FAREWELL TO A PAIR OF STAR DEFENDERS…..

The famed hostility between the Magpies and Hawks had just reached its zenith when Bernie Killeen and Bob Atkinson made their way into Ovens and Murray football.

They were to become sterling defenders for their respective clubs.

Killeen, the high-marking , long-kicking left-footer, held down a key position spot for most of his 13 years with Wangaratta. ‘Akky’, wearing the Number 33 of his beloved Wangaratta Rovers was a back flank specialist, uncompromising, hard-hitting and renowned for his clearing dashes upfield.

Both passed away in the past week or so, after lengthy illnesses……………

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Bernie Killeen returned home from St.Patrick’s College Sale in 1956 and walked straight into the Wangaratta side. He was just 17.

Dame Fortune shone upon him, as the Magpies were in the throes of developing a powerful line-up . His form was solid enough to hold his spot in the side and bask in the glory of the ‘57 Grand Final, alongside such experienced team-mates as coach Jack McDonald, Bill Comensoli, Graeme Woods and the veteran ‘Hop’ McCormick.

It was an unforgettable day for Killeen, who was named on a half-forward flank. Wangaratta came from the clouds, thanks to a last-minute goal from champion rover Lance Oswald, to overcome Albury by two points.

This early taste of success would have given Bernie an inkling that that it was to be a forerunner of things to come.

Fate intervened. Four years later, a debilitating knee injury struck him down. He spent most of 1961 on the sidelines, and could only watch on as the ‘Pies scored a huge win over Benalla in the Grand Final.

Killeen fully recovered, and reached his peak in 1963, when was rated among the finest centre half backs in the competition. He took out Wangaratta’s Best & Fairest Award and the Chronicle Trophy, and represented the O & M against South-West League.

Perhaps his most memorable performance came in the 1964 Second Semi-Final, when he was like the Rock of Gibralter in the key defence position, pulling down 19 towering marks against the Rovers. It was a bad-tempered match, with the ‘Pies pulling off an upset, to march into the Grand Final.

A fortnight later, when the teams again tangled, Killeen found himself matched up at the opening bounce by Hawk coach Ken Boyd, whose intent was to niggle, and put the star off his game.

Boyd later moved into defence, but as the match progressed, Bernie found himself continually out of the play. The Rovers’ strategy was obviously to prevent him from ‘cutting them off at the pass’ as he’d done so effectively in the Semi.

Wang fell short by 23 points – the first of three successive heart-breaking Grand Final losses.

Bernie Killeen was a model of consistency over 13 seasons and 226 senior games with Wangaratta. He was installed as a Life Member of the ‘Pies in 1966…………

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As an angry, milling group of players swapped punches in the second quarter of the 1972 Ovens and Murray Grand Final, one of the central figures in the melee slumped to the turf.

His face was splattered in blood……. He tried in vain to resist the efforts of trainers, who were trying to escort him off the ground….. Eventually, sanity prevailed.

It was always going to be Bob Atkinson’s last game in Brown and Gold. But it wasn’t supposed to finish so abruptly ! At least, when he’d gathered his equilibrium after the game, his team-mates consoled him with the news that he’d added a sixth premiership to his collection……………

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‘Akky’ arrived at the City Oval in 1959 – a product of the South Wanderers. If there seemed to be a touch of maturity about the swarthy apprentice Motor Mechanic, it was understandable. During the last of his four years with the Junior League Club he’d already announced his engagement, to Fran, his future wife.

Young footballers of the modern era wouldn’t be so accepting of the patience that he displayed, as it took the best part of five years before he was able to nail down a permanent senior spot.

Maybe it was the proliferation of talent at the Club that saw the youngster deprived of opportunities…… Bob Rose may possibly have felt that he’d developed bad habits that needed rectifying…….like continually trying to dodge and weave around opponents.

Whatever the reason, Rose was unable to tailor a suitable role for him.

After making his senior debut in 1960, he’d played 49 Reserves, and just 26 Senior games.

His rejuvenation came in 1963, when Ken Boyd inherited a side bereft of many of its stars. His challenge to the younger guys was to place their stamp on the Club. In ‘Akky’, he found a player who relished responsibility, and jumped at the opportunity of shutting down dangerous opposition’s forwards.

‘Boydie’ also admired his aggressiveness and spirit. He urged him to attack the ball……..”And if anyone happens to get in your road, just bowl ‘em over,” he said. The re-born back flanker didn’t need too much convincing, and responded by finishing runner-up to Neville Hogan in the B & F.

This ‘Vigilante’ of the backline had some handy sidekicks in ‘Bugs’ Kelly, Lennie Greskie and Norm Bussell who were all football desperadoes.

The Rovers won 15 games straight in 1964, before hitting a road-block. They dropped the next four matches and were seemingly on the road to nowhere. That they were able to recover, and take out the flag was a tribute to Boyd and the character of his players.

They repeated the dose in 1965, again taking down Wangaratta in a tense encounter. The fierce opening of the Grand Final was highlighted by an all-in brawl, which saw a few Magpies nursing tender spots. Twice, in the dying stages, Wang had chances to win the game, but they fell short by three points.

The Hawks remained there or thereabouts for the next three years, including contesting the 1967 Grand Final.

But Bob had an itch to coach, and when lowly King Valley came knocking in 1969, he accepted their offer. The Valley had finished last, with just two wins, the previous season. They’d never won a flag.

‘Akky’s’ arrival coincided with the construction of the Lake William Hovell Project. Several handy recruits landed on their doorstep almost overnight.

