"THE MAN BEHIND THE STORY OF THE SAINTS' 1970 GLORY……'

The idea dawned upon him in a light-bulb moment……

He’d always been keen to write a book on footy; convinced that it was just a matter of waiting for the right subject to bob up…….Then he twigged……Heck, it’s coming up 50 years since Myrtleford won their only O & M flag…..It seemed an ideal scenario to sink his teeth into……

So David Johnston got to work ….

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‘Jonno’ has spent more than a year crafting ‘1970 – The Year Of The Saints’.

What began originally, as a straight-out football book, morphed into a social history of the buoyant small town of that era, whose entire population got behind the footballers and rejoiced in a long-awaited Premiership.

“I’ve been around to witness the heartbreak that Myrtleford have endured since, in losing those three Grand Finals in the early 2000’s. I appreciate how hard it is for smaller clubs to compete against clubs from the bigger areas,” he says.

“After they lost the last one, in 2006, you sensed that their window of opportunity had passed them by. The downturn came when they lost 62 successive games between 2007-‘10.”

“But their comeback last year was exhilarating . Several sons of former players were among the team’s stars. The core of the side was – and still is – basically local. They won only the second Third 18 flag in the club’s history.”

“Everything seemed to be jelling nicely. ”

What an ideal time to tell a fairytale story………….

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You won’t find many more isolated places than Swift’s Creek, ‘Jonno’s’ home town.

It’s situated on the Great Alpine Road in East Gippsland – roughly 380km from Melbourne…..A timber town of 350. His dad ran a Beef and Sheep farm near Omeo before recently retiring.

His brother Ron is now on the family property and has just came through a bad bushfire season. People were air-lifted off the Omeo football ground in ADF helicopters on one of its most severe days.

“ When I was growing up there was no commercial TV or radio. We’d only get the ABC……And if a storm went through the hills, the power would be off for two days.”

“We’d often travel to our aunty’s place at Bruthen (about an hour away) to watch World of Sport on Sundays. That was one of the highlights of our week-end. But I wouldn’t trade all of that for quids,” he says.

He fell in love with footy as a young fan of the Swift’s Creek Demons, who were always among the top teams in the Omeo & District Football League. The ODFL once comprised four teams and later expanded to six when Bruthen and Buchan were admitted in the mid-70’s. In more recent times Lindenow South and Swan Reach came in.

The comp’s been going, in one shape or form, since 1893, and Dave embraced its ranks when he began playing in the Under 16’s.

Then he moved on to the Bairnsdale Under 18’s (he was attending local Nagle College) and achieved what he deems the highlight of his modest footy career – as a member of the 1986 Thirds’ premiership side.

“The year before (‘85) we weren’t much good, but a few talented kids ( like Jon Ballantyne, who later played with Footscray and Collingwood) came on board in ‘86. I was very lucky to get a game.”

But the boys were entitled to celebrate their flag. They’d sometimes be up at 5am on match-day to travel to the furthest destination – Leongatha or Warragul.

When Dave headed off for a year of University, he fulfilled an ambition by travelling back to play with the Swift’s Creek seniors, coached by the town’s publican, ex-North Melbourne player, Michael Gaudion.

His first job in Journalism came when he scored a Cadetship with the Bairnsdale Advertiser..

Next stop was a job with the Gippsland Times, at Sale. He covered sport, and was mentored by two champion fellahs ( and outstanding sportsmen in their own right) in Kevin Hogan and Blair Campbell.

“Once they realised you were interested they took you under their wing,” he says. “Sport was always the thing I wanted to gravitate to. I was in my element. I combined that with being Publicity Officer for the Latrobe Valley Football League.”

After moving on to spend three years covering sport at the Ballarat Courier, a further opportunity presented itself at The Border Mail. He’d only recently married Liz, in January 1995, and his initial opportunity came as the paper’s Racing Editor, covering every meeting throughout the North-East and Southern Riverina, from Benalla to Berrigan

Then, when Simon Dulhunty stepped aside at the end of the 1996 footy season, he was thrust into the role of chief football writer.

