“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………….

“THE COLLECTOR……..”

The Aussie flag in the front garden of this neat Yarrawonga residence is flying at half-mast today……..

Understandable……..It’s not even a week since the untimely deaths of Shane Warne, Rod Marsh and Dean Woods rocked the nation……So what sporting ‘nut’ worth his salt wouldn’t offer his tribute to a trio of legends…….

“Fair dinkum………..you’ll be staggered when you see this bloke’s collection of sporting memorabilia,” Robert Tait tells me. “He’s spent a lifetime pulling it together…..”

‘Bert’s’ mate is Ray Humphreys, a Corowa-born ( “I prefer to say North Rutherglen” he quips ), and now retired Post-Master, who spent his working career officiating in Australia Post Offices around the North-East.

Ray’s a 70-plus, talkative , instantly-likeable fellah, who introduces me to his off-sider…….an emerald green Eclectus Parrot which is also certainly not short of a word.

‘Mister Eccles’, he says, ensures that nothing happens in the Humphreys household without his approval…………

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‘Bert’ and Ray go back thirty years or so, to when he was coaxed onto the Yarra Footy Club Past Players & Officials committee . They’re President and Secretary/Treasurer respectively, and are proud of the role that their 240-member organisation plays in supporting the Pigeons.

Of course, the fact that ‘Bert’s’ an old Corowa player, and Ray retains his boyhood ‘Glen leanings, prompts plenty of banter between the two:

“I’m still crooked on one Club,” Ray says……”It came to a head in 1979 (when Corowa and Rutherglen merged)……The Redlegs and Spiders used to be hammer and tongs at one another…..On Saturday arvo they’d brawl and fight, and bash each other…….That night the Corowa blokes would head over to Rutherglen to continue the fight……When they’d meet again, the Rutherglen fellahs would return the ‘favour’……”

“You know what those bastards done ?…….They built a new bridge between Rutherglen and Corowa……You know why ?……..So they could get our money quicker……Then they had the cheek to suggest that we join forces………”

“We saved the ‘Glen,” jokes ‘Bert’……”They were gone……..The old Spiders came and resurrected you…..”

“No you didn’t……..You were a bunch of imposters,” replies Ray. “Just remember, before Federation, Corowa was known as North Rutherglen……”

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Ray’s dad farmed some land between Rutherglen and Howlong…….”Our family was Redlegs and nothing else…..The ‘Glen rarely won when I was growing up……….But we’d say: ‘Oh well, we got beat today but we’ll beat ‘em the next time……Then you’d tune into 2CO to see whether Corowa got beat…..If they did, it’d make you feel good….”

He got the appetite for collecting sports memorabilia when he was a whippersnapper.

An uncle, Ray Renshaw, who never married, would always be invited for Christmas Dinner, and started buying he and his brother a sports book each Christmas.

“The first one he bought me was ‘Slasher Opens Up’ ( by Test all-rounder Ken Mackay ). He gave my brother ‘Captain’s Story’, by Bobby Simpson.”

“I thought: ‘How good’s this ?’…..When I started work I began to put money away each week to buy another book……My library just kept growing……Now I’ve gotta save up and buy the unit out the back, so I can store the 5,000-odd books I’ve got !……..”

He ushers me up to a second-storey room which is a shrine, comprising books, framed items, medals, DVD’s, caps, programmes, cards….You name it, he’s got it…….

“I’ve got a real thing about Boxing,” Ray explains.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s two blokes fighting at, say, the Wangaratta Town Hall…..I go……I score ‘em and all that stuff. I back-track the next day on what I’ve written, and check the judges scores against my scoring….”

“I wanted to see a World Heavyweight title bout……so I flew over to the Phillipines to see Ali and Frazier fight the ‘Thrilla in Manila’, back in 1975………..Doesn’t get any bigger than that….I was gonna make sure I got a decent seat, so I paid $400 (Aus) for one at ringside…..bought 20 T-shirts to give my mates….got all the relevant memorabilia, which I reckon is now worth about $10,000…….”

“One of the great days of my life, it was……”

He headed over to England for an Ashes Tour in 1985 and, when he landed in London, read that the Irishman Barry McGuigan was scheduled to fight Eusebio Pedroz from Panama, for the world Featherweight crown later that night.

“It was being staged at the Queen’s Park Rangers soccer ground. I said to my friends : ‘I’ve got an appointment………So I got on the tube and called in to every pub in the vicinity, asking if anybody had a ticket.”

“A fellah said: ‘Listen buddy, I don’t know how good a seat it is, but you can have it for what I paid for it – 30 pound………..We had a beer together and I got into the fight…….McGuigan’s dad, who was a famous Irish singer, gave a rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ as the two fighters entered the ring……It was an incredible atmosphere…….”

