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THE ALL-ROUNDER, THE IMPORT, AND THE COACH WHO STAYED

The Wangaratta Football Club has existed, in some shape or form, for more than 128 years.

Its history reveals stunning highs, cataclysmic lows, and the usual dramas and controversies that beset all sporting organisations.

A handful of the game’s greats have worn the Black and White……There have been characters, rascals and undesirables – and people of great devotion and unswerving loyalty.

In short, there has been a smorgasbord of personalities.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of three such ‘characters’, who turned out for the Pies in the early days of the 20th century……..

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  THE ALL-ROUNDER

Charles Bernard Meadway was 20 when he made his way into Wangaratta’s O & M side during the 1899 season. For most of the next 16 years he would prove to be one of the team’s stars – when he was available.

He was born in Dunedin (N.Z) and his family moved to Australia six years later. The Meadways resided in Bendigo, before eventually settling in Wangaratta.

His sporting career ran parallel, in some respects, to that of the legendary Bill Hickey, who is regarded as possibly the town’s finest all-round sportsman.

But Bernie wasn’t far behind. A brilliant cricketer, he was the WDCA’s leading wicket-taker on four occasions, and hit four WDCA centuries. His ‘hands’ of 130, 150* and 143 indicated that he was partial to a decent stint at the crease.

But his stand-out knock came in 1907/08 when he hammered 210* for Wangaratta against Oxley. It remains the fourth-highest individual WDCA score. For good measure, in the same match, he took 11 wickets.

Later that season, he was selected in a Victorian Country Cricket team, which played a match against the Melbourne Cricket Club at the M.C.G.

Years earlier, on the eve of the 1902 footy season, Bernie appeared set for a lengthy absence from the sporting arena when he enlisted to fight in the Boer War. Fortunately, a month later, peace prevailed and he returned to the playing ranks.

During the early 1900’s Wangaratta alternated between the O & M.F.A and the Ovens and King District Association. After playing his part in an O & K flag in 1905, it was announced that Meadway had made his last appearance, as he would soon be playing with Carlton.IMG_4046

But, after just one game with the Blues, he was back with Wangaratta, and helped them to another flag.

Collingwood lured Bernie down for a run the following season. Reports filtered back that he had been constantly mentioned for his brilliant play in his VFL games. But inevitably, the boy from the bush returned home after three games.

It was the sport of Trap-Shooting that captured his attention and prompted lengthy absences from the Wangaratta side.

His effort of ‘grassing 23 sparrows in a row, and 108 birds without a miss, gave Meadway a world-record in 1907.

‘He used ballistic powder and a beautiful Clarborough and Johnstone gun,’ stated the Chronicle. But in a sombre message, which would have caused some heart-ache to Wangaratta fans, they reported that he intended to retire from football to concentrate on Sparrow-Shooting.

This, however, proved a fallacy. Bernie continued to combine his shooting excellence with regular cricket and football appearances.

After one exciting victory in 1912, a supporter rushed into verse to laud the performance of the Wangaratta side:

“Come let us join together, boys, and sing to all a song.

Of how we play at football and roll the ball along,

Of how we beat Moyhu, who thought they were too strong –

When we’re playing to be Premiers.

“Gil Ebbott is our rover, boys, for ever on the ball.

He can travel with the best of them- the daddy of them all.

When Meddy runs at a man, then someone’s sure to fall.

When we’re playing to be Premiers………….”

Bernie Meadway was 36 years old, and still single, when he played his last game for Wangaratta, during the 1915 season. He enlisted with the AIF and joined the Remount Unit in the deserts of the Middle East.

He returned from the Great War in 1919, to become a successful businessman and continue his shooting career. He won the first of his six Australian Championships in 1920, and competed on three occasions against the world’s best at Monte Carlo……….

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THE ‘FLY-BY-NIGHTER

Bernie Meadway, in his handful of games in 1915, would have no doubt made the acquaintance of Albert Hezikiah (Vernon) Bradbury, who was one of the most ‘colourful’ identities ever to be lured to the Wangaratta Football Club.

Bradbury was a flamboyant midfielder/forward, who made three appearances with St.Kilda before being lured to Footscray in 1910, aged 20.IMG_4047

The Footscray  Advertiser reported in 1914 that: ‘The football Oval was the stage from which Banbury kept crowds entranced with his wizardry.’ . ‘He marked, feinted and twisted with a nonchalance that often left his opponents flat-footed and humiliated. There are few footballing dodges of which he is not the master……’

The champion, whose favoured position was centre half forward, once hit the post seven times in a match against Port Melbourne in 1912 – a record which still stands.

He was a star in Footscray’s 1913 premiership victory, but was one of 5 players sacked by the Club when they played abysmally in the 1914 Grand Final. It had been alleged that more money changed hands in that game than any other in the VFA’s history.

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Footscray’s 1913 VFA Premiership team. Vernon Banbury is far right, middle row.

So, when Wangaratta were looking to bolster their ranks upon being re-admitted to the O & M, they sought the services of the mercurial star, who had become available – and reportedly amenable to the lure of a ‘quid’.

The spectre of War hung over the O & M in 1915. There was some conjecture as to whether matches should continue whilst fighting raged overseas, but nevertheless,  the season rolled on.

The Magpies chalked up a handful of wins – and a draw against the all-powerful Rutherglen. But their most exciting victory came in a heart-stopper against contenders Albury.

With minutes remaining, Edwards kicked a goal to bring Wang within a point. The sides drew level, then Banbury, displaying his great skills, evaded several opponents to snap the winning behind.

He had been a more than handy player with Wangaratta, but, upon the abandonment of the O & M at season’s end, because of the War, he returned to the city.

Vernon found his way back to Footscray, and featured in their successive VFA flags of 1919 and ‘20. He resigned briefly during the latter season when supporters accused him of playing ‘dead’.

By now his life was in disarray, and his reputation as a playboy had cast him as a controversial figure. Overlooked for the 1922 Grand Final, which Footscray lost to Port Melbourne, he was subsequently disqualified for life by the VFA, for the attempted bribery of Port players.

