Local Footy: Serong’s two seasons in Bendigo league rank him among the best

My fellow Almanacker Richard Jones is a keen observer and promoter of the Bendigo Football League. He has compiled two separate lists of the 10 greatest players from different eras. I saw several of the players he had on his list from the 70s play and that’ll brook no argument with me, all great players. Alas, Richard was in the wilds of Papua-New Guinea pioneering sports broadcasting during the 1960s, which was arguably one of the greatest periods in the history of the Bendigo league.

It was in this period that both Rochester and Echuca were in the league and attracting enormous crowds, certainly by today’s standards, especially when they played against each other. It was a golden era for Rochester, which played in eight consecutive grand finals from 1958 to 1965, winning four premierships. It fascinates me mainly because this was the period when as a young boy I first started to follow football. We lived in Echuca at the time and my father followed the Murray Bombers, but we never went further than Rochy for away games; if Echuca were playing away we would go and watch Echuca East.

Echuca were keen to match it with their arch rivals and made a major move in 1963 when it appointed VFL star Bill Serong as captain-coach. After playing 98 games for Collingwood including the 1958 grand final and in two losing grand finals, Serong was surprisingly dumped by the Pies and went to North Melbourne in 1962 and won its best and fairest award. A centreman, he had been runner-up to Bob Skilton and Verdun Howell for the Brownlow Medal in 1959.

Serong was on stand-by to be playing coach of North in 1963 if Alan Killigrew then at Norwood in the SANFL did not take up the offer to coach the Kangaroos. A former phys ed teacher, Serong had completed his law degree and needed to take his articles. Echuca came through with that opportunity in an extremely lucrative coaching offer that saw Serong at age 26  leave the VFL and head north to the Murray.

I had the chance to talk to Serong recently about his period coaching and playing with Echuca through his North Fitzroy Arms Hotel chum John Harms.

Echuca’s first match under Serong was against Rochester after Rochy had gone through the 1962 season undefeated. “Rochy beat us by 29 goals – they were far too good for us,” Serong told me. “Our players were in awe of them, they revered them. They were like Melbourne in the VFL. They (Echuca) were so accustomed to losing; they didn’t know how to win”.

Serong had a major setback when he badly fractured his ankle in the mud at the Camp Reserve, Castlemaine, early in the season. It was so severe that he was taken to hospital in Melbourne where he shared a ward with Len Smith, who had suffered a heart attack while coaching Richmond. “Norm Smith used to come in every night to see Len, they were very close brothers, and he’d bring in half-a-dozen bottles of beer,” Serong recalled.

He came back in the second last match of the season to lead Echuca into the finals in the first time for nearly a decade. He was then involved in one of the most sensational incidents in the Bendigo league when he had his good mate from his teaching days Neil Roberts come out of retirement to play in the preliminary final.

The former St Kilda skipper was placed on the bench as 19th man and was not bought onto the ground until the third quarter but was promptly cleaned up by Rochester hard man Trevor Randall (ex-Hawthorn).  Serong now admits it was a mistake to play Roberts: “It inspired them; they really fired up that day and beat us comfortably”. Rochester went onto beat Kyneton in the 1963 grand final.

Serong told me he did his rehabilitation on the sand-dunes at Torquay over the summer of 63-64 and planned to return to North to play again in the VFL as he had returned to live in Melbourne. But at his first practice match a contingent of Echuca officials turned up  to watch him and following the game enticed  him to continue as an ex-radius player (whereby players outside of the club’s radius could travel to play). All of the country teams in the BFL were allowed at that time to recruit players on this basis.

Echuca’s new coach was former Richmond reserves player Ron Sarich (originally from Broken Hill) and following the lead of Rochester they had recruited extensively from the district including Jack Barry (Echuca East), Ray Murphy (Mathoura ), Roly Tasker (Deniliquin), Vince Slattery (Moama), Roly Hall (Lockington) and the Toll brothers, John and Greg, from Gunbower. The Murray Bombers had a terrific season and again made the finals, but their nemesis, Rochester, again put them out in the finals even though Echuca had beaten them twice during the season.

Serong recalled one particularly good win over Rochester at Rochy in 1964. The crowd was eight-deep all around the ground. I recall going to this game – we couldn’t get a park in or near the ground and had to park the car over the other side of the river – a distance of at least two kilometres from the ground. Serong is credited with 45 kicks that day – he was an absolute inspiration to the Murray Bombers.

The players and supporters filled the then five pubs in Rochester after the game in the days of 6 o’clock closing. Serong recalls going to the Shramrock Hotel where it was positively overflowing on all fronts. The pub was still open at 7 pm. “Everybody was going hell-for-leather,” according to Serong, when Rochy secretary Jack Green, the master mind behind the club’s success, came to Bill and told him that the publican had a bit of a problem staying open with the district licensing inspector Keith McLeod in the house.

McLeod, an Echuca committee-man who was celebrating the Murray Bomber’s win with Serong, said: “He’ll be in a lot more trouble if he closes!” They eventually pulled down the shutters at 9.30 pm.

