‘THE OLD FOOTBALL SAGE…’

It’s 1958…….. Wangaratta Rovers have assembled a classy line-up, which is on the verge of premiership glory…….

Attention focuses on Bobby Rose, the champ wearing the Brown and Gold Number 1 guernsey, who has guided the Hawks from irrelevance to become an O & M power.

Undeniably, ‘Mr.Football’ is the ‘leader of the band’ ……….but who’s the venerable gentleman in the suit and tie, with whom he intently confers at the breaks………and who studiously follows play from the Rovers’ bench……

Someone says: “Oh, that’s Ben Ward, ‘Rosey’s’ right-hand man………”

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We slide back through the pages of history – more than a century in fact – to trace the career of this old football sage, who was born in Myrtleford, and raised on a dairy farm at Meadow Creek, roughly 10km from Moyhu……..

When Ovens and King football resumed in 1919, after the Great War’s intervention, he was among the many untried kids who lined up with the Green and Golds. Strong, courageous, and a born leader, he became Moyhu’s nominal skipper the following season, aged 20.

Wangaratta and Eldorado were the dominant O & K teams of this early-20’s , but Moyhu were constantly nipping at their heels.

Wang’s elevation to Ovens and Murray ranks in 1922 saw them cast their recruiting net throughout the district. Ben Ward, who had starred against them, was among the first to be approached.

The boy from Meadow Creek could scarcely have envisaged that his arrival at the Showgrounds would be the precursor to ten Grand Final appearances in thirteen years.

In four of the five in which he was involved with Wangaratta, their opponents were Albury’s powerhouse combination, St.Patrick’s. An intense rivalry developed from the initial clashes between the two Clubs, and reached epic – and probably unhealthy – proportions.

No wonder. The ‘Pies were decidedly unlucky in 1922. They held out their fast-finishing opponents by a goal in the Final. St.Patrick’s, as Minor Premiers, exercised their right to challenge, and the two teams tangled again the following week. This time the ‘Greens’ prevailed by four points – 6.9 to 5.13.

When brilliant Footscray small man Matt O’Donoghue took over the coaching reins in 1923, he was so impressed with the tactical nous and leadership qualities of the rising 23 year-old Ward that he installed him as his vice-captain.

St.Patrick’s’ narrow ascendancy continued when they got up by a goal in sloppy conditions at the Albury Showgrounds. For the return, Round 11 clash, minor league games were cancelled, to enable people to head in to Wangaratta.

And they came from everywhere. Three trains ran from Albury and Myrtleford, and a crowd of over 5,000 paid £183.10/- ( a North-East record) to witness another classic.

‘O’Donoghue, Ward, Martin Moloney and Jim ‘Coco’ Boyd were Wangaratta’s best, but St.Patrick’s sneaked home by 5 points in one of the finest games ever witnessed’, according to the match summary. In assessing the contest the ‘Chronicle’ scribe drily commented that: ‘..This Wangaratta side is a good one. It should be good. It has cost a lot of money………’

After falling short in three straight Grand Finals, Wangaratta had become close to paranoid about bridging the gap to St.Pat’s, who had now collected four flags on the trot.

But luck’s a fortune……..The Postal Department had scheduled the construction of new lines through the Wangaratta district, and many jobs were created….. And, if you happened to be a handy footballer you were a fair chance to land a job on this project.

With several high-profile recruits and a new coach – former Collingwood champion ruckman Percy ‘Oily’ Rowe – hopes were high that the ‘Pies would land their first-ever O & M flag in 1925.

As the side resembled something of a ‘foreign legion’, it was crucial for the local players to maintain a presence. Rowe ensured that the popular, resilient Ward retained the deputy-leadership.

The ‘Pies drew the opening match of the season with Hume Weir ( 12.11 apiece ), then embarked on an unbeaten run to the finals.

The hotly-fancied St.Patrick’s surprisingly imploded in successive finals, leaving Wangaratta and Hume Weir to fight out the ‘Big One’.

After the Weir had raced away to an early lead Wangaratta had the game in their keeping at three quarter-time, and cruised home, to win 10.11 to 7.8.

Wangaratta retained most of their premiership line-up in 1926 and continued the tussle with St.Patrick’s for league supremacy.

They finished the home and away games in second position, but just before the finals, eight members of the side lost their jobs due to the completion of work on the telephone lines .

A public meeting was held to attempt to keep them around but this setback seemed to have an unsettling effect on the players’ morale and led to what became known as ‘The Bust-Up’.

The Magpies reached the Grand Final easily enough and tangled with old foes St.Patrick’s, who had exercised their right of challenge as minor premiers, after dropping an earlier final.

Wangaratta were annihilated – 18.20 to a meagre 6.9…………….

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Legend has it that certain players laid down……that money had allegedly changed hands in the Council Club Hotel during the week of the game…..that things blew up and a fight broke out on the train, as the team returned from Corowa.

This claim was hotly refuted. Many people believed that the inability of the out-of-work players to train regularly with the team contributed to the dramatic capitulation.

Whatever the case, the Magpies’ magnificent era was over, and the cream of this star-studded side headed off into the sunset.

Ben Ward, who had played such a significant role in keeping things together, returned to his spiritual home, taking over as coach in 1928.

