‘DOC’ KELLY……AND THE ROARING TWENTIES……

It’s September 1925 and Wangaratta’s streets are busier than normal on this Show-Day Saturday.

The talk is of cattle and sheep, the weather and crops, and of today’s big game – the Ovens and Murray Grand Final.
Standing outside his Reid Street surgery, a young dentist, Dr.Kelly, acknowledges the good wishes of the passers-by, as his own thoughts wander towards Wangaratta’s encounter with Hume Weir this afternoon………………
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Luck’s a fortune. Sixty-six years later, I discovered that the same ‘Doc’ Kelly was still a practicing dentist. Having read of the exciting football era of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, and with a keen eye for a good yarn, I popped over and knocked on the door of his Yarrawonga home. I was met by a lively 90 year-old with, I soon discovered, a memory like a steel-trap. He was eager to share the memories of the greatest day of his football life……….
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On display in his lounge-room is the 1925 team photo. Pinned to it is a newspaper article proclaiming this side to be the best ever assembled in country Victoria. He begins to dissect the team.
Born in the Yarrawonga area, James John Kelly chose Wangaratta as his first business venture after leaving university. He was quickly seconded into the local side when it was discovered that he had above-average football ability.IMG_3210
Wangaratta had been runners-up to St.Patrick’s for the past three years. But, through a stroke of luck, the Postal Department were putting new lines throughout the district and many jobs were created. It helped your employment prospects a fair bit if you happened to be a good footballer.
And so they came, from near and far. ‘The Doc’ could pick out 11of the 20 who found work in this fashion:

“Now this was a big, strong side; hardly had a weak link,” he tells me, providing a little resume’ of each player in the photo:
“This fellow came from out at the junction…… Emmett Maguire was his name. He only played in 1925 – captained NSW in later years……That’s Dinny Kelleher; they had him at half forward……There’s his brother Dan, up the other end. They came from Badaginnie …..Good players. I thought Dan was better, but Dinny went down and played with Carlton and South Melbourne.  Another of our players, Alan Skehan, joined him at Carlton at the same time”IMG_3212
“That’s Martin Moloney – they had a butcher shop in Wang, just near my practice…….Jack Hoare came from Tungamah.  Jack skittled me accidentally one day. He lined someone up and hit me. I was a sick man for the rest of the day. He later played with Melbourne. How he got there I do not know.”
The ‘Doc’ digressed to tell me a tale which indicates how football could open doors, even in those days: “There was a star player who trained with us, then went up to the Weir looking for work. He said: ‘I’ll play footy for you, but I don’t want to work.’
“ ‘You won’t have to work,’ he was told. ‘What you’ve gotta do is put a shovel or an axe over your shoulder. Just look like you’re working.’ “

“I asked them a couple of months later how ‘so and so’ was going. ‘Oh, no bloody good. He was too lazy to carry the shovel. He spent all day sitting behind a post reading the paper and wondered why they gave him the sack !’ ”
Percy Rowe, who had led Albury in 1924, was recruited to coach this array of talent. ‘Oily’, who had been a member of some good Collingwood teams, went back later on, in fact, to play in another two premierships with the ‘Woods.
“Percy Rowe was a big fellah. The worst kick I ever saw in my life. He couldn’t kick you in the guts if you were lying down,” the ‘Doc’ joked . “But he dominated the ruck. He got good money to coach in those days. Ten quid a week and accomodation for him and his wife at the Council Club.IMG_3203
He was a carpenter by trade. Quite a good leader and a lovely chap, Percy.”
Wangaratta went into the Grand Final as hot favourites.

