‘A Day at the Footy with Donny…’ by KB Hill

Footy’s back……You beauty……..

 

I’ve just alighted from the Rovers rooms after the half-time break…….A passionate Cressa has pleaded with his charges to withstand the enormous pressure being applied by the Lavington Panthers in this gripping opening-round tussle .

 

Still pondering what might lay ahead, I resume my seat in the rejuvenated L.P.O grandstand. It’s a game riddled with errors, but nevertheless entertaining. Looks like it’ll develop into a battle of attrition in the last half…….

 

Moments later there’s a tap on the shoulder from the old bloke sitting behind me ……….

 

“I noticed your Wang Rovers top. Did you play at all ?….”

 

“Yeah, late sixties. What about yourself ?….” I ask.

 

“North Albury…….and a bit of a run at Footscray…….”

 

To a lifetime Bulldog nut like me this pronouncement was music to the ears. The correlation between North and Footscray means that it can only be one person……….

 

“You must be Donny Ross.”

***

 

 

 

 

My love-affair with the ‘Dogs was pretty well sparked by the events of 1954. For 62 years that mystical, sole premiership was our Nirvana. I remained convinced that it may never again be re-visited.

 

Firmly imprinted in my mind for decades were the scores, all the major details, the trivia , and the side: From the backline, it read : Wally Donald, Herb Henderson, Dave Bryden…… Half Backs: Alan Martin, Teddy Whitten, Jim Gallagher…..Centres: Ron McCarthy, Don Ross, Doug Reynolds………

 

“You know, there’s only six of us left,” Don tells me. “It was a terrific side, well led by Charlie Sutton. He was a bit underestimated as a player, Charlie. They always rave about how tough he was, but you don’t wear the Big V three years in a row if you’re not a star in your own right……….And Whitten ?……Well, he’s still one of the best I’ve ever seen….”

 

We do stop yapping for an occasional glance at the footy. “Where’s Paul Roos’s young bloke ? “

 

Number 22, I point out; seems to be able to find the footy.

 

“Not as tall as the old man, but he moves alright, that’s for sure,” he says. “So does the sandy-haired left-footer – number 3.”

 

“That’s Sam Murray, who spent a bit of time at Collingwood a couple of years back.”

 

He’s super-impressed with Lavi’s energetic coach, Simon Curtis…….But we continue to digress…….I’m eager to re-visit the career of this softly-spoken 87 year-old……..

 

***

 

He grew up in Boree Creek and had virtually no exposure to sport. His main physical outlet in his pre-teen years came from cutting thistles, or carting bags of wheat, for which he’d be paid the princely sum of five pounds per day.

 

Don discovered footy when he was sent to the Albury High School, to commence his secondary education.

 

“I showed a bit, I suppose, when I had a run with North Albury juniors. Don Wilks, who’d played at Hawthorn, took on the coaching job and must have been impressed. He put me straight into the senior side….. I’d just turned 16…..”

 

He timed his arrival nicely. North won their way into the Grand Final against Wangaratta, and gave themselves a good chance of toppling the reigning premiers. But Don, who’d had a great season, and lined up in the centre on the experienced Norm Minns, was off the ground in the first five minutes, destined to take no further part in the game.

 

Another key player, John Murcott, hobbled off minutes later. The Hoppers did a great job to stay within striking distance with no bench, but eventually lowered their colours by 16 points.

 

Don took out the B & F in 1951, and obviously impressed former Footscray coach Arthur Olliver, who’d travelled up to see him play.

 

“I wasn’t really sure whether I wanted to go, but Billy King, my coach at North that year, said: ‘You’d be silly if you don’t have a crack.’ So off I went, down to the big smoke…..”

***

 

Again, his timing was spot-on. The Bulldogs were building up to something special, and he was named in the seniors for the opening round of 1952. ( “You know, I was lucky enough to never play a Reserves game, either at North orFootscray, “ he says).

 

 

 

 

And things also fell into place when he landed a job as a maintenance carpenter at Smorgan’s, after having begun a carpentry apprenticeship back in Albury.

 

This later led to an opportunity to work in the building game with a staunch old Bulldog man, Wally Beevers.

 

“I did some sub-contract work with Wally, and worked alongside Gary Simonds ( the founder of Simonds Homes ).”

 

“But the biggest win I had was meeting my future wife Shirley, one Saturday night, at the dance in the Orama Ballroom in Footscray, ” Don says.

 

The ‘Dogs were on the improve, finishing third in 1953. After losing the first two games of 1954, they began their finals assault from second spot.

 

Don fitted neatly into his role in the centre, after having been experimented with in all key positions. But he’d begun his National Service at Puckapunyal mid-way through the year, and, in the lead-up to the Grand Final, didn’t train for a month.

 

“I suppose I was still pretty fit because we were marching for six hours a day, and doing different other drills, but I certainly didn’t get much ball-handling,” he says.

 

“The trouble was, come Grand Final day, I’d used up all my leave passes, and I had to rely on the good grace of my sergeant to get out of the barracks, and to the MCG. He said: ‘I’ll look the other way.’ So I sneaked off, Absent without Leave, to play the biggest game of my life.”

 

I’ve since read that Charlie Sutton regarded Ross as one of the linchpins of the excellent Footscray sides of the ‘50’s. At 13st 7lb and 5’11”, he often shunted him to centre half forward if the ‘Dogs needed a lift.

