‘HENERS’ – SCHOOLBOY CHAMP TO COUNTRY FOOTY ICON……

The old champ has just turned 36…..The finish-line is starting to loom large on his stellar footy career …..The dreaded ‘R-word’ even crosses his mind….But can he possibly eke out another season from his aching body, and maybe, just maybe…..get to savour the one thing that’s eluded him – premiership glory.

The newly-appointed coach ( to whom he’s just handed the reins ) re-assures him: “Keep fit…..and we’ll see you in March.”

Two years later, he retires – to the acclaim of an appreciative football public – as a dual-Premiership player……….

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There’s hardly a more respected figure in Ovens and Murray circles than Jon Henry. As a player he was a Rolls-Royce – capable of performing at either end of the ground with equal-proficiency……. A celebrated goal-kicker who admits that centre half back was probably his favourite ‘possy’ .

His role in transforming a Wangaratta side – which plumbed the depths of six successive wooden-spoons, faced near-oblivion, then ascended to the top – is one of local footy’s Cinderella stories.

But of equal significance is his universally-recognised standing as a ‘quality bloke’……..

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‘Heners’ hails from Kamarah – 20km west of Ardlethan, 60km north of Narrandera, 12km east of Moombooldool.

At first thought you’d anticipate living on a 3000-acre Sheep and Wheat property in this outpost of Central Riverina would throw up a few obstacles for a ‘sporty’ kid, mad on his footy and cricket.

But his dad Bob, who captained NSW Country as a keeper-batsman against touring West Indies and MCC teams, and played footy with the Ardlethan Stars, gave him every opportunity.

“As a kid, Bob spent hours throwing cricket balls to me,” Jon recalls. “And we’d always follow Ardlethan in the footy, first in the South-West, then the Riverina League.”

“There was a Tin Mine in Ardlethan, and that’s where a lot of the football imports from down south were handed a job. One of my early memories was of Kevin Grose, a big, muscly, tattooed fellah who arrived as a coach, from Collingwood, via North Heidelberg.”

Bob Henry had completed his schooling at Scot’s in Sydney and the family were big on education. Considering that they were a fair way from anywhere, it was a given that the three Henry kids would attend Boarding School.

Bob had watched a young Rod Coelli star for Ardlethan on one of his visits home from Kilmore’s Assumption College. He’d also closely followed the career of Neale Daniher, who was from nearby Ungarie, and is one of ACK’s finest products.

So he regarded it as a great fit for Jon to spend the remainder of his schooling at the famous sporting nursery.

“It’s ironic, harking back, considering Neale’s very public health battles, that Bob and my auntie Margaret (Mum’s sister) also passed away after long battles with Motor Neurone-linked illnesses,” Jon says.

He concedes that the regimentation of Boarding-School took a bit of adapting to after the laid-back lifestyle of the farm. But he grew to love it, and established friendships with many kids who have become his best mates.

Assumption was to be his home-away-from-home for six years, but Jon did manage to fit in a couple of matches with Ardlethan.

“I haven’t got great memories of the first of them. I was 15. It was my senior debut, and Ardlethan’s final match in the South-West League; a miserable, wet day at Marrar Oval, Wagga, and I was knocked out by one of the Carroll boys.”

Renowned sporting guru Ray Carroll ( no relation ) had a massive influence on Jon through the latter part of his time at ACK.

“Ray was a very intense coach,” he says. “What he instilled in you was loyalty, not letting the jumper, or your mates, down. His style worked because he had kids for two – or three – years at the most.”

Jon had played most of his junior footy in defence, but in Year 11 Carroll swung him up forward. It proved a master-stroke. Assumption went on to win successive Herald-Sun Shields, losing just one game in two years.

In his final year he sat on a season-tally of 191 goals going into the final game, at Parade College. He booted 10, to give him the double-century in just on 30 matches.

He reckons his best win in footy came at the Junction Oval that year. “We played Melbourne High, which had 14 AFL-listed players, including Andy Lovell, Matty Knights and Steven Tingay. We got up, in the wet, by six points. It was a ripper.”

Jon captained Assumption in both football and cricket, and was named in their Cricket Team of the Century two years ago.

Besides leading them to the APS footy crown in 1988, he also captained them to the cricket flag, against Mentone Grammar.

“We’d had a really good side the year before, but Mentone knocked us off. Their skipper was a kid called Shane Warne. He was a ‘lad’, even back then, and I had a bit to do with him; played in APS rep sides with him.”

“The last time we spoke was at Melbourne Airport. We were just starting to make our way in our respective sporting journeys. He was heading over to have a crack at County cricket; I was off to Brisbane to play footy. We hung out for a while and my parting words were: ‘Well, see ya mate. Hope things turn out okay for you.’…… The rest is history……..”

