“84 YEARS ON………IS HISTORY ABOUT TO REPEAT ITSELF ?……………..

One of the most riveting O & M Finals series of recent times reaches its climax on Sunday, when Wangaratta and Yarrawonga clash in the Grand Final, at the Lavington Sports Oval.

Three of the finals have been rip-roaring affairs which were decided by less than a kick; the other two featured dramatic fight-backs, which were still in doubt deep into the final term.

The Pigeons appeared to have the Prelim stitched up in the opening quarter when, inspired by the brilliance of small man Nick Fothergill, they kicked five goals into the breeze at Bunton Park. The Hawks, who snapped the opening two scores of the game – both behinds – were thereafter consigned to a role of ‘spectators’ – bewildered and bedazzled by their opponents’ swift ball movement.

Additionally, three of their key play-makers, Sam Murray, Dylan Stone and Alex Marklew had, in the game’s early stages, been rendered ineffective. Stone was out of the game with a serious knee injury; Murray and Marklew were both limping heavily and reduced to cameo roles up forward for the purposes of rotations.

Just how the pendulum swung is difficult to ascertain, but the Rovers did certainly start to assert more control through the midfield. By three quarter-time there was only a goal in it and Hawk fans began to ponder if a second successive miracle could be manifested.

Alas, the Pigeons began to find space and after locating the big sticks once, then again, they were back in charge and were able to put a pulsating contest to rest…………..

So, for just the second time in O & M history, Wangaratta and Yarrawonga are poised to line up against each other in a Grand Final……….What an encounter it promises to be…….

But it could hardly be a more mouth-watering prospect than the one that awaited the footy public 84 years ago…….

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Yarra rose from the bottom of the ladder to reach the Grand Final in 1937 – their first appearance in a decider since entering the competition in 1929. Much of their inspiration came from the bullocking play of star centre half back – and eventual Morris Medallist – George Hayes.

Albury, however, were too good, and comprehensively defeated them by 42 points…..Hayes, skipper Morrie Richmond and ruckman Don Morrison were their stars…….. but they were fuelled with optimism about their prospects in 1938…….

Wangaratta, after winning their third flag in 1936, slumped to the bottom of the ladder in ‘37, winning just two games. It was a humiliating tumble, and prompted a revitalisation within their ranks.

Their search for a coach led them to a footy nomad, Norman Le Brun, whose CV had included stints with South Melbourne, Sandhurst, Essendon, Coburg, Collingwood, Carlton and South Warrnambool.

Standing only 171cm, the stocky 76kg rover grew up in the back streets of Richmond, where young bucks would sooner have a fight than a feed. He had supplemented the meagre match payments he received with occasional work as a brick-layer.

He was fearless and hard-hitting on the field and, despite his bulk, could run all day. A bachelor with a carefree personality which endeared him to everyone, he was ‘adopted’ by the people of Wangaratta upon his arrival.

The club’s recruiting officers had also been busy…….Milawa brothers Maurice and Joe Valli were enticed to the Black and White, as were Leo Crowe (Richmond Reserves), Alan and Jim La Rose (Golden Square) and Arthur Hayes (Ballarat).

One of their key players – and Le Brun’s deputy, was a strong key position player, Ernie Ward, who had been lured to the town from Bendigo League club Eaglehawk in 1935.

A gregarious personality, Ward had made a huge impact on the club, starring in their 1936 flag win and continuing his brilliant form the following year.

However, he was knocked out in a marking duel at the Albury Sportsground, suffering a fractured skull and broken jaw, which cost him the last four games of the season – and possibly the Morris Medal….

He finished runner-up, one vote behind George Hayes.

Despite the severity of his injury, Ward fully recovered and returned to his high-marking best in 1938. Le Brun had the luxury of being able to swing him to either end of the ground with equal effect.

Alec Fraser, the classy mid-fielder, had become part of the furniture at the Showgrounds Oval since joining the Club a decade earlier……..Apart from a brief stint with St.Kilda, the ‘gentleman footballer’ was rarely beaten, and was still the epitome of reliability……..

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No doubt one of ‘the stars of the show’ in the talented Yarrawonga sides of the late thirties was Leo Hicks, a 175cm, 71kg key forward…….. A member of a famous Pigeon family, Hicks had made the Senior list at Fitzroy in 1938, but chose to return home, to further enhance his reputation as a prolific sharp-shooter.

He kicked no less than four goals in 12 successive matches during the season, which included twin ‘bags’ of 10, on the way to a century. Leo and his brother Sam held down the key forward posts with devastating effect during the season.

George Hayes continued his Medal-winning form at centre half back. A solid six-footer, he exuded a fearsome presence and helped his fellow defenders stand tall, whilst personally racking up plenty of possessions.

Yarra had a less than ideal start to their 1938 campaign, winning just one of their opening four matches. But they soon steadied the ship, and finished the home and away rounds with a 10-5 record.

They took out the minor premiership, on percentage from Wangaratta and Rutherglen, with Albury three games behind, in fourth spot………

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Rutherglen’s inaccurate kicking kept Albury in the First Semi-Final. They led 10.17 to 12.4 at three quarter-time, but the Tigers finished with 2 goals to one in the final term, to win by three points.

The dynamic Doug Strang was the player who made the difference. He booted 9 goals in a single-handed effort.

The Second Semi between Wangaratta and Yarrawonga was a classic. The Pigeons held a slender four-point advantage at half-time……Wang were two points in front at lemon-time…..

But it boiled down to accuracy in the end, as the Pies added 4.1 to 3.5 in the final term to gain automatic entry to the Grand Final – winning 12.13 to 11.15.

There was more bad news for the Pigeons, though……… Champion defender and club heart-beat George Hayes had sustained a leg injury, which would put paid to his season……..

Yarra bounced back superbly in the Preliminary Final, and were all over Albury for three quarters. They led 12.13 to 3.10 at one stage, and their attention had already begun to turn to the following week.

