‘A Salute to the Centurions……..’ by KB Hill

The dreaded Covid-19 Crisis has created confusion on a global scale…and local football has become entangled in the maelstrom.

 

The proposed regulations are still hazy, and are changing by the week…..When will it be feasible to kick off again?…Won’t the absence of crowds have a devestating effect on Club finances ?…

 

It’s an open-ended debate. But compare it to the quandary facing the game in the aftermath of the Great War.

 

The nation was still recuperating . Having been bereft of organised competition for three and a half years, local footy was sluggish on the uptake. Clubs had to basically start from scratch… the shadow of the Spanish Flu was also lurking ominously…

 

Yet once the initial steps were taken to resume, administrators found that players and supporters, having been deprived of the sport they loved for so long, responded enthusiastically…

 

***

Wangaratta is commemorating a famous premiership this year…… It’s the Centenary of their 1920 Ovens and King flag triumph over Eldorado.

 

The two Clubs had developed an intense rivalry from the time they first tangled in 1903. The Red and Whites ( or the ‘Blood and Bandages’ as they were often dubbed ) had won three flags and were always at – or near – the top of the O & K ladder.

 

They reaped the benefit of having several handy players employed on the Dredge, and their proximity to Wangaratta added a ‘local derby’ type flavour to clashes with the ‘Pies.

 

When the O & K resumed in 1919, so did hostilities between the arch rivals. Sharing a win apiece during the home-and-away rounds, they were slated to meet in a crucial Final at Beechworth.

 

The start of the mid-week game was delayed a couple of hours, due to the late arrival of a special train from Wangaratta, jammed with 600 spectators. Dusk was falling on Baarmutha Park when the match concluded at 6.30pm.

 

The large crowd witnessed an epic encounter. Wangaratta sneaked home by a point – 2.3 to 2.2, but because Eldorado had been the minor premiers, League regulations allowed them the right of challenge.

 

This time Wangaratta hosted the game, which attracted 2,000 spectators, the majority of them barracking for the home team.

 

It developed into a bloodbath. Eldorado held sway virtually from the first bounce and led 2.10 to 0.5 at three-quarter time. They went on with the job in the final term, adding 4.6 to a solitary point.

 

It was a decisive victory, but the ripples of discontent from the demoralised Wangaratta camp developed into a crescendo the following week.

 

The newspaper report of the Council meeting was headlined: FOOTBALL, OR BULL-FIGHTING ? The Mayor, Cr. Billie Edwards, said he watched the game in horror. He added: “I am satisfied that football is now a rotten sport.”

 

Councillor Tweed was more expansive: “I am disgusted with the displays of savagery that took place in that Grand Final. The piece of Silver Plate that was the cause of all the trouble should have been given to the winner long ago,” he thundered.

 

“Wangaratta played good, clean football, but they were subjected to viciousness and brutality. I must protest against the Wangaratta ground being used for such a degrading display……….”

 

***

 

The Magpies spent the summer months licking their wounds.

 

Recruiting had been kept to a minimum. Of course the League’s Radius Rule restricted them to landing players who resided no more than five miles from town. This was designed to curtail the bigger clubs from lavishing money on expensive imports, or pinching players from the smaller towns in the League.

 

But there was certainly a sense of solidarity within the Wangaratta camp. Part of that could be attributed to the solid leadership of Arthur Callander, a local businessman, who became the Club’s first post-war President when elected in 1919.

 

Callander had attended St.Patrick’s College, Ballarat, a well-known football nursery. When he returned home to take his place in the family Emporium, he quickly involved himself in the sporting affairs of the town.

 

In fact, you’d liken him to a 1920s version of Eddie McGuire. He was 26 (younger than many of his players) when he took over the leadership of the footy club, and was also promptly voted in as O & K President.

 

With a stable bank balance of 6 pounds 12 and sixpence, and a healthy list of players, there was genuine optimism around the Wangaratta camp.

 

On-field problems, though, needed to be dealt with. Long-serving Peter Prest resigned from the Captaincy. There was a suggestion he was offended that some players were always kicking to their mates, to the detriment of the side.

 

The loyal veteran Harold Hill, who had begun with the ‘Pies back to 1908 and had also acted as secretary/treasurer, was nominated for the role, as was another old-timer, Les Kewish.

 

Hill was elected but later stood down because he felt unsure he had the full support of the group. The position was eventually handed to Bob Metcalf. Decorum seemed to have been restored to the playing ranks.

 

But consistency plagued their performances during the season. They scored percentage-boosting wins against bottom-rungers North Wangaratta, Everton and Milawa, but it was a different story against tougher opposition.

 

They got home by less than 10 points in each of their clashes with Beechworth and Whorouly, but had fallen well-short against the well-equipped Eldorado and ever-improving Moyhu. At the conclusion of the home-and-away rounds, Wangaratta were entrenched in fourth spot, with a 10-4 win-loss record.

 

Both Semi-finals produced surprising results. The Magpies finished on strongly to defeat Moyhu, whilst Beechworth caused a shock by clinging on to a three-point win over Eldorado.

