“TIGER STAR PUTS ICING ON CAKE FOR ’61 MAGPIES……”

It took someone special to capture my imagination as a 14 year-old O & M fan all those years ago; particularly if he wasn’t wearing a Brown and Gold guernsey…….

They were the days before saturation-level footy television coverage.

There was a touch of mystique about following the VFL from afar. You monitored it via the daily newspapers, the Saturday and mid-week Sporting Globes ( the ‘Pink Bible’ as we used to call it ) and religiously tuned in to World of Sport at mid-day Sunday.

There’d be a couple of hastily-planned trips down to take in a League match when it fitted in to our hectic schedule….But largely, our links with the big-time were the several VFL stars who headed bush – often in the prime of their careers……..

Ron McDonald

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One of them lobbed at Wangaratta in 1961.

Ron McDonald was a strongly-built, high-marking, long-kicking key position player, who accepted a transfer in the Bank, after a successful 92-game career with Richmond.

He’d represented Victoria at the Centenary National Carnival in Melbourne in 1958, and topped the Tigers’ Brownlow Medal voting the year after.

So he was no slouch……….To me, he appeared to be an ‘immovable object’ when he lined up at centre half forward, amidst great fanfare, for the ‘Pies in the early rounds of ‘61…….

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Wangaratta had fallen off the pace a tad, after the glory of their 1957 Premiership. It irked some that for the succeeding three years they played second fiddle to the Rovers – their arch home-town rivals.

The Hawks had appeared in a hat-trick of Grand Finals – winning two of them – and were ignited by the brilliance of the legendary Bob Rose.

The ‘Pies coach, Neville Waller, was Rose’s team-mate in Collingwood’s 1953 flag ( in just his 16th VFL game ) and had been a serviceable defender/ruckman, before being lured to Wang in 1959.

Norm McGuffie, who had been involved with the Club since he began playing in the early twenties, and then switched to a lengthy stint as administrator, was a key figure in Waller’s recruitment, with the help of former coach Mac Holten.

The big man settled well into the town, taking over a Bike Shop in Reid Street, and proving a popular leader and strong personality.

Since Waller’s arrival, the team had undergone somewhat of a transformation. In his maiden season they suffered an ignominious 69-point Preliminary Final hiding at the hands of the Rovers, then slumped to seventh, with a 7-11 win-loss record in 1960.

Only six members of the ‘57 premiership side remained.

They included the mercurial on-baller Kevin Mack, high-flying ‘Rinso’ Johnstone, who could be used with equal effect at either end of the ground; defenders John Holloway and Bernie Killeen; evergreen five-time premiership ruckman Graeme Woods; and the swashbuckling spearhead Bob ‘Bushy’ Constable.

In the ensuing seasons, though, several talented youngsters were blooded. Tough-as-nails utility Bob Comensoli, who doubled as the Riverina middleweight boxing champion in the off-season, had been squeezed out of the ‘Pies previous tilt at glory, purely because of his inexperience.

He was now a star, as was the tall, blond centre half back Rodney Swan, who was recruited from Yea. The highly promising Herbie Dowling, classy Bruce Robbins, and Corowa small man Cliff Hawkins also made their mark.

The Ovens and King League proved a fruitful recruiting zone, as speedster Basil Schubert was coaxed in from Moyhu, highly-rated Len Richards from Tarrawingee, and Normie Stewart from Beechworth. Promising Alan Benton was given several opportunities after graduating from WJFL club Springhurst.

Skilful centreman, John Mulrooney, an experienced 26 year-old mid-fielder, with 36 senior games of VFL footy under his belt, arrived at Wangaratta from St.Kilda, via Ballarat, in 1960.

‘Mul’, a bricklayer by trade, immediately provided the necessary ‘hardness at the contest’, as did a highly-touted young, dual Chiltern premiership player , Billy Peake.

And another who’d proved a star since arriving to teach at Wangaratta High School in 1959, was dependable Bill Traill. ‘Tracker’ was somewhat of a country footy journeyman. His resume’ was second-to-none, and he settled in to a role in defence for his adopted Club.

Kevin O’Keefe, a diminutive rover, returned to help operate the family farm at Boorhaman, after spending his secondary school years at Assumption College.

Des Steele

Officials were suitably impressed by his rapid improvement, and it was no surprise when he took out the Club Best and Fairest Award In 1960.

Waller also kept close tabs on a precociously talented local boy who’d headed off to Boarding School at Melbourne’s Xavier College, and was earning rave notices in the Public Schools competition.

Des Steele had already signed a Form Four, binding him to Collingwood, but Wang managed to snavel him for a handful of matches, which confirmed his eligibility for the Finals……………………

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The shape of the Ovens and Murray competition changed markedly in 1961.

Reigning premier Wangaratta Rovers, suffering from the exit of several players, and reeling from the hospitalisation of coach Bob Rose during the season, fell back to the field, and dropped out of finals contention.

Myrtleford and Yarrawonga, First Semi-Final combatants in 1960, also found the going much harder. It left Wodonga as the only Club to maintain their finals status.

