’Heners’ – schoolboy champ to country football icon……by KB Hill

The old champ has just turned 36…The finish-line is starting to loom large on his stellar footy career…The dreaded ‘R-word’ even crosses his mind…But can he possibly eke out another season from his aching body, and maybe, just maybe…get to savour the one thing that’s eluded him – premiership glory?

 

The newly-appointed coach (to whom he’s just handed the reins) reassures him: “Keep fit…and we’ll see you in March.”

 

Two years later, he retires – to the acclaim of an appreciative football public – as a dual-Premiership player…

 

***

 

There’s hardly a more respected figure in Ovens and Murray circles than Jon Henry. As a player he was a Rolls-Royce – capable of performing at either end of the ground with equal proficiency…A celebrated goal-kicker who admits that centre half-back was probably his favourite ‘possy’.

 

His role in transforming a Wangaratta side – which plumbed the depths of six successive wooden-spoons, faced near-oblivion, then ascended to the top – is one of local footy’s Cinderella stories.

 

But of equal significance is his universally-recognised standing as a ‘quality bloke’…

 

***

 

‘Heners’ hails from Kamarah – 20km west of Ardlethan, 60km north of Narrandera, 12km east of Moombooldool.

 

At first thought, you’d anticipate living on a 3000-acre sheep and wheat property in this outpost of Central Riverina would throw up a few obstacles for a ‘sporty’ kid, mad on his footy and cricket.

 

But his dad Bob, who captained NSW Country as a keeper-batsman against touring West Indies and MCC teams, and played footy with the Ardlethan Stars, gave him every opportunity.

 

“As a kid, Bob spent hours throwing cricket balls to me,” Jon recalls. “And we’d always follow Ardlethan in the footy, first in the South-West, then the Riverina League.”

 

“There was a tin mine in Ardlethan, and that’s where a lot of the football imports from down south were handed a job. One of my early memories was of Kevin Grose, a big, muscly, tattooed fellah who arrived as a coach, from Collingwood, via North Heidelberg.”

 

Bob Henry had completed his schooling at Scots in Sydney and the family were big on education. Considering that they were a fair way from anywhere, it was a given that the three Henry kids would attend boarding school.

 

Bob had watched a young Rod Coelli star for Ardlethan on one of his visits home from Kilmore’s Assumption College. He’d also closely followed the career of Neale Daniher, who was from nearby Ungarie, and is one of ACK’s finest products.

 

So he regarded it as a great fit for Jon to spend the remainder of his schooling at the famous sporting nursery.

 

“It’s ironic, harking back, considering Neale’s very public health battles, that Bob and my auntie Margaret (Mum’s sister) also passed away after long battles with motor neurone-linked illnesses,” Jon says.

 

He concedes that the regimentation of boarding school took a bit of adapting to after the laid-back lifestyle of the farm. But he grew to love it, and established friendships with many kids who have become his best mates.

 

Assumption was to be his home-away-from-home for six years, but Jon did manage to fit in a couple of matches with Ardlethan.

 

“I haven’t got great memories of the first of them. I was 15. It was my senior debut, and Ardlethan’s final match in the South-West League; a miserable, wet day at Marrar Oval, Wagga, and I was knocked out by one of the Carroll boys.”

 

Renowned sporting guru Ray Carroll (no relation) had a massive influence on Jon through the latter part of his time at ACK.

 

“Ray was a very intense coach,” he says. “What he instilled in you was loyalty, not letting the jumper, or your mates, down. His style worked because he had kids for two or three years at the most.”

 

Jon had played most of his junior footy in defence but, in Year 11, Carroll swung him up forward. It proved a masterstroke. Assumption went on to win successive Herald-Sun Shields, losing just one game in two years.

 

In his final year, he sat on a season tally of 191 goals going into the final game at Parade College. He booted 10 to give him the double-century in just on 30 matches.

 

He reckons his best win in footy came at the Junction Oval that year. “We played Melbourne High which had 14 AFL-listed players, including Andy Lovell, Matty Knights and Steven Tingay. We got up, in the wet, by six points. It was a ripper.”

 

Jon captained Assumption in both football and cricket, and was named in their Cricket Team of the Century two years ago.

 

Besides leading them to the APS footy crown in 1988, he also captained them to the cricket flag, against Mentone Grammar.

 

 

“We’d had a really good side the year before, but Mentone knocked us off. Their skipper was a kid called Shane Warne. He was a ‘lad’, even back then, and I had a bit to do with him; played in APS rep sides with him.”

