KEN PIESSE’S 10 FAVORITE FOOTBALLERS FROM … THE OVENS & MURRAY

Each week prominent football author and commentator Ken Piesse will feature 10 of his personal favorites from the major country Leagues.

Buffalo Creek has surely not had a more famous drifter. The tiny Myrtleford township was home for Gary Ablett snr. during his devastating six month assault on Ovens and Murray football, the launching pad for the most stunning Big Smoke comeback of all.

While Ablett, sacked by Hawthorn for disciplinary reasons, was only part of the O & M for one year, it was truly memorable.

The longer the season went, the more Ablett dominated. Forty possession performances became commonplace for the footballer who in years to come at Geelong was to win the nickname of “God”.

His ball-bursting 70 metre goal in a sudden death final against North Albury remains an unforgettable high of the ’83 O & M final series; the regulars at the Wangaratta Showgrounds still talk about that one.

One of those taking an interest in the game was veteran Geelong recruiter Bill McMaster. He returned post haste to town and immediately met with senior coach Tommy Hafey. “This kid Ablett,” said McMaster, “is the best player I have ever seen play country football. If he was available right now, this week, I’d place him straight in the centre.”

The rest is history, Ablett becoming one of the genuine elite players, one of the few to kick 1000 goals or more and alongside Wayne Carey and Leigh Matthews, the finest and most dynamic player of the generation.

In a hot field of champions, many of whom were lured to, or came from, Melbourne, Ablett is my No.1 O & M League “favorite”.

They aren’t necessarily the best 10, though Ablett, Haydn Bunton and Bobby Rose were as good a trio as any, but they have a special place for me.

My personal top 10 is as follows:

  1. Gary Ablett
  2. Haydn Bunton snr
  3. Peter Chisnall
  4. Mick Gayfer
  5. Mac Holten
  6. Sam Kekovich
  7. Mick Nolan
  8. Bobby Rose
  9. Peter Tossol
  10. Robbie Walker

GARY ABLETT: Myrtleford’s playing coach Greg Nicholls was working at the local Railway hotel one crisp April morning when a fit, tanned young man walked in, said his uncle had recommended him and could he have a game of footy with the local team? Could he! He sure could! One thousand VFL/AFL goals later, Gary snr. is in a rare stratosphere.

HAYDN BUNTON snr: Widely known as the champion’s champion, Bunton was to win three Brownlow Medals and three Sandovers having been lured from Albury, his credentials for cricket almost matching his prowess for football. Geelong promised the Riverina teenager a motor car just to sign, but he chose Fitzroy, which had offered 100 pounds cash and a regular job.  His last year of O & M football was in 1930 after the League accused League clubs of indulging in “trafficking” for Bunton’s services and held up his permit to play big League football until 1931, when he won the first of back-to-back Brownlows!

PETER CHISNALL: Loved forever at North Melbourne for being part of the inaugural Roos premiership team in 1975 — the first ever — Pete hailed from Corowa where his first job was as a butcher’s apprentice. My grandparents lived in the caravan park at Wahgunyah and Nan was always waxing poetic about the nice young man who was always polite and reserved the best cuts of meat for her! “And… oh yes Ken,” she’d say. “He’s quite a footballer too!”

MAC HOLTEN: Another star cricketer-footballer and a local member of Parliament, Mac coached Wangaratta  in the late 40s and early 50s, winning four flags on end. He played League footy at Collingwood. His younger brother, Val, a former Victorian Sheffield Shield representative, was my cricket coach as a kid.

MICK GAYFER: Mick may have played only a handful of games at Corowa-Rutherglen as a 16-year-old  but, even then, he made the heavier-bodied men earn every touch! Turned away by North Melbourne he had time in the VFA at Caulfield, playing as a follower-forward before finding his niche in Collingwood’s backline and being part of the famous ’90 premiership team.

