‘ A HARD-MAN…… ON AND OFF THE FIELD…….’

Ray Burns was one of those larger-than-life characters of my growing-up years.

As a recently-arrived member of the constabulary, he soon earned the respect of the town’s miscreants and scallywags; maintaining decorum by dispensing the old-fashioned form of justice – a decent, well-directed toe up the arse……..

Accentuating his reputation as a ‘hard-man’ was a flattened nose, spread generously across his ‘lived-in’ dial….. giving rise to a rumour that he’d once been a Golden Gloves contender.

He’s from an era when country football clubs eagerly anticipated the annual influx of bank-clerks, school-teachers and policemen to their municipalities. They would pray that, amongst those who migrated, they might be fortunate enough to snavel a ready-made star or two.

That’s what happened in late-1957, when ‘Burnsy’ made Wangaratta his home…………..

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He was just 16 when he left Shepparton and headed to the ‘big smoke’ to pursue his boyhood dreams.

Just as his brother Ted saw his destiny lying in the priesthood, Ray had his heart set on becoming a cop……and a star footballer.

But firstly, he had to ‘mark time’. He spent two years with the Railways before being accepted into the Police Academy.

By now he was well-entrenched at Richmond, where he’d had two years with the Third Eighteen, and was acquitting himself capably in the Two’s.

After playing a starring role in a Reserves Prelim Final in 1956, in which he received the plaudits of old Tigers for his three goals, a stint of National Service the following year took a decent slice out of his season.

Upon graduating from the Academy, and reaching the conclusion that League football was probably beyond his reach, he accepted his first transfer………

“The clubs came knocking, but there was no doubt where I was going to sign; I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play under Bob Rose,” he recalls.

“It was sensational….They were the Golden Years of Country footy……..I loved regaling my kids with the stories of climbing on the train to go to the Grand Finals in Albury.”IMG_4242

“When we came back, victorious, we were greeted at the Railway Station by hundreds of Rovers fans, and the Town Band, which escorted us down to the Ground for the celebrations. Talk about being big frogs in a small puddle !……..”

Bob Rose loved Burnsy’s’ toughness and redoubtable spirit . And besides, the Hawk ‘protector’ regularly produced on the big occasions.

He was a key contributor in the club’s first flag – a 49-point win over Des Healy’s Wodonga in 1958. When the sides squared off two years later, he was best-afield, as the Rovers prevailed in a tight contest.

Casting his mind back to the closing stages of the 1959 Grand Final against Yarrawonga, though, still produces a lump in his throat.

It’s raved about as one of the finest O & M Grand Finals of all time. Here’s how it unfolded :

The Pigeons, pursuing their maiden premiership, scarp out to a 39-point lead in the third quarter.

But the Hawks produce 20 minutes of champagne football, to boot seven goals in 20 minutes, and take a 3-point lead into the three-quarter time break.

The lead changes six times in a pulsating final term. With the clock counting down, and the Rovers attacking,  Max Newth takes possession near centre half forward, fumbles, then, with a deft flick-pass, unloads to the running Burns.

From 50 metres, he promptly slots it through the big sticks to regain the lead for his side.

But seemingly from acres away, the shrill sound of umpire Harry Beitzel’s whistle sends a hush through the 12,000-strong crowd. He adjudicates Newth’s  pass as a throw, much to the dismay of Newth, Burns and the rabid Rovers fans.

Yarra take the resultant free kick and the giant, Alf O’Connor, becomes a hero when he slots a major from the pocket just before the siren, to see the Pigeons home……….

“That was a travesty,” Ray says. “There’s no doubt the pass was legitimate, but old Harry pulled the wrong rein. I still replay that incident, 60 years later.”

Bob Rose usually handed Burns the task of tailing Yarra’s tough-nut Lionel Ryan when the sides met. The fiery red-head was a fearsome opponent. When the pair tangled it was akin to two gnarled, feisty old bulls going at each other.IMG_4243

“I picked him up again in this game, but Billy Stephen rung some changes when they were under siege. He shifted Lionel into the centre early in the last quarter.”