He’d been just a nipper when Moyhu pulled off a hat-trick of flags two decades earlier, but fate decreed that Ben was to lead them through another Golden Era.

By 1929 they had assembled a crackerjack line-up, which included seven Johnston’s ( Terry, Jim,’Spot’, ‘Pos’, ‘Skin’, Jack and Eric ), four O’Brien’s ( Bill, Jack, Maurice and Larry) and two Flanigan’s

But their dominant season threatened to be railroaded in the Grand Final, despite establishing a 10.11 to 5.10 lead over Myrtleford at three-quarter time. Their opponents bounced back to draw level after booting four unanswered goals early in the last. Two rushed behinds in the frenetic dying moments enabled Moyhu to scramble home.

The O & K Premiers challenged an almost full-strength O & M finalist, Wangaratta, the following week and clinched a great contest by five points. To complete the almost-perfect season, they also defeated Benalla to lay, with some justification, claim to be the North-East’s leading club.

After another fine season the absence of Eric and ‘Spot’ Johnston through suspension cast a cloud over Moyhu’s 1930 Finals prospects. Beechworth outpointed them in the Final, but as the Minor Premiers, Moyhu exercised the right of Challenge and turned the tables the following week.

Another flag came their way in 1933 when they resisted a strong Myrtleford side, to win by 32 points.

“Moyhu repeatedly outpaced the Blues,” the Chronicle reported . “Their turn of speed was reminiscent of their style a couple of years back…. Both teams were well led……Jack Mahoney is younger and more spectacular than Ben Ward, but Ben does a lot of work that goes unnoticed……”

Then Moyhu put the icing on the cake in 1934, with their fourth title in six years. Myrtleford were again their victims in a thriller. Considerable friction had developed between the arch rivals in a lead-up match, when spectators rushed onto the ground after an incident, and adopted threatening attitudes.

“……This match was played at high tension and weight was freely used throughout,” was the summary. “The Moyhu team has been built up mostly of local boys, with the addition of school-teachers, and several players from Myrrhee and Greta.”

“Their win is another tribute to Ben Ward – the best captain in the competition…….”

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The old warrior finally hung up the boots in 1936, when he damaged a knee. Two years later, though, he sustained much more severe injuries when he was helping to quell a fire outbreak near Greta.

As captain of the Moyhu Fire Brigade he was travelling in a truck which stalled whilst rushing water tanks and a pump to the fire. Badly burned, he continued to pump water on to the Truck, extinguished the flames, then rejoined his men at the main outbreak………

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The coaching career of Ben Ward was over………in his opinion, anyway ……..until Moyhu came calling again on the eve of the 1947 season.

The incumbent, Mick Dalton, was reluctant to do the job, and expressed his concern to star player Jim Corker: “I don’t like to put pressure on Ben to take it on. Would you mind asking him, Jimmy ?”

So began the campaign to a most unlikely O & K flag.

At the conclusion of the home-and-away rounds Moyhu were in fifth position; out of the finals on percentage. But, in a sensational development, top team Myrtleford were stripped of several games for playing an unregistered youngster.

They were ruled out of the finals and Moyhu found themselves contesting the First Semi. Far too slick for King Valley, they won going away, by three goals.

The Preliminary Final against Greta was a dramatic affair; in the balance until the dying moments, when a free kick – and goal – to Cyril Corker, clinched Moyhu’s berth in the Grand Final, against Milawa.

Wayward kicking prevented the Demons from stitching up the Flag. The form of the Gardner brothers, particularly Jock ( who was best afield ), gave them the ascendency , But they were unable to shake off the persistent Moyhu, who had the better of the play at ground level,

In another terrific finish, Moyhu’s 14.9 gave them a five-point win over the errant Milawa ( 11.23 ). Ward lavished praise on his players: “We must be the smallest team to have won a premiership. But the boys were very determined…..”

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Ben Ward maintained his enthusiasm for football – and racing – until his passing, aged 75. His nine kids produced several offspring who followed his footsteps into O & K ranks.

The most recent was his grandson, Hall of Famer Gerard Nolan, a veteran of 250 games, who figured in four Moyhu Premierships in the latter part of a 25-year career.

His 10-goal haul in one of them, spearheaded the Hoppers to the 2005 flag, 86 years after ‘Old Ben’ took the first, tentative steps on his football journey…………

” ‘MOUSE’…….THE OPPORTUNIST……..”

Denis Wohlers passed on some notable characteristics to his son…….among them, a shock of blonde hair…….the Diabetes gene…..one of the most recognisable nicknames in town……..and a passion for the Rovers, Essendon and fishing.

Thank heavens young Shane didn’t inherit his minimal footy ability.

The kindest testimony to his old man’s skills with the Sherrin is that, mercifully, he found a more suitable pastime as a drummer……..

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Shane was part of a couple of Rovers premiership teams that have been classified among the greatest of all-time. Even though he was one of their unsung foot-soldiers, he’d have no trouble plucking out a host of career highlights.

But his mates always vouch that the best of ‘Mouse’ was encapsulated in a scintillating six-minute burst at the Albury Sportsground in 1998. I’ll try to re-construct the scenario:

After being near-unbeatable in the early part of the nineties, the Hawks’ reign is terminated by Albury, who have snared the last three titles.

