“FOND FAREWELL TO LEX & LES….LEGENDS OF THE PAST…. “

Fond memories flash by when sporting legends shuffle off this mortal coil…….

Two champions of North-East sport were farewelled recently,……. I was fortunate enough to have a seat in the bleachers when both of them were strutting their stuff.

One snubbed his nose at the inequities that life dealt him, to become a champion batsman for Whorouly – and beyond ………the other was a boyhood prodigy who scaled football’s heights and was a formidable figure during Euroa’s unprecedented era of cricket success ……

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Lex Nicoll was one of nature’s gentleman – and a true optimist.

He needed to be, to cope with the obstacles that were to confront him throughout his life.

He went to his first cricket Country Week with Ovens and King at the age of 14, and was undaunted by opening the batting. As a member of the famous Nicoll family much was expected of him, but he was a talent, to be sure……

He was just 20 when selected at full forward in Whorouly’s football semi-Final team of 1951. It was to be the biggest game of his life and he was nervously excited on match-eve, despite having been off-colour for a few days.

He woke up with a splitting head-ache, the worst he’d ever had. His mother suggested he pull out……No, Lex replied….. he didn’t want to let anyone down.

He kicked a few goals and the experts said he played pretty well in the win over Milawa, but the headaches just wouldn’t go away.

He ended up in Hospital a few days later, gasping for breath, with machines whirring, nurses scurrying around, and a doctor with a furrowed brow diagnosing him.

Sorry, they informed him, but polio has attacked your immune system. You’re lucky to be alive…….

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So the medicos gave him the cruel news that the polio had affected muscles in both legs and it was unlikely that he’d play sport again.

He set about proving them wrong.

At first he could hardly walk half a dozen paces, but kept working at it. He was resigned to wearing callipers on both legs but, as time rolled on, slowly improved his mobility.

He even got to have a hit on the makeshift wicket his dad had made on the family farm, learning to improvise with his stroke-play, despite his physical impediment.

The day that things turned around for him came when a Sub-District team made its annual Easter visit to play Whorouly. Lex was put in at number 11.

“I was as nervous as could be, “ he once said. “A fast bowler was operating and sent down a few deliveries that were half rat-power. I walked up to him at the end of the over and said to him on the side: ‘Either flat-out or not all.’ “

“He started to let a few go, and I knew then that I’d be okay to play the next season. It changed my life, knowing that I’d be able to turn out regularly for Whorouly.”

He came back to WDCA cricket mid-way through the 1954-55 season using a runner, and was forced to do so for the remainder of his career. Opposition clubs were pleased to see him participating, and it became an accepted part of the game.

He developed a fine repertoire of shots ( particularly on the off-side ), hit the ball with power and had an excellent defence. In short, he became pretty darned difficult to dismiss, batting at number 3. He fielded at first slip and occasionally bowled spin off two paces.

Lex scored seven WDCA centuries, and once shared a stand of 252 with a cousin, Peter, and a record fifth-wicket stand of 302 for the fifth wicket with another cousin, Ian.

He made five trips to Melbourne Country Week, but the highlight of his career came in 1957/58, when he won selection in a North-East representative team which played the touring South Australian Sheffield Shield side.

It was a star-studded line-up, and it proved to be a tight contest. Nicoll handled tear-away quicks Peter Trethewey and Alan Hitchcock, then contended with ex-Test spinner Bruce Dooland.

He hung around to stabilise the innings and finished with 30 out of a total of 195, in reply to the Croweaters’ total of 150.

Some people joked that Lex got it easy, with a runner doing the hard work for him, but he said it sometimes backfired. He was run out three of the four times he batted one year at Country Week.

Life continued to treat him harshly in latter years. He lost his wife Jill; had a bingle on a motor-bike which knocked him around a bit, then his house burned down, along with all of his belongings.

What irked him a bit, he reckoned, was that he lost his treasured 1957 Country Week-winning blazer and a favourite, trusty old cricket bat.

About seven years ago, Lex suffered yet another setback. He was rounding up cattle on his quad bike…….the bike flipped……and the next thing he remembered was waking up in an Ambulance, on the way to Wangaratta Hospital.

That’s life, he said…….There are people a lot worse off than me………

A fortnight ago, he passed away, aged 90……..

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Lex Nicoll crossed paths with Les Reed in some of the titanic North-East Cup cricket battles that raged between Wangaratta and Euroa in the late fifties-early sixties.

Reed has long been hailed as one of Euroa’s sporting legends.