“I bought a T-shirt that night……Said to Marg ( his wife ) a few months ago: ‘You know what’ll happen to this when I pass away……It’ll be used for a feather duster…….So I got it framed…”

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Ray’s collated all his books in sections: Cricket Biographies, Touring Books, General Cricket, Boxing, Football…every conceivable sport.

“I love collecting local sports History books …..”If City Colts or Dederang-Mount Beauty or someone produce their history, I’ll be the first one to buy it….” he says.

“See the end section over there; a fair portion of that is devoted to Essendon……There’s hardly a thing that’s been produced about the Bombers that I haven’t got….”

I notice the life-size portrait of Gavin Wanganeen standing guard in the corner, and some individual portraits hanging above the book-shelves.

“Yeah, there’s 26 of those……..Each of those fellahs played in either, or both, of Essendon’s ‘62 and ‘65 premiership teams…….including the late Ian ‘Bluey’ Shelton, my favourite Bomber of all-time……”

He pulls out a glossy publication, and says it has a special place in his heart…..The history of the Yarrawonga Football Club, published in 2003…….

“It’s as good as any country club history I’ve seen….It took us two to three years to produce. We sold 1,000 copies and could easily have got rid of another 500.”

“The last 18-19 years history of the Pigeons in footy and netball in staggering……We’ll have to think about doing a follow-up soon…….The information’s all being collated…”

Ray proudly tells me he’s just acquired the final volume, to complete his collection of Ring Magazine publications; first produced in 1927.

“To my knowledge mine is only the third collection of its kind in Australia…..Marg got the last volume for me for my birthday….She won’t tell me how much it cost her !…..”

He points to a photo of his favourite boxer…….Jimmy Carruthers.

“I suppose I was at an impressionable age in 1952, when he won the World Bantamweight title. In those days it took 40 or so fights to earn a tilt at a World crown……He beat the South African Vic Toweel in his 14th bout…..Threw 147 punches in 2 minutes 14 seconds before they stopped the fight….”

“You wouldn’t have met a better guy than Jimmie…..A real gentleman. But in saying that, I don’t want to diminish Rose, or Famechon. They were lovely fellahs to talk to.”

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Ray pulls out catalogues and folders of footy cards, dating back to the forties.

“Mum encouraged me to keep them all; from the cereal packets, Petrol companies and the like….I’ve got nothing against the modern-day cards, but I love those from the ‘40’s, 50’s, 60’s…..

They’re real works of art…… I’m always looking out for them…”

Every event he goes to, he makes sure he collects the program….”I tell kids when they come through the gate at Yarra these days: ‘Take your Critic home and put it under the bed……Keep it…You won’t regret it….”

When he heads off to an away footy match……say, to Myrtleford, he might pop in to North Wangaratta on the way for instance, to pick up a piece of their memorabilia, maybe one of their caps…..He has a burgeoning collection of those, from most Clubs he’s been to.

He escorts me downstairs, to the garage, which is chock-a-block with Scrapbooks, Critics, Footy Records, programmes from every game he’s attended, any item he deems worthwhile.

He followed three Ashes cricket Series – 1981, ‘85 and ‘89……..”England is a lovely place to watch sport.” he says. “…I saw every day of that 6-Test Series in 1989, went to Wimbledon, the British Open, watched several Soccer games, and went to the races at Ascot…..”

He has also attended Tests in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, and watched the Aussies play Pakistan in Dubai a few years back.

“I was all set to travel to South Africa to watch the now-notorious Sandpapergate Series, but fell off a ladder and broke my leg. That was fate for you……..”

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I ask this dedicated sporting fanatic for his summation of the best O & M players he’s seen….

“Well, that’s a hard one…..I was brought up with Stan Sargeant and Brian Gilchrist…..How great were they !………..”Robbie Walker….. Billie Gayfer, the old Rutherglen boy…….And what about Kevin Smith; you’ve gotta have him in your side…….”

“There weren’t many better than Jonny McCormick…..Won one Medal and should have won another, except that he ‘did’ his shoulder and only played half a season….”

“Fev was probably the most influential player I’ve seen in O & M footy……behind Bobby Rose, that is…..Both beautiful to watch…..”

As for his Yarrawonga favourites, he singles out Les ‘Salty’ Parish, Johnny Brunner, and stars of the modern-era, Leslie and Ednie…….

“I always had a soft spot for the ‘Red Fellah’ – Noel Long……..Great player, but didn’t win a Club Best & Fairest, so that probably counts against him, I suppose, when you’re judging these things…..”

“But the one, if I was picking my best side from, say, 1972……this bloke would be first picked …….Tough as nails…bottom of every pack….would dish the ball out so that Craig Ernie could bounce it five times and get the breakaway……One of only three players who’s won a Medal, the Goal-kicking and a Premiership………His name is Tim Hargreaves…….”

Ray says maintaining his memorabilia is nearly a full-time hobby…..but immensely worthwhile.