The erratic career of Vernon Banbury took another turn when, in a defiant gesture towards the VFA, the Footscray Football Club bestowed Life Membership upon him at their next Annual Meeting.

Eighty-two years later, in 2010, he was admitted to the Western Bulldogs’ Hall of Fame………

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THE COACH WHO STAYED……

Matt O’Donohue was Banbury’s team-mate, and another of the Footscray players who had become embroiled in the bribery scandal that emanated from their 1922 Grand Final loss.

It was alleged that the lightly-built rover and Bulldog vice-captain had offered an on-field bribe to a Port Melbourne opponent, George Ogilvie. It came as a shock to Footscray fans, who had come to love and respect the local lad. Thankfully, the charge was not sustained.IMG_3836

But O’Donohue had already decided to move on. He accepted a coaching appointment with Wangaratta, and was introduced to a welcoming crowd at the club’s March 1923 Annual Meeting.

He proved an inspiring leader, and introduced a slick, systematic, running game, with an emphasis on handball, which troubled all sides.

His own form was quite outstanding, although he was to come in for his share of rough treatment during the season.

Unfortunately, for O’Donohue’s coaching aspirations, he ran slap-bang into the fabled St.Patrick’s line-up.  ‘The Green Machine’, in the midst of a Golden Era, proved too strong for Wang in the 1923 Grand Final and triumphed by 17 points.

After the Pies  finished runners-up again the following season, he handed over the coaching reins to Percy ‘Oily’ Rowe in 1925, but continued to be one of the ‘big guns’ in a team which boasted stars on every line.

He and big ‘Oily’ proved a lethal ruck/rover combination and played a major part in Wangaratta snaring their first O & M flag. Fighting back from a sizeable quarter-time deficit, they out-pointed Hume Weir by 21 points .IMG_4043

O’Donohue’s class at the fall of the ball was recognised the following season, when he was selected to rove to Rowe in the O & M’s representative clash against the VFL at the Albury Sportsground.

His swansong game with the ‘Pies came in their resounding 14-goal defeat at the hands of St.Pat’s. It was his fourth successive O & M Grand Final, and  a sad farewell for the veteran.

He sated his sporting urges by playing cricket and golf, but continued to follow the fortunes of the footy club with a keen interest.

Arthur Callender, the respected administrator who had engineered Matt’s move to Wangaratta, had become a close confidant, and coaxed him into becoming his off-sider in some of the sporting organisations with which he was involved.

At one stage Matt was concurrently Secretary of the Athletic, Turf and Speed-Coursing Clubs, whilst Callender held the role of President.

When the outbreak of World War II forced the disbandment of the Carnival in 1940, it terminated O’Donohue’s reign as Secretary. He had held the position for 17 years, and had become renowned for his contribution to sport in Wangaratta……….

 

*With assistance from ‘UNLEASHED’, the Western Bulldogs’ History”

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“NO REST FOR ‘WOBBLES’…….”

The first question I put to this dapper super-veteran is how he happened to acquire one of Wangaratta’s best-known nicknames.

“It was back in my younger days, when I’d been invited down to train with Collingwood…….” he explains. “During the course of some heavy socialising one of the players, Bill Twomey, remarked that I’d got a bad case of the wobbles. It seemed to stick, and I’ve been ‘Wobbles’ ever since………”

Kevin Allan invites me into the spare bedroom of his Thomson Street house, and produces a small batch of yellowing newspaper cuttings, which he proceeds to spread out on the bed.

“Nell ( his late wife ) kept these. Sorry, that’s all I’ve got. I suppose I should’ve put ‘em in some sort of order, but never got around to it,” he says.

No matter…..’Wobbles’ has enough memories of his almost-80 years in football to fill a couple of books……

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He’s the eldest of six kids…..Grew up on a dairy farm at Milawa…..He tells me his dad, Jack, who was mad-keen on footy, was President of the Redlegs for many years, dating back to the thirties.

“I can remember when I was about 9 or 10. Dad had a ‘28 National Chev which he’d drive into Wang to pick up players for training. Our first stop was Bullock’s Store in Murphy Street, where a bloke called Vin Coram would jump in, then he’d collect the three Oates boys, and a few others.”

“In the end the Sedan would be chock-a-block. I had to stand on the running rail. You couldn’t have players standing there…..They might have fallen off !…….”

He was 14 when he debuted with Milawa in 1940, and had played just two seasons when the O & K League was forced into recess because of the War. It was 1945 before he could again pull on the beloved Red and Blue guernsey.

Kev’s first job was on the Farm. He hated it but, because it was classified as a Restricted Industry, had to stay there for the duration of the War.

“The moment the whistle blew at the Butter Factory, to signify the end of the War, I high-tailed it into Wang on my bike to join in the celebrations and start looking for a job,” he says.

He became one of Milawa’s stars of the post-war era, and played in both the 1945 and ‘47 Grand Finals.

“They were good times, but it’s amusing when you look back. For instance, the Methodist Minister, Reverend Perry, had a three-tonne Truck. When we played away games, he’d throw a couple of church pews on the back and we’d all pile in. We used to call it Perry’s Circus, and it’d cost us two bob each for the trip.”

But the blossoming Allan career almost drew to a close one late-summer evening in 1948, soon after he’d bought a Motor-Bike off a mate, Tommy Hourigan.

Apparently Tommy’s family had pleaded with him to get rid of the Bike after he’d had a prang, but Kev thought he was Christmas when he took delivery of it and headed off on his first jaunt.

“I came to grief at Thompson’s Bridge, just off the Hume Highway. Old George Robbins found me there, unconscious, and drove me to hospital.”

“When I came to, all the family were at my bedside. A list of my injuries included burst ear drums, a broken collarbone and facial paralysis. I was ever-grateful to Doctor Phillips, who pulled me through. But he gravely advised me that my footy career was over.”

‘Wobbles’ was ever-grateful to the old ‘Doc’, but says on this occasion his prognosis was about 20 years premature.

