‘JOVIAL JACK FERGIE……’

Sporting careers flash by in the flick of an eye.

It’s easy to empathise with today’s athletes, who have parked their ambitions on hold whilst the world deals with the threat of coronavirus. I know there are more important things to contemplate , but there’s a distinct possibility that the crisis could rob a young footballer of a full year of his sporting life.

It got me wondering how hard done by were the lads who, in their prime, ran headlong into either of the World Wars……….

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My dad, for instance, never privately whinged about sacrificing five crucial years whilst dealing with the threat of the pesky Japanese…….. Nor did a couple of his team-mates, who settled back into civilian life and played their part in helping Wangaratta snatch the 1946 O & M premiership.

One of those was Jack Ferguson.

Many of my vintage can remember jovial Jack as the ‘Voice of the North-East’; 3NE’s first football commentator, who did his best to enliven the dullest of games during the fifties and sixties.

This, of course, followed a footy career which spanned 17 years and earned him a reputation as one of the League’s finest-ever full backs……….

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Apart from the time he spent away at War, Jack never deviated far from Wangaratta.

Floodwaters, which would sometimes break the banks of the Ovens River and threaten residents of Wilson Road, never tempered his love of the area. He was raised at number 30, and when he married the love of his life, Esme, they moved in next door, to number 28.

He was 17 when he received an invitation to train with Wangaratta…….It was 1936; the country was still struggling to wriggle free of the crippling Depression, and there was no greater honour for a local youngster than to wear the Black and White of the Mighty ‘Pies.

But he declined at first, surmising that he was a touch immature and light – and would surely struggle for a game.

Instead, he considered O & K club Waratahs a better fit, but was taken aback by their lack of interest. He decided there was no other option than to return to the Showgrounds.

Six months later, he was lining up on a wing in a Grand Final, alongside long-time champs Fred and Bert Carey, Charlie Heavey, Alec Fraser and ‘Shady’ James.

There was nothing in that game at half-time, with Rutherglen holding a seven-point lead. The Magpies booted six goals to one in a dominant third quarter, to take control. The Redlegs defended stoutly in the final term, but were unable to rein in the opposition’s dominant forwards.

A comfortable margin of 20 points separated the sides, as Wangaratta swept to their third flag.

The side’s long-term full back, Stan Bennett, retired not long after, and the lean, wiry Ferguson stepped into the position.

Jobs weren’t readily available when Jack left Wangaratta High School. He found initial employment in a shoe shop, then dabbled in a couple of part-time jobs before being offered a position with Norm Nunn’s Shoes in Murphy Street.

He dropped all that to serve in New Guinea and Bougainville with the 58/59 Division. His colleagues included a host of like-minded young fellahs who took their minds off the solemnity of the battle being waged by playing scratch games of football.

They levelled out a stretch of open ground with a bulldozer, scraped the dirt into shape and placed jagged-looking tree saplings at either end, to act as goal-posts. In their mind’s-eye it could well have been the MCG.

Some pretty fair players strutted their stuff. A handful had already made their mark in VFL football; others were stars in their own right. The games were of a good standard, and highly-competitive, and Jack used to say he played some of his best football in these surroundings……….

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He walked straight back into Norm Nunn’s on the completion of his Army duties, and was to remain there for the remainder of his working life, taking over the business in 1961.

His outgoing personality ensured that Jack Ferguson Shoes would remain successful. You’d walk into the store and be greeted by wise-cracking and laughter.

One of his employees for several years was a long-time mate and fellow Magpie, Doug Ferguson ( no relation ). Both were bubbly, happy fellahs who, besides having the ‘gift of the gab’, were able to extract your money with a minimum of fuss…….

The appointment of South Melbourne champ Laurie Nash as playing-coach was the first move made by Wangaratta to resuscitate the Club, as the the post-war era kicked off.

Jack Ferguson was appointed his vice-captain.

Although the ‘Great L.J’ was nearing the end of his brilliant career, he was still an inspirational figure, and finished fourth in the 1946 Morris Medal.

He tore a leg muscle in the early stages of the Grand Final in which Wang had been rated warm favourites. It was to develop into a classic encounter.