I also recall being in the pub that night sitting up on a stool drinking a raspberry. I was intoxicated by the atmosphere. It’s a classic 19th century two-storey pub – everybody was talking about the game – no mention of the VFL. I don’t remember what time we got home, but my father and his mates were just so happy that Echuca had beaten the mighty Rochester.

Serong reckons that he had his two best seasons of football in 1964 and 1965. He topped off the 1965 season by winning the award for the competition best and fairest, the Michelesen Medal, in a tie with Castlemaine’s Kevin Delmenico, who then went to play for Footscray in the VFL. Serong played the first few games of the 1966 season but sustained a knee injury that ended his career. Echuca finally won its first premiership in the BFL since 1928 when it won the flag under Serong’s former Collingwood team-mate John Knox in 1967.

I asked Serong if legendary 3BO football broadcaster Dick Turner had ever given him a nickname. Turner had bestowed some colourful nicknames on players right throughout the league based on their physical attributes and/or place of origin: some of the best examples were “the barrel-chested bulldozer driver from Heathcote” (Dennis Pangrazio, South Bendigo) and “Ironman” Ray Murphy, “the big, tough timber cutter from Mathoura” (Echuca).

Serong told me that after games in Bendigo that he and Echuca officials would have a drink with Turner and his co-caller, the silky voiced 3BO morning presenter Russ Pilley, at the Metropolitan Hotel run by Carlton 1945 premiership player Jim Mooring. He said Turner didn’t have a nickname for him, he just declared Serong the best player in the Bendigo league!


  1. Richard E. Jones says

    ROCKET: when Serong and Delmenico were joint winners of the ’65 Mich. Medal they polled 18 votes apiece.
    In the BFL’s records Delmenico is listed as a 20-year-old at the time. Serong’s age in 1965 is given as 27. Is that your recollection of their ages ?
    Both are classified as “ruckmen” but I have a feeling Serong was more of a ruck-rover a la Geelong’s Russell “Hooker” Renfrey.

  2. I was there that day Neli Roberts got cleaned up. I remeber it vidily as I was standing behind the bench (usually Sandhursts) watching the game. I am a saints supporter and wanted a glimpse of Roberts, a saints hero(i have met him since and discussed the incident with him)He got well and truly Jack Dyer whacked and left the feild ,all I could see what a blood nose not much more. I did see Bill Serong play in the league and i am not sure he was entitled to the tag given to him by Dicky Turner.SOme of the great player of this era i can remeber were Des English’s dad (cant remember his name), Nildo Munari,Peter Keogh (early days) and anumber of others (stretches my memory. I can well and truly rememeber the great players of the 70s as I went to school with most of them and would Include in order Treveor Keogh,Brian Walsh, the Kennedy boys (Jim was so underrated)and the Lenaghan boys Mick,Dennis and Peter(would have walked a game in at any league team of a half back flank)He was the Robert Elphinstone of the BFL and unrelentingly tough.RThe Millard boys were’nt too far behind either,Besty,the twins from golden sqaure,young Des English ,Steven Mc kerrow and more .It was truly a golden era.

  3. Uncle,

    Who were the twins from Golden Square?

  4. Cant remember their surnames Ray and? went on to play with Carlton and Collingwood

  5. Byrne twins

  6. Richard E. Jones says

    YEP, U. Tony.
    Ray Byrne played for Carlton, Collingwood — AND Geelong, don’t forget. 220-odd VFL games in total.
    Ray is now the gen. manager of the Bendigo Pioneers in the TAC Cup under-18s after filling a similar role with the Gippsland Power before that.
    Phil Byrne is the twin bro.
    He coached Eaglehawk to the 1982 BFL flag. The Two Blues lost just the one home and away match that season (to G. Square) then flogged the Square in the grannie.
    I recall Phil and Ray playing one season together at South Bendigo in the 80s.

  7. Didn’t Dennis Higgins coach Eaglehawk to the 82 flag? Tough man, Dennis.

    Heard a great story about Ray Byrne just last week. In 1982 the Collingwood players were blamed for getting Tom Hafey the sack. Peter Moore was considered the ringleader of the insurrection brigade.

    The day that Tom was sacked there were several thousand Magpie fans at Victoria Park to watch training. As the players were about to jog out of the race and on to the ground, Peter Moore was in front, with Byrne behind.

    Just before they jogged on to the ground, Byrne put up his hand to stop all the players. They let Moore jog on to the ground to received all the abuse for getting Tommy sacked. It looked worse for him because he headed out solo.

    The rest of the team had a big chuckle and then jogged out.

  8. Uncle,

    I know Des. Haven’t seen him for 15 years but he was still a scallywag then. He told me I should go and play at YCW and enjoy myself. I should have taken his advice.

    His son Matt was a great young bloke and was drafted by Carlton.

    When I was growing up, my father (an ex-Sandhurst man) always talked about Delicate Des Dickson coming down from Bendigo to Hawthorn and wreaking havoc because his brother got hit out of the league when he went down and played for reserves for Footscray.

    “They’re not going to do that to me,” said Des.

