“84 YEARS ON………IS HISTORY ABOUT TO REPEAT ITSELF ?……………..

One of the most riveting O & M Finals series of recent times reaches its climax on Sunday, when Wangaratta and Yarrawonga clash in the Grand Final, at the Lavington Sports Oval.

Three of the finals have been rip-roaring affairs which were decided by less than a kick; the other two featured dramatic fight-backs, which were still in doubt deep into the final term.

The Pigeons appeared to have the Prelim stitched up in the opening quarter when, inspired by the brilliance of small man Nick Fothergill, they kicked five goals into the breeze at Bunton Park. The Hawks, who snapped the opening two scores of the game – both behinds – were thereafter consigned to a role of ‘spectators’ – bewildered and bedazzled by their opponents’ swift ball movement.

Additionally, three of their key play-makers, Sam Murray, Dylan Stone and Alex Marklew had, in the game’s early stages, been rendered ineffective. Stone was out of the game with a serious knee injury; Murray and Marklew were both limping heavily and reduced to cameo roles up forward for the purposes of rotations.

Just how the pendulum swung is difficult to ascertain, but the Rovers did certainly start to assert more control through the midfield. By three quarter-time there was only a goal in it and Hawk fans began to ponder if a second successive miracle could be manifested.

Alas, the Pigeons began to find space and after locating the big sticks once, then again, they were back in charge and were able to put a pulsating contest to rest…………..

So, for just the second time in O & M history, Wangaratta and Yarrawonga are poised to line up against each other in a Grand Final……….What an encounter it promises to be…….

But it could hardly be a more mouth-watering prospect than the one that awaited the footy public 84 years ago…….

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Yarra rose from the bottom of the ladder to reach the Grand Final in 1937 – their first appearance in a decider since entering the competition in 1929. Much of their inspiration came from the bullocking play of star centre half back – and eventual Morris Medallist – George Hayes.

Albury, however, were too good, and comprehensively defeated them by 42 points…..Hayes, skipper Morrie Richmond and ruckman Don Morrison were their stars…….. but they were fuelled with optimism about their prospects in 1938…….

Wangaratta, after winning their third flag in 1936, slumped to the bottom of the ladder in ‘37, winning just two games. It was a humiliating tumble, and prompted a revitalisation within their ranks.

Their search for a coach led them to a footy nomad, Norman Le Brun, whose CV had included stints with South Melbourne, Sandhurst, Essendon, Coburg, Collingwood, Carlton and South Warrnambool.

Standing only 171cm, the stocky 76kg rover grew up in the back streets of Richmond, where young bucks would sooner have a fight than a feed. He had supplemented the meagre match payments he received with occasional work as a brick-layer.

He was fearless and hard-hitting on the field and, despite his bulk, could run all day. A bachelor with a carefree personality which endeared him to everyone, he was ‘adopted’ by the people of Wangaratta upon his arrival.

The club’s recruiting officers had also been busy…….Milawa brothers Maurice and Joe Valli were enticed to the Black and White, as were Leo Crowe (Richmond Reserves), Alan and Jim La Rose (Golden Square) and Arthur Hayes (Ballarat).

One of their key players – and Le Brun’s deputy, was a strong key position player, Ernie Ward, who had been lured to the town from Bendigo League club Eaglehawk in 1935.

A gregarious personality, Ward had made a huge impact on the club, starring in their 1936 flag win and continuing his brilliant form the following year.

However, he was knocked out in a marking duel at the Albury Sportsground, suffering a fractured skull and broken jaw, which cost him the last four games of the season – and possibly the Morris Medal….

He finished runner-up, one vote behind George Hayes.

Despite the severity of his injury, Ward fully recovered and returned to his high-marking best in 1938. Le Brun had the luxury of being able to swing him to either end of the ground with equal effect.

Alec Fraser, the classy mid-fielder, had become part of the furniture at the Showgrounds Oval since joining the Club a decade earlier……..Apart from a brief stint with St.Kilda, the ‘gentleman footballer’ was rarely beaten, and was still the epitome of reliability……..

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No doubt one of ‘the stars of the show’ in the talented Yarrawonga sides of the late thirties was Leo Hicks, a 175cm, 71kg key forward…….. A member of a famous Pigeon family, Hicks had made the Senior list at Fitzroy in 1938, but chose to return home, to further enhance his reputation as a prolific sharp-shooter.

He kicked no less than four goals in 12 successive matches during the season, which included twin ‘bags’ of 10, on the way to a century. Leo and his brother Sam held down the key forward posts with devastating effect during the season.

George Hayes continued his Medal-winning form at centre half back. A solid six-footer, he exuded a fearsome presence and helped his fellow defenders stand tall, whilst personally racking up plenty of possessions.

Yarra had a less than ideal start to their 1938 campaign, winning just one of their opening four matches. But they soon steadied the ship, and finished the home and away rounds with a 10-5 record.

They took out the minor premiership, on percentage from Wangaratta and Rutherglen, with Albury three games behind, in fourth spot………

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Rutherglen’s inaccurate kicking kept Albury in the First Semi-Final. They led 10.17 to 12.4 at three quarter-time, but the Tigers finished with 2 goals to one in the final term, to win by three points.

The dynamic Doug Strang was the player who made the difference. He booted 9 goals in a single-handed effort.

The Second Semi between Wangaratta and Yarrawonga was a classic. The Pigeons held a slender four-point advantage at half-time……Wang were two points in front at lemon-time…..

But it boiled down to accuracy in the end, as the Pies added 4.1 to 3.5 in the final term to gain automatic entry to the Grand Final – winning 12.13 to 11.15.

There was more bad news for the Pigeons, though……… Champion defender and club heart-beat George Hayes had sustained a leg injury, which would put paid to his season……..

Yarra bounced back superbly in the Preliminary Final, and were all over Albury for three quarters. They led 12.13 to 3.10 at one stage, and their attention had already begun to turn to the following week.

But Albury, again inspired by Doug Strang, who kicked another 7 goals, stormed home to kick 9.3 to 3.5 in the final quarter……The winning margin was reduced to just 23 points…….

