‘…..SPUD……….’

Renato Leonardo Patat…….the name rolls smoothly off the tongue……

But everyone, bar his wife Marie, called him ‘Spud’.

He always reminded me of Nino Culotta, the fictional hero of the popular fifties novel : ‘THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB’.IMG_3827

Both were tradies, Italian immigrants, grappled valiantly with the English language and succeeded in assimilating themselves perfectly into the Australian lifestyle.

In fact, Spud, who passed away just on a fortnight ago, became a true-blue Aussie character………..
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He was born in the hilly town of Gemona, in North-East Italy, in 1927. Because of the family’s precarious financial status, he was required to leave school early, and join the work-force, to support his seven siblings and parents, Maria and Umberto.

Tough times prevailed in post-war Europe, and work opportunities were scarce. It prompted Renato to answer an ad in the local paper, which sought tradesmen in Australia.

He landed in Wangaratta in 1951, and started work on the Housing Commission’s kerb and channel project in Yarrunga. It would, he thought, keep him going for two or three years, before he inevitably headed back home to Gemona.

Fate intervened. One of his regular outings was to the Movies at the Plaza Theatre, in Murphy Street, where he was drawn to a friendly, good-looking usherette.

The attraction was mutual. The handsome Continental swept young Marie Stevenson off her feet and, as their romance began to blossom, he was invited home to meet her family.

Sounds like one of those Mills and Boon novels, doesn’t it ?

But he was a trifle reluctant. One of his countrymen had told him that he’d been invited to meet his Aussie girlfriend’s father, and had been threatened at the door, with a shot-gun.

Again, this drew me to an excerpt from ‘They’re a Weird Mob’: Nino Culotta is invited home to meet Harry, the dad of his girlfriend Kaye. Harry says he doesn’t like Tradies or Dagos. Nino, sitting in Harry’s lounge-room, points to a picture of the (then current) Pope on the wall, and says: ‘If I am a Dago, so is he’. Abhoring the prospect of calling the Pope by that name, Harry accepts Nino…….

Spud had no need for such concerns , though. He hit it off well with Horace Stevenson, and he and Marie were wed in 1954. It was his dad-in-law who recommended him to Bill Parnall Snr, after his contract with the Housing Commission had been completed………..
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When I was growing up, Spud was a familiar figure around the Rovers Football Club.
Someone – probably his future brother-in-law Alf Onslow – had swayed him into following the Hawks, and with his set of skills, he became a valuable acquisition.

The Club had shifted to their new home at the ‘Cricket Ground’ in the early fifties, and Spud was always at working-bees, building this; repairing that.

Along with Harry Armstrong and ‘Doodles’ Dodemaide, he constructed the wooden seats that ringed the oval. Then there was the decrepit, ruin of a building that he helped convert into single-storey Clubrooms, as well as ‘knocking up’ the original wooden Kiosk and Bar.

Initially, he knew nothing about the nuances of Aussie Rules. Alan ‘Dinger’ Bell, a Rovers star of the fifties, recalls him ‘blowing his top’ when the goal-umpire disallowed a certain Hawk goal at the Yarrawonga Showgrounds one day.

He started to straddle the fence and blurted: “I kill you”, before he was restrained. Spud continued to remonstrate with the ump for the rest of the quarter, and was eventually escorted from the ground.

As the years rolled on, he became a connoisseur of the game, and would prognosticate on it from the northern end of the Hogan Stand; with VB in hand; in the midst of the most one-eyed, umpire-baiting Rovers supporters……
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Marie, of course, became a wonderful teacher, who influenced generations of kids at West End Primary. But surprisingly, she was unable to induce Spud to master the English language.IMG_3830

He perfected its slang however, and even conjured a few words of his own, one of which – ‘Blood a Fuck’ – he inserted into conversations as a noun, verb or adjective.
‘Dinger’ remembers calling in to pick up some tomatoes one Sunday. “He was ‘f…..n’ this and ‘f…..n’ that, when Marie interrupted: ‘Renat, go easy on the language. I’ve just been to church……’

“Sorry Marie….didn’t f…..n know you were there,” he said, as he continued to forage around the garden bed.

His use of the vernacular added extra charm to his stories.

I liked the one he told about he and a couple of workmates dropping in for a beer at the Plough Inn, on the way home from a job. He hadn’t been in the country all that long, he said, and was still a touch sensitive about the racist culture of that era.

Also in the tiny bar was a formidable, well-known businessman who had been enjoying a ‘long lunch’. Spud was sure he heard him mutter something about ‘bloody dagoes’, and moved to reproach him.

He menacingly pinned the suited gentleman against the wall. The bloke was that shaken that he managed to wrench himself free, bolted out the door, jumped into his car…..then sideswiped the Tarrawingee bridge, as he headed for home…………
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Spud became part of the furniture at Parnall Constructions. Bill Parnall Jnr, who grew up beside him – and learnt from him – claims that he only took one sickie in the forty years he worked for them.

