Ken Piesse: Favourites sons of the GOULBURN VALLEY


Years ago I was interviewing an old Australian cricketer, one-Test wonder George Thoms, when he stopped in mid-sentence and said: ‘Ken… you’re a good listener.’

‘George,’ I said, ‘I just love hearing all your stories.’

Footy or cricket, I have been a sucker for a good yarn ever since I was a kid collecting and cutting up the old Footy Fan magazine (wish I hadn’t done that… they’re worth a small fortune now!)

Graduating from kid to journalist was an ever-so-happy process especially as it introduced me to some of football’s golden greats and those who recruited them. I can still relate how big Jim Wallis came from Quambatook and John Sharrock from Tooleybuc. These were mysterious, faraway places for a young sports-crazy kid like me.

In time I was to meet many of the bush wonders. Their tales were classic and I put many of the best of their stories into one of my books, The Greatest Game (available from, $20 post free.)

Probably my favorite concerns one of the most celebrated country legends, Jack Mueller from Echuca.

Percy Page was known as the prince of League secretaries back in the ‘30s and I met him years later and he was soon telling me about his greatest coup, the recruiting of Mueller, who was to play in almost a dozen League Grand Finals at Melbourne.

Percy was tipped off by an old mate about Mueller, who even at 16 was 6ft 3in and could outmark the men.

Percy soon heard, via the grapevine that a rival club was intending to head north the following weekend and sign Mueller.

It was a Monday and Percy downed tools and up he went to Echuca, by train, arriving just before dark fall. He didn’t want to miss his man.

‘Jack’s at work,’ he was told. ‘He’s on night shift.’

Percy said if the Mueller’s didn’t mind, he’d wait and shortly before midnight, in big Jack trooped, flour all over him from his work at the local mill.

Percy went into overdrive telling Jack what he’d told his parents. Opportunities abounded in Melbourne. He could make a great success of himself. Jack and his Mum were keen but Frank Mueller, a former Stawell Gift sprinter, kept shaking his head. The Great Depression of the early ‘30s was still biting. ‘I want him to have a nine to five job, Mr. Page,’ he said. ‘Regular money.’
In those days even the stars made very little. Football was very much a leisure.

Mrs Mueller asked Percy if he wouldn’t mind waiting in the kitchen. ‘Dad,’ she said, ‘this might be his (Jack’s) chance in life. We’d better let him go.’

On debut with the Demons, the spring-heeled 17-year-old from Echuca kicked four goals and followed with seven. He was to become an alltime legend of the game and in 1948, aged 33, he made a comeback and kicked 20 premiership-winning goals in three finals.

In those days Echuca played in the Bendigo League. Now they are entrenched in the Goulburn Valley, one of the proudest footballing areas of them all and recent winners of the Country Championship.

The lists of stars at every club made the selection of my 10 GVFL favorites particularly difficult… and the stories flowed from Mueller on.

One of country footy’s most passionate ‘Rocket’ Rod Gillett told me how proud he was when four of Kyabram’s 1965 Grand Final team, including his neighbour Dick Clay were included in opening round teams in 1966. Clay was in the XVIII at Richmond, Ross Dillon Melbourne, Maurie Fowler Carlton and Frank Fanning Footscray.

‘As a young boy in Kyabram in the mid-‘60s doing the breakfast dishes before school one morning,’ Rod told me. ‘I looked out the kitchen window and spotted a new Holden car in the Clay’s driveway. The next thing Dick snr walks outside and looks befuddled, goes inside and comes out with young Richard. They walked together around the car and looked totally mystified at its appearance. As it turns out officials of the Richmond Football Club had placed the car in the driveway overnight (as a signing-on gift).

‘At the time Dick jnr was signed to North Melbourne but once the agreement expired – and he had ran the car in – he signed with the Tigers! By then Shepparton coach Tommy Hafey had agreed to coach Richmond – and despite the fierce rivalry between “Ky” and “Shepp”, Dick joined Tommy at Richmond and was a part of all the great teams of the mid to late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Having four of our local boys make the opening round of the 1966 season in Melbourne is some feat, one I doubt can be bettered by any country, suburban or amateur club.’

Thanks so much Rod for those golden memories.

