‘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………………..

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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…………..

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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……..

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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………….

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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……………”

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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………

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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………..

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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.

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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……….

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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……….

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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……….

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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…………

“NO REST FOR ‘WOBBLES’…….”

The first question I put to this dapper super-veteran is how he happened to acquire one of Wangaratta’s best-known nicknames.

“It was back in my younger days, when I’d been invited down to train with Collingwood…….” he explains. “During the course of some heavy socialising one of the players, Bill Twomey, remarked that I’d got a bad case of the wobbles. It seemed to stick, and I’ve been ‘Wobbles’ ever since………”

Kevin Allan invites me into the spare bedroom of his Thomson Street house, and produces a small batch of yellowing newspaper cuttings, which he proceeds to spread out on the bed.

“Nell ( his late wife ) kept these. Sorry, that’s all I’ve got. I suppose I should’ve put ‘em in some sort of order, but never got around to it,” he says.

No matter…..’Wobbles’ has enough memories of his almost-80 years in football to fill a couple of books……

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He’s the eldest of six kids…..Grew up on a dairy farm at Milawa…..He tells me his dad, Jack, who was mad-keen on footy, was President of the Redlegs for many years, dating back to the thirties.

“I can remember when I was about 9 or 10. Dad had a ‘28 National Chev which he’d drive into Wang to pick up players for training. Our first stop was Bullock’s Store in Murphy Street, where a bloke called Vin Coram would jump in, then he’d collect the three Oates boys, and a few others.”

“In the end the Sedan would be chock-a-block. I had to stand on the running rail. You couldn’t have players standing there…..They might have fallen off !…….”

He was 14 when he debuted with Milawa in 1940, and had played just two seasons when the O & K League was forced into recess because of the War. It was 1945 before he could again pull on the beloved Red and Blue guernsey.

Kev’s first job was on the Farm. He hated it but, because it was classified as a Restricted Industry, had to stay there for the duration of the War.

“The moment the whistle blew at the Butter Factory, to signify the end of the War, I high-tailed it into Wang on my bike to join in the celebrations and start looking for a job,” he says.

He became one of Milawa’s stars of the post-war era, and played in both the 1945 and ‘47 Grand Finals.

“They were good times, but it’s amusing when you look back. For instance, the Methodist Minister, Reverend Perry, had a three-tonne Truck. When we played away games, he’d throw a couple of church pews on the back and we’d all pile in. We used to call it Perry’s Circus, and it’d cost us two bob each for the trip.”

But the blossoming Allan career almost drew to a close one late-summer evening in 1948, soon after he’d bought a Motor-Bike off a mate, Tommy Hourigan.

Apparently Tommy’s family had pleaded with him to get rid of the Bike after he’d had a prang, but Kev thought he was Christmas when he took delivery of it and headed off on his first jaunt.

“I came to grief at Thompson’s Bridge, just off the Hume Highway. Old George Robbins found me there, unconscious, and drove me to hospital.”

“When I came to, all the family were at my bedside. A list of my injuries included burst ear drums, a broken collarbone and facial paralysis. I was ever-grateful to Doctor Phillips, who pulled me through. But he gravely advised me that my footy career was over.”

‘Wobbles’ was ever-grateful to the old ‘Doc’, but says on this occasion his prognosis was about 20 years premature.

He missed the 1948 season and, somewhat injudiciously in the opinion of a few, pulled on the boots again in ‘49. Just to show that he’d lost none of his class and ball-winning ability, Kev took out Milawa’s Best & Fairest – the J.Allan Cup.

The Award, which acknowledges his dad’s lengthy contribution, was re-named the Jack Allan Memorial after his death later that year. A succession of Jack’s offspring have had their name etched on Milawa’s prized gong over the succeeding seventy years……

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Wangaratta, after being on his hammer for a few years, finally enticed him into town. Milawa were reluctant to release their star, and agreed to give him six match permits to see how he performed.

