Local Footy: Demise of Benalla District league spark cherished memories in sad circumstances

By Hamish Cameron

Last Sunday, Bonnie Doon went back-to-back winning the final Benalla and District league premiership by 15 goals against Swanpool.  After more than 60 years in existence, the league will now disband, leaving five clubs to go their separate ways. For posterity’s sake, now is a good time to reflect on playing for a club in Victorian’s smallest football league.

I grew up outside of Longwood, a town of about 150 people in north-east Victoria, an hour-and-a-half up the Hume freeway. It’s a typical country town with one great pub, a simple shop and a couple of churches. Not surprisingly, it also has a football-netball club. Growing up watching the Longwood Redlegs compete in the Benalla & District league is a cherished memory: seeing my older cousins play, ordering square pies from the familiar canteen ladies, navigating around bearded men who guzzled cans of beer beside a flaming 44-gallon drum, and, where possible, manning the ageing scoreboard.

I first played for Longwood reserves in the wet against our arch-rivals the Bonnie Doon Bulldogs on their infamous sloping oval. One of my strongest memories is the smell of massage oil, tobacco smoke, perspiration and beer – all blended into one distinct club-room aroma. It made me feel like a boy among country men. I watched incredulously as players smoked at half-time. We went home on a bus via the Yarck pub where cash and vouchers in white envelopes were awarded to the better players. Plenty of beers were downed and the trip home was a merry one.

I played a few more games when Todd Stone was the captain-coach of the club. Todd had come from South Australia, having allegedly fared well in the Magarey Medal a few years earlier. He had a large gut, a bung knee and an incredible ability to play the game. He sat at full-forward — when not sitting at the local bar — and kicked a mountain of goals, including two tons. He didn’t mind a melee either.

My first game that year was against Thorton-Eildon. I travelled in a green Torana through the Strathbogie Ranges via the windy Merton Gap road. It’s fair to say my mother was worried. Thornton-Eildon had plenty of cash and a strong city contingent. Todd kicked a heap of goals, but we got flogged and someone twice my size took me out. I still recall the ‘Oooooohs’ of the Thornton-Eildon supporters as I wore the bump.

I returned to play two full seasons earlier this decade. By this stage, many teams were battling to put two sides on the park. Some guys played back-to-back games; many matches were lop-sided. Six teams played in the league, with four reaching the finals.

Longwood were captain-coached by Brendan ‘Varcs’ Varcoe. On-season labourer and off-season shearer, Varcs suffered from a crook back and white-line fever. On the ground he was mad as a cut snake. He had a big reputation in the league for his ‘unsociable’ style of play, but he wasn’t the only one. The first year we took the wooden spoon and I won the most consistent player award. Was that a good thing?

The second year we reached the prelims after a memorable win over Bonnie Doon, only to lose to eventual premiers Devenish. Devenish folded two years later.

I don’t go back to watch Longwood often, but I covet the memories of supporting and playing. In particular I miss playing against the clubs in their unique towns on their picturesque grounds. I miss nights spent at the Longwood local, the White Hart Hotel. I miss drinking with team-mates and supporters and playing Defender in the ‘Longwood Football Club hall of fame’ – a modestly furnished area of the pub (next to the men’s toilet door) with a few premiership team photos and random club paraphernalia.

But most of all I miss the characters. Small-town clubs seem to have a special feel – where the people really do appreciate those who come and play, and the enjoyment and sense of community that Aussie Rules provides.

Now the league is folding, but Longwood will survive for the time being. I worry about the Redlegs’ long-term viability. For my 21st birthday, my brother gave me a 1908 team photo. The players sit behind the 1906 and 1908 premiership trophies and in front of a gum that now hangs over the ground.

Players, from time to time, kick the ball into that tree’s branches – but the game goes on. I hope the club and the tree remain, and other people can enjoy playing for and against Longwood, like those who have for the past hundred years.

Comments

  1. Nice reflection Hamish. There’s a good chance those square pies were “Noon Pies”. I remember Noel Ferrier doing an ad for them in the pre-colour TV days.

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