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A bumper crowd, which paid 264 pounds at the gate, flocked to Barkly Park, Rutherglen for the re-match of the closely-matched rivals.

The head-to-head contests during the season stood at 2-apiece and the experts couldn’t seperate them. The absence of the lion-hearted Hayes would be sorely felt, and many wondered if the week’s rest might have freshened the Pies for what promised to be a no-holds-barred contest……

The teams lined up as such:

YARRAWONGA

B: D.Marshall, S.Ellis, D.Naughtin

HB: J.Flynn, J.Weeks, F.Johnston.

C: E.Message, H.Marshall, B.Ridley

HF: K.Duncan, S.Hicks, J.Norris

F: H.Gillett, L.Hicks, J.Reilly.

Foll: B.Brown, K.Ryan, M.Richmond (c)

19th: L.Cooper,

Coach: Lloyd Jones

WANGARATTA

From: N.Le Brun (cc), A. Clark, J.La Rose, A.Fraser, A.La Rose, B.Le Leivre, H.Ewing,

M.Valli, E.Ward, R.Bray, L.Crowe, T.Maguire, A.Rosengrave, T.Dykes, G.Lewis,

J.Valli, W.Wyllie, J.Williams, 19th: S. Auld.

Little separated the two combinations for three quarters…….Yarra led 1.5 to 1.2 at quarter-time……… Wang slightly gained the initiative to lead by two goals at the long break: 5.6 to 3.6….

The Pigeons spoiled an enterprising third quarter with a poor return on the score-board. They added only 2.7 despite appearing to have the majority of the play. At three quarter-time their deficit was nine points.

But the Pies found the way to goal in the last. Ernie Ward was unstoppable at full forward. He finished with six goals, whilst the nuggety Le Brun chimed in with three, as the hard-working Yarra defence, led by Dave Naughtin, Jim Flynn and Doug Marshall battled to stem he tide.

The final margin of 27 points indicated a comfortable winning margin, but the game still remained in the balance until mid-way through the quarter……..When it was up for grabs, it was Wangaratta who took their chances and went on with the job:

WANGARATTA: 1.2, 5.6, 7.10, 12.15 (87)

YARRAWONGA: 1.5, 3.6, 5.13, 7.16 (58)

Best: WANGARATTA: N.Le Brun, A.Fraser, E.Ward, H.Ewing, M.Valli, T..Maguire, B.Le Leivre, J & A. La Rose.

YARRAWONGA: D.Naughtin, J.Flynn, D.Marshall, A.Ridley, S.Ellis, M.Richmond, S.Hicks.

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Yarrawonga have contested 16 Grand Finals……They eventually broke through for their first flag when former Fitzroy coach Billy Stephen led them to victory against Wangaratta Rovers in 1959.

They’ll be chasing their sixth title, the most recent of which came in 2013.

Wangaratta have made 27 appearances at the ‘big dance’, ‘greeting the judge’ in 15 of them…..

There’s an eerie similarity about the lead-up to these two Grand Finals, 84 years apart………..They finished 1 and 2…….. Shared the spoils during the home- and-away………Wangaratta won the Second Semi by less than a kick……..Yarra staved off a huge comeback in the Prelim……..

Most shrewd judges fancy the Pies, but as we are continually warned, anything can happen in Grand Finals………….

” A TRIO OF MAGPIE MEDALLISTS…….”

Timmy Lowe would have been an Ovens and Murray champ in any era.

The classy small man fortuitously landed in Wangaratta’s lap when his dad Roy decided to re-locate the family building business from Melbourne in 1948.

R.J.Lowe Constructions ( also employing Tim and his brother Ernie ) became one of the town’s largest companies, and spread its tentacles throughout the North-East …… even assisting in the re-alignment of ‘New’ Tallangatta, when it shifted 8km west to allow for the construction of Lake Hume in the early 50’s.

Roy wholeheartedly embraced his civic responsibilities , serving firstly as a councillor, then as Mayor of Wangaratta in 1955/56…….But it’s the mercurial Timmy who sticks in the minds of old-timers, many of them still fondly recalling his dazzling ball skills………….
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Tim Lowe’s childhood years were affected by his battle with the debilitating disease of polio.

He was somewhat of a late starter to football, beginning at the age of 16, with State Savings Bank, in the A-Grade Amateurs, in 1947. When he joined Wang the following season, he walked straight into a developing side.

Small in stature ( standing just 5’7” ), he was a quick, agile and elusive rover. Under the coaching of George Tribe, the Pies were hampered by injuries in the early games, but recovered well to finish just half a game out of the four.

Lowe was hailed as the ‘Recruit of the Year’, besides winning the first of his five Club Best & Fairests.

It was the arrival of football sage Mac Holten that helped fast-track many promising Magpie youngsters into out-and-out stars.

Lowe, in particular, derived much benefit from the discipline and tutelage of the master-coach…………..And he certainly required the whip to be cracked occasionally………

Jack Dillon, who was just starting his career with the Rovers, was Timmy’s next-door neighbor early on, and says, despite being footy adversaries, the pair were as thick as thieves:

“We only owned one bike between us and would take it in turns to dink one another to the Dance or the Pub………..He was a bit of a cheeky bugger, Tim……Combined with that, he was partial to a cool drink on a hot day………So he could get us into a bit of strife without even trying…….”

“I could tell you heaps of stories, but I remember one time, we found our way to the Footy Club Dance out at Tarrawingee…..Lord knows how we got there, but I do recall we brought a Crayfish and a couple of Bottles of Wine with us…….I went into the Hall to have a dance, and when I came outside again, Tim was standing beside the fire, stirring one of the popular local players – big Leo Devery.”

“Next thing, Leo’s hauled off and whacked him flush on the moosh ……….That stopped him in his tracks. He thought his jaw was broken………….was still nursing it the next day…….”
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A touch of spunk added an extra ingredient to the Lowe football make-up. He relished the big occasions and starred in Wangaratta’s 1949 flag win over Wodonga.

The Pies had struggled to wrest control of the game from the Bulldogs, who, despite the absence of their inspirational coach Jack Eames, trailed by just a goal at half-time.

When the heavens opened up during the long break, it made conditions decidedly difficult for players and spectators alike.

