‘JIMMY DEANE – SUPERSTAR…….’

It was a Golden Era of Ovens and Murray football……….when every club boasted a genuine superstar…….

Greats of the calibre of Bob Rose, Billy Stephen, Jack Jones, Des Healy, Don Ross, Fred Goldsmith and Len Fitzgerald, all still in their prime, were lured by the attractive money on offer – and the opportunity to dabble in coaching – in the best country League around.

Their line-ups also included some players who could have easily walked into VFL sides.

I still have visions of the tentacle-like arms of curly-haired Fitzgerald soaring above the pack to pull down screamers at the Benalla Showgrounds; the ex-Essendon star Jones controlling things like a traffic-cop at centre half forward for Albury; the elusive Healy dodging, weaving, pirouetting, and leaving opponents stranded.

Those Wodonga-Wang Rovers clashes of the late-fifties/early-sixties, when Healy tangled with his great friend, and former Collingwood team-mate, Bob Rose, were mouth-watering affairs.

And if you felt disposed to take a spin up the Ovens Highway, you could catch a glimpse of one of the finest mid-fielders in the nation.

His name was Jim Deane……..

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Old Saints swear by Jimmy. They rave about his sublime skills; the knack of being able to read the play; hardly appearing to shift out of first gear, yet rarely being caught.

And his spear-like left-foot passing, which made life easy for those upfield.

Sounds like a modern-day Scott Pendlebury, doesn’t it ?

Mick Flecknoe, who played at full forward, and was the recipient of some ‘silver service’ from his coach, is lavish in his praise.

“He was a rare player, a charismatic leader- and a quality bloke,” Mick says.

So I went searching for the legend of Jimmy Deane………

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Strange as it may sound, he was the grandson of an Afghan cameleer – an expert camel-handler who worked around the northern reaches of South Australia in the early twentieth century and helped to build the railway connection between Adelaide and Alice Springs.

When Jim’s dad Les – a wharfie – married his mum he anglicised his name from Zaberdeen to Deane.

Young Jim honed his football skills in the back streets of Adelaide’s East End. The country was just emerging from the Great Depression and his heroes stripped for his neighbourhood club, South Adelaide, which enjoyed considerable success during the thirties.

He was just 17 when he debuted for South, mid-way through 1945. But his arrival in senior ranks coincided with a downturn in the club’s fortunes. In spite of the brilliance he displayed in his 157-games with them he was unable to lift the Panthers into the finals.

Even the responsibility of being lumbered with the job as captain-coach at the tender age of 23, failed to dim his brilliance.

Jimmy was to prove the most famous post-war name in the history of the club that idolised him.

He took out the SANFL’s top gong, the Magarey Medal, in 1953 and 1957, and finished runner-up three times; won six South Adelaide B & F’s and represented South Australia in 15 interstate games.

In between, he was lured over the border and spent two seasons – 1954 and ’55 – with Richmond.

Towards the end of 1955 he was offered the coaching position with the Tigers.

“But there were so many lads born and bred in the Richmond district and some of these fellows were champions. When the news got out it was all over the newspapers and I could sense a bit of animosity among the players,” he once said.

“So I decided to head back home to finish off my career.”

He resisted an approach to cross over to Port Adelaide as coach, but two seasons later Myrtleford came knocking with an offer he couldn’t refuse and the Deane family moved over to the hill country.

“I’d heard so much about the League. It was Bob Rose, I think, who said that a representative O & M team would defeat a South Australian state team.”

Jim’s coaching philosophy was simple. “I’m not a coach who expects players to go out and knock opponents over. All I want is for them to go out and attack that football and get it down to our guys up forward.”

Myrtleford found him a job with Heberle’s Furnishings, but half-way through the first year he took over a shoe store in town and operated it for the remainder of his stay.

“There was a great atmosphere at Myrtleford and they had a good and loyal following of supporters. They were some of my happiest years in football,” he recalled.

The Saints had only been in the O & M for eight years when Jimmy arrived in 1958. But they had been able to cultivate plenty of talent and remained competitive.

In a four or five-year period George Barton (Hawthorn), Len Cotterell (Carlton) and Jack Cooper (Hawthorn) had sampled League footy and returned. Mick Flecknoe, another lad from the area, had also planted his roots in Myrtleford after a fine career with East Perth.

Additionally, Frank Hodgkin (St.Kilda), Clem Goonan (South Melbourne), Dennis Smith (Richmond) and Bill O’Kane (Fitzroy) all played under Jim and went on to make their VFL debuts.

They would have been inspired by the form of their leader, who proved a ball magnet and took out the Morris Medal in his first season (sharing it with Bob Rose).

Two years later, they narrowly snuck into the Four and rated themselves a good chance of venturing deep into the finals.

The First Semi, against defending premiers Yarrawonga at Benalla, had particular significance for Jim, as it was to be the first senior Final he had played in 15 years.

And what a game it turned out to be !

The Saints led by 21 points at three-quarter time and seemingly had the game in hand. But, in a trice, the pendulum swung. The Pigeons, with all the momentum, led by three points with just seconds remaining in the game.

Again the Saints attacked and Wally Hodgkin marked 45 yards out, just on the siren. Jim replayed those final, harrowing moments, many years later:

“It was a pretty good kick for goal, but there was some controversy as to whether it was touched before it went through,” he said.

“All the Myrtleford players thought it was a goal, but the umpire deemed it a point and we’d lost the match. The funny thing was that, before the match a few of the wealthy tobacco growers had given a donation to the players as a thank you for our efforts during the season .”

“We’d decided to back ourselves, because we were so confident of winning. But the Yarrawonga people give us our money back because of that disputed goal. It was a great act of sportsmanship.”………..

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Jim picked up his second Morris Medal in 1961, and was still playing outstanding football when he and his family decided to head home at the end of the 1962 season.

The Premiership success that had eluded him finally came his way at Port Pirie, with whom he shared a hat-trick of flags. He then concluded his colourful playing career with another premiership at Spencer Gulf League club Proprietary, at the age of 39.

South Adelaide lured him back as non-playing coach in 1970, but he only remained in the role for two seasons, opting instead, to become the ‘voice of South Australian football’, as a renowned ABC commentator, for more than 20 years.

This, and his reputation as a well-known hotelier, kept Jimmy very much in the public eye and he remained a highly popular figure.

Jim Deane passed away in 2010. His contribution to the game was officially recognised when he was inducted into the South Australian Football Hall of Fame.

South Adelaide’s historian, John Althorp, produced a biography of his club’s icon in 2014 – titled “The Larrikin – The Jim Deane Story’.

But his five years as a champion player and much-loved captain-coach of Myrtleford will also never be forgotten by those who sampled his on-field magic and endearing nature…………