‘A DAY AT THE FOOTY WITH DONNY……’

Footy’s back……You beauty……..

I’ve just alighted from the Rovers rooms after the half-time break…….A passionate Cressa has pleaded with his charges to withstand the enormous pressure being applied by the Lavington Panthers in this gripping opening-round tussle .

Still pondering what might lay ahead, I resume my seat in the rejuvenated L.P.O grandstand. It’s a game riddled with errors, but nevertheless entertaining. Looks like it’ll develop into a battle of attrition in the last half…….

Moments later there’s a tap on the shoulder from the old bloke sitting behind me ……….

“I noticed your Wang Rovers top. Did you play at all ?….”

“Yeah, late sixties. What about yourself ?….” I ask.

“North Albury…….and a bit of a run at Footscray…….”

To a lifetime Bulldog nut like me this pronouncement was music to the ears. The correlation between North and Footscray means that it can only be one person……….

“You must be Donny Ross.”

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My love-affair with the ‘Dogs was pretty well sparked by the events of 1954. For 62 years that mystical, sole premiership was our Nirvana. I remained convinced that it may never again be re-visited.

Firmly imprinted in my mind for decades were the scores, all the major details, the trivia , and the side: From the backline, it read : Wally Donald, Herb Henderson, Dave Bryden…… Half Backs: Alan Martin, Teddy Whitten, Jim Gallagher…..Centres: Ron McCarthy, Don Ross, Doug Reynolds………

“You know, there’s only six of us left,” Don tells me. “It was a terrific side, well led by Charlie Sutton. He was a bit underestimated as a player, Charlie. They always rave about how tough he was, but you don’t wear the Big V three years in a row if you’re not a star in your own right……….And Whitten ?……Well, he’s still one of the best I’ve ever seen….”

We do stop yapping for an occasional glance at the footy. “Where’s Paul Roos’s young bloke ? “

Number 22, I point out; seems to be able to find the footy.

“Not as tall as the old man, but he moves alright, that’s for sure,” he says. “So does the sandy-haired left-footer – number 3.”

“That’s Sam Murray, who spent a bit of time at Collingwood a couple of years back.”

He’s super-impressed with Lavi’s energetic coach, Simon Curtis…….But we continue to digress…….I’m eager to re-visit the career of this softly-spoken 87 year-old……..

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He grew up in Boree Creek and had virtually no exposure to sport. His main physical outlet in his pre-teen years came from cutting thistles, or carting bags of wheat, for which he’d be paid the princely sum of five pounds per day.

Don discovered footy when he was sent to the Albury High School, to commence his secondary education.

“I showed a bit, I suppose, when I had a run with North Albury juniors. Don Wilks, who’d played at Hawthorn, took on the coaching job and must have been impressed. He put me straight into the senior side….. I’d just turned 16…..”

He timed his arrival nicely. North won their way into the Grand Final against Wangaratta, and gave themselves a good chance of toppling the reigning premiers. But Don, who’d had a great season, and lined up in the centre on the experienced Norm Minns, was off the ground in the first five minutes, destined to take no further part in the game.

Another key player, John Murcott, hobbled off minutes later. The Hoppers did a great job to stay within striking distance with no bench, but eventually lowered their colours by 16 points.

Don took out the B & F in 1951, and obviously impressed former Footscray coach Arthur Olliver, who’d travelled up to see him play.

“I wasn’t really sure whether I wanted to go, but Billy King, my coach at North that year, said: ‘You’d be silly if you don’t have a crack.’ So off I went, down to the big smoke…..”

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Again, his timing was spot-on. The Bulldogs were building up to something special, and he was named in the seniors for the opening round of 1952. ( “You know, I was lucky enough to never play a Reserves game, either at North or Footscray, “ he says).

And things also fell into place when he landed a job as a maintenance carpenter at Smorgan’s, after having begun a carpentry apprenticeship back in Albury.

