Craig Clarke.

And they’ve all got intertwining stories to tell when it comes to the battle of the hills.

Clarke, a mountain of a man, is not only one of Gembrook Cockatoo’s great champions – he’s also one of the club’s biggest spiritual leaders.

And the former premiership-winning ruckman started his career at Emerald – playing there in the under-9s right up until he made the switch to Gembrook, following his mates – such as another eventual Brookers champion and former Fremantle player, Andrew Shipp – for the under-16s.

No doubt it would have been a hot topic for discussion in the Emerald Secondary College schoolyard, and the split allegiances didn’t stop there.

“The thing was, my dad was still passionate Emerald at the time,” big ‘Clarkey’ said with a laugh.

“He was passionate Emerald for about 15 years before I started playing senior footy, so he’d watch Emerald in the seniors on a Saturday, and me at Gembrook in the juniors on a Sunday – right up until I started playing seniors.

“A few players at Emerald didn’t know he was my dad, and when he stopped barracking for them and was barracking against them instead when we were playing them, they were like: “What’s going on here! You’re one of our number one supporters, and now you’ve jumped ship!”

Clarke spoke about just what was on the line whenever the two sides played.

“It was a game you’d look forward to all the time,” he said.

“Every time you got to play them, you’d really want to play well because there were real bragging rights if you won, and if you didn’t win and you had a bad game, you’d be down in the dumps for a while until the next one because you knew it could be years away if you ended up in different divisions.”

Clarke, like O’Neil, was part of the losing Brookers grand final side in 1997 – the only senior grand final played between Gembrook Cockatoo and Emerald.

Richardson was an Emerald player that day, even lining up down back on their great mate, Shipp.

But the connections don’t stop there.

“Not many people know this, but the year after that – in 1998 – I went back to Emerald and played a senior year because I wanted to play first division and they’d gone up after winning the flag,” Clarke admitted.

“I played there for a season before going down to Springvale.”

Clarke also had his own recollection of the famous 100-metre penalty from the ’97 decider, involving Shipp and Richardson, that saw the latter line up for goal from close range.

“I read about that in part one of the story last week, but the other part to it was that it put Shannon right in front of goal, just a few metres out, and he kicked the ground as he went to kick the footy and missed the goal!” he said with a laugh.

In perhaps a sign of just how close the two groups were, Clarke ended up at Emerald until all hours of the morning after the ’97 decider – and his signature there for the ’98 season is still a sore point (though a good natured one) for his great mate, O’Neil.

“It just summed up the rivalry – it was fierce on the field, but off it a lot of us were just such good mates,” Clarke added.

And after the Brookers claimed the 2004 premiership, it was Clarke who brought his great mate ‘Richo’ to the club.

Both had played in the VFL and quality suburban leagues by that point.

“We won the flag in 2004 and we were going on the footy trip and were leaving on the Friday morning, and we all got on the piss on the Thursday night and Richo came out with us and didn’t go to work the next day,” Clarke said.

“As we were getting on the bus to go on the footy trip, he just rolled up and jumped on. That was his first thing at Gembrook, and he stayed from that point on!”

Clarke said the games between the Brookers and Bombers over the years had been the biggest hills footy games he’d played in – outside of grand finals.

“You’d want to play well in big games, and that was always one of them,” he said.

“If you couldn’t win the grand final, that’s the one you wanted to win.”

But, ironically, Clarke said the one game in his career that he didn’t feel quite right winning was against Emerald in 2015 – the first game after the tragic crash in Avonsleigh that claimed the lives of three young, local lives.

“That was probably the hardest game I’ve ever had to play in too,” Clarke said.

“It was such a time of sorrow, but to see the way two footy clubs and the whole community pulled together in a time of need – that was unbelievable.”

Clarke still plays an integral role at Gembrook – coaching the under-10s and helping his sons progress through the ranks.

And, fittingly, they go to school in Emerald but chose to play their footy with their mates at the Brookers.

‘Creeper’ explained just what it was like for him growing up in Cockatoo and playing for the Brookers.