One club which comes to mind who also regularly produced League players was Sandhurst in the Bendigo League and in 1970, three of their rising local stars Trevor Keogh, Paul Hurst and Brian Walsh all debuted in round 1 with Carlton. Twelve months later, Geoff Southby, also a Sandhurst boy, debuted at Arden St. in the first round.

My task of narrowing a list of 30 or so favorites down to 10 was truly agonising. I would have loved to have also introduced post-war premiership specialist Normie Minns (from Wangaratta and Benalla), Carlton’s current star Andrew Walker and Shepparton’s will-o-the-wisp Barrie Vagg into the mix. Prolific goalkicker Trevor Eddy, from Shepparton United was another star and still one of the best drop kicks I’ve seen at any level.

In alphabetical order (as always), here they are… my favorites from the Goulburn Valley and immediate surrounds:

Dick Clay: Kicked a century of goals for Kyabram as a teenager (in 1964) to prompt a rare recruiting duel between North Melbourne and Richmond. The day after North’s hold on him expired, Richmond pounced and 200 games and four premierships later, Clay remains one of the Tiger immortals, a member of one of the great all-time centrelines: Bourke, Barrot and Clay.

Barry Connolly: Twenty-eight of his 50 years in footy were spent at Shepparton United.
Six premierships as a player, nine more as a coach and 32 inter-league representative selections stretching all over Victoria and into the Riverina cap off one of the most remarkable bush footballing CV’s of them all. Barry’s son, Chris, emulated his Dad and played League football in the Big Smoke. He also coached at AFL level and is still involved now at on-the-rise Melbourne.

Gary Cooper: Another Shepparton boy, Gary played 28 representative games including 21 for the Goulburn Valley and seven with the Western Border League. He clocked centuries at Tatura and Mooroopna and also played a couple of years at United. Everywhere he went he won best and fairest awards, including three Morrison Medals, the Goulburn Valley’s best and fairest award.

Gavin Exell: One of the great sticky-fingered talents still good enough at the age of 40 to kick 100 goals in the Kyabram & District League, Gavin was a success everywhere he played from Stanhope to Geelong. He booted nine that famous day at Princes Park in which Hawthorn came back from 10-1 goals to defeat the Cats in one of the great home-and-away comebacks of the ‘80s.

Garry Lyon: I was at Essendon sitting just behind Melbourne legend and a mate of mine ‘Big Bob’ Johnson one day. In front of us a teenage Garry Lyon was doing what he pleased. Bob turned around to me and nodded. This kid was going to be good. He was to be very, very good and like his father Peter, who played in a centre in the ‘63 Grand Final, he was a big match player of outstanding quality. One torpedo matchwinning goal in the mud against Hawthorn at Princes Park one holiday Monday was kicked virtually from the centre. I can still see its flight now. It was massive.

Anthony ‘Tank’ McPhee: Holder of the Rochester and Goulburn Valley games record (with 410 senior games), Tank first played senior footy as a 14-year-old and says he can still remember just about each and every kick from his three winning Rochie premierships. Tank went more than 20 years as a senior XVIII player at Rochester. He was a remarkable servant.

Perry Meka: More than 500 games of country football is a mighty achievement and Meka deserves his exulted status as one of the very best and most enduring players from central Victoria. With stints at Lemnos his original club where he first played as a 16-year-old, Numurkah, Tongala and the Shepparton Swans, alongside his nephew Adrian. He’s still in charge of the Swans and has his cousin Adem Yze as his assistant coach and star recruits in Russell Robertson and Nathan Brown.
His favourite moment came in 1993 when Ardmona defeated powerhouses Lancaster in the ‘Districts’ Grand Final. ‘The year before, my first year out coaching, we made the Grand Final and lost,’ he said. ‘I’d kicked 173 goals and was thinking I couldn’t do any better than that and might move on. But the committee talked me into having one more crack and in ‘93 we won the club’s first flag in 46 years. Lancaster had won more than 30 games in a row. They were red hot to win again and we beat them by three or four goals. It was an amazing day, one I’d never ever swap.’

Shane O’Bree: At least three O’Bree’s have played 100 games at Euroa, including Dick O’Bree who is coach of Euroa’s Team of the Century. Softly-spoken Shane has been an enduring influence at Collingwood and could even find himself in another Grand Final this year with the Pies vying strongly with Geelong and Fremantle for line honors. Mick Malthouse rates him and ‘wraps’ from Mick are hard to earn!