It enabled them to sneak into the finals in his first year. But 1970 was to provide Valley supporters with their finest hour.

After thrashing Milawa in the final round, they went to the top of the ladder, but their confidence was eroded when the Demons turned the tables in the Second Semi.

The Valley made no mistake in the Grand Final. It’s handy when you have a full forward like Ray Hooper, who boots 11 of your 14 goals. Hooper, a burly left-footer, was a star, as was his fellow Dam worker Tony Crapper.

‘Akky’ was inspirational, and with the scent of a premiership in his nostrils, drove his players in the last half. His old Rovers team-mate Barry Sullivan also held sway in the ruck, as King Valley stormed to a 34-point victory………

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Bob returned ‘home’ to the Rovers, and lent his experience to a youthful side, under the coaching of Neville Hogan. The following year he was appointed vice-captain.

“It was probably the best thing that happened for his footy at that stage of his career, as he got fully involved,” recalls Hogan. “The discipline he showed provided a great example to our young players.”

One of those was Terry Bartel, who was a fellow car-salesman at West City Autos. ‘Akky’ once recounted the story about Bartel telling him he couldn’t be bothered driving to Yerong Creek to represent the Ovens & Murray in an Inter-League game:

“I’m probably going to be sitting in a forward pocket all day. I don’t reckon the other pricks will give me a run on the ball,” said Bartel.

“You never let anyone down. Jump in that car and get up there,” I told him. “I’d give my left Knacker to play in one of those games. You don’t know how lucky you are.”

“And, you know, the little bastard’s gone up and kicked 9 goals……..”

Bob capped a fine 1971 season by finishing fifth in the B & F and playing a key role in the Rovers’ 19-point premiership victory over Yarrawonga. He’d lost none of his venom, and at a critical part of the game upended Pigeon ruckman, the formidable Jimmy Forsyth.

‘Akky’ lived ‘by the sword’. He knew that retribution might come one day, and when big Jim flattened him twelve months later in his swansong game, the 1972 Grand Final, he accepted that as part of footy.

After such a hesitant start, he’d made a huge impression at the Rovers. He’d played 175 senior games, figured in four senior and one Reserves flag, was a Life Member, and had earned a reputation as one of its finest-ever defenders.

He succumbed to the temptation of coming out of retirement two years later, when he played several games with Tarrawingee.

Finally, though, ‘Akky’ decided it was time to pull the pin……………

‘DANNY RECALLS THE NIGHT HE CLINCHED THE BELT ….’

“Dan ! How ya goin’ ”.

There’s a pregnant pause on the end of the line, followed by a muffled, querulous : “Who’ve I got here ?”.

“ Remember me ?… Kevin Hill……What are you up to ?.”

“Ah… KB….To be quite honest, I’ve been on the drink this week-end……Relaxin’…..I’m pretty good at that, you know…………”

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I’ve got hold of Danny Carey in a round-about way. He’d originally made contact with the Chronicle, to find out if they could rustle up some clippings pertaining to the fleeting boxing career he pursued back in the eighties. Sorry, they said, but we’ll jot down your phone details, and give them to a fellah who might be able to chase something up………..

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So that’s how Dan and I happen to be involved in this somewhat garbled conversation.

He’s now domiciled at Taree, a town on the mid-North Coast of New South Wales, about 15km inland…. Says he’s been roaming around for a few years, but now resides in a Caravan, in the local Showgrounds’ precinct….

Just before I rang he’d knocked the top off another long-neck, he tells me, having returned from helping to round up a few horses They’ve been spooked by the plumes of smoke from the bushfires, which are looming ominously over the landscape.

“How long have you been in Taree, Dan ?,” I ask. “A bit over two years, but I hit the road a long time ago. When things turn a bit sour I just move on……..”

He’s whiling away the time by listening to some of his favourite Country and Western singers: “Ever heard Tom.T.Hall’s ‘Homecoming’ ? When you get off the phone you should google it up. And while you’re at it, listen to another one of his: ‘The Ballad of 40 Dollars’.”

He’s got a fancy for most of the Slim Dusty repertoire , in particular ‘Ballad of the Drover’. When I ask how that one starts off, Dan bursts into a rendition:

‘Across the stony ridges, across the rolling plain,

Young Harry Dale the Drover comes riding home again,

And well his stock-horse bears him, and light of heart is he,

And stoutly his old pack-horse is trotting by his knee………’

Dan had a lot of respect for his dad – also called Dan.

“He was a serious bugger, and fairly hard. But he had that way about him that you didn’t know whether he was jokin’ or not.”

“Dad’s was the last funeral I went to. I don’t like ‘em much. Don’t trust myself……. Might get all emotional and punch someone.”

When he queries me on some of the old local identities he knew, I mention that many of them have now passed on. “F……’, they’re all droppin’ off,” he quips.

Dan’s revelling in this bit of a chin-wag. Even though he’s now nudging 60 there’s no doubting that memory of his………..

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Dan was a strongly-built kid with recognisable footy talent when he arrived out at Moyhu in 1975. He reminds me I was his first coach. That probably proved to be a hindrance to his prospects of ever being a champion, I suggest…..

But he was good enough, and strong enough – at the age of 15 – to hold down a key position, which was a feat in itself. I found, for all his devilment, he was a good kid who you couldn’t help taking a shine to…….even though he was easily distracted and his training habits weren’t quite up to scratch.