But Albury, again inspired by Doug Strang, who kicked another 7 goals, stormed home to kick 9.3 to 3.5 in the final quarter……The winning margin was reduced to just 23 points…….

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A bumper crowd, which paid 264 pounds at the gate, flocked to Barkly Park, Rutherglen for the re-match of the closely-matched rivals.

The head-to-head contests during the season stood at 2-apiece and the experts couldn’t seperate them. The absence of the lion-hearted Hayes would be sorely felt, and many wondered if the week’s rest might have freshened the Pies for what promised to be a no-holds-barred contest……

The teams lined up as such:

YARRAWONGA

B: D.Marshall, S.Ellis, D.Naughtin

HB: J.Flynn, J.Weeks, F.Johnston.

C: E.Message, H.Marshall, B.Ridley

HF: K.Duncan, S.Hicks, J.Norris

F: H.Gillett, L.Hicks, J.Reilly.

Foll: B.Brown, K.Ryan, M.Richmond (c)

19th: L.Cooper,

Coach: Lloyd Jones

WANGARATTA

From: N.Le Brun (cc), A. Clark, J.La Rose, A.Fraser, A.La Rose, B.Le Leivre, H.Ewing,

M.Valli, E.Ward, R.Bray, L.Crowe, T.Maguire, A.Rosengrave, T.Dykes, G.Lewis,

J.Valli, W.Wyllie, J.Williams, 19th: S. Auld.

Little separated the two combinations for three quarters…….Yarra led 1.5 to 1.2 at quarter-time……… Wang slightly gained the initiative to lead by two goals at the long break: 5.6 to 3.6….

The Pigeons spoiled an enterprising third quarter with a poor return on the score-board. They added only 2.7 despite appearing to have the majority of the play. At three quarter-time their deficit was nine points.

But the Pies found the way to goal in the last. Ernie Ward was unstoppable at full forward. He finished with six goals, whilst the nuggety Le Brun chimed in with three, as the hard-working Yarra defence, led by Dave Naughtin, Jim Flynn and Doug Marshall battled to stem he tide.

The final margin of 27 points indicated a comfortable winning margin, but the game still remained in the balance until mid-way through the quarter……..When it was up for grabs, it was Wangaratta who took their chances and went on with the job:

WANGARATTA: 1.2, 5.6, 7.10, 12.15 (87)

YARRAWONGA: 1.5, 3.6, 5.13, 7.16 (58)

Best: WANGARATTA: N.Le Brun, A.Fraser, E.Ward, H.Ewing, M.Valli, T..Maguire, B.Le Leivre, J & A. La Rose.

YARRAWONGA: D.Naughtin, J.Flynn, D.Marshall, A.Ridley, S.Ellis, M.Richmond, S.Hicks.

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Yarrawonga have contested 16 Grand Finals……They eventually broke through for their first flag when former Fitzroy coach Billy Stephen led them to victory against Wangaratta Rovers in 1959.

They’ll be chasing their sixth title, the most recent of which came in 2013.

Wangaratta have made 27 appearances at the ‘big dance’, ‘greeting the judge’ in 15 of them…..

There’s an eerie similarity about the lead-up to these two Grand Finals, 84 years apart………..They finished 1 and 2…….. Shared the spoils during the home- and-away………Wangaratta won the Second Semi by less than a kick……..Yarra staved off a huge comeback in the Prelim……..

Most shrewd judges fancy the Pies, but as we are continually warned, anything can happen in Grand Finals………….

” ‘THE TANK’ – A HUMAN WRECKING-BALL……..”

Richie Castles, former Milkie, footballer, cricketer, pigeon racer, trotting trainer and true character, finds serenity these days, on the seat of his Ride-On Mower………

The knees that supported his roly-poly frame throughout a brilliant footy career are ‘stuffed’, he says…..So that puts paid to too much physical activity……Nevertheless, he thrives on the chore of keeping the seven and a half acre property, where he and wife Margaret reside, in fine fettle…..

I remember him being a powerhouse in defence during a fine era for Benalla……Back-pocket players of the late-50’s/mid-60’s were typically dour, stingy types whose main focus was to keep resting rovers under wraps and dish out the occasional back-hander………

Richie, though, was a dasher, in the mould of Brad Hardie, or a modern-day Daniel Rioli…..

“If I thought I could get the ball I’d go after it” he says….”It wouldn’t matter if it was from here to that pigeon-cage over there…..I wouldn’t give a bugger if there was anyone in my way; I’d run over the top of ‘em to get it….”.

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His older brother Charlie was an Austral Wheelrace place-getter, and the youngster once had aspirations of following him into cycling.

But he loved footy – and Benalla – with a passion……..”As a kid I used to ride my bike from one end of the Showgrounds Oval to the other; depending on which end we were kicking.”

“One of my heroes was Jack Spriggs, who played a bit like Leigh Matthews……’Spriggsy’ would land the ball on the chest of Morris Medallist Kevin Hurley with the precision of a surgeon…….Geez he was a good player.”

“He kept an eye on the local Junior League and knew all the good kids…..He milked a few cows at Swanpool and was appointed coach out there…….tried to get me to go with him…He said to mum and dad: ‘I’ll look after him’…….He would’ve, too, but I was hell-bent on playing with Benalla…..”

Richie walked straight into the Benalla senior side in 1957, aged 17, holding down the back pocket position with the aplomb of a veteran.

His mum’s brother – triple Brownlow Medallist Dick Reynolds – was coaching Essendon and invited him down to train, and play a couple of practice games with the Bombers the following year.

“There was a car-load of us and they’ve talked me into going to Luna Park after the practice match……It was 11 o’clock before we left for home, and I’ve ended up rolling my Ford Mainline Ute on the bend at Avenal…..”

“Charlie had ridden at the North Essendon Board Track that night and, coincedentally, found me lying on the road……I thought I was done…”

His progress in recovering from a broken pelvis, and a couple of other injuries, was slow but sure…… he was walking within six weeks……..and was everlastingly grateful to Benalla’s Head Trainer Tim Shanahan.

