‘THE CHAMPS OF 1950………’

For every footy flag that’s won, there’s a story that begs to be told……..

Cast a glance at Grand Final Day portraits of 10…30….even 70 years ago, hung for posterity in Clubrooms throughout the nation……….Geed-up players ooze confidence; their impenetrable eyes gaze through the camera; minds focused solely on the game ahead.

As the decades roll on their reputations are enhanced……so too, are the tales of their march to premiership glory.

But dig deep, beyond the photo and you may uncover hidden anecdotes….. Of an old champ, who’d been desperately clinging to his spot, despite aching limbs and sub-par form…..only to be unceremoniously dumped on Grand Final-eve……..

Or a much-hyped kid, thrown into the side when injuries threatened to derail the Club’s chances…….who went on to perform brilliantly – the first of several ‘pearlers’ he would produce on the big stage……….

And a star recruit, just starting to show his class, whose involvement in a tragic accident provides the inspiration for a famous flag………………..

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Norm Newbold was an outstanding all-round athlete at Scotch College and was playing with suburban team Gardner when he first came to the attention of Collingwood’s recruiting scouts. Having landed at Victoria Park, he was being groomed as a key forward. Several fine performances as he was coming through the ranks, illustrated the obvious potential of the high-marking, mobile youngster.

Hopes of a budding VFL career were put on hold when he was transferred to the bush with the E.S & A Bank in early 1950. It was a ‘given’ that, once he arrived at his posting , he’d play with Wangaratta, considering that their coach had already been alerted by his former club.

He took little time to adapt to O & M football. His partnership with spearhead Max ‘Shiny’ Williams provided the side with a multi-pronged attack.

On a typically wintry early-June day at Myrtleford, Newbold snagged six goals in what was, to date, his biggest haul for his new club……….

That evening, on his way to visit his sister in Euroa, a motor-bike on which he had hitch-hiked a ride, collided with a semi-trailer on the Hume Highway, just outside Glenrowan.

His football career was over.

Doctor Roy Phillips, who was, coincidentally, also the footy club medico, rushed to the gruesome scene. The rider of the bike was killed. ‘The Doc’ was obliged to amputate the leg of the young forward he’d seen starring earlier that day…………..

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

The Wangaratta players made a pact that the hospitalised Norm Newbold would be the inspiration behind their bid to win the 1950 title.

After a 9.21 to 5.7 win over Myrtleford on that fateful day, their win-loss ratio stood at 4-2. The defeats had come at the hands of Rutherglen and North Albury, both expected to figure prominently in the run home.

But, despite being the reigning premiers, and warm favourites for the flag, the Pies knew that they still had the job in front of them……..

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Since joining the Ovens and Murray League in 1893, Wang had snared six premierships, and Norm McGuffie had been involved with all of them. He was a player in 1925, committeeman in 1933 and ‘46, Secretary/ Treasurer in 1936 and ‘38, and President in 1949.

Mac Holten once recalled his introduction to McGuffie, who had travelled to Melbourne to meet him at a pre-arranged destination, early in 1949.

McGuffie had advised him: “If you see someone wearing a red rose in the lapel of their suit coat, that’ll be me,”. By the time they’d finished talking, shook hands on it, and went their different ways, Mac was Wangaratta’s new coach.

The O & M had been basically a mark and kick game in the late forties, until Holten augmented strands of his old club Collingwood’s play-on style, with a particular emphasis on handball.

And he subjected his players to tougher training than they’d ever experienced – including loads of sprint-work.

He was a born leader, and the instant success he achieved added to his lustre. His players regarded him as something of a magician – a tactical genius………….

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

The side that had swept to the 1949 flag was laden with talent. There were a handful of departures over the succeeding summer months, but the quality of the recruits more than compensated for the losses.

Besides Norm Newbold, a strongly-built big man Alan Whittenbury, arrived from the Diamond Valley League. Ron Carmichael, a classy 5’6” winger was transferred in the Railways, a dimunitive school-teacher, Jackie Stevenson landed in town, and stylish winger Kevin Allan, was lured from Milawa.

There were big raps on Allan, who had won the Demons’ B & F. His old club was reluctant to lose the popular small-man with the catchy nickname. Eventually they agreed to grant him six match permits ‘to see if can make the grade ’.