“I love harking back to when I was 13 or 14, to about 29…..You can’t remember what happened yesterday, but you know who won the 1956 Melbourne Cup, who captained Australia in 1964, who won the 1959 VFL flag…….”

“You get a bit of a buzz out of it……I’ve got no idea what the collection would be worth……..The only question is, what’s gonna happen when I go……..”

“OH !…ME NAME IS McNAMARA………….”

Run the name McNamara past Yarrawonga’s historians and they’ll no doubt remind you of a family which was at the forefront of the region’s stock and station industry for more than a century………….

I’m talking to a modern-day descendant, John McNamara, who guides me back through the generations, to when his namesake, an enterprising Irishman, set sail for Australia in the early 1840’s.

A tiny, weather-beaten building in Belmore Street – suitably emblazoned : ‘J.McNamara & Co…Auctioneer…Established 1881….’ once stood as testimony to a livestock dynasty which spread throughout the state ……

“Just on sixty years ago ‘Pa’ ( also John ) was running the business, but when he got sick Dad was called home from Assumption College to operate it with his brothers.”

Mick McNamara (left) at a Yarrawonga SheepSale

“Bill and Dave went their different ways, and Dad (Mick) stayed on in Yarra…..Australian Estates bought ‘em out at one stage ……Then Dad took over again and started his own firm ………..”

“When the four of us boys finished our schooling at Assumption we all had stints with M.J.McNamara & Co………..”

Chris and Brian are still involved in the stock game, as agents with Landmark; Adam switched over to selling Rural merchandise, whilst John found his vocation as a School-Teacher……….

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The family is also synonymous with sport in Yarra – and beyond…..

Micky McNamara’s fascination with cricket and footy was fostered during his time at Assumption College. He developed into a tough-as-nails defender, who played his role in some handy Yarrawonga sides of the sixties before stepping down and spending years as a mainstay of the Reserves.

“They say he used to like a fight rather than a feed,” says John. “One bloke recalls him playing in a Seconds game one day……..A fight broke out down the other end of the ground and the old man said to his opponent: ‘By the time I get up there the blue’ll be over, so I’m gonna start one here……’ “

Mick played 322 games ( 150 Seniors, 172 Reserves ) in the Blue and White Hoops. It stood as a Club record until Clinton Shoppee snuck past it in recent times.

In the twilight of his career Mick featured in a hat-trick of Reserves flags (1973,’74,’75), as the deputy to another ‘old-head’, Frank Seymour. He then spent time as President, Secretary and committeeman, and remained an avid follower of the Pigeons until he succumbed to MND in 2007.

“Dad was also a wily right-arm offie, and left-hand bat for Yarrawonga Rovers in the YDCA. Their battles with Yarra Footballers were usually pretty intense affairs; and the after-match parties (footy and cricket) would always be at our place,” John says.

The boys started their cricket at Rennie: “ ‘Taity’ (Robert Tait) worked with Dad, and he got us out there when we were young kids, filling in. You’d field all day in the hot sun….hard wicket……..not a blade of grass……”

“Rennie used to always get smashed……….I don’t think they’d had ever enjoyed any success in the YDCA ……Anyway, we ended up winning three premierships and finished runners-up a couple of times……….”

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‘Macca’ first dragged himself away from the YDCA – where he had been a veritable run-machine – in 1985/86, when he and Graeme McMillan moved over to play with Wangaratta club, United.

A technically-correct right-hander, with loads of concentration, he amassed 622 runs for the season, including a telling knock of 110 in the Semi-Final against emerging Corowa.

He had a run with Collingwood the following season. The ‘Pies were a District cricket power at the time, with Shield players, Trevor Laughlin, David Emerson, Grant Jordan, Kevin Whichello and ‘Polly’ Sleeman in their line-up.

“It was a pretty strong team to break into, but at least we won the Second XI premiership.”

“I should’ve hung around, I suppose, but a bloke from Darwin was recruiting a few Southern Riverina boys to play footy with Nightcliff, prior to the next season. He rang me and I caught the bus up. “

“How’d you handle it ?” I ponder.

“Amazing……good fun…..They had about three jobs lined up, but I didn’t last ‘em. It was too hot to work…….Came back after Christmas….I was getting itchy feet for cricket……”

He had a break from footy in 1993, when he fulfilled an ambition to play cricket in England, with Staffordshire League Club, Wightick-Finchfield.

They put John up in a large Castlecroft house, which overlooked the Oval. His job was to mow the ground…..and help with the preparation of the wickets.

“It was all paid for…..I was living in this little room, in a swanky building the size of the Gateway… having a ball…..but runs were few and far between, early on.”

“The old man suggested ‘it might be a good idea to get off the piss, and concentrate on your cricket’……..I did it for a few days and got a hundred straight away…..I was right then……finished with about nine tons in all their competitions….”

