‘HARD WORK THE RECIPE’ FOR THOONA FARMER …..’

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………..”

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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.IMG_3631

“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.IMG_3636

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.IMG_3634

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.”IMG_3616

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……IMG_3628

“FINDING FORM AT THE RIGHT TIME….”

Paul O’Brien played 90 games for Wangaratta Rovers during their ‘Golden Era’ of the seventies. Mid-sized, burly and super-competitive, he was an ideal spare-parts man, who could be thrust into a variety of roles with telling effect.

Some would say he timed it to perfection when he made the move from Greta in 1974, but it was no accident that he was to figure in four premierships in his six years at the Findlay Oval.

O’Brien was a strong personality; the archetypal big-occasion player, who could take a game by the scruff of the neck. In short, he was born to play in finals.

One of his best performances came on a warm late-September day in 1978………….

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The memories come flooding back when we start reminiscing about that Grand Final.

“I know we weren’t expected to win,” Paul says. “ Benalla were the form team. But, as with a couple of those other premierships in the seventies, we weren’t necessarily the most talented side. It was a matter of being able to produce it on the day.”

“The game had an extra dimension to it for me, because ‘Ab’ ( his brother Greg, who had tied for the 1976 Morris Medal during his stint with the Hawks) was lining up in the back pocket for Benalla.”

“ There was talk of a fair bit of money being thrown around by their backers……and a few of our supporters lining up to accomodate them………..”

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The Demons started the season in less than emphatic fashion. They’d finished seventh in 1977, but recruited well, and were expected to be among the big improvers.

After four rounds they were lying second-bottom, with just one win. To accentuate the pain, they were reeling from a 79-point belting at the hands of the Rovers.

From that point on, they’d strung together fifteen straight wins, including an exciting 13-point victory over North Albury in the second semi-final. Brilliantly led by favourite son Billy Sammon, and with players like Martiniello, Hyde, Ellis, Symes and De Fazio at their peak, they were in rare form. They’d been so irresistible that few tipsters dared to go against them.

The Hawks’ finals prospects appeared ‘shot’ when North Albury gave them a ‘touch-up’ in the Qualifying Final. But they recovered strongly, with impressive performances against Albury and the Hoppers in successive weeks, to win their way into their eighth Grand Final in nine years.

The stage was set for a classic at the Wangaratta Showgrounds……..

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Rovers coach Darryl Smith was in his second year at the helm. Eighteen months earlier, and still laid up after a knee ‘reco’, he was surprisingly appointed as Neville Hogan’s successor.

“My first year as coach was a nightmare,” he recalls. He battled his way through ’77 , suffering a succession of niggling injuries, and started on the bench in the decider, in which the Hawks thrashed Wangaratta.

Although still not playing with the freedom of his earlier years, Smith was still happy enough with the on-field contribution he’d made in 1978, and was looking forward to performing a role in the Grand Final.

“I had my leg propped on a rub-down table, doing a few stretches before the game, when I felt something go in my calf. I thought,’Shit, that feels no good at all,’ and asked our trainer, Johnny Spence, if he could have a look at it.”IMG_3443

“He went away and grabbed a glass of water, handed me a tablet, and said: ‘Here, take this.’ It worked wonders and I didn’t feel a thing after that.”

Smith and his selectors sprung a surprise when they punted on an 18 year-old beanstalk, Neale McMonigle, who had played just three senior games.

His dad, ‘Big John’ had been a premiership ruckman for the Hawks twenty years earlier, and was remembered as a highly-talented, nonchalant character. The lad inherited similar traits, but had forced his way into the side with some exhibitions of fingertip marking and long kicking. Nonetheless, it was a risky selection, the critics surmised.

The inexperienced Graeme Bell was handed one of the toughest assignments. He had the responsibility of trying to nullify potent Demon ruck pair, Emmie De Fazio and Malcolm Ellis. In another crucial match-up, long-kicking left-footer David Spence lined up on dangerous Demon spearhead Brian Symes……..