 

He was on fire in the Grand Final, with 20 possessions in the comfortable 39-point win over Melbourne.

 

Footscray coach Charlie Sutton leads the celebrations after the ’54 Grand Final. Don Ross is on his left.

 

But there was little time to enjoy the Premiership celebrations…..He had to get back to ‘Pucka’ and sneak in without being apprehended…………

 

***

 

Don had now mastered one of football’s newly-created positions – playing as a ruck-rover.

 

“Barassi was the game’s first ruck-rover, but Sutton reckoned I might make a good fist of it, so I became the second.”

 

He won the Bulldogs’ Best and Fairest in 1956, despite team-mate Peter Box taking out the Brownlow Medal. As an indication of the esteem in which he was held, he was elevated to the vice-captaincy the following season.

 

“ I quickly grew to dislike the job. I was six or seven years younger than some of the club’s stalwarts, and felt they probably didn’t appreciate a young tyro being one of the official leaders. Besides, things had become a bit unsettled around the place……….”

 

“Charlie Sutton was running a pub, and had taken his eye off the ball a bit. The Committee hauled him in one night in the middle of the season and read the riot act to him. Charlie came out of the meeting and promptly gave us the night off training…….That didn’t go over too well…..I don’t know whether that was the sole reason, but they sacked him soon after, and replaced him with Ted Whitten.”

 

“ To Charlie’s credit, though, it didn’t affect his love of the Club; he had another stint as coach and served as President for a few years……”

 

The following year – 1958 – Footscray tumbled to second-last. Don had always planned to return to the bush to settle down and bring up his family, but it was a shock to the ‘Dogs when he told them he was quitting.

 

He’d played 129 games, and was just 24, when news broke that he’d turned his back on the glamour of League football to take on the coaching job at his old club, North Albury………….

***

 

“So there you are, you old bastard……I wondered where you’d got to….I thought Alzheimer’s had set in and you’d gone walkabout……” quipped his mate ‘Happy’ Whetmore, an old Lavington player, who had brought Don in from Jindera for the day.

 

“Nah, it was too rowdy in the Entertainment Area……I wanted to concentrate on the footy,” Don replied. He introduces me to ‘Happy’ ( “I’ve known him for years, and still don’t know his first name,” he says ).

 

We resume our conversation, acknowledging that the Rovers appeared to have broken the game open in this final quarter………..

***

 

Don was heralded as the Hoppers’ saviour when he again pulled on the Green and Gold, but he was unable to take them beyond the middle reaches of the ladder.

 

“We just didn’t have the dough to spend on recruiting to be really competitive in those days,” he says.

 

His own form – and his leadership – was outstanding. He finished third, sixth, second and second in the Morris Medal in the four years he coached, between 1959 and ‘62.

 

“It was a Golden Era for the O & M, with fellahs like Frank Tuck, Billy Stephen, Fred Goldsmith, Jimmy Deane and Des Healy in charge of other Clubs,” he says.

The O & M team that played South-West F.L at Narrandera. Don Ross is second from left, back row.

 

“But your bloke ( Bob Rose ) was the pick of ‘em. I remember we played the South-West League up at Narrandera one year. He had a crook back and could hardly walk. The officials suggested that he pull out, but he said: ‘I don’t want to let anyone down. I’ll be right once I get out there.’…….He dominated on a forward flank. ‘Rosey’ was a champ.”

 

Don coached Burrumbuttock for a season before deciding to hang up the boots, aged 29, and concentrate on his flourishing construction business. The North Albury Clubrooms, at Bunton Park, was one of the hundreds of District projects he oversaw.

 

 

He settled, with Shirley and the three kids – Sandra, Jenny and Paul ( who also played with North Albury, and had three senior games at Footscray ) at Lavington. They later moved out to a property at Jindera, where he still resides.

 

He took on breeding and training racehorses as a hobby: “ I usually only had two or three in work at a time, but we had a lot of success. Over the years we won Cups at Wang, Wodonga, Corowa,, Wagga, Benalla and Albury.”

 

The North Albury, Ovens & Murray and Western Bulldogs Hall of Fame Member still follows the ‘Dogs closely, and is treated like royalty when he heads down to Melbourne for the occasional game.

 

“I’m keen, but I’m not a patch on Shirley. She’ll watch ‘em on telly, then saddle up for the re-play ! “ says the old champ………..

 

 

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Comments

  1. Dr Rocket says

    Good to see you venture over the border KB!
    You can add the NSW Greatest-ever Team to the list of achievements.
    Don Ross was picked in the final squad from the 500 players from NSW that played VFL/AFL footy.

  2. Ta KB.

    We were up in Albury last week for a family do. Uncle Frank who played a few games for Corowa in the early 60’s was reminiscing about one of Don’s former Footscray team mates John Hoiles, who played for Corowa in the 60’s. John went to Corowa as captain-coach, eventually replaced in 1968 by Richmond’s 1967 premiership captain Fred Swift. As it was John stayed around for Corowa’s 1968 flag.

    I remember Paul Ross’s 3 games for Footscray in 1980: hamstring problems if my memory is working.

    Glen!

  3. Kevin Densley says

    Both an enjoyable read and great local (sporting) history, KB – as usual!

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