After a couple of seasons with the ‘Hoppers he moved to Tarrawingee, back to Moyhu for another three years, over to Greta, then finally, back to Moyhu.

He reckons he saddled up in about 130 senior Ovens and King games, with the highlight being the Best and Fairest that he picked up at Moyhu in 1979.

Dan says he gained a fascination for the boxing game through watching the ever-popular ‘T.V Ringside’ on Monday nights.

“When I suggested to the ‘old man’ I’d like to have a go at it, he said: ‘Danny, it’s a ridiculous sport….. Blokes dancing around trying to belt each other in the head………But it’s so intriguing…….’ “

He started training under local legend Rossy Colosimo. They were an odd couple. Ross was short, muscly, and a fitness fanatic, who was the local symbol of the sport.

He treated his protege’, who towered over him, with plenty of ‘TLC’ and did his best to impart his fountain of knowledge to the feisty youngster. He particularly emphasised to this ‘loose cannon’ that he needed to be fair dinkum, and had to make a few sacrifices if he was going to make a go of it.

Dan got off to an unflattering start to his career with a loss on points in a three-rounder, to a tough old slugger – Billy Jones.

But his next four bouts were full of promise – three wins and a draw – which led to an offer to be matched up with cagey Reno Zurik, a fit, quick New South Welshman who had 51 fights to his name.

Their meeting at Beechworth, was Carey’s first 10-rounder, and Zurik showed the benefit of his experience to finish on strongly in the final rounds. The points decision was decisive, and led to him putting his Riverina Heavyweight Title on the line in the re-match at the Wangaratta Indoor Stadium, eight months later………..

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I remember it vividly. The Rovers had put their hands up to promote the ‘Boxing Extravaganza’, which was originally the brainchild of the late Denis Wohlers.

‘Mouse’ was an ideas man, but reckoned that ‘dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s’ was a job best passed on to someone else. That’s why, by the end of the night, I had aged a couple of years.

The early signs were promising. We were encouraged by the numbers who were rolling up to this strongly-advertised eight-bout program.

The first hitch came when, with time ticking away, there was no sign of the contingent of six Riverina boxers – including one of the principal attractions, Reno Zurik. Just as panic stations were setting in, and tempers were becoming frayed, four of them ambled in with their manager, a cagey old pro from Walla Walla called Kevin Kennedy. “Sorry fellahs,” he said, “two of the boys from Culcairn didn’t make the trip.”

“Shit…..Ah well, Thank Goodness most of you are here; now we can get on with the show,” we proclaimed.

“Have you got the Doctor organised,” said Kevin Kennedy. “What ?…..there’s been no mention of needing a Doctor.” “That’s one of the Boxing Regulations” he snorted……. “You must have a Doctor on hand……If there’s no Doctor, there’s no Fight Night.”

I reached for the ‘phone to ask a favour of the only person who might be a slight chance to pull us out of this predicament. Miraculously, Dr.Bruce Wakefield said he’d be down in a jiffy .

By now it was getting on, and the big crowd had become restless. So was our MC, Peter McCudden, who was rushing around wondering what he could say next, to pacify his audience.

“Tell ‘em we’re not far off starting,” we said. “I mentioned that 20 minutes ago,” he replied.

Eventually, the first Prelim got under way, and the 700-strong spectators were mercifully forgiving. They were soon roaring themselves hoarse as the night unfolded. It was an ideal prelude to the ‘Big One’ – Zurik versus Carey………………

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German-born Zurik looked every inch the seasoned campaigner when he slid through the ropes, accompanied by a ripple of polite applause. The ‘local hero’ followed, a minute or so later.

Strongly-built, liberally-tattooed, and with an air of confidence, big Danny shed his Purple and Gold Greta footy guernsey, and raised his gloved-hands, to huge acclaim. He knew that, of all the moments in what had been to date, an unfulfilled sporting career, this was the one he’d remember forever.

But there was a job to do, and he used his height to advantage in pummelling the champ in the early rounds.

He certainly had the ascendancy. In the fifth, he unleashed a powerful right, which rocked his opponent.

Even so, the dogged Zurik fought back. The contest was evenly-matched until the ninth round, when Carey, finishing strongly, completely asserted his dominance over the fourth-ranked Australian Heavyweight contender.

Eighty seconds into the final round it was all over. Carey knocked the champ to the canvas and the referee, Max Carlos, stopped the fight – Carey by a TKO.

Danny soaked up the adulation of the home crowd, and the esteem of holding the Riverina Belt. 18 months later he again tackled Reno Zurik in a six-rounder at Wagga. This time his canny opponent was too good, and gained a unanimous decision on points.

That was the beginning of the end for Dan, who, in several succeeding bouts, never again scaled the heights to which he promised to ascend.

But even so, he can’t help harking back to that memorable July evening in 1981, when he became the toast of Wangaratta……….

“FLAG FLAMES AGAIN FLICKER AT THE ‘SHOWIES’………”

I’m regularly reminded of my greatest sporting disappointment when I spot a swarthy fellah striding down Murphy Street of a week-day morning.

It’s 49 years ago, almost to the day, that he pranced on to the Showgrounds Oval, and proceeded to become a decisive figure in Myrtleford’s electrifying, historic Premiership triumph.

The first thought that comes into my mind is usually: ‘There’s the little prick that helped cost us a flag’.

Johnny Bianco chuckles at this, and recounts the circumstances that ultimately delivered him a premiership Medal in just his ninth senior game for his home-town Club:

“I’d not long graduated from Uni as a teacher, and received a posting to Meadow Creek early in 1970. Moyhu came to see me and I said: ‘Yeah, I’ll play with you.’ I was driving an old Morris Major Elite at the time, and travelled over from Myrtleford each day.”