Both defences were on top in the first half, as Albury went in with a slender 1-goal lead. Ferguson had come under particular notice for his superb play in repelling the Tigers at full back.

Albury still held sway by 5 points at lemon-time, but Wang’s key forwards, Nash and Ernie Ward, became a real factor in the final term.

The ‘Pies eventually prevailed by five points in a heart-stopping affair.

Their premiership celebrations no doubt hindered preparations for the ‘Challenge Match’ they played against Nash’s old side, South Melbourne, on the Showgrounds the following Saturday. The Swans cleaned up – 13.26 to 3.8.

Ferguson’s outstanding season was rewarded with the club Best & Fairest. He continued to play consistent football under Tom Tribe’s coaching over the next two seasons, but when the Pies bombed out of the finals in straight-sets in 1948, the ‘Holten Era’ was ushered in.

Jack Ferguson, like most of his ilk, was a fervent Holten disciple, as well as being his vice-captain. He believed the players were instructed to have such a focus on ‘team’, and were so well-drilled in the play-on game, that they changed the face of O & M football.

The pair became great friends and were to share starring roles in the next three Ovens and Murray flags. Ferguson was named best afield in the 1949 triumph, but always claimed the 1951 line-up was the best of the famed ‘Four-in-a-row.’

Jack lowered his colours to an old rival, North Albury’s Norm Benstead, in the 1950 decider.

Benstead snagged seven of the Hoppers’ ten majors in their 11.20 to 10.10 defeat. It was the last of his goals which caused considerable discussion, particularly among the punting fraternity.

The North champ outmarked Ferguson just as the final siren sounded. He had hoped to keep the ball as a souvenir and, pushing it up his jumper, began to walk from the field.

The umpire requested that he return and take his shot for goal, which resulted in full points, reducing the margin to 16 points.

Many losing punters had backed Wangaratta to win by 3 goals or more, and argued that when Benstead began to walk from the ground it constituted ‘Play-On’ and the shot shouldn’t have been allowed.

It meant little to Jack Ferguson and his mates. They’d already commenced their celebrations.

Jack retired after the 1951 Grand Final, and was lauded for a sterling 160-game career with Wangaratta, which had been spiced with five premierships and rewarded with Life Membership.

Two years later, though, he again pulled on the boots when an old team-mate Kevin French talked him into spending a season under his coaching at Tarrawingee. The ‘Dogs duly saluted with their first-ever flag, in a 43-point win over Greta.

That’s when Jack was invited to get behind the microphone. He didn’t need much prompting, as it was a way to stay involved and, after all, he’d never been short of a word.

He proved a godsend and his style soon endeared him to the public. There’s no doubt his favourite player was another full back, Wangaratta’s Terry Johnstone.

“….Aaand….Rinso….Johnstone……” was the Ferguson catch-cry, as the acrobatic Magpie full back would float through the air.

The eloquent Ron McGann ( 2AY ) and the excitable Jack Ferguson ( 3NE ) shared the microphone at O & M finals for years, and, in my opinion, have been unsurpassed for accuracy and entertainment-value.

Jovial Jack……..personality, commentator and Wangaratta’s ‘Team Of Legends’ full back, left a lasting football legacy…………

‘STEPPING BACK IN TIME….’

“Everything’s just like it was in ’69………It looks like you have stepped back in time………”

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Jim Comensoli is re-counting the highlight of his sporting career……..

It’s early September 1969, and he has guided Milawa into their first Ovens and King League Grand Final in 13 years. This proud old club hasn’t tasted premiership success since 1940.

They get away to a flier, with two early goals, but Beechworth peg them back. It becomes a nip and tuck affair…….. Just as Milawa look to be assuming control in the final term, the Bombers nail two goals in as many minutes.

The Demons’ wayward kicking threatens to cost them dearly, but they hang on in the dying stages of an engrossing clash to clinch the flag by 16 points………….IMG_4299

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They’re holding a shindig out at Milawa this Sunday – a 50-Year Re-Union of that famous side. There’s no doubt that tall tales and true will be spun. Jay will be involved in most of them.

He’s a born raconteur. Get him yapping about his 13-year stint in the O & K and he’ll knock the cobwebs off many of the yarns he collected along the way.