“It was in 1959 – the day after he became an Australian citizen. He spent the night celebrating. In fact, he turned up to work, but Dad sent him home.”

Bill says Spud received a few offers to depart over the years, always for more money, but knocked them back. “He told one fellah he couldn’t leave because he was the unofficial boss of Parnall’s, and that old Bill worked under him…….”

I used to deliver a Rovers membership ticket to the Patat residence at 84 Phillipson Street. The Blue and White Kingswood HK station wagon was usually nosed into the garage.IMG_3828

Depending on whether he was going – or had just returned – from fishing, craying or camping, a ‘Tinnie’ was attached to the roof.

Spud, clad in his usual garb of bib-and-brace overalls and flannelette shirt, would greet you and conduct a guided tour of the backyard, pointing over here to his tomato patch ( “biggest tomatoes in Wangaratta”) and over there to his lettuce, onions, cauliflowers and carrots.

His next-door neighbor, Mario Solimo, reckons the reason for his ‘green fingers’ was the concoction of cow dung that he’d pile into a 44-gallon drum, let soak for a while, stir, then pour onto the veggies.

“Geez it stunk, but it worked,” said Mario, who claims his neighbour of 41 years taught him to swear. I thought it might’ve been the other way around, but if Mario’s correct, then Spud succeeded spectacularly.IMG_3825

The back shed, meticulously laid out, included jars of relish, pickles and jam. Fishing rods and tools would be in perfect order, and he’d proudly display the items he’d just produced from re-cycled timber.

At the rear of the shed stood a bath, more often filled with yabbies. There was always a stock of fresh barty grubs in cigarette packets, stored in the beer fridge, in preparation for his next fishing trip to Makoan, or ‘down the Ovens’.

You inevitably left, clutching some chutney, tomatoes and, in one case, a couple of ornamental frogs…………..
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John Tanner was playing footy with the Rovers in the late fifties when Spud first started shooting ducks on his Greta South property. He made the annual pilgrimage for more than forty years.

“It threw him out a bit when they introduced new rules about identifying ducks before firing a shot,” John recalls. “Spud reckoned that was nonsense. He said : ‘When I go to put my glasses on to check, the f……n duck’s gone.’ “

“I asked him what he did with all the ducks he shot…….’Give ‘em to the relations,’ he said.”

The Patat’s weren’t able to have kids, but acted as second parents to their nine nephews and nieces and, in turn, their 14 children.

They idolised the kids, who became the beneficiaries of tile-top coffee tables, stools, photo frames and vegetables and thrived on Christmas get-togethers at Phillipson Street.

Spud used to string up a shuttlecock net from the clothes-line to the house and engage everybody in the games. They were keenly-contested and  he was never too fond of losing .

After Marie passed away in 2008, he never really adjusted to life without her in their home they’d shared for 51 years . He was relieved to move into St.Catherine’s in 2016 and felt pretty comfortable there.

His departure, at the age of 91, has robbed Wangaratta of yet another legendary figure……………..IMG_3826

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ANOTHER NAIL-BITER AT THE GARDENS OVAL….

One of the quirkier characters of Benalla cricket is a rough-hewn gentleman called ‘Staff’, who operates the score-board at the Gardens Oval.

Thankfully, the Benalla players are well-used to his mannerisms and have learned to turn a deaf ear to the constant barrage of advice and encouragement that he proffers, in between arguing with those in close proximity about the accuracy of his work.

He was in full-flight yesterday, as he attempted to guide the Bushrangers home in a tense clash against Rovers-United-Bruck……

It was an intriguing encounter. The number of times the pendulum swung was enough to drive the average supporter to drink – and I’m sure that explains why ‘Staff’ had to sneak away a couple times during the afternoon to fortify himself…….
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The action started early, when the Hawks – who had been sent in – lost their openers, Luke and Matt Whitten in quick succession.

The younger of the duo, who has been in fine touch of late, with three half-centuries to his name, was sent packing when he nicked one off the lively Dale Stratton. Whitten, the elder, had preceded him – also edging behind. The visitors were 2/3, and the alarm bells were ringing. Neither batsman had troubled the scorers.

Co-captains Jordan Blades and Jacob Schonafinger appeared set on retrieving the situation, but Blades became Connor Brodie’s second victim. It was 3/22 and the quicks were right on top.IMG_3823

The visitors seemed to be imploding, and the loss of the reliable Schonafinger for 19 was a crushing blow. It only got worse – ‘Staff’ took great delight in bringing the scoreboard up to date after four quick wickets had tumbled – the score was 7/48…….

The two super-veterans of the side then came together in an eighth-wicket stand that brought the game to life. Lucky Perera decided on attack from the moment he reached the crease and, by so doing, wrested the initiative from the Bushrangers.

He and the dynamic Jon Hyde sent the run-rate scarping and took advantage of the fact that Benalla’s new-ball bowlers Stratton and Brodie had used up all of their eight overs.