He hadn’t quite turned 16 when he was thrust from junior ranks, to make his senior football debut with the WNEFL Magpies in 1948.

Three years later, word filtered through to Geelong that the talented winger/mid-fielder was worth having a look at. His arrival at Kardinia Park couldn’t have been more perfectly-timed, as the Cats were building a powerful line-up under the coaching of the great Reg Hickey.

He had a sniff of senior football in the opening two games of 1951, but was then promptly dropped to the Reserves.

“I thought I was terrible,” he later reflected on his initial taste of the big-time. “ It was just too quick for me.”

Some fine form in the Reserves saw him return in time for the Second Semi-Final…………A fortnight later, in his fourth VFL game, his boyhood dreams were realised when he was part of Geelong’s 11-point win over Essendon in the Grand Final.

Named as 19th man, he replaced defender Loy Stewart early in the final quarter, and was handed the task of blanketing Bombers’ coach Dick Reynolds for the remainder of the game.

“Dick was an old man at that stage of his career, and slowing up a bit; I was young and energetic, but not as smart as him. I couldn’t have been more relieved when the siren blew, and we’d won the flag,” he said years later.

Reed played in 17 of the Cats’ run of 23 consecutive wins ( still an AFL/VFL record ) during 1952-53 , but missed out on being a member of their ‘52 premiership side.

He returned to favour mid-way through the next season, and figured in his 25th – and final – VFL game, the 1953 Grand Final, in which Geelong lowered their colours to Collingwood.

He’d already decided to return home to Euroa, to work at a sawmill with his dad, Tom.

So he embarked on the second of his five stints with the Black and Whites. He took over as captain-coach in 1955 ( aged 23 ), winning the WNEFL Best & Fairest and leading Euroa to the Grand Final, where they were pipped by Mansfield.

Two other identities with whom he was to have a close connection, were involved with the Magpies that year: Harry Alexander, the former Test fast bowler, was President, and Ray MacLaine was the Club’s Best & Fairest ……….

Les had a handful of footy sabbaticals from his beloved Euroa He spent three seasons ( 49 games) at Benalla, coached Violet Town In 1968 and ‘85 ( 30 games ), and played 54 games with Geelong West.

His 150-plus games with the Magpies were highlighted by three flags (1964, ‘65 and ‘67 ). He coached their Thirds in 1961,( and for several years in the seventies ). He led the Reserves in 1980 and had another term as non-playing coach of the Seniors in 1986.

His playing football career wound down on the eve of Euroa’s entry to the Goulburn Valley League, in 1971…………………..

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Ray MacLaine and Les Reed had grown up together, and shared many of Euroa’s great sporting moments. Besides their footy prowess, they were at the forefront when the EDCA strode the cricketing heights.

Reed regarded MacLaine as his cricketing twin, and the finest bowler with whom he’d been involved…….

One of their many shared cricketing honours came when they were named in the Victorian Country XI, which clashed with South Africa, at Benalla, in December 1963.

Reed came to the crease after the loss of three early wickets, and was immediately on the attack:

“…..He cracked the first four of the day with a delightfully-executed late cut. Peter Pollock reacted violently to this, and rocked down successive short, rising deliveries to the keeper-batsman……Unperturbed, he hit the next ball for three……Eventually though, Reed, who had delighted the crowd with his entertaining batting, was removed, for 30, by medium-pacer Joe Partridge….” the match report said.

MacLaine and Reed were named captain and vice-captain respectively, for the eagerly-awaited Vic Country match against the touring Englishmen, at Euroa in 1965, which didn’t eventuate because of rain.

The pair were automatic selections in rep matches in the area, and were obviously the guiding lights for a number of EDCA youngsters who comprised their side in the sixties.

Players such as Brian Hayes, the Brodie brothers, Mick Hill, Peter O’Donoghue, Billy Sargood, Colin and Rod Ferguson and Gary Mackrell helped to take Euroa to the top in North-East and Country Week Cricket.

Reed was skipper when the tiny town of a touch over 3,000 people achieved its greatest triumph, taking out Melbourne Country Week’s Provincial crown in 1967.

A convincing win over Wangaratta maintained a run of success over their arch rivals. Two years later, they were again due to renew the fireworks in the Country Week Final, but this time rain intervened and Euroa was declared the winner, by dint of superior percentage.

Reed was a stylish stroke-maker, lightning with the gloves, and ultra-competitive. He had a knack of getting under an opponent’s skin with a subtle sledge here and there.

