Almanac Footy History: The Nullawil Maroons Part 1 – Mallee dominance

 

 

Paddy Grindlay is the 2021 Hayden Kelly Scholar. Hayden is from Wycheproof (which we featured last year) and has always had an interest in bush footy, especially some of the wonderful clubs from the Mallee-Wimmera. He has always looked out for Nullawil, a town which has enjoyed remarkable sporting success, given its size. Hayden invited Paddy to write about Nullawil. Paddy has thrown himself into it (as we know Paddy does) and has read the history books, completed interviews and done some further newspaper research. He’s got to know a few of the old-timers, and when Covid allows, he will travel to Nullawil and beyond to meet some of these characters and hear more of their stories.

Here’s Paddy’s first piece:

 

 

 

Nullawil is a small country town sitting between numerous other small country towns on the furthest reaching tendril of the Calder Highway. From Melbourne, it’s a day-long journey; hold the Calder line through Bendigo where it kinks north-east, follow all the way through Charlton into Wycheproof, from which it hurtles true north. Nullawil is early on in the post-Wycheproof leg of the highway. Onward climbs the Calder, scaling the map through Ouyen and eventually Mildura. 302 kilometres from Victoria’s capital lies Nullawil, population 93, between the townships of Dumosa (population 24) and Warne (population 4). Respectively, Nullawil seems enormous. In a sporting fashion, it is undoubtedly so.

 

 

A glance of the township; low-lying buildings, sun-worn roofing and cars retreating to shade in February heat on dusty streets. This is summer, high summer at the peak of a baking hot February, and the Mallee has at this point endured months of dry and dust. The milk bar is open, though, and there’s a stubborn Victoria Bitter sign, like a beacon of sorts, rising out of tin roofing that stands sun-struck, yet undefeated. Nullawil endures; it binds together, it holds fast. This is an attitude reflected upon its football club.

 

 

Like many towns in the Wimmera-Mallee region in Victoria’s far north, Nullawil is replete with a mighty wheat and grain silo, painted in 2019. Upon it is illustrated a kelpie named ‘Jimmy,’ and his owner; on the registration tag of the dog, there’s a stick and galah painted, a nod to the naming of the small town.

 

 

‘Nullawil’ purportedly derives its name from two Aboriginal words – ‘Nulla’ meaning killing stick in Dharuk, and ‘Willock,’ shortened to ‘Wil,’ meaning galah. Its silo was the 32nd to be added to the Australian Silo Art Trail. The silo straddles, with the railway line, the snaking Calder Highway that cuts through the town. If you’re travelling by V-Line beyond, you’ll see Jimmy the kelpie to your right, and the Nullawil Recreation Reserve to your left. Here is where the football is played.

 

 

 

Nullawil and the Calder Highway that goes through the township. [Source: Wikipedia]

 

One can envisage the play on Nullawil Recreation Reserve – a rain-starved and heat-blasted land giving way to hard-packed ground and little gain for the stopped boots of footballers. Ken Townrow, once a Nullawil footballer and now the football club’s historian, describes the Mallee’s ovals succinctly: “If it didn’t take skin off, it wasn’t hard enough.”

 

 

In 1963, Ken was invited by Geelong to trial, an offer the talented – yet young and inexperienced – footballer didn’t take up. When Hawthorn came calling in 1966, Ken made the trip down, to find grounds that were too soft, and his first 20 dashing yards inhibited by spongy turf and springy grass. He happily returned home after a ‘reasonable’ effort. Ken, tongue in cheek, says he was “a Mumma’s boy,” but his football was to be played for the Maroons, in the town he grew up in.

 

 

Australian football is integral to country towns in Victoria, and Nullawil’s relationship with the game is no different. The Nullawil Maroons have 25 first-grade premierships to their name, including a dominant run between 1971 and 1980, where the club pocketed eight of the nine contested premierships. Nullawil punches above its weight; a minuscule farming town that nonetheless has produced, and attracted, league standard footballers, all the while maintaining consistent and comprehensive success. Nullawil has won the two most recent premierships, 2018 and 2019, in the Golden Rivers Football League, and in 2021 featured ex-AFL listed players Dean Putt and Mitch Farmer. The 2021 season, ended prematurely by the Coronavirus pandemic, went without a Nullawil loss: 11 wins, a percentage of 341.84%, and a clear standing on top of the ladder.

 

 

“We attract quality people,” explains Townrow. “They’re also quality footballers.”

 

 

Once-local Gerald Hogan, a key player in Nullawil’s sporting history, speaks succinctly on his hometown.

 

 

“Nullawil has been, is, and always will be a sporting town,” he says.

 

 

Nullawil, located north-west of Wycheproof in Victoria’s Mallee region. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

 

 

Nullawil in the 1960s was a two-paced town, with farming occupying the weeks and some sort of sport the weekends. Football, tennis, netball, cricket – there was always something going on a Saturday, and the wider Nullawil community would be sure to play, support and attend in droves.

 

 

Peter Ryan is a Nullawil man, a player for the Maroons, but well-known for his 19-year tenure as the club’s Secretary amid Nullawil’s leading years. Like many members of Nullawil’s footballing committees, Peter balanced his role with play, mostly in Nullawil’s equally dominant second’s team, with a few senior games in the mix, from the mid-late 1960s until 1985.

