‘The Champs of 1950………’ by KB Hill

For every footy flag that’s won, there’s a story that begs to be told……..

 

Cast a glance at Grand Final Day portraits of 10…30….even 70 years ago, hung for posterity in Clubrooms throughout the nation……….Geed-up players ooze confidence; their impenetrable eyes gaze through the camera; minds focused solely on the game ahead.

 

As the decades roll on their reputations are enhanced……so too, are the tales of their march to premiership glory.

 

But dig deep, beyond the photo and you may uncover hidden anecdotes….. Of an old champ, who’d been desperately clinging to his spot, despite aching limbs and sub-par form…..only to be unceremoniously dumped on Grand Final-eve……..

 

Or a much-hyped kid, thrown into the side when injuries threatened to derail the Club’s chances…….who went on to perform brilliantly – the first of several ‘pearlers’ he would produce on the big stage……….

 

And a star recruit, just starting to show his class, whose involvement in a tragic accident provides the inspiration for a famous flag………………..

 

***

 

Norm Newbold was an outstanding all-round athlete at Scotch College and was playing with suburban team Gardner when he first came to the attention of Collingwood’s recruiting scouts. Having landed at Victoria Park, he was being groomed as a key forward. Several fine performances as he was coming through the ranks, illustrated the obvious potential of the high-marking, mobile youngster.

 

Hopes of a budding VFL career were put on hold when he was transferred to the bush with the E.S & A Bank in early 1950. It was a ‘given’ that, once he arrived at his posting, he’d play with Wangaratta, considering that their coach had already been alerted by his former club.

 

He took little time to adapt to O & M football. His partnership with spearhead Max ‘Shiny’ Williams provided the side with a multi-pronged attack.

 

On a typically wintry early-June day at Myrtleford, Newbold snagged six goals in what was, to date, his biggest haul for his new club……….

 

That evening, on his way to visit his sister in Euroa, a motor-bike on which he had hitch-hiked a ride, collided with a semi-trailer on the Hume Highway, just outside Glenrowan.

 

His football career was over.

 

Doctor Roy Phillips, who was, coincidentally, also the footy club medico, rushed to the gruesome scene. The rider of the bike was killed. ‘The Doc’ was obliged to amputate the leg of the young forward he’d seen starring earlier that day…………..

 

***

 

The Wangaratta players made a pact that the hospitalised Norm Newbold would be the inspiration behind their bid to win the 1950 title.

 

After a 9.21 to 5.7 win over Myrtleford on that fateful day, their win-loss ratio stood at 4-2. The defeats had come at the hands of Rutherglen and North Albury, both expected to figure prominently in the run home.

 

But, despite being the reigning premiers, and warm favourites for the flag, the Pies knew that they still had the job in front of them……..

 

***

 

Since joining the Ovens and Murray League in 1893, Wang had snared six premierships, and Norm McGuffie had been involved with all of them. He was a player in 1925, committeeman in 1933 and ‘46, Secretary/ Treasurer in 1936 and ‘38, and President in 1949.

 

Mac Holten once recalled his introduction to McGuffie, who had travelled to Melbourne to meet him at a pre-arranged destination, early in 1949.

 

McGuffie had advised him: “If you see someone wearing a red rose in the lapel of their suit coat, that’ll be me.” By the time they’d finished talking, shook hands on it, and went their different ways, Mac was Wangaratta’s new coach.

 

The O & M had been basically a mark and kick game in the late forties, until Holten augmented strands of his old club Collingwood’s play-on style, with a particular emphasis on handball.

 

And he subjected his players to tougher training than they’d ever experienced – including loads of sprint-work.

 

He was a born leader, and the instant success he achieved added to his lustre. His players regarded him as something of a magician – a tactical genius………….

 

 

***

 

The side that had swept to the 1949 flag was laden with talent. There were a handful of departures over the succeeding summer months, but the quality of the recruits more than compensated for the losses.

 

Besides Norm Newbold, a strongly-built big man Alan Whittenbury, arrived from the Diamond Valley League. Ron Carmichael, a classy 5’6” winger was transferred in the Railways, a dimunitive school-teacher, Jackie Stevenson landed in town, and stylish winger Kevin Allan, was lured from Milawa.

 

There were big raps on Allan, who had won the Demons’ B & F. His old club was reluctant to lose the popular small-man with the catchy nickname. Eventually they agreed to grant him six match permits ‘to see if can make the grade’.

 

In the meantime, though, ‘Wobbles’ fell off some scaffolding and twisted an ankle, which delayed his debut until mid-season.

 

But the prize ‘get’ for the ‘Pies was a rugged, sandy-haired dairy-farmer whom they’d been trying to extricate from Greta for several years. At last, Lionel Wallace had decided it was time to ‘give it a go’.

 

He created an immediate impression. “He was the best country footballer I ever came across,” Mac Holten said many years later. “We could only get him to train one night a week, but he played some great games. ‘Lioney’ would have been a sensation in Melbourne……………”

 

***

 

Wangaratta suffered only two hiccups in the remaining home-and-away rounds – a narrow loss to Wodonga and a nail-biting draw with Benalla.

 

They finished on top, two games clear of Rutherglen, whom they steam-rolled by 38 points in the second semi-final.