Like the time he was approached to coach Milawa………

“I worked for Les Brown, the builder, who was a dyed-in-the-wool Demon. And Arthur Clarke was a good mate of mine. We were always into each other, so when they came out with: ‘Would you like to coach Milawa ? ‘ I didn’t believe ‘em.”

“I said: ‘You blokes are having me on, aren’t you ?’ When I finally ascertained that, this time, they were fair dinkum I said: ‘I won’t even think about it – Yeah, course I will………”

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The Comensoli’s are a legendary local footy family. Jay’s the youngest of four boys in a tribe of nine kids.

He followed his brother Bob to Junior Magpies, then on to the Wangaratta seniors, where he played 21 games in the ‘ones’, interspersed with a number of Reserves appearances.

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Jay (back row ,left) at Mac Holten’s Footy Clinic. Ian Hayden and Ian Rowland, also in the group, went on to play VFL football.

At 19, he developed itchy feet. “Bill ( eldest brother) was coaching Beechworth at the time and ‘Ab’ ( another brother) was his rover. Wang were keen to get hold of a Beechworth player, Normie Stewart, so they instigated a swap and I headed up to join the boys.”

Jay had a day out in the Bombers’ 1961 Grand Final win. He ‘led beautifully and was rewarded with six goals in a fine performance up forward’ according the the Chronicle scribe.IMG_4300

With Bill controlling the big man duels and Bobby Billman on fire in his forward flank, Beechworth launched a torrid onslaught in the dying stages to overwhelm a tired Greta and prevail by 13 points.

Two years later, he’d been lured to Tarrawingee. Their live-wire President and ace recruiter, Brien Stone, put forward an offer of 2 pounds a game. “I said don’t worry about the two quid. I’ll play provided someone pays my wages if I happen to get injured. Old Brien was rapt in that; even chipped in for a new pair of footy boots.”

The Bulldogs got great value out of their new recruit. Playing mainly across half-forward, Jay helped them to successive flags (1963, ‘64) under the coaching of Ray Burns.IMG_4296

He was vice-captain of Tarra for a fair portion of his 85 games in Red,White and Blue and remembers being on the selection committee when they suggested that a fat kid in the Seconds might be worth giving an opportunity.

“Brien Stone, who was also Chairman of Selectors, wouldn’t have a bar of it…Said we were doing the Club a disservice by playing a kid that unfit and that young ( almost 15 ) who probably wouldn’t amount to anything.”

“So we out-voted him and gave Mick Nolan his first senior game. Brien was a bit ‘put out’ for a while.”

At this stage, Jay’s brother Bill was coaching Milawa, Bob was in his first year in charge of Moyhu, and ‘Ab’ was Glenrowan’s leader.

“I came up against Bob for the first time when we played Moyhu. He’s delivered a perfect right- cross to flatten our rover, Jimmy Grant. I raced in to fly the flag for Jimmy, and said to the umpy: ‘Did you see that ?’ I don’t know whether he did, actually, but he’s booked Bob, who copped two weeks.”

“That year, we played Milawa in the First Semi. I was chasing Rex Allen, and, out of the corner of my eye, caught someone steaming in from the left. I thought: ‘Oh, it’s Bill, he won’t hit me.’ I was wrong, he’s cleaned me up nicely, although I always tell him he woke me from my slumber, as I managed to kick 4 goals after that……..”

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By now, his wife Val had become well-acquainted with the pitfalls of life as a footy ‘widow’. Previously she’d become used to waiting in the car outside the pub while Jay enjoyed a few after-match beers with the boys. But her and the kids were welcomed into the Plough Inn and shared the hospitality of Mary Nolan and the rest of the Tarra people.

“They were a great crowd, Tarra, and it was a bit of a wrench to leave them,” says Jay. But I’d always been keen to coach, and I knew Milawa were a fantastic Club.”

Jay’s appointment was a deviation from the O & K tradition of luring stars from the Ovens and Murray. But the success of he and Greta’s Johnny O’Brien proved that there was no real risk in drawing coaches from within the League.

He succeeded his brother Bill in the role, and harbored the usual self-doubts about how well the playing group would accept him……Particularly considering that the side contained the Club’s three previous coaches – Bill, John Holloway and Rex Allen.

