MERV Neagle played 147 games for Essendon over nine seasons, a fair innings yet not enough to put him among the all-time greats of the club in terms of service or status.
Yet for many Essendon fans of a middle-age, Neagle, 54, tragically killed yesterday in a truck accident near Griffith, in New South Wales, will always occupy a special place in their hearts and memories, a pivotal part of long-time coach Kevin Sheedy's first batch of ''Baby Bombers'', and in the breaking of a 19-year premiership drought.
The most definitive memory of an at-times underrated player surely remains the final goal of the famous 1984 flag win, when Essendon turned around a 23-point three-quarter-time deficit against bitter rival Hawthorn after having been belted by a record margin by the Hawks the previous year.
‘Loveable larrikin’: Essendon star Merv Neagle. Photo: John Woudstra
A then-record nine-goal final term delivered the long-suffering Bomber hordes their promised land. Deep into time-on, and with Essendon leading by 18 points came the symbolic exclamation mark, Neagle taking the ball on the outer wing, taking off on a run and delivering the coup de grace with a 55-metre bomb.
Neagle, from Dimboola, like teammate Tim Watson, was a product of the club's successful country recruiting zone. A saddened Watson said last night that he'd known Neagle his entire life and would always remember him as a ''likeable, loveable larrikin''. Watson recalled when they were both paperboys in Dimboola, waiting to begin their rounds, eagerly scanning the VFL teams, Watson a Richmond supporter, Neagle a Bomber.
As a footballer, even at junior level, Watson recalled a ''fiery, volatile'' player. Yet Watson also paid tribute to Neagle's natural talent. ''Because Essendon had such a good side, it was often overlooked how good he was,'' he said. ''He was a real power athlete, he was quick, and for his size pretty strong overhead.''
The captain of that 1984 premiership team, Terry Daniher, was similarly stunned on hearing the news. ''He was a terrific, hard-running player on the wing for us, who gave us his all and had the tenacity to run all day without a spell,'' he said. ''He was a great mate who loved a beer and loved to be around his teammates. He was just a good bloke.''
Neagle debuted in 1977, but blossomed under the coaching of Barry Davis, his distinctive gait matched with some silky delivery into the forward line. By 1980, Neagle had hit peak form on a wing. Playing every game, he racked up an average of 25 disposals. Watson was a popular favourite to win the Brownlow Medal that year, but it was Neagle who finished runner-up to Footscray's Kelvin Templeton.
When Sheedy arrived as coach in 1981, Neagle quickly became a favourite for his mix of skill and an uncompromising, hard-nosed attack on the ball in a side that was young, and in the coach's view, in need of some toughening up. The wingman was never slow to fly the flag during a tough era, memorably in 1983 at Princes Park when Robert DiPierdomenico ironed out Essendon's Alan Stoneham. Neagle, almost inevitably, was the first Bomber to remonstrate.
''I was lucky enough to coach Merv and he was not only a brilliant footballer but was also a real character and a highly respected teammate and friend to many people,'' Sheedy said last night. ''Merv has left us all too soon but has left those who knew him with many great memories.''
Neagle was unfortunate to miss out on the second leg of the back-to-back Essendon premierships in 1985. He was part of the second semi-final win over Hawthorn but was a late withdrawal on grand final day through injury. He then became part of the Sydney Swans' recruiting push, and left the Bombers on big money, playing another 56 games, despite often being hampered by injury. He retired at 32.
Neagle's son, Jay, played 28 games for Essendon between 2007 and the end of last year, and is now playing in Queensland. Another son, Jydon, plays in the TAC under-18 competition with the Murray Bushrangers, and is a potential father-son recruit in this year's national draft.
Neagle had this year been coaching Hume Football League club Walla, about 40 kilometres north of Albury-Wodonga, after moving his family back to where his wife, Donna, had grown up. Winless and bottom of the ladder last season, Walla had risen to the cusp of the finals under his stewardship. ''It's a terrific little club, mate, and the social side is really strong,'' Neagle told The Sunday Age in a recent interview. ''We play the game, and I yell at them if we get beat, then we all walk over to the pub, forget about it and have a beer.''
As sad as yesterday's news was, he could be certain plenty of old Bombers fans will be - while sharing a beer - determined not to forget a favourite.