The hosts were bemoaning the absence of a couple of their key back-ups. They relied on spinners Lee Brennan -who extracted huge turn from the track – and Ryan Lloyd-Williams, in a vain attempt to keep the rampant Hawks in check.IMG_3819

‘Lucky’ survived a clumsy catching attempt at backward square-leg, when he mistimed a sweep shot. It was to prove a crucial moment in the game. Shortly after, he produced a classic on-drive which sailed into the plane trees at the Rotunda-end of the ground.

Hyde, who looked scratchy early, discovered some of his rare touch, and deftly produced three boundaries in one over from Nathan Abley.

Resultantly, the Hawks had not only arrested a snail-like run-rate, but  scored with abandon. The 81-run stand between the pair came in just 49 minutes. but there were signs that ‘Lucky’s’ back injury was causing him some stress, and it came as no surprise when he holed out off Lloyd-Williams for 44.

Paddy McNamara, providing valuable support, helped Hyde reach his half-century. They added a further 39, before ‘Billy’ fell for a well-made 54.

The Hawks were satisfied with their eventual 9/174, particularly the lanky Paddy, who, with an undefeated 17, posted his highest A-Grade score.

“A handy total,” I suggested to a Benalla fan at the break. “Yeah” he replied, “but the Gardens has never been quicker. We scored 170-odd against Colts a few weeks ago and they ended with 200 in their 40 overs.”

So obviously, this was a game that was still up for grabs.

And when James Carboon and Ash Ellis set off after the target, it’s size seemed to shrink markedly. They had effortlessly cruised to 31 in just seven overs when, out of the blue, paceman Paul Szeligievicz got one through Carboon’s defences.

That was  the only encouragement the Hawks were to have for quite some time, though. The dashing left-hander Ellis was composed, and his stylish batting was a treat.
He took toll of Jon Hyde and belted four boundaries in two overs, prompting the diminutive medium-pacer to be removed from the attack.

The Hawks threw the ball to James McIntyre, who was bowling for the first time in senior ranks, and debutant left-armer Tyler Norton. Both strutted their stuff and showed promise, but were unable to make an impact.

Simon Holmes, one of Benalla’s finest batsmen of the modern era, was back in the side after missing two seasons through a serious eye injury. The stocky leftie was soon middling them and provided good support to Ellis, as the pair progressed to 87 at drinks.
88 to win, with nine wickets in hand, 20 overs to get them. It seemed an impregnable position for the home team.

But the game swung on its ear in a trice.

McNamara, the enthusiastic left-armer, had proved the most economical of the bowlers, conceding just 11 runs in his first 4 overs, but he struck a telling blow when he skittled classy Ellis for 59. IMG_3818

Wicket-keeper-turned off-spinner Lucky Perera Made further inroads when he had Holmes caught for 19, and five balls later dismissed Lee Brennan for a duck.

McNamara, who was now in full cry, captured two more wickets in his next over. The Bushies had now lost 5 wickets for two runs.

But again, it was Benalla’s turn to mount a rearguard action. Nathan Abley and Josh McCullum proceeded to steady things, then set a cracking pace, as they added 60 for the seventh-wicket.

The game was now theirs to lose.

They needed just 21 runs; still had four wickets in hand.

In a make-or-break move, the ball was again thrown to part-timer Perera. It was felt that the game may be decided on what happened next.

Again Lucky did the trick. Abley, on 38, slammed one back and was dismissed caught and bowled; a brilliant reflex catch.IMG_3821

Then McCullum fell with no addition to the score – out for 22.

Moments later, Dale Stratton was found short of his crease following a smart Schonafinger return.

Benalla had lost 3 for 1. Their two batting ‘hiccups’ had amounted to the loss of eight wickets for three runs.

Just 14 runs short of their target, and still not without a chance, Connor Brodie hoiked a shot into the deep, giving Jordan Blades a short run to complete the catch and effect a memorable victory for the Hawks.

McNamara, one of the team’s five ‘babies’ sent down 6.4 overs to finish with the figures of 4/16 and continue his improvement. Perera snagged 3/17 off his 4 overs.IMG_3817

With youngsters Matt Whitten, McNamara and Bailey Dale all enjoying fine seasons, and Bailey Annett, Jimmy McIntyre and Tyler Norton sure to continue their improvement,  the smiles  are back on the faces of the Hawk clan………..IMG_3822N.B: With thanks to Peter Whitten for Photography.

‘THE LACONIC NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOR ….’

Our next-door neighbor was feeling a touch second-hand last Sunday morning.

His old cricket club got together to celebrate the six premierships they’ve won, but more specifically, one that they clinched a quarter of a century ago. And, in what added to the occasion, they managed to round up the entire team that took out that flag.IMG_3806

It was an evening brim-full of speeches, laughs and reminiscences. Accordingly, if you were to believe them, some of the blokes have become far better players in retirement than they were 25 years earlier…….
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Ian Rundell, though, isn’t one of them. He’s a laid-back fellah who usually finds no need to hark back to the deeds of his halcyon days.