 

Their full forward Max ‘Shiny’ Williams booted four of the team’s total of 12, whilst ruckman-forward Alan Whittenbury chimed in with three.

 

The fast-leading Williams, who stood just 5’10”, had become a vital cog in the Magpie structure. He followed up his 71 goals in 1949, to again top the League goal-kicking list with 84. He relied on the conventional flat-punt for his deadly accuraacy.

 

Playing in front of him at centre half-forward was Ken Nish. Both hailed from Peechelba, but it was Nish’s ability to perform despite profound deafness that earned the admiration of his team-mates.

 

Nish, who was Wang’s leading vote-getter in the Morris Medal in 1950 and their B & F the previous season, was a star. Despite being born deaf he was able to communicate capably, and was a master of lip-reading.

 

Tall ruckman Graeme Woods, from neighboring Boorhaman, often lined up beside them in attack. He had developed rapidly in his two years of senior football.

 

Woods was a mere baby compared to seasoned veterans Kevin French, Jack and Doug Ferguson, who were the only survivors of the Pies’ first post-war flag of 1946.

 

If asked to nominate their favourite player, many die-hard fans would opt for the brilliant Timmy Lowe, who seemed to have an innate ability to read the play and accumulate multiple possessions. He would, this season, win one of the five Best & Fairests that came his way in 122 quality games………

 

Timmy Lowe

 

***

 

North Albury had overcome Rutherglen in the Preliminary Final, to earn a crack at Wangaratta in the decider. Nine thousand fans crammed into ‘The Glen’s’ Barkly Park, in anticipation of a ‘battle royal’……..

 

The game opened in dramatic fashion when two of the Hoppers’ stars – Don Ross (bruised thigh) and John Murcott (broken ankle) were off the field within the first five minutes.

 

Even so, after being 16 points down mid-way through the first quarter, North managed to wrest a four-point lead at quarter-time.

 

Their inspirational skipper, Don Wilks, was everywhere, as he attempted to lift his side. Wilks, the former Hawthorn player, had guided Echuca (1946) and Auburn (‘47-‘49) to flags, and was hell-bent on adding another to his collection.

 

Magpie ruckman Allan Whittenbury flies over North Albury’s Arthur Pickett

 

But Wangaratta slowly began to gain the ascendency. Dynamic mid-fielder Norm Minns, who was in everything, appreciated the absence of the silky young prodigy, Donny Ross. ‘Shiny’ Williams and elusive forward flanker Doug Ferguson were also ‘on song’ up forward for the ‘Pies. The only negative was that full back Jack Ferguson had his hands full with old rival Norm Benstead, who was to finish with seven goals.

 

 

 

 

Wang’s all-round strength proved telling in the finish, with unsung defender Bill Parkinson, hard-working Kevin French and Rex Bennett prominent. The evenness of the Pies enabled them to overcome woeful inaccuracy in front of goal.

 

Their tally of 11. 20 (86) gave them a 16-point win over North -10.10 (70), in what had been a ruthless, unforgiving encounter………..

 

 

***

 

Wangaratta handed Mac Holten a contract extension of five years, at a stipend of £12 per week, such was their determination to retain the much-lauded coach.

 

And his boys duly went on with the job, taking out the 1951 and ‘52 titles, thus equalling the ‘four in a row’ feat of the great St. Patrick’s outfit of the twenties.

 

Some of them stuck around for a lot longer. Graeme Woods, for instance, played the last of his 249 games in the 1961 Grand Final, bowing out with six flags to his name. ‘Hopper’ McCormick returned from a coaching stint at King Valley, to take his part in the 1957 premiership side – his fifth in Black and White.

 

Several others tried their hand at coaching: Lowe headed up to Beechworth, Bennett to Whorouly, Bill Challman to Greta. French had success at Tarrawingee, Allan returned to take charge of Milawa, then spent several years at North Wangaratta.

 

 

 

 

Norm Minns, who had played such a key role in this Golden Era, was nabbed by Benalla, and led them to the 1953 flag. It was his fifth straight – an O & M record, which still stands.

 

Minns, along with team-mates Col Sturgeon, ‘Hopper’ McCormick, Challman and ‘Wobbles’ Allen, later returned post-retirement to devote decades of service to the Club.

 

***

 

When Wangaratta nominated their Team of the Century in 2006, ten members of the 1950 team were selected : Holten, Jack and Doug Ferguson, Kevin French, Timmy Lowe, Norm Minns, Lionel Wallace, Jack ‘Hopper’ McCormick, Graeme Woods and Ken Nish.

 

History has looked favourably upon this famous side of seventy years ago…….and deservedly so…………

 

 

 

Postscript: Norm Newbold passed away eight years ago. His son Greg ( the current non-playing coach of Greta) says that he didn’t dwell on his misfortune, but was ever-grateful for the support he received from the Wangaratta Football Club.

 

This story first appeared on KB Hill’s website On Reflection and appears here with permission.

All photos from KB Hill’s collection.

To read more of KB Hill’s great stories, click HERE.

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Comments

  1. KB, one of your very best. Excellent research, wonderful insights into the local situation and a great example of the importance of sport to local communities. Amazing that 10 members of that team were selected in the Team of the Century – that says a lot about just how good they must have been.

  2. Patrick O'Brien says

    Great stuff, actually reads like fiction, which I mean as a big compliment. Even some of the town names seem made up!

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