Anything that takes up four years of your life has both regrets and victories in its story. The main regret of my book, Champions All, an oral history of footy, was that space and deadline prevented me having nearly enough of triple Richmond Best & Fairest winner Ron Branton’s story in it.
To me, Ron’s story is what the book is about – the lesser known, yet great, hard stories. The true face of AFL/VFL footy, not just its neon-lit players. To read this, and I have done time and again, I feel both privileged and like I’m reading real history. Every line of it is a pleasure, no matter who you barrack for. Honest and just chock full of passion.
I have 171 of these, spanning eight decades. Maybe one day I’ll publish them all online, like a spoken football encyclopaedia. But that’s tomorrow’s question.
So, here is my Christmas present to all the Knackers. Those who help me, Harmsie, those who contribute, those who are new to the site. Simply the best, most positive, life and sport loving site on and based around footy there is. I feel lucky to be a part of your community every single time.
So, Merry Christmas and off-season’s greetings to you all. For those who love footy. I feel proud to present to you Richmond great Ron Branton’s story in his own words, as told to me at a rural train station near Ballarat.
Once A Tiger…
I was a Maryborough native, born and bred right in town. Dad played with Primrose and did his knee, of course that finished him. I had an older brother who was a very good player, but he was born a bushman, always out hunting and fishing with his mates. He didn’t even start playing footy properly until he was 23. I started playing in the Maryborough League and took it from there.
We had a big open paddock in the back. Everybody used to come to it on weekends and after school. All the neighbourhood kids, all ages and sizes. As a young fella that paddock was quite a challenge.
I barracked for Richmond right from the start because I grew up around the legendary Tiger Max Oppy. He lived directly opposite me, and was the person who made sure Jack Dyer and Maurie Flemming came up and seen me.
Max wasn’t as tough as they say, he was tougher! (laughs) There were three players in my life that were that hard. One was Max, there was a Laurie Icke who became some player, a hard man for North Melbourne, and Mopsy Fraser. Honestly, I thought they’d kill someone to get a footy they were that tough!
Max Oppy chased Collingwood’s Bill Twomey one day, and Bill jumped over the fence to get out of his way. That’s how tough Max was. Even Lou Richards said he always stayed well away from Max Oppy.
Max was one of five. When I was growing up his father got shot and killed in the war. His mum was teaching in Melbourne so he was left with her.
In the 40s the Ballarat League was a high standard. As locals, we had to go and see Maryborough play – that’s just how it was, where our interest lay. But we also followed a team in Melbourne. It was a higher standard. What do you do when you’re a kid? You keep following. From your team in the juniors, to the local mob, to wanting to see your team in the city.
In 1944 my granddad took me down to the Junction Oval to watch Richmond play Fitzroy in the Grand Final. All the finals were held there because of the war. The MCG was being used to house the American soldiers. Unfortunately Richmond lost. But at least Max Oppy played well!
I was playing in the juniors, for a team, The Church of Christ, but we never had enough players. We had to change our name because only about three kids went to church! (laughs) We called ourselves the Rovers. The Rovers Junior Football Club. After I left, the juniors had all grown up, and they formed a senior side, too, which is still going quite strongly now.
There were two divisions, the Maryborough/Castlemaine and there was a Maryborough team in the stronger Ballarat League. I would play juniors in the morning, then go and play for Primrose in the seniors. That was around ’49-’50. After 12 months Maryborough wanted me to play in the Ballarat League, which I did. In my first full year with them I was 18 and won the best and fairest.
The higher you went, the tougher it was, but I never looked at it that way. I just wanted to play footy. A lot of my ability I got from my father, I’m sure of it. Dad always taught me, “There are two things about football. Always bring your best, always go hard at the ball.” I carried that down to my time at Richmond.
At the end of that year Jack and Maurie came to see me, but they weren’t the only people. I also got invitations from Fitzroy, St Kilda, Geelong. At that time Geelong was another country side, and a very successful side. But at that particular time, as a rover, I’d be fighting for a spot against Peter Pianto and Neil Tresize. Why would I go there? Richmond needed another rover with Billy Wilson, and, of course, there was the pull of barracking for them.
Maurie Flemming was a big name down at Richmond. He was the Club Secretary and a great man, like Jack was a great man. He made the decision to go there an easy one.
The Punt Road Oval was a terrible ground, to be honest. It was fine in summer, but in winter it just had to get a sniff of water to turn into a mudhole. The trouble was we used to have to train on it, too, all the way through winter, which would just make it worse come Saturday. The mud, always the mud…! (laughs)
They only signed me on permit. That got me at least six games until the cut-off in June. It suited me. I’d go down, play the practice matches, and if I didn’t like it I could come back to Marryborough.
