Sometimes, winning Premierships boils down to being in the right place at the right time……………As they say: ‘Ya gotta have luck’……
The Ovens and Murray’s most prolific goal-kicker, Stan Sargeant would begrudgingly concur with that assessment . He wore North Albury’s Green and Gold in 289 games, over 17 years. As the curtain began to draw on his career he clung to one remaining dream – capturing that elusive flag.
It seemed within reach in the dying stages of the 1973 Grand Final when his massive 70-metre goal gave the ‘Hoppers a sniff of victory……. But Benalla, steady in the crisis, re-grouped and hung on to win by seven points………Despite all of his footy achievements, ‘Sarge’ was pipped at the post in his last tilt at premiership glory.
Billy Gayfer’s was an even starker hard-luck story.
He filled in for the Rutherglen Reserves, at the age of 14, in late-1954, the year the Redlegs won their last O & M title. For the next 16 years, on-and-off, Billy laboured valiantly for his beloved home club, winning five Best and Fairests and earning recognition as one of the game’s classiest mid-fielders…..without once going close to playing in a Final, let alone winning a flag……
Brett Keir stood out like a beacon in defence for Wangaratta throughout some of their darkest days. His time at the Norm Minns Oval spanned 15 years and 264 senior games. He was revered, by his own fans and highly-respected by the wider footy community. He represented the League 12 times.
Yet ‘Balls’ Keir couldn’t crack it for an O & M flag.
Conversely, I’d like to tell the tale of two old Magpie champs who, between them, managed to snare 11 premierships in 26 years…………….
Ernie Ward was typical of many footballers who ‘spread their favours’ during the harsh economic times of the Great Depression.
As money was scarce and jobs had dried up in the city they hot-footed it to the bush. Their ability to kick a footy often swayed star-gazing country clubs to arrange employment and hand them a few bob for stripping with the locals.
Ward had played with Coburg, then moved on to Bendigo League club, Eaglehawk, who offered him five shillings a game. To supplement his meagre work and footy income, he’d head out to the ‘scrub’, trapping rabbits and selling their skins.
The 24 year-old arrived in Wangaratta with his young family in early 1935, settled in Templeton Street and landed a job driving a Brewery truck.
The Pies, who had come off a disappointing season, and were eager to return to the top, hailed
their good fortune in recruiting Ward, a strong, high-marking key-position player, and Charlie Heavey, a swashbuckling, record-breaking forward.
They weren’t disappointed. Heavey booted 109 goals in the home and away games, whilst Ward proved a revelation with his adaptability, either in defence or attack.
Wang finished third in ‘35, but made amends the following year, convincingly outpointing Rutherglen by 20 points in the Grand Final, after kicking seven goals to four in the last half…………
The gregarious, and highly-popular Ward took his game to another level in 1937. Despite Wangaratta tumbling to the bottom of the ladder, he was their stand-out. It severely impacted them when he was knocked out in a marking duel at the Albury Sportsground.
The result, a fractured skull, compound fracture of the nose and fractured upper jaw, cost him the last four games and -probably – the Morris Medal.
He finished one vote behind the eventual winner, Yarrawonga’s George Hayes, but more importantly, doubts were cast about his ability to recover from such a severe injury……
Wangaratta launched a Fund-Raider for their stricken champ, to offset his considerable medical, dental and Hospital fees. The Appeal elicited a generous response from supporters. At the club’s end-of-season banquet, they applauded warmly when he was presented with a gold, initialled cigarette case as Wangaratta’s Best & Fairest Player.
The Pies rebounded strongly in 1938, under the leadership of another footy nomad, Norman Le Brun. Ward was appointed as his deputy and the pair formed a close friendship.
Although he’d been left with a couple of permanent reminders of his injury, it had little effect on Ernie’s playing ability.
He and Le Brun both booted four goals to make a telling difference, as Wang snuck home from Yarrawonga by four points, in an enthralling Second Semi-Final.
They were also the main perpetrators when the sides met again in the Grand Final. Ward (6) and Le Brun (3), along with the veteran Alec Fraser helped Wang to a 12.15 (87) to 7.16 (58) victory over the Pigeons.
The Pies had created O & M history by going from from Premiers, to wooden-spooners, to Premiers, in three roller-coaster seasons.
Ernie took on the coaching job of Ovens and King League club Waratahs in 1939, leading them into the Grand Final.
The clouds of War were hanging ominously over the football landscape when he returned to Wangaratta in 1940. Despite the season being curtailed to just 10 home and home games he managed win the B & F and land 53 goals, to be the go-to man in attack for the Pies.
With War now raging he was keen to enlist, but a hole in the pallet of his mouth, and a weeping eye duct – a legacy of his old footy injury – precluded him from playing his part.
Instead, he led Rainbows ( an offshoot of the Wangaratta Football Club ) to the O & K title in 1941, and was a key member of the Wang team which enjoyed an unbeaten 1945 Murray Valley League season.