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The Sydney Swans had access to country NSW recruits in the eighties. To their detriment, particularly with stars like John Longmire and Wayne Carey, they sold off some of their talent to rival, scavenging clubs.

They negotiated to ship Jon Henry to Carlton.

So the boy from Assumption lined up in the summer of 1989, to try his luck with the Blues – and play District cricket.

He recalls the solitary First X1 District game he managed among the 20 or so Seconds matches he played for Carlton.

“ I was listed as an emergency for a Cup-Day game against Footscray. They said: ‘Just show your face before the match; we don’t think we’ll need you.’ I took that literally. My mates and I had hardly any sleep, and were intending to duck off to the Cup meeting.”

“I walked into Princes Park and the coach, Steve Cashen, said: ‘Mate, the flu’s gone through us. You’ll have to play.’ So here I am, four hours later, with a big head, facing Test paceman Tony Dodemaide….hooping the ball on a green-top.”…..”I only made a couple, and never got another opportunity……”

Jon enjoyed his two years of football at Carlton, despite missing senior selection. He got to play with a few of the stars from the Golden Era, like Buckley and Hunter ( with Rod Ashman as coach ) who were in their final year, and formed a strong Seconds side.

The Brisbane Bears then picked him up in the 1991 pre-season draft, where he renewed acquaintances with Robert Walls, who had been in charge when he first lobbed at Carlton.

“Hard man, Wallsy,” was his assessment of the decorated four-club coach. “He rode me hard, but then, he was tough on everyone.”

Jon had arrived late for the pre-season and experienced a rough run with injury, playing just eight Reserves games – and a handful with their feeder club, Southport.

He moved back to the farm at the end of that season, having now passed up on his AFL dream.

Throwing himself into a full summer of cricket – on the turf in Wagga on Saturdays and Creet Cup matches with Ardlethan/Barellan on Sundays – he was rewarded with NSW Country selection at the National Carnival.

But a close friendship with an old Assumption mate, Damien O’Keefe saw him land in Wangaratta, soon after………….

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Jon admits he struggled early on with the ‘Pies. It was possibly a matter of adapting to O & M footy. But in mid-season he was plonked in front of the big sticks and proceeded to raise eyebrows.

He surged up the goalkicking ladder, with several big hauls, including bags of 15 and 12, and, with 88 goals, took out the 1992 Doug Strang Medal.

The following year, the enigmatic, theatrical Brian Walsh guided Wang to within a kick of the Grand Final.

“It was a huge disappointment, because a lot of the blokes we had, like ‘Chimpy’, Robbie Richards, ’Keiry’ and ‘Crimmo’ had been around for quite a while and never got to play in a ‘Granny’. That hurt ‘em. I felt some responsibility for it because I missed late goals and kicked 2.5 in the Prelim.”

“I always felt I owed the Club after that. It was probably the catalyst for me heading back years later .”

Jon had been a regular O & M rep in his four years at Wang. Despite his footy success, one of his reasons for coming to Wangaratta was to attempt to join the Fire Brigade. He had two cracks at it but fell short.

He decided to head overseas in ‘96, and upon his return, began a Drafting Course in Melbourne. East Ringwood became his new club.

His three years at East, he believes, gave him a great lead-in to be a playing-coach. “They were no tougher at the ball than in the O & M, but there was a lot more off-the-ball stuff,” he says.

He learned heaps off his assistant- coach David Banfield. “He was the first guy that really challenged me. He was all about the team: ‘What are you doing to make others better ?’ he’d say. He prompted me to think about the game completely differently. And I learned to take on feedback”

“Sometimes you’re lucky to come across the right person at the right time……..

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East Ringwood were loath to lose the man who, in three brilliant seasons, had made such an impression that he was selected in their ‘Team of the Half-Century’.

But he was headed back to Wangaratta, principally for employment as a Civil Draftsman, but also to help the revive the spirits of his old Club, which had fallen on hard times.

Appointed Assistant-Coach to Col McClounan, they were unable to stem the bleeding in the first two years, as they won just four games.

‘Heners’ was handed the ‘Poison Chalice’ when he took over the coaching job in 2002 – the ‘Pies’ ninth leader in eleven years.

They’d had a good scout around, but decided to appoint Henry. The clincher for Jon was that he was a great mate of Jason Lappin, who was looking to move back to the ‘bush’.

“ ‘Lappo’ had the name, was also a great player, and had a few contacts; players like key forward Damian Lang and a few others,” John says.