I went pretty good in the practice games, and went pretty good in the 6 games, never got any money of course. (laughs)
The Richmond Football Club was really good. The players accepted me. Especially Roy Wright and Billy Wilson, right from the start we got our combination going. Being a smaller player, the other boys seemed to be a mile high! (laughs) They were all so big and strong!
To me, living in the city from the country was a big step. I didn’t know where I was going to board. At first they set me up with a beautiful old lady behind Bridge Road. She was 80, and housed a lot of Richmond players. But as a kid from the bush I felt hemmed in. You didn’t have the freedom to stride across the street. You had to watch for traffic and all those people.
I came down half way through my apprenticeship in carpentry and joinery, and had to find a place to finish it. The club found me a big shop-fitting place in Preston. Because of the distance I moved out there with a family who were strong Richmond supporters, and I stayed there until I got married.
The club were always strong in a sense. Collingwood being so close to Richmond, they hated each other. If they ever met on the boundary, it would be with baseball bats. Every time they clashed it was very, very strong and rugged types of games.
If you beat Collingwood in those days, they wouldn’t come in they took it so badly. Of course, if they won, they’d be in there, cock-a-hoop, having a free beer! (laughs)
When I first come down, there were the famous players you’d heard about in the bush, the Colemans, the Bobby Roses… Coleman, he was a champion, no doubt, but he did his knee before I came down. Same with Bobby. But they were legends.
You knew each side, how they’d play. Collingwood was always going to be a rugged game, where as Essendon was more skilful, technical type of football. Collingwood, they’d knock you down, step all over you. You may as well have said, “Essendon, well, we’re playing the girls today!” (laughs)
The practice games were against each other. Lots of new players coming down, trying to get in. Lots of reserves players who were already there, trying to be seen. Blokes were competitive, there were a few fights, but most were okay, they had no desire to hurt each other. Max Oppy was still playing. He didn’t try to iron me out! (laughs) He was a bit more gentle with his own blokes.
I’d played all the practice games with the club, then on the Thursday night before the first game, the reserves coach Alby Pannam told me to come over and do some boundary work with big Roy Wright and a couple of others. Alby, of course, had been a famous Collingwood ruckman. The ball comes in to Roy in the ruck, he hits it down, suddenly, whack! I’m on my arse, seeing stars. Pannam had taken me out. He helps me up and tells me, “Ron, if you get picked for a senior game tonight… if…! you’re going to have to be ready. It’s gunna be tough, it’s gunna be hard. There are some players who will just want to see you hit the ground.” He said, “If it happens, I don’t want to see you just sit there, I want to see you get up and come back at them. If you don’t they’d do it again and again.”
My first game was against Melbourne in Round 1. They wished me all the best, got a lot of telegrams from Maryborough, even from my school teachers. There was a lot of excitement. Of course, Dad and Mum were down. I can still feel myself running out, the hairs on my back standing up! The one thing about Richmond, no matter where we were the crowds were packed! Every game. Tiger supporters, they stick. They’re unbelievable.
My first kick, early in the game, I’ll never forget. I went past Roy Wright, he was down on the ground, wanting to give off the handball. Schofield led out from full forward, and I hit him right on the chest. We kicked the first goal! (laughs) Right from the start, that gave me the confidence. Melbourne were a good side on the way to being a great side, but we beat them on that day.
After the game we never did what they do now, we never sang a song. Everyone felt good, the coach would come around congratulating you on your game, you had a shower and went home. There wasn’t even a premiership cup in those days. That’s just the way it was.
We won that first game… then lost our next ten! (laughs) Every time that I played I thought we were going out to win. It was the only thing in my mind. To do my job. There was no point in going out and playing great one week, then go missing for five. You had to give your best every week. Consistency. That was the measure of you.
Rot set into the club in ’53 when they appointed Alby Pannam to replace Jack Dyer as coach. Alby was a Collingwood man. Jack spat the dummy. He thought that was just not on, and didn’t come back to the club whatsoever. The only times I saw him after that was when I appeared on the Sunday show, the World of Sport, or, if we had the split round, I’d do a bit of commentating on the radio with him and Lou Richards.
Probably a part of it was he got sacked from the job. Alby was already in the club, coaching the seconds. It was a disappointing thing.
When I was playing, it was always uplifting to see the older champions around the club. It would do so much. Dicky Harris, Basil McCormack, you saw them there every day, they stayed involved, but to lose Jack, such a legend of the club, these things go to the core of the culture of a place.
