THE BORN LEADER…..

Mac Holten was 26 when he decided to abandon the security of life in Melbourne as an insurance clerk, League footballer and District cricketer.

The newly-married Collingwood forward elected to pursue a career as a football coach, and mulled over 5 ‘plum’ jobs that he had been offered.

He chose Wangaratta and, with wife Shirley, embarked on an adventure that was to prove amazingly successful and was to change the face of sport in the town……….

It was early 1949 when he met Wangaratta Football Club President Norm McGuffie at a pre-arranged destination in the city. McGuffie, who told him he’d be wearing a red flower in the lapel of his suit coat, must have been pretty convincing, as Holten accepted the job straight away….
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Mac Holten had spent his school days at Scotch College and was regarded as no more than ‘mediocre’ in his school sporting pursuits. When war intervened he enlisted in the Air Force and became one of the nation’s finest pilots, attaining the ranking of Flight Lieutenant.

He always claimed that he was lucky to break into League football when it was at a low ebb during the war, but he proved a more than capable forward in 82 games with Collingwood, over an interrupted eight-year period.

It was towards the end of his career with the Mighty Magpies that Mac outwardly showed the first signs of being a football ‘thinker’. He and two other players, Lou Richards and Jack Burns, decided to convene a player’s meeting to discuss the team’s worrying habit of fading-out in important games.

Legendary coach Jock McHale caught wind of this and bailed them up: “What are you ? Three Commos or something ? ” The meeting never took place and Holten probably felt that he was on shaky ground from then on.

There were no such ructions in six seasons with Melbourne Cricket Club. A stylish batsman with a sound technique and excellent leadership qualities, he had once figured in a 280-run opening partnership and had risen to become a selector and vice-captain of the famous old Club.
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Mac was fascinated by the tactics of sport and was eager to put them into practice. But he also wanted to make an impact business-wise, in the town.

“We’re determined to make this our permanent home. I don’t want to be switching from club to club, ” he said. He spent a short time in a milk-bar in Murphy Street, then a year later, moved into a licensed grocery in Reid Street, in partnership with team-mate Kevin French.

He began playing cricket in the WDCA with Merriwa, and threw himself into pre-season footy training.

The Ovens and Murray League was basically a mark and kick game in the late forties, but Mac was keen to introduce Collingwood’s play-on style, with plenty of emphasis on handball.

He inherited a handy side from his predecessor Tom Tribe, but his players were subjected to tougher training than they’d ever experienced.

“We concentrated more on sprint work, whereas my old coach Jock McHale mainly focused on match practice,” he once recalled.

Was Holten just lucky to arrive at the strategic moment, when the planets were rightly-aligned for Wangaratta? Or was it his outstanding leadership that honed a talented group into becoming one of the O & M’s finest of all-time ?

If you ask any of his players, they testify that he was somewhat of a magician. Even rival Rovers players who would be more likely to impugn him, vouched that when they came under his influence in representative football or cricket, he was every bit as astute as his reputation indicated.

Mac certainly had some stars in his side. Timmy Lowe, a will-o-the-wisp rover, was to win four successive Best & Fairests and claim the 1953 Morris Medal; Norm Minns was a champion forward;  in Graeme Woods and Bill Comensoli he had strong and versatile ruckmen ; Max (Shiny) Williams was an accurate and prolific full forward and Kevin French was a bullocking big man.

But he always claimed that Lionel Wallace, a tough centre half back, was the best country footballer he came across. “He was a dairy-farmer from Greta and only trained one night a week, but played some great games for Wang. ‘Lioney’ would have been a sensation in Melbourne.” Mac said.

Holten always seemed to produce something extra on the big occasions and starred in the Magpies’ 32-point win over Wodonga in the 1949 Grand Final.

Wang finished well clear on top of the ladder in 1950 and chalked up their second straight flag. But if any proof was needed that this was, indeed, a champion side, it was their dominance throughout the 1951 season.

They lost just one match, on their way to clinching the hat-trick, as ‘Shiney’ Williams booted 8 goals to rubber-stamp an emphatic display.

At the end of the ’51 season, the ‘Pies challenged Wimmera League premiers, Ararat, for the unofficial crown of the ‘best team in Country Victoria’.

The match, played at Ararat, was heavily promoted and both teams were confident of victory. Holten recalled that he was nervous about the amount wagered on the game by supporters – a huge sum in those days, of 1,500 pounds. “I knew how much it was, because I put the cash in the safe at work”.