But when someone began to expound in detail, how he found ‘an extra yard’ on that early autumn Saturday in 1994, his eyes lit up. You could detect a blush on his rosy cheeks as it was described in detail how he ripped through the WDCA’s most prolific batting line-up.

He took 5/44, dispatching the Corowa upper-order in quick succession, to have them reeling at 3/11. They were 6/38 at one stage, and in diabolical strife, before limping their way to 91.IMG_3811
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His team, Wangaratta-Magpies, approached their target with caution and, despite the loss of an early wicket, reached it in 45 overs……………
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A season earlier, two of the competition’s long-established clubs – Wangaratta and Magpies – had opted to merge. Their plight was symptomatic of the ills that plagued cricket at around this time.

Dwindling player numbers; the decision by many promising kids to forego cricket in preference to football ; a shortage of administrators; and general apathy, were put forth as reasons for this ‘marriage of convenience’.

It followed hot on the heels of the intertwining of traditional rivals Rovers and United, two years earlier.

Since the resumption of local cricket after World War II, Wangaratta had won four flags and Magpies five. They had waged many a dogged battle on local cricket’s Headquarters – the Showgrounds Oval.

The ‘New Pies’ instantaneously became a premiership threat. The brilliant Grant twins were ‘half a team’ alone, with their all-round skills, and Anthony ‘Chewy’ Brezac was not to be under-estimated as a new-ball bowler.

Duane Kerwin, the reigning Association ‘Cricketer of the Year’, was a player of immense talent; Rick Lawford had come into his own as a star batsman. You had the Rundell brothers, an erstwhile veteran, Rob Worthington, ‘keeper-batsman Craig ‘Clancy’ Henwood and youngsters Frankie Curcio, Damien Black and Joey Cannata to round off the line-up.

But still, the depth of their talent appeared to fall a fair way short of the dominant Corowa, who had taken out the previous six premierships.

Even the champions, though, can be cut down to size…………
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Just about the only person who calls the blonde-haired Ian Winston Rundell by his Christian-name is his partner Lynne. He’s universally known as ‘Knackers’.

That emanated from the day he was fielding in-close, and copped a knock in a delicate part of his anatomy, causing him to crash to the ground in excruciating pain. Pete, his brother, laughed, jokingly dubbed him ‘Knackers’, and the nickname stuck.

He’s a little weathered now, but in his prime was lithe and athletic. Large reserves of stamina allowed him to operate for long stretches. Although he was possibly under-estimated with the bat, he was a consistent run-scorer in the middle order.

In fact, in an era of quality players between the eighties and the early- 21st century, ‘Knackers’ was one of the ‘big guns’ of Wangaratta cricket.

He reckons he got used to bowling long spells very early in the piece. After school, when he was around 10 or 11, he’d head around to the Scott Street residence of his mates from West End Primary – the Grant twins.

“You couldn’t get the bat off either of them, and it’d be left to me to bowl at ‘em all night,” he said.

“Come to think of it, things never changed. Years later, when we were finally re-united in club cricket, ‘Baz’ and ‘Daz’ would wait until ‘Kerwy’ (Duane Kerwin) and I had warmed up before they’d go in to bat at training. Then it’d require an operation to extract them from the nets !”

He played in the early junior grades with the Grants at Magpies. But his brothers, Peter and Paul (Candles) talked him into crossing to their club, Wangaratta.

Fortunately for him at that stage, Wang had a fair side, and he slotted in comfortably.

His best year in club cricket came in 1990/91, when he scored 270 runs and took 47 wickets, to take out the WDCA’s Cricketer of the Year and Chronicle Trophy – and play in the Grand Final.IMG_3807

‘Knackers’ had a rhythmic approach to the crease and, with his pin-point accuracy and immaculate length, was difficult to get away. He didn’t do a lot with the ball, but it was always enough to have the good bats guessing.

It wasn’t that he had to indulge in extensive work-outs to prepare himself for those marathon stints at the bowling crease. Fitness just came naturally to him.

So when the merger of the two Showgrounds custodians came about, he was regarded as one of the key elements of the new combination…………
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‘Knackers’ entire working life has been spent at Bruck Mills. He’s a good operator, they say, but probably wonders how he survived the turbulent times and take-overs that have engulfed the Textile giant in recent years.

He’s officially called a Colour Technician, a job for which he’s well-qualified. That’s a far more refined job description to the one he gave when he first started, which was: ‘working in the Dye House’.

He took leave of absence in 1996, when he and his mate ‘Kerwy’ headed off on an overseas odyssey – a season of cricket in England.IMG_3813

But before that eventuated , he was subjected to a rigorous examination from British Customs officials, who queried why he had unwittingly been found with another person’s National Insurance Card in his wallet.

For a while it appeared he may be sent packing on the first plane back to Australia, but the problem was eventually sorted. The laconic ‘Knackers’ took the drama in his stride and stripped with Colwall, a strong club based in the rolling Herefordshire countryside. He took 55wickets for the season season, and lapped up the hospitality in the ‘Old Dart’.