He missed the 1948 season and, somewhat injudiciously in the opinion of a few, pulled on the boots again in ‘49. Just to show that he’d lost none of his class and ball-winning ability, Kev took out Milawa’s Best & Fairest – the J.Allan Cup.

The Award, which acknowledges his dad’s lengthy contribution, was re-named the Jack Allan Memorial after his death later that year. A succession of Jack’s offspring have had their name etched on Milawa’s prized gong over the succeeding seventy years……

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Wangaratta, after being on his hammer for a few years, finally enticed him into town. Milawa were reluctant to release their star, and agreed to give him six match permits to see how he performed.

“But I’d fallen off some scaffolding in the meantime, and did an ankle, so it was half-way through the 1950 season before I started playing.”

“I’d decided, though, that I was definitely staying at Wang……Best thing I ever did,” he says.

‘Wobbles’ timed his move to perfection. He slotted onto a wing in those magnificent Mac Holten sides and figured in a hat-trick of premierships.

It was a team of stars, of course, but, in Kev’s opinion, Holten was able to get them pulling in the same direction.

“He just had a way about him. He was often able to get the message through without saying a word. A bit theatrical sometimes, I suppose, but gee he knew how to get us going.”

The 1952 side, he reckons, was the best he ever played in.IMG_4366

“We trailed Rutherglen at half-time of the Grand Final, but ended up knocking them over by 20 points. That was the year we played a challenge match over at Ararat at season’s end, against the Wimmera League premiers.”

He says it’s the only Trip-Away he’s been on where he returned home with more money than he took……IMG_4377

“The Ararat people must have had plenty of dough. They came to our hotel on the Friday night with a swag of money to back the home team. Then they returned twice, to lay more money….We all got on. Holten asked the hotel-keeper to lock the money in his safe…….We had some sort of a ‘do’ when we won the game and ‘divvied’ it up, I can tell you……”IMG_4370

Kev had played 128 games over seven years, including four Grand Finals, when he was lured back to Milawa as captain-coach. He was 30, but still playing top footy, and was keen to itch the coaching bug that lay within.

The side included his two younger brothers, Tom and Laurie, and a few old mates who had been loyal to the Demons.IMG_4368

“I enjoyed coaching the boys, but I had a few run-ins with the committee,” he says. “I don’t think they were really fond of me in the finish. It didn’t help matters, either, when I took a few players over to North Wangaratta with me.”

The Northerners were playing in the Benalla & District League at the time, and finished Third and Runners-Up in his first two seasons.

When they – and Glenrowan – both sought admission to the O & K in 1961, Kev was the delegate who pleaded their case at a historic meeting, held at the Everton Hotel..

“Glenrowan’s delegate was a fellah called Bill Olliffe. We had a bet on the side about the result – a quid each – but after we’d both put our case we had to wait for the verdict in the bar. The meeting went on for ages, and we were both fairly merry, when they called us in to advise us that North had gained admittance…..”

Kev coached North Wang for six seasons, won five B & F’s and picked up the B.D.F.L Medal in 1960.IMG_4381

He stood down in 1965, and played on for one more year under Billy McKenzie….

“Then I talked Ron Wales into doing the job. Walesy said: ‘I’ll do it if you keep playing.’ But I was 40, and buggered. Walesy wasn’t too happy with me for a while, but I became his off-field ‘adviser’ “

So after a career, which had spanned 26 years and 426 games, ‘Wobbles’ hung up the boots……

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Inevitably, he drifted back to the Showgrounds Oval to begin a period of unstinting service which has even overshadowed his on-field achievements.

One of his titles for decades was ‘Bar Manager’, which included being on duty for every Club Function. All told, he devoted thousands of hours to the Magpies.

On match-days he’d collect the food and drinks for the Kiosks, stock the fridges, organise till floats, operate the Bar and entertain the patrons.  It meant an 8am start and a 9pm finish ( or 2am if a post-match function was held).

One old Pie joked that modern technology had caught up with him in recent years, and he re-located to operating the Sav & Refreshment Stall in the Past Players’ Stand – ‘Wobbles’ Bay 13 Bar’.IMG_4375

Each week-day morning throughout the year, ‘Wobbles’ and a a group of three or four stalwarts meet to clean up and effect any maintenance that’s required around the Clubrooms.

“We carry on with a bit of ‘bullshit’ of course, and review all the subjects of the day over a cup of coffee,” he says. “But I really enjoy the company.”

One of their principal topics at the moment would be discussing whether Wang can live up to their hot-favouritism and take out their 16th O & M flag.

‘Wobbles’, the 93 year-old Ovens & King League, Ovens & Murray League and Wangaratta Football Club Hall of Famer, is confident that they can do the job…..provided they get away to a good start.

“It’s my only worry.” ……..That, and making sure I reach 94………..IMG_4374

“COMING CLEAN…”

By Simone Kerwin (based on a true story……..)

No-one in Wattlevale would have thought twice about seeing Harry Arnold’s familiar gait, as he headed up the short path to Tom Sheffield’s front door.

After all, the pair had been mates for decades.  As it was, though, no-one did see him, because Harry had chosen a morning when most of the town was at the farmers’ market, to visit his old friend for a chat.

It wasn’t going to be their usual easy kind of conversation.  In fact, Harry felt as though he was walking to the confessional, or the witness box.  Grand larceny was on his mind.

It was time to tell Tom the story, the whole story, of one of the most shameful episodes in Harry’s life.  He shifted uncomfortably on the doormat as he reached to knock on Tom’s door, grabbing his hanky from his pocket to swipe at the beads of sweat forming on his forehead. 

For a moment, he wondered whether this was a terrible mistake. He worried whether it would change things between them.  Should he just turn and flee (or, let’s be honest, amble) back to his ute and forget the whole notion of telling all?

But no, he’d promised Jean that today was the day he’d come clean.