“Anyway, as luck would have it, the Morris ‘carked it’ and Dad gave me a loan to buy a brand-new Renault from One-Mile Motors. The only proviso was that I had to give up footy, and concentrate on my teaching career.”

“A few weeks later, though, a three-man deputation from Myrtleford – the coach, Martin Cross, President, Len Ablett and the Parish Priest, Father Frank Jones – arrived at the farm and convinced Dad that I should play with Myrtleford.”

After six games in the Reserves ( during which he picked enough votes to finish runner-up in the League Medal ) John broke into the senior line-up. He strapped himself in for a dream ride, as the Saints stormed into the finals, and comfortably won the First Semi against Wangaratta. They sensationally knocked over previous flag favourites Wodonga by a point in the Prelim, to set up a Grand Final clash with the Rovers.

There was a touch of romanticism about the meeting of the O & M’s two fledgling Clubs, who’d been jointly admitted to the League twenty years earlier. Hence, a mammoth crowd jammed into the Showgrounds – a large percentage of them adorned in Red, White and Black.IMG_4382

Alas, the fairy-tale appeared destined to end in tears. The Rovers had looked the better-equipped team, and held a decisive 17-point lead at three quarter-time.IMG_4398

But a withering last quarter saw the Saints storm back into the game. The elusive Bianco proved to be their ‘energiser’. He made his presence felt by snapping the first major and his fresh legs were a factor in their scintillating fight-back.IMG_4384

When Graeme Ward booted a goal from well-out at the 24-minute mark, the game had slipped beyond the grasp of the Hawks. The piercing sound of the siren was the signal for hundreds of Myrtleford fans to swarm the ground and release two decades of pent-up emotions……..

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Grand Finals always produce a back-drop of yarns that make each of them unique……..Some are tinged with sadness………others conspicuous for their stories of brutality……or brave performances against the odds………

Myrtleford’s Cinderella-like triumph in 1970 is the most memorable of the eight O & M Grand Final battles that have been waged at  Sunday’s venue – the Norm Minns Oval (The Showgrounds). It may be worth plucking out some snapshots from the others……….

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1947: ALBURY v. BENALLA

Tommy ‘The Turk’ Lahiff’s Albury are chasing their third flag in four years, and have convincingly outpointed Benalla in the Second – Semi.

But Benalla, with ‘Iron-Man’ Bob Chitty booting nine goals, storm back into contention with a 44-point win over Corowa in the Prelim.

It’s anyone’s game at lemon-time in a riveting Grand Final, as the Demons lead by a solitary point. Chitty has been dynamic in the first half, but begins to fade out of the game.

Albury’s forwards, who have been wayward, to say the least, begin to hit the target, and with classy left-footer Jimmy Matthews controlling the mid-field, prove too strong in the latter stages, winning 11.18 (84) to 10.9 (69)……….

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1962: BENALLA v WANGARATTA ROVERS

Much of the pre-game hype centres around the ‘Swansong’ appearance of Rovers maestro Bob Rose, who has overcome mid-season injury to lead the Hawks into the ‘big-one’.

And he’s in rare touch, picking up 26 kicks by half-time, as the Rovers lead a battle of attrition, three goals to one.

Rovers fans ponder why Rose has left incumbent coach Ken Boyd to cool his heels in the back pocket for much of the game, whilst Benalla’s Alf Sikora and Terry Putt are playing such a key role in the big-man duels.

The Hawks still lead by five points – 4.8 to 3.9 at three quarter-time, but it’s obvious, in this battle of the defences, that the Rovers are tiring.

Demon star Neil Busse nails an early goal, and Putt scoops in a magnificent mark in the goal-square, to give the Demons the lead. Johnny Hogan kicks the sealer in the dying stages to give Benalla the flag – 7.14 (56) to 6.10 (46).

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1973: BENALLA v NORTH ALBURY

The fists fly early in a series of sensational flare-ups, as North use their physical strength in an attempt to counter the Demons’ pace and slick teamwork.

Brilliant Hopper mid-fielder John Smith is the first to go into umpire Ian Coates’ black book. The report is to have consequences for Smith the following year, as it costs him consecutive Morris Medals. Burly Joe Ambrose is also reported, but Benalla are able to withstand the pressure, and go into each of the breaks holding a narrow lead.IMG_4395

There are thrills aplenty for the crowd of just on 15,000 in the final term. Benalla slip out to an 18-point lead, but a 70-metre goal from Stan Sargeant and a snap from Fulford in time-on reduce the margin.

Benalla, desperate in defence, hold on to win a classic – 12.12 (84) to 11.11 (77).

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1978: BENALLA v WANGARATTA ROVERS

Benalla enter the Grand Final as raging favourites after chalking up 15 consecutive wins. But when the chips are down in the opening stanza it is the Rovers who take command.

They’ve made several pre-match positional changes which seem to catch the Demons on the hop, and by half-time the game is as good as over.IMG_4389

Benalla issue a brief challenge in the third quarter and, for a while, halt the Hawks’ supremacy. But their moment of glory is short-lived and their opponents sprint away again, to notch their sixth flag in eight years, winning by 54 points – 15.18 (108) to 7.12 (54).

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1991: YARRAWONGA v WANGARATTA ROVERS

Yarrawonga out-play Wangaratta Rovers in the Second Semi, and earn favouritism when the two sides meet at the Showgrounds a fortnight later.

