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AN INTERVIEW WITH AUSSIE

Mark 'Merv' Armstrong #1 - Armstrong Evolution​​Presented by Tiger champion, Tony 'Aussie' Wynd

From Student to Teacher, Coach, Leader

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Mark 'Merv' Armstrong

Joined Queanbeyan from East Wagga in 1993 aged 17.

1st Grade Premiership Player – 1998, 1999, 2000, 2015.

1st Grade Grand Final Player – 1994, 1995, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007.

1st Grade Games – 331

1st Grade Captain – 2000, 2001.

1st Grade Coach – 2002 – 2010 (inclusive)

Most Goals Kicked in AFL Canberra – 811

Elevated to Tigers Legend status in 2024

Amongst his long and thoroughly deserved list of accolades, one tribute he never heard might be one of his best.

 

When the Queanbeyan Tigers club comes up in a conversation at a local dance school, some of the parents immediately, unprompted and glowingly ask, “Do you know Mark Armstrong? He is such a good coach. He is great for our kids.” (Note - they also speak of his great mate Jason Gilbert with the same respect and enthusiasm in their voices.)

Upon leaving high school and his junior club of East Wagga, Mark was set to study his teaching degree at the University of Canberra in 1993. The connections between the Hawks coach, Greg Leech and Tigers coach, Brian Quade, meant Mark was encouraged to talk to Queanbeyan before deciding where to play his football in the Canberra region.

After speaking to Football Manager Ron Fowlie (who was also a great friend of Greg Leech), and others he and his family were impressed. He explained that he ‘felt a connection’ and that ‘the other club(s) I spoke to made it seem like it was an honour for me to play at their club, whereas the Tigers made it feel more like it would be an honour for the club if I played with them’. So, although Queanbeyan was the most distant club from the University, he and another of his great mates, Chris (Bones) Davis, signed up, using their ‘Hunny Bunny money’ to pay for the petrol to and from training. (Hunny Bunny money was just like Monopoly money but you could actually spend it at the servo - ask an old timer).

 

So began the evolution of Mark Armstrong from a lean 17-year-old student to an outstanding captain, coach, teacher and leader at the Tigers.

 

As well as subsequently playing 331 first grade games, Mark was captain of the club in 2000 and 2001, before taking on the coaching role from 2002 through to the conclusion of the 2010 season. He played in four premiership teams (one as captain) and six other grand finals, won three best and Fairest awards and kicked more goals than any player in the history of AFL Canberra being 811.   Amongst his many representative games, he captained and coached the AFL Canberra Representative team to success at the national country championships and was named in the All-Australian Country team (as a player and later a coach). In addition, he did all this with a professionalism and class that early on stamped him as a leader.

 

In his first season, club legend Alan Muir was compiling, with a pen on paper, the match reports for publication in the local Queanbeyan Age newspaper. In highlighting young Mark Armstrong’s strong display in his first game, the typesetter at the newspaper, who had yet to learn the names of the Tigers recruits, misread the handwritten ‘Mark’, and so it was that ‘Merv’ Armstrong appeared in the press – and young Mark had himself a brand‑new nickname.

 

Almost two decades later, he hung up his boots in 2010. However, in 2015, after a tumultuous off season when the club withdrew from the NEAFL, he heeded a call from his successor as coach, Kade Klemke, to return to the field and assist with the transition back to the AFL Canberra ranks. He states ‘and I am very glad I did’ as he was one of the remarkable stories of one of the most remarkable Tigers’ premierships that year, as the Tigers triumphed over a previously unbeaten Belconnen. ‘Although we were very much the underdogs that day, everything went right’ he says, having kicked 4 goals, at the age of 40 !

 

Now having been a prominent figure in the club for more than 30 years, Mark says he has appreciated the whole journey. During his early years, he enjoyed learning from the established players such as Robert Anderson, Doug Daniel, Tony Wynd, Steve Vizy, Phil McClure and George Stevens, ‘who knew what it took to win’. Then, as an established senior player and captain, ‘playing in 3 premierships with your best mates including the likes of Chris Davis, Jason Gilbert, Rod Gisik, and Dave Hunter, is as good as it gets.’ In the coaching role, as well as competing in four grand finals, he takes pride in the development of the next generation of players. He remembers, for example, helping develop the skills of a young Andrew Swan, who is still a potent force in 2023. More recently, Mark has been a member of the football committee since 2011 and his currently Vice Chairman.