In the meantime, though, ‘Wobbles’ fell off some scaffolding and twisted an ankle, which delayed his debut until mid-season.

But the prize ‘get’ for the ‘Pies was a rugged, sandy-haired dairy-farmer whom they’d been trying to extricate from Greta for several years. At last, Lionel Wallace had decided it was time to ‘give it a go’.

He created an immediate impression. “He was the best country footballer I ever came across,” Mac Holten said many years later. “We could only get him to train one night a week, but he played some great games. ‘Lioney’ would have been a sensation in Melbourne……………”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Wangaratta suffered only two hiccups in the remaining home-and-away rounds – a narrow loss to Wodonga and a nail-biting draw with Benalla.

They finished on top, two games clear of Rutherglen, whom they steam-rolled by 38 points in the second semi-final.

Their full forward Max ‘Shiny’ Williams booted four of the team’s total of 12, whilst ruckman-forward Alan Whittenbury chimed in with three.

The fast-leading Williams, who stood just 5’10”, had become a vital cog in the Magpie structure. He followed up his 71 goals in 1949, to again top the League goal-kicking list with 84. He relied on the conventional flat-punt for his deadly accuraacy.

Playing in front of him at centre half forward was Ken Nish. Both hailed from Peechelba, but it was Nish’s ability to perform despite profound deafness that earned the admiration of his team-mates.

Nish, who was Wang’s leading vote-getter in the Morris Medal in 1950 and their B & F the previous season, was a star. Despite being born deaf he was able to communicate capably, and was a master of lip-reading.

Tall ruckman Graeme Woods, from neighboring Boorhaman, often lined up beside them in attack. He had developed rapidly in his two years of senior football.

Woods was a mere baby compared to seasoned veterans Kevin French, Jack and Doug Ferguson, who were the only survivors of the Pies’ first post-war flag of 1946.

If asked to nominate their favourite player, many die-hard fans would opt for the brilliant Timmy Lowe, who seemed to have an innate ability to read the play and accumulate multiple possessions. He would, this season, win one of the five Best & Fairests that came his way in 122 quality games………

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

North Albury had overcome Rutherglen in the Preliminary Final, to earn a crack at Wangaratta in the decider. Nine thousand fans crammed into ‘The Glen’s’ Barkly Park, in anticipation of a ‘battle royal’……..

The game opened in dramatic fashion when two of the Hoppers’ stars – Don Ross ( bruised thigh ) and John Murcott ( broken ankle ) were off the field within the first five minutes.

Even so, after being 16 points down mid-way through the first quarter, North managed to wrest a four-point lead at quarter-time.

Their inspirational skipper, Don Wilks, was everywhere, as he attempted to lift his side. Wilks, the former Hawthorn player, had guided Echuca (1946) and Auburn (‘47-‘49) to flags, and was hell-bent on adding another to his collection.

But Wangaratta slowly began to gain the ascendency. Dynamic mid-fielder Norm Minns, who was in everything, appreciated the absence of the silky young prodigy, Donny Ross. ‘Shiny’ Williams and elusive forward flanker Doug Ferguson were also ‘on song’ up forward for the ‘Pies. The only negative was that full back Jack Ferguson had his hands full with old rival Norm Benstead, who was to finish with seven goals.

Wang’s all-round strength proved telling in the finish, with unsung defender Bill Parkinson, hard-working Kevin French and Rex Bennett prominent. The evenness of the Pies enabled them to overcome woeful inaccuracy in front of goal.

Their tally of 11. 20 (86) gave them a 16-point win over North -10.10 (70), in what had been a ruthless, unforgiving encounter………..

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Wangaratta handed Mac Holten a contract extension of five years, at a stipend of £12 per week, such was their determination to retain the much-lauded coach.

And his boys duly went on with the job, taking out the 1951 and ‘52 titles, thus equalling the ‘four in a row’ feat of the great St.Patrick’s outfit of the twenties.

Some of them stuck around for a lot longer. Graeme Woods, for instance, played the last of his 249 games in the 1961 Grand Final, bowing out with six flags to his name. ‘Hopper’ McCormick returned from a coaching stint at King Valley, to take his part in the 1957 premiership side – his fifth in Black and White.

