PREMIERSHIP TIGER DREAMS OF A 1967 REPEAT

Is there no stopping this Tiger army ?  Like an invading force it marches on….. plundering those in its path, and converting new disciples along the way.

90,000, or more of them, proudly garbed in the tribal Yellow and Black, convened at football’s citadel on Saturday night. After another battle had been won, multitudinous, decibel-shattering renditions of the army’s War Cry rang out across inner-city Melbourne…………..

John Perry was there.

“It was moving stuff,” he says. “To see families – parents, their kids and grandkids – so happy; sharing the joy of a Richmond victory……I’d forgotten what it was like.”
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John’s football lineage is impeccable. His grandfather, Bill Strang, a hard-hitting ruckman and key forward, came from the bush, to play 69 games with South Melbourne,  including  the 1907 Grand Final.

Bill’s son Allan, followed him to the Swans. Another lad, Colin, made a couple of appearances with St.Kilda, whilst Doug and Gordon became household names when they arrived at Richmond in 1931.

Gordon (‘Cocker’) took 12 marks on debut , and proved a champion at either centre half forward or back, in 116 games with the Tigers. Doug was renowned as a magnificent mark. His ability to scale the heights, was balanced against his sometimes wayward kicking. However, this was not apparent in his second VFL game, when he booted 14 goals against North Melbourne.

Doug’s son, Geoff ( John’s cousin) – a dashing half back flanker – was  also to become a dual premiership star in Richmond’s strong sides of the late ’60’s……
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John’s mum Edna (‘Bobby’) was just 12 when her parents first took her down to watch her brothers, Doug and Gordon, in action with the Tigers. One of her idols was their team-mate, the great ‘Captain Blood’, Jack Dyer.

“Jack made a bit of a fuss of Mum. She loved him,” John says.

“Our family owned the Blazing Stump Hotel, and, later on in Jack’s life he used to spend the week between Boxing Day and New Year with us. That was his annual ‘pilgrimage’.”

“He just enjoyed being among Richmond people, away from Melbourne. Fishing, shooting and relaxing – that was his ‘go’.”

“ Jack would regale me with the same footy tales that he’d told Mum, about my uncles. I couldn’t get enough of them.”
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Thus, it was inevitable that John’s pathway would lead to Punt Road.

One of the many qualities of the legendary Tiger administrator Graeme Richmond was his unparalleled skill as a recruiter. “If someone played a good game at a place like Swan Hill, Graeme would know about it on Saturday night and be up there on Sunday to talk to the guy,” President Ian Wilson once reflected.

So when John Perry took out Wodonga’s Best & Fairest and finished runner-up in the 1963 Morris Medal,  aged  18, the astute Richmond invited the youngster to the Tigers’ pre-season training early the next year.

“I think he wanted to make sure that someone with a strong Richmond pedigree didn’t slip through their fingers,” John says. “And, just to re-inforce it, old coaches Des Rowe and Jack Dyer came up to visit me.”

Through circumstances beyond his control, Perry’s League career stuttered for the first three seasons. In just his second game he sustained a broken shoulder in a collision with Essendon’s Barrie Davis ( “Probably the only time Barrie ever hurt anyone,” he jokes.)

Then, having been conscripted to National Service, he was able to fit in just a handful of games in each of the ‘65 and ‘66 seasons.

He gave Richmond fans a taste of his capabilities, though, when slotted in against Geelong, late in 1966 . With 25 disposals on the wing in a losing side, the pacy blonde left-footer was a standout.

The Tigers missed the finals by just half a game that year, but it was obvious that they were on the rise. Tommy Hafey had introduced a tough edge to their game, and the host of young players coming through were beginning to blossom.

“We all loved Tommy and played for him. He was such a caring person, but he worked us hard.”

“One of his greatest assets was his wife Maureen, who brought all the wives and girlfriends together, “ says John.

1967 proved to be the coming-of-age for the Tigers. They lost only three home-and-away games en-route to belting Carlton by 40 points in the Second Semi.

John was selected on the bench for the epic Grand Final clash with Geelong, played in front of 109,000 fans. Grainy highlights of the game always feature the two long goals from lanky ruckman John Ronaldson, and a ‘screamer’ from Royce Hart, who rose to the heavens at a telling moment in the last quarter. It went down to the wire, as Richmond hung on to win by 9 points.

There was an out-pouring of emotion from Tiger fans, who savoured the club’s first flag in 24 years.

That victory lap and the celebrations that followed, were made all the sweeter because he shared them with his cousin Geoff Strang. They are still clearly embedded in John Perry’s mind………
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A bout of Hepatitis, and its after-effects, provided another impediment to John’s bid to claim a regular senior spot over the next couple of seasons . He also found himself typecast as a winger, and the brilliance of the incumbents – Dick Clay and Francis Bourke – resulted in scant opportunities.