“For goodness’ sake, I can’t stand this nonsense any longer, Harry,” she’d said in her straight-forward way.  “Just get over there and tell him, and be done with it.  Like a Band-Aid, as they say – rip it off and deal with what comes next.  You’ve held onto this for too long, and you’re not getting any younger, it’s not good for your health.  I’m sure it’ll be right.”

So here he was, sweating buckets and wishing he was anywhere else but at his best mate’s front door.  He reached again to knock, but the door opened in front of him, and he almost stumbled forward.

“Oh, hello, Harry – this is a lovely surprise,” Tom’s wife, Val, greeted him.  “The old fella’s inside.  Come and have a cuppa.”

“Thanks, Val.  I – ah – need to have a chat with Tom,” Harry said slowly.

Val, startled at his unfamiliar manner, looked closely at him: “You alright, love?  You look as if you’ve seen a ghost. Is Jean okay?”

“Yes, yes,” he quickly reassured the cheery woman he’d known since she was a girl, “no worries.”

Val led Harry into the sun-filled kitchen, where Tom sat, bent over the newspaper, cradling a mug of steaming tea.  His sun-browned face lifted, and his broad smile appeared, as he spotted his old mate.

“Harry!  Have a cuppa?  Val’s just made some scones if you’d like one,” he said.

“Not so fast, Thomas!  They’re for the CWA stall at the footy this arvo.  But I can probably rustle up a couple of bickies for you both,” Val said. Then, again taking in Harry’s demeanour, she set the biscuit tin on the table and excused herself to hang a load out of washing.

Harry eased himself into a kitchen chair and sat, wringing his large, work-worn hands as he wondered just how to begin.  He pictured a Band-Aid being ripped off, and winced.

“Tom, I have to tell you something,” he said.

Tom smiled, as if about to joke with his friend, then, seeing his face, he thought better of it.

“It’s been on my mind for years, and I haven’t known how to tell you.  I was stupid…just a kid…didn’t know any better…no, that’s not true, I knew it was wrong,” Harry stammered.

“Mate, spit it out,” Tom said, starting to worry.

Harry paused, teetering on the edge of what could be the final moment of his time as an upstanding Wattlevale citizen, before his criminal past was laid bare for all to see.

“Righto,” he said.  “You remember that Graham Arthur footy card you lost when we were kids?”

“Ye-eah,” Tom said, slowly, remembering.

“I took it.”

“What?”

Harry’s worst fears were realised, as his friend frowned deeply and failed to disguise his shock.  Then Tom threw back his head and laughed.

“You are a classic, Harry!  How long have you been worrying about that?” Tom said.

“It’d be worth heaps of dough now, and I took it from you, just because I wanted it….. took it from my best mate and kept it.  Didn’t do me any good, either, ‘cause I felt so guilty, years later I got rid of it….just chucked it out.” 

“But I told Jean about it when the grandkids were swapping footy cards, and it all came back to me.  I’m so sorry, Tom.  Can you forgive me?”

“Harry, mate.  There’s nothing to forgive,” Tom said, offering the biscuit tin filled with Val’s famous Anzacs.

“Ah, by the way, do you remember that Kornies card of Serge Silvagni you thought you lost…?”

“WHEN YOU’RE ‘IN THE GROOVE’…….”

My sporting week-end starts with a flourish….

I tune in to the Headingly Test on Friday night, and can hardly believe the carnage that’s unfolding. Hazelwood, Cummins and Pattinson perpetrate Jimmy Anderson-like deeds, and make the Duke ball talk, as the Poms capitulate for 67.

Surely the surprising 100-plus lead the Aussies have garnered will be the foundation for a match ( and indeed, Ashes-winning ) second innings total.

I hit the sack just after midnight, content that, even though they’re making hard work of it, the boys are inching towards victory. Every wicket-less over that passes limits the possibility of the Poms extracting themselves out of this one……….

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The day dawns brightly for the clash at the Findlay Oval…… It’s sixth versus seventh……Hardly a promoter’s dream you’d say. But both Yarra and the Rovers are holding onto a 100/1 chance of being finals-bound – that’s if fifth-placed Raiders unexpectedly fall over. Whatever, it’s crucial to finish the season off in a positive vein.

Hard to tip either way, I reckon. The Pigeons have shown a bit lately, but the Hawks have been the season’s big improvers. Perhaps it’ll depend on who takes the early initiative…… which side has come to play.

Goals are at a premium. The Rovers are racked with indecision and continually turn the pill over. At half-time they’re ushered into the Coach’s Room for a ‘heart-to-hearter’. Maybe that will do the trick.

One thing in their favour is that Yarra haven’t hurt them too much on the score-board. But, ominously, the Pigeons begin to take control in the third-quarter. Their coach-in-waiting, Mark Whiley, despite being injury-affected, has moved forward and is creating opportunities.

Will-o-the-wisp Jack Gerrish provides a rare highlight for the home side. He grabs the ball on the defensive side of centre and off he goes. Dodging and weaving around flailing Pigeons, he manages a shaky bounce here and there and slots it through for a team-lifting major. This could be the spark that lifts his team-mates.IMG_4355

But it’s the Hawks’ only goal for the quarter, and at lemon-time they’ve scored a paltry 3.10 to yield a 22-point lead to Yarra. It will require a massive turn-around to resuscitate their hopes.

Again the intense ‘Crezza’ pleads, cajoles, shuffles names on his magic board, and, probably, privately prays for a miracle.

Within minutes his salutations have been answered . There’s been a massive boost in work-rate. Suddenly his charges are in the ‘Groove’, as most of the play is focused on the Rovers forward-line.

And they’re rewarded with a goal to Stuart Booth. The pendulum has swung markedly in their favour, as they tackle with renewed ferocity and hit targets with precision. The packed populace on the balcony roar their approval, spellbound by the shift in momentum.

Then Tommy McCaffrey swings onto his left boot and nails successive goals. After the second he rotates, arms upraised like a choir-master, inciting the crowd to join in the chorus of approval. Suddenly there’s just a kick in it.