This time the Hawks are well-prepared and blitz the Pigeons with a dominant first quarter which almost puts the game beyond doubt.

It’s typical Grand Final football, with plenty of tackling and smothering, which makes the job of kicking goals a difficult proposition. Robbie Walker is on fire at centre half forward, and the Pigeons swap several players onto him without success.IMG_4391

At the last change it is feasible that Yarra may still pinch the match, but the Hawks put it to rest by adding another 7.7, to win effortlessly – 17.16 (118) to 7.7 (49).

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1994: WANGARATTA ROVERS v WODONGA

A blustery wind blowing across the Norm Minns Oval eliminates the long-kicking, high-marking game for which both sides are renowned.

But the unbeaten Rovers signify their intentions early by hitting the ball hard and tackling ferociously. They kick five goals to nil in the first quarter, and continue their dominance. The third quarter becomes somewhat farcical, as the Dogs initiate several stoushes and are minus three players thanks to the umpire’s yellow card.

Did Simpson Medallist Robbie Walker is unstoppable and the usual suspects – Tossol, the Wilsons, Caruso and O’Donohue – reap the rewards of Wodonga’s ill-discipline, as the Hawks go on to win 14.14 (98) to 5.9 (39).

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2018: ALBURY v WANGARATTA

Albury, the League’s pace-setter for the best part of a decade, have to fight like the Dickens to preserve their unbeaten record in a riveting match.

With a strong breeze reaching almost 40kmh at times, both teams struggle to master it. The Tigers lead by 21 points at half-time, but the ‘Pies perform brilliantly to force their way back into the game, and trail by just 3 points at three quarter-time.IMG_4388

Albury get some breathing space through a piece of Jake Gaynor magic, but a Michael Newton goal- a snap for his third – cuts the lead back.

The game is full of desperation – particularly when Jimmy Grills marks on the goal-line to prevent a Magpie goal with just three minutes left.

In one of the most thrilling Grand Finals for years, Albury hang on to win: 11.12 (78) to 10.10 (70).

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POST-SCRIPT:   The 1970 Grand Final was Johnny Bianco’s last game for his beloved Saints. His profession took him to a variety of towns throughout the state, where he continued playing footy. In 1977 he shared in another flag, with Rushworth, under the coaching of former North Melbourne star Bernie McCarthy.

He settled in Wangaratta in 1984 and became renowned over the next 30 years as a much-loved teacher and musician. Last November John’s world was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with cancer.IMG_4396

“It’ll probably get me in the end,” he tells me. “But in the meantime I’m enjoying life as best I can. Hopefully,  I can live long enough to see Myrtleford’s second premiership………..”IMG_4387

“BEST KICK I EVER SAW…….”

The subject of this yarn politely declined an interview. “That’s okay,” I said. “Do you mind if I do a bit of a resume’ of your considerable sporting career.” “Go for your life,” was the reply……

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You’ve probably spotted him on his daily walk around the streets of Wangaratta…….. The gait is instantly-recognisable…..Long arms pumping……Legs striding out purposefully……..Head down…

Someone suggested he’s either attempting to unravel the problems of the universe……Or on the look-out for a stray 50-cent piece to add to his collection………..

Another route often takes him from his Templeton Street residence, down to Evans Street, where he might complete three or four circuits of the bank at his old Home Ground………..

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There was a time, more than five decades ago, when the crowd on those banks would roar with delight, as the big number 15 plucked a mark – reaching into the sky like a giant cherry-picker.

“Line ‘em up ‘Thommo’ “, they’d yell…….And from some obscene distance he’d bomb the pill through the big sticks.

No, I’m not dreaming.

Nostalgic old-timers recall the day Gary Ablett landed one from close to the centre of the ground for Myrtleford in a 1983 Semi-Final. It’s grown in distance over the years, to be labelled the longest goal ever kicked on the Findlay Oval.

Ray Thompson booted those regularly.IMG_4319

He had hands the size of meat-plates, and wore a pair of boots which amply protected his ankles. They were tailor-made for him by a city cobbler called Hope Sweeney, recognised as the best boot-maker in the business. ‘Thommo’ modestly vouched that the ‘Hope Sweeney’s’ were the reason he could hoof the ball a country mile……………

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The Thompson’s arrived in Wangaratta from Wagga in 1956, settled in Orwell Street, and began operating the town’s major Brickworks’.

It was a family concern, and Ray left school, aged 14, to join the business, toiling alongside his dad Sidney, and brothers Ron and Alan. The demanding, physically-taxing nature of the work no doubt hastened the development of his imposing physique.

He was still a teen-ager when Sidney passed away, so the boys took over joint operation of the Brickworks. Ray became the designated Employment Officer.

I came knocking on his door a decade or so later and became yet another of the itinerant employees of ‘Thompson’s’.

I’d just landed home from a casual, year-long Northern Sporting Safari and Ray warned : “I’m not sure whether this’ll be your cuppa tea.”

He was right. I advised him at lunch-time on the second day that I’d had enough.

‘Thompson’s Brickworks’ continued on to be an integral part of the local building landscape for almost 40 years, before the boys sold out to Boral in 1983…………

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When Ray was first invited to the Rovers, to train after the completion of his Junior League commitments at Centrals in late-1958, one jokester likened him to a new-born foal – all arms and legs.