“But I’d fallen off some scaffolding in the meantime, and did an ankle, so it was half-way through the 1950 season before I started playing.”

“I’d decided, though, that I was definitely staying at Wang……Best thing I ever did,” he says.

‘Wobbles’ timed his move to perfection. He slotted onto a wing in those magnificent Mac Holten sides and figured in a hat-trick of premierships.

It was a team of stars, of course, but, in Kev’s opinion, Holten was able to get them pulling in the same direction.

“He just had a way about him. He was often able to get the message through without saying a word. A bit theatrical sometimes, I suppose, but gee he knew how to get us going.”

The 1952 side, he reckons, was the best he ever played in.IMG_4366

“We trailed Rutherglen at half-time of the Grand Final, but ended up knocking them over by 20 points. That was the year we played a challenge match over at Ararat at season’s end, against the Wimmera League premiers.”

He says it’s the only Trip-Away he’s been on where he returned home with more money than he took……IMG_4377

“The Ararat people must have had plenty of dough. They came to our hotel on the Friday night with a swag of money to back the home team. Then they returned twice, to lay more money….We all got on. Holten asked the hotel-keeper to lock the money in his safe…….We had some sort of a ‘do’ when we won the game and ‘divvied’ it up, I can tell you……”IMG_4370

Kev had played 128 games over seven years, including four Grand Finals, when he was lured back to Milawa as captain-coach. He was 30, but still playing top footy, and was keen to itch the coaching bug that lay within.

The side included his two younger brothers, Tom and Laurie, and a few old mates who had been loyal to the Demons.IMG_4368

“I enjoyed coaching the boys, but I had a few run-ins with the committee,” he says. “I don’t think they were really fond of me in the finish. It didn’t help matters, either, when I took a few players over to North Wangaratta with me.”

The Northerners were playing in the Benalla & District League at the time, and finished Third and Runners-Up in his first two seasons.

When they – and Glenrowan – both sought admission to the O & K in 1961, Kev was the delegate who pleaded their case at a historic meeting, held at the Everton Hotel..

“Glenrowan’s delegate was a fellah called Bill Olliffe. We had a bet on the side about the result – a quid each – but after we’d both put our case we had to wait for the verdict in the bar. The meeting went on for ages, and we were both fairly merry, when they called us in to advise us that North had gained admittance…..”

Kev coached North Wang for six seasons, won five B & F’s and picked up the B.D.F.L Medal in 1960.IMG_4381

He stood down in 1965, and played on for one more year under Billy McKenzie….

“Then I talked Ron Wales into doing the job. Walesy said: ‘I’ll do it if you keep playing.’ But I was 40, and buggered. Walesy wasn’t too happy with me for a while, but I became his off-field ‘adviser’ “

So after a career, which had spanned 26 years and 426 games, ‘Wobbles’ hung up the boots……

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Inevitably, he drifted back to the Showgrounds Oval to begin a period of unstinting service which has even overshadowed his on-field achievements.

One of his titles for decades was ‘Bar Manager’, which included being on duty for every Club Function. All told, he devoted thousands of hours to the Magpies.

On match-days he’d collect the food and drinks for the Kiosks, stock the fridges, organise till floats, operate the Bar and entertain the patrons.  It meant an 8am start and a 9pm finish ( or 2am if a post-match function was held).

One old Pie joked that modern technology had caught up with him in recent years, and he re-located to operating the Sav & Refreshment Stall in the Past Players’ Stand – ‘Wobbles’ Bay 13 Bar’.IMG_4375

Each week-day morning throughout the year, ‘Wobbles’ and a a group of three or four stalwarts meet to clean up and effect any maintenance that’s required around the Clubrooms.

“We carry on with a bit of ‘bullshit’ of course, and review all the subjects of the day over a cup of coffee,” he says. “But I really enjoy the company.”

One of their principal topics at the moment would be discussing whether Wang can live up to their hot-favouritism and take out their 16th O & M flag.

