By sports editor Russell Bennett
Together, Emerald, Gembrook, and Cockatoo are part of one, big hills community with an even bigger heart.
They’re united by their similarities much more than they are divided by their differences, but they form two separate footy and netball clubs that throw absolutely everything into their clashes whenever they meet.
Emerald and Gembrook Cockatoo don’t play each other every season – such is the reality of divisional, promotion and relegation footy and netball. But when they do, it’s marked by an occasion that leads to locals from all corners of the hills descending on the clubs at different sections of Belgrave-Gembrook Road.
Those are occasions that are truly not to be missed, as the Brooker green and Bombers’ red and black go head-to-head.
For the story of this famous rivalry, Emerald life members Leon ‘Coogee’ Michalski and Graham Steer sat down with the Gazette recently to recall some of their favourite memories of the Bombers’ clashes with the Brookers over the years.
Steer, in particular, remembers a series of hard-fought encounters throughout the 2010s.
“In 2012 we were in first division and they were on top of the ladder and we were struggling to avoid relegation, but we beat them by a point at home,” he said proudly.
“I was looking around, watching people cry and everything – the supporters go nuts for this game.
“We were wooden spooners in 2010, won the (Division 2) grand final in 2011, and beat Gembrook in Divvy 1 in 2012.
“They’ve always been these unbelievable games because you don’t play each other every year, but when you do, you’re these groups of mates that come together as fierce opponents on the footy field. The battles are amazing.”
And then there was the showdown in 2015, when the Brookers beat the Bombers at Gembrook in a Division 2 premiership year for Emerald.
But that day in July was about so much more than footy or netball.
It was the first game following the tragic loss of three young lives – Sharn Walker, Jason Breakwell and Felisha Allen – in an Avonsleigh crash.
Following the game, every Brookers and Bombers player stood arm-in-arm next to an opponent or opposition club-person – forming a ring around the centre circle in the middle of the ground.
The scenes were unprecedented and provided proof that the results on the footy field or netball court fade into insignificance at times that call for the community to band together as one.
Still, sport, itself, provides an outlet for binding a whole community together in its darkest hour and providing an overwhelming amount of support for those doing it so tough.
As the Gazette reported in its July 2015 story ‘One big community, one giant heart’, cars packed out the Gembrook Recreation Reserve from well before 9.30am that day.
Gembrook Cockatoo favourite son – one of the club’s greatest ever players – Craig Clarke said the occasion was about so much more than just numbers on a scoreboard.
“To see the community pull together as one over the last week has been unbelievable,” he said at the time.
“We all grew up together, and we all know the same people.
“That just showed with the horrific accident, and when something bad happens we all pull together.
“Even though we’re rivals with the Bombers, it was so hard to play against them.
“There was talk of cancelling the game, which we would have been happy to do, but the parents wanted it to go ahead and to have that mark of respect at the end was just awesome.
“You play with your heart on your sleeve in footy, but it’s nothing compared to losing a family member.”
Almost fittingly, Clarke started his footy journey as a junior with the Bombers.
His is just one of a number of storied hills footy careers that feature both clubs.
Michalski spoke with pride, and almost a hint of adoration, at how the Brookers rallied around the Bombers in such a tragic period.
“They were fantastic to us then – they were simply amazing,” he said.
“There’s a genuine respect, each way, between the two clubs – there’s absolutely no doubt about it.
“If a tragedy happens, the two clubs will always be there for each other.”
Steer added: “Mates, and brothers, look after each other in the down times – no matter what”.
But as much as sport provides a way for binding the community together in its darkest hour, it also provides that outlet – each week on game days – to be free of inhibitions, to show that tribal, unbridled passion for the colours.
“I was looking around, watching people cry and everything – the supporters go nuts for this game.” – Graham Steer
“When we meet, it’s all about winning those bragging rights until the next game,” Steer explained.
“You could go to school or wherever, and if they ever brought up anything to hang on you, you could always just reply with: ‘How’d you go in our last game against us?’
“You were mates, often like brothers off the field, but it was war on it.”
Michalski explained how so much of the rivalry stemmed from the schoolyard – first at the old Ferntree Gully Tech, and then at Emerald Secondary College… right over the road from the Bombers’ Chandler Reserve home base.
“I went to Ferntree Gully Tech in the early ‘70s and we caught the same bus as the Gembrook guys,” he explained.
“We were all mates, but when it came to the Saturday and we played Gembrook, it was on. It was serious from juniors, right up through the grades.”
Steer explained why he felt so passionately about having hills people represent the colours.
“The whole time I’ve been at Emerald all I’ve tried to do is get the locals back because I believe the team with the most locals often has the best chance of winning the grand final. It’s always the case up here,” he said.
“If you make the finals, it’s like you’re playing for your best mate and you don’t want to let him down. It’s almost like you play twice as hard.
“And when you’ve got two teams of best mates going at each other, that’s just what it’s like.”
While the Gembrook Football Club was officially formed in the early 1900s, it became ‘Gembrook Cockatoo’ in the late 1990s with its junior arm setting up base at the Mountain Road reserve. Throughout the storied histories of both the Brookers and the Bombers, Cockatoo-born and bred players featured prominently.
“Most of the boys at Cockatoo played at Emerald, but when the Brookers became Gembrook Cockatoo they went up there because they finally had a club that represented their name,” Steer explained.
“A lot of the Emerald boys went to Gembrook (Cockatoo) over the years.”
Michalski added: “I’d often look through the footy record on a Saturday and you’d look at the Gembrook side and see six or seven Emerald blokes amongst them.