He was slotted straight into the senior line-up in Round 1, 1959, as a back pocket, with the occasional run on the ball. That position, he always said, was a footy ‘sinecure’ . Just read the play, back yourself to out-mark your opponent and send it back from whence it came.IMG_4321

At 18, it was obvious that the young fellah was a star in the making. He finished fourth in the B & F in his first year, then played a starring role in the 1960 flag.

He was in awe of the dynamic Bob Rose, who had a big influence on his development. Even today, get him yapping about those ‘Golden Days’ and he can unveil a host of Rose stories, depicting his brilliance and coaching prowess.

Like the time ‘Thommo’ earned his first O & M guernsey, in 1961, and had the honour of playing alongside the great man in a Country Championship match against the Goulburn Valley.

He recalled ‘Rosie’ hardly being able to stand, or lace up his boots without assistance, before the game. The selectors tried to talk him out of playing. But he would have nothing of it. “With the stars that are playing in this side feeding the ball to me, I’ll be okay,” he said.

Ray was on fire up forward at Benalla one day, and booted five majors in a quarter, before rolling his ankle.

Reasoning that he’d be no value to the side in that condition, he advised Rose, who said: ‘No, we’ll plonk you in the pocket. They’ll be that focused on keeping you under control that it’ll release a couple of our other forwards to do some damage.”

In 1961 ‘Thommo’ was in his prime, and took out the Club Best & Fairest. The departure of veteran Les Clarke the following season saw him handed the vice-captaincy, under Rose. He was 21. By now he was used to spending most of his time at centre half forward, where he proved a near-insurmountable obstacle for defenders. If he got a sniff of it in the air those huge hands would clamp the ball.IMG_4323

He resisted the overtures of five VFL clubs. On one occasion he was at the Western Oval, watching Rovers player Barrie Beattie go around in a Footscray practice match. Teddy Whitten, who was notified that he was in the crowd, invited him to strip for the last half. ‘Thommo’ declined.

His mates reckoned that “he’d probably have had a crack at League footy if they’d set him up in a Brickworks down there”.

One of his most memorable performances came in the 1964 Grand Final. The Hawks had won the first 15 matches that season, before losing the next four, which included a demoralising loss to Wangaratta in the Second-Semi.

After a shaky start, they overcame Myrtleford in the Prelim, to earn another shot at the ‘Pies in the big one. ‘Thommo’ had copped a heavy knock against the Saints and was unable to train on Tuesday or Thursday night prior to the Grand Final.

He was still receiving pain-killing injections minutes before the match and limped and hobbled around ten minutes after the start.

The ‘Chronicle’s’ journo Lester Hansen summed up his performance…….

“In an inspired patch of football in the third quarter, Thompson kicked four of the Hawks’ six goals. The big fellow hauled down incredible marks, moved around the ground with the poise of a ballet dancer and burnt off opponents with speed that must have amazed even himself. It will forever be remembered as ‘Thommo’s quarter………….”IMG_4320

The Hawks made it successive flags the following year . One of the tactics of coach Ken Boyd was to start Thompson in the back pocket, then move him to centre half forward as the game unfolded.

The ‘65 Grand Final was no exception. Boyd had been having trouble with Magpie defender Bernie Killeen. But when big Ray moved onto Killeen he added life to the attack and combined well with elusive flanker Laurie Flanigan to help swing the pendulum in the Hawks’ favour.

‘Thommo’ injured his knee in an inter-League match against Bendigo in 1966 and it began to cause him no end of trouble. He thought if he had a good spell and tried again, that might help.

He could only limp his way through eight games in that horror year. And when he consulted South Melbourne’s Head Trainer Bill Mitchell, the diagnosis was heart-wrenching.IMG_4324

Thinking the pesky limb had settled down again over the summer, he decided to have a run with his old Rovers team-mate John Welch, who was coaching Whorouly. But after half a season he accepted the inevitable…

He retired at the tender age of 27, after playing 143 games for the Hawks. A stint on the committee, and as Chairman of Selectors, followed………

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‘Thommo’s’ fascination with cricket almost rivalled his passion for footy. As a middle-order batsman and purveyor of off-breaks, he was a member of the all-conquering United teams which dominated the local game through the sixties and seventies.

He featured in all nine of their WDCA flags. And when he and Brenda and the four kids moved out to Tarrawingee, he was one of the king-pins – on and off the field – in the resurgence of the ‘Bulldogs, who became a Sunday cricket power.

No tale about ‘Thommo’ would be complete without the re-telling of his finest stroke of golfing fortune. He was a regular on local courses and tackled the game with typical gusto. A handicap in the high 20’s had eventually been whittled down to the 12-mark.

He credited his improvement to a set of state-of-the-art clubs which were unfortunately snavelled from the back of his Ute after a game at Waldara. He promptly reported their departure to the Police and decided it was best to move on with life.

A call from the Prahran police, weeks later, notified him that they’d been ‘flogged off’ to Cash Converters for the paltry sum of $60, and if he came down to identify them, he could be re-united with his prized ‘Lindson’s’…

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Lester Hansen, the journo who wrote an aforementioned piece about the 1964 Grand Final, has now retired to Port Macquarie. He occasionally rings to touch base, catch up on the latest O & M gossip, and enquire as to the welfare of some of the old acquaintances of his Chronicle days.

The conversation eventually meanders to one of his favourites……..”How’s Thommo going…..What a player he was……Best kick I ever saw………..”

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P.S: Keen Rovers man that he is, ‘Thommo’ will be watching Saturday’s clash between the Hawks and Pigeons at the Findlay Oval. The Rovers Past Players are holding a Get-Together as part of the day.