And there’s more…..Youngster Sam Allen lets fly from well out and another one sails through the big sticks. The goal ump is none too sure, dubious as to whether it has been touched. Many in the crowd concur. But after a moment’s consultation he answers in the affirmative and raises two flags.

The revival is complete when Cody Schutt kicks a ripper to top off his terrific final term. I couldn’t help thinking that the gods have finally shone on this youthful warrior, who has endured seasons of injury setbacks. When Booth slots another, the Hawks have had ten shots to three, booted six goals on the trot, and clinched a most unlikely victory.

Among the heroes is Nathan Cooper, who has been swung upfield after holding sway all day at full back. It was a master-stroke by his coach, who looked to him to provide the inspiration for the turn-around………..

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‘Coops’ is just 21; reliable, strong and athletic. At 195cm he has cast a giant shadow over pesky opposition forwards all season. His well-placed fist has foiled many a marking attempt. But he has a few other strings to his bow…..like a strong pair of hands, fine judgement and coolness under pressure.

His has been a most unorthodox journey to Ovens and Murray football…….

He was a Rugby League fan as a whippersnapper, before he began to show a modicum of interest in Aussie Rules. At 15 his week-ends would be occupied by playing League with Parramatta Eels Under 16’s on Saturdays, and Rules with a local junior club, Westbrook, on Sundays.

His ascension to senior ranks was meteoric. Moving to S.F.L club Pennant Hills, he starred in their Under 19’s, became a member of the Sydney Swans Academy, represented the NSW-ACT Rams, then broke into the Pennant Hills senior side, aged 17.

The following year he figured in the Swans Reserves 3-point loss to GWS in the 2016 NEAFL Grand Final, playing up forward alongside present-day AFL regulars such as Nic Newman, Toby Nankervis and Zac Jones.

His next move, to rival club Sydney University, saw ‘Coops’ play 29 games in key position roles over two seasons, and earn a spot in the NEAFL’s Team of the Year. He twice earned a NEAFL Rising Star nomination.

That’s when he came to the attention of new Rovers coach Daryn Cresswell’s recruiting network.

The proposition put to him was that a good season alongside the crafty ‘Crezza’ might bring him under the microscope of AFL talent scouts.

It was a big decision, as he’s in the midst of his combined Civil Engineering and Project Management Degree at Sydney University and spends his spare time working as a window-cleaner on the city’s Sky-scrapers. And it meant a heavy travel schedule each week-end.

“It’s worked out pretty well, really,” he says. “I finish Uni on Fridays and head straight to the Airport, where I catch a flight to Albury.”

“There’ve only been a couple of hiccups, when the weather was looking pretty bleak, and there was some doubt about whether the flights might get delayed. But it’s been an unreal experience, and I’ve loved every minute of my time with the Rovers……Better than I could have imagined.”

He admits he was a touch toey about making the move. But he’s become a favourite of Hawk fans. Many seasoned judges rate him – in just 17 games, mind you – up there with the best full backs to have played for the club.

Among the highlights of the Cooper season was his display down back in the O & M’s Inter-League clash against Mornington Peninsula. He kept boom forward Keegan Downie goalless, and earned the AFL Victoria Medal as the O & M’s best player.IMG_4350

His subsequent inclusion at full back for the VCFL’s representative encounter with the VAFA earned more plaudits from the good judges. VCFL coach Danny Frawley urged AFL scouts to give consideration to drafting him.

So there have been accolades aplenty for the big fellah. But I wonder whether there may be one more in the offing.

Mick Nolan is the only player to have won a Rovers Best and Fairest wearing the Number 13 Brown and Gold guernsey. Maybe  ‘Coops’ could become the second ?……………

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He’s heading upstairs to the Clubrooms for the preliminary rounds of the vote-count on Sunday, just as I’m about to depart.

I’ve got things on my mind……The Bulldogs’ scintillating form in the last part of the season has brought them to within a whisker of a finals berth. The equation is simple….They have to knock over Adelaide this arvo to cement their spot.

The ‘Dogs have burnt old fans like me numerous times in the past, but at this point they’re positively on fire. The improvement in youngsters like English, Dunkley, Lipinski, Dale and Naughton, has provided the impetus for the rise up the ladder.IMG_4352

‘The Bont’ is also in potential Brownlow form, but nevertheless, us old cronies can’t help but be pessimistic. No worries. They’re ‘in the groove’, hardly giving Adelaide a sniff, as they race out to an early 40-point lead.

It’s a cake-walk. They bury the Crows and book a finals berth against GWS. By gee, this reminds me of 2016………….

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I just need to nail the final leg of the Trifecta, and ride the Aussies home tonight. Things didn’t pan out all that well last night. Root and Denley are proving obstinate and I’ve got a funny feeling about this game. But I’m sure the boys, with a night’s rest, will rip through the Poms.

‘Gazza’ Lyon grabs the prized Root wicket. We’re on our way.

The game’s fluctuating wildly and it seems to be getting away from us. Then the long-awaited clatter of wickets comes. There’s no way, with Jack Leach walking to the wicket, that the Poms can win.

The bloke can’t bat, and they still need 73. Stokes isn’t playing any shots, either. But thoughts of Botham’s heroics of 1981  must be flashing through his mind.IMG_4354

Suddenly he’s away….cutting loose, with Lady Luck is on his side. He couldn’t do it could he….. ?

Alas, the Aussies lose the unloseable. That’s what can happen when you strike a bloke who’s ‘in the groove’…..IMG_4351

“BEST KICK I EVER SAW…….”

The subject of this yarn politely declined an interview. “That’s okay,” I said. “Do you mind if I do a bit of a resume’ of your considerable sporting career.” “Go for your life,” was the reply……

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You’ve probably spotted him on his daily walk around the streets of Wangaratta…….. The gait is instantly-recognisable…..Long arms pumping……Legs striding out purposefully……..Head down…

Someone suggested he’s either attempting to unravel the problems of the universe……Or on the look-out for a stray 50-cent piece to add to his collection………..