“He was a marvel that bloke….the best around……He had such a good reputation that half the O & M players came to him for treatment…..They’d offer him a bottle of beer or something, for getting them back on the track….”

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Richie’s family owned one of the three Dairies in Benalla, and he’d left school at 15 to begin a career that lasted more than 50 years.

“It was my life…..I’d start at 1.30am, seven days a week, with a Horse and Cart…..350 houses…..and get back to the Dairy about 7am……..I was running a bloody marathon every day; no wonder I was fit…..”

“Then, on training nights, I’d ride the bike over to the Showgrounds and run a few laps, waiting ‘til the boys arrived.”

But you’d question his fitness when you saw him run onto the ground……His socks would droop down around his ankles, and he looked podgy and overweight….After all, his playing weight was 13 and a half stone, which was more than ample for his 5’8” frame to carry.

No wonder they called him ‘The Tank’……He was a human wrecking-ball when in full flight……

Billy Luck coached the Demons in the year Richie returned from injury…..then was succeeded by ex-Fitzroy winger Vin Williams in 1960.

That was, he reckons, his best year of footy.

He’d spent a month of his holidays doing another pre-season at Essendon. When he returned he was fighting fit….and did it show……The local Menswear store donated a Pelaco shirt for Benalla’s best player each game…..and he won nine of them !…..as well as comfortably winning the Club B & F….

Benalla were hanging precariously to fourth spot – two points ahead of Myrtleford – when they faced the Rovers at the Findlay Oval in Round 18.

The equation was simple….they had to defeat the Hawks, as the Saints were certainties against winless Rutherglen.

In the dying seconds of an exhilarating clash, Benalla booted a goal to reduce the margin to a single kick……As the ball was being relayed back to the centre, the siren blew, and hundreds with their ears glued to 3NE’s coverage could hear a voice in the time-keeper’s box: ‘Oh, No, No….’

The timekeeper had accidentally pressed the button for the final siren, instead of the time-on button…..The game had finished 12 seconds early.

Benalla protested and the match was re-played the following week….This time the Hawks prevailed by eight points…..

In the meantime, the customary Morris Medal vote-count had been conducted following Round 18……. Rovers coach Bob Rose polled two votes in the Demon-Hawk clash, to take out the ‘gong’ by one vote, from Castles.

There was some contention that votes should have been cast for the Re-Play instead of the abandoned game……in which case Castles, who starred in the re-play may have won the Medal.

One journo opined: ‘There are some who feel that Richie Castles has been handed a raw deal.’

Richie quickly moved on from the controversy. He reflected: “I didn’t play for individual awards. It was history, as far as I was concerned…”

He also remembers the re-play for the ‘blue’ that started 20 minutes into the first quarter:

“ ‘Rosy’ had given Terry Putt a short right to the jaw which travelled about six inches….Fortunately for Bob the umpie didn’t see it……He jumped in to soothe things down and asked ‘Rosy’ what had happened……….”I think he fainted’ was his reply…..”

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Dick Reynolds had, by now, taken on the coaching job with SANFL club West Torrens, and Richie headed over to spend a season in Adelaide.

“I lived with Dick and Auntie Jean, in this palatial two-storey mansion, just up from Adelaide Oval….provided by the wealthy Torrens President, Ossie O’Grady….tennis court…maid’s quarters upstairs…the lot.”

“They got me a job at Industrial Springs, on Port Road, but I had to spend four weeks’ residentially qualifying before I was eligible to play,” he says.

“We had a great win over Port Adelaide in the final round, then faced Norwood in the First Semi, in front of 45,000 fans……Unfortunately, we all went bad on the same day…..stage-fright, probably…..”

“I loved the footy over there, but had a blue with the boss at work and told him to ‘stick the job up his arse’, loaded up the ute and drove all the way home…….hit the Shepp Road about 6am on Christmas Day…..”

His timing couldn’t have been better…..Benalla were about to embark on a run which would take them to successive flags…..

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They had a crackerjack combination in ‘62…..well-balanced and adaptable. Strong big men like Ike Kulbars and Terry Putt; key forwards Neil Busse and burly Ian Hughes; defenders Alf Sikora, ‘Dinger’ Langlands and Graeme Lessing and a classy centreline of Brian Bourke, ‘Curly’ Hanlon and Ronnie Hayes……

“We knocked off the Rovers mid-season in one of the first matches that Ken Boyd played for them after returning from disqualification. He was in Benalla selling insurance the following week and called in to the place where my brother Charlie worked. Conversation naturally turned to footy…..”

“He said: ‘Fair dinkum, they had one bloke who couldn’t run because his knees were all bandaged up ( that was Hughsie ) and there was another fat little bloke in the back pocket…….The fellah that couldn’t run, with the bandaged knees, kicked four goals and the fat little prick stopped ten’…. “

“Charlie said: ‘You’re talking about my little brother’….”

“We beat Corowa by a point in a thrilling Second Semi and the Grand Final was a real tight battle all day…….We trailed the Rovers by a couple of goals at half-time, 5 points at three quarter-time, and they still led by 10 points with just a few minutes to play.”

“They’d switched ‘Boydy’ into the ruck and he was giving them plenty, but they were tiring. We slowly gained the ascendency and booted three goals to hit the lead…..I can still see Johnny Hogan snapping the final goal, to seal the game….. The sound of that siren gave me my greatest thrill in football.”

The Demons’ won in more emphatic fashion in 1963, but not before they’d survived a draw against Myrtleford in the Second Semi-Final, won the replay by 6 goals, then awaited a confident Corowa in the Grand Final…

It was still anyone’s game at lemon-time, as the Spiders trailed by just 13 points……But they failed to score in the last quarter, whilst Benalla booted 8.3, to win by 64 points.

The celebrations raged, and Castles, who’d again played a major part, was in the thick of them…..

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Richie says he hasn’t touched a drop of the demon drink for more than 30 years, but more than made up for it when he was playing.

