“THE RED BULL………”

Barry McArthur is of my vintage – a mad-keen sporting fan who can cast his mind back to the fifties and early sixties, when a host of colourful personalities abounded in Ovens and Murray football…..

Lionel Ryan, who passed away recently, aged 87, was one of them……

Barry recalls in a recent email: “If you google ‘White Line Fever’ you may find a photo of Lionel….a great bloke off the field; the ‘devil incarnate’ once he crossed the boundary line.”

“I well remember a game at the Benalla Showgrounds Oval, where Lionel, playing for Yarrawonga, flattened the Demon’s mild-mannered rover Kevin ‘Cheeky’ Morrison……..Women invaded the ground, menacingly armed with umbrellas, giving a pounding to the rusty-haired aggressor.”

“He was as tough as nails, built like Napoleon’s tomb, and put the fear of God in opposition players and spectators alike……..”

“Years later, after a VFL game at North Melbourne’s Arden Street, a mate Barry Bourke and myself were passing a pub in Flemington Road when Barry said: ‘That’s Lionel Ryan’s pub…..He’s a friend of my dad’s…..Let’s go in for a beer….’

“I still held memories of Ryan from the old days, and asked apprehensively: ‘Is it safe ?’ “

“The bar was packed and, as the bar-maid pulled us a beer, Barry observed: ‘That’s Lionel over there…’ “

“The bar-maid enquired: ‘Do you know Lionel ?’……Barry explained that he was a mate of his father’s……they had worked together at the P.M.G in Wangaratta…..The bar-lady replied: ‘When it slows down a bit I’ll ask him to come over……Lionel’s my husband’.”

“You could not wish to meet a more friendly gentleman……He shouted us a few beers and a counter-tea…..He even sent his charming wife upstairs to bring his six teen-age kids down to meet us…..What a lovely, polite family…..I had expected him to have horns growing out of his head….”

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Lionel Ryan hailed from Woomelang in the southern Mallee. His love affair with the game began, he once said, when he woke up on his fourth birthday to find a leather footy beside his bed:

“It was never out of my hands, and I loved the smell and feel of it……I became an expert at mending and patching the leather and the bladder until I’d completely worn it out by the age of fourteen…..I could kick it through the back gate – either foot – at any angle, from 30 feet away……”

He was first rover for Woomelang’s senior side at 14, before transferring to Melbourne to join the P.M.G.

Invited to play with Footscray Fourths he went through the Thirds and Seconds and, after a stint of National Service, the inevitable Senior call-up came – in Round 13, 1954.

He reflected on one of his early games at the Junction Oval, St.Kilda:

“Our coach Charlie Sutton got flattened right in front of the St.Kilda race, and the Grandstand, which was full of their supporters, roared……After making sure he’d got the free kick Charlie picked up the ball about 70 yards out, on the boundary…..”

“The Saints fans started booing and throwing bottles, cans and anything they could lay their hands on…..One of the missiles was a full 26 ounce bottle of beer. Seeing we all enjoyed a beer Charlie stopped in his run-up, picked the bottle up and gave it to ‘Owey’ Gibson, one of our trainers, saying : ‘Here Owey, put this on ice ‘til after the game.’”

“Charlie then waddled back in his arrogant style, and sent the best torpedo you have ever seen, straight through the middle, three-quarter post high…..He then bowed to the stand and got on with the game…Gee, that beer tasted good later on….”

Unfortunately, it was the legendary Sutton who cost Lionel his cherished dream – of playing in the Bulldogs’ 1954 premiership.

Since his debut he’d played seven successive senior games, including an excellent performance against Geelong in the Second Semi-Final victory.

Sutton, who had missed the Semi with a leg injury, had to come back into a side which was at the peak of its form…..There had to be one unlucky player, and it was the 19 year-old, who happened to be carrying a jarred knee and was named first emergency…….

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Lionel departed Footscray after 32 senior games and, aged 23, was recruited to Yarrawonga.

The Pigeons had contested three Grand Finals, but had never won a flag since joining the Ovens and Murray League in 1929. In a concerted effort to take the next step they lured Fitzroy captain-coach Billy Stephen to coach the Club.

“They made an offer I simply couldn’t refuse,” said Stephen……If that was the first step towards achieving the ultimate the second was the arrival of the barrel-chested, 5’10”, 14 and a half stone ‘ Red Bull’, who sent ripples through the League with his vigorous play.

After being in the ‘Four’ for the entire season,Yarra dropped their last game in 1958, to miss the finals by a slender 7.8%. But it became obvious early the following season that their moment in the sun was close at hand.

They finished the home and away rounds in second position, equal on points with the reigning premier, Wang Rovers, then scored an 11-point win over them in a cracking Second Semi…..

When they met again a fortnight later, O & M fans were salivating at the prospect of another nail-biter.

Rovers’ coach Bob Rose swung tall utility player, Ray Burns, a policeman and noted hard-nut, onto Lionel Ryan in the early stages of the Grand Final. The pair waged a two-man war – an added spectacle to a rip-roaring encounter.

The tactic worked to an extent, but Burns was later assigned to a role up forward and Ryan was moved into the centre, where he began to provide great drive.

The Pigeons led by 14 points at the long break; the Hawks hit back to lead by three points at lemon-time.

Ryan gave Yarra the lead when he stormed through the centre and landed a 75-yard ‘bomb’ in the dying stages of the game……But Burns responded when he accepted a hand-pass from team-mate Max Newth a minute or so later, ran on and goaled.

To the horror of Rovers fans, who claimed he was half an acre behind the play, umpire Harry Beitzel blew his whistle and adjudged Newth’s flick-pass to be a throw……Adding to their devestation, the resultant free kick landed deep in the Pigeons’ forward line, where lumbering ruckman Alf O’Connor snapped a major.

The siren blew…….Yarra had taken out one of the O & M’s classic Grand Finals by eight points…….

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Lionel Ryan continued to be a tower of strength for Yarrawonga the following year, but was poached by rival club Wodonga, who were searching for a successor to Des Healy as captain-coach, in 1961.

He led the ‘Dogs for three seasons and was part of a star-studded O & M rep team, before moving on to coach Hampden League club Terang. The colourful Ryan career concluded after another coaching stint, at Lilydale. He was 36………..

Lionel’s venture into the Hospitality game saw he and his family run a handful of Pubs in the city and suburban Melbourne over more than twenty years……… But he always revelled in the opportunity to renew acquaintances with team-mates of his old country footy Clubs.

One of his 18 grandkids, Ryan O’Keefe, played in two Sydney Swans premiership teams, and was awarded the Norm Smith Medal in the 2012 Grand final…….Another, Jake Ryan, was a member of Australia’s Taekwondo team for eight years……..

With help from Barry McArthur

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