“It wasn’t often the other way around, and it used to hurt too because there were some sensational players amongst them. A bloke like Craig Clarke was one of them – such a great footballer, and an incredibly good person too.”
In recent years, the involvement of the Emerald RSL – and its footy-loving figurehead, Peter Maloney – has led to the Brookers and Bombers meeting in Anzac rounds.
While the Covid-19 pandemic dashed the hopes of a Division 1 Anzac clash between the two clubs in 2020, the faithful from both sides are salivating at the prospect for 2021.
It’s hoped, at that stage, the Brookers will have the kind of state of the art facilities the Bombers have boasted in recent years.
Both clubs have long had dyed-in-the-wool tragics who’ve done anything and everything within their power to improve their clubs.
And they’ve done it tough in their missions, too.
Local members of parliament – such as Gembrook MP Brad Battin, and La Trobe MP Jason Wood – have long campaigned for improvements to both clubs, wanting nothing but the best for their people.
But the last thing they’d ever do is pick sides – as evidenced by Battin and Wood both wearing specially-made guernseys featuring the colours of both clubs on one particular game day.
Emerald life members Bill and Robyn Kuys have long been two of the fiercest campaigners for the improvements to the Bombers’ facilities.
They made it their mission, and wouldn’t stop until their club had the kind of home it could truly be proud of.
Bill was involved with the Bombers’ junior club from 1984 to 1998, before joining the league executive – with Robyn – of the Dandenong Ranges Junior Football League.
He then served as the Emerald Football Club president from 2003 to 2011, again with Robyn by his side, before serving on the executive of the former Yarra Valley Mountain District Football League (now AFL Outer East) from 2012 to 2018.
“Because the kids from Emerald, Cockatoo, and Gembrook all progressed into Emerald Secondary – or at least the majority of them – I can remember when there were under-14s and under16s games on, it’d feel like they’d start two weeks before the game would actually commence because of all the build-up,” Bill explained.
“The actual games would be so hard-fought – really tough games – but as soon as the siren went, everyone would be all in the one group.
“It’s always been a rivalry with plenty of banter for the couple of weeks prior. But the second the siren’s gone, everyone gets together as one.”
In 1997, the Brookers faced off with the Bombers for the first and, so far, only time in a decider.
The Bombers took the chocolates in the Division 2 clash at Healesville.
Former Bomber Brian ‘Baz’ Thomas remembers it vividly.
Now great mates and premiership team mates at the Brookers, Shannon Richardson manned up in the back pocket on Andrew Shipp that day.
“And Shippy (who went on to be drafted by Fremantle) gave away a hundred-metre penalty on him too!” Thomas said with a laugh.
“Steve Robins was another one who left Emerald for the Brookers too – I hated that, he was a bloody good player – and I played on Clarkey that day.
“He was just a teenager, but he was a bloody good player even then, and he’s gone on to have a sensational career. He’s a ripper bloke, as well.
“But I never liked the fact that some of those boys left and went to Gembrook – I took it personally, in a way. A lot of us did.
“We all knew each other through school or lived near each other, so when we did come up against each other we’d want to beat each other even more.”
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 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 four instrumental Brooker figures who spoke to the Gazette for the story of the club’s famous rivalry with the Bombers – along with his great mates Matt ‘Creeper’ O’Neil and Craig Clarke, and club vice president Marcus Adams.
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, locals.
“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.”
Marcus Adams’ Emerald and Gembrook Cockatoo story intertwines all over the place. He’s a partner at one of the local area’s most recognisable businesses, Falcone and Adams Lawyers, which has sponsored both clubs for decades.
He vividly remembers when his parents Chris and Jeanette ran the Shell service station in Emerald from the ‘80s into the 2000s. From there, they knew just about anyone and everyone from the hills.
Adams played for the Brookers from the mid-‘80s until 2000, and is in his second stint on the committee – having been vice president for the past six years.
He confirmed O’Neil’s take on the merger talks that did the rounds at one stage in the 1990s.
He said the decision for the Brookers to embrace the Gembrook Cockatoo name came about, in no small part, to strengthen the club in the local region in the face of those talks.
After previously coaching the Emerald Auskick, he’s coached his son in the Brookers juniors since 2015, and is currently the under-16s coach – as well as the assistant coach of the veterans’ side.
His son, Nicholas, was another who chose to head to the Brookers to play with his mates – despite the family living in Emerald for more than 20 years.
“Many of my usual mates and clients, and of course their kids whom I coached at Auskick, are involved in the Emerald teams that play against my Brookers,” Adams said.
“There has always been a higher level of emotion shown by some of the parents with kids in those games, and from many of the kids that are playing, which has been fuelled by the historic rivalry that gets drilled into the kids from a young age, which is then added to by their mates playing for the opposition.”
Then, about four years ago at a function at Emerald, the rivalry took on another chapter – one that proves this story is one of rivalry for a whole footballing life.
“While I felt I was taking my life into my own hands given I was vice president of Gembrook, it was a greatly run event in Emerald’s new pavilion,” Adams explained.
“It was some relief that my former teammate Ross Hubbard was there – Roscoe took over the captaincy of the magoos from me in 1999.
“He and a few other senior Brookers had been playing veterans’ footy for Emerald. The Brookers had been talking about a veterans’ side for a couple of years, but it had not been able to get any real traction.
“I asked Ross if he would be interested in helping getting the vets up and running and after telling me to keep my voice down he asked me to have a chat at the end of the season, which we did.
“Sure enough, by the next season Ross and a few other old Brooker players that had been playing for Emerald vets, including Nathan Thomas and Michael Sterne, had come back to the greener pastures of Gembrook to join our club’s team, where they belong. Oh, and dare I mention that Ross is now our club’s president?”