They say the rivalry between Glasgow’s two ‘Old Firm’ soccer teams Celtic and Rangers, is the most intense in world sport. It is an example of how sport can inspire profound levels of loyalty and revulsion towards a rival.
We’re not implying that the history of the 64-year-old ‘Wangaratta derby’ between the Rovers and the Magpies approaches anything near that fanaticism. But there have been odd flare-ups over the years that have made one wonder whether ‘civil war’ was about to erupt in the town.
One such instance occurred in September 1966. The stage was the Wangaratta Showgrounds and a large ‘audience’ was in attendance for the eagerly-awaited Preliminary Final.
The Rovers had defeated Wangaratta in the previous two Grand Finals, under the coaching of football’s ‘bad-man’, Ken Boyd. An inspirational ruckman-forward, Boyd was hated by opposition supporters, but loved in spades by all connected with the Hawks, particularly the players.
1966 had been a busy year for the amiable Boyd. He was involved in a time-consuming court case in Melbourne, having sued the Herald & Weekly Times for damages over the newspaper’s report of his clash with Corowa captain-coach Frank Tuck in 1964. Contrary to public expectations he won the case and was awarded considerable damages.
He had literally hobbled onto the field for much of the season. A back injury severely curtailed his athleticism and had limited his impact. Boyd had enough faith in his players to include seven of them in the Country Championship side that he coached that year. And he had the newly-crowned Morris Medallist, the champion Neville Hogan, playing scintillating football.
So, he reasoned, they were not without a chance of getting over Wangaratta, who had kicked 11.20 to go down by a point to Albury in the Second Semi-Final the previous week.
But the tipsters favoured the Magpies. Their form had been good and although they had lost star ruck-rover Kevin Mack in a recent diving accident, they had a well-balanced line-up.
The Hawks were chasing tail from the start. Wang’s 4-point quarter-time lead, in greasy conditions, had extended to 20 at the long break and, in a bruising contest, they looked set to run away with an easy victory.
Boyd used the half-time break to lift his players and the mood was relatively upbeat. In a final aside to them as they headed towards the change-room door he said:… “Whatever happens out there, don’t lose concentration. Keep your eyes on the ball”.
The third quarter had not been going all that long when Wangaratta’s centre half back Rex Benton was lying flat on his back. Boyd was later to explain that he was running downfield and an opponent was constantly tugging his guernsey. “I threw my arm back with the intention of warding him off and made contact with the player with the back of my hand.”
The game erupted in a series of incidents. Boyd was the central figure and while the mayhem was ensuing, his side was creeping back into contention. Magpie small man Joey Wilson was booked for another incident with Boyd. The Hawk coach later tangled with Ron Burridge.
He defended any intent towards Burridge, the ex-Beechworth defender. “ While I was running towards the ball I noticed a Wangaratta player charging towards me at a fast pace, in what I thought was a threatening manner. I involuntarily raised my forearm to protect myself and a collision occurred between us.” He was also involved when Tom Norman was charged with striking him. He also faced a charge of attempting to kick Norman.
On the Norman incident, Boyd said: “The umpire was about to bounce the ball and a huge roar went up from the crowd. The umpire asked what had happened and one of the Wangaratta players said ‘Boyd’s kicked Norman’. At this stage Norman was in the hands of the trainers with a knee injury”.
Wangaratta wrested the initiative back from the Hawks, who were within one point at three-quarter-time. They went on to win by 25 points.
Questioned by the tribunal about the match, Boyd admitted that it had been rough and spiteful. “The umpire did not have control in the third and fourth quarters. The big game was on in Melbourne and at times it was 10 minutes in front of ours.”
The Tribunal hearing on the Wednesday evening attracted a large contingent of local and metropolitan media representatives.. Some no doubt keen to obtain their ‘pound of flesh’, others lured by what was sure to be a headline story on one of the big names in football.
They were disappointed. Ken Boyd presented a Statutory Declaration to the tribunal after he and the Rovers advocate, Ernie Payne, failed in an attempt to have the case heard behind closed doors.
“I’ll present a Statutory Declaration. That’s all I wish to say. I’ll leave it in your hands. I would have told you a lot more if this case had been held in-camera, but I don’t want my story misconstrued by anyone”, Boyd said.
So the final moments in the footy career of one of the Ovens and Murray League’s most colourful personalities were played out in the stark environment of the old Rutherglen footy clubrooms, in front of three crusty men sitting in judgement and surrounded by a bevy of newspapermen – pens poised to coin the next headline.
Boyd left with eight weeks suspension. Tom Norman received two and watched on as the Pies were belted by Albury in the Grand Final three days later.
Ken Boyd had announced his retirement and returned to Melbourne. He was strongly tipped to coach his old club, South Melbourne but declined the offer, to concentrate on his flourishing business affairs. Instead, he became a selector.
He returned to watch the Rovers play in the 1967 Grand Final and found himself in the coach’s box again, substituting for Ian Brewer, who had been taken to hospital with a broken leg.
His most recent visit to Wangaratta was a pleasant one. He was inducted as a member of the Wangaratta Rovers Hall of Fame, an honour he cherished dearly.