Noel McMahen: City superstar, country legend

by Mark Gullick

Many people know the cliff notes of Noel McMahen’s time in Rochester, but the full story has rarely been told. It is the tale of high stakes, high pressure and high achievement.

McMahen was a VFL superstar. Debuting in 1946 with Melbourne, McMahen struck success in 1948 as part of a winning premiership team. In 1951, he moved to the half-back flank and established a reputation for his courage, skill and anticipation. He won the Melbourne best and fairest in 1951 and represented Victoria on four occasions. He captained Melbourne to the 1955-56 premierships. The 1956 grand final would be McMahen’s last VFL game.

The recruitment of McMahen to Rochester was the biggest football story of the day. Rochester was a small town, thirty kilometers south of Echuca, with a population of a few thousand. It was difficult to connect the town and the club with McMahen an icon who had achieved everything in football .

“I was persuaded to go up there by Jack Green,” said McMahen. “They knew during the year (1956) that I was retiring. Jack started talking to me before the finals.”

“I had a lot of offers to consider, including going to Canberra in my employment,” said McMahen. ”I was with Commonwealth Treasury Defense. My wife and kids decided they didn’t want to go to Canberra, so I looked around and it was Jack (Green) who attracted me. Pure and simply. People used to laugh at me saying ‘premiership captain going to a little town like Rochester, what are you doing?’ but I knew Jack would look after me. He kept all of the promises he made to me too. It was the people that had won me over.”

“He had a six year contract,” said Jack Anderson, a legendary administrator in Rochester football. “We paid him a £1,000 per year.” Additionally, McMahen took ownership of a corner store in town.

Going from the successful Melbourne club to Rochester was not as difficult as expected for McMahen. “It wasn’t hard to leave (Melbourne, the team) because I’d worn myself out,” he said. “They’d tried to get me another year but I thought, and Ivor Warne-Smith, the chairman of selectors, thought perhaps I’d finish on a bad note if I went another year.”

McMahen arrived in Rochester in early 1957 and set about resurrecting the club. The Rochester Football Club has a rich history; founded in 1874, it was proactive in the development of football in northern Victoria. It sent a delegate to the meeting of the VFA in 1877 to thrash out a uniform set of rules. Rochester had success in local competitions before joining the Goulburn Valley Football League in 1913. In 1914, Rochester defeated Shepparton in the grand final, a team that had won seven of the previous eight premierships. Rochester joined the Bendigo League the following year and were on track for another premiership before the war stopped competition. Rochester had fallen on tough years since then, save for a few local league premierships. The team had not made the finals since 1951 and consistently struggled in the Bendigo League.

“I had a good talk to the previous coach (ex-Hawthorn star Kevin Curran),” said McMahen. “He’d knocked Rochester into pretty good shape, conditionally, which I don’t think they’d had before.”

“There was a lot of excitement when Noel came,” said champion player Fred Rodda. “We were certainly looking forward to the coming year once that appointment was made.”

“There was a lot of excitement because he was captain of Melbourne footy club,” said Noel Howe, a star forward. “He was terrific because he had great experience. He would talk to everybody and make sure they understood what he was telling us. It wasn’t ‘oh, you go do it mate,” he said “This is the way you do it.” He was good like that.”

In the first game of the 1957 season, Rochester met Castlemaine, who were led by another former VFL player Ray Poulter. Like McMahen, Poulter had joined a country team in the off-season.

“We had our first game playing on each other,” said McMahen. “I remember the umpire said ‘I don’t want any trouble out of the both of you!”

In July, McMahen was selected in the Bendigo team to play Sunraysia at Mildura. “It was a nonsense,” he said. “They shouldn’t have taken Poulter and myself. They should have played the kids. They made Clive Philip captain and coach, and Poulter and I didn’t like that very much. It was a stupid selection.”

Rochester made the finals in 1957, but lost both games. In 1958, the team improved and made it through to the grand final. “We worked pretty hard,” he said. “We went down and trained at the Queen Elizabeth Oval, and I got the curator to mark out the spots where you knew you could kick the goals from, and where you didn’t. It was all planned; we planned it very, very hard.”