‘Wobbles’, the 93 year-old Ovens & King League, Ovens & Murray League and Wangaratta Football Club Hall of Famer, is confident that they can do the job…..provided they get away to a good start.

“It’s my only worry.” ……..That, and making sure I reach 94………..IMG_4374

‘LOUIE’S 87…….AND STILL KICKING……’

Roma Cesa reckons her husband Lou is still mentally playing footy – even at the ripe old age of 87.

“He watches every game on telly. I’ll look across, and there he’ll be, twitching in the Lounge Chair, kicking and flicking out imaginary handballs.”

“It’s the same when we go down to watch the Magpies play. He can’t sit still. It’s as if he’s out on the ground. I say: ‘Lou, you’re not playing any more, remember’. His one true love is football. I take a back seat,“ she quips………..

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Hardly any of the current Maggies would recognise this reserved little fellah with the swarthy complexion and the trademark peaked-cap. He and Roma sit behind the goals at the Women’s Industries-end of the Norm Minns Oval – have done for more than 50 years.

He’s declined offers to move to more salubrious surrounds; and maybe sample a bit of the Club’s upstairs hospitality. He’s comfortable there, he says, and doesn’t fancy too much fuss.

“I like doing my own thing. I can criticize if I want to…..and no-one will hear me.”

Louie’s from a Golden Era. In his day he was as good as any small defender going around. But he won’t have a word said against the modern game. “I love it; can’t get enough of it.”

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His is the classic story of a lad, born of immigrant parents, who completely embedded themselves in the local community.

His Dad sailed to Australia from the tiny, mountain village of Lentia in Northern Italy, in 1927; Mum followed four years later.

After settling in Melbourne, then Gippsland, ‘Pop’ landed a job out at the Glenrowan Quarry, smashing rocks. It was a tough old gig. Lou still has the sledgehammer he used; says you need to be a muscle-man to lift it.

After they settled in Wang, the old fellah used to ride his bike out to a block he’d bought at the foot of the Warbies, and cut wood all day.

Lou was born at York’s, a Private Hospital just over the Railway line in Rowan Street. It was merely a hop, step and jump to transport him home – the Cesa’s lived just up the road, in Green Street.

Nor was it necessary to travel far for work when he started as an apprentice joiner at R.M.Clayton’s.  He was 15 when he rode to their factory in Mackay Street…….. And that’s where he was to spend the entirety of his working life.

“I started off on 22 shillings and sixpence, and had to hand over a bit of board and pay off my bike out of that. The next year I got a rise to two pounds 13 and fourpence. I’ve still got that bike, you know.”

On the day he retired, his mum, who was 95 at the time, was invited to his farewell barbecue. It was her first visit to her son’s workplace of 50 years. “She didn’t know the building existed, and marvelled at the size of the machines that cost me some of my fingers,” he says……..

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When Lou was growing up, the Wangaratta Junior League comprised just four clubs. They’d introduced a zoning system and, as he was living near the middle of town, Centrals became his club, in 1946.

They were starved of success in his first couple of years. Yet, completely against the odds, they took out the ‘47 flag. I’ll let Lou explain it.

“We didn’t win any of the home-and-away games, and were stone motherless last. Then we happened to take out the First-Semi, Prelim and, amazingly, the Grand Final…… You’ll have to take my word for this, as I’m pretty sure I’m the only one still alive from that side.”

The next step in his football journey was to try his luck with Wangaratta. It was 1949, and the seeds of the Magpies’ greatest era had already been sown. The great Mac Holten had arrived to take over as coach, and duly implement a play-on style of game which was to prove fabulously successful.

Along with many other Junior League graduates, Lou became a member of the Reserves team, which played in the Benalla-Tungamah League.

“I remember buying my first pair of boots at Jack Ferguson’s Shoe Store, and getting old Maurie Adair to hammer some stops in them. Nine times out of ten the stops would be gone by half-time,” he says.

