Funerals are coming thick and fast for Ron Wales these days.
Little wonder, I suppose. Walesy’s going on 87 and plenty of his old footy mates and business acquaintances have headed off to their mortal coil. Like the two fellahs who spotted him when I was having a yarn with him a couple of years ago…….
Both were hobbling along with the aid of walking sticks and, to put it bluntly, had seen better days. But their eyes lit up when they saw their old Tarrawingee coach.
“Have a look at these two buggers will ya,” he said, as they wandered towards him. “They were my ruck combination at Tarra ….No wonder we struggled ! ”
He was joking, of course. Ray Warford and Col Briggs were outstanding players in their day. But within a year, Ron had farewelled them, too……….’
He still has an obsession with football, although his wife Mavis admits it tests him sometimes.
“I’ll be doing the dishes while he’s watching a Geelong game, and I’ll hear him yell : ‘Kick the bloody thing !’ “
Ron explains: “You’re talking to a bloke who only handballed about twice in his life, I can’t understand why they persist with these dinky little handballs to someone a metre or so away. That, and kicking backwards…..They’re the only things that bug me.”
He’s a die-hard Cats fan. Has been since he was a little tacker, up Leitchville way………….
‘Walesy’ doesn’t treat life too seriously. In fact, about the only time I detect a frown on his cheerful visage is when he tries to unravel the path he took during his marathon football journey.
He was a mere lad when he was elevated into Leitchville’s senior side. By the time he was 20 he was starting to attract attention from a few VFL clubs.
Carlton, Melbourne and Hawthorn contacted him. He trained with the Blues for three weeks, then headed out to Glenferrie Oval, where he played in Hawthorn’s final practice match.
“I’d started going with Mavis, and she wasn’t too keen on the city,” he says. But, after picking up his third club B & F and finishing runner-up in the Northern League Medal, he joined some mates at VFA club Prahran.
He’d played 98 games with his home club, and it was a big decision to transfer in his trade as a Sheet-Metal worker. In the tough environs of what was one of the VFA’s finest eras, he proved a star, and won Prahran’s B & F in the first of his two seasons – 1953.
He and Mavis decided to settle in Wangaratta in 1955, partly due to the urging of her brother, Lou Finck, a keen Magpies supporter, who was a policeman in the town.
One thing led to another, and Ron agreed to throw in his lot with the ‘Pies.
So began the first of four separate playing stints in the Black and White guernsey. But there’s no doubt his first season – 1955 – was his best.
He was playing at his peak – mainly in the mid-field – and had the happy knack of being able to locate the Sherrin. With a rapier-like left foot, he invariably found a target.
He won the Chronicle Trophy, and was a key figure in Wangaratta’s march to a Grand Final berth.
The ‘Pies trailed by just three points midway through the last quarter, when a heavy storm converted the Albury Sportsground into a choppy mud-heap. Good footy was near-impossible, and North Albury were able to hang on, to win the flag by 10 points.
Lance Oswald (7 goals) and Wales, who had shifted from a wing to the centre at half-time, were the stand-outs for Wangaratta.
Ron decided he’d like to have a crack at coaching in 1956, and was snapped up by Tarrawingee.
Wang immediately blocked his clearance application.
“I wasn’t too rapt in that,” he says. “But I ended up getting to Tarra after we took it to the Appeals Tribunal.”
Two years later, he was back at Wang for another season. Then, in 1959, he again succumbed to the coaching bug.
“King Valley asked me to take over. They were four terrific years …..Great people…. We used to stay up at the Valley after every home game. Gee, they looked after us well.”
After another couple of seasons back at Wangaratta, he was approached by North Wangaratta, who were in desperate straits.
“They looked like folding and pleaded with me to get them out of a pickle and take the coaching job. What could you do ? Of course, I had to.”
“They had no money….hadn’t won a game the previous year. But they were good fellahs and we battled our way through the season . It was great that, within a few years they were a power, and went on to win their first O & K flag.”
“Mavis was a terrific back-up while I was coaching. She’d been a top Netballer in the Wangaratta competition, and both the Valley and North Wang chased her up to coach their Netball sides. She fitted that in besides keeping an eye on the four kids.”
Ron had another sojourn with the Magpies in 1967. He was working with H. G. Palmer’s, an electrical store, and couldn’t commit fully to training. So he made himself available for the Reserves and managed to win the O & M Reserves Medal, despite playing just eight games.
He moved the family to Albury after he accepted a transfer in employment. He’d half-decided to hang up the boots, but North Albury champion Stan Sargent was living four doors away, and coaxed Ron into stripping with the Hoppers.
Now entering the super-veteran category, he was expecting to just fill in with the ‘Two’s’. Instead, he played the next two seasons as a skilful, opportunist half forward in a good North Albury senior line-up.
“Funny thing, I suffered fairly bad asthma in Albury, but the moment we shifted back to Wang it disappeared and I’ve never had any recurrences,” he says.
Ron finally moved into the line of employment that many people remember him for – as a Car Salesman.
He was a natural and, after a spell with Carmody Motors, transferred to Alan Capp’s, where he was to remain for the next 30 years.
“I got on pretty well with the tobacco-growers and cow- cockies and spent a lot of time out on the road. We’d often seal a deal over a quiet beer. Two of my ‘offices’ were the Hibernian in Beechworth, and the Whorouly Hotel.
“I think it was only after I’d been there 20 years or so that ‘Cappy’ actually realised I worked there,” he jokes.
He has always been partial to a cool drink on a warm day, and his personality won people over.
Ron thought he had taken a step back from football until he had a knock on the door one day in the early seventies – not long after he’d hung up his boots.
“There were four kids there – Des Griffin, Col Nugent, Brian Johnston and Ronnie Graham – from the Junior Magpies, and they asked me if I’d mind coaching them. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’ll help you out this season.’”
He had a big influence on hundreds of kids. The fact that they won three flags was purely incidental. He was more interested in teaching them about footy, and making sure they enjoyed it.
One of his old ‘pupils’ recalls that he never heard ‘Walesy’ raise his voice. Another pointed out that, despite the ‘stand-outs’ who went through his hands, like O & M Hall of Famers Robbie Walker and Matt Allen, AFL player Darren Steele and many others who became O & M stars, he was just as interested in the ‘battlers’.
When the Wright boys – Trevor and Rod – were playing, their uncle Noel Godwin, who had Down Syndrome, was a keen follower, and a popular figure among the boys.
‘Walesy’ appointed him ‘Assistant-Coach’.
When the occasion suited, Ron would storm into the three quarter-time huddle and, in mock disgust, throw down his clipboard and announce : “I’ve had enough. Righto Noel, you take over.”
Noel would step up to the plate, puff out his chest and shout : “Go Boys”……..to an accompanying roar from the players.
Ron’s services to the Junior League were rewarded in 1988, with a Life Membership.
You might see he and Mavis at Wangaratta home games these days, as they follow the progress of their grandkids , Xavier and Gabrielle, who is showing plenty of promise on the Netball court.
And they’re enjoying it as much as they did in those early days in Leitchville………………