‘FROM KING VALLEY, TO MOONEE VALLEY…AND BEYOND…’

Leigh Newton’s father Laurie, grandad Aub and great-grandad Jack, are all legends of the King Valley United Football Club.

So when Leigh, a lanky, blonde-haired 14-year old ruckman, shared the 1992 O & K Thirds’ Fred Jensen Medal, there was a bullet beside his name.

The Club’s ardent fans salivated that the lad had the breeding and talent to lead them out of the wilderness; maybe to Premiership glory, in years to come.

Furthermore, they dared to dream, with his mate ‘Marty’ Porter alongside him, they’ll be a near-unbeatable ruck combination………..

It wasn’t to be…. By 1997 both were playing League football…….They had to acknowledge that this pair of 6’6” beanstalks would, in all likelihood, never wear the Valley’s Blue and White stripes again………………….

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I catch up with Leigh during a break in his hectic schedule as the Regional Services Manager of Country Racing Victoria. He’s been involved in the racing game for more than nine years; loves it, he says. It’s the only sport that’s been able to soldier on throughout the Coronavirus Crisis, albeit, of course, minus the crowds.

The sight of his gigantic frame towering over all and sundry at Race-courses is a far cry from the slight youngster tagging along behind his old man at the Whitfield Reserve back in the eighties…..

I suggest that he inherited the wonky Newton limbs. Laurie was a star, and had two stints as Valley coach, but his crook knees – and assorted other body parts – played havoc with him. He fitted a famous flag (1976) into his five years with Wangaratta, and was a member of King Valley’s two premierships, in 1970 and ‘81.

He’d retired early in that ‘81 season. His back was giving him hell, but someone came up with the idea of fitting him with a brace. It allowed him to play out the season – and be a dominant ruckman in the Valley’s last flag.

Even after that, he would still fill in with the Reserves, up to the ripe old age of 42.

Leigh recalls playing with him at Bright. “You were always short when you travelled up there in mid-winter. I kicked a few goals in the Thirds this day, lined up in the Two’s with dad, who was just about best afield. Then they named me at centre half back in the Seniors. I think I’d just turned 15………..”

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He reckons he totalled no more than 20 senior games with the Roos. “A few from our 1993 Thirds Premiership team moved up the following year, but I spent a fair bit of that season with the Murray Bushrangers,” he says.

Then he began studying at Charles Sturt University, embarking on a Marketing and Accounting Degree. Rather than making the difficult choice between the Wang Rovers and Wangaratta, who were both on his hammer, he decided to play with Albury. Besides, he was living within walking distance of their headquarters, the Albury Sportsground.

The Tigers had assembled a crackerjack side. Their ruck duties were in the hands of Ken Howe, another ‘blonde bombshell’, who enjoyed the season of his life, taking out the O & M’s Morris Medal and guiding them to a flag.

Leigh made a few spasmodic senior appearances, but Howe then moved on to Canberra club Ainslie, and he grasped his opportunity.

During the course of the 1996 season he became the League’s pre-eminent big man. He represented the O & M, figured in Albury’s premiership triumph and, with 25 votes, ‘bolted’ to the Morris Medal, a massive eight votes in front of another ruck star, Wodonga’s Paul Nugent.

His dramatic rise to centre-stage had, naturally, attracted the attention of the recruiters. Leigh has a feeling it was a relative of Melbourne assistant-coach Greg Hutchinson who first alerted the Demons to his potential.

By January 1997 they’d nabbed him with the third pick in the Pre-Season draft. It had been a meteoric rise to A.F.L ranks………..

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But the climate in the Demons’ camp at the time was, to say the least, unsettled. Volatile ‘Diamond’ Joe Gutnick, who had rapidly ascended to the Club Presidency the previous season, was becoming increasingly agitated with the on-field performances, and demanded improvement.

The affable Neil Balme, highly-regarded by the players, was unable to wave the magic wand. After defeating eventual Preliminary Finalists North Melbourne in the opening game, they proceeded to lose the next eight.

Leigh played in a handful of those, which included kicking two of their three goals in a 51-point Friday night thrashing at the hands of Port Adelaide.

That was enough for ‘Diamond Joe’. His off-the-cuff comment was that: ‘Blood will flow……….’. Sure enough, on the following Tuesday evening, Balme was sacked and Greg Hutchinson installed as the interim coach.

With a few games under his belt Leigh began to settle into the rhythm of League footy. His debut against the Sydney Swans had been highlighted by a booming 50m goal with his first kick….. He had a big influence in an encouraging win over Carlton and produced snippets of class in a few others.

But the dreaded Osteitis Pubis had begun to take hold of his body. “These days, the medical people would immediately order you to have a break; to let the groin heal. But I was determined to play through the pain. I’d have an anti-inflammatory injection, then could hardly move after a game and it would be early the next week before I was able to run again.”

Finally, he had to admit that he couldn’t go on. He’d played 13 games in what was regarded as a highly-promising season……One ray of light in a litany of disasters for the wooden-spooners.