Another route often takes him from his Templeton Street residence, down to Evans Street, where he might complete three or four circuits of the bank at his old Home Ground………..

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There was a time, more than five decades ago, when the crowd on those banks would roar with delight, as the big number 15 plucked a mark – reaching into the sky like a giant cherry-picker.

“Line ‘em up ‘Thommo’ “, they’d yell…….And from some obscene distance he’d bomb the pill through the big sticks.

No, I’m not dreaming.

Nostalgic old-timers recall the day Gary Ablett landed one from close to the centre of the ground for Myrtleford in a 1983 Semi-Final. It’s grown in distance over the years, to be labelled the longest goal ever kicked on the Findlay Oval.

Ray Thompson booted those regularly.IMG_4319

He had hands the size of meat-plates, and wore a pair of boots which amply protected his ankles. They were tailor-made for him by a city cobbler called Hope Sweeney, recognised as the best boot-maker in the business. ‘Thommo’ modestly vouched that the ‘Hope Sweeney’s’ were the reason he could hoof the ball a country mile……………

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The Thompson’s arrived in Wangaratta from Wagga in 1956, settled in Orwell Street, and began operating the town’s major Brickworks’.

It was a family concern, and Ray left school, aged 14, to join the business, toiling alongside his dad Sidney, and brothers Ron and Alan. The demanding, physically-taxing nature of the work no doubt hastened the development of his imposing physique.

He was still a teen-ager when Sidney passed away, so the boys took over joint operation of the Brickworks. Ray became the designated Employment Officer.

I came knocking on his door a decade or so later and became yet another of the itinerant employees of ‘Thompson’s’.

I’d just landed home from a casual, year-long Northern Sporting Safari and Ray warned : “I’m not sure whether this’ll be your cuppa tea.”

He was right. I advised him at lunch-time on the second day that I’d had enough.

‘Thompson’s Brickworks’ continued on to be an integral part of the local building landscape for almost 40 years, before the boys sold out to Boral in 1983…………

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When Ray was first invited to the Rovers, to train after the completion of his Junior League commitments at Centrals in late-1958, one jokester likened him to a new-born foal – all arms and legs.

He was slotted straight into the senior line-up in Round 1, 1959, as a back pocket, with the occasional run on the ball. That position, he always said, was a footy ‘sinecure’ . Just read the play, back yourself to out-mark your opponent and send it back from whence it came.IMG_4321

At 18, it was obvious that the young fellah was a star in the making. He finished fourth in the B & F in his first year, then played a starring role in the 1960 flag.

He was in awe of the dynamic Bob Rose, who had a big influence on his development. Even today, get him yapping about those ‘Golden Days’ and he can unveil a host of Rose stories, depicting his brilliance and coaching prowess.

Like the time ‘Thommo’ earned his first O & M guernsey, in 1961, and had the honour of playing alongside the great man in a Country Championship match against the Goulburn Valley.

He recalled ‘Rosie’ hardly being able to stand, or lace up his boots without assistance, before the game. The selectors tried to talk him out of playing. But he would have nothing of it. “With the stars that are playing in this side feeding the ball to me, I’ll be okay,” he said.

Ray was on fire up forward at Benalla one day, and booted five majors in a quarter, before rolling his ankle.

Reasoning that he’d be no value to the side in that condition, he advised Rose, who said: ‘No, we’ll plonk you in the pocket. They’ll be that focused on keeping you under control that it’ll release a couple of our other forwards to do some damage.”

In 1961 ‘Thommo’ was in his prime, and took out the Club Best & Fairest. The departure of veteran Les Clarke the following season saw him handed the vice-captaincy, under Rose. He was 21. By now he was used to spending most of his time at centre half forward, where he proved a near-insurmountable obstacle for defenders. If he got a sniff of it in the air those huge hands would clamp the ball.IMG_4323

He resisted the overtures of five VFL clubs. On one occasion he was at the Western Oval, watching Rovers player Barrie Beattie go around in a Footscray practice match. Teddy Whitten, who was notified that he was in the crowd, invited him to strip for the last half. ‘Thommo’ declined.

His mates reckoned that “he’d probably have had a crack at League footy if they’d set him up in a Brickworks down there”.

One of his most memorable performances came in the 1964 Grand Final. The Hawks had won the first 15 matches that season, before losing the next four, which included a demoralising loss to Wangaratta in the Second-Semi.

After a shaky start, they overcame Myrtleford in the Prelim, to earn another shot at the ‘Pies in the big one. ‘Thommo’ had copped a heavy knock against the Saints and was unable to train on Tuesday or Thursday night prior to the Grand Final.

He was still receiving pain-killing injections minutes before the match and limped and hobbled around ten minutes after the start.

The ‘Chronicle’s’ journo Lester Hansen summed up his performance…….

“In an inspired patch of football in the third quarter, Thompson kicked four of the Hawks’ six goals. The big fellow hauled down incredible marks, moved around the ground with the poise of a ballet dancer and burnt off opponents with speed that must have amazed even himself. It will forever be remembered as ‘Thommo’s quarter………….”IMG_4320

The Hawks made it successive flags the following year . One of the tactics of coach Ken Boyd was to start Thompson in the back pocket, then move him to centre half forward as the game unfolded.

The ‘65 Grand Final was no exception. Boyd had been having trouble with Magpie defender Bernie Killeen. But when big Ray moved onto Killeen he added life to the attack and combined well with elusive flanker Laurie Flanigan to help swing the pendulum in the Hawks’ favour.

‘Thommo’ injured his knee in an inter-League match against Bendigo in 1966 and it began to cause him no end of trouble. He thought if he had a good spell and tried again, that might help.

He could only limp his way through eight games in that horror year. And when he consulted South Melbourne’s Head Trainer Bill Mitchell, the diagnosis was heart-wrenching.IMG_4324

Thinking the pesky limb had settled down again over the summer, he decided to have a run with his old Rovers team-mate John Welch, who was coaching Whorouly. But after half a season he accepted the inevitable…

He retired at the tender age of 27, after playing 143 games for the Hawks. A stint on the committee, and as Chairman of Selectors, followed………

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‘Thommo’s’ fascination with cricket almost rivalled his passion for footy. As a middle-order batsman and purveyor of off-breaks, he was a member of the all-conquering United teams which dominated the local game through the sixties and seventies.