Winning felt good, losing terrible, but I never got to have that strut of walking around knowing I was playing in finals.
In 1955 we won eight in a row, it felt great! So good! We only missed out on the finals by percentage. We all just thought we’d go on with it next year, that we were on the march. But we never did.
I wouldn’t have signed a form if the people weren’t going to look after me. That was the one thing about Richmond – they always looked after their players, lined up good jobs, made sure you were okay, even when you were leaving them. When you’re time was up they’d make sure there was a coaching or playing offer from somewhere to go to.
Roy and Billy were the famous combination. I had to change a lot in the forward pocket. One game Pannam asked me to stay there, “We need a few goals to get us going!” I ended up winning the club goalkicking a few times – 28 or thereabouts. A massive total! (laughs) The back pockets were pretty tough. Oh, for sure. There was a bloke who had just come from the air-force, Collins for Melbourne. I was playing pretty good. For some reason this fella came and headbutted me like a tank! (laughs) It was the difference between country and VFL football. That one woke me up a little.
I was playing forward pocket in ’58 when we came up against Carlton. We had three or four really good small players, they called us the Mosquito Fleet. I go to shake Carlton great, Bruce Comben’s hand, and straight up, he tells me to go and get f-ed. The opening siren sounded, and next thing I know there are smelling salts under me nose bringing me to! (laughs) It was written up in the paper on Monday, big headlines, rather than Carlton-Richmond Clash, it was Branton versus Comben! (laughs) Bruce ended up with stitches over his eye and concussion in the hospital.
I was partly responsible. I hit him down, then Laurie Sharp came in and hit him with his knees and everything. So we got even. The funny thing was, every time we went away on a trip, we’d always meet Carlton. They’d invite us back to their hotel, and the Blues players would go, “Bruce, look out! Here comes Branton!” (laughs)
Ken Hands was a good player, but we called him ‘Dirty Hands’ If you weren’t looking he’d whack ya. He was a good fella. That’s what so marvellous about this game, you can be out there doing battle, but after you shake hands and share a drink. What happens on the field stays on the field. It’s a thing to behold, the camaraderie between players.
Going from rover/forward pocket to back pocket was a strange decision. It was 1960. By this time I’d been made captain. For some reason we ran out of tall players, just had a lot of medium sized ones. Our ruckman was Allan Cooke, he was bloody good, he did what he could but was only 6ft1. That’s bloody hard in that position. Then we lost Kenny Ward. They came to me and said, “Ron, we’ve got too many small players, we want you to go to the back pocket.” I said, “As long as I get a vote, not on your life! I’m still rover. Once you go to the back pocket the next stop is over the fence!” The back pocket like was being shown the back door.
We went to selection on Thursday night. They had a board up and it was covered. I noticed it, and inquired. They said, “Well, Ron, we actually had a meeting the night before. You’re in the back pocket.” (laughs) Oh, no! They said, “Sorry, we’ve got smaller players that can do the roving.”
And they did. We had Ted Langridge and Ray Allsopp. The selection committee thought being a rover, I’d be able to watch a rover. Even though I’d got runner-up and third runner-up being a rover, made the interstate sides as a rover. The big question was – How am I gunna go?
I came up against a lot of good players Geelong’s Neil Tresize, Bobby Skilton, Allen Aylett.
When we played Essendon Hutchinson and I, we used to call each other names. We’d have big arguments, my ability versus his ability. I’d tell him, “When I play a game of footy I go in and get it, as a footballer should! I don’t wait outside for someone to get it for me!” Billy was a receiver, and I was a getter. I called him a “Lady footballer” (laughs) But he was champion, of course.
Hugh Mitchell used to get the ball himself. I tell you what, though, every time he got it he was on his own! I don’t know how he did it, they must have planned it. His teammates just knew he’d be there. Our wingers noticed, too. Somehow, always on his own!
We played Geelong early in my time as a back pocket. After the game, their pack pocket, the Brownlow Medallist Bernie Smith, told me, “Ron, never leave your ability on the other player. Use what you’ve got.” It was great advice from someone who ended up in the All Australian Team of the Century.
As a rover, Bobby Skilton was difficult to play on. Very Difficult. But as a forward pocket, Bobby… let’s say he relied on your mistakes. Even when I moved to the back pocket, I had that mindset – if I could get it I would. I’d attack. Bernie was right, that’s just the sort of player I was. You had to mind him, but I wouldn’t worry about him, either. If it was there, in I’d go.
Bernie Smith was great for me.