“We’d travel out by bus to places like Devenish, Tungamah, Dookie and Wilby. It was a side of kids, really, but a pretty good standard. We reckoned some of those blokes trained by kicking bags of wheat around. For instance, you had the Lane brothers from St.James who were built like Sherman Tanks-. It was tough footy….and great experience for us.”

The trips back to Wang were rollicking affairs, and Lou admits he’d often be coaxed into providing a rendition of his favourite song: ‘China Doll’.

“When we got home we’d wind down by having a few beers,  then go to the local dance at the Town Hall….a few of the older ones would go square-dancing.”

Mid-way through 1951 he was blooded for four senior games with the ‘Pies. The following season he cemented a permanent spot .

Wang were chasing their fourth flag on the trot, but Rutherglen, coached by ex-Essendon rover Greg Tate, had set the pace for most of the year.

They pipped the Pies by 7 points in the Second-Semi. The decider a fortnight later was a topsy -turvy encounter, with the lead changing several times.

Wang wrestled their way to a seven-point lead at lemon-time, but finished on strongly, to run out winners by 20 points.IMG_4193

Lou had entrenched himself in defence, and performed capably on a back flank in the Grand Final. It was, he admits, hard to get his head around being part of this team of champions.

He was now a key member of the Wangaratta side. When the O & M met East Perth at Albury two years later, there he was in a back pocket.

The following season he represented the Black and Gold in the first-ever Country Championship Carnival, joining such stars of the game as Jack Jones, Timmy Robb and Lance Mann. The side contained eight players who were on the verge of graduating to VFL ranks.

O & M proved too strong for Ballarat in the Final, with the Age reporting that: ‘… Sandral (back flank) and Cesa (back pocket) were crucial factors in the victory, and were responsible for repelling many Ballarat attacks….’IMG_4191

Wangaratta reached another Grand Final later that year, meeting North Albury in a memorable encounter .

Lou’s main focus was on the enviable task of keeping Hopper coach Tim Robb in check . “He and North’s full forward Lester Yensch were the danger-men,” he recalls.

Yensch booted a near-impossible goal mid-way through the final term, then Wang’s Lance Oswald marked superbly, and replied, to narrow the margin to four points. Suddenly, a fiendish gale blew up, with a storm erupting over the ground.

North’s Arthur Pickett, almost from the centre of the Rovers ground, booted a goal with the aid of the hefty breeze. In heavy rain, the Hoppers were content to play out time and hold their 10-point advantage to the siren.

Lou featured in his second O & M flag in 1957 – a classic contest against old rivals Albury – which looked to have slipped from their grasp in the dying stages.

The Tigers held a comfortable lead at three quarter-time, but Wang slowly bridged the gap. With just one minute remaining, Lance Oswald snapped accurately from the angle, to see his side take out a sensational game by two points.

“That was Lou’s best-ever game for Wangaratta, I reckon,” says his old team-mate Bill Comensoli. “ He was named on a wing, opposed to Reggie Gard, who was one of Albury’s important players. He held sway all day.”

“I remember the siren blowing and all the emotion that overflowed,” Lou recalls. “Albury’s Jim Robison was that disappointed that he turned and whacked Rex Allen, who was standing beside him. Poor old Rex happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time.”IMG_4218

The 1958 season proved to be Lou’s last as a player. His legs had been playing up, and he’d been operated on to drain blood from them. Doctor Phillips, and the surgeon, Hal Stanistreet, both recommended that he give it away before he finished up a cripple.

He’d married that year…….“Yes, he also had a nagging wife telling him to give it up,” jokes Roma…….

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Lou coached Junior League club Combined Churches for a few years in the sixties, and took them to the 1967 premiership. Three of the side – Geoff Welch, ‘Manny’ Booth and Russell Stone were to play in O & M flags in the seventies. A few others had handy careers.IMG_4195

When his own two boys, Ian and Colin, became of age they stripped for Centrals. Roma says that when it was her turn to wash the Club’s Brown and Gold guernseys, she had to drape them on the fence.

One of the neighbors – a keen Rovers man – asked why she didn’t hang them on the clothes-line:

“Lou won’t let me !,” she replied.