“I said to Rosey: ‘Do you want me to go with him ?’……’Nah, it’ll be right,’ he replied. I’d been ‘blueing’ with him all day. As it turned out, Lionel became a big factor in them getting back into the game. But that’s footy……”

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After a magical three years with the Rovers, Ray was by now married to Judy ( ‘the best-looking girl in town’ ) and, having purchased a house in Swan Street, decided to try his hand at coaching.

Moyhu snapped him up. After reaching the Prelim Final in 1961, the Hoppers were all-conquering the following year, and went through the season undefeated. One of his prize recruits was a future O & M legend, Neville Hogan, who dominated the mid-field.IMG_4248

At season’s end, Ray received letters from two clubs – St.Arnaud and Nhill, sussing out his coaching availability.

“Wheat was big in the West in those days,” he recalls. “I’ll never forget this; a fellah called Ray Youthmire was showing me around the club’s facilities. Nhill had never won a Wimmera League premiership. He said: ‘If you take us to the flag, I’ll personally buy you a new Holden car.’ “

“That was irresistible. I told Moyhu I was keen to put in for it,  but instead of thanking me for keeping them in the loop, they sacked me !”

“I went ahead and accepted the job, subject to getting a transfer in the Force. But the cop who was leaving the Nhill police station changed his mind, and my transfer fell through.”

“To rub salt into the wound, Nhill won two of the next three flags, but luckily for me,  Brien Stone, the President of Tarrawingee offered me their job.”

It had been ten years since the Bulldogs’ last premiership, but they set the pace for most of 1963. The Grand Final was a gripping affair, and they just staved off a defiant Moyhu, to win 7.18 (60) to 9.5 (59).IMG_4250

Tarra again triumphed in 1964, this time against a Greta side which was on the rise. The following year, Greta, despite kicking just five goals in another nail-biter, were able to pip Tarra – who kicked 4.15 – by two points.

One of the highlights of his last year as coach was nurturing an overweight, easy-going kid called Michael Nolan, who was to rise to the heights of VFL football.

“I was close to buggered by now, and handed over the reins to Neil Corrigan. I thought it would be best to spend a year just concentrating on playing.”

And that was it for Burnsy – or so he thought.

The Rovers were keen for him to act as a guiding-hand for their youngsters, and appointed him Reserves coach in 1967. But on finals-eve, with injuries mounting, they thrust him back into the senior line-up.

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Ray Burns ‘flies the flag.l

A broken leg to coach Ian Brewer in the second quarter of the Grand Final placed the self-confessed ‘broken-down hack’ in an invidious position. He was now the on-field leader.

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Ray Burns receives instructions from Rovers’ injured coach Ian Brewer during the 1967 Grand Final

He threw his weight around, and was involved in a big dust-up in the third quarter. “I was lying on the ground after it, when a New South Wales copper came onto the ground and said: ‘If you don’t behave yourself, I’ll lock you up’. I don’t know how he came to that conclusion. I finished with the free kick……”

The Rovers were eventually overpowered by Wodonga, and Burnsy promptly hung up the boots.

After 13 years in the Police Force, he embarked on a new career, as the licensee of the London Family Hotel.

Situated opposite the wharves in Port Melbourne, it was a ‘7am to 7pm’ pub, and favoured watering-hole of Wharfies, Painters and Dockers and ‘colourful identities’.

“It was an interesting place, that’s for sure……And talk about busy ! We averaged 50 barrels a week.”

Controversial Dockers such as ‘Putty-Nose’ Nicholls, Pat Shannon, Billy ‘The Texan’ Longley, ‘The Fox’ Morris and ‘Ferret’ Nelson were numbered among his clientele. ‘The Ferret’ finished up wearing ‘cement boots’, and another notorious figure met his end after being gunned down outside the pub.

“We were there for a touch over ten years and although I was on good terms with the wharfies,  I did the ‘modern waltz’ quite a few times, with some of the local ‘intelligentzia’. And my head was used for a football on more than one occasion………They sure kept me on my toes.”

Ray went on to spend some time as a rep for Carlton & United Breweries, ran Wangaratta’s Railway Hotel for three years, then moved the family to Adelaide, where he operated the Half-Way-Hotel, a busy establishment with 40 poker machines and a thriving bar trade.