Several others tried their hand at coaching: Lowe headed up to Beechworth, Bennett to Whorouly, Bill Challman to Greta. French had success at Tarrawingee, Allan returned to take charge of Milawa, then spent several years at North Wangaratta.

Norm Minns, who had played such a key role in this Golden Era, was nabbed by Benalla, and led them to the 1953 flag. It was his fifth straight – an O & M record, which still stands.

Minns, along with team-mates Col Sturgeon, ‘Hopper’ McCormick, Challman and ‘Wobbles’ Allen, later returned post-retirement to devote decades of service to the Club.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

When Wangaratta nominated their Team of the Century in 2006, ten members of the 1950 team were selected : Holten, Jack and Doug Ferguson, Kevin French, Timmy Lowe, Norm Minns, Lionel Wallace, Jack ‘Hopper’ McCormick, Graeme Woods and Ken Nish.

History has looked favourably upon this famous side of seventy years ago…….and deservedly so…………

Postscript: Norm Newbold passed away eight years ago. His son Greg ( the current non-playing coach of Greta) says that he didn’t dwell on his misfortune , but was ever-grateful for the support he received from the Wangaratta Football Club.

‘JOVIAL JACK FERGIE……’

Sporting careers flash by in the flick of an eye.

It’s easy to empathise with today’s athletes, who have parked their ambitions on hold whilst the world deals with the threat of coronavirus. I know there are more important things to contemplate , but there’s a distinct possibility that the crisis could rob a young footballer of a full year of his sporting life.

It got me wondering how hard done by were the lads who, in their prime, ran headlong into either of the World Wars……….

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

My dad, for instance, never privately whinged about sacrificing five crucial years whilst dealing with the threat of the pesky Japanese…….. Nor did a couple of his team-mates, who settled back into civilian life and played their part in helping Wangaratta snatch the 1946 O & M premiership.

One of those was Jack Ferguson.

Many of my vintage can remember jovial Jack as the ‘Voice of the North-East’; 3NE’s first football commentator, who did his best to enliven the dullest of games during the fifties and sixties.

This, of course, followed a footy career which spanned 17 years and earned him a reputation as one of the League’s finest-ever full backs……….

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Apart from the time he spent away at War, Jack never deviated far from Wangaratta.

Floodwaters, which would sometimes break the banks of the Ovens River and threaten residents of Wilson Road, never tempered his love of the area. He was raised at number 30, and when he married the love of his life, Esme, they moved in next door, to number 28.

He was 17 when he received an invitation to train with Wangaratta…….It was 1936; the country was still struggling to wriggle free of the crippling Depression, and there was no greater honour for a local youngster than to wear the Black and White of the Mighty ‘Pies.

But he declined at first, surmising that he was a touch immature and light – and would surely struggle for a game.

Instead, he considered O & K club Waratahs a better fit, but was taken aback by their lack of interest. He decided there was no other option than to return to the Showgrounds.

Six months later, he was lining up on a wing in a Grand Final, alongside long-time champs Fred and Bert Carey, Charlie Heavey, Alec Fraser and ‘Shady’ James.

There was nothing in that game at half-time, with Rutherglen holding a seven-point lead. The Magpies booted six goals to one in a dominant third quarter, to take control. The Redlegs defended stoutly in the final term, but were unable to rein in the opposition’s dominant forwards.

A comfortable margin of 20 points separated the sides, as Wangaratta swept to their third flag.

The side’s long-term full back, Stan Bennett, retired not long after, and the lean, wiry Ferguson stepped into the position.

Jobs weren’t readily available when Jack left Wangaratta High School. He found initial employment in a shoe shop, then dabbled in a couple of part-time jobs before being offered a position with Norm Nunn’s Shoes in Murphy Street.

He dropped all that to serve in New Guinea and Bougainville with the 58/59 Division. His colleagues included a host of like-minded young fellahs who took their minds off the solemnity of the battle being waged by playing scratch games of football.

They levelled out a stretch of open ground with a bulldozer, scraped the dirt into shape and placed jagged-looking tree saplings at either end, to act as goal-posts. In their mind’s-eye it could well have been the MCG.

Some pretty fair players strutted their stuff. A handful had already made their mark in VFL football; others were stars in their own right. The games were of a good standard, and highly-competitive, and Jack used to say he played some of his best football in these surroundings……….

