When I quiz a few old-timers on Bill Comensoli’s football attributes, their response is pretty much the same – ‘hard as a hog’s head’, ‘competitive’, ‘never beaten’.
Bill was one of the Magpies’ stars of the fifties. In fact, sixty years ago this September, he figured in one of the O & M’s greatest Grand Finals – a match in which rising star Lance Oswald snatched victory for Wang over Albury with just seconds remaining.
He was initially a reluctant interviewee, but once he let his guard down, seemed to enjoy this trip down memory lane……..
Bill’s rising 84 and his sporting activities these days centre around a weekly game of golf.
His playing partners at Waldara have been the same for the last 25 years – nephew Mark, son-in-law Johnny Mullins and a mate, Les Goonan.
He walks the course and is still capable of out-driving them. The boys say that when he clicks into gear those competitive juices flow just as freely as they did when he was involved in the big-man duels with footy’s rough-nuts.
He’d been a bit inconvenienced by a crook shoulder recently, and with duck-opening just around the corner, went to the doc for a cortisone injection so it wouldn’t hamper his style on the big day…………
The Comensoli forebears hail from a tiny Italian town called Edolo-Moo, high up in the Alps, near the border of Switzerland and Austria. Bill and his wife Shirley headed over there a decade ago and got acquainted with relatives and a family history which dates back about 1,000 years.
His maternal grandfather is Bill Collins, who played for Carlton in the late 19th century, then returned home to coach an O & M club, Exelsior, just outside Rutherglen.
You might be familiar with some of the nine members of the Comensoli clan – Bill’s brothers ‘Ab’, ‘Jay’ and Rob and the five girls – Glad, Wilma, Maude (who passed away last year), June and Beryl. “We’re a tight mob”, says Bill. “Never had a blue.”
Like the day the boys decided to go and watch a few of the girls playing netball….
“I’ve got a fair idea how it started,” Bill recalls. “A fellah from the opposition came onto the court and, for some reason, grabbed the ball. Someone intervened and suddenly there was an all-in brawl. They had to cancel the game.”
“The return match was held on neutral territory, at Corowa a couple of months later. When we arrived there was a big crowd; they had the court cordoned off ; and there were police in attendance. They were expecting the worst, but this time it was a tame affair.”
“The girls were all good players. They had that will-to-win.”
Bill was about 10 when he started to help out his father, who was a wood-cutter.
“We lived at Rutherglen and would take the Horse and Dray out to Gooramadda, bring in a couple of loads of wood, then cut it up. Dad was a real worker and I suppose I had to keep up. I didn’t know any different.”
He used to ride his bike down to Barkly Park, to watch Rutherglen training. Redleg great Norm Hawking was his hero.
“He was about 5’10” and was a phenomenal mark. He could play anywhere and I thought, if ever I get to play, I’d like to emulate him.”
The family moved to Wangaratta in the late 40’s and Bill helped his dad run the local Woodyard.
For the next 25 years of his working life he’d be out of bed at 4am, drive up into the bush and be ready to work like a navvy from daylight, collecting 3 loads of wood a day.
Football-wise, he was residentially bound to Junior League club Centrals, even though a lot of his mates were with South Wanderers.
“We played our games on Saturdays, then a few of us, like the Clarke’s and my mate Col Bromilow, got together to kick the footy around all day Sunday. I loved it.”
Bill won the WJFL Best & Fairest in 1951 and early the next season, had a training run with the Rovers.
“It was a wet night and I obviously didn’t impress the coach, Don Holbrook. I heard him say I moved like a staghound. That was enough for me. I went over the road.”
After one game in the Seconds, he made his senior O & M debut and, from then on, became a permanent fixture in the Magpie line-up.
His tap-work in the ruck was first-rate and his ability to clear the way for the ‘Pies fleet of small men, earned plenty of plaudits from the coach, Mac Holten. As did his mobility and strength around the ground.
Wangaratta rebounded from a 7-point loss to Rutherglen in the second-semi, to meet them again in the 1952 Grand Final. This time they overcame a 14-point half-time deficit to ‘turn it on’ in the last term and clinch their fourth successive flag.
Comensoli was one of the stars and, in a touch of irony, his boyhood hero ‘Butch’ Hawking also got plenty of the ball for the ‘Glen.
Wangaratta were at, or near, the top in each of the seven years Bill spent with them. He was appointed captain in 1956, when Holten was non-playing coach. And after 128 games, two flags and Ovens and Murray representation, he finally claimed the club Best & Fairest Award in his final season – 1958.
It was around this time that he enjoyed one of his biggest sporting thrills. As a competetive wood-chopper, he chased all the popular local meets, and at the last-ever Moyhu Sports, took out both the Standing Block and Underhand events, against a class field.
Moyhu came knocking with the offer of a role as playing-coach, at the end of 1958, but he knocked them back.
“I didn’t think I was cut out to be a coach, but Dad said: ‘Look, you should have a go at it’. Next thing Beechworth came to see me and I weakened and took their job on.”
“It was one of the best decisions I’ve made. They were great people and we were really made to feel welcome.”
The highlight of his 5 years with the Bombers was the flag they won in 1961.He was the O & K’s outstanding ruckman and won the club’s B & F in 1960 and ’61.
“We went close every year, but might have won a couple more flags if we’d had access to some of the blokes in the gaol. The committee had a vote on it, but a couple were against bringing them in at the time. Of course it helped the club a few years later, when the prisoners were allowed to play.”
What made the premiership win all the more enjoyable was that he shared it with his brothers ‘Jay’ and ‘Ab’, who were crucial players in the victory.
Bill crossed to Milawa and coached them into the finals for three years, then spent half a season with Glenrowan, alongside ‘Ab’, who was coaching at the time.
‘Jay’ was now at the helm of Milawa, and coaxed him back to the Demons in 1968. Despite advancing years he was still playing good footy and picked up another B &F.
And he was a dominant figure in their terrific 1969 season, which culminated in a 16-point triumph over his old side Beechworth in a hard-hitting Grand Final.
It was Bill’s last game of footy.
He doesn’t remember much about the game, but can recall bending down to pick the ball up and being collected on the side of the head.
“I was a bit groggy, but somebody gave me a whiff of smelling salts and I passed out. Next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance, heading to the Wang Hospital. It was time to hang up the boots. I kept fit by training greyhounds for the next 22 years………”
The Comensoli brothers amassed a total of over 1200 games with local clubs.
‘Jay’ (Jim) shared in four flags at Beechworth, Tarrawingee and Milawa and led the Demons for five years. ‘Ab’ ( Albert) played at Wang, Beechworth and Milawa, was playing-coach of Glenrowan for three years and also guided junior league club Centrals.
Bill’s grandson, Luke Mullins, is the most recent member of the family to make an impact on local footy. He played in two premierships and chalked up over 100 games with Wangaratta. Good judges felt that he deserved more than the 3 AFL senior games he played at Collingwood.
Luke, a laid-back customer with a great attitude to life, wouldn’t have lost any sleep over that. But he’d have been proud to have upheld the legacy of one of Wangaratta’s foremost football families…….