His coaching reign started shakily enough. In his first year (1967) Milawa won just six games and finished seventh. However, a seven-point loss in the ‘68 First-Semi indicated that they were on the right track.

Jay was cleaned up by one of his old foes, Chiltern hard-man Kevin Lappin, in the latter part of that season. A badly broken nose necessitated a hospital visit. The nurses were preparing him for the operation when another patient was admitted.

“Forget about Mr.Comensoli for a while. This patient’s in worse condition,” they said. “At that moment, Kevin Lappin was wheeled in past me.”

“Bill, who’d gone out out to give ‘Ab’ a hand at Glenrowan, called in to see me. He had one glance and said: “I think I’d better come back to look after you.”

And he did return in 1969, to become one of the key figures in a dominant season.

“Bill was a ‘protector’” says Jay. “ I remember Ross Gardner playing his first game – he was no more than 15, I think, and was getting jostled by his opponent. Bill’s walked up and said: ‘Touch this bloke today, and you’re a goner.’ “

“There’s a big peppercorn tree behind the goals at Milawa. The ball was stuck in a branch one day, and they were taking ages to get it down. One of the old ducks from the opposition yelled out. ‘Hey, Commo, go and get your chainsaw and cut it down.’ Bill replied: ‘It’d be quicker if you’d get on your broom and fly up and get it’. ”

Jay says the Demons ran a tight ship in those days, and jokes that with blokes like ‘Mocca’ Coleman, the purse strings were well and truly clamped.

“In seven years at Milawa, I had two pairs of socks. I went to ‘Mocca’ to hit him up for a replacement pair and he looked at me incredulously: ‘Why ?’…….’Because they’re full of holes,’ I snorted…….’Doesn’t Val darn…..?’, he said.“

“ ‘Mocca’ was the Property Steward, a Selector, Caretaker and ‘Gopher’. He got the blame for everything, even when it rained. One of the things I was finicky about was having plenty of Ice on hand on game-day.”

“ ‘Mocca’ forgot to buy it one day and I kept at him about it. He eventually rounded some up and came back with his tail between his legs. He muttered: ‘Are you happy now ?’”

“I was in the shower after the game, and wondered why all the other quickly players drifted out. ‘Mocca’ came in with a bucket. ‘You know that Ice you wanted,’ he said…….’Here it is ! ‘ “

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Milawa dropped just two games in the 1969 home and away rounds, to top the ladder. They booted 8.5 in the first quarter of a soggy Second Semi against Beechworth, to cruise home by 64 points.

The Bombers bounced back, and outlasted Greta in a tough Prelim, to enter the ‘Big One’ as distinct underdogs.

Their confidence grew when Milawa’s big-occasion player Bill Comensoli was accidentally knocked out 10 minutes into the first quarter and stretchered from the ground.

Bearing in mind that Beechworth’s hard run to the Grand Final was expected to have them at a disadvantage, they surprisingly kept nipping at the heels of the classy Demons.

Trailing by just two points at half-time, they hit the lead at one stage in the third, and were within two goals at lemon-time.

But Milawa took control of the air in the final term, as the Bombers’ big men tired. Youthful, barrel-chested John Michelini, who’d played a great game- along with veteran defender Rex Allen -came to the fore in the dying stages.

Rod Reid had also proved damaging around the packs and chipped in with three majors. But when Beechworth again threatened in the last, through Ron Burridge, Jay pushed himself down back as a loose man, to curtail the dynamic Bomber.

As the siren blew to signal a 13-point Milawa victory, their supporters unleashed 29 years of pent-up emotion and carried their heroes to the rooms.

Besides the veterans of the side: Bill Comensoli (36), John Holloway (33) and Rex Allen (32), the premiership line-up boasted a few up-and-comers like 16 year-old Mervyn Holmes, Best & Fairest winner Ray Anderson, Eddie Kipping, Rob Tobias, Kerrie Taylor and the burly big-man, Michelini. It was a well-balanced side, bolstered by a number of hand-picked O & M recruits who had proved their mettle…….IMG_4294

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Milawa remained there or thereabouts in the next two seasons. They were unable to contain rampaging King Valley spearhead Ray Hooper, who booted 11 of the ‘Roos 14 goals, to lead his side to a 34-point victory in the 1970 decider.