John recalls his good fortune in being at Old Trafford on the day Shane Warne sent down the ‘Ball of the Century’ to Mike Gatting…….

“The Poms were 0/80….and the crowd was screaming…… ‘Warnie came on….bowled his first ball….and there was this hush…..It was unbelievable……There seemed to be about 40 Aussie there, and we just went berserk ….”

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On his return from overseas, John spent a year with Cobram, scoring three ‘tons’ and helping them to the ‘93/‘94 Murray Valley C.A premiership.

He was probably seeing the ball as well as ever, at that stage, and represented Goulburn-Murray, Southern Riverina and Riverina, besides scoring a pair of 90’s at Country Week with Murray Valley.

He says Mulwala United Cricket Club came into being a year later, predominantly through the friendships formed between YDCA clubs Rennie and Mulwala Footballers.

“Mul were, like us, very social….We’d fight tooth-and-nail out on the field, then sit in the pub ‘til all hours. We got talking one night and decided that we had to get our kids playing better cricket……There was only one Turf Wicket in Yarra and we agreed : “Let’s go and play a higher standard.”

Thus, Mulwala United came into being in ‘94/‘95…….They raised $25,000 for the construction of a turf wicket, and four years later took out the Murray Valley premiership under John’s leadership, with his brother Adam also playing a starring role.


A Mul-United Re-Union. Back Row: Clinton Shand, Rod Peters, Michael Cooke, David Bott. Front: Adam & John McNamara, Daryl Beams

Mulwala-United competed as a strong MVCA club, for 14 years, before merging into the Yarrawonga-Mulwala Cricket Club, and transferring to the Wangaratta competition.

John and Adam played with Bruck when they both settled in Wangaratta……Adam made his mark in 117 WDCA A-Grade games, which included four flags in five years, from 2008/09 to ‘2012/‘13.

‘Macca’s’ not exactly sure, but when I put the weights on him, reckons he chalked up over 30 ‘tons’ all-told in ( including three double-centuries ), in a career which only really concluded last year, when he filled in, alongside his son Cormac, with Rovers-United-Bruck’s C-Grade side.

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The McNamara brothers all began their senior football with Yarrawonga.

“Brian copped a couple of knee injuries early on, and that buggered him for a few years, but Chris was probably the pick of us……He played over 100 games, including that famous flag in 1989,” says John.

“They were in all sorts of turmoil when ‘Salty’ (Parish) quit the coaching job on the eve of the season…..That’s when ‘Davo’ (Neil Davis) took over and steadied the ship…..Actually, the old man stepped into the Secretary’s role that year, as well……”

“Chris captained Yarra a couple of years later, and went on to coach Mulwala for five years…..he’s still President there …”

“Adam was pretty clever…skilful…but he didn’t like training too much, ‘Addsy’….not dedicated enough….”

“We both followed Brian when he coached Tungamah and Strathmerton, and of course, when ‘Addsy’ moved to Wangaratta he joined Moyhu……played in four premierships there….”

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‘Macca’s’ career followed a familiar trajectory, after leaving Yarrawonga.

He enjoyed successful playing stints with Tungamah ( flag in 1986), Barooga (‘92 flag), Strathmerton and Moyhu before finally hanging up the boots.

In the meantime, he and Jane had re-located to Wangaratta, when he secured a teaching appointment at St.Bernard’s School.

He’d had a brief flirtation with the Rovers in 1995, when he played a handful of games on match permits from Strathmerton, the last of which – in his senior debut – he broke his hand.

Five years later, he took over as coach of the Hawk Thirds, guiding them to Third, Runners-Up (after being unbeaten prior to the Grand Final) in 2001, and Unbeaten Premiers In 2002…….

A two-year stint with the Murray Bushrangers – as assistant-coach to Xavier Tanner – followed.

“I enjoyed coaching…..Whatever I did, whether it was coaching seniors or juniors, I gave it my best, I was hell-bent on winning….. and I think I was able to get on fairly well with people,” he says.

Nevertheless, there was mild surprise among the outside football fraternity when he was appointed to succeed Peter Tossol as the Rovers’ senior coach in 2005.

But those in the inner-sanctum of the Hawk camp were confident, with his recruiting capabilities and communication skills, that he’d succeed.

He held the plum job for four years, during which he was exposed to the full gamut of emotions…..being hammered fairly severely with the injury stick, whilst still remaining in the fight for the finals.

Probably the best illustration of the highs and lows of ‘Macca’s’ coaching reign came in 2007.

The effects of a severe drought had forced the Hawks to play away from home for the first two months. They dropped the opening six games, and the media pronounced that their season was effectively over…….Then, in dramatic fashion, they got on a roll, to win 11 of the next 12, several of them by handsome margins, to cement a spot in the Finals.

