“LEGENDS OF MERRIWA PARK…………….”

Septuagenarians – and beyond – will no doubt remember Wangaratta’s Criterion Hotel…………….

The ‘Cri’, located at the southern end of Murphy Street, was a regular port of call for those who wished to quench a raging thirst, particularly after spending an exhausting afternoon at the nearby Lawn Tennis courts.

Behind its doors the O’Kane family dished out plenty of old-fashioned hospitality for nigh-on fifty years.

Des and Gerald carried on the tradition created by their father, Bill, who was one of those legendary country sporting personalities……………

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Bill O’Kane hailed from Burramine, one of a family of seven boys and three girls, all of whom were deeply involved in sport.

Bill, an outstanding footballer, was a key player with Burramine; his career with the then-powerful Club only being interrupted when he spent one season (1907) with neighbouring Muckatah.

Pace was his principal asset and he used it to clean up in many athletic carnivals in the region, including his best win, as a 19 year-old, in the Echuca Gift.

His brothers sensed that he had the necessary ingredients to win Stawell, but they never got around to convincing him to test himself.

Bill married and moved to Wangaratta, where life as a publican precluded any further athletics, and restricted him to just a handful of games of football with Wangaratta.

Instead, he threw all of his energies into tennis and became the town’s leading player. His finest achievement on the court came well into his 40’s, when he combined with Mick Howe to win the Victorian Country doubles title.

Determination was an O’Kane trait on the sporting field, as well as in business, and everyday life. He amply demonstrated this in striving to procure grass courts for Wangaratta.

In 1924 he and his tennis mates floated a suggestion in the ‘Chronicle’ that courts could be installed in Merriwa Park. But this was ridiculed by council and townsfolk alike.

The matter lapsed for some time, but O’Kane and Bank Manager Charles Henry set about convincing the public that an area designated for tennis would transform what was a derelict wasteland into a splendid asset, in idyllic surroundings that would become the envy of many towns.

They launched a collection, which raised 115 pounds, then sought permission from council to lay down the grass courts.

Having received the go-ahead, work began on constructing the courts. Bill O’Kane did his fair share of the work……rarely a day passed that he was not toiling away on his pet project. He and Henry then took on the job of planting couch and sowing grass seed.

As the Tennis Club expanded, more courts were required and continual ‘Letters to the Editor’ were penned to the Chronicle objecting to the loss of trees. ……But complaints eventually reduced to a trickle and the dream of O’Kane and his off-sider had come to fruition.

Bill O’Kane died in 1940, aged 50.

He had been Wangaratta’s leading tennis player in the thirties, was a low-handicap golfer, and had been vice-president of the Athletic Club.

His sister Aileen was also a champion. She took out Victorian Country Singles titles in 1936 and 1938. Bill’s son Gerald won several post-war Club Singles championships.

A small plaque, erected in Bill’s honour, reminds today’s players of the debt of gratitude that they owe to a man who did a mountain of work 98 years ago.

The granite tablet is simply inscribed: “…..This commemorates the work of William O’Kane, Foundation Member….”

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………Wangaratta tennis in the fifties produced some of the most illustrious names in the WLTC’s history. Male players like Stan McKenzie, Murray Gallagher, Cliff Flanigan, Bill Traill, Ron Beazley and Jock Herd ranked with the finest of country players.

They were joined, around 1955, by a quietly-spoken, prematurely grey-haired medico – Keith Lipshut – who had taken over Dr. Edward Hands’ practice in Ovens Street.

Lipshut received no formal tennis coaching, but possessed immense natural ability. When he was a student at Camberwell Grammar he had won the Associated Grammar Schools singles title…….Whilst studying medicine at Melbourne Uni he played pennant tennis with East Camberwell.

After graduation he joined the Army, with the rank of captain, and served in North Borneo…..Before leaving for the War Zone he was a member of an army team that included Davis Cup players Colin Long and Don Turnbull.

After the War he practiced medicine at Birchip, and led the locals ( with a town population of 650 ) to a Melbourne Country Week A-Grade championship…….Three of the four members of the team were doctors……

Another team-member, Doug Marshall, joined Keith in the Ovens Street practice, and they also formed a lethal doubles combination in Club, Inter-Town and Country Week competition.