And Chiltern edged them out by six points in a see-sawing ‘71 Grand Final, which saw the emergence of precociously-talented youngsters Barrie Cook, Ross Gardner and Gary Allen.

Jay relinquished the coaching job after that – his seventh O & K Grand Final – but played on for a further two years, to finish with just on 150 games with the Demons.

He often reflects on that ‘69 flag. “I can still remember Ross Schutt, who was an emergency, and a much-loved figure around the club, being overcome with emotion in the rooms afterwards.”

Ross said: “I can’t celebrate………I’m too distraught……….”

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P.S:  Jay won his first – and only – cricket Premiership, aged 40, when he kept wickets and played alongside his son Paul, with WDCA club Rovers in 1980-81 . Deciding to go out on top, he promptly hung up the gloves…IMG_4316

‘ 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

‘THE ULTIMATE TEAM-MAN…………’

The prized Number 16 locker at the Wangaratta Rovers Football Club belonged to just two players over a 32-year period. The first of these was the inimitable Mervyn ‘Farmer’ Holmes, who held sway in defence for 302 games.

Upon his retirement in 1986 a slightly-built 17 year-old asked if he could have the privilege of taking over the number.

For the next 17 years Mick Wilson played with fearsome determination. He ran harder and tackled and harassed more ferociously than anyone, and after 316 senior games, earned the universal acclaim of country football folk when his playing career drew to a close in 2004.IMG_3996

In an era when loyalty in footy was treated contemptuously, he led by example as the consummate team-mate.

He was the advance welcoming party when new recruits arrived; the pace-setter at pre-season training; the long-term trip-away organiser; the sympathetic listener to aggrieved players; and was ever-ready with a tip on fitness or tactics for grateful youngsters……….
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The three Wilson kids – Mick, Joe and ‘Waldo’ – were just whippersnappers when they wandered down Nolan Lane, Tarrawingee, to train with the Bulldogs’ newly-formed Thirds team.

“I think I was about 11, and the coach, Des Griffin used to let us join in. Then, on Sundays we’d head across to play with the Whorouly Midgets,” says Mick.

“I always thought it would’ve been more convenient to go into Wang and play in their Midget comp, but Chas (Dad) joked that there was less chance of him being pulled over by a breathalyser this way. And besides, he said, there were three pub stops on the way home – at Whorouly, Milawa and, of course, Tarra’s Plough Inn.”

His parents, Chas and Toni, are legendary figures in local sport.

“Chas, in particular, had some off-beat philosophies,” Mick recalls. “For instance, after a good rain, he’d gather a heap of snails; weigh them, number them and put them in an old microwave one by one, to see how long it took them to explode. He was trying to justify some mathematical formula that he was working on.”

But Chas and Toni couldn’t have been more rapt when their offspring began to show signs of obvious potential.

Mick had been filling in with Tarra Thirds, on and off, for a few years. He went in one day to watch his uncle, Paul Nolan, strutting his stuff in a practice match with the Rovers Thirds. They were short, and he was pressed into action.

Later in the year, he was slotted in for a couple of games on permit at the urging of coach Darryl Smith; held his spot for the finals, and played in a Premiership side.

He was 16 when he had his first full season with the Thirds, and showed enough to attract the attention of new Hawk senior coach, Laurie Burt.

“Laurie picked 10 debutants for the opening round of 1987, and most of us had come up through the Thirds. It was the dawn of a new era for the Club,” Mick says.

“Laurie was 10-15 years older than most of us. He had the complete respect of everyone, and was still playing great footy. He cared about us as people. Although he was super-professional, he could have a bit of fun, too.”

The Rovers were dubbed ‘Burt’s Babes’. They strung together a succession of wins, which ultimately swept them into the 1988 Grand Final. Their opponents, the star-studded and vastly more experienced Lavington, were expected to have too many guns for them in the Big One.

“I remember my opponent grabbing me in a headlock and throwing me to the ground early in the first quarter,” Mick says. ” I looked upfield and there were ‘spot-fires’ raging everywhere.”