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‘THE OBJECT OF MY DESIRE………’

I happened upon the object of my desire many, many years ago.

She was destitute, unloved; forever being compared unfavourably to her sassy neighbor across the road, who attracted, and courted, numerous suitors.

Noses were turned up whenever her name was mentioned. Jokes were made about her unsophistication. She’ll amount to nothing, they scoffed.

But I could see something in her. She possessed a rare charm which turned me on. I grew to love her more and more. It’s an affair that has never abated.

Through no fault of hers, my emotions still occasionally overflow in her presence. I find myself scaling the heights one minute, then plummeting to the lowest of lows the next.

Permit me, if you will, to recount a few of the cherished milestones of this dear old friend of mine ………….

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WELCOMING A NEW GUEST

I’m no more than four or five, and nipping at dad’s heels, when I’m first introduced to the new home of the Wangaratta Rovers.

They’ve received permission to use a ten-acre patch in Evans Street that had been handed to the Council way back in 1859. The specification of the Lands Department at the time was that it be used for sporting purposes.

It was un-named, but colloquially dubbed ‘The Cricket Ground’, and used sparingly over the next 91 years, for cricket and the occasional game of footy. Precious little had been done to improve it. The ‘paddock’ was rough-hewn, full of tussocks and mostly unkempt. A ramshackle building, which comprised a roof and two and a half sides, was occupied by a local swaggie, Tommie Clack.

Tommie used the floorboards of one part of the ‘pavilion’ as firewood, to provide some element of comfort in the harsh winter months.

He continued to squat, even when the Rovers began training there in the early fifties. The process was that they’d undress in the Industrial Pavilion under the old Showgrounds Grandstand, climb through an opening in the tin fence, and begin ball-work shortly after.

They continued to play Home games at the Showgrounds whilst spending thousands of hours -with Council assistance – grading the oval, rolling and sowing grass, and re-developing the surrounds of their new home.

“We had to grub out large trees; the oval had to be re-fenced. I recall we had to cart gravel from Eldorado for the banking; we had as many as 50 at working bees,” Rovers stalwart Frank Hayes once said.

“ And every evening and week-end for months, carpenters, plasterers, bricklayers and labourers worked like beavers to convert the dilapidated building into presentable Clubrooms.”IMG_3242

In 1952, in time for their third Ovens and Murray season, the Hawks are finally settled into their new headquarters…………….

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STAGING THE ‘BIG SHOW’

Just four years after its christening as an Ovens and Murray venue, ‘The Cricket Ground’ is chosen to host the eagerly-anticipated Grand Final encounter between North Albury and Wangaratta.

More than 11,000 fans pack in, and are treated to a classic contest which fluctuates throughout. It’s really a ‘coming-of-age’ for 18 year-old Magpie champion, Lance Oswald (later to become a VFL star). In a best-afield display, he boots five of his seven goals in the third quarter, to bring Wang back into contention.

But the ‘Hoppers steady, and hold a slender four-point three-quarter time lead. ‘Mother Nature’ seems to turn against Wang in the final term, as ideal conditions give way to a gale-force storm which blows towards North’s goal. The turning-point comes late in the game, when North’s Arthur Pickett sends one through the big sticks from the centre of the ground. They hang on desperately to win by 10 points – 13.15 to 13.5…….

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A CENTRE-STRIP

A centre-square of black turf is laid, lovingly-nurtured, and comes into use for the first time in January 1955. It survives flood, drought, plagues, vandals, under and over-indulgent curators and some footy coaches who regard its presence as a necessary evil.

The Rovers Cricket Club springs up and soon becomes a vital component of the Oval.

With shared tenants, Combined Schools and United, which morph into the merged Rovers-United, then Rovers-United Bruck, they snare a total of 23 WDCA senior flags……..

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Another WDCA flag returns to the Findlay Oval

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MR. FOOTBALL ARRIVES IN TOWN

Everyone with the remotest connection to football in the vicinity, is abuzz with anticipation in late-1955, as news spreads that Mr.Football has arrived in town.

Bobby Rose, unanimously touted as the best footballer in Australia, has been lured as captain-coach of the Rovers.

The battling Hawks are astounded at the extent to which he transforms their fortunes. A crowd of over 1,000 flock to watch him in action in the club’s first practice match. Membership shoots up by more than 300%. The outlay of 35 pounds a week for a man who was a ‘marketer’s dream’ is deemed a fabulous investment.

Suddenly, the Rovers are front-page news and recruits eager to savour the champ’s wisdom, sign on. History will record him as the club’s most esteemed figure………

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‘LET  CELEBRATIONS BEGIN……’

The biggest party in the Ground’s history begins soon after the siren blares to signify the Hawks’ 51-point win over Wodonga in the 1958 Grand Final – their first O & M flag.

The game is a triumph for the dynamic Rose, but there are numerous heroes. The players return to Wangaratta by train and are led down to the Ground by the Town Band.rosey

At the open-air Dance and Barbecue, a crowd of more than 3,000 is there to greet them. They devour 3,000 steakettes, 1,000 steaks, and the caterers carve up two large bullocks. The crowd is still at it in the wee hours of the morning…..

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A YOUNGSTER IN THE WINGS

As a keen cricketer, Bob Rose is an integral part of three premierships with Rovers. His greatest fan is a tiny 7-8 year-old, who diligently uses his own score-book to record each game. .