“It was always great because growing up, the Gembrook, Cockatoo and Emerald kids all went to Emerald Secondary and you’d go to school and know each other, but come game day it was on. Fair, but on,” he said.

“You’d want to beat your mates more than anyone.”

He said there was never any doubt where he’d play his footy – it was always going to be Gembrook.

But as his career progressed, there were few grounds he liked playing at more than Emerald – in large part because of the atmosphere.

“Gembrook’s obviously got a big ground, and Emerald’s was a lot smaller and they had better lights back then,” he explained.

“It was just such a great atmosphere to be involved in.

“All the Emerald supporters would know exactly who you were and they’d be sledging you, but after the game you’d go into the rooms and have beers with them and everything would be great, because you’re mates after it’s all said and done.”

O’Neil said players would play for the Con Licciardi Medal, which he hopes is brought back again for future clashes between the Bombers and Brookers. He and great mate Dean Allcott are both multiple-winners of the award.

Over the years, a number of their great mates – including the likes of Scotty Black and Steve Robins – had made the switch from Emerald to Gembrook. That shows the real side of what has so often produced a fierce on-field contest.

“It’s a love-hate relationship, for sure,” O’Neil explained.

“But it’s definitely more love than hate, I think.

“A lot of people still talk about ’97 and say how crap it was to lose a premiership to Emerald, but on the other hand it’s 23 years ago now – it’s half my life ago.

“It was either going to be us or them – there has to be a winner and a loser. Most of them were our mates, so good luck to them, I reckon.

“But that’s the one that really counts – and we’ll keep going back to that day until there’s another grand final between us.”

Sometimes it’s been hard to separate the myth from the legend over the years when it comes to the Brookers and the Bombers, but O’Neil explained how – at one stage – he would have gladly represented a combined side made up of the two famous clubs.

“At one stage there in the ‘90s there was some talk about merging,” O’Neil said cheekily.

“I’m not sure what it was about, but I wouldn’t have minded it to be honest. A combined side would have won Division 1 flags for sure!

“I had a name for the club, too – C.E.G, pronounced ‘keg’ – Cockatoo, Emerald, Gembrook and we could have had a CUB barrel on our top as the logo (laughs).

“If it came to it and they were going to merge, I would have been all for it.

“That’s all I was worried about – being as good as we could and trying to win a Division 1 flag. Obviously it never eventuated and both clubs have long histories, and a lot of people would say it’s great we’ve both still got our clubs – and of course it is – so in hindsight I’m glad it didn’t happen, but at the time I was all for it.”

‘Richo’ ultimately played more than 100 senior games at Emerald before playing more than 200 for the Brookers.

But even though his great mate Creeper thinks of him as more of a Brooker, Richo can’t separate his allegiances. He’s a premiership player at both clubs, and loves both clubs.

“Speaking to a few of the older guys, they hated the other side (of the rivalry), but when you speak to the guys now it’s that the community brings us back together,” he said.

Richardson started playing in the Emerald seniors as a 15-year-old in the mid-‘90s, and he’ll always cherish the memories he made there – including lining up on ‘Shippy’ in the ’97 decider.

Looking back over the rivalry, he – like O’Neil and Clarke – loved playing in the clashes at Chandler Reserve.

“The crowd was awesome, and the older guys used to get the Emerald chant going,” he recalled.

“That really sticks in my mind – that, and the smell of the fire coming over the ground from the drums near the clubrooms. It’ll be a lasting memory forever.

“A lot of the guys who’ve been around Emerald for years are still there. They’re amazing people, and it’s great to see them still supporting the club there.

“I remember one day one of the Emerald boys yelled out during the game ‘Richo, it’s footy season, not pie season mate!’

“That drew a bloody big laugh, I’ll admit, but there are just so many memories. You’ll forget about something, and someone will bring it up and that’ll trigger even more.

“Of course, the other one was the Avonsleigh Angels game at Gembrook (in 2015).

“That was massive. The rivalry was thrown away that day, and it was just about being there for your mates.”