In an earlier life I was a bread-carter for Sunicrust Bakeries.
Heading off in the wee hours – with the smell of fresh bread wafting through the van and Country music piercing the airwaves; you’d wind around the Warby Ranges, and stop off at farmhouses and mailboxes, via Taminick, Goorambat, Bungeet, Devenish and St.James………
Every Monday, around ninish, I would sidle into a property on Devenish Road, Thoona, and be greeted by a lady who was always eager for a detailed yak about footy – the length of which depended on whether Benalla had got up the previous Saturday………….
Forty-five years on, I’m back in the same neck of the woods, catching up with Billy Sammon, who’s tickled by my recollection: “Yeah, Mum could talk all right,” he says. “And, by the way, you probably gathered early in the piece that she was my greatest fan………..”
Bill ranks among Thoona’s most illustrious sporting products, even though he played just the one season with the locals, after returning from six years at Assumption College, Kilmore.
Next to Catholicism, football ranks a close second in the religious stakes at Assumption. Bill says that, during winter he’d be playing, training or handling a footy six days a week: “And on our day off, we’d do a Cross-Country.”
“Brother Domnus had been the coach for ever and a day, and it was every kid’s aim to play under him in the First 18. I never quite made it – I was too small – but I reckon all that ball-handling stood me in good stead later on.”
He was just 5 foot six and a half when he returned home to the farm, but grew five and a half inches in the next year.
“I must have been a midget. I was picking up wool in the shearing shed one day, when (Wangaratta Rovers coach) Ken Boyd came in. He walked straight past me and asked one of the shearers: “I’m looking for Bill Sammon. Is he around ?”
Chuffed as he was by Boyd’s interest, which had obviously been piqued by his form with Thoona, Bill had his mind set on playing for Benalla. He drove in, unannounced, to the Demons’ first pre-season training session, and appeared in a couple of practice matches.
In one of them he was matched against an established star, Alan Beaton, and lowered his colours. “After the game I was feeling a bit sorry for myself,” says Bill, “and I remember one of the selectors consoling me: ‘Don’t worry young fellah, he’s a senior player’. I spun around and said: “So am I.”
He was right.
A fortnight later he debuted against the Rovers, and performed creditably, booting three goals and parting company with a couple of teeth when he was flattened by Hawks iron-man Len Greskie.
It was his ‘welcome’ to Ovens and Murray football, but there was no doubt that, in the young on-baller, Benalla had acquired a player of rare talent. He was never dropped from the senior side.
When I recall his attributes, and suggest that he was a ready-made star, Bill says that’s a bit of an exaggeration: “Look, I had to work really hard. I wasn’t a great mark, wasn’t an outstanding kick, but one thing I could do was find the footy all right.”
He did enough to attract interest from Geelong, South Melbourne, Fitzroy and Melbourne. The Cats invited him down and he had a yarn to club greats Neil Trezise and Peter Pianto, who were keen for him to try his luck if he elected to undertake the Veterinary Science degree, to which he’d been admitted.
“But Dad needed a hand on the farm and I decided that’s where my future lay. Besides, I jammed my knee in a Hay-Baler not long after, and that set me back a bit,” he says.
Benalla’s fortunes fluctuated in the latter part of the sixties, but the arrival of the charismatic Vern Drake in 1970 was a key factor in their return to power.
“He took the professionalism of the playing group to a new level and was a brilliant forward. He was also a fitness fanatic, and kept emphasising that a solid pre-season helped get early wins on the board. We had some good young kids coming through, too, and they thought the world of ‘Drakey’. ”
Bill didn’t need any convincing about fitness. After a day’s work on the farm during the summer, he’d get out and jog his way around the backroads of Thoona. “I loved it, and It kept me super-fit. But, I’ve probably paid the price in latter years, as I’ve had both hips replaced.”
He was a handy side-kick to Drake, who booted 87 and 118 goals in his final two seasons with the Demons. Bill provided the necessary ‘steel’ in the midfield, and inspired his team-mates with his courage and determination.
Benalla finished third in 1971 and ‘72, beaten in both Preliminary Finals by the eventual premiers, Wang. Rovers.
They topped the ladder in 1973, and, with a group that had been moulded over three or four seasons, appeared primed for a realistic assault on the flag.