In his first year as coach there was slight improvement, but another wooden-spoon ( the sixth-straight) lobbed at the Norm Minns Oval.

“But we slowly started to gather the core of a solid senior group around us. We also landed Leigh Symons, ‘Boofa’ Carmody and Matt Byers in the first couple of years.”

The Henry philosophy on coaching is that the bloke in charge is important, but it’s equally-crucial to have six or so good senior players who are ‘fair dinkum, train hard and are on the same page’.

“That’s the key. They have the biggest influence on the younger players. When the disappointments come, they’re the blokes who get out on the track, train harder, drive the group and don’t make excuses. That builds your culture.”

He concedes that being an O & M playing-coach was a massive commitment, and challenge.

“There were people at Wangaratta, like Peter Whittlesea and Russell Canning who did heaps of work off-field in those hard times…Then Paul Challman came on board……….”

“But one of the biggest game-changers for us, recruiting wise, was when Jon McCormick came home from Carlton in 2005. He’s the best that I’ve played with outside the AFL.”

“I remember when he did his knee in front of the Grandstand that year. I turned around, saw him, and my heart sank……Even without him, we played in a Prelim….won our first final in 12 years.”

McCormick missed all of the next season, Henry’s last in charge. He’d decided earlier in the year that it was time to hand over the reins. Jason Lappin was his logical successor.

‘Heners’ had always loved training, but says, as a coach you don’t always get to enjoy it, because you’re organising things.

“Robbie Richards, one of my confidantes, told me: ‘The most enjoyable year I had was the year after I stopped coaching.’ I took that on board.”

“That’s when ‘Lappo’ said: ‘I’ll see you in March.’ Best advice I’ve ever got.”

So, over the next two seasons, Jon Henry went along for the ride. He became a key ingredient, possibly the inspiration, in triumphant Magpie sides which swept to successive flags – a 51-point win over North Albury in 2007 and a 32-point triumph against Lavington in 2008.

He retired with 210 games and 448 goals to his name in the Black and White guernsey and was inducted to the O & M’s Hall of Fame in 2016.

He has continued to help the Magpies in any way he can, either as Senior Runner, working the Bench, and just being around the place.

His daughters, Ella, Jessie and Rose play Netball with Wang, and his wife Paula is a keen follower of the Club.

The four-time Inter-League co-coach fulfilled another ambition when he was accepted into the Fire Brigade in 2010.

“I was rapt. In a lot of ways it’s good that I missed out the first time I applied, as I wouldn’t have been able to coach,” he says.

“Things just panned out nicely………….”

FAREWELL TO A PAIR OF STAR DEFENDERS…..

The famed hostility between the Magpies and Hawks had just reached its zenith when Bernie Killeen and Bob Atkinson made their way into Ovens and Murray football.

They were to become sterling defenders for their respective clubs.

Killeen, the high-marking , long-kicking left-footer, held down a key position spot for most of his 13 years with Wangaratta. ‘Akky’, wearing the Number 33 of his beloved Wangaratta Rovers was a back flank specialist, uncompromising, hard-hitting and renowned for his clearing dashes upfield.

Both passed away in the past week or so, after lengthy illnesses……………

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Bernie Killeen returned home from St.Patrick’s College Sale in 1956 and walked straight into the Wangaratta side. He was just 17.

Dame Fortune shone upon him, as the Magpies were in the throes of developing a powerful line-up . His form was solid enough to hold his spot in the side and bask in the glory of the ‘57 Grand Final, alongside such experienced team-mates as coach Jack McDonald, Bill Comensoli, Graeme Woods and the veteran ‘Hop’ McCormick.

It was an unforgettable day for Killeen, who was named on a half-forward flank. Wangaratta came from the clouds, thanks to a last-minute goal from champion rover Lance Oswald, to overcome Albury by two points.

This early taste of success would have given Bernie an inkling that that it was to be a forerunner of things to come.

Fate intervened. Four years later, a debilitating knee injury struck him down. He spent most of 1961 on the sidelines, and could only watch on as the ‘Pies scored a huge win over Benalla in the Grand Final.

Killeen fully recovered, and reached his peak in 1963, when was rated among the finest centre half backs in the competition. He took out Wangaratta’s Best & Fairest Award and the Chronicle Trophy, and represented the O & M against South-West League.

Perhaps his most memorable performance came in the 1964 Second Semi-Final, when he was like the Rock of Gibralter in the key defence position, pulling down 19 towering marks against the Rovers. It was a bad-tempered match, with the ‘Pies pulling off an upset, to march into the Grand Final.

A fortnight later, when the teams again tangled, Killeen found himself matched up at the opening bounce by Hawk coach Ken Boyd, whose intent was to niggle, and put the star off his game.

