ROBERT Lane was not yet 20 when his clearance to Carlton came through. It was May 27, 1966, five rounds into the VFL season, and for an aspiring league footballer, Princes Park was a great place to be.
Eighteen months earlier, George Harris had wrested control of Carlton after it had plummeted to its worst placing — 10th — in its centenary season, 1964.
In late 1964, Harris completed one of the game's most audacious coups when he landed Ron Barassi as captain-coach. The Blues then entered what would be arguably their greatest era.
These were glory days for Lane, who in November 1965 earned an on-the-record endorsement from Superintendent Gilbert Trainor after graduating as a policeman. Superintendent Trainor described Lane as a "sound, reliable type who applied himself diligently and obtained good results".
When St Kilda and Hawthorn footballers play at Telstra Dome this afternoon wearing blue-and-white chequered armbands to denote their part in the Silk-Miller Cup, the annual match in honour of two murdered policemen, thoughts will turn to the 141 men and women of the Victoria Police who have died upholding the law, and to all the loved ones they have left behind.
Among the fallen is Detective Senior Constable Lane, today survived by his wife Valerie, daughters Dana and Chelsea, and grandson Charlie Robert.
Lane's senseless murder on the morning of Friday, July 13, 1979, made front-page news, which resulted in the swift apprehension of the perpetrator. But what appears to have been lost in time is Lane's standing as the only league footballer to have died representing the Victoria Police.
Robert John Lane was born at Kerang on December 12, 1946, one of five sons and five daughters reared by George and Jean Lane. The Lane siblings would be blessed with strong sporting genes, with Robert excelling in football and basketball and younger twin sisters Jeanette and Helen each captaining Victorian basketball teams.
Retired policeman Gomer Davies, who lives in Lalbert, near Swan Hill, said Lane was stationed in Carlton when he embarked on his league football career. "Carlton (Football Club) got Bob down at the time he joined the police force and he played a couple of games there," Davies said.
Ian Collins, the former Carlton president, chief executive and premiership player, remembers well his brief moments playing alongside Lane in 1966.
"He was a handy, but not great, footballer and he seemed to be a fairly quiet type," Collins said. "I remember that he used to turn up to training in his police uniform.
"He was solidly built, but not overly tall. He was a key-position player and I played with him in both of his games in 1966 — round 13 versus St Kilda at Princes Park and the following round against Fitzroy there."
It's just on 40 years since Lane took the field for the Blues. He was the first to carry No. 46 into a Carlton senior game. In his first game, Lane was named 19th man, with Jim Pleydell joining him on the pine, while Richard Vandenberg (a distant cousin of the current Hawthorn captain), made his senior debut that day starting in a forward pocket and exchanging roving duties with Adrian Gallagher.
Lane and the likes of fellow country recruits Ian Nankervis, a namesake of the former Geelong player who hailed from Mildura Imperials, and Gil Lockhart, from Mansfield, were turned over by Barassi during the 1966 season. According to Vandenberg, who is now a chartered accountant in Swan Hill, the die might have been cast for Lane with the arrival of the lanky Tasmanian ruckman Peter "Percy" Jones.
In April the following year, in 1967, Lane was cleared to Williamstown. Not long after, he opted to combine his policing duties with a stint as captain-coach of Lake Boga, just south of Swan Hill, in the then Mid-Murray Football League.
Then in 1973, Lane returned to the big smoke, renewing acquaintances with Davies at Russell Street. "He was a senior detective at that stage and he was also playing for 'Willy' at centre half-forward in the old Channel 0 days," Davies said.
"Three years later, he returned to take on the job as captain-coach of Lalbert. He got Lalbert to a premiership in his first year, (in) 1976, when they beat Woorinen by a point."
Davies said Lane eventually relinquished the coaching role at Lalbert to Chris Drum, the brother of former Fremantle coach Damian Drum. "Bob just wanted to continue as a player in 1979, but unfortunately he was killed that July."
On that Friday morning, Lane made a routine trip across the border, to Kyalite, to question a man suspected of stealing a car. Tragically, the move would cost Lane his life, as the suspect turned a rifle on him and fired three times. Lane was 32.
Davies was then left with the terrible task of recovering his mate's body from a roadside camp by the Wakool River.
"Bob went out to do a little job which would normally have taken him about half an hour," Davies said. "He left Swan Hill station at half-past 10 in the morning and by half-past 11, he was dead. Val was waiting for him back at the station. One of their girls was not quite three at the time and the other girl was six or seven."
Lane was laid to rest at the Swan Hill cemetery after a service attended by more than 1200 mourners.
Yesterday, during a graduation ceremony at the Victoria Police Academy in Glen Waverley, chief commissioner Christine Nixon presented the Victoria Police Star medal to Val in memory of her late husband. The medal, introduced last year, recognises members killed or seriously injured in the line of duty.
While Val Lane preferred not to be quoted for this article, she retains a fervour for the fortunes of the team that her late husband represented.
It has not been lost on the club, either, with chief executive Michael Malouf confirming this week that Carlton would work with Victoria Police and the Blue Ribbon Foundation to honour Lane's memory.
Such endorsement is in keeping with those in the Mallee who remember Robert Lane as a champion, on and off the field.
Richard Vandenberg said: "A lot of former players who didn't make it went on and contributed to local communities because of the league football brushmark on them. Bob was a great leader in bush football — hard but fair, and dedicated to the sides that he coached — and the country people with whom Bob spent most of his time always appreciated it.
"He was a popular fellow, a terrific policeman."
Anthony De Bolfo