One Wangaratta batsman, though, recalls being on the other end of a piece of his reverse psychology, as he tentatively prodded at off-spinner Brian Hayes.

“You’re going well, young fellah. But don’t be frightened to leave the crease when you’re playing him…He doesn’t turn it much, you know,”

“That’s generous of him to take an interest in a young player like that,” thought the batsman. A few balls later, he heeded the advice, was stranded, and turned, to see Reed gleefully removing the bails.

Les Reed made his first Club century in 1949, and his last in the mid-seventies. He was a Member of Euroa Football Club’s Team of the Century, a Life Member of the Football Club and Cricket Association and a two-time Euroa Bowls Club champion.

He fought a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s Disease, and died on May 25th,, aged 88…….

‘THE STEAM-TRAIN IN THE GEELONG GUERNSEY…..’

Ray Card knows exactly how Andrew Gaff felt when the fury of the football world came crashing down upon him last Sunday.

Forty years ago – in Round 7 1978 -the well-chiselled Geelong defender, with just 15 games under his belt, pole-axed dual Brownlow Medallist Keith Greig (Click here to watch).

“That one would have got the journos going in Monday’s ‘rag’,” I suggest to Cardy.

“Back and front pages,” he replies. “I wasn’t too popular with North Melbourne for a while, but it was just part of the rough-and-tumble of footy in those days. Similar incidents occurred every week………”

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Respected scribe Glenn McFarlane summed up the clash: ‘It’s remembered as much for the blood that streamed from Greig’s nose, as it was for the impact of the collision. Greig had gone back with the flight of the ball when he ran into a steam-train in a Geelong jumper.’

‘Card said there was very little he could do to lessen the impact: “I was going hard at the ball and we collided. Keith didn’t come out of it very well. But the cameras caught it.” Greig said years later: “I was following the ball with my eyes when contact was made. I accepted it then, and I do now, because I played every week expecting contact. Now the game is getting like basketball….”

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That’s just one titbit of the Ray Card story. He played his footy hard. But once the final siren blew, was ever-ready to sit down with teammates and opponents alike, and blow the froth off a beer…..or twenty.

It made him a legion of lifelong friends, and is one reason why he’s still involved on the fringes of the game. People blessed with his gregarious personality are invaluable commodities in sporting clubs………

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Cardy grew up in Morwell, but was born in Yallourn, literally with a Sherrin at his fingertips.

His dad George, who had played 46 games with Geelong in the late forties, was a big influence, but didn’t interfere, as Ray was coming through the junior ranks. “If he had anything to say, it was always constructive…..never critical.”

After three promising seasons with the Morwell seniors, he’d come to the attention of Hawthorn, to whom he was residentially-bound. But, being eligible to play with Geelong under the father-son rule, Kardinia Park became his new home in 1977.

“Rod Olsson was the coach. He’d been a tough-nut at Hawthorn and tried to introduce that style of play. I think he appreciated that I was determined, reliable, and had a crack. But, you know, when you’re in your first season there’s a few doubts; I wasn’t sure whether I was good enough.”IMG_3560

He copped a few injuries, and won the Reserves B & F, in between playing nine senior games that year, but over the next couple of seasons became an established senior player, across the half back line.

“Billy Goggin took over from Rod Olsson, and his game was all based around pace. With me not being real quick, I struggled a bit under Billy. If you made a mistake he’d have you off the ground in a flash,” Ray says.

“In Bill’s third year – 1982 – I only played nine games, but was lucky enough to be part of
the Reserves Premiership side.”

Ray had been contemplating whether his future may lie elsewhere. Melbourne had a yarn, and waved a contract in front of him, but fate intervened when Tommy Hafey was appointed to succeed Goggin as the Cats’ leader.

“Tom took me aside and said he’d watched the Reserves Grand Final closely and was impressed by the way I played. He felt there was an important role for me in the side.”

“He was a great fellah, Tommy; a terrific coach. He let you settle in, and if you made a mistake he’d stick with you. I suppose, when I look back, I tried to adhere to his philosophies when I started out on my coaching journey.”

Hafey certainly brought out the best in Card. He enjoyed a brilliant season in defence in 1983, and took out the Carji Greaves Medal as Geelong’s Best & Fairest.

Then, just as he had scaled football’s heights, ‘Lady Luck’ showed what a fickle wench she could be. A shoulder injury proceeded to cost him twelve games of the following season.

Back to full fitness, he ‘blew out’ a knee in the opening round of 1985. A series of setbacks followed, including three major ‘ops’. Gruelling rehab would be followed by another devestating let-down.