On his return, he continued to perform strongly – for Wang-Magpies, Sunday team Royal Vic, and Wangaratta’s representative teams.

His dad, Kel, had been a star for the Vic, and is a WSCA Life Member, so playing Social cricket had a bit of meaning for him.

One WSCA performance which tickled him was a partnership of 220 against Glenrowan, with his brother ‘Candles’, whose contribution was 105. ‘Knackers’ was unbeaten on 113.

But Country Week brought out the best in him. It was the challenge of ‘butting heads’ against the stars of country cricket, and bowling in tandem with quicks like Lidgerwood, Fisher, McCormick, Kerwin and Brezac that egged him on.IMG_3809

His 3/19 at the Albert Ground, set Wangaratta up for victory against Central Gippsland in the 1991 Final. He’d sent down 74 overs, taken 10 wickets for the week and bowled himself to a standstill. That win remains the highlight of his seven trips to Melbourne.

On his last visit to Bendigo – in 1999 – ‘Knackers’ took 5/28 in a vain attempt to curtail Kyabram earlier in the week. But in the ‘A’ Group Final, three days later, his 5/45 and 21* earned him Man of the Match honours, as Wangaratta, with nine wickets down, snuck past Ky’s 141.IMG_3808
He chalked up his second WDCA flag in 2000/01 – a match fondly remembered for Barry Grant’s unconquered 132, which rescued the precariously-placed Pies from 7/50 to a competitive 9/192.

After Rundell (3/9) and Timmy Sheldon (3/25) had cut a swathe through the Corowa middle-order, they were eventually bundled out for 134……..
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With his body beginning to wear out, and an old footy injury causing him grief, ‘Knackers’ walked away from cricket a couple of years later, to focus his sporting efforts on golf.

Again, he proved a natural, and was Wangaratta Golf Club’s (Waldara) Club Champion in 2009.
His handicap has been as low as 4.5, and now fluctuates between seven and eight. But a super-competitive spirit lurks beneath the phlegmatic exterior of this old sporting combatant………..

 

FOOTNOTE: Wangaratta-Magpies have taken out four further premierships since Ian Rundell’s retirement from the game. They won the 2003-04, 2004-05, 2005-06 and 2007-08 flags.
But in the last ten years, success has eluded them and finals have proved beyond their reach.
There is some hope that 2018/19 could see them return to finals action.IMG_3814

‘MR. SOCCER……’

It’s 1950……. John De Luca is about to depart his native Sicily with his mother, to be re-united with his dad and two uncles , who have paved the way for them in Australia.

They’ve filled him with dreams of sunshine, wide open spaces, an outdoor lifestyle – and opportunities galore.

Just one last question……Do they play Football down there ?……..Yes, they do, was the reply……..

“I cried when I got here and realised the football they were referring to was played with an oval ball…….” John recalls.

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Gianni (John) De Luca hails from Ramacca, a municipality of around 10,000 people in the mountainous region near Catania, in south-eastern Sicily. Besides Catholicism, Football (‘The World Game) is its major religion and everything stops for the town’s clashes against neighboring teams.IMG_3798

John was 15, going on 16, when he made his senior debut. That was a big deal in itself, for a lad of such tender years to play alongside Ramacca’s stars. He was a favourite of the young fans, who jostled for the chance to carry his bag into the ground.

He’d played just on 50 games when he decided he may as well join his mum on her adventure to this mysterious country down south.

His Grandfather had migrated to Australia in 1925, and worked in coal-mining at Wonthaggi, before joining many of his countrymen in the Ovens Valley, as a tobacco-grower. His dad arrived in 1949; his uncles had been here since 1937.

“It was Show Day in Wangaratta when we got here, and my uncle and his wife took me down to have a look. It was just like the Carnivals we had back home……but I was intrigued by the people on a truck near the entrance…..they were Highland Dancers and the bagpipes were playing. I’d never seen or heard them before….”

He landed a job at Bruck Mills, and was in familiar company, as many Italians were employed there. It was, in fact, a mini-United Nations.

“We used to kick the soccer ball around the Sisely Avenue Army Barracks after work, improvising with a couple of gum trees as the goals,” John says.

“Jack Balloul ( a Canadian), who was the Production Manager at Bruck, was impressed with our enthusiasm, and got in touch with the Shepparton-based Northern Soccer League. He arranged for a team called Rayonaires to gain entry, and play their home games on the Bruck Oval.”

“We were a mixed lot. I think our side comprised 5 Italians, 2 Yugoslavs, 3 Latvians, a Pole and a Russian. “

“But in that first year (1951) we went through the season undefeated and beat Benalla 7-1 in the Final. We had some good players, don’t worry about that.”

How, with such a disparate group, did you manage to converse, I ask John.

“Ah, soccer was the ‘Professor’ – the common language.”

