‘THE NATURAL’

He arrived in town 50 years ago, give or take a week or two.

It was back in the ‘halcyon days’ when recruits could sometimes lob – sight unseen – and ask if they could trouble you for a game of football. There was no need to mention money, accommodation or employment in his case.

The most strenuous effort that  Rovers secretary Ernie Payne expended was to reach for a pen to get his signature on the dotted line.

He was just 17, and about to start his first job, as a clerk with the Government. It was a new adventure for the lad, who came from a large, close-knit family in a nearby town.

In no time, he had settled into the Club. He had an engaging personality and soon garnered a wide circle of friends. Not only young blokes of his vintage, but everyone connected with the Rovers, who responded to his friendliness. He displayed such maturity for a kid of his age, they said.

His form on the track pleasantly surprised the coach, Ken Boyd. He was lithe and handled the ball with assuredness. Someone mentioned that he’d played in a premiership with a district club the previous season. Boyd could see that he showed promise and felt a season in the Reserves would bring him on nicely.

By mid-year he was knocking on the door of the senior side. An injury to the veteran, Brian Hallahan, gave him his opportunity and he was plonked on a wing, opposed to a wily old-stager from Wodonga,  Keith Flower.

It was a brilliant debut. His ability to glide over the top of a pack to take a mark reminded old-timers of Eric Cornelius, whose number 28 he had inherited.

But there was more to his game. He could read the play and his skills were good.

Monday’s ‘Chronicle’ raved about his performance, declaring that “until he succumbed to cramp in the last quarter, he was a key figure in the Hawks’ win over the Bulldogs.” He must have mentioned in passing, that he was a Hawthorn supporter.

The headline for the article read: ‘Yen for a Hawthorn Guernsey.’ His mates got stuck into him over that one. “Hey, you’re getting a bit ahead of yourself aren’t you ,” they joked.

At season’s end he was voted the Rovers’ Best First-Year player and now focused on his other two sports – Basketball and Cricket.

Truth be known, Basketball was probably his favourite. He was a natural and his excellent hand-eye co-ordination made him a star of the local competition and a regular inter-town rep. He was a mainstay, and heavy points-scorer for the Rovers, who were mostly comprised of footballers and were one of the top teams.

The same applied to his cricket. He was an all-rounder – batted at second or third drop and bowled medium-pace in-swingers.  He was a valuable member of the Rovers side and represented Wangaratta in the Colts (Under 21) competition.

There was no doubt that he thrived on sport. He improved in leaps and bounds in his second O&M season, culminating in a handy game on the wing in the Rovers’ Grand Final loss to Wodonga.

After a couple of years he was recognised as one of Wangaratta’s most versatile sportsmen. He loved the social aspect – playing the game hard and then settling down to talk about it over a few ‘sherbets’, sometimes finishing up in the wee hours of the morning.

He was adamant that sport was all about enjoyment. A couple of his close mates pestered him, suggested he should be a bit more fair-dinkum about it ; train harder ; make a few sacrifices. “Bugger that”, he replied. He was more than happy to get by on his God-given ability.

He headed over to Bendigo Country Week cricket one year with a group of predominantly young blokes. They were fun-loving, thoroughly enjoyed their cricket and the night-life afterwards. What a fantastic way to have a holiday, he reckoned.

He started off the series with unbeaten innings’ of 62 and 78, then made a fighting 32 in the Final, which Wang narrowly lost to Rochester. He had scored 201 runs and taken a handful of wickets for the week, to again show his mettle…….

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By now it was late-January 1970. He had not long celebrated his 21st birthday, was captain of the Rovers cricket and basketball teams,  a member of the North-East Cup cricket team and had been selected to represent Wangaratta at Melbourne Country Week for the first time, within the next fortnight.

His was a hectic sporting life. What’s more he was keenly anticipating getting stuck into pre-season training with the Rovers , under  Neville Hogan, the newly-appointed coach.

But, more immediately, there was a trip to Corryong to negotiate. The boys were playing a Cup game against Upper Murray and had organised to travel to the mountain country at some unearthly hour the next morning. It was suggested that an early night might be beneficial.

Most thought that was a good idea, but, you could tell by the look in his eye that he deemed it near-sacrilegious to head for home when the evening was still so young.

The news that hit like a sledgehammer, came through at about 3.30 the next morning. His car had veered off the road, clipped a tree, struck a white post and overturned several times.

The blossoming young life of this popular and prodigiously talented all-round sportsman had been nipped in the bud……..IMG_0935…..

 

CONFRONTING LIFE’S OBSTACLES…..

He was the proverbial ‘Young Man in a Hurry’…………operating his own bread-contractor’s business at 18………..Wangaratta’s Country Week cricket captain at 19………..an O & K football coach at 22…

He was a dynamic package. A team-lifting footballer and a cricketer who could carve up an attack with his forceful stroke-play.

Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, his life changed. Beset by drowsiness, his car veered off the Ovens Highway, near Tarrawingee, and slammed into a tree.

With both legs badly broken and facing a lengthy period of rehabilitation, his active sporting career was in ruins.

But people underestimated the steely determination of John Welch…..
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John Welch and Eric Cornelius grew up just around the corner from one another in what was then the backblocks of Wangaratta.

They did everything together………went to West End Primary, played endless games of cricket in the Welch’s Scott Street backyard and spent nights kicking the footy on Appin Park Oval.unnamed

Moving on to High School, they played with South Wanderers in the Junior League and worked after school at Bob Rose’s Sports Store, shared football and cricket premierships and, in time, when it came to business, even took over the Sports Store…….

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Rose, the football immortal, had a profound influence on the young Welch. They formed a lifelong friendship. Both had the knack of being able to draw people to them. From early on, John was stamped as a ‘born leader’.