They were unbeaten, and had won most games by big margins.
But a great opening burst by Hume Weir saw the ‘Pies down by 14 points at the first change. Wang fought back well and at three quarter-time had the game in their keeping. They kicked 10.11 to 7.8 to chalk up the club’s first-ever flag. Percy Rowe, Dinny Kelleher and a young player, ‘Rowdy’ McKenzie, were the stars, according to the papers.
The Magpies returned home in triumph, by train, but ‘Doc’ Kelly says there were no celebrations.photo
“I heard later that someone was looking for me down at the Show that night, but I was safely tucked up in bed. Not like the boys these days.”
“They were good times. I remember we used to get changed in an old shed on the west side of the Showgrounds. There were no showers. We’d go home an have a bath after a game. When we played away we’d catch the train about midday and be dressed, ready to play when we reached our destination…………”
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Wangaratta retained most of their premiership line-up in 1926, and continued to battle with  St.Patrick’s for dominance of the league.
They finished the home and away games in second position, but just before the finals, eight team members lost their jobs because of the termination of the telephone work in the district.
A public meeting was held to try to keep them in Wangaratta, at least until the finals were over, but it had an unsettling effect on the players and led to what became infamously known as the ‘bust-up’.
The Magpies got into the Grand Final easily enough, and met old foes St.Patrick’s, who had the right of challenge as minor premiers, after dropping an earlier final.
The match was played at Corowa, and Wang was annihilated – 18.20 to a paltry 6.9.
The legend grew that certain Wangaratta players laid down; that money changed hands in the Council Club in Grand Final week; that the ‘bust-up’ culminated in a fight on the train, as the team returned from Corowa.
But ‘Doc’ Kelly refused to acknowledge that anything as despicable as a bribe influenced the team’s performance.
“I respected the people in the club too much, to say that anyone was bought off……….What happened has gone through my mind many, many times over the years……I asked myself: Did they train, those fellows who were working out of town. Yes, I blame our inability to get together and train, as the reason for our failure.”

“As to the ‘blue’ on the train……it was a Benalla player who clocked one of our supporters and caused an argument………”
I think the ‘Doc’ preferred to leave it that. Coach Rowe, prior to his departure from Wangaratta, was emphatic that every player tried his darndest.
The ‘bust-up’ left the Wangaratta Football Club in tatters, as most of the players sought employment elsewhere. They had a huge debt of £132, and repeated efforts to find a coach for 1927 were in vain.
“They came to me, and I said: ‘Oh well, I’ll take it on. I tried to coach, that’s all I can say. I had some blokes who could have run from the North to the South Pole, but weren’t worth a damn as footballers.”
He may have been a little over-critical of himself, as the Club blooded many players. And the administration was happy with his efforts. The Annual Report stated that: ‘……..the team, which was coached by J.J.Kelly, did very well. We have made considerable ground to wipe the debt off. The Club decided on local players instead of highly-paid men from elsewhere. Coach Kelly has given up a lot of time to do the job honorarily……..’
‘Doc’ Kelly decided to retire after that season. Concerned that a football injury could hinder his profession, he maintained an avid interest in the game from the other side of the fence.
He shifted his practice to his home town of Yarrawonga in the early ‘30’s, and remained a keen Pigeon fancier, rarely missing a home game…………….
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Six years or so after our meeting, ‘Doc’ Kelly passed away. He had continued with his mechanical dentistry work until well into his nineties. His son, who had rarely heard him discuss his footy career, treasured the insight that it gave into his younger days…………….IMG_3208

THE IRON-MAN

photoI don’t blame you if the name, Percival Henry Rowe doesn’t ring a bell.

After all, his sporting exploits were performed between 80 and 95 years ago. He became a football legend and his achievements during a brief stay in Wangaratta were to go down in posterity.

Colloquially known as ‘Oily’, he was targeted by the Wangaratta Football Club, who were seeking a strong leader. The type who could mould a side capable of winning the town’s first Ovens and Murray premiership.

He was to deliver the goods with spectacular effect.

Let’s delve back to the beginning of the ‘Oily’ Rowe story …………

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Born in 1896, he was a native of Rutherglen and one of 11 siblings. When he left school he trained as a blacksmith and became prominent in the gold-mining town for his feats as an outstanding sportsman.

Standing just over six foot tall and with a powerful frame, he excelled at boxing, cricket and football. He boxed as a heavyweight and took all before him in the North-East. It was suggested that he would more than hold his own in main events at Melbourne’s ‘House of Stoush’.

He played football, firstly with Christmastown and then with Rutherglen’s other O & M club, Lake Rovers, before being enticed to Melbourne because of his cricket prowess.

A left-arm fast bowler, he impressed Test player Jack Ryder, who lured him to Collingwood’s District team.

