“BEST KICK I EVER SAW…….”

The subject of this yarn politely declined an interview. “That’s okay,” I said. “Do you mind if I do a bit of a resume’ of your considerable sporting career.” “Go for your life,” was the reply……

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You’ve probably spotted him on his daily walk around the streets of Wangaratta…….. The gait is instantly-recognisable…..Long arms pumping……Legs striding out purposefully……..Head down…

Someone suggested he’s either attempting to unravel the problems of the universe……Or on the look-out for a stray 50-cent piece to add to his collection………..

Another route often takes him from his Templeton Street residence, down to Evans Street, where he might complete three or four circuits of the bank at his old Home Ground………..

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There was a time, more than five decades ago, when the crowd on those banks would roar with delight, as the big number 15 plucked a mark – reaching into the sky like a giant cherry-picker.

“Line ‘em up ‘Thommo’ “, they’d yell…….And from some obscene distance he’d bomb the pill through the big sticks.

No, I’m not dreaming.

Nostalgic old-timers recall the day Gary Ablett landed one from close to the centre of the ground for Myrtleford in a 1983 Semi-Final. It’s grown in distance over the years, to be labelled the longest goal ever kicked on the Findlay Oval.

Ray Thompson booted those regularly.IMG_4319

He had hands the size of meat-plates, and wore a pair of boots which amply protected his ankles. They were tailor-made for him by a city cobbler called Hope Sweeney, recognised as the best boot-maker in the business. ‘Thommo’ modestly vouched that the ‘Hope Sweeney’s’ were the reason he could hoof the ball a country mile……………

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The Thompson’s arrived in Wangaratta from Wagga in 1956, settled in Orwell Street, and began operating the town’s major Brickworks’.

It was a family concern, and Ray left school, aged 14, to join the business, toiling alongside his dad Sidney, and brothers Ron and Alan. The demanding, physically-taxing nature of the work no doubt hastened the development of his imposing physique.

He was still a teen-ager when Sidney passed away, so the boys took over joint operation of the Brickworks. Ray became the designated Employment Officer.

I came knocking on his door a decade or so later and became yet another of the itinerant employees of ‘Thompson’s’.

I’d just landed home from a casual, year-long Northern Sporting Safari and Ray warned : “I’m not sure whether this’ll be your cuppa tea.”

He was right. I advised him at lunch-time on the second day that I’d had enough.

‘Thompson’s Brickworks’ continued on to be an integral part of the local building landscape for almost 40 years, before the boys sold out to Boral in 1983…………

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When Ray was first invited to the Rovers, to train after the completion of his Junior League commitments at Centrals in late-1958, one jokester likened him to a new-born foal – all arms and legs.

He was slotted straight into the senior line-up in Round 1, 1959, as a back pocket, with the occasional run on the ball. That position, he always said, was a footy ‘sinecure’ . Just read the play, back yourself to out-mark your opponent and send it back from whence it came.IMG_4321

At 18, it was obvious that the young fellah was a star in the making. He finished fourth in the B & F in his first year, then played a starring role in the 1960 flag.

He was in awe of the dynamic Bob Rose, who had a big influence on his development. Even today, get him yapping about those ‘Golden Days’ and he can unveil a host of Rose stories, depicting his brilliance and coaching prowess.

Like the time ‘Thommo’ earned his first O & M guernsey, in 1961, and had the honour of playing alongside the great man in a Country Championship match against the Goulburn Valley.

He recalled ‘Rosie’ hardly being able to stand, or lace up his boots without assistance, before the game. The selectors tried to talk him out of playing. But he would have nothing of it. “With the stars that are playing in this side feeding the ball to me, I’ll be okay,” he said.

Ray was on fire up forward at Benalla one day, and booted five majors in a quarter, before rolling his ankle.

Reasoning that he’d be no value to the side in that condition, he advised Rose, who said: ‘No, we’ll plonk you in the pocket. They’ll be that focused on keeping you under control that it’ll release a couple of our other forwards to do some damage.”

