The Houliclan

The Sunday Age

Sunday May 6, 2001

LINDA PEARCE

Wear Joshua Houlihan's shoes for a moment, and you will find they are a slightly uncomfortable fit. He is the fourth and last of the Houlihan boys, and his three brothers have all played league football. Should Josh do so, and effectively become Waygunyah's version of Chris Daniher, his family would be just the ninth to contribute four brothers to the VFL/AFL in more than a century.

Yet Josh, according to his father, is feeling the strain. This week, the Murray Bushrangers' winger brought home a newsletter from Wangaratta naming this year's Vic Country and NSW under-18 squad members. Absent from the list, a crestfallen Josh spent a quiet night in the room that started as Damian's, became Adam's and then Ryan's, as the brothers moved up and on.

Clearly, that bedroom is not all that has been passed down. All his life, like all his brothers, Joshua has wanted to be a footballer. Damian played 11 games for Collingwood, Adam last night appeared in his 52nd for Geelong, and the highly rated Ryan will today play his 19th for Carlton. Can Josh be next? "He probably feels the pressure, but there's none from us," says Brian Houlihan. "He wants to be a footballer, and things aren't going too good for him. Things just haven't dropped his way."

Yet the 17-year-old still has ample time, and it would be nothing more than the family, and their town, have come to expect. Waygunyah, population 600, has a pub, church, post office, butcher, bakery, takeaway food shop, antique store, two service stations, an Uncle Toby's factory, Mrs Mouse's tearooms, and a one-lane bridge crossing the exposed banks of the Murray into Corowa, New South Wales. It also has the Houlihans.

But first, some history. Brian Houlihan was 17 when he arrived from Euroa and met 16-year-old Maryanne O'Donoghue, and, two years later, Damian, was born. Maryanne, whom Ryan credits for the more valuable sporting genes, was a talented member of an athletic family. One of her brothers, Paul, played one game for North Melbourne in 1976.

For Brian's part, his football ability was more limited than his enthusiasm, and his long career for Corowa-Rutherglen comprised "a coupla hundred (games) in the reserves and about 25 in the seniors". Although Brian remains the club's recruiting officer, sport was not the priority early on. "We didn't have two-bob to our name, so footy kind of things came second," he says.

Not for young Damian, though, who had a ball in his bassinette and learnt to kick as soon as he was able. Then, in 1978, came Adam, the most boisterous of the tribe. Ryan, the least academically minded, was born almost four years later. Two years after that, Joshua completed the family, and Maryanne gave up all hope of bearing a girl and settled for a houseful of active boys and a laundry filled with dirty jumpers and muddy socks.

Cricket, basketball, anything went. Next to the family's neat brick veneer in the extension of Waygunyah's main street is the paddock they turned into a miniature oval, complete with goal posts that stood until Ryan's departure to Optus Oval. He remembers about 10 local youngsters would turn up for scratch matches "We'd really slug it out, and it was pretty serious footy by the end of it," Ryan says of his competitive apprenticeship.

Josh remembers the older boys doing him no favors, but Adam most regularly coming to his defence. Damian was, and still is, conscious of the impact of the age gap. "Our years apart were too far for all of us to be playing at once," he says. "That's another thing: I wouldn't mind seeing a couple of brothers playing together, just to see what that's like. None of us has ever experienced that."

Yet Damian has been through plenty else since the day in 1992 when his mother rushed around to spread the news of his drafting to Victoria Park. He is now back where he started after a troubled two-club, 11-game career, despite talent so obvious he topped the Ovens and Murray league's senior goalkicking as a 16-year-old who was expected to lead the town to a famous grand final victory, but could not. The eldest Houlihan also failed in mind and body to handle the expectations and training pressures of the AFL career that, inevitably came his way.

Damian, 25, works in the spare-parts division of a Corowa car dealer and is the assistant coach and star player for the Kangaroos. He gives advice to Adam and Ryan should they seek it, and believes young Josh has similar ability. On Thursday, the Border Mail's back-page headline was "Houlihan Blow", referring to the fractured cheekbone that will sideline Damian for a month. The AFL suspension of a handy Wagga native named Wayne Carey was secondary news.

But so it is in these parts, where Brian works in the local abattoir and his wife as an assistant in the pharmacy, where everyone asks about "the boys". On a far grander scale, Edna Daniher of Ungarie could probably relate. "You shake your head thinking they've achieved so much, because we just come from a normal family that's been brought up running around here," says Maryanne. "But you feel really proud and think `gee, how did they do that?"'

The family's best collective football year was its last. Damian was back, and happy; Adam was in outstanding form for Geelong; Ryan, the teenager whose mother thought "was the one who wasn't going to push himself hard enough", was making a huge first impression at Carlton; and Josh was doing well for the Bushrangers. This year, Ryan aside, the injury-influenced reality has been more sobering.

Yet, in form or out of it, there is an obvious family resemblance. For example, Bushrangers coach and former North Melbourne premiership player, Xavier Tanner, calls Josh "a classic Houlihan". As well as fine evasive and ball skills, they share the laconic, sometimes deceptive movement. "We're all pretty casual, which we don't mean," says Ryan. "We look like we're not tryin', but we are." Adds Brian: "They all look like they're lazy. If you were a new coach and you didn't know 'em, you'd be sayin' 'oh, get this bloke off'."

