John Rantall back to Cobden where it all began

Former VFL/AFL player John Rantall (centre) with Swans player Gary Rohan (left) and Essendon's Zach Merrett at the Cobden football ground, where they all got their start.  Picture: DAMIAN WHITE

Former VFL/AFL player John Rantall (centre) with Swans player Gary Rohan (left) and Essendon's Zach Merrett at the Cobden football ground, where they all got their start.  Picture: DAMIAN WHITE

JOHN Rantall was a country kid struggling to adjust to life in the city, a promising footballer torn between a VFL career and the comfort of home.

That was more than 50 years ago, but the same issues can plague modern-day AFL players.

Rantall still remembers wanting to return home to Scotts Creek, to play football for Cobden — the club he represented when he won the 1961 Judd Cup.

But he pushed through his initial homesickness and went on to carve a 336-game VFL career, booking his spot in the AFL Hall of Fame.

For Rantall — a creative half-back with South Melbourne, North Melbourne and Fitzroy — the lure of home lingered decades after his retirement in 1980.

He returned to live in the south-west in January more than aware of Cobden’s current crop of AFL players.

The Kangaroos’ 1975 premiership player already knew Gary Rohan, having handed the injury-plagued speedster his Swans guernsey at a number of Sydney season launches.

But he also pays close attention to Essendon brothers Jackson and Zach Merrett and North Melbourne clearance specialist Ben Cunnington.

“In my day, if I’d have had someone from Cobden come down — and there was quite a few people try — I’d have loved it,” Rantall said.

“It would have been the best thing ever for me. 

“I would have felt really comfortable. But it never happened in my day, so I am glad it is happening now.

“I have had a fair bit to do with Gary over the years because he is at the Swans and I am a life member of the Swans and in their hall of fame.

“Every year I go to their jumper presentation and team of the century do, so I have caught up with Gary and his parents quite a bit and really am an avid supporter of his.

“I usually text him if he gets a game, so it’s been great.”

Rantall is grateful he overcame his initial hesitations about city living.

It culminated in a career which left a mark much greater than he could have ever imagined.

“Someone said the other day, I don’t understand a great deal about computers and that, but he said ‘you have your own Wikipedia page’,” Rantall said.

“I just said ‘what’s that?’

“It was a good decision. I played on six-match permits and I hated the city. 

“I was living in a boarding house with a lot of other footballers and didn’t like it.

“I thought ‘when my six-match permits are up, Cobden won’t clear me’.

“We drove up here — I’ll never forget this — to the pub and they said ‘sit in the car John, we won’t be long’.

“I am thinking they won’t clear me and they came out 10 minutes later and they’d cleared me and sold me for £200, so I was off back down to Melbourne.

“I thought to myself I have to lump the city and get used to it. 

“And I did.”

Rantall lived in Queensland and New South Wales after he called time on his 18-year VFL career. Now 70, he decided to return to where it all started — well, close by in Noorat, the home of another AFL footballer, Nick Bourke.

He watched Cobden defeat Hamilton Kangaroos in round one and was invited to a function during its night match against Terang Mortlake.

“I have missed the football and to come back home has been a perfect tonic, I think,” Rantall said.

“It has been a long time. I left home here in 1963 but I played all my junior football here, so coming back after 51 years is a bit of a culture shock. But I love it.

“It’s pretty hard to fill the gaps in. 

“I know a lot of names and a lot of people, but trying to join them all together is difficult.”

Rantall’s love for football encouraged him to remain involved during his time in the northern states and he envisages playing a role at Cobden now that he’s home.

Rohan, too, still has strong connections to the Bombers.

It was at Cobden Recreation Reserve where he got his start and he still visits home as often as his playing commitments allow. 

The speedy utility takes an interest in Cobden’s connections, past and present.

“He (Rantall) is one of the Swans legends at the club,” Rohan said.

“I know he was hard at it and really determined and was a good leader.

“We are distant cousins so we are related somehow which is pretty good and at jumper presentation he gives me my jumper sometimes which is pretty cool.

“I played with Jackson a lot and Ben.

“It is good to see them getting confidence and taking it on.

“It makes me interested in watching Essendon and North Melbourne games.

“It is good to watch footy now because you know somebody.”

Cobden has produced four AFL footballers — including two in the top 10 — in the past five years.

The feat is not lost on Rohan.

“For a little club, a little town, it’s awesome,” he said.

“It gets scouts to come down here and look at our younger fellas and our under 18s — there are some really good kids coming through.

“It just gives a really good vibe around the club.”

Zach Merrett is the latest Cobden export to graduate to the AFL stage.

“It is interesting thinking back to when me, Gary and Jackson used to train together in under 14s and there wasn’t a so-called league, it was Simpson, Camperdown, Cobden, Terang and Mortlake,” he said. 

“Now it’s obviously all organised and it’s a pretty good system with the coaches so it’s working well.”

Merrett, who met Rantall for the first time last week, said it was important players remembered their grassroots. 

“I always check the Hampden league website every Saturday night or Sunday just to see if they’ve won or not,” he said. 

“I always have a look at the list of best players, goalkickers and who has played and there’s obviously been a lot of juniors playing this year, a lot of under 18s and under 16s, which is good to see.”

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