The ladder-leaders exemplify their ruthlessness in this mid-season match, arrogantly stretching a 32-point lead at the long break to 40 at lemon-time. Even the most ardent Hawk fans sense a debacle and are mournfully contemplating the long trip home.

The pendulum swings ever so slightly ……The formerly-frazzled visitors begin to exhibit a sense of abandon and charge forward. Three early goals provide the inspiration……

12-minutes into the last term the will-o-the-wisp Wohlers swoops on the ball and kicks a great running goal from 40 metres…………A minute later, with the Hawks deep in attack, he successfully snaps from a near-impossible angle……..And, deja vu……He boots a sensational goal on the run, from 45 metres out, tucked up against the boundary, just as the clock ticks over 14 minutes……..At the 18- minute mark it’s the elusive number 36 again ! His destruction continues, with his fourth on the trot ( and fifth overall) to level the scores……..

By now he’s on Cloud Nine, dominating the game in a way that he’d never have envisaged . The Rovers continue attacking relentlessly, and, after Tim Scott kicks his fifth to regain the lead for the Tigers, it’s Rohan Graham who puts them back in front.

Precious seconds tick by. At the 30-minute mark, Albury’s Manny Edmonds breaks clear. His shot from 35m towards an open goal, drifts across for a minor score, just as the siren blares…..the Hawks have sneaked home by four points……

Amidst the pandemonium, ‘Mouse’ – the hero of the moment – bashfully acknowledges the plaudits of the fans…….

His dad, the Club’s resident Video-Operator, packs up his equipment and enters the jubilant rooms, fobbing off the praise directed towards his son.

Someone remarks: “What’d you think of the young bloke.? “

But ‘Old Mouse’, a hard task-master if ever there was one, drily comments: “Where was he for three quarters……….?”

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Shane laughs when we reflect on his favourite ‘moment in the sun’: “Robbie (Walker) used to do things like that every second week.”

Indeed, he says, he was privileged to have a box-seat to the ‘Walker-Show’. But really, he’d long been destined to make a mark at the Findlay Oval. When he was a toddler in the mid-to-late seventies he was forever trailing behind his heavily-involved dad .

His heroes weren’t the VFL household-names of the day, but stars like Merv Holmes, Steve Norman, Eddie Flynn and Andrew Scott, who indulged him as part of the Hawk family.

He progressed from playing with Junior League Club College, to the Rovers Thirds, where he finished runner-up in the B &F and featured in their 1988 Premiership side. It seemed a ‘fait accompli’ that ‘Mouse’ would be yet another to join the assembly-line of budding champs.

Within two years, one of his Thirds flag team-mates, Dean Harding had been snapped up by VFL club Fitzroy after some eye-catching performances……..Shane’s journey couldn’t have provided a starker contrast…….

He found himself unable to even squeeze into the Rovers Reserves side in ‘89…….

“I wasn’t going to hang around not playing, so ‘Boofa’ Allan talked Chris McInnes, ‘Rolls’ (Steve Ralston), myself and Dean Stone ( who hadn’t played footy for a year or so) to head out to Milawa for the rest of the season.”

“We enjoyed it too, but it was only going to be a one-year thing for me. I still reckoned I was good enough to eventually crack the Seniors at the Rovers.”

Even then, he had to earn his spot the hard way. He was the Reserves B & F in 1990, Third in ‘91, and shared the Award with Mark Nolan in 1992. The reward for his consistency was the sum total of 15 senior games in three years.

He was going on 23. “I really thought I might have been given more opportunities,” Shane reflects,”…but I realised I had to be patient. It was a pretty hard line-up to break into.”

After playing a handful of early games in the Two’s in 1993, Laurie Burt pulled him aside one night and said: “You’re in.” “ ‘Sorry, I can’t play’ I told him. ‘I’m going to a mate’s wedding.’”

“I thought, shit, now I’ve done my dash. I knew what Laurie’s attitude was to blokes who put their social life in front of footy.”

“But surprisingly, I got a senior game the following week – and didn’t get dropped for the next seven years……………”

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Included in that was a run of 35 consecutive wins, which took in the 1993 and ‘94 premierships.

A myriad of memories flick through his mind when he recalls those flags……..for instance, the half-time brawl in the player’s race in the ‘93 decider against Wodonga…..the inspirational Laurie Burt speech which stirred them back into action….. Leading by just one point at the main break, they went on to kick 12 goals to 6, to win by 40 points….He even managed to ‘snag’ a couple himself…….

And the multiple stoushes in the ‘Big One’ the following year, when the ‘Dogs had three players off the ground – ‘yellow-carded’ – in the third term……He played against his good mates – Dean Harding, Robbie Hickmott and Dean Stone that day……The Rovers triumphed, this time by 10 goals….

‘Mouse’ was creative….. skilful…..an opportunist……and an ideal club-man. He was often accompanied at training by his faithful Corgie-Kelpie-Cross companion, Sid, which would usually lead the sprint-work during the Sunday morning ‘warm-down’.

In early 1999 Shane headed north for an eight-week Gold Coast summer safari . He trained alongside his old team-mate ‘Hicky’, who was now at at Southport; and also with Beenleigh, the home club of another ex-Rover, Rob Panozzo.