After a hectic 11 years, they sold out and he and Judy decided to put their feet up. They retired to his old home town of Shepparton, where Ray admits they’re now doing life ‘on the bit’. They spend a fair bit of time these days keeping tabs on their six kids ( Di, Mick, Karen, Paul, Shane and Mark ), and 14 grandkids.

He’s been doing volunteer work for many years with a few old mates, mowing the lawns and tending the gardens of Ave Maria Hostel.

” I’d always reckoned there were two jobs that’d really suit me. One was holding up the Stop/Go sign  for the CRB.  I never achieved that ambition, but I’ve been able to tick off  on the other one – driving a Ride-On Mower !………….”IMG_4247

‘VETERAN’S MOMENT IN THE SUN…..’

He’s the first person you’ll encounter when you enter the gates of the Findlay Oval for a Rovers home game……..A weather-beaten old-stager with a string of one-liners, and a sharp wit, which has been known to cut the heftiest of egos down to size………..

Up-and-coming Thirds players and gnarled, long-time supporters alike, know him as ‘Bully. He’s one of those unique personalities who are an essential ingredient of any football club……..100_3470

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Noel Wise is the first to admit that the good Lord didn’t over-endow him with sporting genes. Toughness and determination were his prime assets, he says….

The nickname stems back to when he was a youngster, working out of town with the Railways, and returning home for footy on week-ends. His eating, drinking and training habits were a bit askew, with the result that he ‘blew out’ to beyond 15 stone. His coach, Noel Richens muttered one day: ‘Have a look at him running, will ya, he looks like a bloody big bull.”

‘Bully’ takes me back to his growing-up days in Rutherglen. He says he had an intense dislike of school, but didn’t envision his career at Rutherglen High coming to such an abrupt, and ignominious conclusion.

“What happened ?” I ask. “Well, there were three or four of us mucking around, up the back of the classroom one day. The teacher produced a wooden ruler and whacked me across the ear. I took exception; grabbed him by the tie, and snotted him. That was it. I was out.”

He got a job walking greyhounds with one of the North-East’s leading trainers – ‘Nugget’ Martell . “He had about 50-odd dogs in work, and it kept me fit. I enjoyed it.”

As part of his job he had to drive ‘Nugget’s old ute to collect pig gut from the abattoirs and cook it up for dog-feed. The local cop, who he was on speaking terms with, questioned whether he had a licence. “Nah, I don’t need to worry, do I ?” said ‘Bully’. “You better …. Listen, bring 10 bob into the station in the morning, and I’ll give you one.”

He was walking the dogs past Barkly Park one Saturday, and peeked through a hole in the corrugated iron fence. “The Rovers were playing Rutherglen, and Bobby Rose was in full flight. It must have been one of his first games in Brown and Gold. He won me over. The Hawks became my club.”

‘Bully’ stayed on in Rutherglen for a couple of years, whilst the rest of the family – parents Bob and Dorrie and five siblings moved to Wangaratta. They’d become dyed-in-the-wool Magpie fans by the time he re-located.IMG_3711

“Gee they were staunch. Mum and Dad, my sister Lorraine and her husband Cliff all became Life Members; Graeme, my brother, was secretary for a few years…….They lived for Wang. They had no hope of winning me over, though.”

Instead, he headed out to Tarrawingee for a game. He’d started to track a young girl – Glenda Sheppard – who played netball for the Bullies, and whose parents Norm and Joan, had run the lolly-stall at home matches for ever and a day.

Glenda says she’s never liked football, and thinks the way Noel played the game turned her off it. “He was too rough,” she says.

She recalls playing netball up at King Valley, when one of the girls glanced across at the footy, and commented: “Did you see that.” I said: “Thank goodness Noel’s not in it.” “Well, he was the instigator,” was the reply.

I quiz the man in question about his memories of that occasion. “Yeah. Gary Holmes (Valley coach) told me he’d flatten me before the end of the game, and I decided I’d better get in first.”

That was just one of the incidents that resulted in ‘Bully’ being on first-name terms with the O & K Tribunal members. He went up about six or seven times, he says. His worst offence ?….Seven weeks for smacking King Valley’s Malcolm Kendall.

“Old Jack Foletti, the Chairman, said to me after I’d been up a few times: ‘You’re mad pleading not guilty, Noel. We know you did it. So I changed tack and pleaded ‘guilty under provocation’. Would you believe, I got off.”