In the back pocket, Bobby Skilton was easier to play on than his teammate. Brian McGowan was a terrier! Always attacking, always running about!
Ian Law from Hawthorn was difficult to play on, too. He was here, there and everywhere. Blokes like that were tricky. The thing about playing pack pocket was you had two jobs – to help out the full back, and to guard the goal square/your man. You had to know when to go, you had to know when to stay.
As a back pocket I took great pride in the fact rovers never kicked goals on me. I was good at tackling, and could take handy overhead marks. They would maybe get one, but never 3 or 4. I just had the knack of either being able to nullify them, or to get it first.
The interstate games were special. Oh, very special! Every player wanted to get the Big V. Soon, I was being selected for the State side again, but this time as a back pocket. Oh, there were some good players in that side! Boy! John Nicholls, Kevin Murray, Howell from St Kilda, Brian Gleeson, Bobby Skilton, Kenny Fraser at centre half forward, full forward was Dougie Wade. A champion team! We played a carnival in Adelaide. Teddy Whitten was playing coach, he spoke well. As we were running out to play the South Australian team Barassi said to me, “Ron, don’t just think this is another game. The South Australians, they hate us. Do what you’ve gotta do, but expect they’ll bite ya, they’ll kick ya, they’ll do anything to beat Victoria.”
We had a lot of fights that day, I probably should have been reported. Two boundary umpires did come in to report players, and they were told in no uncertain terms to piss back off and do their jobs! (laughs)
South Australia had their Kerley and others and Fos Williams was coaching. They came in hard, and by the end left crying. They got booted out of the ground.
For the first game I got 3rd best, then, the next one, I got Best On Ground. It was sensational, just lovely. They even gave me a large silver service tray! (laughs)
Back pocket wasn’t a prison sentence. When we were being beaten they’d throw me in the middle. I liked playing centre, staying in the corridor. Not many rovers were taught how to play centre, I was glad I had a rounded game. I came up against some great players – Brendon Edwards from Hawthorn, Ron Hovey from Geelong… Real good players.
John Kennedy’s Hawthorn? They were tough. John Snr had a way of going for the ball, he’d throw his arms about. You’d never get in his way or you’d get an elbow in the eye! (laughs) He didn’t mean to, but he was very awkward, very bony. If you tackled him you’d cop it in the back of the head. It was like wrestling a bag of elbows! (laughs) He was unreal, he was!
Oh, Kennedy was Hawthorn, mad Hawthorn, Hawthorn, Hawthorn! One time, though, I got to play under him. For the interstate games, we had two sides, so we were having a hit-out at the MCG. John was coaching. A fabulous psychologist, different to what I was used to. The way he stood, the way he presented was just inspiring.
You have to remember he was a school teacher, a principal, and that was the way he talked, the way he played. (shakes fist, booming voice), “You’ll never lose!”, “Get in there and get an elbow!” (laughs)
When I was starting it was hard coming up against the Geelong team of the early 50s. They were like the Melbourne team that came after them. Strong. Apart from that patch where the Cats made that record, not losing for 26 games straight over two years, we would always do well against them… and the Demons. They were the best, and you knew you had to rise to play them. They would win one, we would win one. But then we would drop games we shouldn’t.
Both teams knew they had a battle when they played us.
We played Melbourne on the MCG in ’56, when they were at their most powerful. Geoff Spring was a good player for us. We were three points up. I broke free from the half back flank, Geoff Spring led out, from the wing into the middle, and I hit him right on the chest. There was bugger all time left, I thought, ‘We’ve got this…” Geoff turned with the ball and saw Noel McMahen coming at 1,000 miles an hour. And if you know Noel, you’d know he never punched you, he’d charge. Oh, he’d charge and get you so hard you’d be gone a week! Geoff, being the light wingman he was, you don’t want to say it, but he shit himself. He dropped the ball and got out of the way. Noel picked it up and kicked it to the full forward, they gathered it and got a goal. Melbourne won by three points.
Geoff got dropped the week after.
Don’t get me wrong, Geoff was a bloody good player. Fast! Skills! A lovely kick. But his idea was he couldn’t afford to get injured. I asked him about it. He said, “My job is more important than football.”
Next year, ’57, we played Melbourne again, and beat them by two points. Every time the two team clashed it was a great contest. They probably won more times, but we always rose, we had our share of victories.