“I was playing two practice matches some week-ends……. got super-fit. I’d thought about staying up there, but when I came back to Wang I was raring to go. It proved to be a disappointing year, though. I ran out of form. In the final round we played well against Lavi and I had a day out on a young kid called John Hunt.It was my last senior game for the Rovers………..”

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His association with Moyhu began in 2000 when he was appointed assistant-coach to Des Smith.

It probably wasn’t obvious at the time, but the Hoppers were about to embark on a Golden Era, which would see them snare five flags and play in seven Grand Finals.

However, Shane’s stint began disastrously. A broken cheekbone, which he sustained in a torrid clash against Chiltern left him on the sidelines for eight weeks. It spurred a frosty relationship between the Hoppers and Swans which never really thawed.

He took over the coaching reins the following year, but copped another setback – an opposition player fell across his leg, he fell awkwardly and underwent a knee reconstruction.

Ruled out of action indefinitely, he returned to the Rovers as Coach of the Reserves ( non-playing for the first year and playing-coach in the second).

The Hoppers were riding high when they welcomed him back. They atoned for a last-gasp four-point defeat at the hands of Bright in 2004 by clinching the next two flags, both against Whorouly.

“The first of these was played at the Showgrounds, and turned out a ripping game,” he recalls. “Gerard Nolan kicked ten of our 15 goals and we got up by 10 points.”

“In 2006 we took the game away from them in the third quarter and finished up winning by about nine goals. ‘Higgsy’ (Mark Higgs) came off the bench and marked everything, which helped turn the game in our favour.”

He had another two-year stint as coach in 2008/‘09. “They had someone else teed up, but it fell through, so I agreed to take it on. We made the finals both years, but I was glad to hand it over to Johnny McNamara when he became available.”

His career came to a fitting end when he played in Moyhu’s enthralling win over Tarrawingee in the 2011 Grand Final. It had been nip and tuck all day. The Hoppers reeled back a 10-point deficit in the last quarter to sneak home by two points.

He was going on 42, and it was his 409th game ( 139 at Moyhu – and 139 Senior, 92 Reserves and 39 Thirds games with the Rovers).

“ I was buggered, and could hardly raise a gallop when the siren blew……. I knew it was time to give it away…………”

P.S : Another blonde-haired, talented young ‘Mouse’ has just begun his football journey. Shane will be coaching Kaiden in the Centrals Under 12’s when footy kicks off again, whilst the two girls, Tahya and Kyia are playing Netball under the coaching of their mum, Sharlene, at Moyhu.

‘DANNY RECALLS THE NIGHT HE CLINCHED THE BELT ….’

“Dan ! How ya goin’ ”.

There’s a pregnant pause on the end of the line, followed by a muffled, querulous : “Who’ve I got here ?”.

“ Remember me ?… Kevin Hill……What are you up to ?.”

“Ah… KB….To be quite honest, I’ve been on the drink this week-end……Relaxin’…..I’m pretty good at that, you know…………”

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I’ve got hold of Danny Carey in a round-about way. He’d originally made contact with the Chronicle, to find out if they could rustle up some clippings pertaining to the fleeting boxing career he pursued back in the eighties. Sorry, they said, but we’ll jot down your phone details, and give them to a fellah who might be able to chase something up………..

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So that’s how Dan and I happen to be involved in this somewhat garbled conversation.

He’s now domiciled at Taree, a town on the mid-North Coast of New South Wales, about 15km inland…. Says he’s been roaming around for a few years, but now resides in a Caravan, in the local Showgrounds’ precinct….

Just before I rang he’d knocked the top off another long-neck, he tells me, having returned from helping to round up a few horses They’ve been spooked by the plumes of smoke from the bushfires, which are looming ominously over the landscape.

“How long have you been in Taree, Dan ?,” I ask. “A bit over two years, but I hit the road a long time ago. When things turn a bit sour I just move on……..”

He’s whiling away the time by listening to some of his favourite Country and Western singers: “Ever heard Tom.T.Hall’s ‘Homecoming’ ? When you get off the phone you should google it up. And while you’re at it, listen to another one of his: ‘The Ballad of 40 Dollars’.”

He’s got a fancy for most of the Slim Dusty repertoire , in particular ‘Ballad of the Drover’. When I ask how that one starts off, Dan bursts into a rendition:

‘Across the stony ridges, across the rolling plain,

Young Harry Dale the Drover comes riding home again,

And well his stock-horse bears him, and light of heart is he,

And stoutly his old pack-horse is trotting by his knee………’

Dan had a lot of respect for his dad – also called Dan.

“He was a serious bugger, and fairly hard. But he had that way about him that you didn’t know whether he was jokin’ or not.”

“Dad’s was the last funeral I went to. I don’t like ‘em much. Don’t trust myself……. Might get all emotional and punch someone.”

When he queries me on some of the old local identities he knew, I mention that many of them have now passed on. “F……’, they’re all droppin’ off,” he quips.

Dan’s revelling in this bit of a chin-wag. Even though he’s now nudging 60 there’s no doubting that memory of his………..

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Dan was a strongly-built kid with recognisable footy talent when he arrived out at Moyhu in 1975. He reminds me I was his first coach. That probably proved to be a hindrance to his prospects of ever being a champion, I suggest…..