In 1961 ‘Thommo’ was in his prime, and took out the Club Best & Fairest. The departure of veteran Les Clarke the following season saw him handed the vice-captaincy, under Rose. He was 21. By now he was used to spending most of his time at centre half forward, where he proved a near-insurmountable obstacle for defenders. If he got a sniff of it in the air those huge hands would clamp the ball.IMG_4323

He resisted the overtures of five VFL clubs. On one occasion he was at the Western Oval, watching Rovers player Barrie Beattie go around in a Footscray practice match. Teddy Whitten, who was notified that he was in the crowd, invited him to strip for the last half. ‘Thommo’ declined.

His mates reckoned that “he’d probably have had a crack at League footy if they’d set him up in a Brickworks down there”.

One of his most memorable performances came in the 1964 Grand Final. The Hawks had won the first 15 matches that season, before losing the next four, which included a demoralising loss to Wangaratta in the Second-Semi.

After a shaky start, they overcame Myrtleford in the Prelim, to earn another shot at the ‘Pies in the big one. ‘Thommo’ had copped a heavy knock against the Saints and was unable to train on Tuesday or Thursday night prior to the Grand Final.

He was still receiving pain-killing injections minutes before the match and limped and hobbled around ten minutes after the start.

The ‘Chronicle’s’ journo Lester Hansen summed up his performance…….

“In an inspired patch of football in the third quarter, Thompson kicked four of the Hawks’ six goals. The big fellow hauled down incredible marks, moved around the ground with the poise of a ballet dancer and burnt off opponents with speed that must have amazed even himself. It will forever be remembered as ‘Thommo’s quarter………….”IMG_4320

The Hawks made it successive flags the following year . One of the tactics of coach Ken Boyd was to start Thompson in the back pocket, then move him to centre half forward as the game unfolded.

The ‘65 Grand Final was no exception. Boyd had been having trouble with Magpie defender Bernie Killeen. But when big Ray moved onto Killeen he added life to the attack and combined well with elusive flanker Laurie Flanigan to help swing the pendulum in the Hawks’ favour.

‘Thommo’ injured his knee in an inter-League match against Bendigo in 1966 and it began to cause him no end of trouble. He thought if he had a good spell and tried again, that might help.

He could only limp his way through eight games in that horror year. And when he consulted South Melbourne’s Head Trainer Bill Mitchell, the diagnosis was heart-wrenching.IMG_4324

Thinking the pesky limb had settled down again over the summer, he decided to have a run with his old Rovers team-mate John Welch, who was coaching Whorouly. But after half a season he accepted the inevitable…

He retired at the tender age of 27, after playing 143 games for the Hawks. A stint on the committee, and as Chairman of Selectors, followed………

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‘Thommo’s’ fascination with cricket almost rivalled his passion for footy. As a middle-order batsman and purveyor of off-breaks, he was a member of the all-conquering United teams which dominated the local game through the sixties and seventies.

He featured in all nine of their WDCA flags. And when he and Brenda and the four kids moved out to Tarrawingee, he was one of the king-pins – on and off the field – in the resurgence of the ‘Bulldogs, who became a Sunday cricket power.

No tale about ‘Thommo’ would be complete without the re-telling of his finest stroke of golfing fortune. He was a regular on local courses and tackled the game with typical gusto. A handicap in the high 20’s had eventually been whittled down to the 12-mark.

He credited his improvement to a set of state-of-the-art clubs which were unfortunately snavelled from the back of his Ute after a game at Waldara. He promptly reported their departure to the Police and decided it was best to move on with life.

A call from the Prahran police, weeks later, notified him that they’d been ‘flogged off’ to Cash Converters for the paltry sum of $60, and if he came down to identify them, he could be re-united with his prized ‘Lindson’s’…

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Lester Hansen, the journo who wrote an aforementioned piece about the 1964 Grand Final, has now retired to Port Macquarie. He occasionally rings to touch base, catch up on the latest O & M gossip, and enquire as to the welfare of some of the old acquaintances of his Chronicle days.

The conversation eventually meanders to one of his favourites……..”How’s Thommo going…..What a player he was……Best kick I ever saw………..”

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P.S: Keen Rovers man that he is, ‘Thommo’ will be watching Saturday’s clash between the Hawks and Pigeons at the Findlay Oval. The Rovers Past Players are holding a Get-Together as part of the day.

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