‘Jovial Jack Fergie……’ by KB Hill

Sporting careers flash by in the flick of an eye.

 

It’s easy to empathise with today’s athletes, who have parked their ambitions on hold whilst the world deals with the threat of coronavirus. I know there are more important things to contemplate, but there’s a distinct possibility that the crisis could rob a young footballer of a full year of his sporting life.

 

It got me wondering how hard done by were the lads who, in their prime, ran headlong into either of the World Wars……….

 

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My dad, for instance, never privately whinged about sacrificing five crucial years whilst dealing with the threat of the pesky Japanese…….. Nor did a couple of his team-mates, who settled back into civilian life and played their part in helping Wangaratta snatch the 1946 O & M premiership.

 

One of those was Jack Ferguson.

 

Many of my vintage can remember jovial Jack as the ‘Voice of the North-East’, 3NE’s first football commentator, who did his best to enliven the dullest of games during the fifties and sixties.

 

This, of course, followed a footy career which spanned 17 years and earned him a reputation as one of the League’s finest-ever full-backs……….

 

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Apart from the time he spent away at war, Jack never deviated far from Wangaratta.

 

Floodwaters, which would sometimes break the banks of the Ovens River and threaten residents of Wilson Road, never tempered his love of the area. He was raised at Number 30 and, when he married the love of his life, Esme, they moved in next door, to Number 28.

 

He was 17 when he received an invitation to train with Wangaratta…….It was 1936. The country was still struggling to wriggle free of the crippling Depression and there was no greater honour for a local youngster than to wear the Black and White of the Mighty ‘Pies.

 

But he declined at first, surmising that he was a touch immature and light – and would surely struggle for a game.

 

Instead, he considered O & K club Waratahs a better fit but was taken aback by their lack of interest. He decided there was no other option than to return to the Showgrounds.

 

Six months later, he was lining up on a wing in a Grand Final, alongside long-time champs Fred and Bert Carey, Charlie Heavey, Alec Fraser and ‘Shady’ James.

 

There was nothing in that game at half-time with Rutherglen holding a seven-point lead. The Magpies booted six goals to one in a dominant third quarter to take control. The Redlegs defended stoutly in the final term but were unable to rein in the opposition’s dominant forwards.

 

A comfortable margin of 20 points separated the sides as Wangaratta swept to their third flag.

 

The side’s long-term full-back, Stan Bennett, retired not long after and the lean, wiry Ferguson stepped into the position.

 

Jobs weren’t readily available when Jack left Wangaratta High School. He found initial employment in a shoe shop, then dabbled in a couple of part-time jobs before being offered a position with Norm Nunn’s Shoes in Murphy Street.

 

He dropped all that to serve in New Guinea and Bougainville with the 58/59 Division. His colleagues included a host of like-minded young fellahs who took their minds off the solemnity of the battle being waged by playing scratch games of football.

 

They levelled out a stretch of open ground with a bulldozer, scraped the dirt into shape and placed jagged-looking tree saplings at either end to act as goal-posts. In their mind’s eye, it could well have been the MCG.

 

Some pretty fair players strutted their stuff. A handful had already made their mark in VFL football, others were stars in their own right. The games were of a good standard and highly-competitive, and Jack used to say he played some of his best football in these surroundings……….

 

***

 

He walked straight back into Norm Nunn’s on the completion of his Army duties and was to remain there for the remainder of his working life, taking over the business in 1961.

 

His outgoing personality ensured that Jack Ferguson Shoes would remain successful. You’d walk into the store and be greeted by wise-cracking and laughter.

 

One of his employees for several years was a long-time mate and fellow Magpie, Doug Ferguson (no relation). Both were bubbly, happy fellahs who, besides having the ‘gift of the gab’, were able to extract your money with a minimum of fuss…….

 

The appointment of South Melbourne champ Laurie Nash as playing-coach was the first move made by Wangaratta to resuscitate the club as the the post-war era kicked off.

 

Jack Ferguson was appointed his vice-captain.