Lipshut won the first of his eight Wangaratta Lawn Club championships in 1954/55, and the last in 1967/68 ( at the age of 47 ).

Pin-point accuracy, an ice-cold temperament, and intense powers of concentration enabled him to match – and get the better – of more stylish, and highly-regarded opponents.

They were often reminded of his penchant for precision when he would hold a handkerchief aloft to check the direction of the breeze, prior to serving.

Keith competed in the Australian Veterans’ Championships for many years; won a state title, and was runner-up on a few occasions.

He served as President of the WLTC for three terms, and was awarded Life Membership of the Club.

He was honoured with an Order of Australia Medal in 2010, for his services to Medicine, and the community in general.

Later that year Keith Lipshut passed away, aged 90……

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Mae Osmotherley was a typically sports-mad teen-ager when the country was experiencing the ravages of the Great Depression.

Perchance, she happened to come into possession of a tennis racquet…….and always maintained that it changed her life.

With her natural ball skills she became an accomplished player at University High School, and represented Melbourne Teacher’s College, besides also excelling at Golf, Squash and Netball.

Mae’s first three teaching appointments were at Winchelsea, Ruffy (near Euroa) and Carboor.

It was Netball that first drew her to Wangaratta…….She would ride the 25 miles from Carboor to compete.

She’d never played tennis on grass – until she competed in the first post-war Australia Day tournament at Merriwa Park……..After doing well in the Open Singles, she took an immediate liking to the courts and surrounds.

The following year Mae returned – taking out the B-Grade Singles – and beginning a romance with the WLTC Secretary, Alan Osmotherley.

Upon her return to Wangaratta after marrying, she lost a closely-fought Club Championship Final to Mae Buchanan………It was to be the first of her ten straight appearances in the Final.

The following season – 1950/51 – she won the first of four successive titles. It would probably have been more, only that her time at the top coincided with the arrival on the scene of one of Wangaratta’s finest-ever players, Nora Bennett.

Bennett, an 11-time champion, combined with Osmotherley to win several Doubles events.

Mae remained one of Wangaratta’s leading players until fading eyesight halted her in the mid-seventies.

But she maintained her contribution to the sport in her role as a teacher at Wangaratta High School.

She taught Maths – and would also offer Tennis instructions during the lunch-break…….When the School set about constructing new courts Mae’s advice was solicited. She also insisted on the construction of a 20-metre brick practice hit-up wall.

Mae Osmotherley followed local tennis – and all sport – closely until her passing, aged 84, in 2004…..

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Terry Longton was born and bred in Warrnambool, and inherited a love of all sport from his parents, who were particularly keen on tennis.

He dabbled in football whilst studying and, in fact, played for Monash University in the Victorian Amateur competition.

But tennis was his first sporting love.

He had some success in state country championships…….Then, at the age of 17, was rewarded for his efforts by being selected in Warrnambool’s A-Grade Country Week team. They duly won the title.

Longton’s studies took him to Melbourne, where he played pennant for some time. Along the way he was fortunate to team up with a Monash University contemporary, Paul McNamee, who was later to become the world number 1-ranked doubles player……..They became a formidable combination in inter-varsity tennis.

Terry embarked on an overseas sporting holiday in 1976, playing several tournaments in Europe. It was an unforgettable experience and he enjoyed confronting the joys and pitfalls of the tennis circuit.

On his transfer to Wangaratta he became involved in the local tennis scene. He won the WLTC singles championship eight times in succession – from 1978 to 1985 – and was runner-up to John McVean in the following two years.

As an adjunct to tennis he took up Squash and became Wangaratta champion on six occasions – from 1978 to 1983.

Longton returned home to live in Warrnambool, whilst he operated a private practice as a medical scientist in Melbourne……

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John McVean’s early career was played in the shadow of Terry Longton. He was runner-up to Longton six times in the WLTC Singles Championship before finally outpointing the veteran in the 1985/86 Final.

He went on to win twelve on end, and also picked up 15 Doubles and 4 Mixed Doubles titles.