“I’d have one or two, then want to drink the keg……There we’re plenty of times I went on the milk-run still under the weather…….Just as well the horse knew when to stop……How the hell I didn’t fall off I’ll never know…….”

He says he still holds one record, of which he’s not terribly proud…..

“We’d earned a week off after winning the ‘62 Second Semi, and someone donated an ‘18-gallon keg’ which we proceeded to drink after Tuesday night training…….Much, much later, it was decided it’d be a good idea to drive to the Friendlies Oval to see who could record the fastest lap…..”

( Richie had been playing First XI cricket with UFS since he was about 14, so he was familiar with the lay-out of the ground.)

“I was in my Volkswagen and it was as wet as buggery…..we started broadsiding around there….One of the fellahs had winter treads on his Holden, and ran straight up the guts, through the turf wicket…..Johnny Burns, in his blue Customline, got bogged to the boot….”

“The bloke in the railway signal-box dobbed us in……We caused a fair bit of damage and the cops nabbed us……We had to attend the police-station the next day, to have the riot act read to us……”

“Vin Williams ( our coach ) and Charlie Chiswell ( President ) got us out of strife, but we had to pay 100 quid and roll the surface with an old concrete roller…….”

“It’s a wonder you weren’t locked up, “ his wife Margaret quips…..

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Richie had been finding it difficult to combine the milk-run with his footy commitments. He pulled the pin on his career in 1965, aged 25, after 115 terrific games with the Demons.

Instead, he concentrated on his racing Pigeons – a life-time hobby which he only gave up three years ago. He also pre-trained Trotters.

“The pick of them was Madison Square, which I leased to Corowa coach Frank Tuck. He won 8-10 races with it…….When Mum had a stroke the trotters went by the wayside…..

In the mid-eighties his brother-in-law Alan Beaton – a 1963 premiership team-mate – convinced him to coach one of the Under-14 Junior League teams – Benalla Tigers.

“I think they give me the hardest kids to handle…..We won 2 games the first year, then took out the next 2 flags.”

“Geez, some of ‘em were bastards…..but I loved it……If there was mud and slush I’d let ‘em fight in it…..We had one young bloke called ‘Harro’…..He was only about 12; smoked, rode a bike, had a girl on each arm; from a split family….skinny legs and arms….a real candidate for Pentridge, I thought…..But he was respectful to me, and always called me Mr.Cas’”

“Anyway, he disappeared off the scene….I asked his Aunty years later what he was up to….She said: ‘You wouldn’t believe it. He’s up in Queensland, married, with a couple of kids and has his own business, as a Painter and Decorator…..’ “

After retirement, Richie spent a few years on the Benalla committee, and also served as a Selector…..He still enjoys his footy and closely monitors the progress of young fellahs, as they come through the ranks……….

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P.S: When the O & M announced its ‘Team of the Century’ in 2019 Richie Castles was named in the Back Pocket…..He deems it a huge honour to have been included among a group of the finest-ever players to have graced the competition………

” A ONE-EYED VIEW OF THE SEMI……….”

Darcy Wilson was reared in a blue-blooded Rovers family….

His four Grand-parents are Hawk stalwarts………His dad, Mick, and uncles Paul Grenfell, Joe and Andrew Wilson, featured in multiple premierships, as did his mum Michelle, who was a star netballer in her day…..

Their careers were done and dusted well before the 16 year-old saw the light of day, but he would have undoubtedly been dreaming of one day, emulating their heroics in Brown and Gold.

At the 24-minute mark of the last quarter, in Sunday’s riveting First Semi-Final, the opportunity presented itself ……. He pounced on a loose crumb deep in the forward pocket, and snapped truly, across his body, to ice the game for his side………

On a day when inaccuracy was the only thing that marred an otherwise scintillating contest, Hawk fans roared with a mixture of disbelief and delight…………

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PRELUDE

The sides go into the Semi in contrasting form…….Albury, the power combination of the past decade and a half, have been stricken by the injury-stick in the latter portion of the season and have dropped their past four games……..On the other hand, the Rovers have enjoyed a late-season purple-patch, recording four straight wins.

I’m worried about the Tigers, because of their finals expertise ……..but then again, I excruciate over a game of tiddlywinks, so that’s nothing unusual…….What is absolutely crucial, though, is that we get away to a ‘flier’………

Alas, the Tigers are ‘on song’ in the game’s early stages……Their wise ‘old-stagers’, Brayden O’Hara, Jimmy Grills, Michael Duncan, Shaun and Luke Daly and Jake Gaynor have grown a leg and are leading the way – particularly the dynamic O’Hara, who finds the pill and delivers it with the precision of a latter-day Neville Hogan.

My worst fears are realised, as Albury scarp to a 25-point quarter-time lead…..Their leg-speed and pin-point disposal has the Rovers looking ragged.

They’re fumbling and appear overawed…..Their rare treaties forward are met by stout resistance from a defence led by the strong-marking Lucas Conlan and long-haired Jessie Smith.

In fact, the Tigers have taken such a stranglehold that some experts are preparing to declare them ‘certainties’ – as they control proceedings well into the second term. And ominously, the will-o-the-wisp Jeffrey Garlett has produced a couple of magical goals from nowhere.

It’s not that the Hawks haven’t had their chances…….their two key forwards Alex Marklew and Tom Boyd are finding the ball okay, but just can’t locate the big sticks……..3.9 at half-time is enough to shake the confidence of the most optimistic fan…….and make any team-mate queazy when they’re lining up for goal…..

Surely they’ll find the radar after the break, but is the 35-point deficit going to be a bridge too far ?……..

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THE FIGHT-BACK

One of the key figures in the Rovers’ recent spate of form has been the champion No.10, Brodie Filo. You get the feeling that if they’re to mount any sort of a come-back, he’ll be the bloke to inspire them.

He showed, at the opening bounce, what he’s capable of, as he craftily read the fall of the ball, broke clear, and pumped the ball into attack.

Now, with the game on the verge of slipping out of control, he’s just the man to provide the spark…..

The Hawks have obviously received a good dressing-down at the break…….they come out full of intent, and monopolise play in the early stages of the third term.