And at each break in play he grabs a bat and pleads with somebody to throw a few down to him. Years later, the kid seems destined to wear the baggy green, as he progresses to become a prolific Sheffield Shield opening batsman. However, a tragic car accident puts paid to Robert Rose’s highly-promising career……

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THE CHALLENGE MATCH

The Rovers’ victory over Wodonga in the 1960 Grand Final prompts a challenge from Oakleigh, who have taken out the VFA flag.

The match, played on the newly-named City Oval the following Sunday, attracts huge interest from the football public. Several city book-makers – keen Oakleigh backers – sense an opportunity to clean up and find multiple ‘takers’ when the word is put around .

But it’s a one-horse race. The Hawks lead from the first bell, running away to win 14.17 to 3.10…..

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COMFORT FOR THE FANS

With support from the Rovers in 1960, the Council submits plans for a Shelter, which is to be built in two stages and will cover the whole embankment to the right of the Clubrooms. It provides a vast improvement in supporter comfort and becomes possibly the most identifiable feature of the City Oval.IMG_4287

Many of the Ground’s most rabid fans make the new Shelter their home, and it is later named ‘The Neville Hogan Stand’, after a Club icon.

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THE BOYD – TUCK CLASH

It’s early 1964, when an incident occurs which is still imprinted in the minds of those who were there – although, to this day, you’ll get different versions.

Rovers coach Ken Boyd, one of the most controversial figures in the game, and Corowa leader Frank Tuck, the ex-Collingwood skipper, clash on the score-board side of the ground. To most it seems like a legitimate shirt-front which costs Tuck a broken jaw, but it triggers hitherto-unseen demonstrations at half-time.

Spiders supporters hurl abuse at ‘Big Ken’ as he walks from the ground and several, with fists raised, try to push their way through the packed crowd.

The ‘Melbourne Herald’ reports on the incident in their edition the following Tuesday, with the headline: ‘KEN BOYD IS NAMED’. Boyd subsequently sues for libel, and the aftermath is played out in the Supreme Court two years later.IMG_4282

Against all considered opinion, Boyd wins the case and is granted substantial damages. He retires later that year, with two flags to his name and a reputation as a charismatic and inspiring coach…..

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THE SECOND STOREY

The Rovers undertake a substantial renovation to the clubrooms, beginning in late 1964, and complete the task in ‘65. A second story is added to the humble abode that had been constructed twelve years earlier.

The players are to the forefront of this, as coach Ken Boyd marshalls them to lend support to the voluntary ‘tradies’ who had been at it every week-end for months.

It’s called the ‘Maroney Pavilion’, as a tribute to one of the club’s stalwarts, who has been at the forefront of the project ………..

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THE LOCAL DERBY

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Rinso Johnstone marks spectacularly in a Local Derby. Half-a-century on, his grandson, Karl Norman would become a familiar figure at the Findlay Oval.

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Neville Hogan gets his kick away, in front of a large Local Derby crowd.

O&M Wangaratta Rovers vs Wangaratta (10)

72 epic editions of the ‘Local Derby’ have been staged at the City Oval to date, but none have carried the consequences of the 1976 Grand Final.

The Rovers are in the midst of their fabulous ‘Super Seventies’ era when they meet a confident Wangaratta side which has hit peak form.

The Hawks are considered likely to hold an advantage, playing on their own dung-hill , but it’s not to be. The ‘Pies produce power football from the first bounce and lead by 25 points at half-time.

The capacity crowd settles down to watch a predictable fight-back from the champs, but it fails to eventuate. They’re dismantled to the tune of 36 points……….

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CLUBROOMS EXPAND

A further re-modelling of the ‘Maroney Pavilion’ is undertaken between 1981-82, which increases the floor space of the complex by almost 40 per cent, and crowd capacity from 200 to 350.IMG_4289

Thirty-odd years later, a further step in the Clubrooms project is completed when a Balcony, covering the perimeter of the upstairs building is constructed, offering arguably the O & M’s best viewing facilities.

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THE LIGHTS GO ON

The first match for premiership points, under new lighting, is played at the City Oval in 1993. Whilst the Rovers’ performance in their 80-point win over Yarrawonga, is bright, the same can’t be said for the lights.

Supporters from both clubs fume that they’re unable to identify players on the far side of the ground,

But the dim lights don’t deter Hawk spearhead Matthew Allen, who slots nine majors in a scintillating display…..

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A FINAL NAME – CHANGE

The City Council, in consultation with the Rovers, re-names City Oval the ‘W.J.Findlay Oval’, in appreciation of the contributions of a former Postal Clerk, long-term Councillor, Mayor, Parliamentary candidate, author, Rovers committee-man, Life Member and ardent Hawk supporter.

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Four legends of the Findlay Oval – Bob Rose, Neville Hogan, Robbie Walker and Andrew Scott

‘Old Bill’, who has passed on a couple of years earlier, had first-hand experience of the evolution of a decrepit patch of dirt into a sporting mecca …………..

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BACK TO THE PRESENT

Darkness falls early on this bitter, early-August Tuesday evening……A curtain of misty rain glistens as it sweeps across the floodlit Oval……Brown and Gold-clad figures flip the pill around with precision, egged on by a demanding figure with a stentorian voice.

I’m propped under the giant gum-tree, which has probably hovered here longer than the 160-year existence of this sporting Oval.

If only it could tell the tale it may be of: “….. People who come and find seats where they sat when they were children, and cheered their heroes….. And watch the games as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters……..The memories are so thick they have to brush them away from their faces……..This field, it’s part of our past……..”IMG_2470