“Flag Flames Again Flicker At The ‘Showies’……… ” by KB Hill

 

I’m regularly reminded of my greatest sporting disappointment when I spot a swarthy fellah striding down Murphy Street of a week-day morning.

 

It’s 49 years ago, almost to the day, that he pranced on to the Showgrounds Oval, and proceeded to become a decisive figure in Myrtleford’s electrifying, historic Premiership triumph.

 

The first thought that comes into my mind is usually: ‘There’s the little prick that helped cost us a flag’.

 

Johnny Bianco chuckles at this, and recounts the circumstances that ultimately delivered him a premiership Medal in just his ninth senior game for his home-town Club:

“I’d not long graduated from Uni as a teacher, and received a posting to Meadow Creek early in 1970. Moyhu came to see me and I said: ‘Yeah, I’ll play with you.’ I was driving an old Morris Major Elite at the time, and travelled over from Myrtleford each day.”

 

“Anyway, as luck would have it, the Morris ‘carked it’ and Dad gave me a loan to buy a brand-new Renault from One-Mile Motors. The only proviso was that I had to give up footy, and concentrate on my teaching career.”

 

“A few weeks later, though, a three-man deputation from Myrtleford – the coach, Martin Cross, President, Len Ablett and the Parish Priest, Father Frank Jones – arrived at the farm and convinced Dad that I should play with Myrtleford.”

 

After six games in the Reserves ( during which he picked enough votes to finish runner-up in the League Medal ), John broke into the senior line-up. He strapped himself in for a dream ride, as the Saints stormed into the finals, and comfortably won the First Semi against Wangaratta. They sensationally knocked over previous flag favourites Wodonga by a point in the Prelim, to set up a Grand Final clash with the Rovers.

 

There was a touch of romanticism about the meeting of the O & M’s two fledgling Clubs, who’d been jointly admitted to the League twenty years earlier. Hence, a mammoth crowd jammed into the Showgrounds – a large percentage of them adorned in Red, White and Black.

 

 

Alas, the fairy-tale appeared destined to end in tears.

 

The Rovers had looked the better-equipped team, and held a decisive 17-point lead at three quarter-time.But a withering last quarter saw the Saints storm back into the game. The elusive Bianco proved to be their ‘energiser’. He made his presence felt by snapping the first major and his fresh legs were a factor in their scintillating fight-back.

 

When Graeme Ward booted a goal from well-out at the 24-minute mark, the game had slipped beyond the grasp of the Hawks. The piercing sound of the siren was the signal for hundreds of Myrtleford fans to swarm the ground and release two decades of pent-up emotions……..

 

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Grand Finals always produce a back-drop of yarns that make each of them unique……..Some are tinged with sadness………others conspicuous for their stories of brutality……or brave performances against the odds………

 

Myrtleford’s Cinderella-like triumph in 1970 is the most memorable of the eight O & M Grand Final battles that have been waged at  Sunday’s venue – the Norm Minns Oval (The Showgrounds). It may be worth plucking out some snapshots from the others……….

 

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1947: ALBURY v. BENALLA

Tommy ‘The Turk’ Lahiff’s Albury are chasing their third flag in four years, and have convincingly outpointed Benalla in the Second – Semi.

 

But Benalla, with ‘Iron-Man’ Bob Chitty booting nine goals, storm back into contention with a 44-point win over Corowa in the Prelim.

 

It’s anyone’s game at lemon-time in a riveting Grand Final, as the Demons lead by a solitary point. Chitty has been dynamic in the first half, but begins to fade out of the game.

 

Albury’s forwards, who have been wayward, to say the least, begin to hit the target, and with classy left-footer Jimmy Matthews controlling the mid-field, prove too strong in the latter stages, winning 11.18 (84) to 10.9 (69)……….

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1962: BENALLA v WANGARATTA ROVERS

 

Much of the pre-game hype centres around the ‘Swansong’ appearance of Rovers maestro Bob Rose, who has overcome mid-season injury to lead the Hawks into the ‘big-one’.

 

And he’s in rare touch, picking up 26 kicks by half-time, as the Rovers lead a battle of attrition, three goals to one.

 

Rovers fans ponder why Rose has left incumbent coach Ken Boyd to cool his heels in the back pocket for much of the game, whilst Benalla’s Alf Sikora and Terry Putt are playing such a key role in the big-man duels.

 

The Hawks still lead by five points – 4.8 to 3.9 at three quarter-time, but it’s obvious, in this battle of the defences, that the Rovers are tiring.