The Elimination-Final clash with Wodonga was a classic. The Dogs hung on to win by 11 points, but the coach bemoaned the loss of his champion, Andy Hill in the opening minutes of the game.

“I reckon Andy going down made the difference….He was that good a player…..”

John moved on to coach one of his his old clubs, Barooga, in 2009, taking them to a Prelim Final, before he was snapped up by Moyhu the following season.

The 2011 O & K Grand Final against Tarrawingee, remains one of his cherished football memories..

“They’d been a crackerjack side throughout the early 2000’s, and still had a few of the older guys playing. The inclusion of some young kids added an extra dimension to the line-up, though.”

The Chronicle reported that : ‘…Moyhu were inspired by the outstanding performances of Andrew Balfour and Jaimon McGeehan…..But the match-winning move came when John McNamara switched beanpole Daniel McInnes to the forward line in the last quarter….”

The Hoppers fought back from a 10-point deficit mid-way through the final term to win by two points………

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‘Macca’ bowed out of senior coaching in 2012, but has done his share at junior level over recent years, in both footy and cricket.

He’s still rapt in watching sport…….and following the progress of the current generation of McNamara’s.

Paddy, 19, is A-Grade co-captain of Rovers-United-Bruck, and played senior footy with the Wang Rovers this year…..Cormac is showing plenty of potential, whilst his other son, Fergie, is focusing his interest on the Arts……Adam’s son Reid, at 13, is also a budding star.

They’ll all be in action at Mulwala’s Lonsdale Reserve over the Christmas break, when the Beams v McNamara cricket Challenge is held.

“We’ve been playing this game for years,” John says. “The Beams’s were all tied up with Mul Footballers and we were at Rennie……Dad and Bobby Beams ( the patriarchs) were originally foes, rather than mates, but over the years some pretty close friendships have developed.”

“They’ll have some fair players in their side……both Dayne and Clay, who are both more than handy, usually come home to play…….we’ll have our work cut out, but as usual, it’ll be a great day…..and the beer and tall stories will be flowing afterwards………….”

“PURE FANTASY ?……HAWKS AND PIGEONS IN A NAIL-BITER…….”

Rovers fans have been sweating on this day for more than four months.

After another fruitful recruiting campaign, which has netted more than a dozen newcomers, there’s an air of optimism at the Findlay Oval.

And you pick up the positive vibe as you walk into the ground. They’re doing a roaring trade in Member’s Tickets and you detect a buzz about the place. It’s great to catch up with some of the old-timers who have been seemingly welded to their favourite vantage spots for more than 30 years.

Rex Hartwig is one who has a spring in his step. Old Rex celebrated his 90th birthday during the footy hiatus . But he has a glint in his eye, akin to the focus he had in his halcyon sporting days when he’d face off against tennis legends Kramer, Segura, Gonzales and Sedgman.

Of course, there’s a good reason for Rex’s enthusiasm. His grandson Tyson is back, after a sabbatical of four years. Tys has done it all with the Hawks – Captain, champion defender, Best and Fairest, All-Australian Country rep…… Now he just wants to add to the 139 games he has accumulated…and play a part in the revival of his home club.

I stumble upon another permanent fixture; perched on the steel railing to the left of the Hogan Stand. That’s been Steve Norman’s domain ever since he hung up the boots.

He used to say how handy it was because he was within reaching distance of the Can-Booth, and right in the midst of the most one-eyed section of the crowd. Most of his fellow-protagonists of yore, like Herbie Day, Alfie Onslow, ‘Spud’ Patat, Theo Hall and Ken Johnstone have gone to their mortal coil, and others have drifted off, to be replaced by fans of a more tolerant bent.

No one was able to split the big sticks at his spiritual home quite like ‘Superboot Steve’. He had a sixth-sense. You don’t boot 1016 O & M goals without possessing something out of the box. He ‘owned’ the 50-metre arc, and his team-mates upfield could read him like a book.

There’s another bloke hobbling past who delivered a fair few of those ‘lace-up’ passes to Steve. It’s Andrew Scott, who’s become synonymous with the Rovers since he arrived in town as a ‘cop’ 45 years ago.

Geez he could play. In his first year with the Hawks he won the Morris Medal and became the idol of those hard-boiled fanatics around the Bar.

And he was so adaptable. In the latter part of his career he had a turn on the forward flank. He snagged a lazy 10 one day against Lavi, to the delight of the ‘diehards’ . The other thing about ‘Scotty’ was that he always rose to the big occasion when he was needed.

Get yakking to him and you wonder at first if he’s still carrying the weight of the footy club on his shoulders. But then he emits a huge belly-laugh, to lighten the situation. He’s continued to contribute to the Club, has this ‘rough-nut’ plumber . What an institution……. !

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Anyway, I’d better pop into the rooms to wish Sammy Carpenter all the best. Playing his 100th game today, is ‘Carps’. I don’t recall too many mediocre ones in that lot, either.