The Bulldogs’ dominant season earned them the Minor Premiership, two games clear of Benalla 13-5, who snatched second place, on percentage from Wangaratta. Corowa 12-6, filled fourth spot.

The First Semi-Final combatants – Wangaratta and Corowa – had staged a battle-royal at the Showgrounds the previous week, with the ‘Pies falling in by two points. Opinion was divided on favouritism for the Semi, at Yarrawonga’s Grove Oval.

In the midst of Wang’s horror three-match losing streak in the middle of the season, the Spiders had inflicted a 52-point hiding upon them. Fans in the Border town were, to say the least, exuberant about their chances.

The Spiders were a revitalised, well-balanced side under the coaching of ex-Collingwood captain Frank Tuck, and inspired by a dashing centre half back, Jimmy Sandral. After several years in the doldrums, they were making their first finals appearance since 1949.

They went into the game with Tuck, and the important key position player Bobby Ronnfeldt both under an injury cloud.

Almost inevitably, Ronnfeldt was forced from the field early in the first term – an ominous sign for the Spiders.

But they fought back valiantly, with young sensation Max Urquhart and Geoff and Barry Swasbrick on song, to go into the half-time break only trailing by one point.

Little separated the sides in the third term. Every time Corowa appeared to be gaining the ascendency, the great play of McDonald and Mulrooney spurned the challenge.

The loss of Tuck towards the end of the quarter was a mortal blow for the Spiders, who trailed 10.12 to 9.7 at three-quarter time.

Nevertheless, they hit the front with the opening two goals of the final term………But that proved to be the end of the ball-game for them.

With McDonald in brilliant form the ‘Pies caught fire. They booted 10 goals for the quarter, to win running away, by 40 points.

Key forwards, McDonald (7) and Bob Constable (5), were unstoppable in the emphatic 20.14 to 14.10 victory……..

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Wodonga were odds-on to take out the Second Semi-Final, but Benalla had other ideas. They virtually wrapped the game up when they kicked 4.4 to the ‘Dogs two behinds in the third quarter, in gusty conditions.

Despite a Wodonga fight-back in the final term, the Demons held on to prevail 9.13 to 8.11, and clinch a Grand Final spot……..

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One thing was certain, in the eyes of many O & M fans…….Wodonga would react strongly to their shock defeat in the eagerly-anticipated Preliminary Final clash with Wangaratta, at the Albury Sportsground.

The first half was a poor-standard affair. The ‘Dogs held a slender 4.4 to 2.5 lead at half-time.

Wangaratta took complete charge in the second half, with ‘Rinso’ Johnstone producing a Best-on-Ground performance at full back.

Kevin Mack, McDonald (4 goals), Mulrooney, and youngster Des Steele were the other stand-outs for the winners, who consigned Wodonga to a straight-sets 14.15 to 6.11 exit from the Finals…….

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The sentiments of the football public had swung a full circle since the commencement of the Finals.

Wangaratta, because of their dominant performances, were rated hot-favourites to take out the 1961 title, despite Benalla earning the week’s rest and enjoying an exemplary season.

From the first bounce the Magpies dominated the match in every department. They out-marked, out-ran and out-thought a Benalla combination which appeared rattled by the first-quarter onslaught to which they’d been subjected.

The Demons were never allowed back into the game.

Neville Waller led his team in grand style. His ruckwork and marking were a treat to watch. But he had plenty of support. Bill Peake and Basil Schubert both chalked up 23 kicks, Kevin Mack was outstanding, and Ron McDonald’s 5 goals gave him 16 for the three finals. Small man Kevin O’Keefe also capped off another impressive finals series with four goals, whilst defender Traill, Cliff Hawkins and the veteran ruckman Graeme Woods also impressed.

Alf Sikora, Joey Joyce, ruckman Terry Putt and winger Ronnie Hayes battled hard for the Demons.

The scoreboard told the story of the Magpies’ dominance : 17.15 (117) to Benalla’s 7.12 (54).

THE PREMIERSHIP LINE-UP

Backs: Len Richards, Terry Johnstone, Graeme Woods

Half Backs: Basil Schubert, Rodney Swan, Bill Traill

Centres: Bruce Robbins, John Mulrooney, Herb Dowling

Half Forwards: Des Steele, Ron McDonald, Bill Peake

Forwards: Kevin Mack, Bob Constable, Cliff Hawkins

Rucks: Neville Waller, Bob Comensoli, Kevin O’Keefe

19th & 20th: Alan Benton, Norm Stewart.

* Ron McDonald played on with Wangaratta until a leg injury forced his retirement in 1963, after 38 games in Black and White. He passed away in 2000.

* Star centre half back Bernie Killeen was the ‘hard-luck story’ when he damaged his knee mid-season. John Holloway also failed to ‘come up’ after being injured in the First Semi-Final.

* Five players: Kevin Mack (1959, ‘64 ), Kevin O’Keefe (1960), Len Richards (1961), Des Steele (1965, ‘70), Bill Traill (1962) won Club B & F’s, whilst Mack and Bob Constable have been inducted as members of the O & M Hall of Fame…….

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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