TONY Hickey was just out of three-cornered pants when he was sitting in on selection at Robinvale Football Club.
His farming father, Pat, was chairman of selectors and young Tony would sit on his knee and listen to all the deliberations.
"Mum actually told Dad that if he wanted to be a selector, he'd have to take me to the footy club with him, so he did," Hickey said.
Eleven premierships and 12 best-and-fairests later, Tony is a household name in the Sunraysia league, where he won 10 senior best-and-fairests at Imperials during an 18-year career.
Ten of his premierships were at senior level, but the latest one, last year, was with the reserves at "Imps".
"The seniors had been knocked out," he said."Only the bare 18 had qualified to play in the ressies," he said. "I wasn't going to keep a young bloke out, but they had no one else, so I played."
Now 46, Hickey said he was a better person for football, and while he would have liked to have at least trialled at North Melbourne when he had the opportunity in 1987, the lessons learnt along the way have been immense.
He took over as Imperials coach in 1989 and remained at the helm for 11 seasons, leading the club to a league record four straight flags from 1992-95.
"In 1992, I was lucky enough to play under Pedro O'Neill, who was coaching our Vic Country rep team," Hickey said. "He was down from Latrobe Valley and he had a great way of encouraging everyone and making them feel welcome and part of a unit.
"Until then I was doing what most coaches were doing, the old fire and brimstone stuff without thinking too deeply about it all.
"Rather than driving and berating players I started to go the other way, like Pedro did, and was constantly encouraging and reassuring them and reminding them of exactly what they could achieve if they could implement what we were trying to do as a team.
"They were very special young men and to have helped mentor them in those years was probably the highlight of it all, especially as I still see many of them now."
Originally from Robinvale and schooled at St Patrick's College, Ballarat, one of footy's unsung recruiting grounds, Hickey went to Melbourne for university and was playing mid-week footy for one of the university teams when he was seen by North Melbourne's master recruiter Greg Miller.
"I wasn't smart enough to get a degree and train the hours needed to make it," Hickey said.
"I always wanted to have a big crack at it, but didn't think I could make a living out of it.
"Greg talked me into it and picked me in the reserves.
"In the very same week I got a job in Mildura and that was that. I decided to come back to the bush.
"I regret it, but I don't regret the mates I have made and the achievements of our club."
Other than some time under Des Tuddenham at East Ballarat and a season at Karween-Karrawinna, Hickey played all his football in Mildura, gaining a reputation as one of the fittest and most skilled players outside the big league.
Among the best players of his time were much-travelled Phil Bradmore, who was Hickey's assistant for a time, Imperials centre-half-forward Phillip Nash, and back in his Ballarat league days, rough and tough Beaufort centreman Gary Lofts, who later went to St Kilda.