“84 YEARS ON………IS HISTORY ABOUT TO REPEAT ITSELF ?……………..

One of the most riveting O & M Finals series of recent times reaches its climax on Sunday, when Wangaratta and Yarrawonga clash in the Grand Final, at the Lavington Sports Oval.

Three of the finals have been rip-roaring affairs which were decided by less than a kick; the other two featured dramatic fight-backs, which were still in doubt deep into the final term.

The Pigeons appeared to have the Prelim stitched up in the opening quarter when, inspired by the brilliance of small man Nick Fothergill, they kicked five goals into the breeze at Bunton Park. The Hawks, who snapped the opening two scores of the game – both behinds – were thereafter consigned to a role of ‘spectators’ – bewildered and bedazzled by their opponents’ swift ball movement.

Additionally, three of their key play-makers, Sam Murray, Dylan Stone and Alex Marklew had, in the game’s early stages, been rendered ineffective. Stone was out of the game with a serious knee injury; Murray and Marklew were both limping heavily and reduced to cameo roles up forward for the purposes of rotations.

Just how the pendulum swung is difficult to ascertain, but the Rovers did certainly start to assert more control through the midfield. By three quarter-time there was only a goal in it and Hawk fans began to ponder if a second successive miracle could be manifested.

Alas, the Pigeons began to find space and after locating the big sticks once, then again, they were back in charge and were able to put a pulsating contest to rest…………..

So, for just the second time in O & M history, Wangaratta and Yarrawonga are poised to line up against each other in a Grand Final……….What an encounter it promises to be…….

But it could hardly be a more mouth-watering prospect than the one that awaited the footy public 84 years ago…….

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Yarra rose from the bottom of the ladder to reach the Grand Final in 1937 – their first appearance in a decider since entering the competition in 1929. Much of their inspiration came from the bullocking play of star centre half back – and eventual Morris Medallist – George Hayes.

Albury, however, were too good, and comprehensively defeated them by 42 points…..Hayes, skipper Morrie Richmond and ruckman Don Morrison were their stars…….. but they were fuelled with optimism about their prospects in 1938…….

Wangaratta, after winning their third flag in 1936, slumped to the bottom of the ladder in ‘37, winning just two games. It was a humiliating tumble, and prompted a revitalisation within their ranks.

Their search for a coach led them to a footy nomad, Norman Le Brun, whose CV had included stints with South Melbourne, Sandhurst, Essendon, Coburg, Collingwood, Carlton and South Warrnambool.

Standing only 171cm, the stocky 76kg rover grew up in the back streets of Richmond, where young bucks would sooner have a fight than a feed. He had supplemented the meagre match payments he received with occasional work as a brick-layer.

He was fearless and hard-hitting on the field and, despite his bulk, could run all day. A bachelor with a carefree personality which endeared him to everyone, he was ‘adopted’ by the people of Wangaratta upon his arrival.

The club’s recruiting officers had also been busy…….Milawa brothers Maurice and Joe Valli were enticed to the Black and White, as were Leo Crowe (Richmond Reserves), Alan and Jim La Rose (Golden Square) and Arthur Hayes (Ballarat).

One of their key players – and Le Brun’s deputy, was a strong key position player, Ernie Ward, who had been lured to the town from Bendigo League club Eaglehawk in 1935.

A gregarious personality, Ward had made a huge impact on the club, starring in their 1936 flag win and continuing his brilliant form the following year.

However, he was knocked out in a marking duel at the Albury Sportsground, suffering a fractured skull and broken jaw, which cost him the last four games of the season – and possibly the Morris Medal….

He finished runner-up, one vote behind George Hayes.

Despite the severity of his injury, Ward fully recovered and returned to his high-marking best in 1938. Le Brun had the luxury of being able to swing him to either end of the ground with equal effect.

Alec Fraser, the classy mid-fielder, had become part of the furniture at the Showgrounds Oval since joining the Club a decade earlier……..Apart from a brief stint with St.Kilda, the ‘gentleman footballer’ was rarely beaten, and was still the epitome of reliability……..

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No doubt one of ‘the stars of the show’ in the talented Yarrawonga sides of the late thirties was Leo Hicks, a 175cm, 71kg key forward…….. A member of a famous Pigeon family, Hicks had made the Senior list at Fitzroy in 1938, but chose to return home, to further enhance his reputation as a prolific sharp-shooter.

He kicked no less than four goals in 12 successive matches during the season, which included twin ‘bags’ of 10, on the way to a century. Leo and his brother Sam held down the key forward posts with devastating effect during the season.

George Hayes continued his Medal-winning form at centre half back. A solid six-footer, he exuded a fearsome presence and helped his fellow defenders stand tall, whilst personally racking up plenty of possessions.

Yarra had a less than ideal start to their 1938 campaign, winning just one of their opening four matches. But they soon steadied the ship, and finished the home and away rounds with a 10-5 record.

They took out the minor premiership, on percentage from Wangaratta and Rutherglen, with Albury three games behind, in fourth spot………

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Rutherglen’s inaccurate kicking kept Albury in the First Semi-Final. They led 10.17 to 12.4 at three quarter-time, but the Tigers finished with 2 goals to one in the final term, to win by three points.

The dynamic Doug Strang was the player who made the difference. He booted 9 goals in a single-handed effort.

The Second Semi between Wangaratta and Yarrawonga was a classic. The Pigeons held a slender four-point advantage at half-time……Wang were two points in front at lemon-time…..

But it boiled down to accuracy in the end, as the Pies added 4.1 to 3.5 in the final term to gain automatic entry to the Grand Final – winning 12.13 to 11.15.

There was more bad news for the Pigeons, though……… Champion defender and club heart-beat George Hayes had sustained a leg injury, which would put paid to his season……..

Yarra bounced back superbly in the Preliminary Final, and were all over Albury for three quarters. They led 12.13 to 3.10 at one stage, and their attention had already begun to turn to the following week.

But Albury, again inspired by Doug Strang, who kicked another 7 goals, stormed home to kick 9.3 to 3.5 in the final quarter……The winning margin was reduced to just 23 points…….