Boyd later moved into defence, but as the match progressed, Bernie found himself continually out of the play. The Rovers’ strategy was obviously to prevent him from ‘cutting them off at the pass’ as he’d done so effectively in the Semi.

Wang fell short by 23 points – the first of three successive heart-breaking Grand Final losses.

Bernie Killeen was a model of consistency over 13 seasons and 226 senior games with Wangaratta. He was installed as a Life Member of the ‘Pies in 1966…………

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As an angry, milling group of players swapped punches in the second quarter of the 1972 Ovens and Murray Grand Final, one of the central figures in the melee slumped to the turf.

His face was splattered in blood……. He tried in vain to resist the efforts of trainers, who were trying to escort him off the ground….. Eventually, sanity prevailed.

It was always going to be Bob Atkinson’s last game in Brown and Gold. But it wasn’t supposed to finish so abruptly ! At least, when he’d gathered his equilibrium after the game, his team-mates consoled him with the news that he’d added a sixth premiership to his collection……………

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‘Akky’ arrived at the City Oval in 1959 – a product of the South Wanderers. If there seemed to be a touch of maturity about the swarthy apprentice Motor Mechanic, it was understandable. During the last of his four years with the Junior League Club he’d already announced his engagement, to Fran, his future wife.

Young footballers of the modern era wouldn’t be so accepting of the patience that he displayed, as it took the best part of five years before he was able to nail down a permanent senior spot.

Maybe it was the proliferation of talent at the Club that saw the youngster deprived of opportunities…… Bob Rose may possibly have felt that he’d developed bad habits that needed rectifying…….like continually trying to dodge and weave around opponents.

Whatever the reason, Rose was unable to tailor a suitable role for him.

After making his senior debut in 1960, he’d played 49 Reserves, and just 26 Senior games.

His rejuvenation came in 1963, when Ken Boyd inherited a side bereft of many of its stars. His challenge to the younger guys was to place their stamp on the Club. In ‘Akky’, he found a player who relished responsibility, and jumped at the opportunity of shutting down dangerous opposition’s forwards.

‘Boydie’ also admired his aggressiveness and spirit. He urged him to attack the ball……..”And if anyone happens to get in your road, just bowl ‘em over,” he said. The re-born back flanker didn’t need too much convincing, and responded by finishing runner-up to Neville Hogan in the B & F.

This ‘Vigilante’ of the backline had some handy sidekicks in ‘Bugs’ Kelly, Lennie Greskie and Norm Bussell who were all football desperadoes.

The Rovers won 15 games straight in 1964, before hitting a road-block. They dropped the next four matches and were seemingly on the road to nowhere. That they were able to recover, and take out the flag was a tribute to Boyd and the character of his players.

They repeated the dose in 1965, again taking down Wangaratta in a tense encounter. The fierce opening of the Grand Final was highlighted by an all-in brawl, which saw a few Magpies nursing tender spots. Twice, in the dying stages, Wang had chances to win the game, but they fell short by three points.

The Hawks remained there or thereabouts for the next three years, including contesting the 1967 Grand Final.

But Bob had an itch to coach, and when lowly King Valley came knocking in 1969, he accepted their offer. The Valley had finished last, with just two wins, the previous season. They’d never won a flag.

‘Akky’s’ arrival coincided with the construction of the Lake William Hovell Project. Several handy recruits landed on their doorstep almost overnight.

It enabled them to sneak into the finals in his first year. But 1970 was to provide Valley supporters with their finest hour.

After thrashing Milawa in the final round, they went to the top of the ladder, but their confidence was eroded when the Demons turned the tables in the Second Semi.

The Valley made no mistake in the Grand Final. It’s handy when you have a full forward like Ray Hooper, who boots 11 of your 14 goals. Hooper, a burly left-footer, was a star, as was his fellow Dam worker Tony Crapper.

‘Akky’ was inspirational, and with the scent of a premiership in his nostrils, drove his players in the last half. His old Rovers team-mate Barry Sullivan also held sway in the ruck, as King Valley stormed to a 34-point victory………

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Bob returned ‘home’ to the Rovers, and lent his experience to a youthful side, under the coaching of Neville Hogan. The following year he was appointed vice-captain.

“It was probably the best thing that happened for his footy at that stage of his career, as he got fully involved,” recalls Hogan. “The discipline he showed provided a great example to our young players.”

One of those was Terry Bartel, who was a fellow car-salesman at West City Autos. ‘Akky’ once recounted the story about Bartel telling him he couldn’t be bothered driving to Yerong Creek to represent the Ovens & Murray in an Inter-League game:

“I’m probably going to be sitting in a forward pocket all day. I don’t reckon the other pricks will give me a run on the ball,” said Bartel.