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The Hawks got away to a flier, kicking two goals in the opening minutes. But it was the mid-field fisticuffs, as much as the football, that fired the fans in a frenetic opening term. When the dust settled, umpire Glenn James had booked Benalla’s Stephen Hide for striking back flanker Chris Porter.

“Why would you want to job ‘Clang’,” said one team-mate. “It was like whacking a slab of cement. Whenever someone had a crack at him he’d just shrug and get on with the job.”

No-one was better suited to handle such a delicate situation than Umpire James, who was among the VFL’s finest and most respected men in white, and had a great rapport with the players.

At the height of the melee, young Hawk rover Peter McGuire, who had called him a ‘black prick’, was promptly informed that he was also ‘in the book’. At the end of the quarter McGuire apologised to James, who winked and whispered: “If you start getting a few kicks I’ll forget about it.”

The Rovers, at this stage, were 19 points in front, and in complete charge of the game. By half-time it was as good as over.

Everything they did was a class above their disappointing opponents, and their disposal was spot-on, both by hand and foot. Unfortunately, the Demons chose the season’s biggest occasion to turn in a collective ‘shocker’.IMG_3440

One theory was that, having played just the one match in four weeks, they weren’t sufficiently battle-hardened to withstand the rigours of a boots-and-all Grand Final.

Their coach Billy Sammon picked up his share of kicks, but was nowhere near the destructive force of the bulldozing mid-fielder, O’Brien, who bobbed up everywhere.

‘Sam’ Symes proved a headache for the Hawks in attack, and Gary Walker was miserly in outbustling century goal-kicker Steve Norman, and keeping him to two majors.

Their best player – and leading possession-winner, however, was lightly-framed winger Adrian Fuhrmann

But Benalla couldn’t suppress the brilliant Andrew Scott. In his four years in the O & M he had snared a Morris Medal and twice finished runner-up, rapidly assuming cult hero status within the club. He again revealed all of his attributes in picking up 20 kicks, dishing out 6 handballs and taking 10 telling marks.IMG_3441

Many would have opted for him as best afield, but umpire James gave the gong to Trevor Bell, who also pulled down 10 fine ‘grabs’ in a dominant display at centre half forward. It was the second year in succession that the prodigiously-talented Bell had taken out the Award.

His twin Graeme, who reigned supreme in the ruck, wasn’t far behind. He repeatedly outleaped his opponents, to put the ball in the path of Hawk little men Eddie Flynn, Mark Booth, Neville Allan and Peter McGuire.

The questionable move of playing the ‘greenhorn’ McMonigle, paid dividends when he booted three goals and provided a handy target up forward.

The Rovers eventually cruised to the line, booting 15.18 (108) to Benalla’s 7.12 (54).

The team that got them there was:

B : GREG ELLIOTT, DAVID SPENCE, DARRYL SMITH.

H.B: CHRIS PORTER, MERV HOLMES, GREG TANNER.

C: EDDIE FLYNN, PAUL O’BRIEN, GARY BELL.

H.F: MARK BOOTH, TREVOR BELL, LEIGH HARTWIG.IMG_3444

F: NEVILLE ALLAN, STEVE NORMAN, NEALE McMONIGLE.

R: GRAEME BELL, ANDREW SCOTT, PETER McGUIRE.

19, 20: BARRIE COOK, GARY ALLEN.

 

 

THE WASH-UP

# Darryl Smith woke up the morning after the ‘78 Grand Final with excruciating pain in his calf – the same pain he had experienced in the pre-match. He felt compelled to ask Johnny Spence just what sort of a pill it was, that had allowed him to get through the game. “A ‘Smartie’, was the reply.

# Eddie Flynn also felt a twinge in his knee during the match, but played on, to become one of the team’s stars. A fortnight later, the knee ‘went’ during a game of basketball. He had an operation in January, rehabbed frantically and went on to play in the 1979 Flag.

# Fifteen members of the 1978 Premiership team finished their careers at the Rovers with 100 games or more, including (3) 200-Gamers and (2) 300-Gamers.

