‘THE GAME – CHANGER……….”

Michael Newton is blessed with the rare ability to change the course of a sporting contest.

In recent years his feats as a high-marking, long-kicking, goal-scoring forward with Wangaratta, have made him the most eye-catching player in Ovens and Murray football.

But last Saturday he reproduced that unique trait on the cricket field, to rescue his WDCA side Ovens Valley from a precarious situation.

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It was a sweltering 39 degrees at the W.J.Findlay Oval – home of their opponents, Rovers-United-Bruck. Obviously the side winning the toss held the aces. Ovens Valley grasped the opportunity to bat, and so avoid the discomfort of an afternoon in the field under under a blazing sun.

But things didn’t quite go to plan. Their progress was snail-like. The oppressive heat intoxicated both batsmen and bowlers, as just 31 runs came in the first 23 overs.
Then, as so often happens in modern-day club cricket, a clatter of wickets brought the game to life.

Ovens Valley slumped from 1/31 to 6/34 in a jiffy. Newton, who had strolled to the crease at the fall of the fourth wicket, could merely spectate at the other end, as a couple of team-mates played indiscreet shots, with inevitable consequences.

The consensus of a few onlookers in my vicinity was that they’d possibly scramble to a total of 60 or 70 – if they were lucky.

‘Juice’ had other ideas. He was a touch rusty early on. Talk was that a tender calf was causing him grief and may hinder him at the crease .

But once he hit his straps, the Hawk bowlers were at his mercy.img_3895

He was circumspect for a period, and defended sternly, for a fellow with a reputation as a sporting ‘dasher’. Then he’d unleash the odd off or straight drive which would skelter to the boundary.

Suddenly, he was set; and motoring through the thirties and forties, whilst doing his utmost to protect numbers eight, nine and ten, who nevertheless, lent good support.
The heat – and a lack of success – took their toll on the Hawk bowlers, who had lost their vim. The big fellah was in total control.

A ton was staring him in the face until he injudiciously propped his lanky left foot in front, and was adjudged LBW to part-time medium-pacer Jordan Blades.

He had scored 96 of the 127 runs which came whilst he was at the crease – a knock which had been peppered with 13 boundaries and a hefty hoik over the mid-wicket boundary. His side had advanced to a rather more healthy, competitive 161.

The runs are on the board, and now Newton must don his other cap – as an express opening bowler, to protect that total on Saturday……….
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Michael Newton was a childhood prodigy.

From renowned sporting stock which had faithfully served the the township of Whorouly for generations, he took the usual career path of a gifted country football talent.

He was spotted by the Murray Bushrangers, then recruited by Melbourne, who took him at Pick 43 in the 2004 AFL Pre-Season Draft.

The stand-out characteristic of his game was his height ( 6’4”) and agility, and, of course, that freakish ability which could drop the jaw of the most-judgemental recruiting scout.

But that was no ‘free pass’ to League football. He laboured for for almost three years with Sandringham – the Demons’ VFL ‘feeder’ club, before being handed his AFL debut in Neale Daniher’s final game as coach – Round 13, 2007.

Three games later, he sprung to the attention of the wider football public when he pulled down a ‘screamer’ against North Melbourne; soaring high above the pack to pluck a Colin Sylvia ‘long bomb’ from the clouds.img_3903

It was almost an exclamation mark in the youngster’s football journey, signifying that he had ‘arrived’. He was awarded the AFL’s Mark of the Year and the accolade as an ‘up and comer’.

But footy’s never that easy. He was plagued by a series of injuries, and made only six (2008), five (2009), and four (2010) appearances in the following three seasons.

Newton was delisted at the end of 2011, after 28 senior games over seven seasons……….
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Famous Adelaide club Norwood snapped him up, but he was again at the mercy of the ‘injury stick’ which had played havoc with his stop-start career.

After settling in well at The Parade he damaged an ACL, which required a full knee reconstruction and put paid to his efforts to make an impact on the SANFL for more than a season and a half.

Having played just 10 games in his first two years at Norwood, he came back in style, to boot 57 goals, and play an important role in their 2014 premiership – the club’s third straight title.

In front of 38,000 fans, Norwood held off a powerful Port Adelaide – comprising 19 AFL-listed players, to win by four points, in a classic encounter.img_3899

At last, it seemed, the football public would see an unrestrained Michael Newton, as he moved into his late twenties.
Alas, he was again frustrated by injuries, which restricted him to just nine games in 2015. Compounding that was a falling-out with Redlegs coach Ben Warren, which prompted his decision to return home to the family dairy farm……..
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Naturally, when footy clubs get wind of a giant, goal-scoring forward with a considerable reputation returning to their midst, there’s a flurry of activity. Four clubs were in the hunt for him, and the Rovers who felt they held a strong family affiliation with him, stood at the front of the queue.