I know the veteran rates the ‘ton’ as a real highlight. He’s been a bit of a journeyman and must be nudging the 300-mark in his glittering career. There wouldn’t be a fan anywhere who doesn’t admire what ‘Croc’ has achieved.

I interrupt a chat with his old man – and greatest fan – Leigh (who also has young Sonny in tow), to shake his hand. He’s suitably chuffed and says he’s honoured to join the greats of the Club.

Heck, he’ll play an important role in this clash with Yarrawonga. His cool head will be a crucial asset, particularly considering there are so many new faces in the side.

There’s an electric atmosphere in the rooms. The Reserves have their game well in hand, so the fans have been drifting in to catch ‘Crezza’s’ pre-match build-up. It’s packed in here; you could cut the air with a knife.

One of the stars of the pre-season, in my book, has been the boy from Manley-Warringa, Tyrone Armitage. He’s a damaging left-footer who played with VFL club Northern Blues at one stage. I love his zest on the track and he seems to have fully ingratiated himself into the Club. It’ll be really interesting to see how he performs in this footy. I’m tipping he’ll be a star.

Glancing across the rooms, I guess this must be one of the tallest Rovers sides for some years. Besides young Ed Dayman and ‘Gatto’, there’s another giant in the ranks, Nick Redley from Langwarrin. Could be a surprise packet, this fellah.

I notice Ryan Stone edgily flicking the pill from hand to hand. It’s great to have him back. He developed into a top-flight player at Heidelberg since leaving the Hawks after the 2013 season. I’m sure he’s relishing the opportunity to play his first Senior game with the Rovers alongside his young brother, Dylan.

I sneak outside for a bit of fresh air and spot a familiar face ; underneath that trademark Pigeon cap, he’s wearing his usual pre-game furrowed brow. It’s old ‘Jinxy’ Clarke himself – one of Yarra’s best-known fans.

“Whattya reckon Jinx ?”. “Ah well, you blokes have had all the publicity about your recruiting, but we’re happy with what we’ve got,” he replies.

“Just remember,” he adds, “apart from those couple of hiccups last year, we had the wood on you for more than 10 years.”

I do remember, because ‘Jinx’ would remind me every time. “What’s that up to now ?…. 23 on the trot…….. ?”

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Not long after, the siren sounds to launch the 2020 opener.

It’s the usual nervy, frenetic start, but the Pigeons appear to have settled down nicely. Their first major comes from tall Matt Casey, who’s managed to find a yard on Hawk champ Nathan Cooper, and nails one from just 20 metres out.

There’s no doubt that the big wraps on their gun recruits Willie Wheeler and Leigh Masters are spot-on. Wheeler – and his brother Harry – are in everything in the mid-field, negating the ruck effectiveness of Dayman and Redley.

In fact, the Hawks look listless and a couple of sloppy turnovers prove costly. You can detect the blood of coach Cresswell rising, as normally cool customers make mistakes under pressure.

He gathers his troops at the quarter-time break for a good, old-fashioned rev. They’re 22 points down, the Hawks, and look a far-cry from the glamor-side they have been pronounced in pre-season tittle-tattle………..

Things don’t improve much early in the second term, either. But an intercept from veteran defender Sean O’Keeffe finds the ball in the hands of Carpenter, who feeds off to Sam Allen.

The long kick from the youngster – well beyond the 50-metre mark, sails through for a timely goal. Surely that will have the Hawks up and about.

Slowly they begin to creep back into the contest, despite not making a huge impact on the scoreboard.

Mark Whiley, Yarra’s first-year coach, has been in everything, as has the evergreen Xavier Leslie. Whiley is certainly an inspiration and Cresswell will need to make a move to shut down his effectiveness.

Despite the Rovers’ best efforts, the lead has crept out to 31 points at half-time.

The Hawks are quickly ushered into the coach’s room. Meanwhile, shell-shocked fans wait about, but it’s a good 12 minutes before they file out – suitably chastened and grimly determined……..

The third term produces a stunning turn-around. Shaggy-haired Will Nolan has been swung onto Whiley, and curbs his influence. And Tyson Hartwig begins to create a presence up forward.

Yarra’s dominance around the ball, which has given them control of the game, now wanes, as the dynamic Charlie Thompson, Jamason Daniels and Raven Jollife continually get their hands on the pill.

In a 16-minute burst, the Hawks have reduced the margin to less than a kick. By three-quarter time it’s the Pigeons who are looking rather ragged……..

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But they’re not done with yet……

They register early last-term goals through Jess Koopman and talented youngster Jack Sexton, to regain the ascendancy. Then, dashing Jack Gerrish takes possession from just beyond the half-back line and scoots off, dodging and side-stepping in typical fashion.