 

Mark lauds the contribution of the volunteer team over the years has been ‘just amazing when you think about it’ and notes that many, including Chook Fowlie, Fred Gisik, Gary Bullivant, Noel Miller, and Wally Thompson, have been with him throughout his whole time at the club. He also cites the coaching alliance, support and friendship of Adrian Pavese as a significant partnership. He also has strong memories of the positive influence that triple premiership coach, James Dore, had on his playing success and coaching development. He is particularly proud of the evolution of the club to incorporate the women’s teams and that it provides a positive experience for so many people of so many ages.

 

Mark has also found time to coach a variety of school, Giants academy, junior club and junior representative teams, including one particular junior Tigers team from under 8s to under 17s. Many  of that team are now graduating to senior Tiger ranks and Mark now has a new role, that of a parent of a young senior player. He cites as one of his proudest moments seeing his son Michael, along with his mate Bailee Gilbert, make their senior debut ‘at the best club in the world with their best mates’. During a recent game he saw the ball pass ‘from Max Banic to Caden Spinks to Dayne Posthuma to Michael Armstrong’, all of whom he had coached, and hopes to ‘see that sort of thing for many years to come.’

 

Off the field, Mark thoroughly enjoyed nights at the club after a game, with the whole team and a broad mix of people enjoying the activities, banter and laughs. The banter always goes to extreme heights during the ‘mad Monday’ activities after a grand final providing widespread laughter and different memorable moments. This might be as simple as a young Damien Wadley coming off second best in an impromptu wrestling match with a plastic chair or a Chairman of Selectors, Alan Mapleson, after the 2000 premiership, providing a detailed and nuanced re‑enactment of coach James Dore’s somewhat less reserved antics during the game. Whilst James generally spoke directly to his players in a calm, considered and constructive manner, he had an element of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde when the play was in motion. Embellishing only a little, Mapo’s performance included some dynamic physicality and very fruity language in reproducing the coach’s emotional rollercoaster on the day. Possibly Mapo’s best ever comedy performance had sore and hungover players, officials and supporters rolling on the floor with laughter, and yet it was ‘based on a true story’.

 

Very good in the mud !?

 

Not widely known is how good ‘Merv’ was in muddy conditions, even off the field. In Cairns, on an end of season trip, his mate Bones challenged him to a race across the low tide sand flats, out and back to a post that was about 60 or 70 metres from the chairs they were comfortably sitting in. After a quick alcohol-affected risk analysis, Merv accepted. The contestants began the race in the hot north Queensland sun but quickly realised that racetrack was actually mud, which was about a metre deep with sharp rocks at the base. But that did not deter the duo. Despite the effort becoming much longer and harder than anticipated, neither would be the first to ‘give’.

 

So, covered from head to toe in thick, stinky mud, with cuts to their feet, they completed the course in just under 10 gruelling minutes to the thunderous cheers of 20 teammates and about 200 baffled locals and tourists. Some of the locals asked, ‘You do know there are crocs out there, don’t you?’.

 

Now keen to get back to the bar, but in need of a wash, the two gladiators made their way to the marina, where they dived in amongst the moored boats and washed off the mud as best they could, again to the bewildered looks of the locals. Upon emerging from the water, one local asked ‘You do know there are stingers in that water, don’t you?’ Hope that next beer tasted good.

 

Mark states that ‘It was a privilege to play with such a good club with my best mates and share in some success. It doesn’t get much better than that. It is something you just can’t replicate in other areas of your life. I enjoyed every minute of it.’

While he says it was a privilege to be involved, the Tigers’ club has much to be thankful for.

 

* During our 100 Year Celebrations Mark, along with Tony 'Aussie' Wynd, were elevated to Tigers Legend Status at our 100 Year Gala Dinner – very well-deserved recognition for a player who have given his all to the Tigers.

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