“It was obviously a plot by Lavi to put the pressure on us. But we proved a bit quicker; a bit more skilful. After the game, when we went up to receive our medals, I overheard some fellah say: ‘ I can’t believe how young these blokes are’.”IMG_3990

It was a famous Hawk victory, but the one that gave Mick special satisfaction came three years later, when they belted Yarrawonga: “Joe was in the ‘88 side, but ‘91 was ‘Waldo’s’ first flag. It was a real thrill to share it with them.”IMG_3991

“Yarra had beaten us in the second-semi, and they were really fired up when we met them a fortnight later, at the Showgrounds. They targeted Anthony Pasquali and Peter Tossol for some reason. Big Brett Jukowicz’s eyes were rolling around in his head. He went right off. But I think we won by something like 12 goals.”

Mick was to become synonymous with inter-league football, after making his debut in 1990. The challenge of lifting to a higher standard always brought out the best in him. He was to represent the league on 23 occasions (6 times as captain) – and play at two Australian Country Carnivals.

An example of his fabled durability came when he hobbled off during a clash against the Latrobe Valley, at Traralgon. Two days later, the Rovers were due to meet Myrtleford. He got home, set his alarm, and iced his dicey ankle every two hours in order to be right to line up against the Saints.IMG_3994

Probably the highlight of his representative career came in 1994, when the Wilson trio were selected to wear the Black and Gold O & M guernsey at Sunbury.

This was during a period when the Rovers had assembled one of the greatest of all O & M sides.

They chalked up 36 wins on end and were rated near-invincible. At the height of it, they took out the ‘93 and ‘94 premierships and their reign was showing no signs of stalling.

Alas,  that triumph of 1994 was to be the Hawks’ most recent flag.

“It seems strange to say,” says Mick,”……but during that winning era, it started to become a bit boring. You had to really psyche yourself up some weeks.”

“But when I looked back in the late nineties, I came to realise how hard flags are to win. In some of the ones we missed out on, we were close to – or as good as – the sides that won them.”

“In those ‘nearly’ years, the connection mightn’t have been as strong off the field as it could have been. The odd blokes might have been playing for themselves, maybe worried about their positions, or form, or whatever…….”

“There was a high correlation, with the teams that won flags, where we really gelled as a group.”

The lasting memory of Mick Wilson is of him setting off downfield from the half back line, and launching the ball deep into attack – or throwing himself into a pack with courage. His fitness was famous and he trained with rare intensity.

“When we had those great sides, there were some ding-dong battles on the track. We liked to set the standard for the younger blokes at training,” he says.

He still played an important role in the Hawks’ most recent Grand Final appearance – in 2002, but two seasons later, realised that Father Time had caught up with the body that he had punished year after year.IMG_3999

“It was the opening game of the season, and someone from Corowa-Rutherglen was tagging me in the Seconds. He was giving me a hard time, and I couldn’t be bothered retaliating. I knew it was time to give it away.”

“I could’ve gone back to Tarra, but instead, kept training and did the running for ‘Toss’, who was coaching. I just didn’t play again.”

So he hung up the boots after a devoted career in Brown and Gold. He and his brothers (Joe 240 games, and Andrew ‘Wal’ 258) amassed 814 senior games. They’re Hawk Life Members, as are parents Chas and Toni……
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In 2007, the Bulldogs finally lured their favourite son home as coach. He had no set coaching plans, other than trying to make Tarra a really enjoyable place to be.

“They were probably expecting me to be really strict, but on one of the first training nights I produced a couple of slabs after training. We tried to prioritise things like the players keeping the rooms clean, always thanking the volunteers, and making the netballers inclusive.”

“I had good support on the footy side of things; that part of it was really easy, and the club was well set up off-field.”

The Dogs broke an 18-year premiership drought when they overcame a persistent Bright in the 2008 Grand Final. They were hot favourites the following season, having won 39 games on the trot.

But Milawa got the jump early and held on to win a thriller.

The 2010 decider was also a nail-biter. In a game that went down to the wire, Tarra got up by two points in one of the greatest of all O & K Grand Finals.