But he was good enough, and strong enough – at the age of 15 – to hold down a key position, which was a feat in itself. I found, for all his devilment, he was a good kid who you couldn’t help taking a shine to…….even though he was easily distracted and his training habits weren’t quite up to scratch.

After a couple of seasons with the ‘Hoppers he moved to Tarrawingee, back to Moyhu for another three years, over to Greta, then finally, back to Moyhu.

He reckons he saddled up in about 130 senior Ovens and King games, with the highlight being the Best and Fairest that he picked up at Moyhu in 1979.

Dan says he gained a fascination for the boxing game through watching the ever-popular ‘T.V Ringside’ on Monday nights.

“When I suggested to the ‘old man’ I’d like to have a go at it, he said: ‘Danny, it’s a ridiculous sport….. Blokes dancing around trying to belt each other in the head………But it’s so intriguing…….’ “

He started training under local legend Rossy Colosimo. They were an odd couple. Ross was short, muscly, and a fitness fanatic, who was the local symbol of the sport.

He treated his protege’, who towered over him, with plenty of ‘TLC’ and did his best to impart his fountain of knowledge to the feisty youngster. He particularly emphasised to this ‘loose cannon’ that he needed to be fair dinkum, and had to make a few sacrifices if he was going to make a go of it.

Dan got off to an unflattering start to his career with a loss on points in a three-rounder, to a tough old slugger – Billy Jones.

But his next four bouts were full of promise – three wins and a draw – which led to an offer to be matched up with cagey Reno Zurik, a fit, quick New South Welshman who had 51 fights to his name.

Their meeting at Beechworth, was Carey’s first 10-rounder, and Zurik showed the benefit of his experience to finish on strongly in the final rounds. The points decision was decisive, and led to him putting his Riverina Heavyweight Title on the line in the re-match at the Wangaratta Indoor Stadium, eight months later………..

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I remember it vividly. The Rovers had put their hands up to promote the ‘Boxing Extravaganza’, which was originally the brainchild of the late Denis Wohlers.

‘Mouse’ was an ideas man, but reckoned that ‘dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s’ was a job best passed on to someone else. That’s why, by the end of the night, I had aged a couple of years.

The early signs were promising. We were encouraged by the numbers who were rolling up to this strongly-advertised eight-bout program.

The first hitch came when, with time ticking away, there was no sign of the contingent of six Riverina boxers – including one of the principal attractions, Reno Zurik. Just as panic stations were setting in, and tempers were becoming frayed, four of them ambled in with their manager, a cagey old pro from Walla Walla called Kevin Kennedy. “Sorry fellahs,” he said, “two of the boys from Culcairn didn’t make the trip.”

“Shit…..Ah well, Thank Goodness most of you are here; now we can get on with the show,” we proclaimed.

“Have you got the Doctor organised,” said Kevin Kennedy. “What ?…..there’s been no mention of needing a Doctor.” “That’s one of the Boxing Regulations” he snorted……. “You must have a Doctor on hand……If there’s no Doctor, there’s no Fight Night.”

I reached for the ‘phone to ask a favour of the only person who might be a slight chance to pull us out of this predicament. Miraculously, Dr.Bruce Wakefield said he’d be down in a jiffy .

By now it was getting on, and the big crowd had become restless. So was our MC, Peter McCudden, who was rushing around wondering what he could say next, to pacify his audience.

“Tell ‘em we’re not far off starting,” we said. “I mentioned that 20 minutes ago,” he replied.

Eventually, the first Prelim got under way, and the 700-strong spectators were mercifully forgiving. They were soon roaring themselves hoarse as the night unfolded. It was an ideal prelude to the ‘Big One’ – Zurik versus Carey………………

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German-born Zurik looked every inch the seasoned campaigner when he slid through the ropes, accompanied by a ripple of polite applause. The ‘local hero’ followed, a minute or so later.

Strongly-built, liberally-tattooed, and with an air of confidence, big Danny shed his Purple and Gold Greta footy guernsey, and raised his gloved-hands, to huge acclaim. He knew that, of all the moments in what had been to date, an unfulfilled sporting career, this was the one he’d remember forever.

But there was a job to do, and he used his height to advantage in pummelling the champ in the early rounds.

He certainly had the ascendancy. In the fifth, he unleashed a powerful right, which rocked his opponent.

Even so, the dogged Zurik fought back. The contest was evenly-matched until the ninth round, when Carey, finishing strongly, completely asserted his dominance over the fourth-ranked Australian Heavyweight contender.

Eighty seconds into the final round it was all over. Carey knocked the champ to the canvas and the referee, Max Carlos, stopped the fight – Carey by a TKO.

Danny soaked up the adulation of the home crowd, and the esteem of holding the Riverina Belt. 18 months later he again tackled Reno Zurik in a six-rounder at Wagga. This time his canny opponent was too good, and gained a unanimous decision on points.

That was the beginning of the end for Dan, who, in several succeeding bouts, never again scaled the heights to which he promised to ascend.

But even so, he can’t help harking back to that memorable July evening in 1981, when he became the toast of Wangaratta……….

‘ A HARD-MAN…… ON AND OFF THE FIELD…….’

Ray Burns was one of those larger-than-life characters of my growing-up years.

As a recently-arrived member of the constabulary, he soon earned the respect of the town’s miscreants and scallywags; maintaining decorum by dispensing the old-fashioned form of justice – a decent, well-directed toe up the arse……..