He featured in all nine of their WDCA flags. And when he and Brenda and the four kids moved out to Tarrawingee, he was one of the king-pins – on and off the field – in the resurgence of the ‘Bulldogs, who became a Sunday cricket power.

No tale about ‘Thommo’ would be complete without the re-telling of his finest stroke of golfing fortune. He was a regular on local courses and tackled the game with typical gusto. A handicap in the high 20’s had eventually been whittled down to the 12-mark.

He credited his improvement to a set of state-of-the-art clubs which were unfortunately snavelled from the back of his Ute after a game at Waldara. He promptly reported their departure to the Police and decided it was best to move on with life.

A call from the Prahran police, weeks later, notified him that they’d been ‘flogged off’ to Cash Converters for the paltry sum of $60, and if he came down to identify them, he could be re-united with his prized ‘Lindson’s’…

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Lester Hansen, the journo who wrote an aforementioned piece about the 1964 Grand Final, has now retired to Port Macquarie. He occasionally rings to touch base, catch up on the latest O & M gossip, and enquire as to the welfare of some of the old acquaintances of his Chronicle days.

The conversation eventually meanders to one of his favourites……..”How’s Thommo going…..What a player he was……Best kick I ever saw………..”

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P.S: Keen Rovers man that he is, ‘Thommo’ will be watching Saturday’s clash between the Hawks and Pigeons at the Findlay Oval. The Rovers Past Players are holding a Get-Together as part of the day.

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‘STEPPING BACK IN TIME….’

“Everything’s just like it was in ’69………It looks like you have stepped back in time………”

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Jim Comensoli is re-counting the highlight of his sporting career……..

It’s early September 1969, and he has guided Milawa into their first Ovens and King League Grand Final in 13 years. This proud old club hasn’t tasted premiership success since 1940.

They get away to a flier, with two early goals, but Beechworth peg them back. It becomes a nip and tuck affair…….. Just as Milawa look to be assuming control in the final term, the Bombers nail two goals in as many minutes.

The Demons’ wayward kicking threatens to cost them dearly, but they hang on in the dying stages of an engrossing clash to clinch the flag by 16 points………….IMG_4299

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They’re holding a shindig out at Milawa this Sunday – a 50-Year Re-Union of that famous side. There’s no doubt that tall tales and true will be spun. Jay will be involved in most of them.

He’s a born raconteur. Get him yapping about his 13-year stint in the O & K and he’ll knock the cobwebs off many of the yarns he collected along the way.

Like the time he was approached to coach Milawa………

“I worked for Les Brown, the builder, who was a dyed-in-the-wool Demon. And Arthur Clarke was a good mate of mine. We were always into each other, so when they came out with: ‘Would you like to coach Milawa ? ‘ I didn’t believe ‘em.”

“I said: ‘You blokes are having me on, aren’t you ?’ When I finally ascertained that, this time, they were fair dinkum I said: ‘I won’t even think about it – Yeah, course I will………”

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The Comensoli’s are a legendary local footy family. Jay’s the youngest of four boys in a tribe of nine kids.

He followed his brother Bob to Junior Magpies, then on to the Wangaratta seniors, where he played 21 games in the ‘ones’, interspersed with a number of Reserves appearances.

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Jay (back row ,left) at Mac Holten’s Footy Clinic. Ian Hayden and Ian Rowland, also in the group, went on to play VFL football.

At 19, he developed itchy feet. “Bill ( eldest brother) was coaching Beechworth at the time and ‘Ab’ ( another brother) was his rover. Wang were keen to get hold of a Beechworth player, Normie Stewart, so they instigated a swap and I headed up to join the boys.”

Jay had a day out in the Bombers’ 1961 Grand Final win. He ‘led beautifully and was rewarded with six goals in a fine performance up forward’ according the the Chronicle scribe.IMG_4300

With Bill controlling the big man duels and Bobby Billman on fire in his forward flank, Beechworth launched a torrid onslaught in the dying stages to overwhelm a tired Greta and prevail by 13 points.

Two years later, he’d been lured to Tarrawingee. Their live-wire President and ace recruiter, Brien Stone, put forward an offer of 2 pounds a game. “I said don’t worry about the two quid. I’ll play provided someone pays my wages if I happen to get injured. Old Brien was rapt in that; even chipped in for a new pair of footy boots.”

The Bulldogs got great value out of their new recruit. Playing mainly across half-forward, Jay helped them to successive flags (1963, ‘64) under the coaching of Ray Burns.IMG_4296

He was vice-captain of Tarra for a fair portion of his 85 games in Red,White and Blue and remembers being on the selection committee when they suggested that a fat kid in the Seconds might be worth giving an opportunity.

“Brien Stone, who was also Chairman of Selectors, wouldn’t have a bar of it…Said we were doing the Club a disservice by playing a kid that unfit and that young ( almost 15 ) who probably wouldn’t amount to anything.”

“So we out-voted him and gave Mick Nolan his first senior game. Brien was a bit ‘put out’ for a while.”

At this stage, Jay’s brother Bill was coaching Milawa, Bob was in his first year in charge of Moyhu, and ‘Ab’ was Glenrowan’s leader.

“I came up against Bob for the first time when we played Moyhu. He’s delivered a perfect right- cross to flatten our rover, Jimmy Grant. I raced in to fly the flag for Jimmy, and said to the umpy: ‘Did you see that ?’ I don’t know whether he did, actually, but he’s booked Bob, who copped two weeks.”

“That year, we played Milawa in the First Semi. I was chasing Rex Allen, and, out of the corner of my eye, caught someone steaming in from the left. I thought: ‘Oh, it’s Bill, he won’t hit me.’ I was wrong, he’s cleaned me up nicely, although I always tell him he woke me from my slumber, as I managed to kick 4 goals after that……..”

