I don’t blame you if the name, Percival Henry Rowe doesn’t ring a bell.
After all, his sporting exploits were performed between 80 and 95 years ago. He became a football legend and his achievements during a brief stay in Wangaratta were to go down in posterity.
Colloquially known as ‘Oily’, he was targeted by the Wangaratta Football Club, who were seeking a strong leader. The type who could mould a side capable of winning the town’s first Ovens and Murray premiership.
He was to deliver the goods with spectacular effect.
Let’s delve back to the beginning of the ‘Oily’ Rowe story …………
Born in 1896, he was a native of Rutherglen and one of 11 siblings. When he left school he trained as a blacksmith and became prominent in the gold-mining town for his feats as an outstanding sportsman.
Standing just over six foot tall and with a powerful frame, he excelled at boxing, cricket and football. He boxed as a heavyweight and took all before him in the North-East. It was suggested that he would more than hold his own in main events at Melbourne’s ‘House of Stoush’.
He played football, firstly with Christmastown and then with Rutherglen’s other O & M club, Lake Rovers, before being enticed to Melbourne because of his cricket prowess.
A left-arm fast bowler, he impressed Test player Jack Ryder, who lured him to Collingwood’s District team.
But he found his allegiances swaying towards football and in 1920, at the ripe old age of 24, won a place on Collingwood’s senior list.
He was an overnight success and became respected throughout League football for the way he protected his smaller team-mates.
“He is a fine specimen and is now one of the top-notchers in the following division”, one newspaper commented. “I do not think there are many more accomplished followers in this state than Rowe.”
Percy was held in such high esteem that he was appointed captain of the Magpies in 1923, after three years with the Club. But he resigned from the post after three games.
The official version was that he felt the role was affecting his form. That may have been partly true, but his wife also had a say in the decision, as she didn’t appreciate that the extra commitments were keeping him away from home.
He enjoyed another brilliant season, representing Victoria for the third successive season and earning plaudits for his capacity to absorb physical punishment, and for his selfless contribution to the team.
But he stunned Collingwood by leaving to coach Albury in 1924.
As a reigning state player and a household name, he was a great catch for the O & M league.
Despite his prowess, Albury had a poor season and he was receptive to approaches from Wangaratta. He accepted their offer of 10 pounds per week to coach, free accommodation for he and his wife at the Council Club Hotel, and work as a carpenter.
Wang had been runners-up to St.Patrick’s for three successive seasons and saw in the imposing big man the qualities of leadership that they believed would whip a star-studded line-up into a cohesive unit.
‘Oily’ Rowe made all the difference.
He didn’t drink, smoke, gamble or swear and was the ultimate gentleman. His quiet manner contrasted with his fearsome appearance on the field,and he became a revered figure in the town. He was tough and insisted on discipline, but had the respect of the players.
The group had come from near and far, as the Postal Department was installing new lines throughout the district and many jobs had been created. It helped your employment prospects quite a bit if you happened to be a handy footballer.
The majority of Rowe’s team found work in this fashion.
His predecessor as coach, Matt O’Donohue, had stayed on as a player and combined with ‘Oily’ to form a lethal combination.
Time and again Rowe would palm the ball out to O’Donohue and Wangaratta would stream goalwards.
Wang went into the Grand Final as hot favourites. They were unbeaten and won most games by big margins. But a great opening burst by Hume Weir saw the ‘Pies down by 14 points at the first change..
They fought back well, and at three-quarter time had the game in their keeping. They went on to win, 10.11 to 7.8
Rowe dominated in the ruck, as he had done all season. In recognition of his efforts, he was presented with an illuminated address by the Club.
In part it said: “……….this magnificent result was in large measure due to the finished, systematic teamwork, aided by the cohesion, unselfishness and understanding which you were able to impart to the players.
“Your irreproachable conduct on and off the field has won for you the respect of the citizens of this town”…..
Wangaratta retained most of their premiership team in 1926 and finished the home and away games in second position.
But just before the finals, eight members of the team lost their jobs as Postal linesmen. A Public meeting was held to try to keep them around, at least until the finals were over, but it seemed to have an unsettling effect on the players.
They reached the Grand Final, against old foes St.Patrick’s, but were annihilated -18.20 to 6.9.
The myth grew over the years that certain Magpie players ‘laid down’; that money changed hands in the Council Club in the week preceding the game; and that a bust-up culminated in a ‘blue’ on the train which carried the team home from the game at Corowa.
But Percy Rowe dispelled these rumours in an emotional letter to the Chronicle a fortnight or so later, on his departure from the town.
“I would like to say that I am very disappointed at the unfair criticism levelled at some of our players”, he wrote.
“I wish to assure the Wangaratta public that I have full confidence that every man in the team did his best to win the premiership. It was not our day.”
Rowe returned to Collingwood in 1927 to resume his status as the club’s number one ruckman and strongman.
He played in the premiership team that year and went out of League football in style with a Herculean performance in the 1928 Grand Final, fondly remembered as ‘Rowe’s Premiership’.
Percy enhanced his coaching reputation with four flags in six years at Northcote (1929-34), then rounded out his career with stints as non-playing coach at Fitzroy (1935), Carlton (1937) and Coburg (1945-46).
But that glorious year at Wangaratta remained high on the list of achievements of one of the O &M’s finest products.