But he found his allegiances swaying towards football and in 1920, at the ripe old age of 24, won a place on Collingwood’s senior list.

He was an overnight success and became respected throughout League football for the way he protected his smaller team-mates.

“He is a fine specimen and is now one of the top-notchers in the following division”, one newspaper commented. “I do not think there are many more accomplished followers in this state than Rowe.”

Percy was held in such high esteem that he was appointed captain of the Magpies in 1923, after three years with the Club. But he resigned from the post after three games.

The official version was that he felt the role was affecting his form. That may have been partly true, but his wife also had a say in the decision, as she didn’t appreciate that the extra commitments were keeping him away from home.

He enjoyed another brilliant season, representing Victoria for the third successive season and earning plaudits for his capacity to absorb physical punishment, and for his selfless contribution to the team.

But he stunned Collingwood by leaving to coach Albury in 1924.

As a reigning state player and a household name, he was a great catch for the O & M league.

Despite his prowess, Albury had a poor season and he was receptive to approaches from Wangaratta. He accepted their offer of 10 pounds per week to coach, free accommodation for he and his wife at the Council Club Hotel,  and work as a carpenter.

Wang had been runners-up to St.Patrick’s for three successive seasons and saw in the imposing big man  the qualities of leadership that they believed would whip a star-studded line-up into a cohesive unit.

‘Oily’ Rowe made all the difference.

He didn’t drink, smoke, gamble or swear and was the ultimate gentleman. His quiet manner  contrasted with his fearsome appearance on the field,and he became a revered figure in the town. He was tough and insisted on discipline, but had the respect of the players.

The group had come from near and far, as the Postal Department was installing new lines throughout the district and many jobs had been created. It helped your employment prospects quite a bit if you happened to be a handy footballer.

The majority of Rowe’s team found work in this fashion.

His predecessor as coach, Matt O’Donohue, had stayed on as a player and combined with ‘Oily’ to form a lethal combination.

Time and again Rowe would palm the ball out to O’Donohue and Wangaratta would stream goalwards.

Wang went into the Grand Final as hot favourites. They were unbeaten and won most games by big margins. But a great opening burst by Hume Weir saw the ‘Pies down by 14 points at the first change..

They fought back well, and at three-quarter time had the game in their keeping. They went on to win, 10.11 to 7.8

Rowe dominated in the ruck, as he had done all season. In recognition of his efforts, he was presented with an illuminated address by the Club.

In part it said: “……….this magnificent result was in large measure due to the finished, systematic teamwork, aided by the cohesion, unselfishness and understanding which you were able to impart to the players.

“Your irreproachable conduct on and off the field has won for you the respect of the citizens of this town”…..

Wangaratta retained most of their premiership team in 1926 and finished the home and away games in second position.

But just before the finals, eight members of the team lost their jobs as Postal linesmen. A Public meeting was held to try to keep them around, at least until the finals were over, but it seemed to have an unsettling effect on the players.

They reached the Grand Final, against old foes St.Patrick’s, but were annihilated -18.20 to 6.9.

The myth grew over the years that certain Magpie players ‘laid down’; that money changed hands in the Council Club in the week preceding the game; and that a bust-up culminated in a ‘blue’ on the train which carried the team home from the game at Corowa.

But Percy Rowe dispelled these rumours in an emotional letter to the Chronicle a fortnight or so later, on his departure from the town.

“I would like to say that I am very disappointed at the unfair criticism levelled at some of our players”, he wrote.

“I wish to assure the Wangaratta public that I have full confidence that every man in the team did his best to win the premiership. It was not our day.”

Rowe returned to Collingwood in 1927 to resume his status as the club’s number one ruckman and strongman.

He played in the premiership team that year and went out of League football in style with a Herculean performance in the 1928 Grand Final, fondly remembered as ‘Rowe’s Premiership’.

Percy enhanced his coaching reputation with four flags in six years at Northcote (1929-34), then rounded out his career with stints as non-playing coach at Fitzroy (1935), Carlton (1937) and Coburg (1945-46).

But that glorious year at Wangaratta remained high on the list of achievements of one of the O &M’s finest products.photo