McVean was hardly born into a tennis family……In fact his father was a keen cricketer. But John’s friendship with Alan Jarrott, who lived on the neighboring farm at Thistlebrook ( four miles from Moyhu ) meant that they spent most of their time playing cricket, footy and tennis.

Jarrott, of course, was to make his name as a VFL star with North Melbourne and Melbourne, but he was no slouch with the racquet either…….The pair played together in the Ovens and King Hardcourt competition.

At 15 McVean graduated to the Lawn courts in Wangaratta, mainly because of his desire to play Inter-Town tennis.

He also took up an offer to play Pennant in Albury, which he did for 14 years, successfully combining this with his commitments in Wangaratta.

His flirtation with senior football didn’t last all that long, but his obvious talent saw him line up in a key position with Moyhu at the tender age of 16. Years later he played a handful of games on permit with Wangaratta Rovers Reserves.

He broke an ankle and made the decision to concentrate on tennis.

Local tennis veterans still remember fondly those epic McVean-Longton battles that were waged 35 years ago or more.

Evenly-matched and both bristling with determination , they seemed to typify the competitiveness that has been in vogue at the picturesque Merriwa Park courts for nigh on a century……………….

‘HOGAN THE HERO………..’

Neville Hogan’s football accomplishments are widely-renowned. But it was a fiercely-fought squash match that, he reckons, embodied everything he loves about competitive sport.

Re-wind some 40 years ago : He’s pitted against the ‘unbeatable’ Terry Longton – rated among the best two or three players the town has seen.

They’re at it – ‘hammer and tongs’. In the fourth game Neville senses that he could be on the verge of a rare upset win . Then, gradually, the champ wrests back the initiative and, in a classic arm-wrestle, fights him off, to clinch the contest.

“I was knackered, and just slumped on the court for a minute or two. The game had drained everything out of me. Someone said “you must be disappointed” . I replied: ‘Not at all. I know I gave it everything. I just wasn’t good enough………..

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Tom and Tess Hogan and their tribe of nine kids landed in Callander Avenue, via Yerong Creek and Moyhu, in 1951.

When a young neighbor – Pat McDonald – spotted a few of the six boys having a kick, he convinced them that the Rovers were the team to follow because they were the underdogs in town.

“We all played with South Wanderers, in the Junior League, then when my older brother, Maurie, started at the Rovers I rarely missed watching a training night. I dreamed of playing with them and was mesmerised by Bob Rose and his training methods.”

He had played 50-odd games with the Wanderers when he was involved in the first of his nine footy flags, in 1960. A move to Melbourne the following year, to do his PMG technician’s training, saw him link up with Hawthorn 4ths. The only game they lost was in the opening round.

Despite the expectation that he would head to the City Oval when he returned home, Neville signed with Moyhu. “I just felt I needed a season of open-age footy under my belt before playing in the O & M,” he says.

After Moyhu had gone through unbeaten and he had won the Best & Fairest in 1962, he finally made the move to the Hawks.

In an underwhelming start for the prize recruit he was named as 19th man in the opening round. He then proceeded to win the first of his four club B & F’s.

He made an impression on Footscray’s recruiting officer Joe Ryan, who had popped up to watch him in action. But the Dogs’ were unable to pounce, as he was still tied to Hawthorn.

Another enthusiastic approach came from North Melbourne several years later, when they took over the O & M as part of their recruiting zone. ” I was in my mid-20’s and wasn’t keen on uprooting my life to play a handful of games of League footy,” he says.

His name crops up regularly, as another of those reluctant bush champs who bypassed the glamor and celebrity of the ‘big-time’. Neville has no regrets, though.

“I just loved the game and having a kick, and never felt I was too good for where I was playing. I copped my share of hidings from star players over the years, so I mightn’t have been up to it.”

Instead, he settled down to carve out a storied 15-year career with the Rovers, which was notable for his unyielding dedication towards training and match-preparation.

For those who missed seeing him in action, it’s apt to describe Neville as a 60’s version of recently-retired St.Kilda and North Melbourne star Nick Dal Santo…….. Silky skills…. unhurried…..hardly-ever caught……brilliant awareness…..and a deadly left boot which rarely failed to find its target.

