‘THE BACK-POCKET SPECIALIST……..’

Graeme Nish found himself typecast as a back pocket specialist at the tender age of 19.

It was never an option for the talented Nishy to flaunt his considerable skills in the engine-room, or roam up forward, where he might pick up a few cheap kicks and snag a goal or two.

He spent almost the entirety of his momentous 12-year career working assiduously in the last-line, plugging gaps, keeping smart-arse rovers in check, and lending a hand to under-siege defenders.

And along the way, establishing a reputation as an Ovens and Murray champion…………IMG_3664

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When Graeme arrived at Magpie-land in 1966, he was warmly welcomed by old die-hards – those who had been around the club long enough to be inspired by the feats of his uncle, Ken.

Ken Nish’s is a story of triumphing over adversity……….

Born the youngest of seven kids, his early childhood was spent on the family farm.

He started at Peechelba Primary, then was sent to board at the School for the Deaf, in St.Kilda Road, Melbourne.

When he returned home in the late forties, he landed an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and, having developed a fascination with the Sherrin, thought he may as well try his luck with Wangaratta.

Ken was a man of few words, and it was thought that he would present a challenge to new Magpie coach Mac Holten. To the contrary, Holten saw some unique qualities in him, and plonked him at centre half forward.

Despite the disadvantage of being born deaf, Ken was able to communicate sufficiently, although he didn’t bother with sign language. He mastered lip-reading and was always able to convey his message to his team-mates.

He was solidly-built, stood six foot tall, was a strong mark and beautiful kick. He had an uncanny knack of reading the play and developed a fine rapport with the Magpies’ ace goal-kicker, Max ‘Shiny’ Williams.

Holten usually occupied one forward flank, with Doug Ferguson, Col Sturgeon or Norm Minns on the other, alongside Nish. Their well-oiled cohesion with Williams was a feature of the Magpies’ Golden era.

Ken was Best and Fairest in the ‘Pies premiership year of 1949, and a key figure in the flags that they won in the succeeding three years.

He made 105 O & M appearances , then transferred to Tarrawingee, in a controversial move which Wangaratta strongly opposed…………..

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So expectations were high when young Graeme Nish first pulled on the Black and White guernsey. He was fresh from a premiership and a B & F with Junior Magpies, but after a handful of Reserves games, became a fixture in the senior side.IMG_3661

“They threw me around a bit that year, and I was lucky enough to hang onto my spot, on the bench, for the ‘66 Grand Final. We’d lost a couple of our ‘big guns’, through suspension and injury, and Albury gave us a bit of a ‘touch-up’. I can remember Murray Weideman dominating, and taking a heap of marks,” Graeme recalls.

Lenny Richards, who had been a fixture in the back pocket for several years, left Wangaratta to coach Chiltern in 1967, and  Nish was designated as his heir-apparent.

At 5’8” and 11.9 he had an ideal physique, and was blessed with the necessary attributes. But how would he adapt to the role?

“It was hard at first I just tried to read the game and model my play on what I’d seen of Len Richards, but eventually I settled in okay.”

Traditionally, back pocket players of the fifties and early sixties had been classified as dour figures who hit hard and often, played tight, and were content to judge their game on their opponent’s performance.

But Nishy was one of the new-guard who backed his judgement, and launched attacks from deep in defence, with timely marks and clearing dashes.IMG_3657

For the next eleven years he was to become the defensive pillar of a Magpie line-up which regularly contested finals, but often lacked the fire-power to take the next step.

It all came together in 1976.

Wangaratta slotted into second place – with 13 wins – at the conclusion of the home-and-away rounds , but flexed their muscles with a 92-point Qualifying Final win over North Albury.

Despite kicking 0.8 in the first term of the Second-Semi, they outlasted Albury, to win by 7 points in a contest which they always seemed to have under control.

The stage was set for a ‘pearler’ of a Grand Final encounter, after Wang Rovers had twice fought back from a five-goal deficit in the Prelim against Albury, to clinch a spot in the ‘big one’.

Nishy rates that late-September day at the City Oval as his proudest moment in football.

“I’d been playing senior footy for a long time, and was beginning to wonder whether we’d ever be able to win a flag. But everything just seemed to click for us. We got away to a flier and didn’t give the Rovers an opportunity to get into the game.”