With that, Mick Wilson decided to walk away from coaching,

He had already become somewhat of a sporting icon at Tarra, having captained five of their cricket premiership teams over 20 years, but old Dogs, who had become used to years of heartache appreciated his role in returning the Club to the upper echelon……..IMG_4001
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Mick is now involved in his ‘dream job’ as Talent Identification Manager of the Murray Bushrangers. In this role he’s charged with the responsibility of uncovering the cream of the region’s young football talent, and giving them the opportunity to impress the nation’s recruiting scouts.

The Wilson kids, Brylee, Kelsie and Darcy are showing plenty of promise in football, Netball, cricket and athletics, and appear to have been endowed with a healthy dose of the family’s renowned sporting genes………

(With help from Rosco & Fix’s Podcast  ‘”I like the Cut of your Jib”)IMG_4015

‘DIAMOND DES………’

It was the famous American humorist Mark Twain who once pronounced that : ‘Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated……’.

Des Griffin relates to this line. He was flicking through the national newspapers one Monday morning in 1974, when he read that he’d been killed in a car accident two nights earlier.

“I felt pretty crook,” he jokes. “But I wasn’t that bloody crook……..”

I’ll let ‘Diamond’ take up the story.

“ We’d been down to watch Hawthorn play their first game at their new ‘home’ – Princes Park – and it’d been a pretty solid day….and night. I don’t remember much about what happened, but from all reports I went through the windscreen of a car on the corner of Reid and Murphy Streets around about midnight, and ended up in hospital.”

“Apparently, when the journos rang the nurses to receive an update on my health the next day, they were told I’d suffered facial injuries. They misinterpreted that to be fatal injuries.”

He spent 4-5 days in hospital, and the docs patched up his dilapidated dial with 173 stitches. All he was interested in at the end, was ‘going home to see Mum’. Long-suffering Pat Griffin, who had enough on her plate keeping tabs on eight kids, gave him a good dressing-down – and a lecture on the perils of the demon drink…………
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That’s just one of the many adventures of ‘Diamond Des’, who enlivened local sport for more than three decades…. He was solid – and unspectacular – on the field, but a gem off it….. Someone who could brighten the darkest moments and find a way to bring the shyest of kids out of their shell.

The Griffins were raised on a Boorhaman farm, but when Des’s dad became ill they moved into town. That’s when he ran into Norm Minns, a rep for Dickens and Carey (a homewares firm), who occasionally visited the family home in Greta Road.IMG_3946

Norm, a football disciple, if ever there was one, invited 15 year-old Des to have a run with Junior Magpies. A year or so later, he gave his recruit – and his mates – the imposing task of finding a new Junior League coach, to fill a vacancy on the eve of the season.
“I’ll give you a week to find one,” said Norm.

“We started hunting around, and got a few knock-backs. Finally, we went to see Ron Wales and told him how desperate we were. He said he’d try it for a year. Nearly two decades later, he was still coaching………….”
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But Des didn’t hang around long enough to soak up much of his new coach’s footy wisdom, as he joined the Rovers five weeks into the season. At the time, he was the ‘baby’ of the all-conquering United WDCA cricket side, and several of his team-mates were Hawk stars. So that’s where he headed.

He loved his four years at the Rovers, but when his cricket captain John Welch, who had taken the footy coaching job at Tarrawingee, put the hard word on him to play, he couldn’t resist.

“I signed up for two dozen Long-Necks, and it was the best decision I ever made,” says ‘Diamond’, who was to spend 16 years with the Tricolors.

He was occasionally tempted to leave. He had a cousin playing with Hopefield-Buraja, and was talked into signing Clearance Forms to go there a couple of times. But, when it came to the crunch he stayed – particularly when, on each occasion, a box of Long-Necks was dangled in front of him.

In fact, Des timed his arrival perfectly at Tarra. They hadn’t won a flag for eleven years, but coach Welch, who was a master-recruiter, had assembled a quality line-up.

“We lost the first two games, though, and, as a result, Welchy, who hadn’t played for some time, surprisingly selected himself in a forward pocket. He just wanted to set the example of how to attack the ball ferociously, even though he had a bung leg.”IMG_3951

“We soon got the message, and turned the corner…..Then he hung up his boots again,” Des recalls.

Beechworth were the form side in ‘75, but Tarra overcame them in the Second Semi – thanks to a six goal haul from diminutive rover ‘Curly’ Kerris.