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A bumper crowd, which paid 264 pounds at the gate, flocked to Barkly Park, Rutherglen for the re-match of the closely-matched rivals.

The head-to-head contests during the season stood at 2-apiece and the experts couldn’t seperate them. The absence of the lion-hearted Hayes would be sorely felt, and many wondered if the week’s rest might have freshened the Pies for what promised to be a no-holds-barred contest……

The teams lined up as such:

YARRAWONGA

B: D.Marshall, S.Ellis, D.Naughtin

HB: J.Flynn, J.Weeks, F.Johnston.

C: E.Message, H.Marshall, B.Ridley

HF: K.Duncan, S.Hicks, J.Norris

F: H.Gillett, L.Hicks, J.Reilly.

Foll: B.Brown, K.Ryan, M.Richmond (c)

19th: L.Cooper,

Coach: Lloyd Jones

WANGARATTA

From: N.Le Brun (cc), A. Clark, J.La Rose, A.Fraser, A.La Rose, B.Le Leivre, H.Ewing,

M.Valli, E.Ward, R.Bray, L.Crowe, T.Maguire, A.Rosengrave, T.Dykes, G.Lewis,

J.Valli, W.Wyllie, J.Williams, 19th: S. Auld.

Little separated the two combinations for three quarters…….Yarra led 1.5 to 1.2 at quarter-time……… Wang slightly gained the initiative to lead by two goals at the long break: 5.6 to 3.6….

The Pigeons spoiled an enterprising third quarter with a poor return on the score-board. They added only 2.7 despite appearing to have the majority of the play. At three quarter-time their deficit was nine points.

But the Pies found the way to goal in the last. Ernie Ward was unstoppable at full forward. He finished with six goals, whilst the nuggety Le Brun chimed in with three, as the hard-working Yarra defence, led by Dave Naughtin, Jim Flynn and Doug Marshall battled to stem he tide.

The final margin of 27 points indicated a comfortable winning margin, but the game still remained in the balance until mid-way through the quarter……..When it was up for grabs, it was Wangaratta who took their chances and went on with the job:

WANGARATTA: 1.2, 5.6, 7.10, 12.15 (87)

YARRAWONGA: 1.5, 3.6, 5.13, 7.16 (58)

Best: WANGARATTA: N.Le Brun, A.Fraser, E.Ward, H.Ewing, M.Valli, T..Maguire, B.Le Leivre, J & A. La Rose.

YARRAWONGA: D.Naughtin, J.Flynn, D.Marshall, A.Ridley, S.Ellis, M.Richmond, S.Hicks.

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Yarrawonga have contested 16 Grand Finals……They eventually broke through for their first flag when former Fitzroy coach Billy Stephen led them to victory against Wangaratta Rovers in 1959.

They’ll be chasing their sixth title, the most recent of which came in 2013.

Wangaratta have made 27 appearances at the ‘big dance’, ‘greeting the judge’ in 15 of them…..

There’s an eerie similarity about the lead-up to these two Grand Finals, 84 years apart………..They finished 1 and 2…….. Shared the spoils during the home- and-away………Wangaratta won the Second Semi by less than a kick……..Yarra staved off a huge comeback in the Prelim……..

Most shrewd judges fancy the Pies, but as we are continually warned, anything can happen in Grand Finals………….

“DYLAN CARRIES ON THE STONE FOOTBALL TRADITION……”

Brien Stone was one of those old-style, colourful characters who were part and parcel of local sport more than half a century ago…….strong-willed, enthusiastic, opiniated, ultra-competitive, passionate, thirsting for success……..

In his time he played cricket, tennis, footy, raced horses, owned and trained greyhounds……….

When ‘dishlickers’ were the feature attraction at North Wangaratta’s Sentinel Park, a succession of his stable-stars, including Medowra Lad, Accumulated and Medowra Prince, regularly greeted the judge. Another star, Medowra Jet, won a Melbourne Greyhound Cup.

His obsession for football far outweighed the achievements of a modest footy career, which had included playing in Glenrowan/Thoona League premierships with South Wangaratta in 1928 and Glenrowan in 1934.

A brief stint with O & K club Waratahs followed in the mid-thirties. He was nearing the end of his playing tether when he and his family ( wife Merle and kids, Jim, Marie, Des, Mavis, Maureen, Merle and Rob ) moved onto a Dairy Farm, and he lined up with nearby Tarrawingee not long after the cessation of World War II.

For the next 25 years or so, he became a driving force behind the Bulldogs, as part of an unlikely ‘Triumvirate’, alongside the irrepressible Ken Stewart and the ‘Plough Inn’s’ popular publican, Pete Nolan.

Tarra took out their first-ever flag in 1953. They saluted again a decade later – and made it a double in 1964 – with two of his sons and two sons-in-law playing starring roles in the side.

When he stood down after twelve seasons as President, the ‘Dogs had contested Grand Finals in five of those years…….

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Brien passed away in 1984, aged 77. He’d received immense satisfaction from following the careers of his stalwart sons Jimmy (315 senior games), Des (250-plus) and Rob (70-odd), in Red, White and Blue and savouring the involvement of the whole Stone clan at Tarra.

Unfortunately, he never got to see any of the succeeding generations of his progeny make their way through the footy ranks……He’d have been chuffed to know of the impact that they’ve made in Ovens and Murray football….and beyond……..

THE GRAND-KIDS

Mark Stone: Played with Wangaratta and Wodonga, Moe, Powerhouse ( Won VAFA Pepper Medal), Ormond, Ringwood, Wagga Tigers ( won Riverina FL Quinn Medal, and also coached). Assistant-coach at South Fremantle, West Coast Eagles, Sydney Swans, Fremantle and Brisbane Lions. Coached Glenelg to the 2019 SANFL Premiership after a 33-year drought .

Dean Stone: Played with Milawa, Wangaratta, Wodonga ( Joint B & F 1994 ), Wagga Tigers, The Rock- Yerong Creek ( playing-coach ). Assistant-coach at Wodonga. Coached Wangaratta 2017 ( Flag ), 2018 & 2021.