The Border’s coverage of the O & M was ‘must’ reading. Win a game on Saturday and eager fans would hardly be able to wait for Monday’s edition to hit the shops, to pore over the full details of the round. Double-page spreads…. spectacular photos….regular features.

Added to that, the League was flying in rep footy; there were ample personalities and no scarcity of controversies.

“I had a bit of luck, being new to the job, and with the O & M so successful in rep footy. I used to go to training… go away to cover all the rep games….That helped me get to know people…..You developed contacts with every club.”

“Nowadays, the Internet has changed everything. I love print but understand there are more and more eyeballs making the transition to digital. You’ve just got to go with it………”

Not that it was all beer and skittles during ‘Jonno’s’ 11-year reign as chief football writer.

“I copped plenty of ‘serves’ in my time,” he says. “Some coaches, like Tim Sanson, Richard Bence and Paul Spargo weren’t easy to get along with. But you’re not doing your job if you don’t cop the occasional ‘roast ‘.

“I thought I was in real trouble one night, at the end of a Morris Medal count at the SS & A Club, when I came face-to-face with a coach whom I hadn’t had the best rapport with all year.”

“I owe a North Albury official at the time a large debt of gratitude for defusing a potentially tricky situation.”

“Of course, Albury people were always happy to let you know whenever you’d made a ‘blue’, or if they won when you hadn’t tipped them in the paper that day. Nothing has changed…….”

“It’s interesting to look back, though…in that period, between 1997 and 2008, every team played in a Grand Final……..”

“I loved my time covering sport. I’ve been lucky enough to cover an Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, and major race meetings in Melbourne, like the Melbourne Cup and Cox Plate”

In the eleven or so years since, Dave has moved into General Journalism, with a particular focus on politics. But he’s retained an avid interest in the League, either through broadcasting stints with OAK-FM, doing match reports, and as a foundation member of the O & M League’s Hall of Fame selection panel.

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With the seeds of his first book planted firmly in his head, he roughly outlined its structure.

Only four of the 20 players from Myrtleford’s 1970 premiership – Kevin Smith, Pat Quirk, Terry Burgess Snr and Bob Crisp – had passed on.

His first interview was with the coach, Martin Cross.

“We yakked for two hours and didn’t even get around to the Grand Final,” he recalls.

He spoke to fellahs like Johnny Bianco, a local boy who ended up playing just six senior games with the Saints before teaching took him around the state. He’s always remembered, though, for the part he played in the premiership…

And there was Graeme Ward, whose career as a stock agent with Elders-GM had seen him strip with Albury, Corowa and Golden Square. He represented both the Bendigo and O & M Leagues in a brilliant career, before spending the best eight years of his footy life with Myrtleford……..

Once he started interviewing the surviving players Dave found all of them had an absorbing tale to tell. They were in good shape, as were other sources, Jimmy Mattassoni, who was Treasurer…..and club stalwart Ken ‘Kanga’ Johnston (the Secretary)……

“ Tobacco was big at that time. Myrtleford was booming…… There were Hospital extensions….houses being built everywhere…Lake Buffalo had just been constructed.”

“The Crisp boys, and Derek Taylor were drawn to the area. Those guys moved to Myrtleford in the ‘60’s, formed a building business, and never left. They became an vital part of the Football Club…..and the town.

Dave devoted two chapters to VFL-zoning, which was in vogue. He caught up with revered North Melbourne administrator – and recruiting ‘guru’ – Ron Joseph, who was a central figure in a stream of O & M players heading to the ‘Roos’ during this era.

The most prominent was Sam Kekovich, who was mythically swept off the training track at McNamara Reserve mid-way through 1968 and took out North’s B & F the following season.

Joseph also nominated the O & M players he missed out on – Stan Sargeant ( “could have kicked a VFL ‘ton”), George Tobias, Neville Hogan and John Smith – as certainties to have played League football.

Myrtleford’s pre-flag history, since their admission to the O & M ( 1950 – 1969 ), was also touched upon.

“The Saints had some excellent sides, and could have won a couple of premierships during the sixties. Then again, luck definitely played its part in the flag they did win……..”

“For instance, Wodonga champ Brian Gilchrist breaks a leg in the second last game of the 1970 season, to slightly expose the Bulldogs…..After 27 successive wins, the Rovers pip them in the Second-Semi Final.”