 

Although the ‘Great L.J.’ was nearing the end of his brilliant career, he was still an inspirational figure and finished fourth in the 1946 Morris Medal.

 

He tore a leg muscle in the early stages of the Grand Final in which Wang had been rated warm favourites. It was to develop into a classic encounter.

 

Both defences were on top in the first half as Albury went in with a slender 1-goal lead. Ferguson had come under particular notice for his superb play in repelling the Tigers at full-back.

 

 

Albury still held sway by 5 points at lemon time but Wang’s key forwards, Nash and Ernie Ward, became a real factor in the final term.

 

The ‘Pies eventually prevailed by five points in a heart-stopping affair.

 

 

Their premiership celebrations no doubt hindered preparations for the ‘Challenge Match’ they played against Nash’s old side, South Melbourne, on the Showgrounds the following Saturday. The Swans cleaned up – 13.26 to 3.8.

 

Ferguson’s outstanding season was rewarded with the club Best & Fairest. He continued to play consistent football under Tom Tribe’s coaching over the next two seasons but, when the Pies bombed out of the finals in straight sets in 1948, the ‘Holten Era’ was ushered in.

 

Jack Ferguson, like most of his ilk, was a fervent Holten disciple as well as being his vice-captain. He believed the players were instructed to have such a focus on ‘team’ and were so well-drilled in the play-on game that they changed the face of O & M football.

 

The pair became great friends and were to share starring roles in the next three Ovens and Murray flags. Ferguson was named best afield in the 1949 triumph but always claimed the 1951 line-up was the best of the famed ‘Four-in-a-row.’

 

 

Jack lowered his colours to an old rival, North Albury’s Norm Benstead, in the 1950 decider.

 

Benstead snagged seven of the Hoppers’ ten majors in their 11.20 to 10.10 defeat. It was the last of his goals which caused considerable discussion, particularly among the punting fraternity.

 

The North champ outmarked Ferguson just as the final siren sounded. He had hoped to keep the ball as a souvenir and, pushing it up his jumper, began to walk from the field.

 

The umpire requested that he return and take his shot for goal, which resulted in full points, reducing the margin to 16 points.

 

Many losing punters had backed Wangaratta to win by 3 goals or more and argued that when Benstead began to walk from the ground it constituted ‘play 0n’ and the shot shouldn’t have been allowed.

 

It meant little to Jack Ferguson and his mates. They’d already commenced their celebrations.

 

Jack retired after the 1951 Grand Final and was lauded for a sterling 160-game career with Wangaratta which had been spiced with five premierships and rewarded with Life Membership.

 

Two years later, though, he again pulled on the boots when an old team-mate Kevin French talked him into spending a season under his coaching at Tarrawingee. The ‘Dogs duly saluted with their first-ever flag in a 43-point win over Greta.

 

That’s when Jack was invited to get behind the microphone. He didn’t need much prompting as it was a way to stay involved and, after all, he’d never been short of a word.

 

He proved a godsend and his style soon endeared him to the public. There’s no doubt his favourite player was another full-back, Wangaratta’s Terry Johnstone.

 

“….Aaand….Rinso….Johnstone……” was the Ferguson catch-cry, as the acrobatic Magpie full-back would float through the air.

 

The eloquent Ron McGann (2AY) and the excitable Jack Ferguson ( 3NE ) shared the microphone at O & M finals for years, and, in my opinion, have been unsurpassed for accuracy and entertainment-value.

 

‘Jovial Jack’ – personality, commentator and Wangaratta’s ‘Team Of Legends’ full-back – left a lasting football legacy…………

 

 

 

 

KB Hill is Wangaratta’s leading sports historian. This article appeared first on his website, On Reflection, and appears here with permission. To read more of KB’s great 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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Comments

  1. The gift of the gab never went astray if put to good use. It sounds to me like Jovial Jack had it and used it to the advantage of his business and his hobby. You can work out which is which!

    Another most enjoyable character portrait.

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