In an inspired move, ‘Crezza’ has shifted Sam Murray into the engine-room……he responds by breaking clear from the centre with his usual dash and pumps the ball forward several times……..

But still, the boys in Brown and Gold can’t convert…..The majority of the play is in their forward 50 for the first six-or-so minutes, but their reward is four straight points.

And, to rub salt into the wound, Albury relay the Sherrin downfield with a chain of passes…..it’s O’Hara to Shaun Daly, back to O’Hara; then the elusive Garlett gets his foot to one in a goal-square scrimmage…..Goal.

What’s even more heart-wrenching is that the Hawks respond with another two near-misses……they’ve now kicked eight behinds on the trot……It has become contagious, and 3.15 is disastrous result for the increased pressure that they’re now applying.

But is the tide about to turn…… ?

The unobtrusive, but effective, Todd Bryant fires a pass to Tom Boyd, who’s 35-metres out, directly in front. What a sure pair hands the boy from Nathalia possesses.

But have the gremlins taken hold of him ?……After all, he’s had six shots at goal, for five points and one complete-miss.

He cautiously lines up…….. Hawk fans hold their collective breath………Big Tom nails it…..!

Shortly after, Filo, who is in everything, is awarded a free kick, which he converts, for a major……Then Sam Allen, one of several youngsters who are now right in the thick of things, receives a free kick….and a 50-metre penalty, to be lined up straight in front of goal…….It’s now 10.8 to 6.15………the margin has been whittled to 17 points…….

The Rovers are on the charge.

Sam Murray takes the ball under his arm and, with a head full of steam, darts away from another scrimmage. He’s irrepressible when he’s in a mood like this, but the umpie pulls him up for running something like 25 metres.

Jacob Conlan, the match-winning forward, who has also suffered a bout of the yips today, is the recipient of the resultant pass…..Tall Jace McQuade has worn the Riverina lad like a blanket today, but this time he kicks an important major for the Tigers, to stop the rot.

But soon after, Ryan Stone marks strongly, explodes from a pack and nails the reply. After an injury-plagued season, the classy forward has turned in his two best games in successive finals.

What a contest it has developed into…..Only 18 points seperate the combatants and the Hawks must now rate themselves a fair chance of overhauling the Tigers, as the team’s congregate for the lemon-time break…….

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THE FINAL STANZA

There’s plenty for the highlights package in this final term for the ages.

Momentum has certainly swing in favour of the Rovers, but Albury’s many stars are not going to die wondering.

Shaun Daly, who did such a fine stopping job on Yarrawonga’s brilliant Leigh Masters last week, has been swung onto Sam Murray. The veteran has called time on a stellar career, which began at Corowa-Rutherglen, continued to Queensland and has included seven flags with the Tigers.

He’ll be giving everything in a bid to curb the Hawk danger-man.

The tackling is ferocious and the heat is certainly on……Only a minute or so into the quarter, Todd Bryant flips a handpass over to a flying Filo, who dodges a couple of opponents and snaps a left-foot goal…….13 points the difference.

Now it’s Albury’s turn to miss the targets that they were nailing early. Brayden O’Hara is astray with three shots at goal……He’s also caught high, plays on and finds the classy left-footer, Riley Bice……another minor score.

Then Bice receives a free kick for a blocking offence…….He’s 30-metres out, virtually straight in front, but misses again.

A fine player Bice, but he’s kicked four straight points from his 21 disposals today.

Tom Boyd redeems himself for his early discrepancies in front of goal by booting a couple of majors – the second comes after a slick Alex Marklew handpass.

The margin has now been whittled to four points. The game is right in the balance and excitement is at fever-pitch when Marklew gathers another handball.

Who’s there or thereabouts ? ………Filo, of course…….He motors past and kicks the goal that puts the Hawks in front for the first time, at the 20-minute mark of the last quarter.

With the pill deep in defence for Albury, a couple of minutes later, a Tiger defender assesses his options, kicks optimistically to a contest across goal, and Darcy Wilson’s dreams come true………he snaps the major and team-mates come from everywhere to congratulate him……….His side has now crept out to an 11-point break.

But it’s it over yet…….

Not to be outdone, Albury push forward again and Jeff Garlett caps a good day at the office by kicking his fourth.

The Tigers are coming………they continue to attack, the Hawks desperately defend……..the final siren signals the end of a monumental contest, as a dozen players are scrambling for possession of the bobbling footy……….

WANGARATTA ROVERS: 12. 20. ( 92 ) d ALBURY 12. 15 ( 87 )

Best: ROVERS: Brodie Filo, Jayden Bear, Raven Jolliffe, Sam Murray, Todd Bryant, Sam Murray, Ryan Stone.ALBURY: Brayden O’Hara, Fletcher Carroll, Jeff Garlett, Luke Daley, Riley Bice, Lucas Conlan.

” SAINTS VERSUS HAWKS – RE-VISITING A CLASSIC……….”

Myrtleford and Wangaratta Rovers meet in a Final on Sunday for the first time in 38 years…….’On Reflection takes you back to that First Semi-Final of 1984; a match that typifies the rivalry of two proud clubs.…..

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The persistent rainfall of late-winter has given way to a delightfully sunny spring day………….They’ve come down from the hills in droves for the clash between the Saints and Hawks, at the Norm Minns Oval…….

The two old foes have endured a love-hate relationship since well before they were jointly admitted to the Ovens and Murray Football League in 1950………Their rivalry stepped up a notch when they met in successive O & K Grand Finals…..The Rovers celebrated wildly after their triumph in 1948, but the Saints delighted in turning the tables the following year…..

The most memorable of their four previous O & M Finals meetings came in the 1970 Grand Final, at this very same venue…….History was in the making………In a ‘battle for the ages’, spiced with niggles galore, the Hawks held a comfortable lead at three quarter-time, only to be reined in by the never-say-die Saints, whose fans celebrated like there was no tomorrow……..