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By now, his wife Val had become well-acquainted with the pitfalls of life as a footy ‘widow’. Previously she’d become used to waiting in the car outside the pub while Jay enjoyed a few after-match beers with the boys. But her and the kids were welcomed into the Plough Inn and shared the hospitality of Mary Nolan and the rest of the Tarra people.

“They were a great crowd, Tarra, and it was a bit of a wrench to leave them,” says Jay. But I’d always been keen to coach, and I knew Milawa were a fantastic Club.”

Jay’s appointment was a deviation from the O & K tradition of luring stars from the Ovens and Murray. But the success of he and Greta’s Johnny O’Brien proved that there was no real risk in drawing coaches from within the League.

He succeeded his brother Bill in the role, and harbored the usual self-doubts about how well the playing group would accept him……Particularly considering that the side contained the Club’s three previous coaches – Bill, John Holloway and Rex Allen.

His coaching reign started shakily enough. In his first year (1967) Milawa won just six games and finished seventh. However, a seven-point loss in the ‘68 First-Semi indicated that they were on the right track.

Jay was cleaned up by one of his old foes, Chiltern hard-man Kevin Lappin, in the latter part of that season. A badly broken nose necessitated a hospital visit. The nurses were preparing him for the operation when another patient was admitted.

“Forget about Mr.Comensoli for a while. This patient’s in worse condition,” they said. “At that moment, Kevin Lappin was wheeled in past me.”

“Bill, who’d gone out out to give ‘Ab’ a hand at Glenrowan, called in to see me. He had one glance and said: “I think I’d better come back to look after you.”

And he did return in 1969, to become one of the key figures in a dominant season.

“Bill was a ‘protector’” says Jay. “ I remember Ross Gardner playing his first game – he was no more than 15, I think, and was getting jostled by his opponent. Bill’s walked up and said: ‘Touch this bloke today, and you’re a goner.’ “

“There’s a big peppercorn tree behind the goals at Milawa. The ball was stuck in a branch one day, and they were taking ages to get it down. One of the old ducks from the opposition yelled out. ‘Hey, Commo, go and get your chainsaw and cut it down.’ Bill replied: ‘It’d be quicker if you’d get on your broom and fly up and get it’. ”

Jay says the Demons ran a tight ship in those days, and jokes that with blokes like ‘Mocca’ Coleman, the purse strings were well and truly clamped.

“In seven years at Milawa, I had two pairs of socks. I went to ‘Mocca’ to hit him up for a replacement pair and he looked at me incredulously: ‘Why ?’…….’Because they’re full of holes,’ I snorted…….’Doesn’t Val darn…..?’, he said.“

“ ‘Mocca’ was the Property Steward, a Selector, Caretaker and ‘Gopher’. He got the blame for everything, even when it rained. One of the things I was finicky about was having plenty of Ice on hand on game-day.”

“ ‘Mocca’ forgot to buy it one day and I kept at him about it. He eventually rounded some up and came back with his tail between his legs. He muttered: ‘Are you happy now ?’”

“I was in the shower after the game, and wondered why all the other quickly players drifted out. ‘Mocca’ came in with a bucket. ‘You know that Ice you wanted,’ he said…….’Here it is ! ‘ “

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Milawa dropped just two games in the 1969 home and away rounds, to top the ladder. They booted 8.5 in the first quarter of a soggy Second Semi against Beechworth, to cruise home by 64 points.

The Bombers bounced back, and outlasted Greta in a tough Prelim, to enter the ‘Big One’ as distinct underdogs.

Their confidence grew when Milawa’s big-occasion player Bill Comensoli was accidentally knocked out 10 minutes into the first quarter and stretchered from the ground.

Bearing in mind that Beechworth’s hard run to the Grand Final was expected to have them at a disadvantage, they surprisingly kept nipping at the heels of the classy Demons.

Trailing by just two points at half-time, they hit the lead at one stage in the third, and were within two goals at lemon-time.

But Milawa took control of the air in the final term, as the Bombers’ big men tired. Youthful, barrel-chested John Michelini, who’d played a great game- along with veteran defender Rex Allen -came to the fore in the dying stages.

Rod Reid had also proved damaging around the packs and chipped in with three majors. But when Beechworth again threatened in the last, through Ron Burridge, Jay pushed himself down back as a loose man, to curtail the dynamic Bomber.

As the siren blew to signal a 13-point Milawa victory, their supporters unleashed 29 years of pent-up emotion and carried their heroes to the rooms.

Besides the veterans of the side: Bill Comensoli (36), John Holloway (33) and Rex Allen (32), the premiership line-up boasted a few up-and-comers like 16 year-old Mervyn Holmes, Best & Fairest winner Ray Anderson, Eddie Kipping, Rob Tobias, Kerrie Taylor and the burly big-man, Michelini. It was a well-balanced side, bolstered by a number of hand-picked O & M recruits who had proved their mettle…….IMG_4294

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Milawa remained there or thereabouts in the next two seasons. They were unable to contain rampaging King Valley spearhead Ray Hooper, who booted 11 of the ‘Roos 14 goals, to lead his side to a 34-point victory in the 1970 decider.

And Chiltern edged them out by six points in a see-sawing ‘71 Grand Final, which saw the emergence of precociously-talented youngsters Barrie Cook, Ross Gardner and Gary Allen.

Jay relinquished the coaching job after that – his seventh O & K Grand Final – but played on for a further two years, to finish with just on 150 games with the Demons.

He often reflects on that ‘69 flag. “I can still remember Ross Schutt, who was an emergency, and a much-loved figure around the club, being overcome with emotion in the rooms afterwards.”

Ross said: “I can’t celebrate………I’m too distraught……….”

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P.S:  Jay won his first – and only – cricket Premiership, aged 40, when he kept wickets and played alongside his son Paul, with WDCA club Rovers in 1980-81 . Deciding to go out on top, he promptly hung up the gloves…IMG_4316