# Eight players were later inducted to the club’s Hall of Fame. Five are members of the Ovens and Murray’s Hall of Fame.

# Long-striding winger Leigh Hartwig was declared the winner of the ‘Bob Rose Medal’ at the Best & Fairest count a few nights later. He repeated the feat in 1979.

# The Hawks continued their amazing run of success the following season. Topping the ladder with just four losses, they ran away from a plucky Wodonga side in the last quarter of the Grand Final, to prevail by five goals.

Chasing four-in-a-row in 1980, they were outplayed in the second half of the Grand Final by a North Albury side which had come the hard way, via the Elimination Final.

# Most of the stars of ‘78, will meet on Saturday for a 40-Year Re-union of a
famous Premiership.……….Sadly, they won’t include Garry Bell and Peter McGuire, who both lost their lives in motor vehicle accidents………..

# The function will also be a Re-Union of the club’s 1958 and ‘88 flag teams…….IMG_3445

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE GENTLEMAN FAST BOWLER…………

It’s stretching a long bow to suggest that one of cricket’s legendary opening batsmen, Desmond Haynes, was troubled by the pace and venom of Gary Lidgerwood………….

“Hardly,” ‘George’ says, with a grin. “The first time I played against the West Indies at Benalla, he miscued a pull shot and hit it straight up in the air. He was out for a ‘duck’. Then when we met them at the Showgrounds the next year, he tried to belt me over the fence and was bowled – for 1.”

Still, as the years roll on, sporting stories have a knack of ‘growing legs’ and, over a few beers his mates sometimes refer to ‘Dessie’ Haynes as ‘Lidgerwood’s bunny.’
‘George’ laments the absence of those Country XI matches, which used to be an eagerly-anticipated part of International touring teams’ fixtures.

“You grasped the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the greats of the game. Good crowds turned up and there was a buzz around town for weeks beforehand.”
“Unfortunately, there’s not enough room in the schedule these days.”…………

Gary’s regarded as an icon of North-East cricket. A fast bowler who could produce a bit extra on the big occasions – and a personable type who was a fine leader and ideal team-man.

He thrived on competitiveness and camaraderie and – in something that sat well with selectors – made himself available for any representative match that was on the horizon……..
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The tiny hamlet of St.James, perched almost equidistant from Wangaratta, Yarrawonga and Benalla, was the launching-pad for the storied sporting career of Gary Lidgerwood.

When barely a teen-ager, this slightly-built kid, who hailed from a nearby farm, laboured enthusiastically on the  hard wicket and dry terrain of the St.James oval. Gnarled veterans of the Lake Rowan competition nodded sagely, as he made them hurry their shots and withdraw from rearing deliveries.

In winter he lined up on a wing for neighboring Tungamah, and did enough to prompt an approach from O & M club Benalla.

It was 1974; he was travelling in to attend Benalla Tech and saddling up with the Demons’ senior side. A stooped, persuasive old recruiter called Alan Killigrew – one of the most recognisable faces in football – pulled him aside one day and suggested he might consider having a run with North Melbourne Thirds.

That suited. He was heading down to attend Swinburne Tech the next year, so he came under the influence of Raymond Clarence ‘Slug’ Jordan, a coach with a reputation for colourful language and a confrontational approach.

What an experience ! In the time he spent under the brutal ‘Slug’, who, it was claimed, had a tongue like a Chainsaw, he learnt plenty about the rigours of sporting life. But it was a pleasure to be around Arden Street at that time. Barassi’s Northerners were en-route to their first-ever flag.

And, as a lowly Thirds player he was also along for the ride……. At the end of the day, however, Gary deduced that he had a limited future in League footy.

He had, though, considered accepting one of the several approaches he’d received about playing District cricket. Instead, he decided to travel back to play in Benalla each week-end.

He joined Goorambat – perennial BDCA finalists and home club of the Cleary and Trewin clans – sharing the new ‘cherry’ with experienced campaigners John Cleary and Johnny Ashton.

And he became a valuable component of a Benalla football line-up which had been barking at the heels of the flag contenders for a few seasons.

They had been building up to something – and in 1978 it all came together. Under the coaching of local boy Billy Sammon, they chalked up 16 wins on the trot, to secure a Grand Final berth.

