‘Far from the madding crowd…..’ – KB Hill

Lance Oswald, who passed away last Wednesday, is rated by many local experts as Wangaratta’s finest football product.

 

‘On Reflection’ caught up with the old champ just on four years ago. This was his story……:

 

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He’s rising 79 and has been ensconced in the sleepy Murray River town of Strathmerton for over 50 years. Life is just as he wants it – peaceful, idyllic and ‘far from the madding crowds’.

 

He spent six years in the ‘big smoke’. More than enough time to earn recognition as the best centreman in Victoria – and probably Australia.

 

Occasionally his mind drifts back to where it all started………

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Lance Oswald was a South Wanderer.

 

The Oswalds resided in Greta Road, which meant that, in accordance with the prevailing Wangaratta Junior League rules of the late 40’s, he was zoned to the Green and Golds.

 

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Picking up kicks was never a problem for the curly-haired footy ‘nut’. He was 13 when he played in the first of two flags for the Wanderers. A year later he was the League Best & Fairest.

 

He seems chuffed when I start to reel off a list of his premiership team-mates . “There were a few good kids in those sides. Some of them turned out to be pretty handy players, too”, he says.

 

But none of them came remotely close to matching the achievements of the prodigiously talented Oswald.

 

In one of the early rounds of the 1953 season, he was selected to make his senior debut for Wangaratta against the Rovers. He was just 16.

 

The ‘Pies were fresh from winning their fourth straight O &M flag and it was a fairly hard side to break into. He only played one more senior game that year, but consolidated his senior spot in 1954.

 

The fabulous ‘Holten Era’ was drawing to an end, and I asked Lance how he rated the former Collingwood star ……”Good coach…excellent tactician…But gee, he was tight. Wouldn’t shout if a shark bit him !”

 

Holten urged Oswald, who, by now, was attracting plenty of attention from League clubs, that he should put on a bit of beef before he headed to Melbourne.

He’d kicked 17 goals as a rover-forward during the 1955 finals, including seven in a best-afield performance, as North Albury overpowered the ‘Pies in the last quarter of the Grand Final.

 

As clubs circled him, he swayed towards playing with Essendon. But Holten warned him…”Look, you’d be competing with Hutchinson, Clarke and Burgess for a roving spot. Don’t go there.”

 

Mac was keen to entice him to his old club and took him down for a practice match. He started in the Reserves curtain-raiser, then was whisked off the ground and played in the main game, under an assumed name. He starred, but was happy to return home, much to the chagrin of Collingwood officials.

 

After St.Kilda coach Alan Killigrew had trekked up the Hume Highway to visit him three or four times, Lance agreed to play the opening round game of 1957, against South Melbourne, on match permits, as the O & M season didn’t get underway until the following week.

 

It was a promising debut, and he was named in the side again, but Wangaratta put the foot down and told him he was going nowhere.

 

By now he was the complete player. Strongly-built for a rover ( 5’10 and 12 stone), he could sniff a goal, was an accurate kick and had a fierce attack on the footy.

 

If anyone still had a ‘knock’ on him, Oswald put paid to those doubts with a dominant season. He kicked 90 goals, to win the League goal-kicking award, featured in the O & M’s Country Championship triumph, and shared the Morris Medal with Myrtleford fullback, Neil Currie.

 

And he played a starring role in the Magpies thrilling two-point win over Albury in a gripping GrandFinal. Wang had kicked only six goals to three-quarter time and trailed the Tigers by 27 points.

 

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They gradually closed the gap, and with a minute remaining, Lance snapped a miracle goal to give them the lead for the first time in the game. It was his 73rd, and last game for Wang.

What a note to leave on !

He was an apprentice at Jack Cox Engineering and St.Kilda arranged for his indentures to be transferred to Melbourne firm, Phoenix Engineering, as he settled in at the Junction Oval.

 

Lance and his wife Dot coped with severe bouts of homesickness. “We went home pretty regularly the first season. I suppose we improved as time went on, but Dot still hated the place,” he recalls.

 

After 10 years in the wilderness, the Saints were on the move and hit the jackpot with recruiting. The place became a bit of an Ovens and Murray haven. Brian McCarthy and Peter Clancy (Yarrawonga), Geoff Feehan (Wodonga), Ian ‘Doggy’ Rowlands ((Wangaratta) and, briefly, Les Gregory (Rovers) all wore the Red,White and Black guernsey.

 

Lance was a more than handy rover-forward in his first three seasons, but his career took off when he was moved into the centre.

 

The team’s strong defence and improved depth allowed him to roam the field and pick up kicks at will. In an era when centreman rarely moved away from the cricket pitch area, he was an exception. He had a big tank and could run all day.

 

By 1960 he was an automatic choice in the Victorian side and narrowly missed an All-Australian blazer in 1961, after performing superbly at the National Carnival in Brisbane.

 

He gained some consolation by winning his second successive St.Kilda Best and Fairest in ’61 and helping the team into the finals for the first time in 22 years.

He almost swung the semi in St.Kilda’s favour with an inspirational third quarter, as they pegged back a big lead to get within a couple of points. They eventually fell nine points short.

 

Although starting to feel the effects of some niggling ankle injuries, Lance was still playing at his top in 1963 and again starred when the Saints bowed out in another semi.

 

He and Dot packed the kids in the car the next week and headed up to visit his mum, who was living in Strathmerton.

 

She must have worded up the locals.They paid him a surprise visit , escorted him down to the footy ground to show him the facilities – and offered him the coaching job. “Give us a couple of weeks to think about it,” was his reply.

 

They were only a few miles out of ‘Strathy’, on the way back to the city, when Lance rang back and accepted the position.

 

So, after 107 games, 102 goals and four Interstate appearances, Lance Oswald’s League career was over.

 

He was offered employment at the Kraft Cheese factory, coached Strathmerton to a Murray League premiership in 1964 and, all-up, led them for nine seasons. He finally hung up his boots at the age of 37, after 210 games with ‘Strathy’.

 

It was a lifestyle choice that he never regretted and was an ideal place, he and Dot reckoned, to bring up their three kids.

 

He was at the J.C.Lowe Oval last Saturday, to watch his grandson Scott play for Yarrawonga, against Wangaratta. He had, he says, mixed feelings about the result, as he always keeps an eye on the fortunes of his old club.

 

It has been an incredible football journey for the St.Kilda Hall of Famer and Team of the Century member and a man who some experts rate as the greatest of all Magpies.

 

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You can read more of KB Hill’s stories of local sporting identities by clicking HERE.

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