Justin Crough was one of a handful of legends inducted into Sandringham Football Club’s Hall of Fame for 2019. Robert Keeley talks to this Zebras star about the highs and lows of his football career.
The great man had great instincts – both as a coach and a recruiting guru. His coaching credentials became legendary as he built a powerful dynasty at Hawthorn, but his equally strong talent for making razor-sharp character assessments was arguably less appreciated. Alan “Yabby” Jeans led Hawthorn through one of its greatest periods in the 1980s, and in doing so he developed a powerfully tight-knit group of players, partly based on his ability to sum up his player’s inner resolve. That proved to be both a blessing and a curse for one of the men he favoured, 2019 Sandringham Football Club Hall of Fame inductee Justin Crough. Crough was drafted by Hawthorn in 1988, at a time when Jeans was on a sabbatical from coaching due to illness. Over that period the great coach re-directed his footballing prowess to helping his club with recruiting.
Talent-spotters use all sorts of techniques to assess what’s on offer, but one of the most tried and tested methods is simply wearing out shoe leather. Jeans was no different. Where he had an edge, though, was in applying his background in successful senior coaching. As a premiership leader who’d taken St Kilda to its only flag in 1966, and at that time had coached Hawthorn to flags in 1983 and 1986 (with one more to come in 1989), he understood what worked with any given individual for the betterment of the team. When he made a trip to the chilly windswept hills of central western Victoria and the tiny township of Bungaree he liked what he saw with skinny young ruckman Crough and he let Hawthorn know about it. They followed up, and 16 year-old school kid Crough soon found himself doing a pre-season with one of the greatest collections of footballing talent in the history of the game. Just getting a run with that band of legends was a big ask, and after a couple of seasons in Under 19s and an odd game in the reserves, Crough was delisted – in the sharpest manner possible, by a phone call after training! But the legacy of working with the best in the country stuck with him. That period developed him as a footballer and as a person.
When he ended up in the Victorian Football Association (later to become the League) at Sandringham his Hawthorn background helped earn him two premierships, a JJ Liston Medal for the best and fairest in the competition, a Sandringham Team of the Century position, and finally – this year – an inclusion in the Sandringham Football Club Hall of Fame. If he was still around, “Yabby” Jeans would probably not be surprised.
In the tiny hamlet of Bungaree, a few miles east of the goldrush city of Ballarat, good and sometimes great footballers popped up almost as often as potatoes, one of the town’s main agricultural products. Former St Kilda captain Danny Frawley is arguably the best known, but there’s been a long line of them. For Justin Crough, his football journey began with East Ballarat, but it soon progressed to the Under 14s playing for Bungaree on the often wet and windy fields of the Central Highlands Football league, following in his father’s footsteps. “It was for fun with your mates,” says Crough. When he moved into the Under 17s the dream of AFL football began flickering. He says he was “OK” as a ruckman, and good below his knees. “I didn’t mind wet conditions either,” he says. In an inter-league match he came to the attention of the visiting Alan Jeans, and was invited to play in the Peter Crimmins squad, a Hawthorn development group named after the Hawk’s famous rover.
Crough says, “I actually played under a different name!” Subterfuge is a byword for the AFL!
Draft day was a much lower key affair than it is now. On the day player names were announced Crough was at school when his mother rang with the news he’d been selected by Hawthorn. He recalls it as “a massive shock!”. The following season he turned up for pre-season training, along with “five or six” others from the region. For the first term of school he stayed in Ballarat, heading down to Melbourne for training twice a week. “It was a huge sacrifice for my dad,” says Crough. After that it was too hard, so Crough moved in with relatives in the eastern Melbourne suburb of Vermont. He quit school to start work at the ANZ bank. It was a whole new world and Crough says, “It was a great experience to be there.” Though he was playing in the Under 19s, he still trained with the big names of the time. But it was his lot to be present at Hawthorn when the team was filled with great names. After two seasons, with appearances in the Under 19s and a couple of games for the reserves, he was delisted. “I left training and when I got home I got a phone call telling me I was cut,” he recalls.
With his AFL career cut short, through his connection with fellow Bungaree local Danny Frawley he met retired St Kilda legend and Sandringham coach Trevor Barker. At that stage Barker had already coached Sandringham to the 1992 (then VFA) premiership, but after a career at a St Kilda team mired in a lack of success Barker was still hungry for flags. So Barker asked Crough to come to training with the Zebras. He started with the club in 1993. “It was a hard team to get into,” he recalls. But he did play in the Reserves premiership team that year. “It was the first premiership for me. It was awesome,” say Crough. It also presented an opportunity. The seniors didn’t make the finals, so changes were afoot.