‘Bully’ was at Tarra during some good times. Of the 280-odd games he played, 180 were in the Seniors. But no doubt the highlight came in 1964.

One of football’s enforcers, Ray Burns, had taken over the coaching job the previous year and had guided them to a one-point victory over his old team, Moyhu.

In the ‘64 decider they squared off against Greta in wet conditions at Whorouly. Burns lined up in the ruck, with the burly Wise as his ruck-rover side-kick. In what was probably the game of his life, ‘Bully’ was a star, alongside Burns, Roly Marklew and the elusive goal-sneak Dickie Grant, in the ‘Dogs’ 16-point triumph.IMG_3715

Another one of the Wise attributes was stamina. He could run all day, as was evidenced when he and a Bulldog team-mate, Johnny Carpenter, picked up a side-wager of 20 pounds for running from Tarra to Wangaratta in a set time. ‘Bully’ also points out a paper cutting of him leading the field of 70 into Wangaratta on a 25-mile charity run from Benalla, back in 1968.

His spell with the Railways was followed by an 18-year stint at Cohns, then his final – and probably best-known role – as the Manager of the Town Hall, for almost two decades.

He virtually played footy until he dropped. Just in case he was having second-thoughts, Glenda threw away his Gladstone Bag – complete with boots, guernsey and jock-strap –   during a clean-out.

So ‘Bully’ became a fixture at the Bar end of the Hogan Stand, urging on the Hawks and acting as the principal protagonist of the umpires.

He admits that he was pretty severe on the men-in-white at times, but “I was only trying to be helpful……….”

He played Bowls at Milawa in his latter years, but his main summer sport had been tennis, firstly out at Tarrawingee in the Ovens & King comp, then on to Wangaratta’s Lawn courts. He proved a popular figure at Merriwa Park, and a more than handy player.

Eventually, they coaxed him into travelling down to play at Country Week, on the makeshift – but beautifully-cultivated – courts of Albert Park and St.Kilda.

‘Bully’ revelled in the social atmosphere and established strong friendships with a host of opposition players – despite his fierce competitive streak.

It was an achievement to saddle up each day, because after-tennis drinks could sometimes stretch to 3 or 3.30am. The alarm was often raised for the veteran, when he went missing in the early hours. It was panic stations in one instance, before he was discovered, sound asleep in a bath tub.IMG_3712

The notoriously-short Wise fuse blew one day, when he sensed his opponent making several touchy line calls against him. He took it out on the racquet, and slammed it onto the court, with dire consequences – and a hasty call for a replacement. Team-mates nervously pondered whether it, too, may suffer the same fate.

“Lucky I knew this bastard’s family, because I was about to wrap the thing around his bloody neck,” ‘Bully’ was heard to say………….
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He eventually acceded to a request to man the gate at Rovers home games. He’s been in the job for nigh-on twenty years, and is so well-known that he has a word for everyone – whether it be advice, cheek or a back-handed compliment. If you were handing out gongs for gate-keepers, he’d be the Gold Medallist.100_3448

He was out of action for a few weeks this season, when his gall bladder played up. There were fears that his health, which had also been hindered by a stroke five years ago, might lead to his retirement. But he was back in full swing, after missing two matches.

The bane of his life are the numerous passes that are flashed at him by opposition players, supporters and officials.

If he’s in doubt, he’ll take the piece of paraphernalia in his grasp, fondle it suspiciously, sometimes quiz the holder as to how it came to be in their possession, then finally, having conducted the inquisition, hand it back.

I’ve seen him stand up O & M Board Members, or local celebrities who have attempted to brush past him, but my favourite occurred at a game this year, when a member of the constabulary parked his van on the nature strip and wandered through.

“Hoi,” barked ‘Bully’, “…What are you doing parkin’ there. We take a bit of pride in that lawn…….If one of us did that you’d book us…..You know better than that….”

The ‘offender’ looked back, startled, but didn’t realise the mickey was being taken out of him……..

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Noel Wise’s service to the Hawks was rewarded a few weeks ago when a Life Membership was conferred upon him.IMG_3709

He was suitably chuffed and, for a brief moment, lost for words. When he gathered his equilibrium, he then delivered some pearls of wisdom to a captive audience………………IMG_3708