And the Bullies were too tough and tenacious when the sides tangled again in the Grand Final. Des played a starring role in the centre, and managed to overcome some close attention from his Bomber opponent, fearsome Frankie Marinucci.IMG_3953

It had been 11 years since the flag had flown at Tarra, and the club celebrated accordingly. With talent in abundance, you’d think that more premierships would follow, but they succumbed to Beechworth in successive Elimination Finals and were to wait 15 years for another tilt at the flag.

But ‘Diamond’ continued to be one of their shining stars.

Local sporting legend Mick Wilson recalls watching him play in the late-seventies:

“He was Tarra’s captain for a few years and a real spiritual leader, “ Mick says. “Strong and fearless; a bit of a hero to us kids – and a terrific role model. No matter how bad the situation got on-field, ‘Griffo’ always remained positive…….Then, after games, with sufficient liquid fortification, he’d grab hold of the mike and belt out his repertoire of songs, like ‘Johnny Be Good’ or ‘Get a little dirt on your hands’……..”IMG_3948

“He coached Tarra Thirds when they started up. He’d pile a few kids in the back of a Panel Van and head off to away games. Myself, my brothers Joe and Waldo, and Robbie Hickmott were only little tackers then, but he made sure we were just as much part of the group as the older kids.”

“ He emphasised getting enjoyment out of the game. They’d be getting belted, but he’d say: ‘Don’t worry about the scoreboard, just play footy’……….“
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Des juggled playing seniors and coaching the Reserves for the last three years of his 300-game career with the Dogs, then was enticed into Wangaratta, to coach their Reserves for two seasons.

Again Tarrawingee came calling. He coached for three years ( 1992-94 ) during some fairly bleak times. “ ‘Diamond’ could coach, no worries about that, but we just didn’t have the cattle,” said one old Dog.IMG_3950

He returned to Wang for another two-year stint as Reserves coach, then headed across the laneway to be Runner and assistant to an old mate, Greg Rosser, with the Rovers Twos.

His son Trav was, by now, playing at King Valley, so Des found himself linked up with the Roos, as Chairman of Selectors to Mick Newton.

Then it was back to his original ‘home’ again, as the right-hand man to Rovers Thirds coach, Johnny McNamara……
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Footy clubs recognised that ‘Diamond’ was a good man to have around, and the same could be said about his lengthy involvement in cricket.

He was a left-hand bat, and didn’t deem it necessary to wear gloves, thigh pad or helmet. It would be an apt description of his batting that he wielded the wand with reasonable proficiency. But his greatest asset was as a team-lifting captain.

There was always plenty of mirth amongst he and his team-mates when they were batting. In the field, he’d be forever talking things up and encouraging the youngsters.

He played six years for the newly-formed Tarrawingee when they joined the Sunday competition, but spent most of his career with United, which morphed into Rovers-United in 1988/89.

“A few of the old United blokes weren’t too happy when the merge came about with the Rovers. We were always arch rivals. But I didn’t mind it one bit,” he says.

He was handed a new nickname – ‘Dezzy Whites’ – when he’d follow up the after-match drinks with a session at the ‘Pino’, then a Mixed Grill at a Murphy Street cafe – still clad in full cricket regalia….. And in his younger days, a visit  to the Saturday night dance in his grass-stained whites was also on the cards.

He ran the club’s juniors for five years, eventually playing with most of them after he’d slid back through the ranks to be captain of the C-Grade team.

In his last season – 2001/02 – he led them to a flag. They’d scored three for plenty  after the first day’s play, and the opposition enquired as to whether a declaration might be in the offing, early on the second day.

“Yeah, about 10-to,” he replied. “Okay, 10-to what ?, “ they queried.  “10 to 6……..”
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‘Diamond’ prized the Life Memberships he received from Tarra Football and Rovers-United Cricket clubs.

A new job with Veolia, required him to travel the nation, overseeing the materials required to repair Kilns and Furnaces on Mine-Sites. A mine shut-down sometimes took four weeks, so he was away for long periods.

He’s still working, but taking things a bit easier now, giving he and Carol time to spend with their four kids and 10 grand-kids. And he still keeps a close eye on the fortunes of his old clubs……IMG_3943