‘From King Valley, to Moonee Valley…and beyond’ by KB Hill

Leigh Newton’s father Laurie, grandad Aub and great-grandad Jack, are all legends of the King Valley United Football Club.

 

So when Leigh, a lanky, blonde-haired 14-year old ruckman, shared the 1992 O & K Thirds’ Fred Jensen Medal, there was a bullet beside his name.

 

The Club’s ardent fans salivated that the lad had the breeding and talent to lead them out of the wilderness; maybe to Premiership glory, in years to come.

 

Furthermore, they dared to dream, with his mate ‘Marty’ Porter alongside him, they’ll be a near-unbeatable ruck combination.

 

It wasn’t to be…. By 1997 both were playing League football…….They had to acknowledge that this pair of 6’6” beanstalks would, in all likelihood, never wear the Valley’s Blue and White stripes again.

 

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I catch up with Leigh during a break in his hectic schedule as the Regional Services Manager of Country Racing Victoria. He’s been involved in the racing game for more than nine years; loves it, he says. It’s the only sport that’s been able to soldier on throughout the Coronavirus Crisis, albeit, of course, minus the crowds.

 

 

The sight of his gigantic frame towering over all and sundry at Race-courses is a far cry from the slight youngster tagging along behind his old man at the Whitfield Reserve back in the eighties.

 

I suggest that he inherited the wonky Newton limbs. Laurie was a star, and had two stints as Valley coach, but his crook knees – and assorted other body parts – played havoc with him. He fitted a famous flag (1976) into his five years with Wangaratta, and was a member of King Valley’s two premierships, in 1970 and ‘81.

 

He’d retired early in that ‘81 season. His back was giving him hell, but someone came up with the idea of fitting him with a brace. It allowed him to play out the season – and be a dominant ruckman in the Valley’s last flag.

 

Even after that, he would still fill in with the Reserves, up to the ripe old age of 42.

 

Leigh recalls playing with him at Bright. “You were always short when you travelled up there in mid-winter. I kicked a few goals in the Thirds this day, lined up in the Two’s with dad, who was just about best afield. Then they named me at centre half back in the Seniors. I think I’d just turned 15.”

 

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He reckons he totalled no more than 20 senior games with the Roos. “A few from our 1993 Thirds Premiership team moved up the following year, but I spent a fair bit of that season with the Murray Bushrangers,” he says.

 

Then he began studying at Charles Sturt University, embarking on a Marketing and Accounting Degree. Rather than making the difficult choice between the Wang Rovers and Wangaratta, who were both on his hammer, he decided to play with Albury. Besides, he was living within walking distance of their headquarters, the Albury Sportsground.

 

The Tigers had assembled a crackerjack side. Their ruck duties were in the hands of Ken Howe, another ‘blonde bombshell’, who enjoyed the season of his life, taking out the O & M’s Morris Medal and guiding them to a flag.

 

Leigh made a few spasmodic senior appearances, but Howe then moved on to Canberra club Ainslie, and he grasped his opportunity.

 

 

 

 

During the course of the 1996 season he became the League’s pre-eminent big man. He represented the O & M, figured in Albury’s premiership triumph and, with 25 votes, ‘bolted’ to the Morris Medal, a massive eight votes in front of another ruck star, Wodonga’s Paul Nugent.

 

 

His dramatic rise to centre-stage had, naturally, attracted the attention of the recruiters. Leigh has a feeling it was a relative of Melbourne assistant-coach Greg Hutchinson who first alerted the Demons to his potential.

 

By January 1997 they’d nabbed him with the third pick in the Pre-Season draft. It had been a meteoric rise to A.F.L ranks.

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But the climate in the Demons’ camp at the time was, to say the least, unsettled. Volatile ‘Diamond’ Joe Gutnick, who had rapidly ascended to the Club Presidency the previous season, was becoming increasingly agitated with the on-field performances, and demanded improvement.

 

The affable Neil Balme, highly-regarded by the players, was unable to wave the magic wand. After defeating eventual Preliminary Finalists North Melbourne in the opening game, they proceeded to lose the next eight.

 

Leigh played in a handful of those, which included kicking two of their three goals in a 51-point Friday night thrashing at the hands of Port Adelaide.

 

That was enough for ‘Diamond Joe’. His off-the-cuff comment was that: ‘Blood will flow……….’. Sure enough, on the following Tuesday evening, Balme was sacked and Greg Hutchinson installed as the interim coach.

