The AFL world is in shock with the news that St Kilda legend Kevin ‘Cowboy’ Neale has passed away.
Just a day after Australia’s sports community was rattled by the death of football icon Ron Barassi, the St Kilda Football Club has confirmed that their 1966 premiership hero has died overnight at the age of 78.
The club said it was “deeply saddened” by Neale’s death, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2018.
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“Cowboy was truly a beloved figure at the Saints, not only among his teammates and fans, but by those who worked alongside him at the club long after his playing days,” the club said in a statement.
Neale was recruited from South Warrnambool in 1965 and played 256 games for the Saints, including the club’s one and only premiership in 1966.
St Kilda famously won the grand final by a point, and Neale starred with a five-goal haul.
The club said he was “renowned for his great physical strength”, but was also blessed with “exceptional skills for a big man” which enabled him to play as a key defender or forward.
Neale was also famously hard and was thrust in the spotlight in 1971 when he knocked out Hawthorn’s superstar forward Peter Hudson.
Years later the St Kilda Team of the Century member (he was named in the back-pocket) was remorseful about the bump, admitting is was “a pretty ordinary” effort.
“I certainly didn’t go into it with that idea in mind,” he said.
Hudson said he had no hard feelings “because he couldn’t remember” the final.
Neale later captain-coached Canberra club Ainslie to four premierships in the ACT and also led the ACT to a famous victory over a Victorian team in a pre-cursor to State of Origin. He then coached Central District in the SANFL.
Returning to the Saints in later years he worked in the marketing department and was president of the Past Players Association.
“Truly a larger than life character in every way, Cowboy was always able to engage with people across various generations,” the club said.
“His health struggles in recent times were well-publicised, and his teammates regularly visited him in Albury as a group.
“Through the difficult times his wife Georgina was always a constant pillar of strength and the club extends its deepest sympathies to her and the Neale family.”
St Kilda’s AFLW team wore black armbands on Sunday in honour of Neale.
And tributes flowed for the popular Australian Football icon on social media.
Popular radio personality Dee Dee Dunleavy said Kevin Neale was the reason she barracked for St Kilda.
“My primary school teacher (a Saints supporter) used to tell me about a man named Cowboy who could fly through the air, and I was captivated,” she said.
“He’s an absolute hero of our club. Rest in Peace, great man.”
Another fan said: “Kevin Neale was a five-goal hero in the 1966 GF and a St Kilda Team of the Century member but also had a huge impact on Canberra footy, including as captain-coach of the 1980 ACT team that upset Victoria. One of the most beloved Saints. RIP Cowboy.”
Veteran AFL journalist Rohan Connolly said it was a sad weekend.
“Oh no, now another great footy person has left us,” Connolly wrote on social media.
“Kevin ‘Cowboy’ Neale was an absolute star for St Kilda at either end and as much as discussion around the famous 1966 premiership is always about Barry Breen’s point, it was Neale’s five goals which really won the flag.