The Demons went in as ‘red-hot’ favourites, but were blown away by a Rovers side which dictated terms, almost from the first bounce, to win by 54 points………….
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Gary had played 110 senior games with Benalla -and was a vital member of their rep cricket sides – when he accepted a shift to Wangaratta in 1981, as Manager of Paterson’s Furniture Store.

He threw in his footy lot with Wangaratta, and linked up with City Colts, a club which was making steady progress after years in the WDCA wilderness.

Colts hadn’t played in a finals series in their first 20 years of existence. With Lidgerwood in their ranks they appeared in nine of the next ten.

Younger players grew taller alongside the inspiring fast bowler. In his first season there was immediate success. Colts were defending 116 in the semi-final against powerhouse, United.

Lidgerwood and his bowling partner Bruce Hookey smashed through the United line-up to have them 9/30 at one stage, before finally dismissing them for 76.

Unfortunately, it was Colts’ turn to be humbled in the Grand Final, when they could only muster 52 against Whorouly.

Four years later, they finally broke through for their first – and only – WDCA senior flag. Sneaking into the finals by just 1.1% they squared off against Corowa in the big one.

It was a decisive victory, as Colts responded to a score of 141 with a mammoth 414.

‘George’s’ remarkable consistency in club cricket saw him finish in the top three of the Association’s bowling averages in eight of his first nine seasons. He won the ‘double’, the Chronicle Trophy and Cricketer of the Year Award in 1982/83, with 49 wickets and 381 runs.

His batting style in amassing those 381 runs could simply be described as unorthodox.

Coming in down the list, he would back his eye and tee off with a shot that sent the ball over the field, anywhere from backward point to deep mid-wicket.

Defensive prods were negligible and bowlers who felt they had broken the back of the Colts batting would be frustrated by a flurry of late-order runs.

His second Cricketer of the Year gong came in 1985/86. On the eve of that season, he had played in his only football flag, as a member of Wangaratta’s ‘85 Reserves team.

He’s pretty handy at socialising, is ‘George’. Two years ago he and his old Magpie team-mates gathered together and made a great fist of celebrating the 30-year Anniversary of that Premiership. The flag was all the more memorable because it was the last game of footy he played.

He was just 29 when he hung up the boots, but he reckons it helped to elongate his cricket career.

Back then, in his halcyon days, he had a long, rhythmic run-up. Straight, black hair would flop in the breeze, as a slightly round-arm action propelled the bright red ‘Kookaburra’ at a decidedly slippery and uncomfortable speed.

The ability to bowl a decent out-swinger and a dose of old-fashioned cricket nous made him a formidable opponent.

There was occasional criticism that he needed a touch more mongrel, but ‘George’ replied that he’d rather attack the stumps than than the body. “I preferred not to go head-hunting,” he says.

As his pace began to wane in latter years, he became a dependable ‘stock bowler’, tying up an end with accuracy and subtle variation of pace.

He opened the bowling for Victorian Country in the first-ever National Country titles in Brisbane.

Appearances against New Zealand Under 21’s, the ACT, and those two West Indies sides were part of a bulging CV.

He took 4/50 in the Showgrounds match against the Windies, but hastens to point out that, after he had claimed his fourth victim, opposition captain Richie Richardson proceeded to take 22 runs off his next over.

“He told me I’d bowled one over too many.”

‘George’ played 250 games for City Colts, and took 600 wickets. He was a key player in 14 Melbourne Country Week trips as a player, and was captain in eight of these.

He also figured in eight North-East Cup victories.

When he finally left the playing-field he Managed the Country Week side for several years, then had a five-year stint as President of the WDCA.

It was the least he could do, he said, to repay the debt he owed to cricket…………………

THE FOOTBALL MISSIONARY……….

One of the last times I spoke to Norm Minns, the conversation was short and sweet.

A new footballer, by the name of Michael Caruso, arrived in town and had accepted an invitation to train with the Rovers. It was January 1987 and the school-teacher from Maryborough was looking the goods at the first night of post-Christmas pre-season.