Accentuating his reputation as a ‘hard-man’ was a flattened nose, spread generously across his ‘lived-in’ dial….. giving rise to a rumour that he’d once been a Golden Gloves contender.

He’s from an era when country football clubs eagerly anticipated the annual influx of bank-clerks, school-teachers and policemen to their municipalities. They would pray that, amongst those who migrated, they might be fortunate enough to snavel a ready-made star or two.

That’s what happened in late-1957, when ‘Burnsy’ made Wangaratta his home…………..

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He was just 16 when he left Shepparton and headed to the ‘big smoke’ to pursue his boyhood dreams.

Just as his brother Ted saw his destiny lying in the priesthood, Ray had his heart set on becoming a cop……and a star footballer.

But firstly, he had to ‘mark time’. He spent two years with the Railways before being accepted into the Police Academy.

By now he was well-entrenched at Richmond, where he’d had two years with the Third Eighteen, and was acquitting himself capably in the Two’s.

After playing a starring role in a Reserves Prelim Final in 1956, in which he received the plaudits of old Tigers for his three goals, a stint of National Service the following year took a decent slice out of his season.

Upon graduating from the Academy, and reaching the conclusion that League football was probably beyond his reach, he accepted his first transfer………

“The clubs came knocking, but there was no doubt where I was going to sign; I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play under Bob Rose,” he recalls.

“It was sensational….They were the Golden Years of Country footy……..I loved regaling my kids with the stories of climbing on the train to go to the Grand Finals in Albury.”IMG_4242

“When we came back, victorious, we were greeted at the Railway Station by hundreds of Rovers fans, and the Town Band, which escorted us down to the Ground for the celebrations. Talk about being big frogs in a small puddle !……..”

Bob Rose loved Burnsy’s’ toughness and redoubtable spirit . And besides, the Hawk ‘protector’ regularly produced on the big occasions.

He was a key contributor in the club’s first flag – a 49-point win over Des Healy’s Wodonga in 1958. When the sides squared off two years later, he was best-afield, as the Rovers prevailed in a tight contest.

Casting his mind back to the closing stages of the 1959 Grand Final against Yarrawonga, though, still produces a lump in his throat.

It’s raved about as one of the finest O & M Grand Finals of all time. Here’s how it unfolded :

The Pigeons, pursuing their maiden premiership, scarp out to a 39-point lead in the third quarter.

But the Hawks produce 20 minutes of champagne football, to boot seven goals in 20 minutes, and take a 3-point lead into the three-quarter time break.

The lead changes six times in a pulsating final term. With the clock counting down, and the Rovers attacking,  Max Newth takes possession near centre half forward, fumbles, then, with a deft flick-pass, unloads to the running Burns.

From 50 metres, he promptly slots it through the big sticks to regain the lead for his side.

But seemingly from acres away, the shrill sound of umpire Harry Beitzel’s whistle sends a hush through the 12,000-strong crowd. He adjudicates Newth’s  pass as a throw, much to the dismay of Newth, Burns and the rabid Rovers fans.

Yarra take the resultant free kick and the giant, Alf O’Connor, becomes a hero when he slots a major from the pocket just before the siren, to see the Pigeons home……….

“That was a travesty,” Ray says. “There’s no doubt the pass was legitimate, but old Harry pulled the wrong rein. I still replay that incident, 60 years later.”

Bob Rose usually handed Burns the task of tailing Yarra’s tough-nut Lionel Ryan when the sides met. The fiery red-head was a fearsome opponent. When the pair tangled it was akin to two gnarled, feisty old bulls going at each other.IMG_4243

“I picked him up again in this game, but Billy Stephen rung some changes when they were under siege. He shifted Lionel into the centre early in the last quarter.”

“I said to Rosey: ‘Do you want me to go with him ?’……’Nah, it’ll be right,’ he replied. I’d been ‘blueing’ with him all day. As it turned out, Lionel became a big factor in them getting back into the game. But that’s footy……”

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After a magical three years with the Rovers, Ray was by now married to Judy ( ‘the best-looking girl in town’ ) and, having purchased a house in Swan Street, decided to try his hand at coaching.

Moyhu snapped him up. After reaching the Prelim Final in 1961, the Hoppers were all-conquering the following year, and went through the season undefeated. One of his prize recruits was a future O & M legend, Neville Hogan, who dominated the mid-field.IMG_4248

At season’s end, Ray received letters from two clubs – St.Arnaud and Nhill, sussing out his coaching availability.

“Wheat was big in the West in those days,” he recalls. “I’ll never forget this; a fellah called Ray Youthmire was showing me around the club’s facilities. Nhill had never won a Wimmera League premiership. He said: ‘If you take us to the flag, I’ll personally buy you a new Holden car.’ “

“That was irresistible. I told Moyhu I was keen to put in for it,  but instead of thanking me for keeping them in the loop, they sacked me !”

“I went ahead and accepted the job, subject to getting a transfer in the Force. But the cop who was leaving the Nhill police station changed his mind, and my transfer fell through.”

“To rub salt into the wound, Nhill won two of the next three flags, but luckily for me,  Brien Stone, the President of Tarrawingee offered me their job.”