 

“The last time we spoke was at Melbourne Airport. We were just starting to make our way in our respective sporting journeys. He was heading over to have a crack at County cricket; I was off to Brisbane to play footy. We hung out for a while and my parting words were: ‘Well, see ya, mate. Hope things turn out okay for you.’… The rest is history…”

 

***

 

The Sydney Swans had access to country NSW recruits in the eighties. To their detriment, particularly with stars like John Longmire and Wayne Carey, they sold off some of their talent to rival, scavenging clubs. They negotiated to ship Jon Henry to Carlton.

 

So the boy from Assumption lined up in the summer of 1989 to try his luck with the Blues and play District cricket. He recalls the solitary First XI District game he managed among the 20 or so Seconds matches he played for Carlton.

 

“ I was listed as an emergency for a Cup Day game against Footscray. They said: ‘Just show your face before the match; we don’t think we’ll need you.’ I took that literally. My mates and I had hardly any sleep and were intending to duck off to the Cup meeting.”

 

“I walked into Princes Park and the coach, Steve Cashen, said: ‘Mate, the flu’s gone through us. You’ll have to play.’ So here I am, four hours later, with a big head, facing Test paceman Tony Dodemaide…hooping the ball on a green-top. I only made a couple, and never got another opportunity…”

 

Jon enjoyed his two years of football at Carlton despite missing senior selection. He got to play with a few of the stars from the Golden Era like Buckley and Hunter (with Rod Ashman as coach) who were in their final year and formed a strong Seconds side.

 

 

The Brisbane Bears then picked him up in the 1991 pre-season draft where he renewed acquaintances with Robert Walls who had been in charge when he first lobbed at Carlton.

 

“Hard man, Wallsy,” was his assessment of the decorated four-club coach. “He rode me hard, but then he was tough on everyone.”

 

Jon had arrived late for the pre-season and experienced a rough run with injury, playing just eight Reserves games and a handful with their feeder club, Southport.

 

He moved back to the farm at the end of that season, having now passed up on his AFL dream.

 

Throwing himself into a full summer of cricket – on the turf in Wagga on Saturdays and Creet Cup matches with Ardlethan/Barellan on Sundays – he was rewarded with NSW Country selection at the National Carnival.

 

But a close friendship with an old Assumption mate, Damien O’Keefe saw him land in Wangaratta, soon after.

 

***

 

Jon admits he struggled early on with the ‘Pies. It was possibly a matter of adapting to O & M footy. But in mid-season he was plonked in front of the big sticks and proceeded to raise eyebrows.

 

He surged up the goalkicking ladder with several big hauls, including bags of 15 and 12, and, with 88 goals, took out the 1992 Doug Strang Medal.

 

The following year, the enigmatic, theatrical Brian Walsh guided Wang to within a kick of the Grand Final.

 

“It was a huge disappointment because a lot of the blokes we had, like ‘Chimpy’, Robbie Richards, ’Keiry’ and ‘Crimmo’ had been around for quite a while and never got to play in a ‘Granny’. That hurt ‘em. I felt some responsibility for it because I missed late goals and kicked 2.5 in the Prelim.”

 

“I always felt I owed the Club after that. It was probably the catalyst for me heading back years later.”

 

Jon had been a regular O & M rep in his four years at Wang. Despite his footy success, one of his reasons for coming to Wangaratta was to attempt to join the Fire Brigade. He had two cracks at it but fell short.

 

He decided to head overseas in ‘96 and, upon his return, began a Drafting Course in Melbourne. East Ringwood became his new club.

 

His three years at East, he believes, gave him a great lead-in to be a playing-coach. “They were no tougher at the ball than in the O & M, but there was a lot more off-the-ball stuff,” he says.

 

He learned heaps off his assistant-coach David Banfield. “He was the first guy that really challenged me. He was all about the team: ‘What are you doing to make others better ?’ he’d say. He prompted me to think about the game completely differently. And I learned to take on feedback.”

 

“Sometimes you’re lucky to come across the right person at the right time…”

 

***

 

East Ringwood were loath to lose the man who, in three brilliant seasons, had made such an impression that he was selected in their ‘Team of the Half-Century’.

 

But he was headed back to Wangaratta, principally for employment as a Civil Draftsman, but also to help the revive the spirits of his old Club, which had fallen on hard times.

 

Appointed Assistant-Coach to Col McClounan, they were unable to stem the bleeding in the first two years as they won just four games.

 

‘Heners’ was handed the ‘Poison Chalice’ when he took over the coaching job in 2002 – the ‘Pies’ ninth leader in eleven years.