Robbie Richards: Played with Wangaratta, Maffra, Greta. Coached Greta 1995 ( Flag ), ‘96 and 2000. Coached Wangaratta Seniors 1997. Also coached Reserves and Thirds.

Rick Marklew: Played 229 games with Wang Rovers ( Flags 1988, ‘93, ‘94 ), Northern United ( Bendigo FL rep ), Heidelberg. Member WRFC Hall of Fame.

Gary Stone: Played Tarrawingee and Wang Rovers ( Reserves Flag ).

GREAT GRAND-KIDS

Jamie Allan : Played 84 games with Rovers and 100-plus with Wangaratta ( B & F 2010, 2012 ), Morris Medallist 2010. Also played Box Hill, Essendon Doutta Stars, Milawa ( Flag, and Baker Medal 2019 ).

Ryan Stone: Has played 81 games with Rovers. Also played 103 games Heidelberg ( NFL rep ).

Nick Richards: Has played 56 games Wangaratta ( Flag 2017 ) O & M rep. Also played Werribee, Williamstown, Heidelberg.

Robbie Allan : Played Rovers and Wangaratta. Also played Essendon Doutta Stars and Milawa ( Flag 2019 ).

Joe Richards: Has played 63 games with Wangaratta ( B & F 2017 & 2019. Flag 2017 ).

Danny Allan: Played Rovers and Wangaratta.

Ethan Stone : Senior Debut with Wangaratta 2021 ( Played 5 Senior games ).

Connor Stone : Senior Debut with Wangaratta 2017 ( Played 13 Senior Games ).

Alex Marklew: Has played 69 games with Rovers. Also played Doutta Stars, Golden Square ( B.F.L rep ), Essendon, Werribee.

Riley Stone: Played with Wodonga and Wangaratta. Now with Wodonga Raiders..

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Permit me to introduce you to another member of the clan – Dylan Stone – who celebrated his 100th game with the Wangaratta Rovers last week-end.

It hasn’t exactly been a dream run to the ‘ton’ for ‘D.J’.

In his first 75 games with the Hawks he played in just 15 wins. That was a touch hard to take, after he’d heard tales of old Rovers champs chalking up flags with monotonous regularity and appearing in Finals as if they were going out of fashion……..Talk about a bloke being in the right place at the wrong time !

He played all of his junior footy with Tigers, alongside one of his best mates, Jessie Smith. Their paths diverged, as Dylan joined the Rovers and Jessie headed over the laneway, where he has become a premiership player and part of a highly successful era.

As they say, Fate can be a cruel mistress !

“That’s the luck of the draw, I suppose. I was always going to play with the Rovers…..to follow in the footsteps of dad, and my brother, who’d been there for a few years,” he says

Ryan was making his name as an elusive, classy forward, with an eye for the big sticks ( he booted 35 and 31 goals in successive seasons ), and Dylan envisaged that whilst he was still coming through the ranks in the Thirds, they’d end up playing plenty of senior footy together.

It did eventually happen……seven years after he’d made his senior debut mid-way through 2014…….

In his fourth game Dylan figured in a nail-biting Elimination Final win over Corowa-Rutherglen……The following week the Hawks bowed out of the 2014 premiership race at the hands of Lavington.

It was to be his last Finals appearance……………….

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The ability of the silky-skilled, lightly-proportioned on-baller to find the Sherrin, transition it from stoppages with the balance of a Ballroom dancer, and make things happen up forward soon made him a key member of the Rovers side.

As a ball-magnet in a side not over-laden with talent, he became a target of attention. A heavy knock against Wodonga Raiders in 2016 kept him out for a week with concussion protocols, but he recovered in time to take his place in the Ovens and Murray League line-up for the Country Championship clash with Hampden a couple of weeks later.

The break-out Stone season came in 2017, when he took out the Bob Rose Medal.

His effort was all the more meritorious, considering a ‘dicky’ left knee was restricting him. After corrective femoral osteomoty post-season surgery in late-November, he decided to chance his luck in VFL ranks.

Port Melbourne coach Gary Ayres offered access to the Club’s medical staff for his recovery, and was keen for him to come on board.

But soon after, he moved to Coburg after an approach from their coach Leigh Adams, who dangled a small-forward’s role in front of him.

Dylan had been living and working in Melbourne, but, after five months, homesickness got to him. He returned to Wangaratta.

It was great news for the Hawks, who plonked their fully-recovered star into their opening-round line-up.

One of his old coaches believes that Stone became an even more dynamic player after the corrective knee surgery.

“I reckon I was a different person, that’s for sure,” Dylan says. “I could actually run with a bit more freedom.”

He lived in Wangaratta for two years, then headed back to Melbourne in 2019, where he was employed by Blue Earth ( alongside Ryan ), and continued his pursuit of a VFL career.

He landed at Box Hill Hawks, but found it difficult to command a spot. Again, it was back to his home club, where new coach Daryn Cresswell accepted him with open arms.

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen the first day I met ‘Cressa’ “ Dylan quips. “He was an intimidating figure to start with. But he’s got the best out of my footy, that’s for sure.”

“My strength has always been to ‘run and carry’ the ball, and play with a bit of flair. He keeps drilling into me to make that happen.”

Dylan was a key component of a new-look Rovers line-up, which went within an ace of a long-awaited return to the Finals in 2019.

With the dream of playing in the VFL still lurking in the back of his mind he was lured to the Northern Bullants’ Preston City Oval this season.

“ I’ve always been determined to play the best standard possible, and extract all that I can out of my footy…….The training was great, and I knew a few of the blokes from my time at Coburg, so I get on well with everybody.”

He played five games with the Bullants, interspersed with his seven appearances with the Hawks.

“I didn’t actually play in a winning side at the Bullants. Ironically, they won three on the trot after I returned to the Rovers.”

Dylan is still keen to make his mark in the VFL, but he’s also relishing the success that the Rovers have enjoyed.

If anyone needed confirmation of his exquisite skills, they were on display in the Rovers’ recent victory over Lavington.

He’d played an integral role in a pulsating third-quarter comeback, as the Hawks reined in a 23-point deficit to hit the front…….The pendulum had swung repeatedly in this 10-goal term…….Inspiration was required…..