Ian and Col both followed in their old man’s footsteps and went on to play senior footy with the Pies.

The Cesa’s also had three girls – Cheryl, Karen and Joanne. Sadly, Cheryl suffered an inoperable brain aneurism and passed away, aged 33, after being on Life-Support at the Alfred Hospital for some time.

“It was a sad time. You never forget it,” Roma recalls. “We cared for three of her kids for about three years, before their dad took them back. It hurt us when they left…..We wish we’d kept them.”

Lou and Roma headed over to Italy a few years ago, and made acquaintance with many of the Cesa clan in Lentia. They were treated like,. well, long-lost relations, and had a whale of a time.

Just the same, it was great to get back home. After all, Lou was missing his footy…………….IMG_4194

THE BORN LEADER…..

Mac Holten was 26 when he decided to abandon the security of life in Melbourne as an insurance clerk, League footballer and District cricketer.

The newly-married Collingwood forward elected to pursue a career as a football coach, and mulled over 5 ‘plum’ jobs that he had been offered.

He chose Wangaratta and, with wife Shirley, embarked on an adventure that was to prove amazingly successful and was to change the face of sport in the town……….

It was early 1949 when he met Wangaratta Football Club President Norm McGuffie at a pre-arranged destination in the city. McGuffie, who told him he’d be wearing a red flower in the lapel of his suit coat, must have been pretty convincing, as Holten accepted the job straight away….
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Mac Holten had spent his school days at Scotch College and was regarded as no more than ‘mediocre’ in his school sporting pursuits. When war intervened he enlisted in the Air Force and became one of the nation’s finest pilots, attaining the ranking of Flight Lieutenant.

He always claimed that he was lucky to break into League football when it was at a low ebb during the war, but he proved a more than capable forward in 82 games with Collingwood, over an interrupted eight-year period.

It was towards the end of his career with the Mighty Magpies that Mac outwardly showed the first signs of being a football ‘thinker’. He and two other players, Lou Richards and Jack Burns, decided to convene a player’s meeting to discuss the team’s worrying habit of fading-out in important games.

Legendary coach Jock McHale caught wind of this and bailed them up: “What are you ? Three Commos or something ? ” The meeting never took place and Holten probably felt that he was on shaky ground from then on.

There were no such ructions in six seasons with Melbourne Cricket Club. A stylish batsman with a sound technique and excellent leadership qualities, he had once figured in a 280-run opening partnership and had risen to become a selector and vice-captain of the famous old Club.
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Mac was fascinated by the tactics of sport and was eager to put them into practice. But he also wanted to make an impact business-wise, in the town.

“We’re determined to make this our permanent home. I don’t want to be switching from club to club, ” he said. He spent a short time in a milk-bar in Murphy Street, then a year later, moved into a licensed grocery in Reid Street, in partnership with team-mate Kevin French.

He began playing cricket in the WDCA with Merriwa, and threw himself into pre-season footy training.

The Ovens and Murray League was basically a mark and kick game in the late forties, but Mac was keen to introduce Collingwood’s play-on style, with plenty of emphasis on handball.

He inherited a handy side from his predecessor Tom Tribe, but his players were subjected to tougher training than they’d ever experienced.

“We concentrated more on sprint work, whereas my old coach Jock McHale mainly focused on match practice,” he once recalled.

Was Holten just lucky to arrive at the strategic moment, when the planets were rightly-aligned for Wangaratta? Or was it his outstanding leadership that honed a talented group into becoming one of the O & M’s finest of all-time ?

If you ask any of his players, they testify that he was somewhat of a magician. Even rival Rovers players who would be more likely to impugn him, vouched that when they came under his influence in representative football or cricket, he was every bit as astute as his reputation indicated.

Mac certainly had some stars in his side. Timmy Lowe, a will-o-the-wisp rover, was to win four successive Best & Fairests and claim the 1953 Morris Medal; Norm Minns was a champion forward;  in Graeme Woods and Bill Comensoli he had strong and versatile ruckmen ; Max (Shiny) Williams was an accurate and prolific full forward and Kevin French was a bullocking big man.