“You never let anyone down. Jump in that car and get up there,” I told him. “I’d give my left Knacker to play in one of those games. You don’t know how lucky you are.”

“And, you know, the little bastard’s gone up and kicked 9 goals……..”

Bob capped a fine 1971 season by finishing fifth in the B & F and playing a key role in the Rovers’ 19-point premiership victory over Yarrawonga. He’d lost none of his venom, and at a critical part of the game upended Pigeon ruckman, the formidable Jimmy Forsyth.

‘Akky’ lived ‘by the sword’. He knew that retribution might come one day, and when big Jim flattened him twelve months later in his swansong game, the 1972 Grand Final, he accepted that as part of footy.

After such a hesitant start, he’d made a huge impression at the Rovers. He’d played 175 senior games, figured in four senior and one Reserves flag, was a Life Member, and had earned a reputation as one of its finest-ever defenders.

He succumbed to the temptation of coming out of retirement two years later, when he played several games with Tarrawingee.

Finally, though, ‘Akky’ decided it was time to pull the pin……………

“FLAG FLAMES AGAIN FLICKER AT THE ‘SHOWIES’………”

I’m regularly reminded of my greatest sporting disappointment when I spot a swarthy fellah striding down Murphy Street of a week-day morning.

It’s 49 years ago, almost to the day, that he pranced on to the Showgrounds Oval, and proceeded to become a decisive figure in Myrtleford’s electrifying, historic Premiership triumph.

The first thought that comes into my mind is usually: ‘There’s the little prick that helped cost us a flag’.

Johnny Bianco chuckles at this, and recounts the circumstances that ultimately delivered him a premiership Medal in just his ninth senior game for his home-town Club:

“I’d not long graduated from Uni as a teacher, and received a posting to Meadow Creek early in 1970. Moyhu came to see me and I said: ‘Yeah, I’ll play with you.’ I was driving an old Morris Major Elite at the time, and travelled over from Myrtleford each day.”

“Anyway, as luck would have it, the Morris ‘carked it’ and Dad gave me a loan to buy a brand-new Renault from One-Mile Motors. The only proviso was that I had to give up footy, and concentrate on my teaching career.”

“A few weeks later, though, a three-man deputation from Myrtleford – the coach, Martin Cross, President, Len Ablett and the Parish Priest, Father Frank Jones – arrived at the farm and convinced Dad that I should play with Myrtleford.”

After six games in the Reserves ( during which he picked enough votes to finish runner-up in the League Medal ) John broke into the senior line-up. He strapped himself in for a dream ride, as the Saints stormed into the finals, and comfortably won the First Semi against Wangaratta. They sensationally knocked over previous flag favourites Wodonga by a point in the Prelim, to set up a Grand Final clash with the Rovers.

There was a touch of romanticism about the meeting of the O & M’s two fledgling Clubs, who’d been jointly admitted to the League twenty years earlier. Hence, a mammoth crowd jammed into the Showgrounds – a large percentage of them adorned in Red, White and Black.IMG_4382

Alas, the fairy-tale appeared destined to end in tears. The Rovers had looked the better-equipped team, and held a decisive 17-point lead at three quarter-time.IMG_4398

But a withering last quarter saw the Saints storm back into the game. The elusive Bianco proved to be their ‘energiser’. He made his presence felt by snapping the first major and his fresh legs were a factor in their scintillating fight-back.IMG_4384

When Graeme Ward booted a goal from well-out at the 24-minute mark, the game had slipped beyond the grasp of the Hawks. The piercing sound of the siren was the signal for hundreds of Myrtleford fans to swarm the ground and release two decades of pent-up emotions……..

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Grand Finals always produce a back-drop of yarns that make each of them unique……..Some are tinged with sadness………others conspicuous for their stories of brutality……or brave performances against the odds………

Myrtleford’s Cinderella-like triumph in 1970 is the most memorable of the eight O & M Grand Final battles that have been waged at  Sunday’s venue – the Norm Minns Oval (The Showgrounds). It may be worth plucking out some snapshots from the others……….

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1947: ALBURY v. BENALLA

Tommy ‘The Turk’ Lahiff’s Albury are chasing their third flag in four years, and have convincingly outpointed Benalla in the Second – Semi.

But Benalla, with ‘Iron-Man’ Bob Chitty booting nine goals, storm back into contention with a 44-point win over Corowa in the Prelim.

