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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FAMILIAR FACES AMONG A.C.K CRICKET GREATS…..

A rare night out for me usually entails a Pot and Parmie at the Pino, with Moira and a few of the kids.……

So it’s with some trepidation tonight, that we’re treading this elaborate staircase, adorned with marble balustrades and plush carpet. We’re headed for Crown’s swanky Palladium Ballroom – long-time venue of the Brownlow Medal-count and former home of the Logies.

It’s akin to a second-rate bush nag being thrust into a Group One Classic at Flemington.

The occasion is Assumption’s 125th Gala Dinner, at which they’ll be inducting several of the famous Kilmore College’s high-achieving alumni to their Hall of Excellence.

Another feature of the night – and of particular interest to me – is the unveiling of their ‘Cricketers of the Century’.

In the meantime, we’re downing canapés and pre-dinner drinks and watching celebrated Old Boy Billy Brownless natter to arriving guests on the blue carpet……IMG_3740.

There are in excess of 600 guests expected, and, as we cast around, we spot a few of the school’s illustrious sporting products……You never forget that craggy face…. It’s the inimitable ‘Crackers’ Keenan….there’s ‘St.Francis’ Bourke, the ex-Richmond legend………we notice former Collingwood defender Peter McCormack……….. Shane Crawford is buzzing around, as usual. ‘Crawf’ joined footy’s elite at this very venue when he snared the Brownlow in 1999…………..

One super-veteran, decked out in a light sports coat and shuffling around with the aid of a ‘walker’, button-holes us. He must be well into his nineties and almost takes a tumble as he leans forward. Surely he’ll struggle to see out the evening……

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The function is every bit as classy as anticipated…….Good meal, impressive speakers…….. And we’re among chatty, warm company……… When it comes around to inducting the eight people who have achieved excellence in various walks of life, it’s humbling to gain an insight to the journeys that they have undertaken.IMG_3735

A standing ovation is reserved for the final nominee – Neale Daniher – whose four-year campaign to raise awareness of Motor Neurone Disease has warmed the hearts of the nation…….

Shortly after, another ‘notable’ is introduced to the crowd, and it’s obvious, from their reaction, that he’s held in the highest regard. He’s somewhat of an institution at Assumption.

His name is Ray Carroll……………..

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Still boasting a full head of hair and wearing dark glasses ( obviously  his eyesight isn’t too flash these days), he belies his 81 years. It’s acknowledged that he’s the most successful cricket/football coach in the history of Australian college sport.

Amazingly, he spent 53 years at Assumption, devoting himself to the betterment of kids’ education, both in the classroom and on the sporting field.

Ray grew up in the tiny Western District town of Hexham, situated about 14km from Mortlake; son of a stay-at-home mum and a rough-hewn but kindly dad, who was a shearer and occasional tent-boxer.

From an early age his twin passions were cricket and footy. He played Country Week cricket; trained with, and followed the fortunes of Mortlake’s formidable Hampden League side, but had his eye on a career as a Teacher.

His first job, though, was as a cadet surveyor. When an opportunity bobbed up to attend Teacher’s College, he grabbed it with both hands.

I like the story he tells of graduating, at the age of 21:

“Out of the blue I was told there was a vacancy at Kilmore. I’d never heard of Assumption. When I arrived for an interview, Brother Sylvester, who was the principal, said: ‘I suppose you can teach…… and I hear you like football and cricket…..You can start on Monday.’ “

“On the first morning, Br.Sylvester told me I was in charge of a class of 65. I mentioned that I didn’t have any text books. He handed me a strap and a cane and said: ‘The boys’ll have books….Just keep one page in front of ‘em…..’ ”

The Carroll philosophy in life has been to “always treat people the way you’d like to be treated, and treat them with respect.”

He took charge of Assumption’s First XI team in 1967, and became the First 18 coach in the mid-70’s – the first lay person to accede to the role.

He was a mentor, and a second dad to a lot of kids, especially those who struggled with the transition from the open spaces of, say, life on a Riverina farm, to boarding school at Kilmore.

When he began coaching the First XI he was not much older than many of the boys, but down through the years, coached their sons – and in a handful of cases – grandsons.

Apparently the Carroll coaching methods never changed. He felt no need to tweak them, as they still proved stunningly successful, but time marches on, and he finally, reluctantly, stepped away in 2011.IMG_3739

He’s an icon of Assumption, and it’s obvious that he has maintained contact with most of his old pupils. They all seem eager to renew acquaintances………

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One of the countless sportsmen who came under Ray Carroll’s influence was Jon Henry. The boy from Kamarah, situated between Moombooldool and Ardlethan in the central Riverina, once kicked 201 goals in a season for Assumption.