But he remained deeply involved at Tigerland. He continued his education in the ‘pub game’, working at his future brother-in-law Graeme Richmond’s Vaucluse Hotel, and pushing hard for senior selection.

John played only four senior games in 1969, but tied for Richmond Reserves B &F, was runner-up in the VFL’s Gardner Medal and represented the VFL Reserves in a State game. He was named as first emergency for the seniors’ Grand Final – and ultimately – Premiership side.

So when North Melbourne coach Keith McKenzie came knocking at the end of the season, dangling a regular senior game in front of him, he decided to take the plunge and leave the Tigers.

“I knew I was good enough to play League footy and wanted to give myself the best chance. A good friend of mine, Frank Dimattina, went to the ‘Roos the previous year, and it seemed like a good fit.”

“I loved my time at North. I was still living and working in Richmond although, a bit later on, I moved over to the Junction Hotel in St.Kilda, which was run by Graeme and a business partner, Todd Shelton.”

John established himself as a regular in his four seasons at Arden Street, becoming a prolific kickwinner in his 56 games. A season at Caulfield, which was coached by an old team-mate Tony Jewell, saw him finish fifth in the VFA’s Liston Trophy.

After another year at Williamstown, under Ted Whitten’s coaching, he decided it was time to head back home, to play his part in operating the family’s businesses.

Wodonga promptly appointed him captain-coach in 1976 –  a coup for the ‘Dogs, who welcomed the return of a favourite son. But in his first game at the helm, against Myrtleford, he copped a heavy knock, which necessitated spending the rest of the year in  hospital.

His career was over…

John was actively involved in the early development of Birallee Park, the home of the Wodonga Raiders, and still follows the club’s fortunes from a distance.

Nowadays he has an interest in the Blazing Stump Motel, which is situated next to the family’s old landmark pub. And he spends plenty of time on the 40 acres he has ‘out the road’, on which graze several thoroughbred racehorses.

But this week John’s attention has turned to the Tigers. He rates them a real chance. “The way the forward line’s operating”, with those little fellahs around Jack Riewoldt, is terrific. They’re ferocious. I reckon 90 per cent of Victoria will be barracking for them.”

In an idle moment, John might permit himself to dream what might be, come 5 o’clock on Saturday. “……The siren sounds……Richmond have hung on to record a famous victory…….The players, delirious with excitement, begin their victory lap……Waving the Premiership Cup…….Offering salutations to the screaming, long-suffering fans……..”

It will be a reminder of that day in 1967, when he took the same journey………….

‘THE GREATEST OF THEM ALL………’

You’ve heard the story about the kid who used to plonk a rubbish-bin in a forward pocket at the Showgrounds. He’d drill 70 or 80 kicks at it, then drag it over to the other pocket and repeat the exercise.

Became a triple Geelong Premiership hero,  Norm Smith Medallist and media darling. They dubbed him ‘Stevie J’.

………. And the larrikin with loads of talent and spunk. North Melbourne officials lobbed at Myrtleford’s McNamara Reserve one night, whisked him off the training track and named him in their side the following Saturday.

Lou Richards was a fan and handed him a moniker that stuck. From then on he was ‘Slammin’ Sam’ Kekovich.

…………Sam played in the ‘Roos’ first Premiership with a hulking fellah from Tarrawingee, who made his name at the Wangaratta Rovers.  North’s talent scouts came up to a Grand Final to cast an eye over another lad- Johnny Byrne –  but were so impressed with the ruckwork of Michael Nolan that they signed the pair of them.

‘The Galloping Gasometer’ was to become a VFL cult hero.

………….Richmond recruiters took an immediate shine to Doug Strang when they saw him playing for East Albury in 1930. They thought they may as well invite his likely-looking brother Gordon down as well. In just his second game Doug kicked a lazy 14 goals and Gordon (‘Cocker’) dominated at the other end.

They figured in the Tigers’ Premiership victory the following year, alongside another O & M champ Maurie Hunter, who was by now a star of the game.

…………..A tall, blonde lad from Corowa-Rutherglen was just 16 when he booted 12 goals against Myrtleford in 1987. He was destined for the top, the experts proclaimed.

John Longmire had a striking physique, athleticism and an attitude beyond his tender years. Three seasons after his O & M debut he won the Coleman Medal and North Melbourne’s best and fairest. Subsequent coaching success with Sydney has added further lustre to ‘Horse’s’ burgeoning  resume’.

………….Fitzroy lured a star forward from Albury in the mid-thirties. Exasperated by his wayward kicking, they experimented with him at centre half back. Such was his dominance in the new position that Denis ‘Dinny’ Ryan took out the 1936 Brownlow Medal…………..

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It’s O & M  Hall of Fame time. Since its introduction in 2005 more than 60 champions have been duly honoured.

But who is the greatest home-grown product of them all ?