He’s within kicking distance ( there’s a player loose who he doesn’t see), and lines them up.

Goal !……… The faithful in the Maroney Pavilion rise as one.

The Hawks slot another, after Armitage swoops on the ball and kicks truly with his left boot from the angle.

It then becomes goal-for-goal, in what has become a classic contest.

Entering time-on, the Pigeons hold a slender four-point lead. Both sides are tired, but desperate, as the ball bobbles between the respective half-back lines.

I’m tuned in to OAK-FM and ‘Gamby’ breathlessly informs us that there are less than 15 seconds left.

Suddenly, Carpenter, the 100-gamer, retrieves the ball out of nowhere and spots Ed Dayman. A pass, delivered with surgical precision, thumps the young fellah on the chest….15 metres out….straight in front….just as the siren blares…….

What pressure !……..Big Ed lines them up and sneaks it through.

It’s a Hawk victory by two points……..!

‘HARD WORK THE RECIPE’ FOR THOONA FARMER …..’

In an earlier life I was a bread-carter for Sunicrust Bakeries.

Heading off in the wee hours – with the smell of fresh bread wafting through the van and Country music piercing the airwaves; you’d wind around the Warby Ranges, and stop off at farmhouses and mailboxes, via Taminick, Goorambat, Bungeet, Devenish and St.James………

Every Monday, around ninish, I would sidle into a property on Devenish Road, Thoona, and be greeted by a lady who was always eager for a detailed yak about footy – the length of which depended on whether Benalla had got up the previous Saturday………….

Forty-five years on, I’m back in the same neck of the woods, catching up with Billy Sammon, who’s tickled by my recollection: “Yeah, Mum could talk all right,” he says. “And, by the way, you probably gathered early in the piece that she was my greatest fan………..”

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Bill ranks among Thoona’s most illustrious sporting products, even though he played just the one season with the locals, after returning from six years at Assumption College, Kilmore.

Next to Catholicism, football ranks a close second in the religious stakes at Assumption. Bill says that, during winter he’d be playing, training or handling a footy six days a week: “And on our day off, we’d do a Cross-Country.”

“Brother Domnus had been the coach for ever and a day, and it was every kid’s aim to play under him in the First 18. I never quite made it – I was too small – but I reckon all that ball-handling stood me in good stead later on.”

He was just 5 foot six and a half when he returned home to the farm, but grew five and a half inches in the next year.

“I must have been a midget. I was picking up wool in the shearing shed one day, when (Wangaratta Rovers coach) Ken Boyd came in. He walked straight past me and asked one of the shearers: “I’m looking for Bill Sammon. Is he around ?”

Chuffed as he was by Boyd’s interest, which had obviously been piqued by his form with Thoona, Bill had his mind set on playing for Benalla. He drove in, unannounced, to the Demons’ first pre-season training session, and appeared in a couple of practice matches.

In one of them he was matched against an established star, Alan Beaton, and lowered his colours. “After the game I was feeling a bit sorry for myself,” says Bill, “and I remember one of the selectors consoling me: ‘Don’t worry young fellah, he’s a senior player’. I spun around and said: “So am I.”

He was right.

A fortnight later he debuted against the Rovers, and performed creditably, booting three goals and parting company with a couple of teeth  when he was flattened by Hawks iron-man Len Greskie.

It was his ‘welcome’ to Ovens and Murray football, but there was no doubt that, in the young on-baller, Benalla had acquired a player of rare talent. He was never dropped from the senior side.

When I recall his attributes, and suggest that he was a ready-made star, Bill says that’s a bit of an exaggeration: “Look, I had to work really hard. I wasn’t a great mark, wasn’t an outstanding kick, but one thing I could do was find the footy all right.”

He did enough to attract interest from Geelong, South Melbourne, Fitzroy and Melbourne. The Cats invited him down and he had a yarn to club greats Neil Trezise and Peter Pianto, who were keen for him to try his luck if he elected to undertake the Veterinary Science degree, to which he’d been admitted.

“But Dad needed a hand on the farm and I decided that’s where my future lay. Besides, I jammed my knee in a Hay-Baler not long after, and that set me back a bit,” he says.

Benalla’s fortunes fluctuated in the latter part of the sixties, but the arrival of the charismatic Vern Drake in 1970 was a key factor in their return to power.

“He took the professionalism of the playing group to a new level and was a brilliant forward. He was also a fitness fanatic, and kept emphasising that a solid pre-season helped get early wins on the board. We had some good young kids coming through, too, and they thought the world of ‘Drakey’. ”

Bill didn’t need any convincing about fitness. After a day’s work on the farm during the summer, he’d get out and jog his way around the backroads of Thoona. “I loved it, and It kept me super-fit. But, I’ve probably paid the price in latter years, as I’ve had both hips replaced.”