He was limited to just two more games over three seasons. The end was nigh.

“I met with the Club at the end of 1987. I was going on 31, and, with my injury problems, they said they’d probably let me go……”

The 110-game VFL career of Ray Card was over………

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He received approaches from 17-18 clubs, and eventually narrowed it down to coaching offers from Redan (Ballarat F.L) and Wangaratta.

“Three blokes – Norm Sharp, ‘Smoky’ Dawson and Terry Johnson – interviewed me and convinced me to sign on with the Magpies,” Ray recalls.

He moved the family to Wangaratta and had a job as a rep with a confectionary company, (he was later to become Secretary-Manager of the Wangaratta Club for five years).

“I thought I’d line up at centre half back, pick up a few cheap kicks and direct traffic from there,” he says. “But in the opening game we played Wang Rovers, and this bloke took me apart, jumping all over me, and leaving me for dead on the ground. It was my introduction to Robbie Walker.”

“I thought, this is no good. I could read the play alright, so I re-evaluated things and decided to play on the ball.”IMG_3566

The Pies fell to Yarrawonga in the Elimination Final that year, but in 1989 he believed they had a side that was nearly good enough to win the flag.

They finished second at the end of the home-and-away, but ‘copped’ a few injuries, along with a bout of ‘flu which swept through the club on the eve of the Qualifying Final. Despite a valiant effort, they were unable to rein in the Pigeons, who prevailed by 16 points.

The following week, the Rovers belted them by 112 points on a windswept Findlay Oval. The Pies’ season of promise had ended in the most humiliating fashion.

But Card had shown his mettle on the field. He finished fourth in the Morris Medal and was named in the O & M’s Team of the Year.

The story is told of him allaying the fears of Mary Naish, who was concerned that her baby was far too young to be playing senior O & M football. “Mrs.Naish,” he said, “ I’ll give you my guarantee that I’ll keep young Chris under my wing. He’ll be as safe as a church.”

“He was very popular with the players… a man’s man,” recalled one of his players. “Any dust-ups on the field were usually settled by Cardy fronting the opposition aggressor. He played hard and partied harder.”

“His powers of recovery astounded us. After a big night we’d drag ourselves along to KFC for brekkie, and notice him going past, pounding the bitumen on a 10 km run.”

After three seasons Card relinquished the coaching job at Wangaratta and was lured to Milawa as assistant-coach in 1991.

“It was very sociable out there in the O & K, and I made a heap of friends,” he says.

It proved to be a most enjoyable exercise. The Demons clinched an exciting Grand Final victory over Greta, after the Blues had led by 15 points going into time-on. And Card’s effort in winning the B & F was justification for his decision to have one last fling as a player.

After another year as non-playing coach of Milawa, then a brief foray as the O & M’s inter-league mentor, he looked forward to a respite from footy.

But Wangaratta sent out an SOS to him early in the 1994 season, when the incumbent coach, Graeme Cordy, resigned after Round 4.

“They’d asked me a few weeks earlier if I could give him a hand. I told them I didn’t think that was appropriate – having a former coach hovering around him. But when they came looking for a caretaker, I reluctantly agreed to do the job.”

For one reason or another, he remained as coach of the battling Pies for three seasons. The popularity of the coach was probably a factor in maintaining morale in the Club, as it entered some of the leanest times in its 120-year history.

When he finally resigned Card had become ( and remains ) the second-longest serving Wangaratta coach, behind the legendary Mac Holten.

Ray arranged a transfer in his job as a rep for Cadbury’s ( now Schweppe’s, with whom he’s been employed for 23 years), and re-located his family back to Geelong in the late nineties.IMG_3563

Immediately approached to renew his link with the Cats, he served firstly as a runner, then an assistant-coach of the Reserves, for several years.

He recalls being involved with the Geelong Reserves team that won the flag in 2002. It included kids like Bartel, Ablett, Chapman and Johnson, who were just making their way in the game, and were to become crucial components of three famous Geelong premierships in succeeding years .IMG_3561

“I took a keen interest, in particular, in the progress of Steve Johnson, who’d been a little tacker hanging around the rooms when I first started coaching at Wangaratta,” he says.

Ray has been President of the Geelong Past Players Association for three years. One of his roles is to host match-day functions at home games.

He remains as passionate as ever about the Cats, and still keeps a close eye on the week-end results, to keep track of his old clubs – Morwell, Wangaratta and Milawa.

He’s a true football fanatic, is Ray Card……..
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