Wang streaked away with the game in the final term, booting four goals to one, with Jack and Doug Ferguson, Bill Parkinson, Lowe and Ken Nish helping them to an 11.16 to 6.14 victory.

It was, of course, the first of the Pies’ famous ‘Four in a Row’, which would perpetuate the Holten legend.
But there was no more important player in the side than Timmy Lowe.

His capacity to rack up countless possessions and his rapport with ruckmen Kevin French, Graeme Woods and Bill Comensoli saw him named Club B & F in the 1950, ‘51 and ‘52 premiership years.

The evenness of the Wang side was exemplified when four players – Jackie Stevenson, Lionel Wallace, Mac Holten and Lowe tied for fourth place in the 1951 Morris Medal.

The following year Timmy polled 18 votes to finish third, behind Wodonga champion Norm Webb (22) and North Albury’s Billy King (19).

Melbourne had been on his hammer for several years and finally, in the pre-season of 1953, he and ruckman Graeme Woods agreed to head down to train and participate in a couple of practice matches.

Neither of them were comfortable in the ‘big smoke’ and were back home prior to the start of the season.

Chasing a historic five on-the-trot, the Pies finished two games clear on top of the ladder but were below their best in the finals. They dropped the Second Semi to Albury by 13 points despite booting four goals to one in the last quarter………

The Preliminary Final saw ex-Wangaratta star Norm Minns leading Benalla against his old coach, Holten.

The Demons, outpacing Wang and continually creating the loose man, held a slight edge all day and clung on to win a thriller by 19 points. Vice-Captain Lowe was magnificent, as he strove to keep his side in the game.

Benalla clinched their first O & M flag against Albury the following week. Prior to the game Lowe’s brilliant season was recognised when he was presented with the 1953 Morris Medal.
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Lowe was enticed to Beechworth as captain-coach in 1954 and proceeded to set O & K footy alight with his individual brilliance.

He took out the Bynon Cup ( League B & F ) with 18 votes, ahead of two old Magpie premiership team-mates, Ray Warford (Moyhu) and ‘Hopper’ McCormick ( King Valley).

The Bombers went within an ace of snatching the flag the following year.

Bogong led 6.12 to 5.16 in the dying seconds of a sensational Grand Final. As they grimly clung to a three-point lead the ball was bobbling around in Beechworth’s 10-yard square….. Lowe grabbed it and snapped it through, just as the siren blew…….Alas, it was a split-second too late, and the Bombers rued their misfortune.

They made amends in 1956 when Lowe (who had shared the League B & F, with Ray Warford and Moyhu rover Greg Hogan ) led them to a strong win over Milawa.

Despite woeful kicking ( they booted 9.17 to 6.5 ) the Bombers were too strong for a smaller, but courageous Demon side. Jock Gardner was a star for Milawa, kicking five goals, whilst the premiers were inspired by their tireless leader.

Beechworth fell away, winning just 6 games in 1957. Tim relinquished the coaching post and returned to Wangaratta. Injuries and a subsequent drop-off in fitness saw him confined to a handful of senior appearances, taking his final games tally to 122.

But he remained eligible for the 1959 Reserves finals and figured in yet another premiership when the young Pies eclipsed Benalla in the Grand Final curtain-raiser.

He was lured out to Moyhu in 1960. Despite some indifferent late-season form, he held on to his spot for the keenly-anticipated decider, against his old team, Beechworth.

The game’s fate was still in the balance when the siren blew and the ball was in the hands of Bomber rover ‘Ab’ Comensoli. His shot for goal from 40m out, on the angle, missed, and Moyhu snatched the flag, 9.11 to 9.5…….

Fittingly, amidst wild celebrations, the Timmy Lowe career had drawn to a close.

It was his seventh premiership……He’d won seven Club Best & Fairest Awards, three League Medals, and would, after his death, be inducted to the Ovens and Murray and Wangaratta Halls of Fame, and the Magpies’ Team of Legends………
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Ray Preston was a fifties football nomad who slotted smoothly into the Wangaratta side after the departure of Timmy Lowe.

He began his career with Ardmona in 1947, before moving to the Mountain District League for three seasons. On his return to home territory he stripped with GVFL club City United, winning their B & F in 1951 and making his name as a talented small man.

South Melbourne considered the 170cm, 70kg rover a likely type. He spent two seasons (1953 and ‘54 ) at the Lakeside Oval, but was contending for his spot with a handful of players of similar calibre and stature.

He was limited to just seven senior games with the Swans. When Wangaratta came knocking in early 1955 the Pies’ recruiting strategy appealed to him, particularly as it fitted in with employment with a cigarette company.

He enjoyed a brilliant season……. The smart, stocky on-baller was more than handy around goal and it was no surprise when he took out the 1955 Morris Medal with 22 votes, two clear of Myrtleford coach Alby Rodda.

Additionally, Preston performed more than capably in the Ovens and Murray’s Country Championship victory over Ballarat.

He snagged 20 goals during the finals series, during which Wangaratta overcame Yarrawonga in the Prelim Final re-play and lowered their colours in a tight Grand Final against North Albury.

He had a patchy 1956 season and was dropped from the senior side on more than one occasion.

But Wangaratta’s B & F voting system in that era decreed that the award should go to the leading vote-getter in the Morris Medal.

Thus Preston, with 8 votes, took out his second successive award, sharing it with brilliant youngster Lance Oswald.

Ray Preston continued his football journey, moving to Lemnos in 1957, to Seymour for three seasons; then on to Mooroopna for 1961 and ‘62.

He concluded his career back with home club Ardmona in 1963…………..
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Lance Oswald will forever be regarded as one of the Magpies’ proudest sons……

He was a schoolboy prodigy – a curly-haired football nut who had won a Junior League Medal and two premierships with South Wanderers before his 14th birthday.

Two years later, he was making his O & M debut against Wangaratta Rovers…….He only played one more senior game in 1953, but consolidated his spot the following season.

By 1955 Oswald was an out-and-out star. He kicked 17 goals during the finals series, including seven in a losing Grand Final against North Albury.