A phone call distracted our attention. The voice was instantly recognisable, even though it remained anonymous: ” Would Mick Caruso be there please ?”

“Nah, sorry.”   I promptly hung up.

He’s a bastard that Minnsy, I thought. Here he is, trying to make a last-ditch attempt to snavel our prize recruit and lure him over the road. You wouldn’t put it past the old bugger to try anything.

Norm died later that year, and left behind a sporting legacy that is hard to match in local sport, as a footballer, administrator ……..and the toughest of competitors……………

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Norm Minns had the Midas Touch when it came to winning football premierships. In one stretch, in the late-forties to early fifties, he played in seven straight. Call it luck, or being in the right place at the right time, but his exquisite talent and fanaticism for the game played its part too.

He was reared in Chiltern, but moved to Melbourne at a young age and played with Fairfield, in the Melbourne Boys League.

A four-year stint in the Army during the war years halted his progress somewhat, although he still managed to find a game here and there, to sate his thirst.

He trained with Melbourne and was keen to throw in his lot with the Demons, but, being in Collingwood’s zone, was told that if he wanted to play League footy, it would be in Black and White – there would be no clearance.

“I didn’t like Collingwood’s approach,” he said many years later. Instead of persisting with his ambition of playing at the highest level, he headed back to Chiltern for a couple of seasons, and played in their 1947 premiership side.

The following year, Norm accepted a coaching appointment at Brocklesby and, besides leading them to the flag, finished runner-up in the Hume League’s Azzi Medal.

In the opinion of a couple of his surviving contemporaries, he was as good a player as there was going around in country football at the time – a VFL talent wasted.

But the urge to give it a crack had passed Norm by . Hotly pursued by Rutherglen and Wangaratta, he chose the Magpies.

That proved a master-stroke, as they were about to embark on a run of success which, almost 70 years later, still sees them bracketed among the greatest O & M combinations of all-time.

Minns could play in any position, but was used mostly in the centre or at centre half forward in those sides of the ‘Holten Era’.

A strong mark, beautiful kick and a shrewd analyst, he was a great disciple of Mac Holten, whose ‘gospel’ of handball and team-first football revolutionised the game in this area.

The Magpies went on to win four flags in succession – from 1949 to ’52 – and, being the big occasion player that he was, Minns starred in each of them.

He always rated the 1951 premiership side the best he played in. Any wonder. The goal-to-goal line comprised evergreen full back Jack Ferguson ; Lionel Wallace the dairy farmer from Greta who was impassable at centre half back ; Minns in the middle ; Ken Nish, a marvellous key forward, despite his profound deafness ; and spearhead Max ‘Shiny’ Williams, who booted 90 goals for the season.

After Wang snuck home by 20 points over Rutherglen to win the 1952 premiership, Norm was approached by Benalla, who were seeking a playing-coach.

Again, good fortune favoured him. The Demons had finished eighth the previous season, but improved dramatically under his leadership in 1953. When they ended the Magpies’ remarkable run of success in the Prelim Final, Norm knew that the premiership was within reach.

Benalla held on in a dramatic last quarter, to defeat Albury by seven points and win their first O&M flag.

They reached the Grand Final the following year and met Rutherglen, the side they had eclipsed in the second semi. However, despite Minns kicking six of his side’s 10 goals, the Redlegs proved too strong.

He had been a regular inter-league player, but his personal highlight came when the O & M clinched the 1955 Country Championship. With 11 goals in the Semi and 6 in the Final against the Ballarat League, he enjoyed two brilliant cameos at full forward.

Corowa, who hadn’t enjoyed success for years, handed Norm the coaching position in 1956. But his somewhat tempestuous relationship with the Spiders ended acrimoniously, when they sacked him with one game remaining in the 1957 season. The inference was that he had been trying to induce one of their players to transfer to Wangaratta.

Norm denied the claim, but it was an underwhelming way to conclude his playing career. In the end, he said, he was glad to leave John Foord Oval. “The only good thing about it was that I got my money.”