I’ve touched on a few, but the list of stars is as long as your arm. For argument’s sake, I’ll throw in a few more of the 350-odd who have ventured to the ‘big time’………Lance Oswald, Bert Mills, Don Ross, Daniel Cross, Percy ‘Oily’ Rowe, Fred Hiskins, Brett Kirk, Joel Smith, Daniel Bradshaw, Dennis Carroll, Fraser Gehrig, Dinny Kelleher, Ben Matthews, Lance Mann, Les (Salty) Parish, Norm Bussell and Jimmy Sandral.

And some, like Robbie Walker, Stan Sargeant, Brian Gilchrist,  Neville Hogan, ‘Curly’ Hanlon and Dennis Sandral  didn’t find the urge to leave home, yet are right up there when the experts compile a list of the ‘Best from the Bush’……….

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But there’ll be no argument about the Best-Ever.

Haydn Bunton won Brownlow Medals in his first and second years at Fitzroy – and  another, three years later.  Scribes of the thirties lauded the precocious talent of the lad from Albury, who had been forced to stand out of the game for a year. It was alleged that Fitzroy had paid him an illegal sign-on fee and thereby flouted the Coulter Law.

His brilliance had originally come to the attention of talent scouts when he starred for the O & M against a combined VFL team in 1928. He was still 16, but already exhibited wondrous skills.

Some years after his retirement, Haydn reflected on his early days and his entry to senior football:

“…..By the time I was 13, my two elder brothers George and Cleaver were playing for Albury and my younger brother Wally was already showing promise of doing the same.

That year – 1924 – I played football for the Albury School on Fridays and for Albury in the Ovens and Murray League on Saturdays.

In my last year at school I captained the school cricket team and hit 805 runs at an average of 201 and took 43 wickets. I’ve often been asked why I gave up cricket after only one District season with Fitzroy.

At times I wonder myself. I could get runs, but I was always a pretty stodgy bat. I had the chance. In 1927 I was chosen in the Riverina team to play Country Week in Sydney and made 3 centuries.

The next season I again got among the runs with 4 more centuries. Bill Ponsford came to see me at Albury and asked me to play for St.Kilda. I would have gone, but my mother was against my doing so.

In fact, when I did leave Albury to go to Melbourne to play football in 1930 it was still against my mother’s wishes. My father only agreed when he saw how keen I was.

It was around 1928 that the turmoil in my life began. For four years I’d been playing football with Albury………Four Buntons were in the Albury team. George was centre half forward and Wally centre half back. Cleaver took the knocks and the coach Bobbie Barnes, and I picked them up.

When I’d won the Best & Fairest for the team for three years -1926,’27 and ’28 – we played against a visiting Essendon side. Frank Maher, the State rover, was opposed to me. I had the better of him all day. At the time I thought I was king of the world. When I look back, though, I realise Frank was near the end of his time after a brilliant career. His legs weren’t as youthful as mine.

In 1929 the pressure was really on. Eleven Victorian clubs – all except Collingwood – came after me. They sent their men with all sorts of propositions, and they laid on the charm with a trowel.

It was pretty flattering and mighty bewildering. It would have been a game son who got a big head with my dad. In fact, his stern advice to me when I eventually left to play in Melbourne, was: “If you get swollen-headed don’t come back to this house. I want no son of mine to become too big for his boots.”

Looking back now, I almost blush with embarrassment when I think of how I arrived in Melbourne – a typical hick from the sticks’. My felt hat was dinted in four places, I wore a navy blue suit, the coat cut high at the back, the trousers almost bell-bottomed, cut-away double-breasted waistcoat, butcher blue shirt – and 4 shillings in my pocket when I stepped on to Spencer Street station.

Carlton officials were supposed to meet me. They were never at the station -although they claimed they were. I went straight to the head office of New Zealand Loan and asked for the manager. “Has my transfer been arranged to here from Albury, sir?” I asked. “What transfer, Bunton ?” was his staggering reply. I told him that Carlton had arranged it.

He rocked me again with his reply: ” I know nothing of any transfer, Bunton. In any case, we don’t transfer professional footballers.”

That was that. I was out of a job. I went out and immediately rang Tom Coles, the Fitzroy secretary. He got me a job straight away, working with Chandler’s, the hardware merchants. I signed there and then with Fitzroy…….”

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Because he was forced out of League football for a year, Haydn caught a train back to Albury each week-end of the 1930 season, to play for West Albury.

Then, almost from the time of his League debut, he became a celebrity.  In 119 games with Fitzroy, he kicked 307 goals, was twice their leading goal-kicker, twice club captain and was captain-coach for a year.

In 1938 he transferred to Subiaco, where he dominated the WAFL, winning three Sandover Medals in his four years in the west.

Haydn settled in Adelaide in 1945 and played his final season with Port Adelaide. He then went on to become a League umpire and, finally, a League coach with North Adelaide in 1947 and ’48.

He suffered serious injuries when his car veered off a road near Adelaide and hit a tree in 1955. The colourful life of the legendary Haydn Bunton was over at just 44 years of age………….