It was the ultimate test for McMahen; he was a highly paid coach who had the fate of his team, and the town, in his own hands.

“I’ve never been under so much pressure,” he said. “A small town like that, they were paying me so much money. They were carting bails of hay (just to raise money to pay him). It was the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my football life, was winning that premiership and repaying those people that put themselves into hock to get me as a premiership captain to come up there. Because I didn’t come cheap. I was the highest paid country coach until Billy Stephens went to Yarrawonga. From a small town, I think it was six or eight people who guaranteed the contract. They were wonderful blokes. They put their neck out. That is pressure, when you’ve got to look them in the eye.”

Rochester edged out Golden Square by seven points to claim the premiership in a dour, low-scoring affair. McMahen had delivered the impossible.

The people of Rochester still talk about the celebrations. “By the time the team got back to Rochester the town hall was full and there was great excitement and celebration that night,” said Rodda.

“My brother was up there helping me in the shop at that time,” said McMahen. “And I think on the Thursday he said, ‘What about coming back to work’”

The following year, Rochester won the premiership again. While that premiership was just as special, a collective amnesia has overcome those involved. McMahen has only memory of that game; “I remember Jock O’Connor was having a shot for goal from centre half forward, and I wasn’t far away. He could see me and he said, ‘Please God, let this be a goal for Noel McMahen.’ I thought that was a wonderful compliment to me personally.”

The team lost both the 1960 and 1961 grand finals. And then it was over.

After the 1961 season, McMahen had one year remaining on his contract. Owing to his successful run at Rochester, several VFL clubs were circling. He was appointed coach of South Melbourne, and left Rochester with his former teams’ best wishes.

But McMahen had one final farewell to his old club; he brought South Melbourne up to Rochester for a practice match.

“He brought up a very good team,” said Howe. As the VFL season began a week later, McMahen brought his first choice team, which included Bob Skilton, John Rantall, Bob Kingston, John Heriot, Hugh McLaughlin, Frank Johnson and former Rochester player Ken Colvin.

“I played on Bobby Skilton,” said Darryl Hooper, a veteran of 269 games for Rochester. “I took a mark out where the scoreboard was and he said, “I bet you fifty cents you can’t kick it,” and I kicked the goal. Later on, after the game, he came and gave me the fifty cents.”

“That was a very good game,” said Howe. “The supporters all came along. It was exciting to play against players like that, especially to play against Noel McMahen’s team.”

“I took great pride in doing that,” said McMahen. “Good for the town. I felt obligated to the town, that they put themselves into hock to get me there, if I didn’t do something for the town, it was going to be terrible.”

McMahen still goes back to Rochester for reunions. He enjoys telling people that during his time at Rochester, his team always beat fierce arch-rivals Echuca. The record stands at fifteen wins and no losses. “What I hated was Echuca would patronise us, they talk down to us.”

Russ Major, son of Wood medalist Len, and a champion in his own right, was vice-captain during McMahen’s time. He had a strong working relationship with McMahen. “He was a real nice fella to talk to,” said Major. “He came up with a young family and really mixed with the town. It was a big thing to be involved at the stage.”

“I particularly liked him,” said courageous rover Spencer Broom. “I suppose he liked my style of play, even though I wasn’t over-skilled. He did say to me once that I’d never be out of his side if I kept the same approach that he saw when I first went in there. I was very keen on winning the ball and he liked that. He was very keen on my attitude towards winning the ball.”

The Rochester club has always been a close-knit, family club, and McMahen was happy to add to that culture. “I brought him (Ron Williams) up and got him a contract,” said McMahen. “Then he fathered the boy (David) who came down and played with Melbourne and went back and coached Rochester to a premiership. That’s a lovely story. It was good for the town to do those sorts of things.”

Although McMahen led Rochester to two premierships, he added something more to the club. He brought respect and dignity, and he brought the town closer to the club.