John reels off some of the players in that historic side: Steve Piorek, a nippy Pole, Antonio Ceppon, the goal-keeper, the Gigliotti boys, Steve Kostenco, a determined Russian player – and Dino Cheli, who was probably the biggest personality in the side.

The 18 year-old De Luca was the ‘baby’, and starred at centre-half. He was described in newspaper reports, as the team’s stylist, with a bag of tricks to command attention.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. The side was decimated by departures the following year and only three players remained. It was symptomatic of the rocky ride that local soccer was to endure in its infancy.IMG_3791

“We changed our name to Wangaratta United in the early fifties, then when the town became a city in 1959 we went along with it and became Wangaratta City – the Devils.”

“Originally we’d adopted the Red and Black uniform of A.C. Milan, but for a time, had to wear Green and Gold in the NESL so as not to clash with the colours of the Lemnos club.”

By now, John was working with his dad, a builder, doing construction work for the Borough Council. Kerbing and channelling; building bridges – they turned their hands to anything that was required.

But if that was hard yakka, keeping a Soccer Club on its feet was equally as difficult.

“We moved our home games to Avian Park ( the interior of the Trotting track), to Our Lady’s School…then to Appin Park.”IMG_3796

“The Appin Park Oval was terrible in winter. One year there was six inches of water saturating one corner of the ground, and we had pumps working for 24 hours before a match to drain the water.”

“We went to the Council to explain our predicament. The snide response of one of the officers was: ‘Soccer ? That’s not a real game.’ That was an example of the sort of obstacles we faced……..”

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John stresses that his Club record 600-plus games with Wangaratta included many instances where he played two matches on the same day.

“We regularly found ourselves short in the Seconds. A couple of us would fill in, then we’d have to prepare for the main game.”IMG_3794

“In those days, dad and I organised three Dodge utes, which carted players and officials to the away games, sometimes as far away as Khancoban. We’d often drive around to peoples’ places and knock on their doors, pleading with them to play.”

“I remember once, getting onto four blokes from Bonegilla who we’d heard might be interested in playing. We found work for them, put them up in a room in Green Street and your dad (Len) gave us a good deal on four mattresses. That’s where they stayed for the rest of the season.”

“Another time, the Warden of the Beechworth Gaol rang and said he had a couple of prisoners who’d like to play. The only stipulation was that they had to behave themselves, and we needed to get them back to the Gaol by 7 at night.”

“Good players, John ?” I ask. “Oh, handy. But they liked their soccer – and they made up the numbers……”IMG_3793

Probably the highlight of the De Luca playing career in Wangaratta was being selected in a combined squad to play famous NSL team Brunswick Juventus at Benalla.

He savoured the challenge of matching wits with some of the nation’s stars – particularly against a club with such a rich Italian heritage.

Even in his twilight years, he still proved a more than serviceable player, but, in his late forties, felt it was time to hang up his well-worn boots.

Besides, there was more than enough to occupy his time……………
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Every sporting organisation needs a John De Luca………….Someone who typifies what the Club is all about………who throws himself into the hundred and one tasks that crop up, and confronts the obstacles when they arrive.

The sort who has stints as President, Secretary, Treasurer, Coach, Captain and Team Manager. Who handles the Media liaison; is down there marking the ground on match-day…… The type who has weathered the tough times and starts to see signs of change, as things turn for the better……………

John reckons one of those came after they’d been pestering the Council, who finally relented to the Soccer Club’s requests to move out to the South Wangaratta Reserve.

Finally, they had a place they could call their own.

Another came when they gained admittance to the Albury-Wodonga Soccer Association in 1977.

“It was a tricky process,” he recalls. “We had originally approached the AWSA, who said: ‘Yes, we’ll accept you.’ We received approval to leave the NESL, but there were a few hiccups placed in our way, before finally, we got the all-clear.”

“I suppose, if there’s one legacy I leave, I’m proud to have played a part in the Club joining the AWSA…….”

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It was an incredibly courageous decision. The Senior team had won the 1975 NESL Championship with a team comprised mostly of lads who had come through the local juniors, having won the U.16’s titles in ’71 and ’72 under the tutelage of Bob Leask.

A potential Golden Era was looming, yet the Club took the bit between their teeth and made the move. They were convinced that the AWSA catered far better for Juniors. It also had the advantage of reduced travel requirements.

The switch brought about a huge transformation in Wangaratta soccer. The club previously fielded just three teams; within a year that had expanded to six.

The emergence of the club’s Junior Program, inspired by Bob Leask, acted as the catalyst for this expansion and it has rarely abated.

Wangaratta is now represented by 15 teams ( including 5 girl’s sides). On Friday nights 250-300 kids play ‘Mini-Roos’ soccer, and on week-ends upwards of 500 are involved in games. It’s arguably the biggest sporting club in town, and it’s said that the club’s player registration vies closely with the top 10 in Victoria.

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John’s wife Beverly, whom he married in 1962, has shared the journey, and says they still get a huge kick out of the ‘Devils’ regular successes.