Taking possession on the boundary at the 25-minute mark, in front of the adoring home crowd in the Hogan Stand, he flicked a handball across to Cody Schutt….dodged an opponent and received the pill back…..

Still hemmed in on the boundary, and swivelling around one Panther, with another on his hammer, he found a smidgeon of open space, darted clear, straightened up and nailed a crucial major. It was a classic piece of Stone wizardry…………..

Last Saturday, he featured in several metre-devouring runs, turning defence into attack, as a youthful Rovers attempted to withstand the persistent ‘Roos, who sniffed victory.

But it was to no avail. They fell five points short in a see-sawing contest………..

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‘D.J’ is rapt to have realised his ambition of joining the Hawk 100-Game Club.

“You walk up those stairs at the Clubrooms, and see the photos of all the great players who’ve preceded you……..It means a heck of a lot to me…….”

‘PIGEON BERT REFLECTS ON A LIFE-TIME CAREER IN FOOTBALL……….’

If you’re trying to track down Robert Tait of a Monday morning, chances are you’ll find him raking leaves, emptying the rubbish bins, or tidying up the Yarrawonga rooms after the week-end’s footy.

His is a familiar tale, replicated by countless volunteers throughout the state ……. Of the old champ, having hung up his boots after a storied career, rolling up his sleeves and devoting decades of service to his beloved Club.

The majestic Murray River meanders alongside the Pigeons’ J.C.Lowe Oval…..Yet ‘Taity’s’ football fairytale was enacted about thirty-five miles upstream.

As a 17 year-old schoolboy he played his part in possibly the Ovens and Murray’s greatest rags-to-riches story – Corowa’s ascent from wooden-spooners to 1968 premiers………

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‘Bert’ was born and bred on a farm at Rennie – an equidistant 17 miles from Yarra and Corowa. The Hoppers are a proud bush Club; winners of 15 premierships and best known as the spiritual home of the legendary Jimmy Sandral.

“Kids from Rennie played their cricket in Yarrawonga and gravitated to Corowa for footy. So I lined up with the Corowa Under 15’s,” he recalls.

His progress was rapid, to say the least. At 14, he was elevated to the Spiders’ senior line-up for three games. He was still making his way in the game a couple of years later, when Corowa pulled off a stunning recruiting coup, landing Richmond’s reigning premiership skipper Freddie Swift as captain-coach.

“I remember how excited we all were when he came to watch us in the final round of ‘67. He wasn’t even deterred by the fact that Wangaratta belted us by more than 17 goals.”

Swift was given an assurance that incumbent coach John Hoiles would hang around. He helped the Spiders handpick recruits Ike Isley ( from Bendigo, via St. Kilda ), brilliant rover Jack Clancy (Heidelberg) and Lindsay Jacob (Walla).

Corowa were sitting fifth coming into the last round of 1968, and had to defeat fourth-placed Wangaratta by 10-12 goals to sneak into the finals…….They won by 15, to secure their spot.

They came from 22 points down at half-time to defeat North Albury in the First Semi…… were dead level at three quarter-time in the Prelim, against a physically-imposing Myrtleford, then went on to win by four goals……..

The Spiders were into the Grand Final……….

“We had a heap of young blokes under 21…….George Tobias, Terry Phibbs, Denis Hutton, ‘Chizza’, Freddie Longmire, Jeff McLean and myself……We were all in awe of what was happening, and the town was at fever-pitch…..We hadn’t won a flag in 36 years……..” Bert recalls.

“I remember us heading over to Wangaratta for the Grand Final, stopping at North Wang, stretching our legs, and getting back on the Bus where Ovens Ford’s now located……There were 12,000 people at the Rovers Ground that day, and the majority of them were convinced that Wodonga would belt us…..”

It certainly looked that way at quarter-time. The Dogs, the reigning premiers, kicked 4.5 to 0.3 with the aid of a strong breeze. But Corowa gained the ascendancy in the second, and it was nip and tuck from then on.

A great 50-yard goal from Kevin Witherden and a skilful snap from Lindsay Jacob sealed the game for the Spiders, who hung on to win a classic by seven points.

“On the trip home we got off the Bus at Wahgunyah, all climbed on the back of one of Bernie Bott’s semi-trailers and drove across the bridge, up the Main Street to the Town Hall, where they introduced us to an enormous crowd ……I was still at school; it was a bit hard to get your head around …….”

“The celebrations went on for a week……Geez, the older you get, the better it feels..It’s still like a dream……“

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Bert landed his first job not long after, with Livestock Company, Australian Estates, in Yarrawonga.

He spent the next couple of years travelling back to play with Corowa, then got called up for National Service, which took a slice out of his ‘72 season.

“Luckily for me, Gough Whitlam won the election later that year, and abolished National Service. When I got out of the Army I rang Mickey McNamara, with whom I was now employed, to see whether I still had a job.”

“Mick said: ‘No worries. Come back, you’re welcome. I’ll fix you up with a car and get you out on the road.’ “

“When I told Mick I’d also get a clearance to play with Yarra he was very happy. He said :’ I’ve been hoping for two years that’d happen….Now I’ve got ya.’ “

So, after 76 senior games with Corowa ( his dad Bob, and brother Neville had preceded him there) Robert Tait was now a Pigeon…………

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He had, by now become a leading O & M ruckman. Yet his 193cm frame and handy big-man skills were negated when Yarra met the Rovers in a boggy 1973 First-Semi.

“The Benalla Showgrounds was a mud-heap….It poured all day. It was memorable for the fact that Neville Hogan picked up 50 kicks and his opponent Billy Nixon had about 49. I think they beat us 6.11 to 4.9.”

“Hogan was again one of our obstacles when we played ‘em in the Grand Final the next year. He parked himself in the forward pocket, alongside ‘Doc’ Doherty, who kicked a few in the first quarter. I think it was 8 goals to 1 at quarter-time……Game over ! “

“Neville brings it up occasionally. He says: ‘I loved roving to you, Taity !’ “

Bert’s finest year undoubtedly came in 1976. Despite missing four games with a twisted knee, he finished just three votes shy of the Morris Medal ( he also finished third two years later). His consolation came when he took out the Border Mail-2AY media award and Yarrawonga’s Best & Fairest.