In the late-seventies, well-meaning officials struck a Perpetual Shield, commemorating two long-serving Presidents, for competition between the Clubs……….After one spiteful encounter five years later, emotions spilled over and the Maroney-Ablett Shield was banished to a store-room – never again to be exposed to the light of day…..

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In fairytale fashion, Myrtleford rose from second-bottom to become the glamour team of 1983…..The recruitment of Gary Ablett helped, as did the arrival of new coach Greg Nicholls, from Ainslie, via Geelong…..They played off in the Prelim Final, but in the aftermath suffered substantial player losses and were expected to come back to the pack in ‘84.

Peter Ruscuklic, the former Fitzroy and Geelong forward, who achieved fame by kicking successive tallies of 136, 156 and 213 goals in the Sydney Football League, ( and had won the 1983 Doug Strang Medal in his first O & M season) inherited the Saints’ coaching job from Nicholls………..They snuck into the Five by a mere two points from fast-finishing Yarrawonga and Lavington.

The Hawks, meanwhile, reacted to a disappointing ‘83 season by recruiting strongly. One of their coups was a VFA champion, Laurie Burt, from Coburg.

Built like a Sherman Tank, and a renowned in-and-under player, Burt made an immediate impression; as did Robert Perry, a stylish key position player, who was studying Law at Melbourne University and couldn’t spare the time to continue his fledgling career at Collingwood.

Additionally, big Gerald McCarthy, after a quiet first season in Brown and Gold, hit his straps.

McCarthy had started his VFL sojourn at Hawthorn, before being involved in a straight swap with a promising Fitzroy mid-fielder, Terry Wallace. He played most of his 150 VFL games in defence, but Rovers non-playing coach John Welch swung him into the ruck in ‘84, with immediate effect………

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The Hawks were right on song for the first two-thirds of the home-and-away rounds……..With an 11-1 record, and perched well clear on top, they were the raging flag favourites.

But when the rain tumbled down in July, so did their air of invincibility. They lost four of their next six games to limp into the finals……then allowed North Albury to kick 24.16 in registering a 38-point win in the Qualifying Final.

On the other hand, despite errant kicking in the Elimination Final, Myrtleford gained considerable confidence when they scraped to a 12.24 96) to 14.9 (93) win over Yarrawonga…….

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The Hawks took a gamble at the selection table by including ruck-rover Mark Booth for the Semi. He’d been under a cloud for several weeks. The move backfired when the experienced campaigner, after kicking an early goal, left the ground with a groin injury in the first quarter.

Another of their veterans, Andrew Scott, was ‘playing with’carrying’ a painful foot complaint and was parked at full forward. Despite the injury, and in typically courageous fashion, he was destined to have a major influence on the game.

The Rovers opened brilliantly and darted away to a handy four-goal lead by quarter-time. Greg O’Keeffe and youngster Shawn Dennis were magnificent on their wings and Neville Pollard’s run from defence and long, raking kicks were a feature.

The Saints whittled the margin away, as Freddie Baldori and forwards Dale and Darren Holmes continually came under notice. But, try as they might, the underdogs found difficulty in finding the big sticks.

High-flying centre half forward Russell France and coach Ruscuklic were dominating the airways, and energetic rover Terry Burgess was in the action……However, their deplorable kicking was keeping the Hawks in the game.

France, the former Prahran star took 13 marks, yet finished with 1.8 for the match. Ruscuklic, on the other hand, was at his uncanny best, juggling several freak marks and kicking seven goals.

By three quarter-time Myrtleford had valiantly fought their way back into the contest. They held a slender eight-point lead………The stage was set for an exciting run home.

The thrilling contest was to keep the large crowd on tenterhooks and leave the players emotionally and physically drained…..

Coach Welch took a gamble when he moved Scott onto the ball early in the final term. He rose to the challenge as only he could, scouting the packs like a rover, and fighting for possession with tenacity……..

The Rovers bridged the initial gap, and fortunes ebbed and flowed, before goals to Dale Holmes and Burgess put Myrtleford 12 points up at the 24-minute mark.

The little maestro was in everything, and had a few other opportunities to kick goals during the last term. But the Hawk defence exerted just enough pressure to ensure near-misses….

Mark Frawley was another Hawk who lifted a notch when it counted….He cruised the ground with great anticipation and his marking and long-kicking were a feature of his strong display.

As the time-clock edged into time-on the Hawks managed to gain the upper-hand, with stalwarts Leigh Hartwig, Greg O’Keefe and Barrie Cook fighting tooth-and-nail to maintain possession.

Finally, in the dying seconds, a cool pass by 19 year-old Peter Watson to Scott gave the old champ a chance for glory…….

He kicked truly for his fourth…….. The Hawks were home by a solitary point……..

Wang. Rovers: 5.5, 8.8, 9.9 , 13.12 (90)

Myrtleford: 1.5, 5.10, 9.17, 11.23 (89)

Goals: Rovers: A.Scott 4, M.Frawley 3, M.Booth 1, G.McCarthy 1, R.Perry 1, S.Dennis 1, L.Burt 1, G.O’Keeffe 1.

Myrtleford:.P.Ruscuklic 7, R.France 1, Dale Holmes 1, F.Baldori 1, B.Garoni 1.

Best: Rovers: M.Frawley, G.O’Keeffe, S.Dennis, R.Perry, L.Burt, A.Scott, N.Pollard, S.Baird.

Myrtleford: F.Baldori, I.Wales, P.Ruscuklic, R.France, Dale Holmes, T.Burgess, B.Garoni.

Estimated Attendance: 4,750

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THE AFTERMATH

# The Rovers were bundled out of the finals the following week, when Wodonga defeated them in the Preliminary Final: 16.22 to 6.21.

# The Saints fell to the bottom of the ladder the following year, winning just 2 games. Peter Ruscuklic moved on and was replaced by former Rovers star Norm Bussell, who was non-playing coach.

# Terry Burgess finally achieved his dream of an O & M premiership in 1990, with Wodonga.

# Four Rovers players: Merv Holmes, Andrew Scott, Mark Booth and Laurie Burt, were laterInducted to the O & M Hall of Fame.