 

They’d had a good scout around but decided to appoint Henry. The clincher for Jon was that he was a great mate of Jason Lappin, who was looking to move back to the ‘bush’.

 

 

“ ‘Lappo’ had the name, was also a great player, and had a few contacts; players like key forward Damian Lang and a few others,” John says.

 

In his first year as coach there was slight improvement but another wooden-spoon (the sixth-straight) lobbed at the Norm Minns Oval.

 

“But we slowly started to gather the core of a solid senior group around us. We also landed Leigh Symons, ‘Boofa’ Carmody and Matt Byers in the first couple of years.”

 

The Henry philosophy on coaching is that the bloke in charge is important, but it’s equally-crucial to have six or so good senior players who are ‘fair dinkum, train hard and are on the same page’.

 

“That’s the key. They have the biggest influence on the younger players. When the disappointments come, they’re the blokes who get out on the track, train harder, drive the group and don’t make excuses. That builds your culture.”

 

He concedes that being an O & M playing-coach was a massive commitment, and challenge.

 

“There were people at Wangaratta, like Peter Whittlesea and Russell Canning, who did heaps of work off-field in those hard times…Then Paul Challman came on board…”

 

 

“But one of the biggest game-changers for us, recruiting wise, was when Jon McCormick came home from Carlton in 2005. He’s the best that I’ve played with outside the AFL.”

 

“I remember when he did his knee in front of the Grandstand that year. I turned around, saw him, and my heart sank……Even without him, we played in a Prelim….won our first final in 12 years.”

 

McCormick missed all of the next season, Henry’s last in charge. He’d decided earlier in the year that it was time to hand over the reins. Jason Lappin was his logical successor.

 

‘Heners’ had always loved training but says that, as a coach, you don’t always get to enjoy it, because you’re organising things.

 

“Robbie Richards, one of my confidantes, told me: ‘The most enjoyable year I had was the year after I stopped coaching.’ I took that on board.”

 

“That’s when ‘Lappo’ said: ‘I’ll see you in March.’ Best advice I’ve ever got.”

 

So, over the next two seasons, Jon Henry went along for the ride. He became a key ingredient, possibly the inspiration, in triumphant Magpie sides which swept to successive flags – a 51-point win over North Albury in 2007 and a 32-point triumph against Lavington in 2008.

 

He retired with 210 games and 448 goals to his name in the Black and White guernsey and was inducted to the O & M’s Hall of Fame in 2016.

 

 

He has continued to help the Magpies in any way he can, either as Senior Runner, working the bench, and just being around the place.

 

His daughters, Ella, Jessie and Rose play netball with Wang, and his wife Paula is a keen follower of the Club.

 

The four-time Inter-League co-coach fulfilled another ambition when he was accepted into the Fire Brigade in 2010.

 

“I was rapt. In a lot of ways it’s good that I missed out the first time I applied, as I wouldn’t have been able to coach,” he says.

 

“Things just panned out nicely………….”

 

 

This story first appeared on KB Hill’s website On Reflection and is used here with permission.
You can read more of KB Hill’s great stories by clicking 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. KB, this one ranks with your very best. Comprehensive, honest, a tad raw here and there, sensitive and worthy of the player. Well done!

  2. Ross Treverton says

    Fantastic KB. Just loving these stories. Please keep ‘em coming!

  3. All the Assumption College boys that came to the Swans in the late 80s rated Jon Henry the best in the school at that time – in cricket and footy.

  4. It’s been a few years since i’ve got to Ardlethan. I went to the picnics in consecutive years, 2013-14 , or 2014-15? It was some time around then.

    Nice pub @ Ardlethan, bowling club did a nice meal. Photo in there of Greg Smith who was a handy footballer in the big league back in the 80’s.

    I wasn’t aware Rod Coelli was from Ardlethan, i thought he was from Leeton. I’ve wondered over the years if the Coelli bookmakers i’ve seen on track in Corowa, Berrigan, Wagga, etc are related to Rod. I suppose i should ask.

    Glen!

  5. The London Hotel in Ardlethan.
    Terry Thripp, Paul Kelly, Chris Connolly & Greg Smith – all born in Ardelthan.

    Rod Coeli went to St Francis College in Leeton – then a boarding school.
    I think Coelis are from a bit further up in the Riverina, Tallimba comes to mind.
    Was yard manager at Border Express in Albury for many years.
    Might be still doing it.

    BTW KB, its Maher Oval in Wagga at the Rules Club, Marrar Oval is at Marrar.

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