He was a handy side-kick to Drake, who booted 87 and 118 goals in his final two seasons with the Demons. Bill provided the necessary ‘steel’ in the midfield, and inspired his team-mates with his courage and determination.

Benalla finished third in 1971 and ‘72, beaten in both Preliminary Finals by the eventual premiers, Wang. Rovers.

They topped the ladder in 1973, and, with a group that had been moulded over three or four seasons, appeared primed for a realistic assault on the flag.

More than 15,000 fans packed the Wangaratta Showgrounds to see the Demons and ‘Hoppers stage a battle royal. North used their physical strength in an attempt to counter Benalla’s pace and teamwork.

The inevitable stoushes erupted in the opening term, and Bill Sammon, who was being heavily tagged by North’s Barry Burrowes, was in the thick of them.IMG_3631

“I copped a whack from behind at one stage, and was sure it was Burrowes again, so I turned around to let him have it.”

“But it was the Morris Medallist, Johnny Smith, who I dropped,” Bill recalls. “Smithy went right off the air for a while, and shortly after, was reported for striking Robbie Allen. The aftermath of it was that Smithy received a six-week suspension, which he served the next season. It cost him hack-to-back Medals.”

“He’s been out here to visit me a couple of times, and we have a good laugh about it. But, I can tell you, he wasn’t a happy boy at the time.”

Sammon was named the Demons’ best player, as they held off the fast-finishing Hoppers, to win an action-packed Grand Final by seven points. Achieving the ultimate, ranked among his most memorable football moments.IMG_3636

But amongst the euphoria of victory, he spared a thought for his old mentor Vern Drake, who had moved to Cooee earlier that year, and coached his side to the North-West Tasmanian flag on the same day.

“There’s no doubt that a portion of the ‘73 premiership belonged to ‘Drakey’ for the work he’d put in,” he says.

Bill had given thought to coaching, and was regarded as an obvious candidate. An offer bobbed up from Yarrawonga not long after the Grand Final, which seemed an ideal fit. “I didn’t like the prospect of leaving Benalla, but I was ready to coach, and knew Yarra was a great club.”

There certainly wasn’t much haggling when they sat down to negotiate the finer details of the coaching position. “Leo Bourke, the President, asked me how much I wanted. I think I mentioned something like $3,000. He said: ‘How about $4,000.’ And that was that.”

The Pigeons dropped just two matches during the home-and-away rounds of 1974. They looked every inch a flag prospect in the Second-Semi, when they led the Rovers by 45 points at three quarter-time.IMG_3634

But the Hawks booted eight goals in a withering final term, to fall eight points short. Sammon, who had been the architect of their dominance for the majority of the game, knew that the scramble for the flag was far from over.

And so it proved. The Rovers piled on 8.3 to 1.1 in the first-quarter of the Grand Final, and were never seriously challenged – eventually winning by 61 points.

During his time at Yarrawonga, Bill also assumed the position of playing-coach of the Ovens and Murray League.

It was during the period that the League was banned from competing in the Country Championships, and the O & M negotiated to play a couple of representative games against the VFA.

“Without a doubt, these were the best standard games I ever played in,” he says. “In 1975 they probably treated it a bit flippantly, and we kicked 24 goals, to beat them by about 50 points.”

“The following year, they brought up a crackerjack side, which included blokes like Freddie Cook, Joe Radojavic and Colin Hobbs, and it proved a helluva game. They got up in the finish, by nine points. Of all the inter-League games I played, those two stick in my mind. It demonstrated how strong O & M footy was during that era.”IMG_3616

After spending three seasons at the helm of Yarra, Bill was entertaining the thought of retirement, before being enticed home to Benalla, to succeed Terry Leahy as playing-coach. “They couldn’t find anyone, so I agreed to take it on.”

Demon die-hards were rapt. They reckoned their favourite son was back where he belonged – in the role he was destined to fill earlier in the decade.

But there was work to do. After a middle-of-the-road first season, Benalla sat second bottom, four rounds into 1978. They then proceeded to reel off 15 straight wins, and marched into the Grand Final, as red-hot fancies.

The game provided Bill with his biggest let-down in football. “We just weren’t ‘on’ that day, and the Rovers were far too good,” he says.

He decided, after the 54-point defeat, that it was time to hang up his boots. He had played 251 games (196 with Benalla, 55 with Yarra ), won two B & F’s, coached for five years, and had indelibly written his name into  O & M folklorel.

“It was time to spend a bit more time on the farm – and with Glenise and the kids.”

“I was a bit of a control-freak and expended a lot of nervous energy on coaching. It probably affected my footy; I’m not sure. But I loved it…….”

Bill maintained contact with football in retirement, serving as a long-term O & M Board member and inter-league selector, as well keeping in touch with his old clubs, Benalla and Yarrawonga.

His services to the game were acknowledged when he was inducted to the O & M Hall of Fame in 2014……IMG_3628