Wangaratta won, 15.15 to 11.7 in front of a huge crowd and could finally let their hair down after a long and successful season.

They entered the history books in 1952 by winning their fourth-straight premiership, equalling the feat of the great St. Patrick’s team of the twenties and inviting comparison with the best of all-time.

The Magpies again finished on top in 1953 but bombed out in straight sets. Holten played on for two more seasons, then coached from the sidelines in 1956.

But he detected some resentment about his non-playing coach role. He resigned, with another year still left on his contract. “I felt that I’d run my race”, he said.

His statistical record was first-rate – 154 games, for 107 wins, and a 69.8% winning ratio. He had been the Ovens & Murray representative coach in five seasons.

Bruck Textiles had approached him in 1952 to become their part-time ‘Sports Advisor’, for a stipend of £150 per year. The post involved coaching Bruck Cricket Club and conducting instructional sessions with the best young cricket talent in town.

The move brought instantaneous results, as Bruck took out the flag the next season, with Mac’s unbeaten 135 in the final being a major factor.

His first trip to Melbourne Country Week was as captain in 1951. In the ensuing years he managed to garner a diverse group of personalities into a powerful combination. He is popularly acknowledged as Wangaratta’s best-ever captain.

He seemed to be a thought ahead of the game . He set defensive fields and ‘got inside’ his bowlers’ heads, to have them executing his game plan. Of the 33 CW games he played, 30 were as captain.

“Melbourne Country Week provided me with my most enjoyable cricket moments”, he recalled. “It had everything that is good about cricket – challenge, competition, comradeship, comedy, drama, excitement and characters.”

Mac led Wangaratta’s cricketers throughout a Golden Era. They won the A-Grade title in 1954, then clinched their first – and only – Provincial crown in 1957.

He represented Country Victoria in two international matches against England. In the first, he scored a dogged 29 against Freddie Brown’s team at Euroa in 1950. Nine years later he captained the side in a long-awaited clash against Peter May’s tourists, at the Showgrounds.

In 1961, aged 37, and no longer playing regularly, Sir Robert Menzies drafted him into his Prime Minister’s XI against Frank Worrell’s great West Indies team at Manuka.

Mac’s sporting prominence led to a tilt at politics and in 1958 he had a sensational victory in the Federal elections, ousting sitting Indi member Bill Bostock. He held the seat for 7 elections and was at one time the Minister for Repatriation.

He finally lost his seat in 1982 and returned to Wangaratta, enthusiastically throwing himself into a project of coaching and developing the town’s young cricket and tennis players  for many years.

When Mac Holten passed away in 1996, he had left an indelible imprint on the local sporting landscape. He is a member of the O & M and WDCA Halls of Fame.
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DAZZLING DESMOND – THE FOOTBALL MAGICIAN

He is just 18 when he runs out onto Victoria Park, behind football luminaries like Weideman, Tuddenham and Gabelich, to play his first game of League football.

It’s Easter Monday 1962, and the crowd of 42,000, packed to the rafters, roars its approval of their Black and White heroes. His nerves are already taut and he feels as if his head is about to explode, such is the wonderment of the occasion.

Two and a half hours later, as he trudges from the field, there is stunned silence. The ‘Pies have lowered their colours to St.Kilda at home for the first time since 1919. The mood is sombre….angry. This is not the way the script was meant to play out…..
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Seven months earlier, Des Steele was home on school holidays from Xavier College when he was slotted onto a wing by his home-town team, Wangaratta, for their Grand Final clash with Benalla.

He had made an impression in the strong Public Schools competition and Wang coach Neville Waller wanted to ensure that such a precocious talent would be made available for the finals.

The youngster was just one of a number of stars who glistened on that sweltering day at Martin Park.

Wangaratta got away to a flier and belted the Demons by 63 points in a dominant display, which had complemented their earlier finals victories of 40 and 52 points.

Des had already signed a Form-Four, which tied him to Collingwood. He had been spotted in a school game by Magpie mentor Phonse Kyne and admits that no arm-twisting was required for him to sign on the dotted line.

“I had no career path in mind. My only ambition was to be a star footballer, ” he recalled.

So, along with four other team-mates from Xavier – Trevor Gowers ( Richmond), Brian Sierakowski (St.Kilda), Brian Brushfield (Geelong) and Des Meagher ( Hawthorn) – he advanced to League ranks.