His rehab was slow and steady. Mid-way through the following year he’d got back to somewhere approaching full-fitness. But deep down he knew that, if he played, he wouldn’t be able to come up the next week. So Melbourne’s medicos suggested he take the rest of the year off.

By early 1999, Leigh felt he was right to go. He booted four goals in a promising return to the Reserves, but was laid up for a month after a hernia operation. The resultant comeback was halted by a dislocated shoulder. That put paid to another season for the luckless big man.

Melbourne had given an indication that he’d be offered another contract in 2000, but his groin began to flare up again. He had to face the reality that his AFL career was over.

Leigh rued his misfortune, as Neale Daniher’s line-up went on a rollicking ride from third-last to the Grand Final. He took on the role as Opposition Analyst, watching three to four games a week.

Melbourne utilised his Professional qualifications by seconding him to their Marketing and Sponsorship Department in 2001. On match days he was Neale Daniher’s ‘Board-Man.’

The following year they appointed him as their Media and Communications Manager, a position he was to hold for seven years: “It was a tremendous experience…..so diverse. Whenever any news broke about the Demons, I was the man the media got in touch with. It meant I was on hand, virtually from 6am to 10pm, either promoting the Club or putting out spot-fires.”

Additionally, Neale Daniher asked if he’d take on the job as ruck coach.

When he decided to take a break from footy, he stepped into a position in Marketing and Public Relations with the Moonee Valley Racing Club. Hawthorn, fresh from winning the 2008 AFL flag, also nabbed him as their ruck coach.

“I was flat-out combining the two jobs,” says Leigh.

“I’d be up at 4am analysing and cutting tape to show to the players…….and then head off to my job in P.R and Communications at Moonee Valley.”

“Something had to give, so I eventually passed up the ruck-coaching – much and all as I loved it.”

But he did manage to fit in one last fling as a player. “Dad was a bit crook at one stage, and I was coming up regularly to keep tabs on he and mum. My brother Michael, who was coaching Milawa, said: ‘You may as well have a run, seeing as you’re here most weeks’.”

“I played about eight games, including the 2009 O & K Grand Final. We played Tarrawingee, who’d been unbeaten in 39 games. It was a terrific clash, and we held on to win by nine points.”

Leigh moved on to become Moonee Valley’s Marketing Manager for three years, and had a sojourn in Local Government and Real Estate, before an opportunity came up to return to the racing industry.

He accepted the position as Manager of the Echuca Race Club and threw himself headlong into building it into one of country racing’s showpieces.

The extent of the Club’s development was recognised in 2017/18 when it was selected as the Country Racing Club of the Year.

“The things that have been achieved since Leigh arrived have been significant and he has set us, the Club, the trainers, the other people who use the track, the punters and our wider community with an exciting and solid future,” remarked the Club’s President, Troy Murphy.

He did such a good job that Country Racing Victoria hand-picked him, mid-way through last year, to take on the role of Regional Services Manager.

Leigh and Aingela and their two boys Lachlan and Taylor returned to the city, where he’s based at racing’s headquarters, Flemington.

His all-encompassing job entails keeping an eye on all country racing, including Governance, Marketing, Administration, Trainers, Race-dates – and offering advice to Clubs.

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Sport has virtually been Leigh Newton’s life. He wouldn’t have it any other way……..well, maybe the footy gods could have been a little kinder to him on the injury-front …………….

DEDICATION TAKES VALLEY YOUNGSTER TO THE TOP ……

Old-timers around Whitfield joke that they discovered a magic elixir in the cool, crystal-clear waters of the King River, in the early 1990’s.

That’s why, the wags say, a spate of talented young footballers began to emerge, much to the excitement of the King Valley faithful, who hadn’t had much to cheer about for a decade.

At one stage the ‘Roos weren’t able to muster the numbers to field an under-age team. And when they eventually did, they were on the receiving end of some fearful hidings.

Within three years the Valley had won a Thirds premiership and bold predictions were being made about a few of the kids who wore the Blue and White with distinction in 1993.

The assessments were spot-on:

Lanky, blonde-haired Leigh Newton, was to win the O & M’s Morris Medal in 1996, and go on to play 13 AFL games, before injury cruelled his career at Melbourne…….

The long and winding journey of his younger brother, Mick, would include time with the Murray Kangaroos, a couple of stints in the O & M, and coaching roles with the Valley and Milawa…….

Bruce Hildebrand would move on to the Rovers, then to Coburg, where he was to earn selection in a VFA Under 23 team………

But probably the pick of them was a beanpole ruckman, who would, in the years to come, lock horns with the best big men in the land, and establish a reputation as a lion-hearted performer……

His name ? ………. Mark Porter.

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The Porter tale is one of extraordinary dedication.

Yarns have been passed down by his old Wangaratta High School mates, of his lunch-time weight sessions……… downing tub after tub of yoghurt …………..always toiling away on his fitness.