League clubs circled him, but his coach Mac Holten advised him to add a bit more beef to his slender body…… Holten was keen to nudge him towards his old club, Collingwood, but St.Kilda won the race for his services.

They played him on a match-permit in the opening round of 1957 and urged him to stay after his promising debut.

But Wangaratta put the foot down and persuaded him to return home.

By now Lance was the complete player. Strongly-built for a rover, he could sniff a goal and had a manic attack on the footy.

In a dominant season for the ‘Pies he kicked 90 goals to win the League goal-kicking, played in the O & M’s Country Championship triumph and shared the Morris Medal with Myrtleford defender Neil Currie…..

And he snapped the winning goal in Wang’s last-minute Premiership victory over Albury…….

After such a fairytale finish to his O & M career, big things were expected of Oswald……

.Within three years he was rated the best centreman in Australia, had represented Victoria, and picked up two St.Kilda B & F’s.

Lance Oswald retired to the ‘bush’ from the Saints after 107 games and 102 goals, settling his young family in Strathmerton, where he played 210 games and coached for nine seasons………

“THE ‘MILESTONE MEN’ OF THE O & M………….”

Jack King’s marathon journey towards 300 Ovens and Murray games – and beyond – began in 1895, on a rough, tussock-laden paddock behind the family home…….When Wangaratta’s Daine Porter reached the target a fortnight ago it was on a floodlit oval, in front of a large, adoring home crowd, which cheered his every possession……..

The ‘paddock’, on which King honed his footy skills, was re-shaped to become Barkly Park, home of the famous Rutherglen Redlegs.

Of the seven King brothers who played their part in helping the ‘Glen become a behemoth at the turn of the century, Jack was the pick of them.

St.Kilda lured him to their Junction Oval for a brief eight-game stay in 1904. But he was content to ply his craft back home, chalking up 11 premierships in a 26-year career, before hanging up his boots, aged 47, in 1926…………….

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In fact King is the only member of the O & M’s exclusive 24-Member ‘300-Club’ to have played League football……Would a few of the others have made it, had they so desired ?………Maybe, but that’s purely hypothetical…..

Robbie Walker, for instance, simply reckons he wasn’t good enough. He was invited to play with North Melbourne’s Thirds and Reserves, but homesickness got to him……..307 Games later, with four Premierships, 12 Wangaratta Rovers Best & Fairests and 5 Morris Medals behind him, he retired as a Legend of the local game.

It’s said that Essendon made overtures at one stage, and Footscray offered to draft him, with the promise of senior games, but he resisted.

After winning his fifth Medal in 2003, a debilitating back injury cut him down whilst there was still plenty of footy left in the Walker legs.

At various stages in his career, Walker played alongside six other 300-Gamers in the Hawk line-up – including the unflappable Mervyn Holmes.

Holmes, a Carboor farmer, was the epitome of the tough-as-teak country footballer. He also provided ample leadership. When Robbie Walker was making his way in the game, it was ‘Farmer’ who was his coach and inspiration.

Michael Wilson took over Holmes’s prized Number 16 locker and did it proud. For 17 years, and 316 senior games Wilson ran harder, and tackled and harassed more ferociously than anyone. He was acclaimed as the model clubman at the W.J.Findlay Oval, and wore the Black and Gold O & M jumper on 23 occasions.

Wayne Pendergast was one of the opponents who often crossed paths with Merv Holmes. He had the unique distinction of playing in premierships with three clubs – Wodonga (1981), North Albury (1984) and Lavington (1986) in his 312 games.

When his son Matthew started coming through the ranks at Lavington, the good judges salivated. Matt was more skilful than his dad, ultra-competitive, and almost as tough. A regular inter-league rep and five-time Lavi B & F, he made 262 appearances with the Panthers, and a further 38 with Wodonga Raiders.

Kerry Bahr had the distinction of playing with both of the Pendergasts. He was recruited to Lavington from Walla Walla in 1987 and played in a losing Grand Final against Wang Rovers the following year. A skilful left-footer and renowned on-baller, he morphed into a dogged tagger, and played a key role in two Panthers flags in the early-2000’s.

Mark Booth arrived on the scene just as the Rovers embarked on their Golden Era of the ‘70’s. They didn’t come much tougher – or more durable – than the 13-time O & M rep, whose first flag came in 1974…..and his fifth 17 years later.

He would have added another in 1988, only for a moment of madness in the final home-and-home game, which saw him rubbed out for the finals……

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Talking of ‘hard-men’, there were few who played with the spirit and endeavour of Johnny Smith, who hailed from the hill-country, up near Mitta. Smith first stripped with Rutherglen, under the coaching of his brother-in-law, Frank Hodgkin, before moving on to North Albury, Wodonga and Myrtleford.

His sole flag came in 1980, when he played a starring role in a North victory which prevented the Rovers’ bid to win four in a row.

Smith won four B & F’s, represented the O & M 33 times and clinched a Morris Medal in 1973.

He was poised to play in a flag that year, but the Hoppers were upstaged by Benalla, and Smith’s legacy from the game was a six-week suspension.

It cost him another Medal, as he also topped the count in 1974, but was ruled ineligible……It was the major disappointment of his 315-game O & M career………

Johnny Hunt’s game was based around gut-running and speed……He patrolled the wing at the Lavington Oval for nigh-on two decades, played in two flags for the Panthers, won a Did Simpson Medal and a B & F in a premiership year………So he was no slouch…..Year after year, when Hunt’s demise was predicted, he kept producing, playing a league-record 420 games.

John ‘Shorty’ Martiniello became an institution at the Benalla Showgrounds, after making his senior debut in 1977. The tiny rover’s first – and only – opportunity to play in a premiership came the following season, when the highly-fancied Demons were belted by Wang Rovers in the Grand Final.

‘Shorty’ was forever burrowing feverishly around the bottom of the packs and won six Club B & F’s. He finished runner-up once and third twice in the Morris Medal, and represented the O & M on eight occasions during his 316-game stint in the Red and White guernsey.

Sixteen year-old Anthony Pasquali walked into a sports-store owned by two Wang Rovers stars in 1983, and asked how he could go about joining the club. They could scarcely believe their luck. ‘Pas’ was to become a champion, sharing in three flags, and representing the League 12 times.