But he always claimed that Lionel Wallace, a tough centre half back, was the best country footballer he came across. “He was a dairy-farmer from Greta and only trained one night a week, but played some great games for Wang. ‘Lioney’ would have been a sensation in Melbourne.” Mac said.

Holten always seemed to produce something extra on the big occasions and starred in the Magpies’ 32-point win over Wodonga in the 1949 Grand Final.

Wang finished well clear on top of the ladder in 1950 and chalked up their second straight flag. But if any proof was needed that this was, indeed, a champion side, it was their dominance throughout the 1951 season.

They lost just one match, on their way to clinching the hat-trick, as ‘Shiney’ Williams booted 8 goals to rubber-stamp an emphatic display.

At the end of the ’51 season, the ‘Pies challenged Wimmera League premiers, Ararat, for the unofficial crown of the ‘best team in Country Victoria’.

The match, played at Ararat, was heavily promoted and both teams were confident of victory. Holten recalled that he was nervous about the amount wagered on the game by supporters – a huge sum in those days, of 1,500 pounds. “I knew how much it was, because I put the cash in the safe at work”.

Wangaratta won, 15.15 to 11.7 in front of a huge crowd and could finally let their hair down after a long and successful season.

They entered the history books in 1952 by winning their fourth-straight premiership, equalling the feat of the great St. Patrick’s team of the twenties and inviting comparison with the best of all-time.

The Magpies again finished on top in 1953 but bombed out in straight sets. Holten played on for two more seasons, then coached from the sidelines in 1956.

But he detected some resentment about his non-playing coach role. He resigned, with another year still left on his contract. “I felt that I’d run my race”, he said.

His statistical record was first-rate – 154 games, for 107 wins, and a 69.8% winning ratio. He had been the Ovens & Murray representative coach in five seasons.

Bruck Textiles had approached him in 1952 to become their part-time ‘Sports Advisor’, for a stipend of £150 per year. The post involved coaching Bruck Cricket Club and conducting instructional sessions with the best young cricket talent in town.

The move brought instantaneous results, as Bruck took out the flag the next season, with Mac’s unbeaten 135 in the final being a major factor.

His first trip to Melbourne Country Week was as captain in 1951. In the ensuing years he managed to garner a diverse group of personalities into a powerful combination. He is popularly acknowledged as Wangaratta’s best-ever captain.

He seemed to be a thought ahead of the game . He set defensive fields and ‘got inside’ his bowlers’ heads, to have them executing his game plan. Of the 33 CW games he played, 30 were as captain.

“Melbourne Country Week provided me with my most enjoyable cricket moments”, he recalled. “It had everything that is good about cricket – challenge, competition, comradeship, comedy, drama, excitement and characters.”

Mac led Wangaratta’s cricketers throughout a Golden Era. They won the A-Grade title in 1954, then clinched their first – and only – Provincial crown in 1957.

He represented Country Victoria in two international matches against England. In the first, he scored a dogged 29 against Freddie Brown’s team at Euroa in 1950. Nine years later he captained the side in a long-awaited clash against Peter May’s tourists, at the Showgrounds.

In 1961, aged 37, and no longer playing regularly, Sir Robert Menzies drafted him into his Prime Minister’s XI against Frank Worrell’s great West Indies team at Manuka.

Mac’s sporting prominence led to a tilt at politics and in 1958 he had a sensational victory in the Federal elections, ousting sitting Indi member Bill Bostock. He held the seat for 7 elections and was at one time the Minister for Repatriation.

He finally lost his seat in 1982 and returned to Wangaratta, enthusiastically throwing himself into a project of coaching and developing the town’s young cricket and tennis players  for many years.

When Mac Holten passed away in 1996, he had left an indelible imprint on the local sporting landscape. He is a member of the O & M and WDCA Halls of Fame.
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