Another time with Noel he came through like a steam train, I just saw him, but he still clipped me. He was such a strong centre half back, such a good player! Harry Beitzel comes in to pay the free, but I can’t get up. Stars everywhere. Harry says, “Come on, Ron, he didn’t even hit ya!” I said, “Harry, then what did you pay the bloody free kick for?” (laughs)
When I started Roy Wright was captain, of course. A great ruckman, winner of two Brownlow Medals. After a while they made me vice-captain. A great honour, but even then you don’t think of actually becoming captain. But when Roy left at the end of ’59, I was given the job in ’60. It was a big thing, a huge responsibility, from in the back pocket! Being captain was a funny feeling, you didn’t want to let anybody down. That was my main thought, ‘I can’t let Richmond down!’ And that’s the way I played.
I was one of the lucky ones, I was the first native of Maryborough to captain a league club. Others, like John Nicholls came after me. It was also an honour in my eyes that I never got dropped to the seconds. A couple of times I thought I should have… There was a game against Hawthorn in my first year, no matter where I went I could not get near the ball! They changed me from roving to the wing… Nothing worked. Still the club kept with me.
We had a bad season for weather, it was awful! Wet – wet and rain. We couldn’t play, the Richmond ground was underwater. They disbanded the round, first time in history. We played Essendon the next day. The Governor of Victoria back then was Lord Doug Russell. Both captains had to introduce their teams. Oh, it was cold! Cold and wet and raining! I took him by our players, but could have been introducing him to Tom Hanks! He didn’t have a clue, he was sozzled! (laughs)
That game, I think I got my first kick just before half time… and everybody went “Rayyy!” (laughs) It was only one of two times I played terrible. But being captain I got another game!
We had our highlights. In ’62 we won the night Grand Final at the end of the year against Hawthorn, last year’s premiers.
The Richmond supporters were great to me. After 100 games they took me up into the grandstand and presented me with a watch. I shouldn’t say this, but my nickname with all the ladies at the time was ‘Cuddles’! (laughs) Yeah, the supporters were terrific, but fickle! Especially down there. They forget it quickly if you’re playing well and serving your team. If you weren’t doing so well they had no problems in reminding you! (laughs)
It’s hard to explain, but the main thing is, the Richmond supporters, the stick! They just stick! No matter how muddy it was, no matter our form. Even now, no matter how bad their year, even when they’re playing poorly, they get 60,000 to the ground.
My time at Richmond, my era, was not as successful as I’d want. We never played finals. There were many reasons. Mostly, I thought that we never had the discipline in the side. The senior players let us down. My opinion, when Alby Pannam came in the training was hard. Senior players were throwing up in the gutter and they didn’t like it. But they’d been getting it too easy, and they didn’t like the difference. And, even though I don’t drink, I have nothing against it, yet there was just too much of it, especially through the week. League football is a serious business. They’re the exact sort of disciplines you have to have if you want to go far. A combination of those bad things would make us not a good side, yet we’d come out and beat good sides on the day.
It hurts to say this, hurts a lot, but sometimes I think Richmond only care about their past Premiership players. That’s only a part of our history, of what made us Richmond.
When they write about the history of the club, they tend to ignore our time. I get insulted by that, as much for the other players. I think everybody who pulled on the jumper, the yellow and black, from superstars to thirds players, is a part of what made us what we are. They deserve to be recognised.
To any player, going to Richmond was a success. When I went to Richmond I suppose I expected it, but it never happened.
To win three best and fairests for the club I loved was an honour. In ’62 I also got runner-up in the Brownlow. Tied for second with Kevin Murray and Ken Fraser.
Alistair Lord won that year but shouldn’t have. He was hot favourite, we were playing them. Alistair hit Roger Dean and when the umpire went to report him, his twin Stewart stepped in and had his number taken. He took the wrap for it. Got two weeks.
What was more important to me than getting runner-up in the Brownlow, though, was that year I won the ABC player of the year. Winning that in ’62 meant so much because the votes were awarded by my peers, Thorold Merrett, Roy Wright. Alistair Lord came 3rd. It’s water under the bridge now.
Back then I used to do a lot of youth work with Essendon legend Ken Fraser. A great man. We were out in Moonee Ponds up on stage, giving a chat. Next minute the doors flung open, there’s TV cameras, reporters! Allan Nash the ex-umpire came running it. We said, “What’s going on?” He said, “You boys just tied runners-up in the Brownlow Medal!” We were working, we’d never even thought about it.
That’s how it was. It was great to have my name alongside Ken Fraser and Kevin Murray.
To win those three best and fairests, though, that was special. Not trying to blow my own bags, it just was really nice – to play well for the club I loved and tried to help up the ladder. As I said, my aim was simple, to do the very best I could every single time I ran out there.