# Burt took over as coach of the Rovers in 1987, and is recognised as one of the Club’s greatestmentors, taking them to flags in 1988, ‘91, ‘93 and ‘94.

# Ian Wales is the current Myrtleford Football Club President.

# Myrtleford rover Darren Handley was recruited to Collingwood in 1986. He played 12 gameswith the Magpies and later, 10 games with Fitzroy.

# Sean O’Keeffe, Daine Porter, Tyson Hartwig, Hugh and Elijah Wales, Sam Martyn , Mitch and Darcy Booth are present-day O & M players whose fathers were involved in the Semi-Final.

# Shawn Dennis abandoned his football career to concentrate on his first love – Basketball. Heplayed 10 seasons in the NBL before starting an illustrious coaching career. He has coached in the NBL,, in New Zealand and Japan for the past 29 years. He is currently coach of Japanese side Nagoya Dolphins.

# Four months after starring in the Semi, Greg O’Keeffe achieved his most memorable sporting achievement when he ‘ran the house down’ to take out the prestigious Wangaratta Gift, infront of an adoring home crowd. He appeared in the Gift Final five times in his lengthy athletic career.

“THE SPORT-MAD KID WHO MADE THE GRADE……….”

Tony Fisher was a sporting prodigy of the sensational seventies……….

At the age of 17 he already had three seasons of A-Grade WDCA cricket under his belt…….had represented Victorian Country in Basketball……and was an irresistible junior football talent – that is, when he wasn’t tearing around bush tracks on his motor-bike……..

His mum Shirley recalls his Galen College teacher, Br. Gerard, stating the obvious at a parent/ teacher interview: “I’ll put Tony on a pedestal for sport…..but knock him off it for anything else…..”

Then again, the Fisher siblings were all blessed with talent…….The eldest , Peter, was a more than handy footballer, and Tony’s four sisters – Leanne, Kathy, Jane and Jackie – wore the country ‘Big V’ in Under-Age National Basketball Carnivals……..

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Their dad, Jimmy, was one of those real characters you come across in sport. He played footy for the Rovers and Greta and, at the tail-end of his long career, took on the coaching job at North Wangaratta.

North were battling along in the Benalla & District League at this stage, and one of the long treks they used to undertake was to play at Tatong, in the rain, hail and fog.

“Apparently snow also fell at half-time in this particular game,” Tony says. “Visibility was poor and conditions were appalling, but North snuck home in the dying minutes to record their second win of the season……Dad took the boys to the Tatong pub to celebrate, but unfortunately it was closing early that night because of a wedding ….”

“They scored an invite to the wedding, had supper, then went back to the pub, and continued on ‘til all hours…..”

“Overwhelmed by the hospitality of the locals, they arrived home on Tuesday…..”

Jimmy kept wickets for Greta until he was in his late fifties, and Tony remembers his parents dragging the 6 kids along to games ever since he could crawl.

“I started taking my gear when I was 10 or 11, in the hope that the opposition might be short and could need a ‘sub’ in the field.

“I was in the deep one day (subbing for West End, I think) when John Tanner skied a pull shot…..I ran around, dived, and caught it on the boundary……..That was the end of me fielding against Greta…..”

‘Nirvana’ for Jimmy, was relaxing after a game, over several quiet ales and sharing tall tales and true with team-mates like Tanner, Max ‘Pigsy’ Newth, Richie Shanley and ‘Jackie’ Corker.

“It was cut-short one night when someone mentioned that a few ducks had been sighted on a nearby dam…..That was enough for Dad…..He grabbed his gun out of the car, and started to head off with ‘Newthy’…

“Mum complained in vain: ‘You can’t go….the kids have got school in the morning…”

“She got up the next day, looked out of the kitchen window, and here’s Dad fossicking around in the garden, still in his mud-splattered whites……She’s never found out, to this day, how he got home….”

“He always reckoned that was the only day he ever made a duck and shot a duck……”

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At 14, Tony played junior cricket with United on Saturday mornings, lined up with their senior side in the afternoon, then stripped with Greta – alongside his Dad and elder brother in the Sunday competition.

He was a right-arm quickie and dashing left-hand bat, and has the distinction of winning the WDCA’s inaugural junior Cricketer of the Year Award in 1975/76. He also guided United to the flag, with 108 and 5/27 in the Final.

On the same week-end, his 8/46 helped Greta win a WSCA Semi…….

His arrival in senior ranks could have been better-timed, as United’s unprecedented run of dominance was drawing to a close…… he missed the opportunity to share in an A-Grade flag. As a tireless youngster, he bowled with pace and accuracy, and could swing the ball both ways – often in tandem with wily left-armer Geoff Welch.

His blood boiled over against the Rovers one day, however…..

Tim Carr had nudged along into the nineties and was seeing the ball like a water-melon…..In exasperation, he ran in and bowled one ball left-handed to the unsuspecting right-hander…

“ Tim said to old Freddie Larkin, the umpire: ‘Did you see that ?’…… Freddie gave me a nice old serve…”

“Geoff Welch was a big help to me in my cricket…….In fact, he and Geoff Lacey, who was my first football coach, were the two greatest influences on my sporting career….”

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At this stage, with his involvement in cricket, basketball and motor-bikes he hadn’t given much thought to football…..His cousin, Russell Harris, suggested: ‘Why don’t you come out to Greta and see how you go ?”

“I played my first game in the 2’s……For two quarters……. then they ripped me off and put me in the Seniors….I really enjoyed it…….once I got into it I took to it like a duck to water…”

He was going on 18, and played the remainder of the season, as Greta stormed into the Grand Final.

“We had a terrific side – Paul O’Brien had returned from the Rovers; Dessy Steele was still starring….we had ‘Gunner’ Williams, Barry Tanner, Geoff Lacey was a brilliant leader, and there was a fella called Leigh Candy, who virtually walked in off the street….”