“That (recruiting McMahen) was the turning point in the football in Rochester,” said Jack Anderson. “It brought all the supporters back again and they traveled for miles. Out Bamawm, Lockington way, all the farmers would pile their kids into the car and away they’d go to Kyneton. And then they’d have to leave at three quarter-time to come home and milk the cows. That’s how keen they were.”

Under Con O’Toole, Rochester would play in the next four grand finals from 1962 to 1965, winning two of them.

McMahen still looks back fondly at his time in Rochester, and he likes to tell a story which is representative of his time there;

“We had a cat,” said McMahen. “A friend told me that if you’re going into a grocery business, that you need a cat. My wife and the cat cried all the way to Rochester. Five years later coming home (to Melbourne), the cat and the wife cried all the way back.”

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Great story Mark

    How is the Rochester club faring nowadays?

  2. Mark Gullick says:

    Hi John,

    After all of their success in the Bendigo league during the 50s and 60s, the club left for the Goulburn Valley league in the early 70s. The whole issue was quite messy and the VCFL made them sit out the 1972 season. The club then lost a lot of players and it wasn’t until 1980 before they made the finals again. They struggled for most of the 80s before making the 1989 grand final. Rochy lost both the 1989 and 1990 grand finals.

    David Williams took over in 1992 and the team won that grand final. They made the grand final in 1993, but lost to Shepparton after a kick after the final siren. The team then lost the 1997 and 1998 grand finals, but won again in 1999. Rochy then lost the 2001 and 2002 grand finals. Williams left after the 2007 season.

    His replacement Daniel Schmidt led Rochy to the 2008 grand final where they upset Seymour (who had won the previous three flags) by three points. In 2010, Rochy will be coached by Simon McCarty, who played over 300 games for the club.

    Thanks,
    Mark

  3. pauldaffey says:

    Hi Mark,

    The 1950s was an amazing era in Victorian country footy, and probably country footy everywhere.

    I’ve never read such a comprehensive account from one of the biggest names in country footy from that era. Bill Stephens is still around in Fitzroy. Makes me think I should go around and ask him about his time in Yarrawonga. He took the Pigeons to the 1959 flag; it was their only one until they cracked it again in 1989.

    When I was young my Bendigo-raised father liked to talk about Bendigo footy. When doing so, he always mentioned Noel McMahen’s stint at Rochester. It was an enormous boost for Bendigo footy. He used to cycle to the QEO to watch McMahen and others.

    Anyway, well done, Mark. Great article.

    Anyway,

  4. Rod Gillett says:

    Hi Mark,

    Let me join in the chorus – GREAT story, well told.
    The McMahen years at Rochester really put the club on the map in terms of its approach to footy in the Bendigo Football League. Jack Green’s time comes up every time.

    I once had a drink after a VCFL seminar in the early 80’s with legendary country footy administrator Brian “Muncher” Molony and his son-in-law Graham “Mort” Arthur (who I knew from his time coaching Echuca) – I asked Muncher who spent his time after playing VFL with Carlton & St Kilda in the Wimmera, mainly at Ararat, initially coaching, then as an administrator.

    The line of questioning went like this:
    Rocket: When was the best period in country footy?
    Muncher: The 1950’s.
    Rocket: Which was the best year?
    Muncher: 1958
    Rocket: Which was the best league?
    Muncher: The Bendigo League
    Rocket: So, that’d make Rochester’s 1958 premiership team the best-ever in country football?
    Muncher: That’s right.

    I particularly like the way you have woven the comments from all those great Rochy players into the story. I remember Daryl Hooper as one of the best back pocket players in the BFL, so his story about kicking a goal on Bobby Skilton bears some further investigation particularly as he claims it earned him 50 cents – as I recall decimal currency didn’t come in until 1966…

    As I understand it you are writing a history of this great club – I am really looking forward to reading the whole story.I for one, would like it if you could share some more stories with us all on this site. I’d love to hear more about the Rochester v South Melbourne game in 1962.

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