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

He walked straight back into Norm Nunn’s on the completion of his Army duties, and was to remain there for the remainder of his working life, taking over the business in 1961.

His outgoing personality ensured that Jack Ferguson Shoes would remain successful. You’d walk into the store and be greeted by wise-cracking and laughter.

One of his employees for several years was a long-time mate and fellow Magpie, Doug Ferguson ( no relation ). Both were bubbly, happy fellahs who, besides having the ‘gift of the gab’, were able to extract your money with a minimum of fuss…….

The appointment of South Melbourne champ Laurie Nash as playing-coach was the first move made by Wangaratta to resuscitate the Club, as the the post-war era kicked off.

Jack Ferguson was appointed his vice-captain.

Although the ‘Great L.J’ was nearing the end of his brilliant career, he was still an inspirational figure, and finished fourth in the 1946 Morris Medal.

He tore a leg muscle in the early stages of the Grand Final in which Wang had been rated warm favourites. It was to develop into a classic encounter.

Both defences were on top in the first half, as Albury went in with a slender 1-goal lead. Ferguson had come under particular notice for his superb play in repelling the Tigers at full back.

Albury still held sway by 5 points at lemon-time, but Wang’s key forwards, Nash and Ernie Ward, became a real factor in the final term.

The ‘Pies eventually prevailed by five points in a heart-stopping affair.

Their premiership celebrations no doubt hindered preparations for the ‘Challenge Match’ they played against Nash’s old side, South Melbourne, on the Showgrounds the following Saturday. The Swans cleaned up – 13.26 to 3.8.

Ferguson’s outstanding season was rewarded with the club Best & Fairest. He continued to play consistent football under Tom Tribe’s coaching over the next two seasons, but when the Pies bombed out of the finals in straight-sets in 1948, the ‘Holten Era’ was ushered in.

Jack Ferguson, like most of his ilk, was a fervent Holten disciple, as well as being his vice-captain. He believed the players were instructed to have such a focus on ‘team’, and were so well-drilled in the play-on game, that they changed the face of O & M football.

The pair became great friends and were to share starring roles in the next three Ovens and Murray flags. Ferguson was named best afield in the 1949 triumph, but always claimed the 1951 line-up was the best of the famed ‘Four-in-a-row.’

Jack lowered his colours to an old rival, North Albury’s Norm Benstead, in the 1950 decider.

Benstead snagged seven of the Hoppers’ ten majors in their 11.20 to 10.10 defeat. It was the last of his goals which caused considerable discussion, particularly among the punting fraternity.

The North champ outmarked Ferguson just as the final siren sounded. He had hoped to keep the ball as a souvenir and, pushing it up his jumper, began to walk from the field.

The umpire requested that he return and take his shot for goal, which resulted in full points, reducing the margin to 16 points.

Many losing punters had backed Wangaratta to win by 3 goals or more, and argued that when Benstead began to walk from the ground it constituted ‘Play-On’ and the shot shouldn’t have been allowed.

It meant little to Jack Ferguson and his mates. They’d already commenced their celebrations.

Jack retired after the 1951 Grand Final, and was lauded for a sterling 160-game career with Wangaratta, which had been spiced with five premierships and rewarded with Life Membership.

Two years later, though, he again pulled on the boots when an old team-mate Kevin French talked him into spending a season under his coaching at Tarrawingee. The ‘Dogs duly saluted with their first-ever flag, in a 43-point win over Greta.

That’s when Jack was invited to get behind the microphone. He didn’t need much prompting, as it was a way to stay involved and, after all, he’d never been short of a word.

He proved a godsend and his style soon endeared him to the public. There’s no doubt his favourite player was another full back, Wangaratta’s Terry Johnstone.

“….Aaand….Rinso….Johnstone……” was the Ferguson catch-cry, as the acrobatic Magpie full back would float through the air.

The eloquent Ron McGann ( 2AY ) and the excitable Jack Ferguson ( 3NE ) shared the microphone at O & M finals for years, and, in my opinion, have been unsurpassed for accuracy and entertainment-value.

Jovial Jack……..personality, commentator and Wangaratta’s ‘Team Of Legends’ full back, left a lasting football legacy…………