 

This pitted Wangaratta against Beechworth in the Final. They’d scored one-point wins over the boys in Red and Black in both of their 1920 meetings. It proved another nail-biter, with the Pies falling in by 5 points – 7.7 to 6.8.

 

The game’s aftermath, sadly, was shrouded in controversy. Wangaratta’s Peter Prest claimed that he’d been offered 10 pounds by a well-known citizen to ‘throw’ the Final.

 

Rumours also circulated that several Beechworth players had been bribed to ‘play dead’. It prompted one of them, ‘Brahma’ Davis, to pen a firm denial to the newspaper. “We just played poorly,” he stated.

 

The League decided to take no action on the matter.

 

Thankfully, too, as Eldorado, the Minor Premier, had exercised their right to challenge Wangaratta for the flag………

 

Wang shocked their opponents with an electrifying first quarter and, to the surprise of the large crowd, which had paid 73 pounds 5 shillings at the gate, went on with the job.

 

They had a virtually unassailable 32-point lead at three-quarter time. But Eldorado fought back valiantly. In the dying stages they had all the play. The siren beat them as they went down by nine points – 10.11 to 8.14.

 

“Norman McGuffie was the most consistent and best player. Les Kewish was ever-clean and ‘Scotty’ McDonald, the most popular man in the team, played well as usual,” said the Chronicle scribe.

 

The Pies were basking in the glory of their first premiership in 15 years…

 

 

***

 

Two years later, under the guidance of Arthur Callander, Wangaratta returned to the Ovens and Murray League, then took out their maiden O & M flag in 1925.

 

An inspirational figure, Callander was to remain at the helm for eight years, during which the Club played in seven Grand Finals. At one stage, in the mid-twenties, he was wearing multiple hats as President of Wangaratta, the O & M, the Wangaratta Athletic Club, Wangaratta Turf Club, St. Patrick’s Race Club and North-East District Racing Association.

 

It was said of Callander that: “Everyone who meets him becomes his friend. He has the facility of combining dignity and good fellowship.”

Wangaratta Football Blub Hall-of-Famer Arthur Callander

 

But, as we glance through this 1920 line-up, we recognise several others who were to make a sizeable impact on the town in the decades to follow:

 

…….Like Gordon ‘Scotty’ McDonald, who stood just 5 feet 4 inches and was renowned for his bravery throughout 147 games in Black and White. He played on until the early thirties, rejecting frequent approaches to try his luck in League football. He opted instead to stick with his job as a grocer at the Co-Store, which he held until just before his death.

 

When Wangaratta fell upon hard times, McDonald combined his playing duties with the role of Secretary from 1927-30. He remained a fervent Magpie.

 

……..Martin Moloney, along with ‘Scotty”, figured prominently in Wangaratta’s 1925 O & M premiership side and was a fixture in the line-up for many years. The family’s butchery, on the site of the present-day Moloney’s Arcade, in Reid Street, became Martin’s domain.

 

Norm McGuffie

 

………Norman McGuffie’s sojourn with Wangaratta lasted from 1919 to 1962. He proved to be a star in his 107 games. Upon hanging up the boots in 1927, he joined the Committee and stayed for 35 years. Incorporated in this was four years as Secretary/Treasurer, from 1935-38, and two spells as President, from 1949-53 and 1959-62.

 

……..Vic Woods possessed the tall, lean physique of his son Graeme, who became one of the O & M’s finest ruckmen in 249 games with Wangaratta. Graeme was a regular inter-League representative and played in 6 premierships. His son Richie carried on the family tradition, playing with Wangaratta during the seventies.

 

………When Marty Bean retired as a player, he took over as Wangaratta’s Head Trainer for 17 years. Many footballers, searching for that extra yard, sought the tutelage of the astute ‘Old Fox’. The Showgrounds was Marty’s stamping-ground in summer as he fine-tuned athletes for more than four decades, training three Wangaratta Gift winners.

 

………..One of Marty’s protege’s was the Club’s boundary-umpire, Jim Larkings, who pursued a lengthy, successful athletics career. He filled the minor placing in Gifts around the State on so many occasions, without ‘greeting the judge’, that they nicknamed him ‘The Shadow King’.

 

Like ‘Old Marty’, Larkings’ preferred mode of transport was a trusty bicycle, which was still conveying him around town – and down to the footy from his Swan Street residence – well into his nineties…

 

***

 

P.S.: As a sidelight to the recollections of Wangaratta’s 1920 Premiership, the Club was recently contacted by descendents of Jim Gleeson, a key member of the team.

 

The Medal that Jim received as the Most Popular Player of 1920 (Best & Fairest) has been handed down through generations of his family. They’re keen to pass it on for inclusion among the Club’s Memorabilia.

 

 

 

Covid-19 has jeopardised a planned function, but at some time in the future the Pies hope to formally ‘Salute the Centurions’.

 

KB Hill is Wangaratta’s leading sports historian. This article appeared first on his website On Reflection and is used here with permission. To read more of KB’s great yarns, click here.

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

 

Comments

  1. Controversy and footy are never far apart! Another illuminating effort, KB!

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