Mac Holten was 26 when he decided to abandon the security of life in Melbourne as an insurance clerk, League footballer and District cricketer.
The newly-married Collingwood forward elected to pursue a career as a football coach, and mulled over 5 ‘plum’ jobs that he had been offered.
He chose Wangaratta and, with wife Shirley, embarked on an adventure that was to prove amazingly successful and was to change the face of sport in the town……….
It was early 1949 when he met Wangaratta Football Club President Norm McGuffie at a pre-arranged destination in the city. McGuffie, who told him he’d be wearing a red flower in the lapel of his suit coat, must have been pretty convincing, as Holten accepted the job straight away….
Mac Holten had spent his school days at Scotch College and was regarded as no more than ‘mediocre’ in his school sporting pursuits. When war intervened he enlisted in the Air Force and became one of the nation’s finest pilots, attaining the ranking of Flight Lieutenant.
He always claimed that he was lucky to break into League football when it was at a low ebb during the war, but he proved a more than capable forward in 82 games with Collingwood, over an interrupted eight-year period.
It was towards the end of his career with the Mighty Magpies that Mac outwardly showed the first signs of being a football ‘thinker’. He and two other players, Lou Richards and Jack Burns, decided to convene a player’s meeting to discuss the team’s worrying habit of fading-out in important games.
Legendary coach Jock McHale caught wind of this and bailed them up: “What are you ? Three Commos or something ? ” The meeting never took place and Holten probably felt that he was on shaky ground from then on.
There were no such ructions in six seasons with Melbourne Cricket Club. A stylish batsman with a sound technique and excellent leadership qualities, he had once figured in a 280-run opening partnership and had risen to become a selector and vice-captain of the famous old Club.
Mac was fascinated by the tactics of sport and was eager to put them into practice. But he also wanted to make an impact business-wise, in the town.
“We’re determined to make this our permanent home. I don’t want to be switching from club to club, ” he said. He spent a short time in a milk-bar in Murphy Street, then a year later, moved into a licensed grocery in Reid Street, in partnership with team-mate Kevin French.
He began playing cricket in the WDCA with Merriwa, and threw himself into pre-season footy training.
The Ovens and Murray League was basically a mark and kick game in the late forties, but Mac was keen to introduce Collingwood’s play-on style, with plenty of emphasis on handball.
He inherited a handy side from his predecessor Tom Tribe, but his players were subjected to tougher training than they’d ever experienced.
“We concentrated more on sprint work, whereas my old coach Jock McHale mainly focused on match practice,” he once recalled.
Was Holten just lucky to arrive at the strategic moment, when the planets were rightly-aligned for Wangaratta? Or was it his outstanding leadership that honed a talented group into becoming one of the O & M’s finest of all-time ?
If you ask any of his players, they testify that he was somewhat of a magician. Even rival Rovers players who would be more likely to impugn him, vouched that when they came under his influence in representative football or cricket, he was every bit as astute as his reputation indicated.
Mac certainly had some stars in his side. Timmy Lowe, a will-o-the-wisp rover, was to win four successive Best & Fairests and claim the 1953 Morris Medal; Norm Minns was a champion forward; in Graeme Woods and Bill Comensoli he had strong and versatile ruckmen ; Max (Shiny) Williams was an accurate and prolific full forward and Kevin French was a bullocking big man.
But he always claimed that Lionel Wallace, a tough centre half back, was the best country footballer he came across. “He was a dairy-farmer from Greta and only trained one night a week, but played some great games for Wang. ‘Lioney’ would have been a sensation in Melbourne.” Mac said.
Holten always seemed to produce something extra on the big occasions and starred in the Magpies’ 32-point win over Wodonga in the 1949 Grand Final.
Wang finished well clear on top of the ladder in 1950 and chalked up their second straight flag. But if any proof was needed that this was, indeed, a champion side, it was their dominance throughout the 1951 season.
They lost just one match, on their way to clinching the hat-trick, as ‘Shiney’ Williams booted 8 goals to rubber-stamp an emphatic display.
At the end of the ’51 season, the ‘Pies challenged Wimmera League premiers, Ararat, for the unofficial crown of the ‘best team in Country Victoria’.
The match, played at Ararat, was heavily promoted and both teams were confident of victory. Holten recalled that he was nervous about the amount wagered on the game by supporters – a huge sum in those days, of 1,500 pounds. “I knew how much it was, because I put the cash in the safe at work”.
Wangaratta won, 15.15 to 11.7 in front of a huge crowd and could finally let their hair down after a long and successful season.
They entered the history books in 1952 by winning their fourth-straight premiership, equalling the feat of the great St. Patrick’s team of the twenties and inviting comparison with the best of all-time.
The Magpies again finished on top in 1953 but bombed out in straight sets. Holten played on for two more seasons, then coached from the sidelines in 1956.
But he detected some resentment about his non-playing coach role. He resigned, with another year still left on his contract. “I felt that I’d run my race”, he said.
His statistical record was first-rate – 154 games, for 107 wins, and a 69.8% winning ratio. He had been the Ovens & Murray representative coach in five seasons.
Bruck Textiles had approached him in 1952 to become their part-time ‘Sports Advisor’, for a stipend of £150 per year. The post involved coaching Bruck Cricket Club and conducting instructional sessions with the best young cricket talent in town.
The move brought instantaneous results, as Bruck took out the flag the next season, with Mac’s unbeaten 135 in the final being a major factor.
His first trip to Melbourne Country Week was as captain in 1951. In the ensuing years he managed to garner a diverse group of personalities into a powerful combination. He is popularly acknowledged as Wangaratta’s best-ever captain.
He seemed to be a thought ahead of the game . He set defensive fields and ‘got inside’ his bowlers’ heads, to have them executing his game plan. Of the 33 CW games he played, 30 were as captain.
“Melbourne Country Week provided me with my most enjoyable cricket moments”, he recalled. “It had everything that is good about cricket – challenge, competition, comradeship, comedy, drama, excitement and characters.”
Mac led Wangaratta’s cricketers throughout a Golden Era. They won the A-Grade title in 1954, then clinched their first – and only – Provincial crown in 1957.
He represented Country Victoria in two international matches against England. In the first, he scored a dogged 29 against Freddie Brown’s team at Euroa in 1950. Nine years later he captained the side in a long-awaited clash against Peter May’s tourists, at the Showgrounds.
In 1961, aged 37, and no longer playing regularly, Sir Robert Menzies drafted him into his Prime Minister’s XI against Frank Worrell’s great West Indies team at Manuka.
Mac’s sporting prominence led to a tilt at politics and in 1958 he had a sensational victory in the Federal elections, ousting sitting Indi member Bill Bostock. He held the seat for 7 elections and was at one time the Minister for Repatriation.
He finally lost his seat in 1982 and returned to Wangaratta, enthusiastically throwing himself into a project of coaching and developing the town’s young cricket and tennis players for many years.