“Then Wodonga charge back after surrendering a fair deficit to Myrtleford in the Prelim….. Gary Williamson has a late shot which could recapture the lead in the dying seconds. The Saints hang on…..And the climax !…The Rovers take a handy 19-point lead into the last quarter of the Grand Final……Yet again, Myrtleford prevail…….”

“The pipe-dream was that Myrtleford could go on and repeat the feats of 1970 this season,” says ‘Jonno’. “But footy fairytales don’t come around too often, do they ?……..”

N.B: This week, his labour of love: ‘1970 – The Year Of The Saints’, becomes available to the public.

It hits the shelves of the following Booksellers: Edgar’s Newsagents, Wangaratta; Mahoney’s Newsagency, Wodonga, News Xpress, Myrtleford, and Dymock’s Albury. Orders can be placed at email: davidandliz5 @bigpond.com.au Cost: $30.

“…..I’LL HAVE YOU KNOW, I INVENTED THE BLIND-TURN………”

I’ve just spent a couple of laughter-filled hours talking sport with a delightful old couple from Swinburne Drive.

He’s a former South Melbourne champ ; she’s his trusty side-kick. His memory is reasonable-enough, but whenever he falters with a name from the past, she’s there to fill the missing link. Or warn him not to over-embellish some of the yarns he’s telling.

You’d have to be of my vintage – or beyond – to be vaguely familiar with the name Eddie Lane.

In the halcyon days of the fifties , when you’d fork out a penny ha’penny for a Coles ‘special’, or dive into the Kornies cereal box for the complimentary footy swap-card, Eddie’s was one of the most sought-after.img_2722

He was dealt a rough deal about 36 years ago, when he contracted Retinitis. It’s left him completely blind, but with his wife Margaret at his side they still manage to find the bright side of life.

That’s the way it has always been……….

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They grew up across the road from one another in Albert Park. He’s six years older, but Margaret was mates with one of his sisters and they inevitably hooked up.

Marg’s grandfather, Jack Hudson, was a long-term Head Trainer for South Melbourne, Victoria and the Australian Test team. The Swans were part of her family’s DNA.

Eddie played with both his junior team, South Colts, and Amateur club South Districts on week-ends. When he arrived at the Lake Oval in 1951, he was a ready-made player.

It was the dream of every lad in the area to turn out for their beloved Bloods. They didn’t enjoy a lot of success in this era but boasted a few individual stars of the calibre of Billy Williams, Jim Taylor, Bill Gunn, Jimmy Dorgan and Ron Clegg.

Along with a couple of his brothers, Eddie scored a job on the wharves. Most of his work-mates were dyed-in-the-wool Swans and made sure he didn’t expend too much energy, particularly on the eve of a game.

If he was rostered on night shift of a Friday night, for example, they would tell him to make himself scarce and find a quiet spot to have a snooze.

He stood just 168cm, but was clever, courageous and dynamite around goals. South had spent years around the lower-reaches of the ladder, but rose dramatically in 1952. Eddie personally had enjoyed a fine season.

All that was required to clinch a finals berth was to knock over Footscray at the Western Oval in the final round. But the Dogs proved too strong and South lamented one of their worst performances of the season. They missed the finals, just two points behind fourth-placed Carlton.

In the aftermath, the club relieved key forward Gordon ‘Whopper’ Lane (no relation) of the coaching job. He had been a fine coach, in Eddie’s opinion, but some committee-men were keen to move him on.

“There was always a bit of politics going on at the club. The coaching position was a revolving-door for a few years,” he says.

Eddie took out the club Best & Fairest in 1954 and finished equal third in the Brownlow Medal. But he regards the following season as his best in Red and White.

The interstate selectors obviously thought so too, as he was named in the squad of 21 to travel by train to Adelaide in mid-season.

“The night before the game they announced the side and I was the one to miss out. One of the officials plonked a schooner in front of me and said: ‘Here, Ed, seeing as you’re not playing, you may as well wrap your hands around this.”

“I was 26 and had never touched the grog, but thought it’d be polite to drink it. Then they followed with a few more and I had the staggers.”