This later led to an opportunity to work in the building game with a staunch old Bulldog man, Wally Beevers.

“I did some sub-contract work with Wally, and worked alongside Gary Simonds ( the founder of Simonds Homes ).”

“But the biggest win I had was meeting my future wife Shirley, one Saturday night, at the dance in the Orama Ballroom in Footscray, ” Don says.

The ‘Dogs were on the improve, finishing third in 1953. After losing the first two games of 1954, they began their finals assault from second spot.

Don fitted neatly into his role in the centre, after having been experimented with in all key positions. But he’d begun his National Service at Puckapunyal mid-way through the year, and, in the lead-up to the Grand Final, didn’t train for a month.

“I suppose I was still pretty fit because we were marching for six hours a day, and doing different other drills, but I certainly didn’t get much ball-handling,” he says.

“The trouble was, come Grand Final day, I’d used up all my leave passes, and I had to rely on the good grace of my sergeant to get out of the barracks, and to the MCG. He said: ‘I’ll look the other way.’ So I sneaked off, Absent without Leave, to play the biggest game of my life.”

I’ve since read that Charlie Sutton regarded Ross as one of the linchpins of the excellent Footscray sides of the ‘50’s. At 13st 7lb and 5’11”, he often shunted him to centre half forward if the ‘Dogs needed a lift.

He was on fire in the Grand Final, with 20 possessions in the comfortable 39-point win over Melbourne.

But there was little time to enjoy the Premiership celebrations…..He had to get back to ‘Pucka’ and sneak in without being apprehended…………

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Don had now mastered one of football’s newly-created positions – playing as a ruck-rover.

“Barassi was the game’s first ruck-rover, but Sutton reckoned I might make a good fist of it, so I became the second.”

He won the Bulldogs’ Best and Fairest in 1956, despite team-mate Peter Box taking out the Brownlow Medal. As an indication of the esteem in which he was held, he was elevated to the vice-captaincy the following season.

“ I quickly grew to dislike the job. I was six or seven years younger than some of the club’s stalwarts, and felt they probably didn’t appreciate a young tyro being one of the official leaders. Besides, things had become a bit unsettled around the place……….”

“Charlie Sutton was running a pub, and had taken his eye off the ball a bit. The Committee hauled him in one night in the middle of the season and read the riot act to him. Charlie came out of the meeting and promptly gave us the night off training…….That didn’t go over too well…..I don’t know whether that was the sole reason, but they sacked him soon after, and replaced him with Ted Whitten.”

“ To Charlie’s credit, though, it didn’t affect his love of the Club; he had another stint as coach and served as President for a few years……”

The following year – 1958 – Footscray tumbled to second-last. Don had always planned to return to the bush to settle down and bring up his family, but it was a shock to the ‘Dogs when he told them he was quitting.

He’d played 129 games, and was just 24, when news broke that he’d turned his back on the glamour of League football to take on the coaching job at his old club, North Albury………….

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“So there you are, you old bastard……I wondered where you’d got to….I thought Alzheimer’s had set in and you’d gone walkabout……” quipped his mate ‘Happy’ Whetmore, an old Lavington player, who had brought Don in from Jindera for the day.

“Nah, it was too rowdy in the Entertainment Area……I wanted to concentrate on the footy,” Don replied. He introduces me to ‘Happy’ ( “I’ve known him for years, and still don’t know his first name,” he says ).

We resume our conversation, acknowledging that the Rovers appeared to have broken the game open in this final quarter………..

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Don was heralded as the Hoppers’ saviour when he again pulled on the Green and Gold, but he was unable to take them beyond the middle reaches of the ladder.

“We just didn’t have the dough to spend on recruiting to be really competitive in those days,” he says.

His own form – and his leadership – was outstanding. He finished third, sixth, second and second in the Morris Medal in the four years he coached, between 1959 and ‘62.