He captained both the First XI and First 18, and recalls his coach being big on loyalty. “He preached playing for the school and sticking together. Ray’s a lovely fellah, and was ultra-competitive. I really think cricket was his first love, though.”

“ But on the footy-front, I remember we clashed with Melbourne High at the Junction Oval one day. They had about 16 Thirds-listed Melbourne players in their side, and Ray emphasised how important it was to gain the upper-hand. He had us really fired up. We came out and knocked them off. It was one of the best wins we had in my time there…….”

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I run into Peter Tossol, who’s reminded of his boarding days at Kilmore: “We were having an impromptu game of cricket in the dorm late one night,” he recalls. “ I’ve grabbed the bat and shaped up as Simon O’Donnell begins to steam in down the corridor to bowl to me.”

“I said: ‘Righto, O’Donnell, bring in on.’ Just then the door opens and one of the Brothers is there, arms folded, with a stern look on his face. He grabbed the bat and gave me a couple of whacks across the backside. Simon also copped a couple, for good measure.”

Toss says he used to bowl first change in the First XI, whilst O’Donnell would wreak havoc with the new ball. “He was positively fearsome at times. Simon had both openers out hit wicket one day, trying to get out of the road. He did all the damage. When I came on all I had to do was mop up. What a player he was as a school-kid……”

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I’m predicting ‘Toss’ and ‘Henners’ to to be walk-up starts in this team of ‘Cricketers of the Century’. And there’s no doubt that Simon O’Donnell, Assumption’s greatest cricketing export, will be named skipper.

So it transpires.

O’Donnell, Test cricketer, veteran of 87 one-day internationals and a star of Australia’s 1987 World Cup victory, gets the captaincy nod.

His deputy is Peter Ryan, a talented right-hand batsman of the late sixties and seventies. He played 84 games of District cricket with Fitzroy, and moved to Queensland in 1971, where he appeared in a couple of Sheffield Shield games.

The team is announced, to much acclaim:

SIMON O’DONNELL (c). ( Class of 1980)

PETER RYAN (v.c). (1969)

NEALE DANIHER. (1978)

PETER CRIMMINS (1965)

RAY POWER. (1982)

NILDO MUNARI. (1957)

STEVE GEMMILL. (1987)

JASON SMITH. (1990)

PETER TOSSOL. (1980)ack dinner

JON HENRY. (1988)

JAMIE SHEAHAN. (2008)

JARROD TRAVAGLIA. (1998)

DAVID JOSS. (1932)

JOHN BAHEN. (1962)

TALLAN WRIGHT. (2010)

DES PURDON. (1942)

The experts claim that it’s a ‘ripper’ side. I’m familiar with the bulk of the names, and naturally, it was great to see Wangaratta ‘imports’ Tossol and Henry being called to the stage, along with former Rovers footballer Jamie Sheahan.

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Jamie Sheahan, with a ‘Hanger-on’.

Six members of the team played League football and several progressed to Premier cricket throughout Australia and to English County cricket. Four of them still play, including 48 year-old Steve Gemmill, who, after five years at North Melbourne, returned home to Cobram to carve out a fine career.

Again, the charismatic Daniher received a huge reception. It was said  of the talented left-hander, that a berth as a Shield or international player, awaited him. Fate decreed that his future lay in football.

Similar tales such as this, continued to unfold ….It was my type of night  ………….toss&henry

KEV MAHONEY BATTLES ON……

Kevin Mahoney’s as solid as the old eucalyptus trees that grew strong, and dominated the landscape at ‘Moyhu Park’, the property his parents share-farmed when he was a lad.

Most people in Wangaratta would probably have heard of Kev. He’s devoted years of unflinching service to a number of organisations, principally because he has enjoyed making a difference and being involved.

His sporting career followed a similar trajectory………..he was the the heart and soul of the clubs he served – you’d sum him up as a ‘trusty footsoldier’.

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Kevin was a Moyhu boy. Only the long daily trips on the bus, to Wangaratta’s Brigidine Convent School, dragged him away.

” I didn’t enjoy school all that much. But one bonus  from attending the ‘Convent’ was that I palled up with Barb ( his wife-to-be), who was boarding there,” he says.

But he was a lot more comfortable cutting and carting grass hay, shearing, fencing, and milking cows at Moyhu Park.

He had a brush with death at the age of 16, when a hayshed that he and a member of the property-owner’s family were working on, tumbled over and fell on top of them.

“Unfortunately, my workmate copped the brunt of it and was killed. I was the lucky one to escape serious injury.”

The youngster used to ride his bike down to watch footy training at Moyhu. One of the old stars of the forties, Jimmy Corker, who was coaching, convinced Kev that, even though it was a tad premature, he was going to throw him into the struggling side anyway – on a wing.

He was 12 when he played his first senior game. Five years later, he settled in at full back……and made the goal-mouth his home for the next 16 years.