He finally cracked it for a Club B & F when coaching GV club Benalla ( he also won the Morrison Medal ), then returned to lead the Hawks for three years.

Nic Conway’s was a different story. He grew up as a mad Wodonga fan ( where his dad had been a star ) but played his junior footy with Wodonga Demons. When the Raiders ( who originated from the Demons ) finally gained acceptance to the League in 1989, young Nic went with them.

He rode all of the highs and lows of the fledgling club but his loyalty was vindicated when he helped them to a flag in 1998.

Like Conway, Matthew Allen’s dad also made his name with a rival club. Rex played in Wangaratta’s 1957 premiership, but the young fellah was enticed ‘over the road’ to the Findlay Oval, in 1983.

A strong-marking defender, with an ungainly, but effective left-foot kicking style, Matthew Allen played the last of his 416 O & M games in 2010, amidst universal acknowledgement of his consistency and effectiveness. He even showed his adaptability by booting 83 goals in 1992 in a rare foray up forward.

Interspersed with his time at the Rovers was a three-year spell with Corowa-Rutherglen, and a season in the Bendigo League, with Northern United.

Ross Hill’s boyhood dreams were realised when he lined up alongside his heroes in 1995. Unfortunately for him, the Rovers era of prolonged success was drawing to a close, but he became a stalwart- and long-term skipper during an 18-year career with the Hawks.

Denis Sandral had a hard act to follow, treading in the footsteps of his famous triple-Morris Medal-winning father, Jim.

But he made more than a decent fist of it, and is recognised as one of the competition’s finest-ever defenders.

Denis showed early promise when he played in Wangaratta’s 1977 Grand Final side whilst attending Champagnat College. He then returned home to become the cornerstone of Corowa-Rutherglen sides for almost two decades.

Like his father, he was a five-time B & F winner, and represented the O & M 21 times.

Playing alongside Sandral for a good portion of his career was Paul Bartlett, a talented, pacy all-rounder. Proof of ‘Barty’s’ consistency was his ten consecutive top-three finishes in the Club B & F. He broke through for a win in 1989.

Persistence was also a Bartlett trait. He tried out with five AFL clubs before coming to the conclusion that it just wasn’t to be.

Undoubtedly his career highlight was playing in the Roos’ record-breaking premiership victory over North Albury in 2000.

Brendan Eyers also ticked that box. The giant ruckman toiled manfully in the ruck – sometimes against the odds – after making his senior debut for Corowa-Rutherglen in 1989.

The arrival of Peter Tossol as coach introduced a degree of professionalism which hadn’t been seen at John Foord Oval and, in turn, led to the Roos two memorable flags- 2000 and 2003. Eyers was a crucial component of those line-ups.

Matthew Fowler was recruited to Albury from Hume League club Walbundrie at the age of 16, just in time to slot into one of the Tigers’ finest eras. A bulky forward with a booming right foot, he played his part in a hat-trick of flags in 1995-‘97, and was there when they repeated the effort in 2009-‘11.

With six premierships, 812 goals, captain of the Tigers for a decade, and 354 games to his credit, he earned a ranking as one of the O & M’s finest forwards.

There was always conjecture among the good judges as to where Daniel Leslie was best suited. He could hold down centre half forward or CHB with ease, and had all the attributes – power, pace for a big man, and a prodigious kick……..

He played an important part in North Albury’s 2002 premiership, after having debuted on a wing two years earlier.

Leslie became a key man for the Hoppers’ for a decade and a half, captained the side for eight years, and booted 354 goals in his 300 games.

Xavier Leslie, likewise, is held in the highest esteem by all at Yarrawonga. The classy small man played his first game for the Pigeons, aged 16, in 2002. He featured in Yarra’s 2006, 2012 and 2013 premiership teams.

He also achieved the personal highlight of his glittering career in 2013 when he took out the Morris Medal by four votes.

Smooth-moving Darrell Spencer came across the border in 1987 from his home town of Rutherglen, to try his luck with the Roos.

He never left…..A magnificent kick who rarely missed a target, Spencer was appointed captain in 1998, just as Corowa-Rutherglen were entering a new era. Two years later he held the premiership cup aloft……in 2003 they saluted again.

Spencer finally retired with 333 games to his credit……equaling the club record of champion Denis Sandral.

Last week-end, he and Sandral handed the record over to Kade Kuschert, a hard-working, strong-marking defender, who has been part of the furniture since he arrived at Corowa-Rutherglen from Buraja in 1999.

His team-mates strove valiantly to clinch a win against power team Albury, to honour the contribution of their 38 year-old team-mate.

Much to their dismay, the Roos fell short by two points…….

“STRONG-MARKING ‘ROSA’……A STAR FOR ‘PIES…….”

Wangaratta Football Club has had the knack, over its storied history, of attracting numerous well-credentialed League players to fulfil its coaching role.

From Collingwood came ruckman Percy ‘Oily’ Rowe, who led them to their first O & M flag in 1925…….. the legendary Mac Holten, tactical maestro behind the ‘Four-in-a-row’ from 1949-52……….. and the 1961 premiership leader, tough-as-nails Neville Waller………

Of course, Laurie Nash – ‘The Great L.J’ – put the exclamation-mark on the first post-war title of 1946; and let’s not overlook former St.Kilda and Victorian centre half forward Jack McDonald, the brilliant left-footer, and architect of a flag in 1957………four-club star Norm Le Brun, who guided them from wooden-spooners to top in 1938………..or the popular Geelong B & F winner Ray Card, who was unlucky to arrive during some gruelling times in the 1990’s…….

Trevor Steer was another…..He was vice-captain, and within a couple of straight kicks of being a dual-premiership player at Collingwood. Two years after winning a Copeland Trophy he was appointed coach of Wangaratta.

Tall, skilful and adaptable, Steer had four fine seasons in charge of the ‘Pies…….

His successor also made a considerable impression in his nine years in VFL ranks. A strongly-built defender who was rarely out-marked, he had a penchant for physical fitness and a passion for the game. These were the attributes that Geoff Rosenow brought to the Norm Minns Oval in 1971……..