Ian ‘Bluey’ Shelton: A rough and tumble key defender from Avenal way, Shelton played in two Essendon premierships in the early to mid ‘60s before returning to the bush and continuing to intimidate. My neighbour would take me to Essendon’s Windy Hill as a kid on Saturdays and he’d always be urging me to watch No.10 (Shelton). He was big, aggressive and made teammates around him walk tall.

Damien Yze: A cousin of Perry Meka and a very gifted allround sportsman, Damien was Wayne Carey-like with his dominance of country football in the early 2000s. In one year he kicked 158 goals, including 25.6 (from 40 kicks) in a home-and-away game and 10 in the Grand Final. Injuries had interrupted his attempts to make it at Essendon and he re-assessed his priorities, preferring to play with family and friends in the bush. One of his brothers Adem remains one of Melbourne’s very best, having played more than 200 games and attaining All-Australian status.

* NEXT WEEK: Footy author Ken Piesse selects his favourite 10 players from….. the Sunraysia

About Ken Piesse

I am a journalist, commentator and the author of almost 50 cricket and football books. I also sell the new Wisden and cricket and football books and cricket cards and ephemera on the internet via my website


  1. Rocket Rod Gillett says

    Thanks for the mention Ken!

    As it turns out Gary Cooper was originally a Ky boy. He was the son of 1958 Ky premiership player John Cooper, who with his brother Jeff (a Morrison medalist) were brilliant players for Kyabram. Went to school with Gary and his cousin Len (Jeff’s son) – Lenny went pretty well but had to wear the expectations of trying to emulate his famous father.

    Great to see Barry Connolly on the list – one of the best blokes I’ve meet in footy. A wonderful player and coach, he then provided tremendous leadership for the GVL over eighteen years as president. He was saved at a mine explosion at Ardelthan by Paul Kelly’s father John, when he was coaching the Stars in the early 60s.

    Good also to see Tank McPhee on the list – as you say a wonderful servant of the Rochy footy club.

  2. Tiger Tom says


    Some good ‘uns on that list.
    As a Richmond fan my favourite from the Goulburn Valley is Tom Hafey.
    He had great success with Shepparton as captain-coach before taking on the Richmond job from an ailing Len Smith.
    He bought Dick Clay with him and turned him into a wingman, with Francis Bourke from Nathalia.

  3. Rocket Rod Gillett says

    Tommy Hafey coached Shepp to three premierships in a row, 1963-1965 – beating Kyabram in each of those years. Coach of Ky for two of those years was Charlie Stewart, who had come back to Ky after playing for Footscray in 1961. A brilliant centreman and prodigous left foot drop kick, Charlie would break out of the centre and boot it to Dickie Clay at full forward – 114 golas in 1964 and 65 from chf in 1965 – leading GVL goal kicker in both years.

    Charlie has a unique record – he played in premiership teams for Kyabram (1958), Cobram (1959), and Lemnos (1960), then in Footscray’s losing 1961 grand final team.
    Charlie went to Stanhope in 1967 and got the Lions into their first GVL finals series since the early 50s.

    I played under Charlie in the Stanhope Thirds in 1971-2. After that he moved to Sydney.
    I eventually caught up with him when Tommy was coaching the Swans and took him to a game. I got him into the rooms before the match and Tommy greeted him most graciously as you would expect.

    Like the Cooper brothers, Charlie was an indigenous Australian. I learnt more from him about playing the game than any other coach I’ve played under, not that it did me that much good.

  4. Richard Jones says

    ROCKET: Kenny Piesse’s latest “Favorite Sons of …….” features his Top Ten list from the Sunraysia.

    I’m sure Daff, JB and Gigs will post it here in time. However, if you’re champing at the bit too much to wait, you can a sneak peek on the VCFL website or

    Not surprisingly Kenny has included ‘General’ Mark Lee and ‘Flea’ Weightman. Surprise inclusion for me is Jamie Siddons of cricket fame.

    Until reading his Sunraysia list, didn’t know Kenny was a Hawthorn fan. That can’t be a good thing !!!