A month later, he was on the Wang committee. It re-ignited a love affair with the club, which continued for another 30 years, and saw him act as a selector, recruiter and consultant on all things football.

The Rovers realised that, if a potential recruit lobbed in town, the signature wasn’t going to be easy to obtain. If he hadn’t already got under their guard, Minnsy would probably be hot on their heels, selling the Magpie cause and being a general ‘pain in the arse’ to the boys from over the laneway.

As time wore on, he became heavily involved with the O & M, as an inter-league selector and Board member. His love of football and interest in developing young talent prompted him to get behind the formation of the Ovens and Murray Schoolboys team, with whom he was associated for 20-odd years.

His name was synonymous with the game in Wangaratta. He was a sort of football missionary.

Norm and an old Magpie team-mate, ‘Hopper’ McCormick recognised the need to teach kids as young as five, and up to 12, the fundamentals of football. Thus, they kicked off the Wangaratta Midget and sub-junior League, a forerunner of today’s Auskick.

They provided a game for the youngsters and acted as de-facto babysitters when parents would drop them off early on a Saturday morning. It made for a huge day, as Norm would then move on to his commitments with the Magpies, which finished at around 5 o’clock that night.

His sporting passion during summer was ignited by spending hour after hour preparing the running tracks for the Wangaratta Carnival. He became involved at about the same time that the charismatic American Barney Ewell scorched up the track to win a memorable Gift in 1950.

That won him over and he was proud of the fact that the Carnival was recognised as one of the ‘blue ribbon’ sporting spectaculars in the state.

Literally hundreds of local footballers and athletes benefited from his extraordinary efforts – many advanced to the elite levels thanks to his interest and support.

It’s fitting that his name is perpetuated by the Medal that is struck each year for the O & M’s best player in inter-league matches.

And if you’re heading down Green Street, you’ll see the arch at the entrance to the Showgrounds, which immortalises the 40-odd year contribution that this sporting ‘nut’ made. It welcomes you to the ‘Norm Minns Oval’…….

 

 

 

 

” TWELVE FORGETTABLE SECONDS…….”

Ovens and Murray football was at its scintillating best in 1960.

High-profile coaches and big-name players attracted huge crowds and created massive interest. Of the 10 coaches, five had played in a VFL premiership, three had captained their VFL club ; there was a Brownlow and dual Magarey Medallist among them, and all were relatively still in their prime.

The pick of them was Bob Rose, who had enjoyed a dominant season at the helm of the Wangaratta Rovers. ‘Mr.Football’s’ inspirational play was a major factor in his side finishing four games clear at the top of the table.

Despite the space between the Hawks and the rest, there were four other legitimate contenders . Coming into Round 18, the battle for the one vacant finals spot had narrowed down to two clubs – Myrtleford and Benalla.

The equation was simple. The Demons, who clung to fourth position by just two points, had to defeat the Rovers at the City Oval to cement their finals spot. The Saints were sweating on them, as they were red-hot fancies to topple the winless Rutherglen.

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Myrtleford were untroubled, and went on to trounce the Redlegs by 70 points. The buzz of transistor radios could be heard around McNamara Oval, as fans nervously listened to the coverage of the Rovers-Benalla clash. It had developed into a classic.

The Hawks got away to a flier and led by 22 points at quarter-time. But it was the mercurial Demon forward, Bob Hempel, who revived his side’s fortunes with a devastating second quarter. He booted two goals, hit the post and narrowly missed with two other shots, as Benalla took a 10-point lead into the half-time break.

Rose firstly swung Les Clarke, then Bill McKenzie, onto the star, without great effect. The pendulum swung wildly for the remainder of the clash, which produced more than its share of rough stuff.

The Hawk leader, as well as being his dominant self throughout the game, had to work overtime to placate his players. He reasoned that he could ill-afford to have any of them reported at such a delicate stage of the season.

In the dying stages, the Rovers had regained the initiative. They led by two goals and looked to have the game in hand.

Then big Benalla ruckman George Aitken goaled and the big crowd tensed again.  Surely the Demons, even though they had a run-on, couldn’t kick another goal ?