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Echuca is the old stamping-ground of Phil Nolan, another Magpie premiership coach. He moved to Wangaratta to work at the Chronicle in the early-seventies and spent two seasons under Rosenow.

“ He was probably the main reason I opted to play with Wang , “ Phil says.

“When I was a kid growing up in Echuca, ‘Rosa’ was the best player in town. He was known then by his nickname, ‘Tex’, and had played his early footy with Echuca East. In his three years at Echuca he marked everything, and was an out-and-out star…….The general consensus then was that he was headed for League football……..”

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Rosenow had just turned 20 when he was recruited to Geelong in 1962. At 6’2” and a touch under 14 stone he was handed an opportunity as a ruckman-defender in a rapidly-developing side mid-way through the season.

The Cats, under the coaching of Bobby Davis, were slowly resurrecting their fortunes after their Golden Era of the early-fifties. They hadn’t played finals since 1956, but the much-touted arrival of champion ruckman ‘Polly’ Farmer – and the irrepressible confidence of their coach – persuaded their fans to aim for the heights.

And they were ultimately rewarded, as Geelong blitzed Hawthorn by 49 points, to win the 1963 flag.

‘Rosa’ wasn’t in that premiership side…….. He was still a bit-part player, and made just 29 senior appearances in his first three seasons.

Many years later he reflected that the 1964 Reserves Grand Final was probably the turning-point of his career. He won over a few doubters with an outstanding performance in Geelong’s stirring victory over Richmond.

But it was a controversial incident in a fiery match at Kardinia Park mid-way through that season, which had alerted the wider football public to the combative policeman.

North Melbourne defender Ken Dean had sent the brilliant Geelong playmaker – and prize recruit – Denis Marshall, flying into the boundary fence during the second quarter.

Tempers flared from that point on, and when the half-time siren sounded it boiled over again, culminating in a punch-up in the player’s race…….. Rosenow tangled with North coach Alan Killigrew, who was left, bloodied and fuming, from a broken nose.

An investigation was launched by the VFL……20 witnesses were called, and many harsh words spoken…….but no action was taken……… ‘Killer’ and Rosenow both received six-month good-behaviour bonds when they appeared before the Geelong Court.

As much as he was lambasted for the blow-up with Killigrew , Rosenow maintained that his most embarrassing moment in League footy came later that year, when he was dragged by coach Davis in the closing stages of a humiliating loss at South Melbourne’s Lake Oval:

“I had to walk half the perimeter of the ground to the coach’s box, and was subjected to the jeers of the South supporters, who really got stuck into me,” he recalled.

Even so, he soon became an established part of the Geelong line-up, with his strong marking and long ( although often-wayward ) kicking being the feature. From late-1965 to Round 15 1970, he played 100 consecutive games with the Cats.

The biggest disappointment, he reckoned, was lowering his colours to the Richmond ‘talls’ in the 1967 Grand Final, during which the lead changed four times in a pulsating final quarter. The Tigers eventually prevailed by nine points………….

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After 147 games with Geelong, ‘Rosa’ accepted a transfer in the Police Force, and was appointed playing-coach of Wangaratta in 1971.

The ‘Pies hadn’t won a flag in 10 years, but invariably contended, reaching four Grand Finals in that period.

If nothing else, their new leader was determined to have them fighting fit. He was rising 29, had a strong self-belief, and a personal regimen of training every day.

Team-mates recall him, ‘hitting the bitumen’, and running countless miles each pre-season:

“…..One year he even entered the 3200m event at the Carnival….He went out like a cut-cat, and led by about half a lap at the half-way mark……….Then he blew up and finished stone motherless last…….He approached the race as if it was a sprint !………”

But those I spoke to acknowledged him as a popular and enthusiastic coach…….. the old-fashioned type, who could rant and rave and wasn’t averse to giving the boys a decent ‘bake’.

And he certainly led from the front……..

Plonking himself at centre half back, he was an imposing figure. He had a long pair of arms and possessed the most reliable pair of ‘mitts’ in the Ovens and Murray.

Rosenow finished third in the Morris Medal in 1971, and runner-up in 1973 ( he also won the Club B & F that year ). He was an automatic O & M rep, and was undoubtedly among the best half-dozen players in the competition during his four-year stint with the ‘Pies.

“In those days clubs would see their centre half forward and bomb it into them” says Phil Nolan…..”That was right up ‘Rosa’s’ alley……The only time I saw him beaten up here was by a 16 year-old blonde kid from the Rovers – Johnny Byrne – who just ran him off his feet…..

Rosenow himself relished his O & M match-ups with the formidable Frank Hodgkin: “I look back now and recall the anticipation I had, prior to my contests with him……He was tough, and played it that way………”

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Probably the most ignominious of Wang’s finals defeats during his time came in a Qualifying Final at Rutherglen in 1973.

Rosenow, and full back Geoff Kneebone defended stoutly against North Albury, but their forwards were unable to locate the big sticks, and trailed 12.11 to 0.11 at three quarter-time.

Despite booting three majors in the final term, they went down to the eventual premiers by 69 points…………..

The Magpies were successful in only one of the five finals matches they contested during the Rosenow-era. To be blunt, they weren’t quite flag-material, as it was a period dominated by the Rovers, with Yarrawonga and North Albury in close pursuit.

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Rosenow had been a key figure in all of the Club’s off-field activities. He was a member of the Magpies’ 1972 Basketball team, which won the WDBA summer title, and was the playing President of Magpies Cricket Club when they came from the clouds to clinch an unlikely WDCA flag in 1973/74.

Their team included five teen-agers- Rick Thewlis, Peter Hill, Tony Dellicastelli , Russell Wood and Dean Rowland, and they sat second-last at the Christmas-break. With a withering late-season run, they knocked over red-hot favourites United for 62, to win the Semi, and dismissed Whorouly for 78, to clinch the Final with just one over remaining.

When severe drought conditions in Melbourne forced the Country Week Cricket Carnival to be transferred to Geelong in 1973, Rosenow was appointed playing-Manager of the Wangaratta line-up.

Rain began tumbling down on Sunday afternoon, and the Week was mercifully abandoned after four days of continuous rain…….much to the relief of the Manager, who’d spent a good deal of his time endeavouring to keep his restless charges away from the Geelong Social Club Bar……..