“You wouldn’t believe it, a while later Essendon’s Jack Clarke tripped on the front steps of the pub and sprained his ankle. So the officials have dragged me under the shower to try and sober me up.”

Margaret, his fiancée at this stage, listened in to the game on the wireless the next day, and heard the commentators describe ‘a goal booted by the lively Lane” in the final quarter, unaware of the circumstances behind his unique interstate debut with the ‘big V’.

The Vics won, 15.11 to 9.10, and celebrated heartily on the return train journey. Margaret was proudly waiting at the station, but couldn’t track Eddie down.

“I went home to mum’s house. I said ‘Something must have happened to Ed. I can’t locate him.”

” ‘They dropped him off here. He’s in bed, drunk,” Mum replied’.

Eddie reckons that, although he was a slow starter on the grog, he caught up pretty quickly.

South finished tenth in 1955, but, come the night of the Brownlow count, he was tipped as the favourite. The word had been out for quite a while that he was the ‘hot’ chance.

“I was working that night and a lot of the boys on the wharf were gathered around the wireless, listening to the count. I was called away for a while and just got back to catch the dulcet tones of 3AW’s Norman Banks announcing, ‘…………..from South Melbourne is the winner of the 1955 Brownlow Medal.’ ”

” ‘You bloody beauty’, I said under my breath………Lo and behold, our full back Freddie Goldsmith became the only full back in history to take it out. No one rated him at all. I ended up fourth, equal with Denis Cordner of Melbourne and Carlton’s young Johnny James.

It was an era when League stars were being lured to the bush with the offer of attractive coaching jobs. The Coulter Law dictated that all VFL players were on a standard payment of 7 pounds a game.

“Bairnsdale came down and offered a bit over 20 quid a week. That was good money at the time, so I decided to leave South.”

Eddie had played 99 games and booted 130 goals in his six years with the Swans. They awarded him a Life Membership on his departure.

He had a bit of success in his four years at the helm of the Bairnsdale Redlegs, then took charge at neighbouring Lindenow for another three. They dubbed him the ‘Mayor of Lindenow’. “Some of the best years of my footy life,” he reckons.

When they returned to the city, his original club, South Districts, chased him up and offered him the coaching job. After another three enjoyable years he decided it was time to hang up the boots.

He spent many years working at the Par-3 Albert Park golf course, but eventually, with his eyes the way they were, had to give it away. “I knew I was in trouble when I was mowing the grass and ended in the lake a couple of times,” he says.

Marg used to drive him up to Wangaratta to watch their son Robert -‘Rocky’ – playing with North Wang each week. “I said to Ed : ‘We may as well live up here.’ Then Marty, our other son, made the move. And later, our daughter, Jennine shifted over from Tassie with her family, to be close to us.”

‘Rocky’ and his mate Les Goonan took Eddie down to the great Bobbie Skilton’s Testimonial, at Crown Casino 20-odd years ago.

“I tell people Skilton wouldn’t have won his three Brownlows if I hadn’t taken him under my wing, but the truth is, my last game with South was Bob’s first,” he says.

He was delighted to be in the company of the Swans ‘family’ again. “It took ages to get him to his seat. All these old South diehards wanted to catch up with him,” Les recalled …….

“Unfortunately, when we were leaving, Eddie and Rob both took a tumble down the escalator. Ed was upset because his prized Victorian blazer and a brand-new pair of dacks he’d bought for the occasion, were ruined. But he wasn’t in very good shape, was taken away in an ambulance and spent a bit of time in hospital.”

Eddie takes up the story : “….Rob and Les convinced me to leave my wallet with them for safe-keeping. When they returned it to me, it was empty. The bastards had the rest of the night on me at the Casino ! ” he jokes.

Ed’s 88 and is just back home after spending a few days in hospital. “They nurses said they’ll miss me. I kept ’em on their toes,” he jokes.

He and Marg celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary a couple of weeks ago. They look forward to their 5 grand-kids and 2 great grand-kids regularly popping in.

He had a ready answer for one of the grandkids, who asked him a few years ago how he came to be such a great footballer  when he was blind.

“Easy…….I’ll have you know, I was the one who invented the blind turn………..”