In 150 years of football there have been over 100 rule changes. In my time the 15 metre rule came in, the centre diamond became the centre square, kicking it over the line because on-the-full. That used to be a great way for backmen to get out of trouble. Some were great, but a lot of stupid rules have come in over the years, too. The one I hate is it’s now a free kick for chopping the arms in a marking contest. That’s discrimination against backmen. For 140 years, the good players mark the ball, no matter what. Now they’ve been given a free ticket. What would I have been meant to do on some of the tall players? “Hang on a minute….” then gone and got a chair to stand on? Stupid rule.
The Olympics came to Melbourne in 1956. It was inspirational! Just inspirational! The boss would give half the staff one day off, and the other half the next, so we could all go and watch some of it. What the football club did was give you free tickets to get in, but no seats. With 109,000 there I had to go right up to the top and sit on the wall, holding onto a flag poll! It was dangerous! I came down and sat on the boundary. There were so many people there.
It didn’t help my footy in any way other than inspiration. That way it was very, very good, to see how hard people worked to represent their country. But I never compared it to football. In my mind, once you stepped on the ground as a player it was sacred. You’re job was to do your best. That was all there was to it. That was everything.
In ’56, with the Olympics, television came into football. It was a very contentious time. The VFL went to America to speak to them to see what they should do with our game. They were told that when television entered Gridiron, over 100 leagues across America disbanded because so many people, players and supporters, stayed home to watch it on tv. But the league here took it on. It didn’t so much have too big an effect in the cities, but in the country a lot of damage was done. When tv came in so did the big money. That attitude filtered down through the leagues. It began to stop being about where you lived. The rich teams started being up the top, the poor ones folded, merged or struggled.
At the start, each of the three networks got to broadcast the last quarter of games live. But they would only do it if your team was in the top four. It wasn’t that fair on the rest of us. There were no replays later that night. You’re only shows that had footy was the World of Sport on Sunday mornings with Jack Dyer. Being captain of Richmond, I used to go in every fortnight. And used to get 40 pound every time I appeared! Four game’s wages! Jack used to come up to me and say, “If you find a chance to get into Lou Richards, do it!” (laughs) Ron Casey was station manager and a fantastic fellow. I always made the point of going up to thank him.
When television came in the recognition of players increased greatly. Not too many people really noticed or paid attention to you until then. Suddenly, you’re playing okay, you’re seen on the telly. People’s heads are turning. I used to go to schools to give talks at morning. Once, in the week before we played Melbourne, Laurie Mithen rang me and said, “Will you come and speak to the assembly at Melbourne High School?” 1,000 boys. He was their sports teacher. We played them and he took a mark as I was running towards him. I clipped him, with my shoulder. He went down. But then Freddy Swift came in on him, all knees and elbows. Ran right over him! Laurie had to be carried off! Freddy, boy he was good, but tough, too. A tough player. At the end of the day Laurie’s in hospital with concussion and five stitches, and there’s a double page spread in the paper with me in there, looking guilty over him! (laughs) And I had to speak to all his students on Monday!
I walk into the staffroom, Laurie’s out of hospital, all the teachers are glaring at me. Ron says, “Don’t worry, I’m fine with it, Ron, that’s football.” He wasn’t bothered in the slightest.
So we go to the assembly, Laurie says, “I want to introduce you to Ron Branton…” I come out from the curtain and (laughs) you’ve never heard it! 1,000 students booed me off! They just booed for 15 minutes! (laughs) I felt an inch big! I said, “I’m going home, Laurie!”
Round 17 in ‘61, I was captain, we had about five young players. We were playing St Kilda. Their half back was Eric Guy – a tough player! Never dirty, he’d never hit you behind the ear, but strong tough. Like John Kennedy Snr, all muscle and bone. He was smashing our young players about and I didn’t like it. It was mentioned at Quarter Time, “Someone’s got to stop him.” Sure enough, at the start of the Second Quarter he’s back to running through our young players. “Righto, he’s mine…” Being captain, I pulled Tommy Simpkin to the back pocket, someone else up to the wing, and put myself forward flank, and thought, ‘Okay, Eric, next time you go for the ball, it’s going to be me.’ So the footy comes to the boundary. I deliberately let him beat me to the ball, right under the Junction Oval grandstand… I pulled back the right arm to give him one, but he saw me at the last second and pulled back. I only got him on the shoulder, and glanced off his head. The umpire, Swan, runs in, “Okay, Ron, I’m reporting you…” I said, “You’ve got to be joking, he wouldn’t have felt a damn thing!”