He was runner-up in the Pigeons’ top gong for the next five years, bowing to Les ‘Salty’ Parish ( three times), Mark Booth and Johnny White, yet trailing by no more than three votes on each occasion.

And he became a regular, and proud, wearer of the O & M guernsey. The first of his eight games in the Black and Gold was against the VFA, when he lined up on the colourful Fred Cook and ‘Frosty’ Miller.

But perhaps his best inter-League performance came at Ganmain, when his strong marking in defence held out a charging South-West League, who fell short by 17 points:

“We were travelling well that day…..until they bought on an aboriginal called Sid Robbins, who they’d recruited from up north. Could he play ! He nearly turned the game for them. I was talking to their coach Tom Carroll after the game, as they announced that he’d won a Bag donated by South Melbourne, as their best player.”

“Tom said: ‘Do you know where that bag’ll finish up…..In the Murrumbidgee River. He lives on the river…….He’s a great player up here, but every time you pick a team you always have to name one extra, in case he doesn’t turn up !’ “

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After 176 games with Yarra, Bert took on the coaching job at Rennie, in 1983. It was a romantic homecoming of sorts, as his Grandfather had been their first coach, back in the early thirties. His dad played there, and he was taking over the reins from his brother Neville.

“Kay ( his wife ) said: ‘What am I going to do out there ?’ I said: ‘They’ve got Netball’. Well, she loved it. We made lifelong friends.”

In his five years as coach Rennie won two flags. In the first, they were undefeated, and belted Coreen by 103 points in the Grand Final….the Second came against Corowa-Rutherglen in 1985.

At the end of 1987 his old mate ‘Salty’ Parish enquired what he was doing about his footy.

“I said: ‘Well, I’m going on 36. I’m getting out while I’m reasonably sound.’ ‘That’s good,’ he replied. ‘I’ve just been appointed coach of Yarra, and I want you to come with me.’ “

“I’d always got on well with Salty….. used to look after him a bit….You know, he was a hell of a good fellah, but when he first came to Yarra he was a bit of a street kid…….he’d never wreck anything…..but once he had a few beers he could become a bit antagonising.”

“I told him I’d help him out…..I took over as his Chairman of Selectors; used to drive him to the footy, take him home after games…..keep him off the grog.”

Yarra finished fourth in 1988, but shaped as an improved side in ‘89 after the recruitment of Damien Sexton and Kerry Brain from Finley. On the eve of the season, the Committee approached Parish, requesting that he alter his Selection Panel.

“What was the story there ? “ I ask ‘Taity’.

“Well, they wanted to have five, instead of three Selectors.’ But ‘Salty’ wouldn’t have a bar of it. I went back to the Committee and offered to stand aside, to enable them to include someone else.”

“I said: ‘Don’t lose him over this. You know what he’s like; he’ll stick to his digs.’ ……..When I told ‘Salty’ of my suggestion he was adamant: ‘Nope. If you, Paul (Walker) and I can’t do it, then I’m out……”

“And that’s how Yarra came to part ways with its best-ever footballer ( in my opinion).”

It’s history how stalwart Neil Davis stepped into the breach and coached the Pigeons to a memorable flag. ‘Taity’ stayed in the background, but maintained 100 percent support for Davis.

He went back to Rennie the following year, when they couldn’t find a coach, then returned to Yarra for keeps.

“ ‘Davo’ said: ‘We’re trying to get a Past Players Group up and running. I’d like you to help out.’ He was the initial President, then I took over in ‘92……I’m still there…….”

It has become one of the League’s more vibrant PPOA organisations. One of their most satisfying projects was the launching of the Football/ Netball Club History, a glossy publication, which was three years in the making, and sold over 1,000 copies.

When ‘Bert’ returned to the footy Club Committee in the early nineties, Tracie Gillies suggested that he become involved with the Netball side of things, besides being Vice-President..

“She said: ‘Your girls are going to be playing, along with the four Davis girls, three Bourke’s and a couple of Tyrrell’s, among others. I’ll coach and I want you to be the Club’s Netball Rep.”

His daughter Bridget has played over 300 Club games ( including 250 A- Grade) for ten flags, whilst Janna has three, including Yarra’s first A-Grade title. Bert and Bridget are the sole members of the O & M’s Father-Daughter 200-Game Club.

“We’ve won a total of 17 premierships in all grades since Netball began in 1993. It’s become a vital part of our Club,” he says.

He has ridden all the ups and downs of footy, including the lows of the early 2000’s, and the highs of Bob Craig’s 2006 premiership side.

And he recalls the arrival of Yarra’s most famous recruit in 2012.

“Alan Tripp, who is a keen, and generous supporter, said to us: ‘You’ve gotta get someone who’ll kick 60-70 goals, otherwise you’ll never get over Albury. I’ve got just the bloke for you. I want you in Melbourne next Monday…..’ ”

“We had no idea who we were going to see……We walked into the room and Brendan Fevola was sitting there…….I said to Glenn Brear and Drew Barnes: ‘Geez, what are we doing here ?’ “

“On the way home, I said: ‘Shit, I dunno whether Yarra’s big enough for Brendan Fevola.’…..We spoke to Alan Tripp again and he re-assured us. ‘Leave him to me,’ he said. ‘I’ll look after him. I’ve told him he’s gotta play down the line.’ “

“Anyway, history shows that we won two flags, and crowds came in their droves….. On Fev’s first game, against Lavington, we took $120,000, with gate, canteen, membership and the rest. Don’t worry, Fev was great for Yarra, and the League……….”

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‘Bert’s’ been hamstrung lately, as he battles Charcot foot, a weakening of the bones in his left foot, caused by significant nerve damage.

“They gave me two options – continued treatment or amputation……. I chose the former……”

But this setback certainly hasn’t diluted his passion for footy, netball and Yarrawonga……..

‘DERBY DAY LOOMS……..’