More than 15,000 fans packed the Wangaratta Showgrounds to see the Demons and ‘Hoppers stage a battle royal. North used their physical strength in an attempt to counter Benalla’s pace and teamwork.
The inevitable stoushes erupted in the opening term, and Bill Sammon, who was being heavily tagged by North’s Barry Burrowes, was in the thick of them.
“I copped a whack from behind at one stage, and was sure it was Burrowes again, so I turned around to let him have it.”
“But it was the Morris Medallist, Johnny Smith, who I dropped,” Bill recalls. “Smithy went right off the air for a while, and shortly after, was reported for striking Robbie Allen. The aftermath of it was that Smithy received a six-week suspension, which he served the next season. It cost him hack-to-back Medals.”
“He’s been out here to visit me a couple of times, and we have a good laugh about it. But, I can tell you, he wasn’t a happy boy at the time.”
Sammon was named the Demons’ best player, as they held off the fast-finishing Hoppers, to win an action-packed Grand Final by seven points. Achieving the ultimate, ranked among his most memorable football moments.
But amongst the euphoria of victory, he spared a thought for his old mentor Vern Drake, who had moved to Cooee earlier that year, and coached his side to the North-West Tasmanian flag on the same day.
“There’s no doubt that a portion of the ‘73 premiership belonged to ‘Drakey’ for the work he’d put in,” he says.
Bill had given thought to coaching, and was regarded as an obvious candidate. An offer bobbed up from Yarrawonga not long after the Grand Final, which seemed an ideal fit. “I didn’t like the prospect of leaving Benalla, but I was ready to coach, and knew Yarra was a great club.”
There certainly wasn’t much haggling when they sat down to negotiate the finer details of the coaching position. “Leo Bourke, the President, asked me how much I wanted. I think I mentioned something like $3,000. He said: ‘How about $4,000.’ And that was that.”
The Pigeons dropped just two matches during the home-and-away rounds of 1974. They looked every inch a flag prospect in the Second-Semi, when they led the Rovers by 45 points at three quarter-time.
But the Hawks booted eight goals in a withering final term, to fall eight points short. Sammon, who had been the architect of their dominance for the majority of the game, knew that the scramble for the flag was far from over.
And so it proved. The Rovers piled on 8.3 to 1.1 in the first-quarter of the Grand Final, and were never seriously challenged – eventually winning by 61 points.
During his time at Yarrawonga, Bill also assumed the position of playing-coach of the Ovens and Murray League.
It was during the period that the League was banned from competing in the Country Championships, and the O & M negotiated to play a couple of representative games against the VFA.
“Without a doubt, these were the best standard games I ever played in,” he says. “In 1975 they probably treated it a bit flippantly, and we kicked 24 goals, to beat them by about 50 points.”
“The following year, they brought up a crackerjack side, which included blokes like Freddie Cook, Joe Radojavic and Colin Hobbs, and it proved a helluva game. They got up in the finish, by nine points. Of all the inter-League games I played, those two stick in my mind. It demonstrated how strong O & M footy was during that era.”
After spending three seasons at the helm of Yarra, Bill was entertaining the thought of retirement, before being enticed home to Benalla, to succeed Terry Leahy as playing-coach. “They couldn’t find anyone, so I agreed to take it on.”
Demon die-hards were rapt. They reckoned their favourite son was back where he belonged – in the role he was destined to fill earlier in the decade.
But there was work to do. After a middle-of-the-road first season, Benalla sat second bottom, four rounds into 1978. They then proceeded to reel off 15 straight wins, and marched into the Grand Final, as red-hot fancies.
The game provided Bill with his biggest let-down in football. “We just weren’t ‘on’ that day, and the Rovers were far too good,” he says.
He decided, after the 54-point defeat, that it was time to hang up his boots. He had played 251 games (196 with Benalla, 55 with Yarra ), won two B & F’s, coached for five years, and had indelibly written his name into O & M folklorel.
“It was time to spend a bit more time on the farm – and with Glenise and the kids.”
“I was a bit of a control-freak and expended a lot of nervous energy on coaching. It probably affected my footy; I’m not sure. But I loved it…….”
Bill maintained contact with football in retirement, serving as a long-term O & M Board member and inter-league selector, as well keeping in touch with his old clubs, Benalla and Yarrawonga.
His services to the game were acknowledged when he was inducted to the O & M Hall of Fame in 2014……