    My father always smiled at the mention of the word “Delicate”. I suspect he thinks it was the best appellation in footy.

  9. Rocket Rod Gillett says

    Bill Serong mainly played as a ruck-rover at Echuca but was usually named in the centre. The ruckmen were big Ambrose Christian and either Vince Slattery or Jack Barry. Serong would go forward and kick goals. There’s a classic photo in a Sun News Pictorial 1963 Year Book of him streaming into an open goal at the Park Oval against Sandhurst.

    Of course, Dick Turner’s favourite player was without doubt Peter Moroni – “the fleet-footed market gardner from Epsom”. But he proclaimed Bill Serong the best player in the league at the time – in the best forum for all of us to discuss these things, the pub!

  10. Richard E. Jones says

    Oh no, no, no Daff.
    Denis Higgins coached Eaglehawk to the 1980 BFL flag — a three-point sneak home over Golden Square.
    He was quite agitated at the presentations — maybe still is — when the media scribes, myself among them, anointed Square’s Daryl Salmon as the best afield.
    Denis always maintained that Two Blues’ ruckman Gary Adlem should have got the nod.

  11. I remember Billy Serong playing for Collingwood. mostly in the centre, but sometimes on the half forward flank.
    A tough, hard player – he could play alright!
    Him and his old mate from school in Preston, Kevin Murray, used to have kick-to-kick sessions on the grass median strip in Alexandria Parade – although I think it was a media beat-up by The Sun for a Collingwood-Fitzroy game.

  12. Tom,

    I’ve read about those kick-to-kicks on the median strip in Alexandra Parade and wondered how on earth they could be true.

    Didn’t know it first appeared in The Sun. It sounds like a bit of fun from Lou Richards.

  13. Rocket

    When you read your great yarn it makes you wonder about the bloke next to you in the pub and what his story might be. Because Bill Serong is often in the North Fitzroy Arms as you say. The Smith hospital story is one of many rippers you tell.

    One of the things I love about these blokes, and it comes out beautifully in your yarn, is that they would find a footy club wherever life takes them.

    We are moving in to Reid tomorrow, in Canberra.

    Which means I’m now officially looking for a game at Ainslie.


  14. Rocket Rod Gillett says

    Thanks John.

    I once had the privilege to meet Norm Smith when he stayed in our family motel in Kyabram in the late 1960’s – he had come up to attend Ross Dillon’s 21st birhday party. He had coached Rossie when he first went to Melbourne in 1966 – this was before the GVL was zoned to the Demons.

    As he checked out the next morning I shyly went up to get his autograph – which he duly obliged.
    As you know I’m a red head, as was Norm Smith, and as a young lad I had plenty of freckles.
    He said to me, “Son, do you want to get rid of those freckles?”
    “Oh, yes, Mr Smith! How?”, I said.
    “Sandpaper”, he replied.

    Good luck with the move John – maybe its your son Theo who needs to sign up with Ainslie!?


  15. Rocket Rod Gillett says

    By the way John, the current coach of Ainslie, Chris Rourke, is a former coach of Echuca, who after a stint coaching North Shore in Sydney opreated a B & B in Rochester and coached the 3rds as well as being the runner for senior coach “Dirty” Dave Williams.

  16. Rocket,

    In Bendigo I lived with Franice Rourke from Lockington (or more specifically Tennyson).

    Must be related to Chris.

  17. Sorry, Francine.

    Her mother went to teachers’ college in Bendigo with my mother.

  18. Rocket Rod G?llett says


    Chr?s Rourke went to Echuca from VFA club Camberwell.
    No local pedigree to my knowledge.

    He got Ainsl?e ?nto th?s year`s ACT Grand F?nal – beaten by Belconnen.

  19. Mark Gullick says

    Great article Rod.

    I must get in contact you again. I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks racing around country Victoria and interviewing a lot of players for my book about the Rochester footy club. From the Rochester era of 1950s and 1960s, I’ve met with Fred Rodda, Noel Howe, Spencer Broom, Darryl Hooper, Max Bennett, Russ Major and the legendary Jack Anderson, and a few more are in the works.

    Each of them have been fantastic. They have been really welcoming and supportive. They also remember the day the great Neil Roberts played for Echuca!

    I also met with Noel McMahen and he was brilliant. I discovered a lot of information about why he actually joined Rochester, most of which I hadn’t heard before. I’ll be putting up an article about Noel McMahen in the next few weeks.

    Rod, I’ll send you an email next week.

  20. Rod Gillett says

    Thanks Mark,

    Gee whiz, you’ve been interviewing some of Rochy’s all-time Greats! Some famous names in that lot.

    I’ll be very interested to hear the inside story of how Noel McMahen came to Rochester. Really look forward to reading your piece on it.

    I hope you get to meet and talk with Ray Willett, who is now retired from teaching and living in Corowa. His son, Mark posted some comments on this site on an article by Richard Jones as a result of a posting I made. He was the best player I ever saw in the Bendigo league – Billy Sreong was right up there too!

    Hope to hear more.


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