It’s anyone’s game at lemon-time in a riveting Grand Final, as the Demons lead by a solitary point. Chitty has been dynamic in the first half, but begins to fade out of the game.

Albury’s forwards, who have been wayward, to say the least, begin to hit the target, and with classy left-footer Jimmy Matthews controlling the mid-field, prove too strong in the latter stages, winning 11.18 (84) to 10.9 (69)……….

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1962: BENALLA v WANGARATTA ROVERS

Much of the pre-game hype centres around the ‘Swansong’ appearance of Rovers maestro Bob Rose, who has overcome mid-season injury to lead the Hawks into the ‘big-one’.

And he’s in rare touch, picking up 26 kicks by half-time, as the Rovers lead a battle of attrition, three goals to one.

Rovers fans ponder why Rose has left incumbent coach Ken Boyd to cool his heels in the back pocket for much of the game, whilst Benalla’s Alf Sikora and Terry Putt are playing such a key role in the big-man duels.

The Hawks still lead by five points – 4.8 to 3.9 at three quarter-time, but it’s obvious, in this battle of the defences, that the Rovers are tiring.

Demon star Neil Busse nails an early goal, and Putt scoops in a magnificent mark in the goal-square, to give the Demons the lead. Johnny Hogan kicks the sealer in the dying stages to give Benalla the flag – 7.14 (56) to 6.10 (46).

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1973: BENALLA v NORTH ALBURY

The fists fly early in a series of sensational flare-ups, as North use their physical strength in an attempt to counter the Demons’ pace and slick teamwork.

Brilliant Hopper mid-fielder John Smith is the first to go into umpire Ian Coates’ black book. The report is to have consequences for Smith the following year, as it costs him consecutive Morris Medals. Burly Joe Ambrose is also reported, but Benalla are able to withstand the pressure, and go into each of the breaks holding a narrow lead.IMG_4395

There are thrills aplenty for the crowd of just on 15,000 in the final term. Benalla slip out to an 18-point lead, but a 70-metre goal from Stan Sargeant and a snap from Fulford in time-on reduce the margin.

Benalla, desperate in defence, hold on to win a classic – 12.12 (84) to 11.11 (77).

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1978: BENALLA v WANGARATTA ROVERS

Benalla enter the Grand Final as raging favourites after chalking up 15 consecutive wins. But when the chips are down in the opening stanza it is the Rovers who take command.

They’ve made several pre-match positional changes which seem to catch the Demons on the hop, and by half-time the game is as good as over.IMG_4389

Benalla issue a brief challenge in the third quarter and, for a while, halt the Hawks’ supremacy. But their moment of glory is short-lived and their opponents sprint away again, to notch their sixth flag in eight years, winning by 54 points – 15.18 (108) to 7.12 (54).

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1991: YARRAWONGA v WANGARATTA ROVERS

Yarrawonga out-play Wangaratta Rovers in the Second Semi, and earn favouritism when the two sides meet at the Showgrounds a fortnight later.

This time the Hawks are well-prepared and blitz the Pigeons with a dominant first quarter which almost puts the game beyond doubt.

It’s typical Grand Final football, with plenty of tackling and smothering, which makes the job of kicking goals a difficult proposition. Robbie Walker is on fire at centre half forward, and the Pigeons swap several players onto him without success.IMG_4391

At the last change it is feasible that Yarra may still pinch the match, but the Hawks put it to rest by adding another 7.7, to win effortlessly – 17.16 (118) to 7.7 (49).

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1994: WANGARATTA ROVERS v WODONGA

A blustery wind blowing across the Norm Minns Oval eliminates the long-kicking, high-marking game for which both sides are renowned.

But the unbeaten Rovers signify their intentions early by hitting the ball hard and tackling ferociously. They kick five goals to nil in the first quarter, and continue their dominance. The third quarter becomes somewhat farcical, as the Dogs initiate several stoushes and are minus three players thanks to the umpire’s yellow card.

Did Simpson Medallist Robbie Walker is unstoppable and the usual suspects – Tossol, the Wilsons, Caruso and O’Donohue – reap the rewards of Wodonga’s ill-discipline, as the Hawks go on to win 14.14 (98) to 5.9 (39).

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2018: ALBURY v WANGARATTA

Albury, the League’s pace-setter for the best part of a decade, have to fight like the Dickens to preserve their unbeaten record in a riveting match.

With a strong breeze reaching almost 40kmh at times, both teams struggle to master it. The Tigers lead by 21 points at half-time, but the ‘Pies perform brilliantly to force their way back into the game, and trail by just 3 points at three quarter-time.IMG_4388

Albury get some breathing space through a piece of Jake Gaynor magic, but a Michael Newton goal- a snap for his third – cuts the lead back.