Collingwood organised a clerical job with an oil company. He thrived in the environment and, after three games in his first year, looked forward to establishing himself as a regular player.

He was ‘on fire’ in a practice match in his second season when he jarred a heel, which he couldn’t get right and was out of action for 8 weeks. Working his way back to full fitness, he regained his senior spot for the last five games.

In the final home-and-home match of 1963, Des waged a great battle with Essendon’s star winger Barry Capuano and was awarded Collingwood’s trophy as the best player in their 27-point defeat.

It was to be his last VFL game.

Collingwood had undergone considerable change in 1964, with a new coach, Bob Rose, and a revitalised playing list. They went within a whisker of winning the flag, but Des spent the season in the Reserves, battling injury for most of it.

He had become disenchanted with life in Melbourne and thought it was time for a change. “I didn’t have a car ; was living in Clifton Hill, travelling to work at Spotswood, then had to make my way back to Victoria Park for training. It got to me a bit, ” he said.

He regarded his aborted League career as ‘a missed opportunity’, but was keen to move on.
Preston approached him but instead, he opted to return to Wangaratta, where he regained his form and a renewed zest for football.

Old-time Magpies will recall dazzling Desmond prancing, dodging, weaving and dancing his way around the Norm Minns Oval with the alacrity of a ballet dancer.

He was Wangaratta’s version of Footscray’s 329-game Hall of Famer and champion of the eighties, Dougie Hawkins.

There was little doubt that he was one of the pre-eminent mid-fielders in the Ovens and Murray. In his first season ‘back home’ he won his club’s Best & Fairest and the Chronicle Trophy and played in the Grand Final, which the ‘Pies lost to the Rovers.

Wang were there or thereabouts during most of Des’s years with them and contested ‘The Big One’ again in 1966 and ’69. He notched up his second B & F and represented the O &M in a stellar 1970.

With a hankering to coach he took on the job at Milawa for two years, then returned to the ‘Pies for his third stint, in 1975.

He was now an ageing star, but had lost few of the tricks that characterised his artistry in the midfield.

His form was still solid (if a little inconsistent), but he was to play a vital part in a cherished Magpie moment, when they swept to a famous premiership triumph over their arch-enemies, the Hawks, in 1976.

“I had the feeling we were on the verge of something big that year, and with Phil Nolan taking charge and players like Rod Cobain coming on board, we developed into a formidable side. To win the flag was fantastic.”

It was an ideal way for Des to round off his O & M career. With premierships in his first and last seasons at Wangaratta (albeit 15 years apart ), 191 games to his credit and subsequent membership of the club’s Team of the Century,  he headed out to Greta as playing-coach for a two-year term.

He stayed on as a player for another season and was sure that he had reached the end of the road, only to be talked into having one last fling, in 1980, by new Greta coach, Geoff Lacey.

“Lacey was a good leader and I was glad I agreed to continue, as we won the flag.”

His son Darren was now beginning to make his way in the game and Des strapped himself in for what turned out to be a terrific ride.

Darren’s rise was meteoric. A talented schoolboy, he was an All-Australian Teal Cup player and, in his only season with Wang, in 1982, aged 16, rose through the Thirds and Reserves, to play 8 senior games.

North Melbourne eagerly grabbed him and he chalked up 119 games as a more than handy utility player and tagger over 11 years. The ‘Roos were becoming concerned with his continuing run of injuries and swapped him to Geelong, where he strung together another 18 games before retiring at the end of 1994.

“Darren missed out on the big money in football, but did well professionally, ” Des explains. “North put him through school, at Essendon Grammar, and he continued on to gain a Masters in Accounting.”

“He and his family spent 7 years in England and returned home three years ago. He’s now the CFO of Fonterra Milk Company.”

Des’s pursuit of a VFL career had put his cricketing talents on the back-burner. He was originally intent on being a wicket-keeper, but when he returned to Wangaratta in the mid-sixties, established a substantial reputation as a classy right-hand batsman and leg-spinner.

He played in a WDCA premiership with United, then transferred to Magpies, where he was a key figure in another three titles.

Then tennis took over. He’s a man of action, is Des Steele and now that he’s retired he manages to fit in tennis three days a week and a decent ride on the bike three mornings a week.

There was an interruption to this busy schedule about six months ago, when he skidded on some loose gravel and came to grief.

The result? Four broken ribs and a brief spell from his sporting pursuits.

But that was a mere interlude for the man who must be one of Wangaratta’s fittest 71 year-olds.

 
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