 

With a few games under his belt Leigh began to settle into the rhythm of League footy. His debut against the Sydney Swans had been highlighted by a booming 50m goal with his first kick….. He had a big influence in an encouraging win over Carlton and produced snippets of class in a few others.

 

 

But the dreaded Osteitis Pubis had begun to take hold of his body. “These days, the medical people would immediately order you to have a break; to let the groin heal. But I was determined to play through the pain. I’d have an anti-inflammatory injection, then could hardly move after a game and it would be early the next week before I was able to run again.”

 

Finally, he had to admit that he couldn’t go on. He’d played 13 games in what was regarded as a highly-promising season……One ray of light in a litany of disasters for the wooden-spooners.

 

His rehab was slow and steady. Mid-way through the following year he’d got back to somewhere approaching full-fitness. But deep down he knew that, if he played, he wouldn’t be able to come up the next week. So Melbourne’s medicos suggested he take the rest of the year off.

 

By early 1999, Leigh felt he was right to go. He booted four goals in a promising return to the Reserves, but was laid up for a month after a hernia operation. The resultant comeback was halted by a dislocated shoulder. That put paid to another season for the luckless big man.

 

Melbourne had given an indication that he’d be offered another contract in 2000, but his groin began to flare up again. He had to face the reality that his AFL career was over.

 

Leigh rued his misfortune, as Neale Daniher’s line-up went on a rollicking ride from third-last to the Grand Final. He took on the role as Opposition Analyst, watching three to four games a week.

 

Melbourne utilised his Professional qualifications by seconding him to their Marketing and Sponsorship Department in 2001. On match days he was Neale Daniher’s ‘Board-Man.’

 

The following year they appointed him as their Media and Communications Manager, a position he was to hold for seven years: “It was a tremendous experience…..so diverse. Whenever any news broke about the Demons, I was the man the media got in touch with. It meant I was on hand, virtually from 6am to 10pm, either promoting the Club or putting out spot-fires.”

 

 

  • Leigh Newton, with sporting luminaries Ron Barassi and Max Walker, on a promotional trip to China

 

Additionally, Neale Daniher asked if he’d take on the job as ruck coach.

 

When he decided to take a break from footy, he stepped into a position in Marketing and Public Relations with the Moonee Valley Racing Club. Hawthorn, fresh from winning the 2008 AFL flag, also nabbed him as their ruck coach.

 

“I was flat-out combining the two jobs,” says Leigh.

 

“I’d be up at 4am analysing and cutting tape to show to the players…….and then head off to my job in P.R and Communications at Moonee Valley.”

 

“Something had to give, so I eventually passed up the ruck-coaching – much and all as I loved it.”

 

But he did manage to fit in one last fling as a player. “Dad was a bit crook at one stage, and I was coming up regularly to keep tabs on he and mum. My brother Michael, who was coaching Milawa, said: ‘You may as well have a run, seeing as you’re here most weeks’.”

 

“I played about eight games, including the 2009 O & K Grand Final. We played Tarrawingee, who’d been unbeaten in 39 games. It was a terrific clash, and we held on to win by nine points.”

 

 

Leigh moved on to become Moonee Valley’s Marketing Manager for three years, and had a sojourn in Local Government and Real Estate, before an opportunity came up to return to the racing industry.

 

He accepted the position as Manager of the Echuca Race Club and threw himself headlong into building it into one of country racing’s showpieces.

 

The extent of the Club’s development was recognised in 2017/18 when it was selected as the Country Racing Club of the Year.

 

“The things that have been achieved since Leigh arrived have been significant and he has set us, the Club, the trainers, the other people who use the track, the punters and our wider community with an exciting and solid future,” remarked the Club’s President, Troy Murphy.

 

He did such a good job that Country Racing Victoria hand-picked him, mid-way through last year, to take on the role of Regional Services Manager.

 

Leigh and Aingela and their two boys Lachlan and Taylor returned to the city, where he’s based at racing’s headquarters, Flemington.

 

His all-encompassing job entails keeping an eye on all country racing, including Governance, Marketing, Administration, Trainers, Race-dates – and offering advice to Clubs.

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Sport has virtually been Leigh Newton’s life. He wouldn’t have it any other way……..well, maybe the footy gods could have been a little kinder to him on the injury-front.

 

 

This story  first appeared on KB Hill’s website On Reflection’

 

Read more from K B Hill 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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Comments

  1. Great piece KB. We should get Leigh (and you) down to lunch some time.

  2. Dr Rocket says

    Really interesting piece.
    Great read.

    Reckon Ken Howe from Coleambly was a ranga: at best a strawberry blond.

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