The game is full of desperation – particularly when Jimmy Grills marks on the goal-line to prevent a Magpie goal with just three minutes left.

In one of the most thrilling Grand Finals for years, Albury hang on to win: 11.12 (78) to 10.10 (70).

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POST-SCRIPT:   The 1970 Grand Final was Johnny Bianco’s last game for his beloved Saints. His profession took him to a variety of towns throughout the state, where he continued playing footy. In 1977 he shared in another flag, with Rushworth, under the coaching of former North Melbourne star Bernie McCarthy.

He settled in Wangaratta in 1984 and became renowned over the next 30 years as a much-loved teacher and musician. Last November John’s world was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with cancer.IMG_4396

“It’ll probably get me in the end,” he tells me. “But in the meantime I’m enjoying life as best I can. Hopefully,  I can live long enough to see Myrtleford’s second premiership………..”IMG_4387

“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

“BEST KICK I EVER SAW…….”

The subject of this yarn politely declined an interview. “That’s okay,” I said. “Do you mind if I do a bit of a resume’ of your considerable sporting career.” “Go for your life,” was the reply……

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You’ve probably spotted him on his daily walk around the streets of Wangaratta…….. The gait is instantly-recognisable…..Long arms pumping……Legs striding out purposefully……..Head down…

Someone suggested he’s either attempting to unravel the problems of the universe……Or on the look-out for a stray 50-cent piece to add to his collection………..

Another route often takes him from his Templeton Street residence, down to Evans Street, where he might complete three or four circuits of the bank at his old Home Ground………..

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There was a time, more than five decades ago, when the crowd on those banks would roar with delight, as the big number 15 plucked a mark – reaching into the sky like a giant cherry-picker.

“Line ‘em up ‘Thommo’ “, they’d yell…….And from some obscene distance he’d bomb the pill through the big sticks.

No, I’m not dreaming.

Nostalgic old-timers recall the day Gary Ablett landed one from close to the centre of the ground for Myrtleford in a 1983 Semi-Final. It’s grown in distance over the years, to be labelled the longest goal ever kicked on the Findlay Oval.

Ray Thompson booted those regularly.IMG_4319

He had hands the size of meat-plates, and wore a pair of boots which amply protected his ankles. They were tailor-made for him by a city cobbler called Hope Sweeney, recognised as the best boot-maker in the business. ‘Thommo’ modestly vouched that the ‘Hope Sweeney’s’ were the reason he could hoof the ball a country mile……………

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The Thompson’s arrived in Wangaratta from Wagga in 1956, settled in Orwell Street, and began operating the town’s major Brickworks’.

It was a family concern, and Ray left school, aged 14, to join the business, toiling alongside his dad Sidney, and brothers Ron and Alan. The demanding, physically-taxing nature of the work no doubt hastened the development of his imposing physique.

He was still a teen-ager when Sidney passed away, so the boys took over joint operation of the Brickworks. Ray became the designated Employment Officer.

I came knocking on his door a decade or so later and became yet another of the itinerant employees of ‘Thompson’s’.

I’d just landed home from a casual, year-long Northern Sporting Safari and Ray warned : “I’m not sure whether this’ll be your cuppa tea.”

He was right. I advised him at lunch-time on the second day that I’d had enough.

‘Thompson’s Brickworks’ continued on to be an integral part of the local building landscape for almost 40 years, before the boys sold out to Boral in 1983…………

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When Ray was first invited to the Rovers, to train after the completion of his Junior League commitments at Centrals in late-1958, one jokester likened him to a new-born foal – all arms and legs.

He was slotted straight into the senior line-up in Round 1, 1959, as a back pocket, with the occasional run on the ball. That position, he always said, was a footy ‘sinecure’ . Just read the play, back yourself to out-mark your opponent and send it back from whence it came.IMG_4321

At 18, it was obvious that the young fellah was a star in the making. He finished fourth in the B & F in his first year, then played a starring role in the 1960 flag.

He was in awe of the dynamic Bob Rose, who had a big influence on his development. Even today, get him yapping about those ‘Golden Days’ and he can unveil a host of Rose stories, depicting his brilliance and coaching prowess.

Like the time ‘Thommo’ earned his first O & M guernsey, in 1961, and had the honour of playing alongside the great man in a Country Championship match against the Goulburn Valley.

He recalled ‘Rosie’ hardly being able to stand, or lace up his boots without assistance, before the game. The selectors tried to talk him out of playing. But he would have nothing of it. “With the stars that are playing in this side feeding the ball to me, I’ll be okay,” he said.