And he just had the knack of finding the football. He had a huge fan in new Rovers coach Ken Boyd, who appointed him vice-captain at 19.

Later that year – 1964 – the Hawks overcame Wangaratta in a tight tussle, to win their third flag.

“It was memorable, because we were all young blokes -very close – and Boydy had us playing for him. We came back from Albury by train and a large crowd met us at the station. The celebrations lasted for weeks.”

The Rovers made it a double the following season. But one downside for Neville was that he lost his greatest supporter. His dad Tom collapsed with a heart attack, watching a match at Albury and died two days later.

He’s in no doubt that his finest personal year as a player came in 1966. By joining the immortals as a Morris Medallist, he had confirmed his status as a star of the game.

Three years later, Neville was confronted with a perplexing decision. Despite his intense loyalty to the club, he had become disillusioned with the coaching of Ian Brewer and felt that the Hawks were marking time. He considered, momentarily, the possibility of applying for other coaching jobs.

“We weren’t fit and change was definitely needed. I suggested to a couple of officials that they should chase Hawthorn’s Graeme Arthur as coach, but in the meantime he took on a coaching job at Echuca.”

“They had interviewed Richmond big man Mike Patterson, then our secretary, Ernie Payne, persuaded me to put in for it too.”

“Most of the other O & M clubs had high-profile coaches, so it was a big decision for them to appoint me.”

Any doubts about his qualifications were erased in the opening round of 1970. The Hawks belted Wangaratta by 80-odd points in front of a big crowd. Suddenly, the expectations of the fans rose and the players were right behind him.

Little did he realise it, but the Rovers were on the cusp of a ‘Golden Era’. However, it didn’t ease the pressure on the coach.photo

“Fear of failure was the thing that drove me. Even at the end of the first year, when we finished runners-up, I suggested to Jack Maroney (President) that I might give it away, as it was affecting my playing performance. The stress was the hardest part. ”

“Obviously Jack didn’t take any notice of me.”

Just as well. The Hawks won flags in 1971,’72, ’74 and ’75 and played in Grand Finals in all but one of the seven years he was in charge.

The 1974 title gave him the most satisfaction. “We’d been thrashed by Yarrawonga img_2467in the second-semi, being 9 goals down at three-quarter time. We won the Preliminary Final against North Albury, by a point, after trailing badly early.

“By quarter-time in the Grand Final we were 8 goals up. Everything just fell into place and I think we only lost in one position on the ground. It was a dream game,” he recalls. In a tactical masterstroke, Neville played as a ruck-rover and kicked 6 goals , whilst his replacement in the centre, Tony Hannan, picked up 34 kicks.

“I decided to step down from coaching in 1977 so I could concentrate on playing. But I dislocated an elbow, which cost me 6 weeks. Then a knee in the backside turned into a ‘hammy’ and my season was over.”

Neville was 33 and had played 246 games when he reluctantly retired. He was also coaching the Thirds at the time and feels that may have affected his fitness.

He was still in demand as a coach, though. Myrtleford persisted in their approaches. “I told them they needed a playing-coach, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer,” he says.

He coached the Saints for four years, then the Magpies came calling. “They had an ordinary list and I told them the same thing, that they needed an on-field leader. Again, they kept asking. I took their job on for two years.”

Neville’s standing as an O & M Legend and revered football figure probably casts his other sporting qualifications into the background.

Wangaratta has produced few better all-rounders. He excelled in squash and table-tennis, played inter-town basketball and has shaved his golf handicap down as low as 6 at different stages.

He also enjoyed a fruitful 30-year cricket career, which included eight WDCA premierships with United and a handful with Social Association clubs Greta, Postal img_2465and Tarrawingee.

As a well-organised, enterprising, right-hand batsman and brilliant fieldsman, his 11 WDCA centuries are testament to an outstanding performer. His tactical nous and leadership also saw him captain Wangaratta at both Melbourne and Bendigo Country Weeks.

Neville still fervently loves sport – and yarning about it. Half a century on, he can pluck out an obscure moment that swung a game of football…. and describe, in intricate detail, the playing-style of a veteran whose star has long-ago faded……….or even debate a controversial decision that halted a match-saving innings……

Sport has been his life……