They ran a Cafe in Reid Street for eight years, before John worked for the next 20-odd at IBM. All the while, though soccer was at the forefront of their minds.

Wangaratta City’s first Life Member, first Hall of Fame inductee and inaugural Legend is nudging 85 now, but has played his part in ensuring that the Club holds a prominent position on the local sporting stage………..IMG_3790

‘A MASTER OF HIS CRAFT…..’

Stuart Elkington is recounting one of his countless sporting memories………..

It’s the early sixties, and he’s the baby of Wangaratta’s North-East Cup Cricket team , fielding at short mid-on in a tight Final against Euroa. The match is reaching its climax……. You can almost sniff the tension in the air….He’s just praying that if a catch does happen to bob up in these dying moments, it won’t be heading his way.

Alas, an attempted drive miscues in Stuie’s direction. He’s perched under it, and can hear the whooping of his team-mates, as they sense they’ve snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

Blokes like Trebilcock, Bussell, Welch – giants of the local game…….he can’t possibly let them down by dropping this absolute ‘sitter’….

“I don’t know how it happened, but the ball has slipped through my fingers. It was the most embarrassing moment of my career……”

The next day, the Border-Mail’s headlines accentuated his ‘clanger’. He shows me the now-faded match report: ‘…ELKINGTON DROPS CATCH, WANG LOSE MATCH…’

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Elkington-territory is prime Dairy country; just three or so kilometres from Whorouly’s heartbeat, which includes the Pub, General Store, Hall and, of course, the Recreation Reserve .

On my way here, I can’t resist calling in to pay a nostalgic visit to the lovingly-maintained Memorial Oval, scene of the township’s many sporting triumphs.

It brings to mind the imperious left-hander, Peter Nicoll contemptuously hoiking me over the fence, and over the road, necessitating the fielder to extract the ball from the garden bed of a neighboring house……..of his cousin Lex, curtailed by polio, patiently manoeuvring the bowling and accumulating runs……and of the blonde Stuart Elkington setting off on his elongated run-up and making the Kookaburra spin, curl and bounce on this traditionally batsman-friendly track.

It was on this very Oval that Stuie mastered the craft of spin bowling, plundered thousands of runs, and played the majority of his 212 games of footy in the Maroon and White guernsey……………….

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He was the youngest in the family, by quite a distance, behind his brother Brian and  sister May, so had to find ways to entertain himself in his boyhood days.

In summer, it would be relentlessly throwing a ball against a wall in the Dairy. The pill would ricochet onto the uneven concrete wash-down gutter, breaking this way or that, and forcing Stuart to improvise with his shot selection.

After he played every ball, he jotted down the runs – or wickets – in his scorebook. He’s explaining this intricate exercise to me, when Jo, his wife, pulls out the 60-odd year-old book, which painstakingly recorded his version of ‘Test Match Cricket’. The performances of the ‘players’, such as ‘Tom’, ‘Phew’, ‘Hard’, ‘Peter’, ‘Clown’, ‘Elk’ and ‘Zip’, are preserved for posterity.IMG_3768

Later, on match days, he’d pedal down to the Oval and spend the afternoon scoring in the same book…..and paying particular attention to Whorouly’s smattering of star batsmen.

Eventually, the opportunity came for him to play alongside them. At 14 he made his debut, and shared in a useful partnership with the phlegmatic veteran Wils Nicoll.

That was an education in itself. Wils was a renowned run-machine; unstylish, but determined. One of his quirks was that he usually smoked a roll-your-own during his innings; retrieving it from behind the stumps between overs to have a reflective puff.

In one of these instances he sidled up to offer a quiet word of advice to Stuie, who had begun to get a touch cocky, and played a reckless shot during the over.

“These fellahs coming in behind you, they’ll get their turn…..There’s no rush to get the runs, you know,” he said.

Yes, there was no shortage of advice for the youngster. After he’d wheeled down a coupe of overs of his leg-spin, someone suggested: “Just slow it down a bit, Stu….toss it up…..Give the ball a chance to turn……”

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As one of a group of emerging youngsters who promised a bright future for Wangaratta cricket, he was sent to hone his skills at Bendigo Country Week.

In their early years, WDCA officials had the lads billeted at the outer-suburban residence of a kindly old soul, Mrs.Tredinnick. The idea was that they, in their innocence, shouldn’t be exposed to the perils of the city’s night-life.

That failed. They discovered the demon-drink, bounced off each other, and formed long-lasting friendships. The nonchalant Elkington was one who savoured the social life, shrugged off the occasional hangover, then hurled himself into his cricket under the blistering January sun.

He made six trips to Bendigo, once taking 8/39 to rout Emu Valley and, on another occasion, figuring in a 257-run stand against Tyrrell. Having already taken 4/18, he and Greg Rosser opened and had a race to be first to reach 50, then 100. Rosser was dismissed for 112; Elkington soldiered on to 148*.IMG_3779

He recalls his fate being decided one day, by a gnarled old Bendigo umpire, who had a habit of providing a running commentary on each decision:

“I’ve been rapped on the pads, and he’s gone: ‘Well, son…….It was pitched in line……..but then you were playing forward….. the wicket’s doing a bit…..and he is moving the ball….’ “

“After what seemed like an eternity, he’s slowly raised the finger and testified: “I think you’re out…..”

