Football clubs are built on the hard work, loyalty and selfless service of backroom staff like Eddie Hillgrove.
Eddie has long been part of the fabric of the Collingwood Football Club, having served in a variety of roles over the past 42 years since joining the Reserves Committee back in 1981. And while he’s never sought attention, some of it has inevitably come his way.
In 1990, of course, he was famously involved in the quarter-time brawl of the Grand Final (more on that later). In 2016, his service to Collingwood was acknowledged when he was awarded the club’s highest honour – Life Membership.
And now his contribution to the wider game has also been recognised, with the Victorian Football League conferring upon Eddie a Life Membership for having rendered “special service to the VFL or to football in general.”
It’s further, richly deserved, recognition for a man who has given so much to the Club, and to the game of football.
Eddie’s story started in the back streets of Collingwood. He was born and bred in Yarra Street, just a Twiggy Dunne torpedo or two away from Victoria Park, and went to school at the famed Victoria Park State School, which literally stood across the road from the ground and counted Harry and Albert Collier among its earlier students.
He went to his first Collingwood game at the age of three, and would watch training after school most Tuesday and Thursday nights. He lived and breathed footy, and loved the Pies from day one.
He became a social club member when he was 24, making this his 58th year as a member. But the mark he has left on this club extends far beyond that of even a long-serving member.
Hillgrove joined Collingwood’s Reserves Committee in 1981 and graduated into the role of the seniors Team Manager in 1983, a role he held until 2000. He was also Chairman of the Players Welfare between 1985 and 2000, managed all training and match day operations between 1985 and 1999, was responsible for managing all messages from the coaches on match days between 1983 and 1999, and organised all the fundraising and arrangements for the players’ end of season trips between 1983 and 2000.
His most famous – or infamous – moment came in the 1990 Grand Final, when he was caught up in the wild brawl that took place at quarter-time. The all-in melee involving almost all the players was one thing, but to see it spill over into officials from both clubs was something else again.
This was no bluster-filled push-and-shove either. Punches were thrown – and landed – as runners, doormen, trainers, ‘Gubby’ Allan, Kevin Sheedy and Eddie all became involved. Eddie swears he was trying to break things up at first, but the peacemaker role didn’t last. And it was only when Leigh Matthews dragged him away that peace was restored.
That incident made Eddie something of a cult figure with many fans, and it only strengthened the close relationship he already had with the players, coaches and other officials. He stayed on with Matthews, and then Tony Shaw, not leaving his role until Shawry finished in 1999.
That must have seemed like a logical end to Eddie’s official Collingwood involvement. But when the club re-launched its own stand-alone VFL program in 2008, Eddie put his hand up to help then VFL coach Gavin Brown and General Manager, Paul Licuria. He quickly became Licca’s right-hand man and continues to be involved as the VFL Team Manager to this very day.
At the age of 81, Eddie is the first to arrive and last to leave on match-day. But even this doesn’t reflect the true extent of his commitment, as his day actually starts much earlier, with an early morning pit-stop at Epping Market to meet with Joe the fruiterer, to pick up the team’s fruit allocation for the game. He’s there at training sessions too, making sure everything runs smoothly.
With the help of his fellow volunteer crew, he ensures the rooms are set up for the players’ arrival, all paperwork is lodged on time and the opposition team have everything they need. In years gone by he also had to take on the thankless task of trying to move along the dedicated early-morning dog-walkers from Victoria Park (as well as the removal of any ‘gifts’ left behind by said canines). In short, he’s been keeping things ticking over for the reserves/VFL team for 16 seasons – making him the ideal candidate for VFL Life Membership.
Eddie Hillgrove has made a profound impact upon our club at both AFL and VFL level. He’s not only filled all those different roles already mentioned, but also been a confidante and friend to players, coaches and other officials alike. A tireless volunteer and passionate servant of the club, he is the very epitome of what it means to be a great Collingwood person. We are lucky to have him, and this latest accolade is richly deserved.
As Collingwood CEO Craig Kelly and General Manager of Football Graham Wright said in the club’s submission to the VFL:
“Eddie’s contribution to the Collingwood Football Club has been immense across both our AFL and VFL programs. His positive nature, can-do attitude and love of the whole club has shone through many, many seasons. This acknowledgement and recognition are justly deserved.”