Ray was on fire up forward at Benalla one day, and booted five majors in a quarter, before rolling his ankle.

Reasoning that he’d be no value to the side in that condition, he advised Rose, who said: ‘No, we’ll plonk you in the pocket. They’ll be that focused on keeping you under control that it’ll release a couple of our other forwards to do some damage.”

In 1961 ‘Thommo’ was in his prime, and took out the Club Best & Fairest. The departure of veteran Les Clarke the following season saw him handed the vice-captaincy, under Rose. He was 21. By now he was used to spending most of his time at centre half forward, where he proved a near-insurmountable obstacle for defenders. If he got a sniff of it in the air those huge hands would clamp the ball.IMG_4323

He resisted the overtures of five VFL clubs. On one occasion he was at the Western Oval, watching Rovers player Barrie Beattie go around in a Footscray practice match. Teddy Whitten, who was notified that he was in the crowd, invited him to strip for the last half. ‘Thommo’ declined.

His mates reckoned that “he’d probably have had a crack at League footy if they’d set him up in a Brickworks down there”.

One of his most memorable performances came in the 1964 Grand Final. The Hawks had won the first 15 matches that season, before losing the next four, which included a demoralising loss to Wangaratta in the Second-Semi.

After a shaky start, they overcame Myrtleford in the Prelim, to earn another shot at the ‘Pies in the big one. ‘Thommo’ had copped a heavy knock against the Saints and was unable to train on Tuesday or Thursday night prior to the Grand Final.

He was still receiving pain-killing injections minutes before the match and limped and hobbled around ten minutes after the start.

The ‘Chronicle’s’ journo Lester Hansen summed up his performance…….

“In an inspired patch of football in the third quarter, Thompson kicked four of the Hawks’ six goals. The big fellow hauled down incredible marks, moved around the ground with the poise of a ballet dancer and burnt off opponents with speed that must have amazed even himself. It will forever be remembered as ‘Thommo’s quarter………….”IMG_4320

The Hawks made it successive flags the following year . One of the tactics of coach Ken Boyd was to start Thompson in the back pocket, then move him to centre half forward as the game unfolded.

The ‘65 Grand Final was no exception. Boyd had been having trouble with Magpie defender Bernie Killeen. But when big Ray moved onto Killeen he added life to the attack and combined well with elusive flanker Laurie Flanigan to help swing the pendulum in the Hawks’ favour.

‘Thommo’ injured his knee in an inter-League match against Bendigo in 1966 and it began to cause him no end of trouble. He thought if he had a good spell and tried again, that might help.

He could only limp his way through eight games in that horror year. And when he consulted South Melbourne’s Head Trainer Bill Mitchell, the diagnosis was heart-wrenching.IMG_4324

Thinking the pesky limb had settled down again over the summer, he decided to have a run with his old Rovers team-mate John Welch, who was coaching Whorouly. But after half a season he accepted the inevitable…

He retired at the tender age of 27, after playing 143 games for the Hawks. A stint on the committee, and as Chairman of Selectors, followed………

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‘Thommo’s’ fascination with cricket almost rivalled his passion for footy. As a middle-order batsman and purveyor of off-breaks, he was a member of the all-conquering United teams which dominated the local game through the sixties and seventies.

He featured in all nine of their WDCA flags. And when he and Brenda and the four kids moved out to Tarrawingee, he was one of the king-pins – on and off the field – in the resurgence of the ‘Bulldogs, who became a Sunday cricket power.

No tale about ‘Thommo’ would be complete without the re-telling of his finest stroke of golfing fortune. He was a regular on local courses and tackled the game with typical gusto. A handicap in the high 20’s had eventually been whittled down to the 12-mark.

He credited his improvement to a set of state-of-the-art clubs which were unfortunately snavelled from the back of his Ute after a game at Waldara. He promptly reported their departure to the Police and decided it was best to move on with life.

A call from the Prahran police, weeks later, notified him that they’d been ‘flogged off’ to Cash Converters for the paltry sum of $60, and if he came down to identify them, he could be re-united with his prized ‘Lindson’s’…

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Lester Hansen, the journo who wrote an aforementioned piece about the 1964 Grand Final, has now retired to Port Macquarie. He occasionally rings to touch base, catch up on the latest O & M gossip, and enquire as to the welfare of some of the old acquaintances of his Chronicle days.

The conversation eventually meanders to one of his favourites……..”How’s Thommo going…..What a player he was……Best kick I ever saw………..”

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P.S: Keen Rovers man that he is, ‘Thommo’ will be watching Saturday’s clash between the Hawks and Pigeons at the Findlay Oval. The Rovers Past Players are holding a Get-Together as part of the day.

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