We go to the tribunal. The week before was the famous weekend Ken Boyd copped John Nicholls, got away with it, then mentioned to an off duty reporter in a pub that it was him. It went to the High Court, that one, then back to the tribunal. All on the word of a reporter. So Ken’s there a week later, the night I am. There’s also a Carlton player up. The three of us go in. Ken’s case is big, so it goes first, and takes forever. He comes out. “How’d you go, Ken?” I got 12 weeks.” The Carlton player come out. “I got 4.” Shit, not looking good. I go in. The place is just like a court. By day, the bloke in charge is an actual judge. I tell them, “I just went to wrap him up and the arm slipped up off his shoulder.” I come out and Ken and the Carlton bloke ask how I went. “I got off!” They say, “Off? How? Geez you’re lucky!”
Richmond’s vice-president at the time was the brilliant defence lawyer, Ray Dunn. A champion fella. He really got a lot of players out of trouble at Richmond. Later, he tells me, “I knew you’d get off. I drink with the judge every Friday night!” He got a big box of cigars on his desk the next day! (laughs loud)
How to win friends and influence people! (laughs)
Ray Dunn was a great fellow, a police barrister. If any police got into trouble he would defend them. He was there in the lean days, from before I was there, to the good days with Graeme Richmond. In many ways he set up the club for their successful era.
Footscray’s back pocket of the 50s, Lionel Ryan, tough! Bluey Ryan – oh, he was tough! I used to play well against them, and they’d always put him on me. Oh, he’d bite and he’d hit and he’d kick ya! Tough! One of the toughest I’ve played on. And Allan Jeans was another one.
Allan Jeans, he was a great man. As we all know, he went on to coach St Kilda and Hawthorn, and even Richmond. A great man. Not as a player. He would be my opponent when he was playing for St Kilda. Allan used to kick me, stomp me, do anything! Through Richmond I spent many years working for the famous Australian cricketer, Lindsay Hassett, at his sports store. One day this man staggers in, he’s got long, filthy hair, a filthy, beard, oh the smell! He says, “Ron, can I have a cup of coffee?” I said, “Who are you, you dirty, smelly…” He said, “Go on, can’t you give me a coffee? It’s Allan Jeans…” He was working undercover as a policeman! (laughs)
Every time Richmond played Footscray Charlie Sutton and I fought. Charlie was captain coach, a strong, tough player. I was just starting. Charlie was in the centre, I was roving. Charlie knocked me down, then come over the top of me, dragged his stops down me leg. Being young and innocent I said, “Mr Sutton, get off. Don’t do that.” So he purposely went slower, really drove them in. He wouldn’t get off me, so I hauled up and kicked him where it hurt. Next thing I know we’re fighting in the middle of the ground. (laughs) So every time we met, it would be on!
He was a terrific fella, but. Terrific!
The marking in the 50s and 60s was just outstanding! There were players with, y’know, sticky fingers. 9 times out of 10 they’d just grab them. Blokes when I was a kid, like Norm Smith and Jack Mueller. They worked so well together at Melbourne.
We all had our skills. Mine was to kick with both my feet. My dad taught me that. Others was their pace. But the skill I admired most was the ruckman. They were big and strong back then. One day we were playing Fitzroy, coming up against Normie Johnstone. He was like a giant rugby player. His head sat on his shoulders, which were a table wide. Roy Wright was picking up the ball in the middle of the ground and Norm split him right up the middle. Roy fell into little pieces just like you see in the cartoons, his nose laid out flat. Still, somehow, Roy tried to get up, but crashed down again. Just the strength and size of these men! They were so much more solid than today’s types. It was like being around giants.
Drop kicks, there was always a legend that Thorold Merrett was pretty good with his stab pass. Well, I thought I was pretty good. A stab pass is only two feet off the ground, no higher, where you punch the ball with your foot, but don’t follow through, and hit a target up to 40 meters away. Any more than that and you have to kick it higher. There was a competition one day for a number of us at the South Melbourne ground, to put it through a hole from so far, and you could only kick it so high. Sure enough, he and I were the only ones who got it in.
We were playing Geelong and in front by 3 points. We are at Richmond, on the Grandstand wing. I was in the back pocket. It was the umpire’s first game. Geelong had created the loose man with just a few seconds to go. O’Neill, a champion for the Cats, was dropping back. I could see it coming and tried very hard to get to him, but was just a few seconds late, and ploughed him. Next thing, there’s an all in brawl. (laughs) 16 players were fighting on the ground. I had to stop O’Neill to win the game. That was life and death as far as I was concerned.
O’Neil should have got a kick. He was only 30 meters out. Simple as simple. First time umpire, the game stopped and he balled it up. We got it away and won my three points! He never got another game. I felt terrible!