The bounce of the ball had barely re-started play when the siren sounded. The Rovers had won by a goal – 11.6 to 10.6. There was wild cheering 30 miles away, in Myrtleford, as the Saints had clinched their spot in the finals.

Or had they ?

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The thousands listening to 3NE’s coverage of the game had heard a voice in the media box shouting : “No, no, no”, as the  blast of the siren halted play.

In the resultant wash-up, Benalla protested and the O & M decided to investigate the game. One of the time-keepers disclosed that he had accidentally pressed the siren instead of the time-on button when the ball was bounced after the final goal.

The clock indicated that there were still 12 seconds of play remaining in the game – enough time to have conceivably allowed Benalla to kick another goal.

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Thus it came to pass that, on September 3rd 1960, the Hawks met the Demons in the only re-play of a home-and-home game in the 123-year history of the Ovens and Murray Football League……….

But there were subsiduary issues to sort out. The Rovers requested ( and were granted) a quarter of the gate-takings for the re-play. They were asked to provide additional parking and media facilities for the anticipated large crowd, and to ensure that check-scorers and time-keepers were on hand.

Then there was the issue of the Morris Medal. Benalla’s roly-poly back pocket star Richie Castles had led  Bob Rose by one vote, going into Round 18.

The Medal-count,traditionally held on the Sunday after the last game, revealed that Rose had polled two votes to overtake Castles – by one vote..

Benalla claimed that the votes from that game should be declared null and void. The League decreed that, no, the status-quo stood and that Rose was still the Medallist.

Just to further complicate the argument, the brilliant Rose turned in a ‘pearler’ in the re-play and was widely-regarded as best afield. Castles, though, was not far behind him.

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The re-play attracted a semi-final sized crowd that paid £721 through the gate. Another battle-royal ensued. The rainy day and soggy conditions produced a hard, slogging game which was notable for its intensity.

Little separated the sides, but when the Hawks drew away to lead by 21 points early in the last quarter, it looked all over.

The Demons again counter-attacked. They were lifted by an inspired burst of play from Castles and goals to Ian Hughes and Bob Hempel, which again put them in the frame.

It prompted Rose to go onto the ball. He steadied the Rovers, but they missed his influence up forward.

Castles marked and drove Benalla into attack time and again, but the Hawks were able to hang on and win by 8 points.

So Myrtleford, who had been waiting patiently for a fortnight to confirm their finals booking, confronted Yarrawonga in the First Semi-Final. They booted 16.20 to lose a thriller by 3 points.

Who knows whether the extra game that the Rovers had to play fine-tuned them for the finals ?

They engaged in a titanic struggle with Wodonga, to win the Second Semi by two goals. A fortnight later, they were always in control against the tired Bulldogs in front of a record crowd of 12,000, to take out their second flag.

Again, it was Rose, whose 4.6 in the Grand Final, provided the impetus to a talented line-up. But it was fearless big man Ray Burns, left-footed half-forward Neil McLean and the effervescent, elusive winger Les Gregory who rivalled him for best-afield honours.

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The Hawks didn’t have much time to rest on their laurels. Their meeting with VFA premiers, Oakleigh, the following Sunday was touted as a match-up between the ‘two best Victorian teams outside the VFL’.

And it wasn’t just an exhibition game. The Devils supporters brought a barrow-load of money to back their team, and were well-accommodated by local punters and bookmakers – all of them keen Hawk fans.

The keenly-anticipated clash proved to be an anti-climax. The Rovers dominated from the opening bounce, to win by 73 points – 14.17 to 3.10.

Of the 22 games they contested during 1960, the Hawks had dropped just one – by a point to Corowa. It had been a season for the ages, and it was time for the celebrations to begin……………

 

Postscript:

*   Benalla played in the next three O & M Grand Finals, taking out successive flags in 1962 and ’63.

* The re-play proved to be Bob Hempel’s final game with Benalla. He coached Euroa for two seasons, then transferred to the Rovers, with whom he played 100 games and figured in the Hawks’ 1964 and ’65 premierships.