Both parents drive long distances most weekends to watch as many of their sons play as possible, and Brian - who keeps individual albums filled with photos, certificates and clippings - gets cranky when he sees anyone playing below their best. No one knows their games better. Yet while breeding and environment seem to have both contributed, no-one can really be sure where the talent came from, how far it extends, or who will make the most of his ability.

Damian is resigned to his fate, Adam still has time on his side, and Ryan's star continues to rise. Josh can only keep playing, dreaming that in this case the youngest son truly will be the best, and hoping that the boots he is filling a little nervously will one day fit snugly enough to carry him, like Chris Daniher, towards the opportunity he craves.

"For all of them to play AFL would be a magnificent achievement, absolutely amazing," says Tanner, while urging caution and understanding. "But it's important we don't put too much pressure on Josh because he's a terrific kid, and there's a lot of expectations on his shoulders."

Indeed there are, and Ryan remembers his excitement when Damian's name was called, and the instant, enduring impact on his family of the moment that still ranks as its most special. "That's all we wanted to do from there on, just play footy," Ryan says. "Then Adam went, then I hoped it would be my turn, and that all happened. Now it's just up to Josh, I s'pose."

DAMIAN HOULIHAN

Age: 25

History: drafted as a star teenage forward by Collingwood in 1992, and played 11 games in 1994 before suffering a back injury and being delisted the following year. Returned to country football with Tatura in 1997, before North Melbourne used its No.1 pick on him in the 1998 pre-season draft. Was axed after one season and spent a year with suburban club East Burwood.

Now: player and assistant coach (to former Demon Peter Tossol) of Corowa-Rutherglen in the Ovens and Murray league. Kicked 10 goals in last year's drought-breaking premiership victory.

ADAM HOULIHAN

Age: 23

History: recruited as a 16-year-old by the Cats with the pre-draft compensatory pick earned by the move of Andrew Wills to Fremantle, and served a solid 40-game reserves apprenticeship before his spectacular debut in 1997. The former jockey, who has also had injury problems, has since played 52 games for 66 goals but was almost traded to Richmond at the end of last year.

Now: following his best season, which included 13 goals in a three-round spree, the skilful forward played the first four games in 2001 before being dropped to the VFL. Regained his place for last night's trip to Brisbane with a four-goal reserves performance.

RYAN HOULIHAN

Age: 19

History: drafted with Carlton's second pick, and 73rd overall, in the 1999 national draft and has looked a ready-made player almost since his arrival at Optus Oval. Played 13 games in his debut year and continues to impress as a half-forward/midfielder who has missed just one senior game since breaking in. The tallest, quietest and most aerobically sound of the Houlihan boys.

Now: started the season in fine fettle after a summer in the gym, but his form has tapered a little in recent weeks and he hopes for a big game today against Collingwood. Still, his obvious potential raises the question: how was he not taken earlier in the draft than 73rd?

JOSHUA HOULIHAN

Age: 17

History: a former Vic Country representative still hoping to be added to this year's squad. In his second year with under 18 team Murray Bushrangers as a winger, in the deceptively casual Houlihan mould.

Now: played the first two games of the TAC Cup season, graduating from a start on the bench into the first choice 18 before suffering a hip injury. Returned this weekend, and if not drafted at the end of this year, should benefit from another 12 months of under-age football.

SHERRIN BROTHERS

There must be something in the Murray River water. Of the eight sets of four or more brothers known to have played VFL/AFL football, three have come from the Riverina area, or near enough to make all this seem either amazingly coincidental or kind of spooky. While the four Danihers of Ungarie are the most contemporary, and rightly famous as the only brothers to play together in the same game, the first fraternal quartet came from Rutherglen's Hiskins family: Arthur (184 games, South Melbourne, 1908-1923); Fred (50 games, Essendon, 1900-06); Rupert (74 games, Carlton, 1920-24) and Stan (66 games, South Melbourne, 1913-21). Next came the Strangs of East Albury, whose father, Bill, started it all with 69 games for South Melbourne from 1904-13. Bill Strang had four sons - Doug, Gordon, Colin and Alan - who played a total of 198 games for Richmond, St Kilda and South. Doug's son, Geoff, then logged 89 games for Richmond from 1965-71, including the '67 and '69 premierships. Other members of the four-brothers-to-make-it list are Melbourne's Cordners and Collingwood's Roses, who both managed the feat for one club. The Daykins shared themselves around between four teams at the start of the century, while the Robinsons shared 115 games, and represented Essendon in 114 of them. Of course, the Houlihans are not there yet and, even if they manage to further extend the Riverina connection, have no chance of catching the Rush brothers - Bob (Collingwood), Leo (Melbourne), Bryan (Collingwood), Gerald and Kevin (both Richmond) - who remain, according to AFL statistician Col Hutchinson, the only set of five brothers to share a special familial piece of league history.

© 2001 The Sunday Age

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