Think of sport’s great rivalries……..

Baseball’s Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees; Glasgow’s two ‘Old Firm’ soccer teams – Celtic and Rangers ; the AFL’s famous antagonists Carlton and Collingwood; and Test cricket’s heavily-conflicted neighbours, India and Pakistan………..

Whenever each of them meet they wage something akin to open warfare .

Now, I know I’m drawing too long a bow when I lump this Sunday’s ‘Local Derby’ in the same category. But when the old foes – separated by just a laneway – are both up and about there’s that familiar sniff of hostility and animosity in the air…………….

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It’s been going on for 72 years…….ever since the Rovers were granted admission to the Ovens and Murray League.

Suddenly the Magpies, who’d had exclusive access to most of the promising young local players wishing to play Major League footy, now had to compete with the ‘new boys’.

Bitterness was rife, as charges of ‘player pilfering’ and underhand recruiting tactics were laid by both sides.

Old-timers recount the passions which were elicited in the ‘50’s, when the rough and tough stuff on the field of play was sometimes matched beyond the boundary by cantankerous spectators…….

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The Rovers’ first coach was a burly ex-Hawthorn journeyman, Ken Bodger, who assumed his role just four weeks before their 1950 O & M debut.

Bodger was on a hiding to nothing, and was powerless to prevent Wang posting a 25.16 to 8.6 massacre over his undermanned charges. In the re-match later in the season the ‘Pies booted 11 goals in the last quarter, to win by 105 points.

Bodger, of course, became the victim of his Club’s unrealistic expectations. After they registered just two points for the season (for a draw against Rutherglen ) he was ‘sacked’. But, to his credit, he served on the committee and played on with the Hawks for two more seasons.

Then he committed an ‘unforgivable’ sin. He crossed the laneway, in search of an elusive flag, and attracted the wrath of Rovers supporters when he stripped in Black and White.

“Boy, did I cop it !”, he reflected years later. “People with whom I’d become closely attached, and established good friendships, turned on me, particularly when I collided with the new Rovers coach, Jock Herd the first time I played against the Hawks.”

Bodger finally realised his long-held premiership ambition the following year when he headed out to Greta as captain-coach. By that time the aura of the ‘Derby’ was gaining momentum……………

It was only compounded when the Hawks landed Bobby Rose as playing-coach. ‘Mr. Football’ had been in high demand and his signing was a major coup for the battling club. He agreed on a fee of 35 pounds per week.

One of the additional clauses inserted in his contract was that….’for a period of five years after its termination he was not allowed to play for, or coach, the Wangaratta Magpies. If he did he would be liable to re-imburse the Rovers 500 pounds by way of liquidated damages……..’

Rose also ignored the ‘warning’ from some quarters – no doubt a last-ditch attempt to dissuade him from taking the job – that the Rovers were a Catholic club.

His old Collingwood team-mate Mac Holten, who had enjoyed fabulous success in an eight-year term as Wangaratta’s coach, took up the pen upon retirement to cover matches for the Wangaratta Chronicle.

His description of an altercation between Rose and dashing ‘Pie forward Bob ‘Bushy’ Constable in one combustible encounter, irked the Hawk leader to such an extent that he rang Mac to complain about the bias in the article.

By way of protest he even stopped frequenting Holten’s Licensed Grocery. After all, he reasoned, half of Wangaratta was now boycotting his Sports Store after the grilling he’d received.

The Holten-Rose friendship was restored after a brief cooling-off period, but years later old Magpies still harked back to that incident………

The late ‘Hopper’ McCormick, one of the Magpies’ favourite sons, recalled the day he was handed the ‘hot potato’ of shadowing Rose in one of the champ’s early games.

It was a match which had already produced its fair share of fireworks. Out of the blue, ‘Hop’ reeled from a pack, and it was up to Wang’s Club Doctor, Howard Marks to attempt to revive him with a whiff of smelling salts.

His dad, a dead-keen supporter, took umbrage at ‘Hop’s’ treatment and tangled with some vocal Hawks; the result being that there were spot-fires raging on both sides of the fence. The timely arrival of the Police paddy-wagon restored peace among the warring spectators.

“I’m not sure whether it was Rosey or Ray Burns who collected me, but Bob paid me a visit a few days later to enquire of my health. It was a nice gesture and we became good mates,” ‘Hop’ said…………

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Neville Hogan, a Rovers legend, and the only person to coach both clubs, can remember the feeling among supporters in the lead-up to the ‘Derby’.

“When I was playing we’d prepare for each game just like it was a Final. The tempo at training would increase, we’d have a Dinner on the Thursday night and outline our plans; everyone would be keyed up.”

“For most of that time, both Clubs had strong sides and had some terrific battles. Bernie Killeen took 19 marks at centre half back to dominate one semi-Final….. I remember Des Steele giving me the run-around in another……and Ron Critchley kicking 1.9 against us in a tight Final which we won………”

Billy McMillan, who was an aggressive defender in his 116 games for Wangaratta, relished tangling with the Rovers.

“You always found a bit extra in those games,” he said.

McMillan’s swansong with the ‘Pies was the final round of 1987, when they defeated the Hawks and tipped them out of the finals. He’d played in five straight wins against the old enemy.

He then took a coaching job at Whorouly, but ventured down to see a ‘Derby’ game a couple of years later.

“I went over and sat near the scoreboard at the Rovers ground with my daughter. You

know……keeping out of everyone’s way.”

“Something happened which displeased me and I muttered a few words. This bloke in the distance must have been sweating on me because he bellowed: ‘That’s right McMillan; you were a prick on the field and you’re no better off it.”………

Rick Marklew began with the Rovers in the mid-80’s. “When I started,” he says, “there were kids I went to school with who were playing with Wangaratta. You talked about it the week before the game, then chewed it over for a week after.”

“Wang had good sides in those days……the Mulrooney’s, Gary Voss, ‘Spud’ Adamo……’Spud’s clashes with Matt Allen were worth watching.”

Marklew’s cousin Robbie Richards, a long-serving player and ex-Magpie coach, agrees…..”There’s a real atmosphere when the teams meet. I reckon if you couldn’t find a bit extra in those games you never would.”