SAM KEKOVICH: Originally from Gunbower, near Echuca, Sam joined North Melbourne from Myrtleford as a teenager. At 15, when he first played open-age football, his body was as big as most men. Also part of North Melbourne’s 75 flag side, Sam was a great character and was one of the first advertising salesmen for Inside Football. It was amazing the bookings he collected from motels all over country Victoria. He was a well travelled young man, was Sam.

MICK NOLAN: Mick was a 100-game player at Wangaratta Rovers and surprisingly mobile for a man of his incredible bulk. He had an appetite to match and on arrival at Arden St., was soon dubbed “The Galloping Gasometer” by the great Lou Richards. Years ago, as a publicity stunt for the Sporting Globe I trained with North one Sunday morning and coach Ron Barassi made me piggy-back Mick for almost a lap. Not sure if the knees have ever been the same since!

BOBBY ROSE: One of the playing legends of the O & M, Bobby joined Wangaratta Rovers while at the height of his League career and led the Rovers into five Grand Finals in seven years for two flags and three runners-up. He was loved everywhere he went, even by his opponents he occasionally flattened in his desire to get to the ball first!

PETER TOSSOL: Pete’s loyalty to everything O & M is well known. As a player he amassed almost 250 matches and remains one of the great country cricketers, too. Down in the Big Smoke, he worked as a clerk at the old VFL alongside Dermott Brereton and lived to tell the tale! Is still involving today; one of the great sportsmen of the bush.

ROB WALKER: The best O & M player who hated life in Melbourne and soon returned to home town Wangaratta, Rob’s achievements were extraordinary and included five Morris Medals (the competition best and fairest), four O & M flags, 12 club best and fairests at Wang Rovers, two all-Australian country guernseys and three Victorian country championships. He also won a flag at North Melbourne in the thirds under Denis Pagan before returning to the bush. “I was homesick,” he told me.

That’s a young Ken Piesse, 30 years back carrying Mick Nolan at North Melbourne training in Adelaide one Sunday morning

YOUR VIEW: What do you think of Ken’s top 10….  email vcfl@aflvic.com.au with your favorite players from the O &M. Please keep your letters to 100 words or less to enable us to print as many as possible.

About Ken Piesse

I am a journalist, commentator and the author of almost 50 cricket and football books. I also sell the new Wisden and cricket and football books and cricket cards and ephemera on the internet via my website www.cricketbooks.com.au

Comments

  1. Tony Robb says:

    Hi Ken,
    I remember Peter Chisnell when dad coached him at Albury after he finished at North. He was an Adonis. Every part of him sculptured and flashing white teeth. Tough as nails but a lovely man off the field. Very popular amongst the tigerettes

    There was bloke by the name of John Smith, along with “The mercurial Stan Sargeant”, who played for North Albury in the early 70’s. Won the Morris Medal 2 or 3 times but refused to go to North Melbourne because of the family diary business. He was the best country footballer my father (he’d seen a few) or myself had ever seen.

    Cheers

    Tony

  2. Rocket Rod Gillett says:

    You’re right Tony any narrative about the O & M must refer to Stan Sargeant – he was a mercurial goal-kicker and a mighty hitter of a cricket ball as Brett Kirk always points out to me when we discuss the ‘Hoppers.

    The rating of John Smith as the best country footballer ever seen by the Great Tim Robb puts him ahead of a few on this list.

    Ken – I’m a bit confused about the list – is it meant to be the 10 best players FROM the O & M – in which case Bobby Rose (Nyah West) and Mac Holten (Scotch College) do not qualify or the 10 best ever in the O & M in which case Mick Gayfer and Sam Kekovich probably do not rate given that they went off to play league football at a young age.

  3. Rocket Rod Gillett says:

    Apologies Ken – now I get it – your favourite 10 players from the Ovens & Murray…

  4. No George Tobias ?

    Glen!

  5. I remember Peter Chisnall when he was the Albury runner.
    Isn’t John Smith (2 Morris medals) the Father of Joel (ex St Kilda & Hawthorn)?
    There was also John Sharrock & Ross Henshaw at North Albury & Bobby Spargo & his son
    Paul at North Melbourne.

  6. G’day John. When did Peter run for Albury ?

    Glen!

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