For a fair period, Kev was rated the O & K’s premier full back. A prodigious drop kick, he didn’t mind a clearing dash out of defence, and became a past-master at fisting the ball away from taller, stronger spearheads.

After all, he was only 5’10” and weighed just 10 stone 7lb. His physique would probably have taken Wangaratta coach Mac Holten by surprise when he took the trip out to recruit the highly-rated backman.

He was still attending school at the time and knocked back the approach, but wonders what might have been had he tried his luck ‘in town’.

For a key defender who had been under siege for years, with Moyhu lurking in the doldrums, he appreciated an upturn in fortunes, as they began to assemble a classy line-up in the late fifties.

They reached successive finals series, then stormed to their first flag in 12 years in 1959, under the coaching of Arthur Smith.

The boys in Green and Gold won a titanic battle in the mud. Maxy Corker’s goal in time-on wrested the lead from a dogged Chiltern. When he booted another shortly after and Brian ‘Woofer’ Martin followed with the sealer on the siren, Moyhu had triumphed by 15 points.

Kevin Mahoney was near-impassable that day. What gave the win extra significance in his eyes, was that he shared it with his brother Les, a stylish left-foot winger.

But of the three flags Kev played in – 1959, ’60 and ’62 – he rates the ’62 unbeaten side the best he’s played in – and among the greatest he saw in O & K footy.

Unfortunately, after a run of eight straight finals appearances, Moyhu’s golden era was over and they spent several years back among the League’s cellar-dwellers.

Kevin’s form remained pretty consistent. He lost a little bit of pace, but captained the side in his final two seasons, under the coaching of his old back-pocket sidekick, Richie Shanley.

He played his 350th – and last – O & K game in 1973.img_2422

By then his son John was stepping up into the Junior League , so Kev was considered the natural choice to take over as coach of Combined Churches.

What was originally a short-term appointment lasted for 11 years, and a number of O & M stars passed through his hands. He appreciated as much as anyone, what a critical role junior coaches played in the development of local talent.

And he also came to realise how light-on the League was for administrators, when they began casting around for a replacement President in 1981. So he took that on too, and gave it his all for 10 years.

In recognition of his services to the WJFL, the Under 12 Best and Fairest award is called the ‘Kevin Mahoney Medal’. The scoreboard at Wareena Park also bears his name.

Besides footy, Tennis was Kev’s other sporting infatuation when he was growing up. He first started belting a ball around the old Greta courts, opposite the cemetery, when he was 8 and didn’t stop until he was nudging 50.img_2420

Barb was also to become one of Wang’s leading players and most summer week-ends, after they were married in 1960, were spent on the grass courts of Merriwa Park.

Their kids – Carmel, John and Heather – came through the ranks too, and were competitive players. The contribution of the Mahoneys to the off-court functioning of the Tennis Club was immense.

Kev had five years as President and Barb was a long-term member of the Ladies Committee. They ran the Saturday morning junior competition for many years and worked tirelessly to make the Club’s Australia Day week-end tournament a signature event.

They were enticed by an old friend, Freddie Ritchens, to help run the new-fangled game of Bingo when it kicked off in Wangaratta in 1977. Many cynics mused that it would pass, like any other fad, but St.Pat’s Bingo on Thursday nights became the biggest game in town.

After Fred’s passing, the Mahoneys accepted the responsibility for running an organisation which required a huge amount of time, clerical work and loads of passion. When it closed down after 36 years, they had helped to raise in excess of 3 million dollars.

Kevin’s working career came to a close in 1997. He had given yeoman service to the Oxley Shire for just on 38 years since coming off the farm, and was looking forward to putting his feet up.

But two years later he underwent a major operation, which involved six Heart-Bypasses. To put it bluntly, it knocked the stuffing out of him. Eventually he recovered, to take up the more sedate sporting pastime of bowls, but he had to tread warily.img_2419

In 2014 he was rewarded for his multiple years of work behind-the-scenes when he was announced as Wangaratta’s Citizen of the Year.   He was taken aback, but stated :”I’ll still be the first to put my hand up if it means helping a community cause.”…………….

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I’m browsing through some old footy cuttings and come across an article to coincide with his 300th game. Someone put the question to him : ” How do you come up week after week, year after year, taking knock after knock ?”

“No worries,” he replied. “If you can take the hits and disappointments on the football field, you can certainly take them in life.”

Well, he copped a hell of a knock recently, when he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. He’d been feeling out of sorts for a while, but when the doc called him in to give his diagnosis, it hit him like a hammer, fair between the eyes.

Kev acknowledges that  the ‘beast’, as Neale Daniher calls it,  will probably get him, but, in the meantime, he’s determined to enjoy life as best he can…………..

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