Alex Marklew, Sam Allen and Joe Richards – sons of guns – will all take part in Sunday’s ‘Derby’……..

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Ken Boyd couldn’t disguise his dislike of the Black and White and thrived on the extra edge and atmosphere that the ‘Derby’ engendered. He succeeded Bob Rose as Rovers coach, and by 1964 had a side which looked every inch a premiership contender .

They won 15 games on the trot before stumbling, and dropping the last three home and home matches. Their form was no better in the second semi-final against Wangaratta, who proved too strong in a 14-point win at Barkly Park, Rutherglen.

Bernie Killeen had been a tower of strength in the Semi, but when the Hawks and ‘Pies met again in the Grand Final, Boyd sidled up alongside him.

As the last strains of the national anthem rang across the Albury Sportsground, Killeen lay spreadeagled on the turf.

Was it the heat, the occasion, or an errant elbow that had got to the star defender………?

Boyd was an inspirational player, and figured strongly in successive flag victories over Wangaratta. Even in 1966, when a back injury curtailed his movements, he was still able to make an impact.

In his final O & M appearance, the Preliminary Final against the ‘Pies looked to be escaping the clutches of the Hawks, who’d been outclassed, and trailed by 20 points at half-time.

But they began to creep back into the contest during an extraordinary third quarter. Mayhem ensued, as the game erupted in a series of flare-ups. Boyd was the catalyst in each of them .

The Hawks trailed by just one point at three-quarter time, but when sanity was restored Wang gradually wrested the initiative and went on to win by 25 points.

The curtain came down on Ken Boyd’s colourful career at the Tribunal hearing the following Wednesday evening, when he was handed a total of eight weeks suspension on four seperate charges……..

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The Magpies had to play second fiddle to the Hawks during the early 70’s, despite having a more than competitive line-up. They’d lost 11 ‘Derby’ clashes in a row before they cast their demons aside on a fateful late-September day in 1976.

Phil Nolan’s boys were simply irresistible in outpointing their opponents ( who were chasing their fifth flag in six years ) by 37 points. They proclaimed ‘Big Phil’ a coaching guru.

Many ‘Pie fans still become misty-eyed when they tell you that it was the greatest sporting day of their lives.

It’s said that soon after the siren, someone scaled the Wangaratta Police Station to pull down the Brown and Gold flag which had flown before and after the ‘Derbies’ of the ‘70’s. It was replaced with Black and White streamers………………

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Football’s pendulum has swung wildly in the case of the local clubs during the modern era. The Pies are riding high at the moment…….the Hawks have again emerged as a Finals contender……….

The Clubs certainly wouldn’t want to re-visit the dark days of the late 90’s when they were both encountering troubled times.

The dreaded word ‘merger’ was even mentioned by some of the bar-flies around town.

Heaven forbid……..that would have been equivalent to the Orange and the Green joining forces in Northern Ireland…………

*Derby update: The clubs have met 153 times. The Rovers have won 94 games, Wangaratta have won 58, with one drawn.

‘A DAY AT THE FOOTY WITH DONNY……’

Footy’s back……You beauty……..

I’ve just alighted from the Rovers rooms after the half-time break…….A passionate Cressa has pleaded with his charges to withstand the enormous pressure being applied by the Lavington Panthers in this gripping opening-round tussle .

Still pondering what might lay ahead, I resume my seat in the rejuvenated L.P.O grandstand. It’s a game riddled with errors, but nevertheless entertaining. Looks like it’ll develop into a battle of attrition in the last half…….

Moments later there’s a tap on the shoulder from the old bloke sitting behind me ……….

“I noticed your Wang Rovers top. Did you play at all ?….”

“Yeah, late sixties. What about yourself ?….” I ask.

“North Albury…….and a bit of a run at Footscray…….”

To a lifetime Bulldog nut like me this pronouncement was music to the ears. The correlation between North and Footscray means that it can only be one person……….

“You must be Donny Ross.”

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My love-affair with the ‘Dogs was pretty well sparked by the events of 1954. For 62 years that mystical, sole premiership was our Nirvana. I remained convinced that it may never again be re-visited.

Firmly imprinted in my mind for decades were the scores, all the major details, the trivia , and the side: From the backline, it read : Wally Donald, Herb Henderson, Dave Bryden…… Half Backs: Alan Martin, Teddy Whitten, Jim Gallagher…..Centres: Ron McCarthy, Don Ross, Doug Reynolds………

“You know, there’s only six of us left,” Don tells me. “It was a terrific side, well led by Charlie Sutton. He was a bit underestimated as a player, Charlie. They always rave about how tough he was, but you don’t wear the Big V three years in a row if you’re not a star in your own right……….And Whitten ?……Well, he’s still one of the best I’ve ever seen….”

We do stop yapping for an occasional glance at the footy. “Where’s Paul Roos’s young bloke ? “

Number 22, I point out; seems to be able to find the footy.

“Not as tall as the old man, but he moves alright, that’s for sure,” he says. “So does the sandy-haired left-footer – number 3.”

“That’s Sam Murray, who spent a bit of time at Collingwood a couple of years back.”

He’s super-impressed with Lavi’s energetic coach, Simon Curtis…….But we continue to digress…….I’m eager to re-visit the career of this softly-spoken 87 year-old……..

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He grew up in Boree Creek and had virtually no exposure to sport. His main physical outlet in his pre-teen years came from cutting thistles, or carting bags of wheat, for which he’d be paid the princely sum of five pounds per day.

Don discovered footy when he was sent to the Albury High School, to commence his secondary education.

“I showed a bit, I suppose, when I had a run with North Albury juniors. Don Wilks, who’d played at Hawthorn, took on the coaching job and must have been impressed. He put me straight into the senior side….. I’d just turned 16…..”

He timed his arrival nicely. North won their way into the Grand Final against Wangaratta, and gave themselves a good chance of toppling the reigning premiers. But Don, who’d had a great season, and lined up in the centre on the experienced Norm Minns, was off the ground in the first five minutes, destined to take no further part in the game.