The club wasn’t really well run in my time. Charlie was a great property man, but you’d almost have to murder to get anything out of him. We were given two pairs of shorts, one pair of socks, one pair of boots, a jumper, and one jock strap, and if there were holes in your jock strap, or if you tore your jumper, you had to darn them yourself!
I was lucky, ’62 had been a good year for me – club best and fairest, Big V, 2nd in the Brownlow, but the money back then was pretty average. When I started a decade earlier it was 3pound10, towards the end it was 8pound for my teammates, and 10 for me because I was captain. It was an honour to play VFL football, it was an honour to be captain. But then Myrtleford came and offered me 70 pound a week. (laughs) It was big money!
I’d just had a young bub, a son, and I missed the bush. I decided, being a young family, I wanted to bring my family up in the country not the city.
Richmond offered me money to not go. I wanted to stay one more year and get life membership, but I didn’t want to be like Lou Richards, who stayed too long and got thrown out of Collingwood! (laughs) I said, “I’m going to go.”
Jimmy Deane was a great South Australian half forward who came to Richmond. He had already gone to Myrtleford to play and coach when he finished with the Tigers. Jimmy had a shoe store there but wanted to go back to Adelaide. It was him that put Myrtleford onto me. So I brought out the shoe store, took the 70 pounds, and moved my family to the bush to play footy.
Roger Dean was a great player. We had some terrific players when I won the B&F. Freddy Swift was playing then, Neville Crowe was playing then, Roger Dean was playing then… Roger, being a younger player, came up to me, “Ron, I’m in trouble. I have a groin strain, I don’t want to tell anyone.” I said, there was this stuff, Penatrine, like Deep Heat, I told him, “Take some Penatrine and rub it into your injury as hard as you can.” Next time I saw him he said, “Ron, that stuff you told me to run into my groin? I didn’t take the tram home that night, I outran it!” (laughs) He reckons it took him two weeks of cold showers to stop hurting!
“You’re a bugger!” he told me.
Your ambition is to play in finals. You ask any player who never played in one what their wish is, they’d all answer the same – To run out onto the MCG in September. As a club we’ve been up, and we’ve been down. Some got to be a part of that and I didn’t, and that’s sad.
Many people ask me who my best player was. You can’t compare rovers to ruckman. But the one bloke who could just pay anywhere, on-ball, forward or backman, was Ted Whitten. He was like one of those tradesmen who could do anything. He had that height, that build, he was quick, he had the skills, he could do the lot. I’m not talking about his hype, or his personality, but his football. It was the same with Royce Hart.
Roy Wright won his second Brownlow Medal in ’57, but I don’t think his year was that outstanding. It was good, Roy was a champion, but that year was not that outstanding. Richmond had a half back flank, though, Kevin Dillon, he really, really played that year! He’d tear straight through. Kevin was nearly as hard at Max Oppy! He was terrible. Blond hair, rugged, Richmond through and through. It’s just how people see the game. I reckon he was our best payer for the year, but he didn’t get a mention. Maybe the people who judge these things don’t see the game like a backman.
Max Oppy was the example of the true back pocket. Courageous, tough, skilful, ruthless. And he scared forwards. That’s the definition. That’s what a back pocket is meant to be. He was my idool. I can understand I never made the Richmond Team of the Century, there’s so much competition, but he was the one bloke, in all my time, that should have been in it.
But what I have been recognised, it gives me so much pleasure now.
Footy is my life.
To go as far as you can, with the ability you’ve got. And at the end, looking at the things you’ve achieved. I made the Richmond Hall of Fame – a lot to what you have achieved within yourself.
Years later, when I finished and coached Myrtleford, I asked Ron Barassi to come up and speak to the football club, to give them a bit of inspiration. Help us raise some money. We were going to have it at the pub, which we knew would be packed. Ron said, “Yes, I’d do it for you. Do you know why? Norm Smith used to always use your name in his speeches.” I said, “What…!?” He said, “Yes, for the way you attacked he ball, and did what you did.”
That was a big accolade. I was a huge fan of Norm.
My time, we had been up, we went through the downs, then the club rose again. No matter where we are – Once a Tiger, always a Tiger. Never change your stripes!
The efforts of Maurie Flemming, the players, the people about the club, the presence of Jack Dyer, even though he wasn’t about then, what he’d left the club, I’m glad I signed with Richmond. Because I barracked for them and I loved them. If I had my time again, even though we had no team success in my tenure there, I’d still sign with them. I just thought it was an honour.