“It was a Golden Era for the O & M, with fellahs like Frank Tuck, Billy Stephen, Fred Goldsmith, Jimmy Deane and Des Healy in charge of other Clubs,” he says.

“But your bloke ( Bob Rose ) was the pick of ‘em. I remember we played the South-West League up at Narrandera one year. He had a crook back and could hardly walk. The officials suggested that he pull out, but he said: ‘I don’t want to let anyone down. I’ll be right once I get out there.’…….He dominated on a forward flank. ‘Rosey’ was a champ.”

Don coached Burrumbuttock for a season before deciding to hang up the boots, aged 29, and concentrate on his flourishing construction business. The North Albury Clubrooms, at Bunton Park, was one of the hundreds of District projects he oversaw.

He settled, with Shirley and the three kids – Sandra, Jenny and Paul ( who also played with North Albury, and had three senior games at Footscray ) at Lavington. They later moved out to a property at Jindera, where he still resides.

He took on breeding and training racehorses as a hobby: “ I usually only had two or three in work at a time, but we had a lot of success. Over the years we won Cups at Wang, Wodonga, Corowa,, Wagga, Benalla and Albury.”

The North Albury, Ovens & Murray and Western Bulldogs Hall of Fame Member still follows the ‘Dogs closely, and is treated like royalty when he heads down to Melbourne for the occasional game.

“I’m keen, but I’m not a patch on Shirley. She’ll watch ‘em on telly, then saddle up for the re-play ! “ says the old champ………..

THE WEST IS RISING…………

The Dogs are barking!!

It’s still sinking in. How does an old Scragger cope with the range of emotions coursing through his veins after a few days of high drama and celebration ?

Disbelief is one of them.

It’s difficult to comprehend that we’re still up and about in the rarified ‘air’ of Grand Final week. After all, it has seemingly been our destiny to perennially lurk around the lower reaches of the ladder, helping to prop it up whilst the glamour clubs jostled for the glory . ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

You’ll be well aware of the way it has usually been – pinching the odd win here and there ; being a hindrance to the VFL/AFL because of our impecuniosity and our complaints of being marginalised ; then providing a ready-made recruit for a cashed-up club to pilfer from us.

Remember our Brownlow Medallists, like Kelvin Templeton, Gary Dempsey, Brad Hardie and Adam Cooney, who craved the success that had eluded them and moved onto fresher pastures. And the others we reared – Brian Wilson, Bernie Quinlan and Barry Round, who developed into such superstars in other guernseys that they also took out the coveted ‘gong’.

Far from being the ‘people’s favourites’ that we have become, for generations past we’ve been ‘on the nose’.

Our ground, perched in the industrial area of the derided western suburbs, has been labelled with many unsavory nicknames and detested by opposition fans and players alike.

The wind, howling down from Geelong Road, would make it near impossible to kick goals at that end. Except for the Dogs, that is, who were used to its nuances and could slot ‘sausages’ from the most obscure spots, a’ la Eddie Betts.

The rickety old grandstands and run-down buildings added to the ‘retro’ effect. But you could sniff the atmosphere when you submerged yourself amongst the Footscray faithful on match day.

The old ducks, festooned in Red, White and Blue and busily knitting their Bulldog scarves and rugs. And the blokes – can in hand and draped in their favourite duffel-coat, many of them claiming to be on first-name terms with the legendary duo, Charlie and E.J.

I know we probably haven’t helped ourselves over the years. There was always a crisis brewing not far from the surface, a rumoured challenge to the Board, or the threat of a player walk-out.

But the situation was never so dire as it was in those early October days of 1989, when the financially-stricken club faced the possibility of being wound-up and merged. Once again though, the Dogs were ‘Too Tough to Die’…………

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I can remember tuning in two years ago, to catch a scheduled important press conference. There had been talk of player dissension and murmurings surrounding coach Brendan McCartney.