It had been ten years since the Bulldogs’ last premiership, but they set the pace for most of 1963. The Grand Final was a gripping affair, and they just staved off a defiant Moyhu, to win 7.18 (60) to 9.5 (59).IMG_4250

Tarra again triumphed in 1964, this time against a Greta side which was on the rise. The following year, Greta, despite kicking just five goals in another nail-biter, were able to pip Tarra – who kicked 4.15 – by two points.

One of the highlights of his last year as coach was nurturing an overweight, easy-going kid called Michael Nolan, who was to rise to the heights of VFL football.

“I was close to buggered by now, and handed over the reins to Neil Corrigan. I thought it would be best to spend a year just concentrating on playing.”

And that was it for Burnsy – or so he thought.

The Rovers were keen for him to act as a guiding-hand for their youngsters, and appointed him Reserves coach in 1967. But on finals-eve, with injuries mounting, they thrust him back into the senior line-up.

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Ray Burns ‘flies the flag.l

A broken leg to coach Ian Brewer in the second quarter of the Grand Final placed the self-confessed ‘broken-down hack’ in an invidious position. He was now the on-field leader.

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Ray Burns receives instructions from Rovers’ injured coach Ian Brewer during the 1967 Grand Final

He threw his weight around, and was involved in a big dust-up in the third quarter. “I was lying on the ground after it, when a New South Wales copper came onto the ground and said: ‘If you don’t behave yourself, I’ll lock you up’. I don’t know how he came to that conclusion. I finished with the free kick……”

The Rovers were eventually overpowered by Wodonga, and Burnsy promptly hung up the boots.

After 13 years in the Police Force, he embarked on a new career, as the licensee of the London Family Hotel.

Situated opposite the wharves in Port Melbourne, it was a ‘7am to 7pm’ pub, and favoured watering-hole of Wharfies, Painters and Dockers and ‘colourful identities’.

“It was an interesting place, that’s for sure……And talk about busy ! We averaged 50 barrels a week.”

Controversial Dockers such as ‘Putty-Nose’ Nicholls, Pat Shannon, Billy ‘The Texan’ Longley, ‘The Fox’ Morris and ‘Ferret’ Nelson were numbered among his clientele. ‘The Ferret’ finished up wearing ‘cement boots’, and another notorious figure met his end after being gunned down outside the pub.

“We were there for a touch over ten years and although I was on good terms with the wharfies,  I did the ‘modern waltz’ quite a few times, with some of the local ‘intelligentzia’. And my head was used for a football on more than one occasion………They sure kept me on my toes.”

Ray went on to spend some time as a rep for Carlton & United Breweries, ran Wangaratta’s Railway Hotel for three years, then moved the family to Adelaide, where he operated the Half-Way-Hotel, a busy establishment with 40 poker machines and a thriving bar trade.

After a hectic 11 years, they sold out and he and Judy decided to put their feet up. They retired to his old home town of Shepparton, where Ray admits they’re now doing life ‘on the bit’. They spend a fair bit of time these days keeping tabs on their six kids ( Di, Mick, Karen, Paul, Shane and Mark ), and 14 grandkids.

He’s been doing volunteer work for many years with a few old mates, mowing the lawns and tending the gardens of Ave Maria Hostel.

” I’d always reckoned there were two jobs that’d really suit me. One was holding up the Stop/Go sign  for the CRB.  I never achieved that ambition, but I’ve been able to tick off  on the other one – driving a Ride-On Mower !………….”IMG_4247

” TOO TOUGH TO DIE……”

Bob Comensoli was more than handy with his dooks.

I was barely a teen-ager, the night he retained his Riverina middle-weight title in March 1961. Fans in the packed Richardson Stand at the Wangaratta Showgrounds threw their support behind the local boy, as he went to work against Holbrook’s Basil Gason on a floodlit, makeshift centre ring.

He was too strong, too tough for the plucky Gason, just as he had been two years earlier, when he carried a broken hand through most of the fight, to take the points in an exciting eight-rounder.

Bob began boxing, principally to keep fit for football. “Donny Harmer took me aside and started sparring with me when I was just cementing my spot in the Magpies’ side,” he recalls.

“At first there was just the pair of us, then fellahs like Brian Archman, Ted Anderson, Bert Simpson, Peter Fogarty and Rossy Colosimo came on board. We used to train in the old visitors’ rooms – on the score-board side of the Showgrounds.”

There’s little doubt that he could have gone places, had he kept on with his boxing. He was unbeaten, had ‘heavy hands’, as they say, and had captured the attention of fight fans in his three years in pro ranks.

“Who knows,” Bob says. “But I didn’t want it interrupting my footy, so that was my last fight……”
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Of course, he’s a member of a famous local clan. All nine kids ( four boys and five girls) made an impact on sport, be it footy, cricket, netball or Wood-chopping. Their competitive spirit was something to die for………

His eldest brother, Bill, was approaching the end of a stellar career with Wangaratta before continuing on in the O & K. Bob was still making his way through the ranks with Junior Magpies. He confesses, though, that it wasn’t a ‘lay-down-misere’ that he’d follow in Bill’s footsteps.

“I had some good mates at the Rovers. There was no particular reason for me ending up at Wang. I just made up my mind to go over at the last minute.”