“He was an off-beat sort of bloke….He’d come in at half-time and smoke a pipe……but he was an absolute ripper….”

“He didn’t get a touch early in the Grand Final….. I remember ‘Lace’ dressing him down, and he replied : ‘My yings and my yangs are not working properly……..’Lace’ said: ‘Well get your yings and yangs in line.”

“He did just that; kicked five goals after half-time and we knocked Whorouly over by 29 points…..The only problem for me was that I got rubbed out for a couple of weeks for striking Alan ‘Cocker’ McNeil….”

Geoff Lacey suggested that Tony would ‘walk’ into Ovens and Murray footy…….So he went in to have do a pre-season with Wangaratta, and performed well in three practice matches.

The Pies were keen to test him in the Reserves when the season got under way, but Greta were adamant – they’d only supply Match Permits if he played Seniors.

He decided to stay at Greta but, as luck would have it, missed the majority of the season with Glandular Fever………

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Basketball played a huge part in the lives of the Fisher clan……Tony’s arrival on the scene came at a time when the game was possibly at its peak in Wangaratta.

“The ring in the backyard at home used to get a decent work-out and the girls were mad-keen…….It was our life……I started at Hustlers, moved on to Gotsims, (where he won a competition B & F), then coached Wranglers when I was about 20…..”

“A car-load of us – Ronnie Graham, Phil Dent, Rod Orton, Steve Harries, Greg Canny and myself – used to travel up to play in the Myrtleford comp each Wednesday night……called ourselves the Myrtleford Tigers…”

The friendships he formed with several Myrtleford footballers who were also involved, influenced Tony’s decision to play with the Saints in 1982.

“They lined up a job for me with Myrtleford Tyre and Battery and I lived up there. I had a terrific time at Myrtleford. The guys were so tight and the families really looked after us,” he says.

The highlight, no doubt, was his second season, when the Cinderella Saints came from second-bottom to almost pinch a Grand Final spot.

They were helped, of course, by the recruitment of Gary Ablett a couple of rounds into the ‘83 season…..

“We’d heard whispers about him coming, but it was a fantastic atmosphere when he turned up at training for the first time….”

“I remember his first game, on the Rovers’ ground……A few minutes in, our coach Greg Nicholls was poised for a mark at centre half forward, when Gazza climbed all over his back to take a screamer….”

“Next minute Greg yelled out to the runner, Sam Holmes: ‘Sam….Sam..get out here…Ablett to the centre…..I don’t want him on my bloody back all day….”

“He kicked a goal that they still talk about, from 80 metres out, to help us beat North Albury in the First Semi….”

The Saints trailed by 22 points with seven minutes remaining when the Ablett heroics unfolded. They took the game out by 4 points.

The following week, a battle-royal with Albury unfolded . Ablett was again the dynamo in a tough, spiteful clash.

“It’d been close all day….But the turning-point came when one of the Doolan’s ( who was injured and wasn’t playing) ran out and clocked a Myrtleford player. We lost concentration after that, and went down narrowly,” Tony recalls.

“It was a hell of a side….Bobby McNamara, ‘Chad’ Light, Terry Burgess, Ablett, Peter Ruscuklic and Greg Nicholls all represented the O & M…and Burgess won the Medal….”

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Tony was lured to Canberra the following year, signing on with Ainslie ( Greg Nicholls’ old club), and working with the Electricity Authority, laying underground cables.

Canberra footy suited his game and he starred, playing as a winger, or centreman. He was best-afield in ACT’s inter-state clash against the Mick Nolan-coached Queensland, in Brisbane, but unfortunately, sustained a stress fracture of the lower-back late in the ‘84 season…..He missed Ainslie’s flag triumph.

“A few of us got together the following summer and got ourselves really fit. That, and playing A-Grade cricket with Norths, had me really prepared……I think I played probably the best footy of my career in 1985,” he says.

He again represented the ACT, finished runner-up in Ainslie’s B & F, and the League’s Mulrooney Medal, which helped ease the disappointment of being narrowly beaten by Queanbeyan in the Grand Final…..

Collingwood came knocking, with an invitation to do a pre-season, but Tony and Dianne weren’t keen on heading to Melbourne…….instead, they landed in Adelaide, and he signed with the reigning SANFL premiers, the Graham Cornes-coached Glenelg.

“They were a really settled side……Chris McDermott had the centre tied-up, and Tony Symons and David Kernahan were the incumbent wingers……..It was hard to break into that line-up…..”

“You’d be picking up 30 possessions a week and thinking: ‘Maybe I’m a chance next week….But next week never came…”

He played a handful of senior games, but spent most of his two seasons in the Reserves side, coached by ex-Essendon star Geoff Blethyn.

“We became really good mates, and started up ‘Toil & Soil’ in Adelaide……Then Di and I went out on own, carting rocks out of the Adelaide Hills.”

Tony’s final two seasons of footy in Adelaide were spent with Southern Association club McLaren Vale……….

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When the Fisher’s headed back to Wangaratta, there were dreams of a nostalgic return to Greta, who were now in the hands of his brother-in-law Robbie Richards, and good mate Brett Keir.

But it wasn’t to be….He played two Reserves games, ‘did’ a Driver muscle and that was it. His career was over…….

Tony had brought his Bobcat and Equipment over from Adelaide, and he, Robbie and Len Richards set up Toil & Soil in Wangaratta.

“We did that for two years….Then I came home one night and said to Di: ‘Come on….Let’s pack the bags….we’re going around Australia……Destination Darwin….”

They lived in Darwin for 10 years….Tony worked for a travel company, Billy Can Tours, for a good while, then went out-bush, building camps and working with the indigenous…..”It was great…..I saw country that a lot of white people had never been to……..” he says.

On their arrival home in 2007, they bought a farm at Myrrhee, and Tony began his present job, working with Brown Brothers, at Banksdale……..They also purchased the Milawa Bakery in 2008, which they still operate.

He’s done alright, this sport-mad kid, whose teachers reckoned, was on a path to nowhere………….