Surely, I thought, President Peter Gordon, will be putting all these rumours to rest and announcing that ‘Macca’ has the full support of the Board.

Alas, the coach was gone………and so was the captain, Ryan Griffen.

Oh no, we’ve imploded again…………

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Fast forward to last week-end……….

We remove ourselves from the throng of bustling commuters and the cacaphony of rattling trains and step into the main bar of Spencer Street’s Savoy Tavern Hotel.

There’s a buzz of expectancy among the large, rowdy audience. The 5.15 pm start has given them the opportunity to ‘wet their whistles’ with a few ‘heart-starters’, to get in the mood for this much-anticipated GWS-Bulldogs Prelim.

It’s a bit of an eerie feeling. We have this ‘love-child of the AFL’ seemingly headed for an era of dominance and hosting the game on their own ‘dung-hill’, which hands them an sizeable advantage.

Pitted against the young Dogs, who have overcome so many obstacles throughout the season. They have fallen at this Preliminary Final hurdle on the last seven occasions. Surely the odds are stacked against them this time, aren’t they ?

But no, they start confidently enough and do most of the attacking early. It’s a desperate tussle and every score from the Bulldogs is greeted with a huge roar from the crowded Bar.

It’s magnificent stuff, the next best thing to being at Spotless Stadium.

There’s nothing in it at three quarter-time. But a couple of goals to the Giants swings the pendulum in their favour. The Bulldogs are not be denied and their work in close is superb. ‘Libba’, Jack McCrae and Dahlaus are feverish in the clinches.

When the silky Jason Johannison streaks forward and spots ‘The Bont’ in the clear, the wizard’s resultant major brings the house down.

And the super-cool McCrae slots a pressure goal to give them a telling advantage in the dying minutes.

The last quarter has been the stuff of legend and when Jake Stringer breaks clear, you’d think he wouldn’t be able to resist eyeing the big sticks, to ice the game.

But no, he spots Tory Dickson on his own and slots a perfect kick in his direction. It’s disciplined stuff from ‘The Package’. The siren blows while Dickson still has the ball in his hands. Normally deadly accurate, his shot hits the post, but it matters little – the Dogs are home.

It brings forth joyous celebrations from the patrons in the Bar. One girl, who has been prancing around for most of the last quarter, decides to dispense with her top, much to the mirth of those around her.

Five minutes later, the majority of the crowd, which has been bubbly and excited and, you’d think, would have been settling in to review the game, have downed their beers and disappeared.

The TV screens have switched over to the Storm- Canberra Rugby League Final. We race back to the motel to watch another hour and a half of Fox Footy reviews of the game and still can’t get enough of it. It’s been a memorable day for the Dogs………..

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The action continues the following day, at Etihad. We’re there bright and early to see the Murray Bushrangers fight all the way, before going down in the dying stages of a quality clash against Sandringham.

This paves the way for the Footscray – Casey Scorpions VFL Grand Final encounter. Casey won their last encounter by 70 points and are warm favourites.

By game-time the crowd has swelled to more than 17,000 – a huge attendance by VFL standards, but totally understandable, as the Stadium’s full of doting Bulldog fans, still on a high.

They offer a generous round of applause to the veteran Will Minson when he appears on the oval for the warm-up. A cheer goes up for the wounded star Lin Jong on his courageous return and all of his team-mates are warmly welcomed.

The match is in the balance at half-time, but Footscray run away with it in the third term, slicing the Scorpions to pieces in a dominant display.

Dogs fans roar. They’re becoming quite partial to this unaccustomed run of success. They belt out the theme song with gusto.

More than 10,000 faithful followers converge on the Western Oval to watch the final training session this morning. Most of them, I’d imagine, are rusted-on Dogs fans who have vivid memories of the bad old days. ‘Libba’ (the old fellah, that is) reckons he played in front of crowds less than this.

They’re exciting times, that’s for sure…….. Now for the ‘big one’…………

 

 

 

 

 

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