Les Gregory was a football contortionist.
He could control the slippery sphere with the exquisite balance of a juggler, as he slithered and slid, then dodged and weaved around opponents, putting the exclamation mark on his skill-set by driving a sizzling drop-kick pass goalwards.
When he was matched up against Wangaratta’s equally-elusive winger Des Steele in the much-awaited local-derbies, they produced more blind turns than you’d find on a malfunctional GPS.
At his top, in the late fifties and early sixties, he titilated Wangaratta Rovers supporters with his displays of wizardry………..
‘Nipper’ Gregory’s folks were his greatest fans. Even when he started playing footy with Junior Magpies, they rarely missed a game.
They lived out of town in those days and Les would hitch a ride to and from training with the Rovers coach, North Wang school-teacher, Don Holbrook.
By the end of his second season of Junior League, the family had moved to Oxley and he was recruited to Milawa, who were occupying the bottom rungs of the O & K ladder.
They could muster only three wins in his first two years, but the will o’ the wisp Gregory was a stand-out, winning the B & F, aged 17, in 1955.
It was Bill Kelly, a vigorous, sturdy defender and wise old coach, who helped to transform the Demons. They jumped up the ladder the following year and were brave in defeat in the Grand Final, against a physically stronger Beechworth, inspired by the legendary Timmy Lowe.
Wily veteran Lowe left a big impression on the youngster, with his repertoire of football tricks and his knack of leaving opponents in his wake. That, he decided, was the way he wanted to play his footy.
Bill Kelly urged Les to stay on at Milawa for another year : “Son, I think we can win the premiership if you hang around,” he said.
But he also didn’t want to impede his progress, and when his old club, the Rovers, began sniffing around, Bill gave his blessing to the Gregory departure.
Les walked straight into the Hawks’ senior side in 1957 and was deemed the O & M’s recruit of the year. He polled nine Morris Medal votes, was selected in the inter-league squad and won the Chronicle Trophy in a brilliant debut season.
But nothing he ever achieved in football can match the thrill of playing in the Rovers’ first-ever premiership side, in front of 12,500 fans on that sunny spring day in 1958.
The Hawks had the game in hand from half-time onwards and the celebrations among the Brown and Gold clan were in full swing well before the final siren.
The players headed back to Wangaratta on the train and a band escorted them down to the City Oval, where they were paraded like royalty. It was heady stuff for the 20 year-old Les Gregory.
Bob Rose admitted his surprise, post-match, that Wodonga coach Des Healey had played on the Rovers’ number 25 all day. “It took away a lot of their drive, because Des was more concerned with nullifying Gregory,” he said.
Rose was a big Gregory fan. “I believe he possesses every attribute to become a top-grade VFL winger. He has outstanding ball control, can out-mark most wingers in the league and has wonderful agility. He always seems to be able to get out of trouble, no matter how closely he is pressed.”
The inevitable offers came – from Collingwood, Geelong and St.Kilda. He had played in a Collingwood practice match and Rose was trying to direct him to Victoria Park. But a visit from St.Kilda’s secretary, Ian Drake, was the clincher.
“We arranged to meet at Nick Lazarou’s cafe, in Murphy Street. After a bit of idle conversation, we got down to tin-tacks. He suggested that I sign a Form-Four, which would bind me to St.Kilda for a couple of years,” Les recalled.
“When I started to hum and hah, he pulled 150 quid out of his coat pocket and waved it in front of me. I couldn’t sign quick enough. I was earning 9 pound a week at Ray Byrne’s Bottle-O business at the time.”
The couple of months that Les spent in the ‘big smoke’ passed by in the flick of an eye. He satisfied the good judges with his performances in three practice matches, but had to wait until Round 4 before his senior opportunity came.
It was a crucial match against Collingwood and he was named on the bench, alongside ruckman (and later, business magnate ) Lindsay Fox. The Saints caused an upset against the reigning premiers, then tossed Hawthorn and Richmond in their next two games.
The trouble was that his allotted match permits had expired and he would need a full clearance if he was to continue his League career.
He rang his old coach for advice.
“Are you happy down there ? ” asked Bob Rose. “Not really,” Les replied. “Well, we’d love to have you back.”
So, after three VFL games – for three wins – his League career was over.
Les was lured to SANFL club Norwood the following year by ex-St.Kilda coach Alan Killigrew. He and two other recruits – Haydn Bunton Jnr, and Geoff Feehan, headed across to Adelaide in Killigrew’s EK Holden Station Wagon.
But again, it didn’t work out, as employment that was promised didn’t eventuate He was back with the Rovers not long after the season had started, and played in another premiership side.
Season 1961 was one of his best and was the closest he came to a B & F with the Rovers. He broke a jaw and played just 14 games, yet finished runner-up to Ray Thompson in the coveted award.
There weren’t too many athletes around who could match Gregory for pace – on and off the football field. He dominated at such far-flung meetings as Murmungee, Molyullah, Hansonville, Edi and Swanpool, winning 23 Gifts – and some handy pocket-money for his trouble.
It prompted former world champ Lynch Cooper, after a couple of training sessions, to throw down the gauntlet to him.
“Young man, I think I could make a Stawell Gift runner out of you if you’re fair dinkum. Tell me, do you have a beer ?.” Yes, was the reply. “And what about smoking ?.” Again the answer was in the affirmative.
“Well, you’re going to have to give them away.” It was the last that Lynch Cooper saw of him.
Les succumbed to the approaches of King Valley in late ’61, and was appointed playing-coach. But he started to get cold-feet a week or so later.
” I had visions of those long trips up to Whitfield in the middle of winter in my old Ford Consul. I rang them and told them I was staying at the Rovers.”
But there were occasional periods when his form would taper off. Neville Hogan, who played alongside him in the latter part of his career, reckoned that Les got down on himself and his form suffered accordingly.
He came off the bench in the Hawks’ flag win against Wangaratta in 1964, but was one of the stars when they again trumped the ‘Pies in ’65.
The Gregory career came to a close in unfortunate circumstances early in 1968, when he suffered a depressed fracture of the cheekbone.
He was 30 and had played 186 games with the Rovers, over 11 years. In seven of these seasons he played in Grand Finals, which yielded four premierships.
An imposing record indeed, for one of football’s true entertainers…………