Football community mourns a Brunswick champion on and off the field
Barry Nolan coached Brunswick to two VFA flags and won the competition’s best and fairest award but is remembered just as much for his sense of social justice
TOUGH and uncompromising on the field, a gentleman off it. That’s how Brunswick Football Club legend Barry “Gabby” Nolan has been remembered after he died late last month.
Nolan “bled for Brunswick” every time he took the field during a 185-game career in the black and white stripes, which included three Victorian Football Association premierships.
Nolan died on July 29, aged 73, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
He was a champion utility who won the VFA’s best and fairest award, captained Brunswick and coached the Magpies to two second division premierships in 1980 and 1985.
A product of the VFA’s rough and tumble heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, he was known as a tough, loyal and skilled player who had a strong sense of social justice off the field.
Brunswick born and bred, Nolan was a late starter to football, not playing until he was 14 at West Brunswick YCW. He came to senior football after trying to become a professional boxer.
He played 185 games for the Magpies between 1974 and 1985, was club captain for three seasons — including the premiership year of 1980 — coach for five and played in a total of three premierships for the Magpies, the only player to do so. He also coached and represented the VFA.
He joined the club during an era that produced dual Brownlow Medallist Keith Greig, and his fellow member of the 1975 and 1977 North Melbourne VFL Premiership sides, Wayne Schimmelbusch. Nolan played alongside Wayne’s younger brother Darryl in the 1975 VFA grand final.
He won the 1978 J.J. Liston Trophy for Best and Fairest in a tie with Preston’s Trevor Durward and was still a handy player when he retired at the age of 37 after the 1985 Premiership win. In 1988, the trophy for the 120 metre Brunswick Gift was named after him.
“Barry was universally loved and respected by everyone,” a former team mate Paul Young wrote on Facebook.
“Arguably Brunswick’s greatest ever player and coach, his consistency was remarkable. I can’t recall ever seeing him play a bad game.
“A man of outstanding character, integrity and loyalty, he epitomised everything that made Brunswick such a unique and wonderful club to be involved in.”
As a former boxer, Nolan was unafraid to use his fists to defend his team mates on the field, famously flooring VFA Hall of Famer and former Federal MP for Wills Phil Cleary with a one-two combination in a match against Coburg.
Cleary bore no grudges, describing Nolan on social media as “an icon”.
“In a tribute at his 70th birthday I likened Barry to the Roman warrior, Horatius, whose defence of a narrow bridge in ancient times had captured my imagination at school,” he said.
“Barry Nolan’s devotion to the Brunswick Football Club and his preparedness to play on the best forwards and use his boxing skills to defend young players from menacing opponents made him a heroic identity.
“It’s hardly surprising everyone loved Barry Nolan. He wasn’t just a great player who closed down key forwards, won premierships and snared the 1978 Liston Trophy. He was a person of remarkable character, whose selfless love of his football club made him unique.”
Nolan was still involved with boxing into his late-60s and living at an aged care facility in Craigieburn, where he mentored Australian middleweight champion Michael Zerafa.
Ray Nardella, president of the Brunswick Mudlarks AFL Masters club recalled idolising Nolan when he was a boy watching the Magpies at the Gillon Oval.
“I was never a good enough footballer to play VFA. But to watch the ‘Wicks and their best player, Gabby Nolan, was fulfilling and stays with me,” he wrote on Facebook.
Paul Young, who played under Nolan in the mid-1980s, said he had a strong sense of social justice.
“In the 1980s, once a month, Barry organised the local Helping Hand Association to bring dozens of people with intellectual disabilities to the Brunswick football club. We would take them for various footy drills and exercises. Afterwards we would go into the Brunswick FC social club where they would enjoy some party pies and soft drink or cordial.
“After that I would get the disco machine going. As soon as I got up to walk to the disco set-up, they would flock to the dance floor in excited anticipation for the music. It was fantastic to see them having so much fun quite rewarding to bring such joy to them.
“That was Barry Nolan. He was more than a footy coach and player. He was a wonderful human being who made the world a better place.”
Son Daniel Nolan posted on Facebook that his father “loved the club, the people and the players.
“We have so many great memories and Dad told us some amazing stories about the good old Brunswick days.”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions only close family were able to attend Nolan’s funeral, but a public celebration of his life will be held at a later date when restrictions are eased. He is survived by two children and five grandchildren.
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