They tried him on a back flank. In a good Magpie side, he played a handful of games in his first season. He and ‘Doggie’ Rowland, later destined for St.Kilda, were the youngsters to be narrowly squeezed out of the Premiership side in 1957.

Their naming as emergencies for the Grand Final was an indication that they earmarked as  ‘players of the future’.

Bob later settled into a role as ruck-rover, sharing duties with the colorful Kevin Mack. Over the next seven years he was to became ‘Mr.Dependable’ in a side which was a regular finals campaigner.

He wasn’t over-endowed with pace, but endurance was an asset. That, and a preparedness to work hard and be a thorn in the side of the opposition.

The toughness that characterised his boxing also carried over into his footy. “I didn’t mind it in close, and I managed to perfect the old Bobby Rose ‘short jab to the solar-plexus’. That proved effective at times,” he jokes.

Wodonga, runners-up the previous season, had been a dominant force in 1961. But they fell apart in the finals. Wangaratta, to the contrary, ‘ran hot’, winning their first two finals by 41 and 52 points.

Bob Comensoli was just one of a number who tore Benalla apart in a one-sided Grand Final. The Pies were 6 goals up at quarter-time, and carried on, to take it out by 63 points. It was a crackerjack side, which managed to hit its peak come finals time.

Bob finished second in Wang’s B & F in 1964, and was playing possibly his best football. The next step in his sporting journey, he felt, was to satisfy an urge to coach.

Three clubs approached him, but he decided on Moyhu, mainly because his sister Glad, and brother-in-law Gordon Townsend – the local baker – were closely involved with the Hoppers.

“Glad was playing Netball, and was keen for Val, my wife, to have a game. Val enjoyed it; I think she won three flags while we were out there. It was a really good fit for us.”

He arrived at a time when Moyhu were starting a re-build after a highly-successful six-year run, which had included three flags and two other Grand Final appearances.

“The first thing I realised is that, sometimes, you can’t coach the way you’d like to ; you have to adapt your coaching according to the ability of the players. I certainly learnt a lot in those first couple of years,” he says.

And his form didn’t suffer. He won the O & K’s Baker Medal in 1965 and ‘67 and proved an inspirational leader, mostly playing on-ball, but plugging gaps in his middle-of-the-road side when so required.

Wang snuck him back to qualify for the finals at the conclusion of the ‘67 O & K season, and talked Bob into staying on in 1968.

But he again answered the call from a persistent Moyhu, and took over the coaching reins for another couple of years.

“I really enjoyed the challenge of coaching, particularly when the side was looking to you to provide a lift on the field. One of the things that tickled me was coaching against Bill and Jay (brothers),” Bob says.

“But my body was starting to let me down. I agreed to play on when Richie Shanley took over as coach, because he’d been a big help when I was in charge.”

The end as a player, came late in 1971, when he blew out his knee at Whorouly. He was going on 34.

Twenty-two years later, Bob began his third stint as coach of Moyhu, in a non-playing capacity.

The Hoppers’ side now included a few of his sons and nephews and was a well-balanced outfit.

They reached successive Prelim Finals, and in the first of these, I witnessed first hand, the raw emotion of a distraught coach.

North Wangaratta had proved a little too strong in the latter stages, to win by 20 points. In the rooms afterwards, the shattered Comensoli bluntly pointed out that some of the players had let themselves -and the club – down.

“Some of you,” he said,”are in the twilight of your careers, some are just starting out. You mightn’t get an opportunity to play in another Grand Final……. In a week or so, you’ll wish you’d suffered a bit more pain, to find the extra effort……….”

But there’s something about coaching. It becomes addictive.

After three years with Moyhu, Bob thought his coaching days were over…….until a desperate King Valley sought his services.

They’d won the wooden spoon in 1995, but had an impressive clump of local talent, and were hopeful of improvement.

“It didn’t start off too well,” Bob says. “ We decided to take a bus from Wang, to training each Tuesday and Thursday night. The first night we got there, only three locals turned up. I thought, what have we got ourselves in for here.”

But the Valley improved, and within three years, finished the home-and-home games on top of the ladder. “I thought we were the best side in it in 1998, but didn’t have a lot of luck in the finals, and bombed out in straight sets.”

Bob had four years at King Valley. “Terrific people, it was thoroughly enjoyable.”

So his coaching career, which had encompassed 12 years, and saw him inducted to the Ovens & King’s Hall of Fame, drew to a close. He  now  focused on his other sporting passion – training greyhounds .

He says he’s been walking dogs since the age of eight, when he used to help his dad, who was always keen on the ‘dishlickers’.

“I still love it. You have to take ‘em out at about 4am these days, to avoid those people who are walking their pet poodles and the like…..”

He’s convinced that the bad rap the greyhound industry has copped over the past two years or so, will soon blow over.

“There were a few bad eggs in the game. And they’re eradicating them.”

He’s trained hundreds of winners, on tracks as far away as Warrnambool, Traralgon, Geelong and Ballarat. He rates Deep Sweep and Tinkerman Prince as the best of them. Both won approximately 25 races.

2017 has been the ‘year from hell’ for Bob Commo. On the day he retired in March, after a near lifetime in the petroleum industry, he suffered a mini-stroke.

Three weeks later he was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer.

It’s been a battle, he says, but he’s in remission now, and believes things are on the up.

I reckon he’s too tough to die…….