When Ovens and Murray football resumed in 1946, after the cessation of war-time hostilities, Wangaratta spared nothing in their efforts to regain their standing as a League power. Their prized signing – for a hefty fee – of the great Laurie Nash as captain-coach was their contribution to rejuvenating the game.
Nash delivered in spades, and his now-veteran deputy Ernie Ward also showed that he hadn’t lost his touch.
Wangaratta and Albury tangled in a riveting Grand Final at Rutherglen, which was a nip and tuck affair. Nash incurred a torn muscle during the third term, and sent Ward to Full Forward.
The Pies hung on to win 14.10 (94) to 13.11 (89), with key forwards Ward and Nash both finishing with four majors.
Ernie Ward had played in five premierships in his nine playing years in Wangaratta ( including three O & M titles). He accepted the position of playing-coach of the fledgling – and poorly-performed – O & K club Wangaratta Rovers in 1947.
It was a marriage that was never really consummated. After a 111-point hiding from Milawa in the second round, Ward promptly resigned, and was ultimately replaced by his old Waratahs and Wangaratta team-mate, Len Hill.
Ernie, his wife Vivian and four kids moved on to Wagga in 1948, where he took on the coaching position at North Wagga. Rising 38, he guided his side to a flag and picked up another B & F.
After a stint as coach of Collingullie in 1949, he returned to North Wagga, where he played out the remainder of his colourful career.
Ernie Ward was named at Centre Half Forward in Wangaratta’s Team of the Century, and was awarded Life Membership in 1947……………..
Graham Woods was a spindly schoolboy when he watched ‘big guns’ like Ernie Ward strut their stuff in the 1946 Grand Final.
It was envisioned that he’d be a died-in-the-wool Magpie, as his dad Vic had played with the Club in the twenties. But the Woods family farm was located at Boorhaman North and Graham had. a leaning towards playing with nearby Rutherglen.
However, there was little encouragement forthcoming from the Redlegs of Barkly Park and he formed the opinion that they didn’t rate him all that highly.
Thus, the career of one of the great Ovens and Murray ruckmen of the fifties was played out on the wide expanses of the Wangaratta Showgrounds.
Woods started at Wangaratta in 1948. He was showing considerable promise when the Pies’ ‘Dream Team’ began to assemble. By post-war standards he was a bean-pole, yet by comparison, would be dwarfed by the giants of the modern era.
It was a matter of learning his craft on the run, against such tough opponents as Stan Rule (Wodonga), Ron Bywater (Rutherglen), Percy Appleyard ( Wodonga), Barry Takle (Albury), and John Waldron (Wang.Rovers).
And it helped that he formed a solid combination with tall-timbered team-mates Kevin French, Ray Warford and Bill Comensoli, who gave small men Timmy Lowe, ‘Wobbles’ Allan and Jackie Stevenson an armchair ride with their adept tap work.
Woods was 19 when he sat on the pine in the 1949 Grand Final, but from then on became an integral part of the four successive premierships that earned Mac Holten’s team recognition as one of the finest O & M line-ups of all-time.
Strong and reliable, and with a competitive streak that belied his gentle off-field nature, he first represented the O & M in the touring team that toured New South Wales in 1952.
The following year he starred in what became the fore-runner of the Country Championships – the clash between Bendigo and the O & M, at Echuca.
Bendigo looked every inch a winner at three quarter-time, leading comfortably by 22 points. But coach Mac Holten pulled off the winning move when he swung himself out of the centre, to full forward, enabling the brilliant Billy King to take charge of the mid-field.
A snapped goal in the last seconds by Woods’ Wangaratta team-mate Tim Lowe, gave O & M victory by two points.
Woods excelled on the big occasions, and was a regular O & M rep during the fifties. He may have thought he was in line for his fifth flag when Wangaratta waged a topsy-turvy battle with North Albury in the 1955 Grand Final.
As the seconds ticked down in the final term North regained the lead. Almost as if by divine intervention, a storm broke out over the ground, and in gale-like conditions they were able to cling onto a 10-point lead.
Two years later, Woods played a key role in Wangaratta’s two-point win over Albury. With one minute remaining, Lance Oswald, who had been well held by the Tigers, snapped truly to clinch a thriller.
Graham Woods was in the evening of his career when he lined up in the 1961 Grand Final.
He and coach Neville Waller dominated the centre square as the Pies ruthlessly mauled Benalla. They had the game in hand at quarter-time, leading 6.1 to 1.0. Champion forwards Ron McDonald and Bobby Constable were irresistible.
Wang went on to win 17.15 to 7.12, to hand Woods his sixth premiership in 14 years.
He bowed out the following season, with a then-club record 249 games under his belt. The ‘Gentleman Farmer’ from Boorhaman had won the Best Clubman award on three occasions. Installed as a Life-Member in 1958, he was named on the Interchange Bench in Wangaratta’s Team of the Century………….