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He was invited to re-apply for the 1975 Wangaratta coaching position, and found himself competing with Vern Drake ( Benalla ), Harold Martin ( Preston ), Wayne Miller ( West Torrens ), Vin Doolan ( Nth. Melbourne ), Mick Pavone, and Harry Skreja.

Skreja, a 23 year-old former Footscray forward, was handed the job. In the meantime, though, ‘Rosa’ had been inundated with suitors. He accepted the post as playing-coach of VFA Second-Division club Mordialloc.

Rising 33, you’d consider the curtain to be coming down on his playing days……..Instead, he’d only just passed the half-way mark of a colourful journey.

He became a highly-respected figure in the formerly downtrodden Bloodhound camp, lifting them to sixth in his first season, and a Grand Final in the next. In 1977 they clinched their first – and only – VFA flag, and a resultant promotion to First Division.

‘Rosa’ received a transfer back home to Echuca in the Police Force in 1979, and committed the seemingly ‘unforgivable’ sin – in the eyes of many in the town – by taking on the coaching job with nearby Rochester.

The clubs had been bitter footy rivals for the best part of a century……. The old animosity was sparked in one of Rosenow’s early games, when Echuca advertised a ‘Victory Dance’ after the ‘Local Derby’…….”He was certainly keen to win that one. We beat them and stayed on to celebrate the victory,” one team-mate reminisced .

Another work transfer saw him return to Melbourne in 1982 and coach Southern League club, Chelsea Heights, before beginning another stint with Mordialloc.

It was during that 1984 season that he experienced what he regarded as one of his finest football moments, when he coached the VFA representative team in Adelaide……

“We were seven goals down during the third quarter, but fought back to win by two goals………It was a magic moment….” he recalled.

Again stationed back in the bush, he had one final year with Rochester, in 1988, before finishing his marathon career with his original club, Echuca East.

The durable football journeyman, played more than 550 games in his career, was named captain of Mordialloc’s Team of the Century and inducted to the Police Hall of Fame.

Geoff Rosenow died after suffering a heart attack whilst mowing the front lawn at his Golden Square residence in 1999. He was 57……….

“TIGER STAR PUTS ICING ON CAKE FOR ’61 MAGPIES……”

It took someone special to capture my imagination as a 14 year-old O & M fan all those years ago; particularly if he wasn’t wearing a Brown and Gold guernsey…….

They were the days before saturation-level footy television coverage.

There was a touch of mystique about following the VFL from afar. You monitored it via the daily newspapers, the Saturday and mid-week Sporting Globes ( the ‘Pink Bible’ as we used to call it ) and religiously tuned in to World of Sport at mid-day Sunday.

There’d be a couple of hastily-planned trips down to take in a League match when it fitted in to our hectic schedule….But largely, our links with the big-time were the several VFL stars who headed bush – often in the prime of their careers……..

Ron McDonald

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One of them lobbed at Wangaratta in 1961.

Ron McDonald was a strongly-built, high-marking, long-kicking key position player, who accepted a transfer in the Bank, after a successful 92-game career with Richmond.

He’d represented Victoria at the Centenary National Carnival in Melbourne in 1958, and topped the Tigers’ Brownlow Medal voting the year after.

So he was no slouch……….To me, he appeared to be an ‘immovable object’ when he lined up at centre half forward, amidst great fanfare, for the ‘Pies in the early rounds of ‘61…….

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Wangaratta had fallen off the pace a tad, after the glory of their 1957 Premiership. It irked some that for the succeeding three years they played second fiddle to the Rovers – their arch home-town rivals.

The Hawks had appeared in a hat-trick of Grand Finals – winning two of them – and were ignited by the brilliance of the legendary Bob Rose.

The ‘Pies coach, Neville Waller, was Rose’s team-mate in Collingwood’s 1953 flag ( in just his 16th VFL game ) and had been a serviceable defender/ruckman, before being lured to Wang in 1959.

Norm McGuffie, who had been involved with the Club since he began playing in the early twenties, and then switched to a lengthy stint as administrator, was a key figure in Waller’s recruitment, with the help of former coach Mac Holten.

The big man settled well into the town, taking over a Bike Shop in Reid Street, and proving a popular leader and strong personality.

Since Waller’s arrival, the team had undergone somewhat of a transformation. In his maiden season they suffered an ignominious 69-point Preliminary Final hiding at the hands of the Rovers, then slumped to seventh, with a 7-11 win-loss record in 1960.

Only six members of the ‘57 premiership side remained.

They included the mercurial on-baller Kevin Mack, high-flying ‘Rinso’ Johnstone, who could be used with equal effect at either end of the ground; defenders John Holloway and Bernie Killeen; evergreen five-time premiership ruckman Graeme Woods; and the swashbuckling spearhead Bob ‘Bushy’ Constable.

In the ensuing seasons, though, several talented youngsters were blooded. Tough-as-nails utility Bob Comensoli, who doubled as the Riverina middleweight boxing champion in the off-season, had been squeezed out of the ‘Pies previous tilt at glory, purely because of his inexperience.

He was now a star, as was the tall, blond centre half back Rodney Swan, who was recruited from Yea. The highly promising Herbie Dowling, classy Bruce Robbins, and Corowa small man Cliff Hawkins also made their mark.

The Ovens and King League proved a fruitful recruiting zone, as speedster Basil Schubert was coaxed in from Moyhu, highly-rated Len Richards from Tarrawingee, and Normie Stewart from Beechworth. Promising Alan Benton was given several opportunities after graduating from WJFL club Springhurst.

Skilful centreman, John Mulrooney, an experienced 26 year-old mid-fielder, with 36 senior games of VFL footy under his belt, arrived at Wangaratta from St.Kilda, via Ballarat, in 1960.

‘Mul’, a bricklayer by trade, immediately provided the necessary ‘hardness at the contest’, as did a highly-touted young, dual Chiltern premiership player , Billy Peake.

And another who’d proved a star since arriving to teach at Wangaratta High School in 1959, was dependable Bill Traill. ‘Tracker’ was somewhat of a country footy journeyman. His resume’ was second-to-none, and he settled in to a role in defence for his adopted Club.