His first senior coach, Gary Bussell, once recalled: “I actually watched him in a Thirds Grand Final when he was 15. He looked like a gangly calf. He could hardly stand up.”

“Mark actually worked on his strength one whole summer. He pushed his chest out 10 centimetres and built his arms up like you wouldn’t believe.”

The result was, that at 17, in his first senior season, he matched wits – and physicality – with the best of the O & K’s ruckmen – and came up trumps.

It was all rather heady stuff for the Year-12 student, when he received an invite to the League’s vote-count – and shocked the crowd by taking out the Baker Medal. He had created history by becoming the youngest Medallist ever.

The anticipated calls came from Ovens and Murray clubs. He was in demand.

Wang.Rovers coach Laurie Burt headed the queue. When Mark explained that he would be shifting to Melbourne to undertake a Physical Education degree, Laurie organised for him to train at his old club, Coburg.

The suggestion, of course, was that Mark might return home each Friday night and spend the season with the reigning premiers.

But his dad, Merv, wasn’t keen on that idea.

“Laurie said : ‘That’s okay, but can you at least play a practice match with us ? ‘ I came home one week-end and had a run against Wodonga, but I’d more or less decided that I was going to stick with Coburg,” Mark said the other day.

It proved an inspired decision.

“I was a bit lucky that one of the big men got injured and another one walked out,” he says of being thrust into the role of number one ruckman.

He enjoyed a magnificent season and handled the huge step from the O & K to the VFA with ease. So much so that he was awarded the Round-Fothergill Medal as the VFA’s Rookie of the Year.

In his two years with Coburg, Mark represented the VFA against Tasmania and NSW and had become firmly established as one of the competition’s ‘big guns’.

His coach, Kevin Breen, rated him “probably the best tap ruckman going around.”

So it wasn’t surprising that Carlton’s recruiting manager Shane O’Sullivan, was on his hammer. He was eager for the big fellah to play a Reserves game towards the end of 1996 , but was unable to make contact.

When they did eventually meet up, he invited Mark to do a pre-season.    Suitably impressed, the Blues nominated him as their sole selection in the ’97 Rookie Draft; a ‘project player’, alongside established ruckmen, Justin Madden and Matthew Allen.

Four years earlier, he had guided King Valley Thirds to a flag. Now the lad with the imposing  6’7″, 105kg frame, was on the cusp of League football.

Unfortunately, a broken bone in his hand at the start of the season cost Mark six weeks and he was fully expecting to play the rest of the year in the two’s. But he had ‘come on’ so rapidly that he was the obvious replacement for regular number one ruckman Matthew Allen, who had been ‘rubbed out’ for charging Demon Leigh Newton ( yes, Mark’s old team-mate ! ).

As he became more familiar with the intricacies of the big man’s craft at the highest level, Mark continued to develop. His tap-work was lauded, but he knew he needed to have more strings to his bow.

“You’ve got to earn your stripes in the AFL. If you haven’t got all the tricks you get left behind. I had to play aggressively and tackle strongly. And then start to take a few ‘grabs’ ,” Mark said.

A knee injury in a 1999 practice match ruled him out for a season, and halted his progress for most of the following year.

But he played superbly in 2001, and it was somewhat surprising that, after 55 games with the Blues, they traded him to North Melbourne, as part of a swap for Corey McKernan.

Mark fitted nicely into the Kangaroos’ set-up, alternating in the ruck with Matthew ‘Spider’ Burton, and chalking up another 55 senior games in his three-year stay at Arden Street.

The Porter work-ethic had not just been confined to the field of football. Mark had been studying assiduously and completed a degree in Financial Services and Master of Business and was more prepared than most for life after football.

The end came, for him, at the top-level, when North delisted him at the end of  the 2004 season.

“I was still keen to keep playing the highest standard I could, so I signed with North Ballarat and spent a season back in the VFL. Then Anthony Stevens talked me into joining him at Benalla in 2006 “, Mark says.

A couple of locals who saw Mark play at Benalla, reckoned  that the slower style of footy suited him down to the ground. He dominated the big-man duels and knocked up taking marks.

He helped the Saints to their first Grand Final in years, but they were outplayed by a strong Seymour side.

” Stevo decided to retire after that, but I lined up again. Things were going okay until I broke my arm and ended up in the Wang Base Hospital after Round 10. That was the finish for me. I was needing knee surgery, so it was time to pull the pin.”

Life has remained pretty hectic for Mark Porter. Married, with three young kids, he spends a lot of his professional time, along with Brad Wira, the ex-Bulldog and Freo Docker, co-ordinating the AFL Player’s Association’s Financial Education program. It is designed to instruct young players on how to maximise their financial potential.

The pair are also advisers for the AFLPA and AFL Industry Superannuation Plan and Mark is continuing his Financial Planning studies.

The young man who was dubbed ‘an old-fashioned blue-collar ruckman’, has transitioned perfectly into the white-collar world.

It’s seemingly light years away from the idyllic surrounds of the King Valley cattle farm………