Another key player, John Murcott, hobbled off minutes later. The Hoppers did a great job to stay within striking distance with no bench, but eventually lowered their colours by 16 points.

Don took out the B & F in 1951, and obviously impressed former Footscray coach Arthur Olliver, who’d travelled up to see him play.

“I wasn’t really sure whether I wanted to go, but Billy King, my coach at North that year, said: ‘You’d be silly if you don’t have a crack.’ So off I went, down to the big smoke…..”

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Again, his timing was spot-on. The Bulldogs were building up to something special, and he was named in the seniors for the opening round of 1952. ( “You know, I was lucky enough to never play a Reserves game, either at North or Footscray, “ he says).

And things also fell into place when he landed a job as a maintenance carpenter at Smorgan’s, after having begun a carpentry apprenticeship back in Albury.

This later led to an opportunity to work in the building game with a staunch old Bulldog man, Wally Beevers.

“I did some sub-contract work with Wally, and worked alongside Gary Simonds ( the founder of Simonds Homes ).”

“But the biggest win I had was meeting my future wife Shirley, one Saturday night, at the dance in the Orama Ballroom in Footscray, ” Don says.

The ‘Dogs were on the improve, finishing third in 1953. After losing the first two games of 1954, they began their finals assault from second spot.

Don fitted neatly into his role in the centre, after having been experimented with in all key positions. But he’d begun his National Service at Puckapunyal mid-way through the year, and, in the lead-up to the Grand Final, didn’t train for a month.

“I suppose I was still pretty fit because we were marching for six hours a day, and doing different other drills, but I certainly didn’t get much ball-handling,” he says.

“The trouble was, come Grand Final day, I’d used up all my leave passes, and I had to rely on the good grace of my sergeant to get out of the barracks, and to the MCG. He said: ‘I’ll look the other way.’ So I sneaked off, Absent without Leave, to play the biggest game of my life.”

I’ve since read that Charlie Sutton regarded Ross as one of the linchpins of the excellent Footscray sides of the ‘50’s. At 13st 7lb and 5’11”, he often shunted him to centre half forward if the ‘Dogs needed a lift.

He was on fire in the Grand Final, with 20 possessions in the comfortable 39-point win over Melbourne.

But there was little time to enjoy the Premiership celebrations…..He had to get back to ‘Pucka’ and sneak in without being apprehended…………

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Don had now mastered one of football’s newly-created positions – playing as a ruck-rover.

“Barassi was the game’s first ruck-rover, but Sutton reckoned I might make a good fist of it, so I became the second.”

He won the Bulldogs’ Best and Fairest in 1956, despite team-mate Peter Box taking out the Brownlow Medal. As an indication of the esteem in which he was held, he was elevated to the vice-captaincy the following season.

“ I quickly grew to dislike the job. I was six or seven years younger than some of the club’s stalwarts, and felt they probably didn’t appreciate a young tyro being one of the official leaders. Besides, things had become a bit unsettled around the place……….”

“Charlie Sutton was running a pub, and had taken his eye off the ball a bit. The Committee hauled him in one night in the middle of the season and read the riot act to him. Charlie came out of the meeting and promptly gave us the night off training…….That didn’t go over too well…..I don’t know whether that was the sole reason, but they sacked him soon after, and replaced him with Ted Whitten.”

“ To Charlie’s credit, though, it didn’t affect his love of the Club; he had another stint as coach and served as President for a few years……”

The following year – 1958 – Footscray tumbled to second-last. Don had always planned to return to the bush to settle down and bring up his family, but it was a shock to the ‘Dogs when he told them he was quitting.

He’d played 129 games, and was just 24, when news broke that he’d turned his back on the glamour of League football to take on the coaching job at his old club, North Albury………….

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“So there you are, you old bastard……I wondered where you’d got to….I thought Alzheimer’s had set in and you’d gone walkabout……” quipped his mate ‘Happy’ Whetmore, an old Lavington player, who had brought Don in from Jindera for the day.

“Nah, it was too rowdy in the Entertainment Area……I wanted to concentrate on the footy,” Don replied. He introduces me to ‘Happy’ ( “I’ve known him for years, and still don’t know his first name,” he says ).

We resume our conversation, acknowledging that the Rovers appeared to have broken the game open in this final quarter………..

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Don was heralded as the Hoppers’ saviour when he again pulled on the Green and Gold, but he was unable to take them beyond the middle reaches of the ladder.

“We just didn’t have the dough to spend on recruiting to be really competitive in those days,” he says.

His own form – and his leadership – was outstanding. He finished third, sixth, second and second in the Morris Medal in the four years he coached, between 1959 and ‘62.

“It was a Golden Era for the O & M, with fellahs like Frank Tuck, Billy Stephen, Fred Goldsmith, Jimmy Deane and Des Healy in charge of other Clubs,” he says.

“But your bloke ( Bob Rose ) was the pick of ‘em. I remember we played the South-West League up at Narrandera one year. He had a crook back and could hardly walk. The officials suggested that he pull out, but he said: ‘I don’t want to let anyone down. I’ll be right once I get out there.’…….He dominated on a forward flank. ‘Rosey’ was a champ.”

Don coached Burrumbuttock for a season before deciding to hang up the boots, aged 29, and concentrate on his flourishing construction business. The North Albury Clubrooms, at Bunton Park, was one of the hundreds of District projects he oversaw.

He settled, with Shirley and the three kids – Sandra, Jenny and Paul ( who also played with North Albury, and had three senior games at Footscray ) at Lavington. They later moved out to a property at Jindera, where he still resides.

He took on breeding and training racehorses as a hobby: “ I usually only had two or three in work at a time, but we had a lot of success. Over the years we won Cups at Wang, Wodonga, Corowa,, Wagga, Benalla and Albury.”

The North Albury, Ovens & Murray and Western Bulldogs Hall of Fame Member still follows the ‘Dogs closely, and is treated like royalty when he heads down to Melbourne for the occasional game.

“I’m keen, but I’m not a patch on Shirley. She’ll watch ‘em on telly, then saddle up for the re-play ! “ says the old champ………..