 

Demon star Neil Busse nails an early goal, and Putt scoops in a magnificent mark in the goal-square, to give the Demons the lead. Johnny Hogan kicks the sealer in the dying stages to give Benalla the flag – 7.14 (56) to 6.10 (46).

 

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1973: BENALLA v NORTH ALBURY

 

The fists fly early in a series of sensational flare-ups, as North use their physical strength in an attempt to counter the Demons’ pace and slick teamwork.

 

Brilliant Hopper mid-fielder John Smith is the first to go into umpire Ian Coates’ black book. The report is to have consequences for Smith the following year, as it costs him consecutive Morris Medals. Burly Joe Ambrose is also reported, but Benalla are able to withstand the pressure, and go into each of the breaks holding a narrow lead.

 

There are thrills aplenty for the crowd of just on 15,000 in the final term. Benalla slip out to an 18-point lead, but a 70-metre goal from Stan Sargeant and a snap from Fulford in time-on reduce the margin.

 

Benalla, desperate in defence, hold on to win a classic – 12.12 (84) to 11.11 (77).

 

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1978: BENALLA v WANGARATTA ROVERS

 

Benalla enter the Grand Final as raging favourites after chalking up 15 consecutive wins. But when the chips are down in the opening stanza it is the Rovers who take command.

 

They’ve made several pre-match positional changes which seem to catch the Demons on the hop, and by half-time the game is as good as over.

 

Benalla issue a brief challenge in the third quarter and, for a while, halt the Hawks’ supremacy. But their moment of glory is short-lived and their opponents sprint away again, to notch their sixth flag in eight years, winning by 54 points – 15.18 (108) to 7.12 (54).

 

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1991: YARRAWONGA v WANGARATTA ROVERS

Yarrawonga out-play Wangaratta Rovers in the Second Semi, and earn favouritism when the two sides meet at the Showgrounds a fortnight later.

 

This time the Hawks are well-prepared and blitz the Pigeons with a dominant first quarter which almost puts the game beyond doubt.

 

It’s typical Grand Final football, with plenty of tackling and smothering, which makes the job of kicking goals a difficult proposition. Robbie Walker is on fire at centre half forward, and the Pigeons swap several players onto him without success.

 

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At the last change it is feasible that Yarra may still pinch the match, but the Hawks put it to rest by adding another 7.7, to win effortlessly – 17.16 (118) to 7.7 (49).

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1994: WANGARATTA ROVERS v WODONGA

 

A blustery wind blowing across the Norm Minns Oval eliminates the long-kicking, high-marking game for which both sides are renowned.

 

But the unbeaten Rovers signify their intentions early by hitting the ball hard and tackling ferociously. They kick five goals to nil in the first quarter, and continue their dominance. The third quarter becomes somewhat farcical, as the Dogs initiate several stoushes and are minus three players thanks to the umpire’s yellow card.

 

Did Simpson Medallist Robbie Walker is unstoppable and the usual suspects – Tossol, the Wilsons, Caruso and O’Donohue – reap the rewards of Wodonga’s ill-discipline, as the Hawks go on to win 14.14 (98) to 5.9 (39).

 

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2018: ALBURY v WANGARATTA

 

Albury, the League’s pace-setter for the best part of a decade, have to fight like the Dickens to preserve their unbeaten record in a riveting match.

 

With a strong breeze reaching almost 40kmh at times, both teams struggle to master it. The Tigers lead by 21 points at half-time, but the ‘Pies perform brilliantly to force their way back into the game, and trail by just 3 points at three quarter-time.

 

Albury get some breathing space through a piece of Jake Gaynor magic, but a Michael Newton goal- a snap for his third – cuts the lead back.

 

The game is full of desperation – particularly when Jimmy Grills marks on the goal-line to prevent a Magpie goal with just three minutes left.

 

In one of the most thrilling Grand Finals for years, Albury hang on to win: 11.12 (78) to 10.10 (70).

 

 

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POST-SCRIPT:   The 1970 Grand Final was Johnny Bianco’s last game for his beloved Saints. His profession took him to a variety of towns throughout the state, where he continued playing footy. In 1977 he shared in another flag, with Rushworth, under the coaching of former North Melbourne star Bernie McCarthy.

 

He settled in Wangaratta in 1984 and became renowned over the next 30 years as a much-loved teacher and musician. Last November John’s world was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with cancer.

 

 

“It’ll probably get me in the end,” he tells me. “But in the meantime I’m enjoying life as best I can. Hopefully,  I can live long enough to see Myrtleford’s second premiership………..”

 

 

This story first appeared on KB Hill’s website KB On Reflection. To read more of KB’s cracking stories, 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.

 

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