In 1994 Crough played mostly in the senior team. “It was huge to be in that team,” he says. He was 22 years old and he became part of Trevor Barker’s second premiership team when they won a tight contest against Box Hill. He tried out for St Kilda after that, completing a pre-season, but he wasn’t picked up. But he feels he was really playing at a high level, with a good level of fitness, given that he had to work and play football. “It was always a long day during the season, but it was just what we knew.”
He says at that time he didn’t drink alcohol. “But we’d train hard and play hard.” Crough says the VFL has a much higher level of professionalism these days, given that most clubs have an alignment with an AFL club. In his playing days sponsors and players would often mingle in the club after games to socialise. Now AFL listed players usually head off, and with no reserves side the whole list is smaller. He offers plenty of praise for his coach Trevor Barker, who he says had an “amazing balance”. “He had a good football brain, and he was great with relationships. ‘Barks’ was amazing. He’d challenge you, but he’d encourage you a lot. I definitely grew as a player during that period, but I also had more age and maturity.”
When Barker left to try his hand as a St Kilda assistant coach to Stan Alves former Carlton player Tom Alvin took over for the 1995/96 seasons. Sandringham was well-beaten by Springvale in the 1995 Grand Final, and it missed the finals in 1996. Then former Hawthorn player Andy Collins got the coaching job for two seasons in 1997/98.
Crough says, “Collins was intense back then. He was strong on discipline, which was an influence from his Hawthorn playing days. He demanded a lot from his players, but we had a pretty good team.” Good enough to comfortably win the flag against Frankston in 1997, for Crough’s second senior premiership.
It’s an odd coincidence that Crough didn’t manage to finish either grand final on the field. Both times he went off injured, though he did get through most of each game before coming to sticky ends on both occasions! In 1994 he was knocked out in the last quarter and ended the game on the bench, and in 1997 he broke an ankle at the start of the last quarter. That game was played at Port Melbourne and the dreaded centre wicket area had put too much pressure on an ankle which already had a stress fracture.
Crough says he had a massive appreciation of that team’s achievement, possibly helped more by being clear-headed from a lack of alcohol! To top a great season off, he also won the esteemed JJ Liston Trophy for the best and fairest player in the competition.
But life changes. In 1998, after one last season at Sandringham in which he won a Best and Fairest award, Crough decided to move on from VFL level football. He’d played 92 games and kicked 12 goals over a career that ran from 1993 to 1998. “I didn’t have the time for training anymore and I wanted to progress with my work.” He then found an opportunity at Shepparton in the Goulburn Valley and through the following two seasons he played with Shepparton United, appearing in two losing grand finals. “It was a very good standard, and it didn’t have the time commitments of the VFL. The grind of training had got to me. I’d been doing it for six years.” Eventually driving to Shepparton also proved too challenging to keep up. Even though he loved it, going up on Friday nights and coming back on Sundays was too much. Stints at Rosebud in the Mornington Peninsula Football League and with St. Albans in the Geelong League followed. “They were all great club people,” says Crough. Then in 2006 he played six games at Chelsea with a mate, and scored another premiership! But by then he had a dodgy hip on his left jumping leg (not too flash for a ruckman), which eventually led to a hip replacement operation in 2011.
Despite that, in April 2016 Crough undertook a charity walk for a mate, Nick Murray, whose son Will had become a quadriplegic after jumping off Black Rock pier that summer. He walked from Sorrento Hotel back to Sandringham’s Trevor Barker Oval via St Kilda, a distance of 100km. It took 21 hours and garnered around $35,000. All with a reconstructed hip.
In 2017 Sam Radford from Sandringham, who was midfield coach for Melbourne’s women’s team, asked if Crough would help out with that team’s ruck division. Crough took up the offer, which has continued over the three seasons the team has been operating. “It’s a small role,” says Crough, ‘But it’s great. I’ve never coached boys. The girls are unbelievable. They’re very appreciative. They thank me after every session. They’re coming off a lower base, but their development over three years has been incredible. The standard of women’s football has definitely improved year on year.” Crough says he hopes that ultimately women’s football will become fully professional. “It’s my first coaching involvement and it’s been a great opportunity to be involved at an elite club. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve got two daughters and my oldest is 11 and playing for the Hampton Rovers. And the women’s league has been a massive influence on my daughter. I’m wrapped she’s playing and she loves it.”
Crough is now involved in a business partnership with m8 finance, but he still enjoys his connections with football, though he is less sure about watching the top level. The game has moved a long way from his days at Hawthorn Football Club. “If I want to watch them kicking it around I can go to training and watch that,” he says.
But he’s satisfied with how his own career panned out. “I was lucky enough to have an opportunity at AFL level, and it allowed me to have a good career in the VFL. I loved what I got out of it. I’m pretty pleased at what I’ve done, and I had a bloody good time doing it.” As for his induction into Sandringham’s Hall of Fame line up? “It’s a great honour to be in the Hall of Fame,” he says, “But there’s a lot of others probably more worthy than me.”