His dad Rod, a classy half-forward, had played 49 games with the Hawks in the eighties; sister Kristy had won a Netball B & F; twin cousins Josh and Andy were both wearing Brown and Gold. The stars certainly seemed aligned…….

But, in a shock announcement, he chose to join arch rivals, Wangaratta.

The touchy Newton soft tissues restricted him to just nine games in 2016. One of those was the much-awaited opening stanza of the ‘Local Derby’, when he limped from the field early on.

To the delight of Hawk fans, the Pies struggled to recover from the loss of their star recruit and were over-run late in the game. But, with 42 goals in his other eight games, there was proof that, if Wang could keep ‘Juice’ on the field, he’d hold the key to their success.

No doubt his most memorable performance – and probably the finest of his career – came in the 2017 Grand Final, when he provided the inspiration for one of Wang’s finest flag wins.

Red-hot favourites Albury – chasing their fourth straight title – were caught on the hop, as the Pies continually attacked in the first quarter. With 7.0 to 2.2, they built a ‘bridge too far’ for the shocked Tigers, who were unable to contain the champion skipper.img_3902

He kicked four of his eight goals in that first term and provided a master-class, on the way to being awarded the Did Simpson Medal as best-afield.

He has the knack of polarising opinion amongst opposition fans. I witnessed it in a clash against Yarrawonga at the Minns Oval last season, when the Pies were beginning to lose touch during the third term.

In an blatant piece of gamesmanship, ‘Juice’ started to niggle his opponent, who could take no more, and retaliated, in full vision of the ump. It resulted in successive goals to the big number 3 . Pigeon fans cried blue murder, but too late, the game had swung Wang’s way and they went on to a comfortable win.img_3914

He’s now booted 197 goals in his 47 games in Black and White. His tally of 81 in 2018 was enough to clinch his first Doug Strang Medal.

He’s nudging 32, and it’s debatable how long Michael Newton can pamper those unpredictable hamstrings, calves and thighs. Obviously, those fly-in fly-out trips to the Far North where he’s occasionally strutted his stuff with NTFL club Waratahs in the off-season, will have to go on the back-burner.

But you’d think he still may be able to change the course of a few more sporting contests……….”img_3898

FOOTBALL’S ELUSIVE ENTERTAINER….

Les Gregory was a football contortionist.

He could control the slippery sphere with the exquisite balance of a juggler, as he slithered and slid, then dodged and weaved around opponents, putting the exclamation mark on his skill-set by driving a sizzling drop-kick pass goalwards.

When he was matched up against Wangaratta’s equally-elusive winger Des Steele in the much-awaited local-derbies, they produced more blind turns than you’d find on a malfunctional GPS.

At his top, in the late fifties and early sixties, he titilated Wangaratta Rovers supporters with his displays of wizardry………..

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‘Nipper’ Gregory’s folks were his greatest fans. Even when he started playing footy with Junior Magpies, they rarely missed a game.

They lived out of town in those days and Les would hitch a ride to and from training with the Rovers coach, North Wang school-teacher, Don Holbrook.

By the end of his second season of Junior League, the family had moved to Oxley and he was recruited to Milawa, who were occupying the bottom rungs of the O & K ladder.

They could muster only three wins in his first two years, but the will o’ the wisp Gregory was a stand-out, winning the B & F, aged 17, in 1955.

It was Bill Kelly, a vigorous, sturdy defender and wise old coach, who helped to transform the Demons. They jumped up the ladder the following year and were brave in defeat in the Grand Final, against a physically stronger Beechworth, inspired by the legendary Timmy Lowe.

Wily veteran Lowe left a big impression on the youngster, with his repertoire of football tricks and his knack of leaving opponents in his wake. That, he decided, was the way he wanted to play his footy.

Bill Kelly urged Les to stay on at Milawa for another year : “Son, I think we can win the premiership if you hang around,” he said.

But he also didn’t want to impede his progress, and when his old club, the Rovers, began sniffing around, Bill gave his blessing to the Gregory departure.

Les walked straight into the Hawks’ senior side in 1957 and was deemed the O & M’s recruit of the year. He polled nine Morris Medal votes, was selected in the inter-league squad and won the Chronicle Trophy in a brilliant debut season.