A lively footballer with loads of spunk, he could be switched from roving to the midfield, or up forward. Ken Boyd, who had inherited the Rovers coaching job from Rose, loved his adaptability and he was a key player in the successive flags of 1964 and ’65.

He was the sort of player, Hawk fans gleefully anticipated, who would be a champion of the Club for years to come.

Alas, in 1967 he slipped away. Eager to try his hand at coaching he took on the job at Whorouly and recruited a few of his cricket mates in the process. Having satisfied that urge, he rejoined the Hawks.

In the meantime, he had become established as possibly the town’s highest-profile cricket figure.

He was the lynchpin of the United Cricket Club, which had gained admission to the WDCA in 1961/62.

Apart from one season, when he was lured down to District club Fitzroy, he was the dynamo of a group which was to enjoy a decade and a half of spectacular success.

John often wonders what may have been, had he decided to stick it out for a while longer in the ‘big smoke’.

“Fitzroy legend Bill Jacobs invited me down after watching me bat at Country Week. They offered me a job as assistant-curator, which suited me fine. But Mum had visions of me achieving far more than being a glorified green-keeper and put her foot down. So I came home to stay.”

John was at his peak in the mid-sixties. At one stage he scored centuries in three consecutive knocks on the Showgrounds – 120 in a semi-final, 151 in the 1966/67 Final against Tarrawingee and 184 in the opening round of the following season.

An enterprising stroke player, he was always eager to ‘take on’ the bowling. Almost from the first ball he would be stealing quick singles with daring running between wickets.

Anointed as Wangaratta’s Country Week skipper, he added a touch of flair to the role. It was an era when the locals were trading blows with the best in the bush.

And with the visit of the West Indies looming, he entertained the exciting prospect of leading Country Victoria against Gary Sobers’ tourists.

He was in hot form in the early rounds of the 1968 O & M season, fitting seamlessly back into the Rovers’ line-up. They were sitting at 5 -1 and atop the ladder, at the time of his fateful accident, but fell right away, to win just 4 more games for the season.

John spent 13 weeks in hospital and was bluntly advised that his sporting career was over.

But during his lengthy recuperation, the thoughts of getting back onto the cricket field began to drive him. What’s it matter if one leg’s shorter than the other ? Surely a little hindrance like that wasn’t going to deter him ?

About 18 months later he returned to the crease, wearing a specially-made boot , initially using a runner, then going ‘solo’.

In no time it had become just a minor inconvenience to him and he adapted to the extent that, in 1971/72 his 605 runs gave him the WDCA batting aggregate.

He was to continue playing for another 17 years and retired with an enviable record – 6740 runs, 9 Premierships, 15 trips to Country Week ( including 11 as captain ), induction into the WDCA Hall of Fame. To an extent, he was a central figure in Wangaratta cricket for almost 30 years.

John had played 88 games with the Rovers when his O & M career was nipped in the bud. He missed the cut and thrust of footy and entertained the thought of coaching again.

Trouble is, in the 70’s no-one was really interested in non-playing coaches.

“So I dropped in to the Plough Inn pub to say g’day to old Pete Nolan one day and gave him a bit of a ‘hard sell’ that I might be the man for Tarra’s vacant job.” he recalls.

“Not really, John, I think they want a playing-coach”, was Pete’s reply.

“Anyway, apparently Pete’s son Mick put in a good word for me and I found out that I had the job a fortnight or so later.”

He is as proud of the four years that he spent at Tarrawingee as any of his other sporting achievements. But if he had his time over again, he wouldn’t have pulled on the boots, which he did for half-a-dozen games in his first season.

“I thought I’d make a difference, poking around the forward line. All I did was get in the road. The ultimate insult came when an opponent called me a Spastic. I thought it was time to retreat to the bench,” he said.

The camaraderie that developed between players and coach was as good as you could get.

One of his players, for example, had been tempted with an assistant-coaching offer from a Riverina club. “Let’s jump in the car and have a look at the place. You don’t want to commit before you check it out,” the coach suggested.

They arrived at a tiny place about 12km from Wagga, conspicuous for its wheat silo, general store, sports oval – and not much else.

John drove slowly into the ground,which was almost knee-high with grass, approached the dilapidated Clubrooms and flung open the unlocked door, just as a startled sheep, trapped inside, darted for the exit.

The player decided to stay at Tarra.

The culmination of his coaching reign was the 1975 Grand Final, which saw the Bulldogs out-point Beechworth by 16 points. With that, he called it a day.

His inevitable return to the Findlay Oval saw him lead the Thirds to the 1980 premiership and, two years later assume the role as Senior Coach.

The Hawks were in a transitional stage. Most of the stars from the famous 1970’s era had retired, or were nearing the end of the road. Strong emphasis needed to be placed on recruiting.

As the Rovers’ first-ever non-playing mentor, John threw himself into the role with gusto. He guided them to two Preliminary Finals in his three years in charge and introduced two future coaches – Peter Tossol and Laurie Burt – to the Club.

At the end of his second season, he suggested to the Board that it would be wise to begin the search for a ‘big name’ playing-coach.

He arranged interviews with Richmond’s Mick Malthouse and Essendon defender Ron Andrews.

“Mick was quite keen, on the proviso he could bring another player with him. He thanked us for our approach and professionalism and we left it at that. In the meantime, Footscray snapped him up, so we fell short and I continued coaching for another year.”

He remained actively involved in local sport for a few more years, but eventually moved away. His sons Darren (Carlton) and Mark (University) were both playing District cricket and his expanding Insurance and Financial Planning business interests lay in Melbourne.

unnamed-3Now retired and residing in Myrtleford, golf is  the principal sporting passion of John Welch, but he still retains a fervent interest in local footy and cricket.unnamed-2