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Stuie’s first adventure took him to Hobart, where he undertook a two and a half year Phys-Ed Degree, and played TCA cricket with the University of Hobart.

He came under the influence of former English Test player John Hampshire, who opined that he had a rare talent and plumped for his selection in a Tasmanian Colts team, which met the NSW Colts at the SCG.

“He’d bring me on first change and bat me high up the order. I had a bit of success in Tassie, and, in hindsight, probably should have stayed longer. But when December came around I’d head back home for the holidays. I’d feel bad about leaving them, but the lure of home always brought me back.”

With a Degree in hand, he headed over to Adelaide for his first teaching job, playing two years of District cricket with Sir Donald Bradman’s old team, Kensington, and footy with Barossa Valley club, Freeling.

On his return home one year, he received a phone call from the Principal of Benalla Tech School…..Said he’d heard good reports about him and wondered if he’d be interested in a teaching job there.

“I said sorry, I’ve already got the car packed. I’m about to head back to Adelaide. But on my way through Benalla I thought to myself: ‘It won’t hurt to have a look at the place and see what it’s like.’

“Funny, I walked in and my concentration was diverted to this young teacher with nice legs. It was Jo. That settled it…..One thing led to another and I decided to take the job.”

But he found he needed more qualifications and took study leave later that year, to undertake a Science Degree, majoring in Geology at Melbourne Uni. At the same time, Jo did a Degree in Pottery.

“Les Stillman was Melbourne Uni’s coach and he encouraged me to come along to practice,” Stuie recalls.

He went from the Thirds to First XI in three games and, in one of his first Senior appearances, lined up against Essendon and State speedster John Grant, who proceeded to give him a baptism of fire.

“He whistled a couple past my ear, and I was most uncomfortable. After I’d played and missed a few times, he continued his follow-through and eye-balled me, muttering : ‘Why don’t you have a go, you weak little prick’……”

Stuart and Jo eventually returned to teaching at Benalla, and he provided a huge boost to a Whorouly cricket side which was now blossoming, after being forced into recession a season or two earlier.

For the next dozen years he proved a stellar performer in the WDCA, as one of its premier all-rounders. And there’s no doubt that his figures as a spinner have been beyond compare over the last half-century.

He took 744 wickets, scored 6,500 runs and hit nine centuries in his 236 games for Whorouly. And if you needed proof of his influence with the ball in big games, have a look at his figures in the Maroons’ three winning Grand Finals: 7/36 in 1971/72, 6/22 in 1974/75, and 6/27 in 1981/82……

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He had a particular fascination for Melbourne Country Week; loved the tough, no-holds-barred aspect of the games. Stuie found that he needed to push his leggies through a bit quicker against the good bats, but that was all part of the challenge.IMG_3778

He captained Wangaratta on two of his 11 trips to the ‘big smoke’ and, as we talk we’re reminiscing about some of the quickies who used to have you ducking and weaving.

…Like George Skinner from Maryborough, who, one day, threatened to ‘go through’ Wangaratta on a softish green-top, which was causing the ball to skid through alarmingly.

We recall left-hander Terry Hogan copping one delivery on the ‘moosh’ and taking ages to be revived – and assisted – from the field of play. Stuie was next in……

“I arrived at the crease and took block in a pool of blood. George was back at his mark, raring to go, and I’m hearing the fielders urging him on: ‘Here’s another one…Take him out.’ “IMG_3780

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Apart from stints with Federal League club Oakleigh Districts, Freeling (S.A), Old Hutchins Amateurs (Tas) and Benalla, the bulk of the Elkington football career was played with Whorouly.

As a skilful mid-fielder/half forward, he saw plenty of the action and would count winning the 1970 Ovens and King League’s Baker Medal among the cherished highlights of his 14 years with the Maroons.

Conversely, he’d rate as one of his roughest times when he was persuaded to take on the club’s coaching job in 1974. They’d been hit heavily with player departures, blooded many youngsters and battled through to win two games.

Three years later, he was part of a dominant line-up which completed an undefeated season by defeating North Wangaratta in the 1977 Grand Final.IMG_3770

He was lured out to King Valley the following year, and thrived in the role as captain-coach. The Roos, who had won just three games in ‘77, improved dramatically to storm into the finals.

“We had a great year, but it fell apart in the first half of the Preliminary Final. We were 56 points down at half-time, then came home with a rush. But the siren beat us. Beechworth held on to win by eight points,” Stuie says.

The Valley reached the finals again the following season, but the end was nigh for the veteran. His hips were giving him hell and decided to pull the pin……..

For the school-teacher, turned Public Servant, turned cockie – and fanatical sportsman – it was time to focus on the Dairy Cows……IMG_3774