  5. Rocket Rod Gillett says

    Thanks Richard.

    I remember Jamie Siddons running around on the wing for the Swans in Sydney circa 1985.

    Shame he didn’t stay on to play for NSW in the Sheffield Shield!

    Reckon he and Ian Brayshaw were the best two never to play cricket for Australia.

  6. Charlie Stewart played seniors for Waaia when he was 14 years old and Barry Connolly coached Waaia in 1972 for one year, and Chris Connolly also played little league that year.

    Dad told me this.

  7. Rocket Rod Gillett says

    Thanks for this Josh!

    I’d forgotten that he’s also played for Nathalia – after starting at Waaia he must have gone into Nathalia. Check with your Dad on that.

    How did Waaia go under Barry Connolly?

  8. Just got off the phone to Dad,

    He said Waaia bowed out in the Semi Finals in 1972, but Barry Connolly introduced lunchtime training because the lights at the Waaia Footy ground were very poor so dairy farmers could train during the daylight instead of at night-time with poor vision.

    Waaia could sure use him right now, they are currently in equal last position with just one win. First time i’ve really known the Waaia seniors to be down near the bottom of the ladder.

  9. Scott Watson says

    Great read Ken.

    Not too sure about the O’Bree connection (Shane) with Euroa though.

    Dick – club legend ( Played in 10 senior premiership teams (8 at Euroa and 2 at Lake Boga).
    • Coached Euroa to 7 premierships (champions in 1963 & 1969) in his 9 years as coach – 1963-64-65, 1967, 1969-70 & 71. Double premierships were also won in 63, 64 & 65 and the Reserves also won in 1966 & 1968 – thus at least one premiership was won in each season that he coached the club.
    • During the 9 seasons that Dick coached Euroa, up to and including 1971, the team played 180 games and lost only 17! At won stage they won 38 matches in a row – an amazing record.
    • In his remarkable career he kicked a total of 1285 goals in senior football – 901 of which were for Euroa, 257 for Lake Boga, 122 for Wycheproof and 5 for Collingwood. He kicked over 100 goals on 2 occasions and was in the 90’s on several occasions. His biggest total was 140 for Lake Boga at 16 years of age.
    • Dick finally hung up his boots in 1971.
    • (Thanks to Cliff Halsall’s “Golden Days of Euroa Football Club Down the Years”)- Dick had three sons play for Euroa (all played over 100 senior games); Steve, Rick and Paul (Paul kicked over 100 goals in the 1990 premiership year and went on to Coach the senior XVIII from 1996 to 1998 and lead Euroa back to the start of another successful era.

    A club ‘back to’ celebrating the premierships of 1969, 1970, 1971 (first year in the GVFL) and 1990 is being held this weekend (July 2nd, 3rd and 4th) to celebrate these achievements.


    Scott Watson
    Captain EFNC Senior XVIII
    ph: 0403589567

  10. Rocket Rod Gillett says

    Dick O’Bree was awesome! As was the Euroa team of 1971 that came into the GVL – so many good players, classy and hard – Ian McRobert, the Gall bros, Murray and Robbie, Vinnie Edwards, Xavier Thompson, Bluey Jagoe (maybe he was an even tougher and harder than the other red head from the WNE, Bluey Shelton?). All of ’em.
    Possibly the best team I’ve seen play in the GVL.

    Of course, I cannot make the same flattering remarks about the 1990 team for reasons Scott will know…

  11. You are right about the class of the 71 side, Rod, but similar to Ken’s connection with Shane and the Euroa O’Brees, not quite on the money with the Galls. Both wonderful footballers, and men who are fantastic to spend time with and talk to, but not brothers. Robbie and Murray are related, but are two extremely different men.

    Great to mention Ian McRobert, who was extremely talented at a number of sports (horse racing and breeding in more recent years), and a great man as well. When it came to football, my understanding is that Macca was a champion of the league.

    As for 1990, I think the terms “good”, “classy” and “hard” are equally applicable. One act of one man casts a shadow, but I don’t think that should take away from the team.

    My recollection is that Scott came to Euroa in 91 or 92, joining the football club in 93 after trying the game at Longwood in 92, so perhaps he doesn’t know the reasons you speak of regarding 1990. Of course, I’m sure Scott has picked up a video of the game…

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