The long road to the Grand Final had possibly taken its toll on the Hawks, who faded, as Wang ran away to win by 36 points. It was a triumph for first-year coach Phil Nolan, but the defensive roles performed by Ian McCormick, Nish, Russell Stone and Chris Thomson were not to be under-estimated.

The win capped Graeme’s career perfectly. He had long been recognised as the League’s premier back pocket and was a regular selection in inter-league teams over the period. He wore the Black and Gold O & M guernsey on 14 occasions, the first of which came in 1968, in his second full season………….

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“Heck, it was a huge thrill to be selected in that side. It was chock-a-block with stars,” he recalls.

We start combing through the line-up, which was selected as follows:

Backs: Graeme Nish (Wang), Ken Goyne (Wodonga) Ralph Rogerson (N.A)

Half Backs: John Hayes (Yarra), John Waddington ( Benalla), John Maddock. (N.A)

Centres: Ron Hill (Wodonga) Neville Hogan (W.R) Peter Chisnall. ( Corowa)

H.F: Eddie Rogalski (Wod) Kevin Smith (Myrtleford) Noel Long (Yarra)

Forwards: Derek Taylor ( Myrt), Stan Sargeant ( N.A), Martin Cross ( Myrt)

Followers: Trevor Steer (Wang), Alan Lynch (Yarra), Mick Bone ( Wodonga)

19th/20th: Bob Barker ( N.A), Jeff Hemphill ( Wang).IMG_3660

The side contained two former VFL captains – Ralph Rogerson and John Hayes (Fitzroy) – and seven others who had also played League football – John Waddington (North Melbourne), Trevor Steer and Mickey Bone (Collingwood), Alan Lynch (Fitzroy), Martin Cross (Carlton), Noel Long (Footscray) and Kevin Smith (Richmond).

Eighteen year-old Peter Chisnall had also made two senior appearances (on permits) with North Melbourne a few weeks earlier and, of course, was to return and play on a wing in the Roos’ 1975 Premiership team.

Chisnall wasn’t the baby of the team. That honour fell to Wodonga’s 17 year-old star Ronnie Hill.

The captain, Mick Bone, had achieved immortality in his first season at Wodonga when he led the ‘Dogs to their first-ever O & M flag in 1967.

Bone, Neville Hogan, Martin Cross, Noel Long, Jeff Hemphill, Kevin Smith and Stan Sargeant have all subsequently been inducted to the Ovens and Murray Hall of Fame.

The Caltex Championship Final drew a crowd of more than 10,000 to the Horsham City Oval. And they were up and about early in the piece, as the Wimmera League ran away to a 23-point lead. Only for the efforts of  big ruckman Trevor Steer, the lead may have been greater, as several O-M stars were flagging.

But coach Bone gave his players such a ferocious tongue-lashing at half-time that they bolted onto the ground and didn’t stop running until the final siren.

If Steer and Bone were the architects of the fight-back, it was ‘Rolls-Royce’ full forward Stan Sargeant who captured the imagination of the crowd.

“Rarely have we seen such an exhibition of high marking and long kicking in this area, as that produced by Sargeant,” proclaimed one scribe.

Sargeant booted six magnificent long-range goals and received support from tall forward Derek Taylor, who chimed in with four.

“We ended up winning the game by around six goals,” recalls Nishy, who played his part, alongside Ken Goyne in the last line of defence.

“Then we celebrated accordingly. Actually, this Sunday, we’re having a 50-year re-union in Albury. Four of the blokes have since passed on but the majority of the side will be there……..”IMG_3659

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Nishy played the last of his 232 games for Wangaratta in the 1977 Grand Final. “We were hoping to make it two flags in a row against the Rovers, but they proved a far better side on the day,” he says.

He was named the Pies’ best player, as he characteristically defended stoutly against the odds. But it was time, he felt, to ‘pull the pin’ and devote more time to the farm.

He collected three Best & Fairests – in 1968, 1971 and 1973 and, 30 years later, was named in the back pocket, in Wangaratta’s ‘Team of Legends.’ His uncle, Ken was also selected, on the bench.

The Ovens and Murray League has seen few better back pocket specialists than the dashing cockie from Peechelba………….IMG_3662

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