But nothing he ever achieved in football can match the thrill of playing in the Rovers’ first-ever premiership side, in front of 12,500 fans on that sunny spring day in 1958.

The Hawks had the game in hand from half-time onwards and the celebrations among the Brown and Gold clan were in full swing well before the final siren.

The players headed back to Wangaratta on the train and a band escorted them down to the City Oval, where they were paraded like royalty. It was heady stuff for the 20 year-old Les Gregory.

Bob Rose admitted his surprise, post-match, that Wodonga coach Des Healey had played on the Rovers’ number 25 all day. “It took away a lot of their drive, because Des was more concerned with nullifying Gregory,” he said.

Rose was a big Gregory fan. “I believe he possesses every attribute to become a top-grade VFL winger. He has outstanding ball control, can out-mark most wingers in the league and has wonderful agility. He always seems to be able to get out of trouble, no matter how closely he is pressed.”

The inevitable offers came – from Collingwood, Geelong and St.Kilda. He had played in a Collingwood practice match and Rose was trying to direct him to Victoria Park. But a visit from St.Kilda’s secretary, Ian Drake, was the clincher.

“We arranged to meet at Nick Lazarou’s cafe, in Murphy Street. After a bit of idle conversation, we got down to tin-tacks. He suggested that I sign a Form-Four, which would bind me to St.Kilda for a couple of years,” Les recalled.

“When I started to hum and hah, he pulled 150 quid out of his coat pocket and waved it in front of me. I couldn’t sign quick enough. I was earning 9 pound a week at Ray Byrne’s Bottle-O business at the time.”

The couple of months that Les spent in the ‘big smoke’ passed by in the flick of an eye. He satisfied the good judges with his performances in three practice matches, but had to wait until Round 4 before his senior opportunity came.

It was a crucial match against Collingwood and he was named on the bench, alongside ruckman (and later, business magnate ) Lindsay Fox. The Saints caused an upset against the reigning premiers, then tossed Hawthorn and Richmond in their next two games.

They had exceeded expectations – and so had the live-wire Gregory, who had been matched up against classy wingers in Brendan Edwards and Dick Grimmond.

The trouble was that his allotted match permits had expired and he would need a full clearance if he was to continue his League career.

He rang his old coach for advice.

“Are you happy down there ? ” asked Bob Rose. “Not really,” Les replied. “Well, we’d love to have you back.”

So, after three VFL games – for three wins – his League career was over.

Les was lured to SANFL club Norwood the following year by ex-St.Kilda coach Alan Killigrew. He and two other recruits – Haydn Bunton Jnr, and Geoff Feehan, headed across to Adelaide in Killigrew’s EK Holden Station Wagon.

But again, it didn’t work out, as employment that was promised didn’t eventuate He was back with the Rovers not long after the season had started, and played in another premiership side.

Season 1961 was one of his best and was the closest he came to a B & F with the Rovers. He broke a jaw and played just 14 games, yet finished runner-up to Ray Thompson in the coveted award.

There weren’t too many athletes around who could match Gregory for pace – on and off the football field. He dominated at such far-flung meetings as Murmungee, Molyullah, Hansonville, Edi and Swanpool, winning 23 Gifts – and some handy pocket-money for his trouble.

It prompted former world champ Lynch Cooper, after a couple of training sessions, to throw down the gauntlet to him.

“Young man, I think I could make a Stawell Gift runner out of you if you’re fair dinkum. Tell me, do you have a beer ?.” Yes, was the reply. “And what about smoking ?.” Again the answer was in the affirmative.

“Well, you’re going to have to give them away.” It was the last that Lynch Cooper saw of him.

Les succumbed to the approaches of King Valley in late ’61, and was appointed playing-coach. But he started to get cold-feet a week or so later.

” I had visions of those long trips up to Whitfield in the middle of winter in my old Ford Consul. I rang them and told them I was staying at the Rovers.”

He was voted the O & M’s best player in the Country Championship clash with the Bendigo League later that year and continued to be regarded among the League’s most feted wingers.

But there were occasional periods when his form would taper off. Neville Hogan, who played alongside him in the latter part of his career, reckoned that Les got down on himself and his form suffered accordingly.

He came off the bench in the Hawks’ flag win against Wangaratta in 1964, but was one of the stars when they again trumped the ‘Pies in ’65.

The Gregory career came to a close in unfortunate circumstances early in 1968, when he suffered a depressed fracture of the cheekbone.

He was 30 and had played 186 games with the Rovers, over 11 years. In seven of these seasons he played in Grand Finals, which yielded four premierships.

An imposing record indeed, for one of football’s true entertainers…………