Kevin O’Keefe, a diminutive rover, returned to help operate the family farm at Boorhaman, after spending his secondary school years at Assumption College.

Des Steele

Officials were suitably impressed by his rapid improvement, and it was no surprise when he took out the Club Best and Fairest Award In 1960.

Waller also kept close tabs on a precociously talented local boy who’d headed off to Boarding School at Melbourne’s Xavier College, and was earning rave notices in the Public Schools competition.

Des Steele had already signed a Form Four, binding him to Collingwood, but Wang managed to snavel him for a handful of matches, which confirmed his eligibility for the Finals……………………

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The shape of the Ovens and Murray competition changed markedly in 1961.

Reigning premier Wangaratta Rovers, suffering from the exit of several players, and reeling from the hospitalisation of coach Bob Rose during the season, fell back to the field, and dropped out of finals contention.

Myrtleford and Yarrawonga, First Semi-Final combatants in 1960, also found the going much harder. It left Wodonga as the only Club to maintain their finals status.

The Bulldogs’ dominant season earned them the Minor Premiership, two games clear of Benalla 13-5, who snatched second place, on percentage from Wangaratta. Corowa 12-6, filled fourth spot.

The First Semi-Final combatants – Wangaratta and Corowa – had staged a battle-royal at the Showgrounds the previous week, with the ‘Pies falling in by two points. Opinion was divided on favouritism for the Semi, at Yarrawonga’s Grove Oval.

In the midst of Wang’s horror three-match losing streak in the middle of the season, the Spiders had inflicted a 52-point hiding upon them. Fans in the Border town were, to say the least, exuberant about their chances.

The Spiders were a revitalised, well-balanced side under the coaching of ex-Collingwood captain Frank Tuck, and inspired by a dashing centre half back, Jimmy Sandral. After several years in the doldrums, they were making their first finals appearance since 1949.

They went into the game with Tuck, and the important key position player Bobby Ronnfeldt both under an injury cloud.

Almost inevitably, Ronnfeldt was forced from the field early in the first term – an ominous sign for the Spiders.

But they fought back valiantly, with young sensation Max Urquhart and Geoff and Barry Swasbrick on song, to go into the half-time break only trailing by one point.

Little separated the sides in the third term. Every time Corowa appeared to be gaining the ascendency, the great play of McDonald and Mulrooney spurned the challenge.

The loss of Tuck towards the end of the quarter was a mortal blow for the Spiders, who trailed 10.12 to 9.7 at three-quarter time.

Nevertheless, they hit the front with the opening two goals of the final term………But that proved to be the end of the ball-game for them.

With McDonald in brilliant form the ‘Pies caught fire. They booted 10 goals for the quarter, to win running away, by 40 points.

Key forwards, McDonald (7) and Bob Constable (5), were unstoppable in the emphatic 20.14 to 14.10 victory……..

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Wodonga were odds-on to take out the Second Semi-Final, but Benalla had other ideas. They virtually wrapped the game up when they kicked 4.4 to the ‘Dogs two behinds in the third quarter, in gusty conditions.

Despite a Wodonga fight-back in the final term, the Demons held on to prevail 9.13 to 8.11, and clinch a Grand Final spot……..

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One thing was certain, in the eyes of many O & M fans…….Wodonga would react strongly to their shock defeat in the eagerly-anticipated Preliminary Final clash with Wangaratta, at the Albury Sportsground.

The first half was a poor-standard affair. The ‘Dogs held a slender 4.4 to 2.5 lead at half-time.

Wangaratta took complete charge in the second half, with ‘Rinso’ Johnstone producing a Best-on-Ground performance at full back.

Kevin Mack, McDonald (4 goals), Mulrooney, and youngster Des Steele were the other stand-outs for the winners, who consigned Wodonga to a straight-sets 14.15 to 6.11 exit from the Finals…….

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The sentiments of the football public had swung a full circle since the commencement of the Finals.

Wangaratta, because of their dominant performances, were rated hot-favourites to take out the 1961 title, despite Benalla earning the week’s rest and enjoying an exemplary season.

From the first bounce the Magpies dominated the match in every department. They out-marked, out-ran and out-thought a Benalla combination which appeared rattled by the first-quarter onslaught to which they’d been subjected.

The Demons were never allowed back into the game.

Neville Waller led his team in grand style. His ruckwork and marking were a treat to watch. But he had plenty of support. Bill Peake and Basil Schubert both chalked up 23 kicks, Kevin Mack was outstanding, and Ron McDonald’s 5 goals gave him 16 for the three finals. Small man Kevin O’Keefe also capped off another impressive finals series with four goals, whilst defender Traill, Cliff Hawkins and the veteran ruckman Graeme Woods also impressed.

Alf Sikora, Joey Joyce, ruckman Terry Putt and winger Ronnie Hayes battled hard for the Demons.

The scoreboard told the story of the Magpies’ dominance : 17.15 (117) to Benalla’s 7.12 (54).

THE PREMIERSHIP LINE-UP

Backs: Len Richards, Terry Johnstone, Graeme Woods

Half Backs: Basil Schubert, Rodney Swan, Bill Traill

Centres: Bruce Robbins, John Mulrooney, Herb Dowling

Half Forwards: Des Steele, Ron McDonald, Bill Peake

Forwards: Kevin Mack, Bob Constable, Cliff Hawkins

Rucks: Neville Waller, Bob Comensoli, Kevin O’Keefe

19th & 20th: Alan Benton, Norm Stewart.

* Ron McDonald played on with Wangaratta until a leg injury forced his retirement in 1963, after 38 games in Black and White. He passed away in 2000.

* Star centre half back Bernie Killeen was the ‘hard-luck story’ when he damaged his knee mid-season. John Holloway also failed to ‘come up’ after being injured in the First Semi-Final.

* Five players: Kevin Mack (1959, ‘64 ), Kevin O’Keefe (1960), Len Richards (1961), Des Steele (1965, ‘70), Bill Traill (1962) won Club B & F’s, whilst Mack and Bob Constable have been inducted as members of the O & M Hall of Fame…….