 

 

“Sport was our religion,” Peter says earnestly.

 

“The only things we really knew were cricket, tennis and football…but football was all the talk. A bit of farming talk, occasionally. But only football.”

 

 

Near the entirety of Nullawil’s population would attend the Saturday football games in dominant year within the 1960s and 1970s, leaving the township empty regardless of whether the Maroons played at home or away. It’s said by the locals that the best time to stage a robbery in Nullawil is on a Saturday afternoon, with houses empty and families by the fences all over the Mallee.

 

 

There was copious amounts of pressure on the players to perform, with the promise of an awkward service at Catholic mass the Sunday after a game. The township would shuffle in, and Peter Ryan and his teammates knew that if they’d spilled a mark or missed an easy target that previous afternoon, that their skills would be brought up by football-mad Nully men and women – and that during the post-service rubdown, their own teammates would be all too happy to remind them.

 

 

“We were known to be very one-eyed,” remembers Peter. “The women just as much as the men. Possibly the women were worse.”

 

 

The mothers of Nullawil footballers would populate the innermost circle of support at games, rugs over their knees with a comfortable chair brought from home, seated by the fence directing “fairly rude tellings-off” at offending umpires.

 

 

“Most would have a son playing, and that son could do no wrong,” chuckles Peter.

 

 

Peter Ryan has watched a lot of football, after leaving Nullawil in 2004, moving to Bendigo and then to Echuca last year, where two of his children and grandchildren live. Never has he felt the same sense of community, the “one in, all in,” attitude that he experienced as a Maroon, and it’s the reasoning why he’s been attached to the town even after his departure. The embrace of the community, the intense and total focus on how the sporting people of Nullawil would fare on a weekend possessed the town.

 

 

Six-time premiership player and Nullawil farmer Ron Pollington puts it another way:

 

 

“If you didn’t play sport – winter and summer sport – you might as well leave.”

 

 

**

 

Over a history dotted with footballing success, one period leaps to the eye – the early 1960s. Nullawil had won seven premierships up to 1945, with the last of them won in the Tyrrell Creek Patriotic Football League and considered by some to be not particularly notable. Ken Townrow doesn’t share the opinion, saying “we (Nullawil) won the flag that year, it’s as much of a flag as any of the others”.

 

Following the Second World War, Nullawil joined the Tyrrell Football League, an eight-team competition consisting of nearby towns Berriwillock, Birchip, Culgoa, Curyo, Narraport, Sea Lake and Wycheproof. As the years carried on, Ultima, Manangatang, Nandaly, and Chinkapook joined, as mergers and departures re-formed and shaped the competition. Berriwillock and Sea Lake won seven premierships over the League’s 32-year tenure; Nullawil led with nine flags, all won after 1964.

 

 

It was that year where Nullawil defeated Chinkapook by a point, after failing on Grand Final Day on the last six times of asking since 1945. Indeed, Nullawil had lost three straight Grand Finals, with the largest margin being just 12 points – in 1961, losing to Berriwillock, in ’62, Culgoa, and in ’63, Manangatang.

 

 

It was a young side in 1961, with eight players under the age of 21. One such player was Gerald ‘Whip’ Hogan, who won Nullawil’s best-and-fairest in ’62 in the number 43 guernsey, and was a good-sized, nimble midfielder. The Hogans are a prominent Nullawil footballing family – dotted through the Maroons’ history is the surname. Gerald’s brother Shane holds the record for the most senior premierships with 10 – Gerald has one, in 1964.

 

 

Gerald is a self-professed Nullawil boy (or ‘Nully’ boy, in local parlance), a centre and winger who played in each of the four Grand Finals. He balancing his career as a teacher in the far north of Victoria with his prodigious footballing talent, playing the 1964 Grand Final as his final game for the club before teaching took him elsewhere.

 

 

 

Gerald Hogan’s best-and-fairest trophy, awarded to him from the 1962 season. [Source: ‘The Maroons’ – A History of the Nullawil Football Club by Ken Townrow]

 

“There was a lot of personal pressure on us,” recounts Gerald over a crackling phone line. He lives in Bendigo now, retired after a teavching career that took him around the Mallee and northern Victoria.

 

“Our dads had played in premiership sides. We were trying to emulate them. The town had expectations.”

 

 

Gerald Hogan taught over in nearby Quambatook, having returned from teacher’s college to play for his hometown, where Hogans had won premierships for Nullawil in the 1920s. The sports-obsessed Hogan grew up desperate for play for his club.

 

 

“On a Thursday night when we were kids, we’d expect a phone call from the local postman ring up Dad to give him the teams. You were hoping even at 13, 14, that the phone would ring for you.”

 

 

Educated at St. Patrick’s College in Ballarat, the young Gerald remained hopeful for an eventual phone call – the hallowed senior debut for the Maroons and a giddily excitable day of travel back home to the Mallee. In 1961, the 19-year-old Hogan took up his first teaching appointment west of Kerang. Travel was an issue, but neighbouring schoolteacher Jim Wallis, a forward who would play 39 games and kick 41 goals for St Kilda from 1963-65, provided transport to the young Hogan to nearby Quambatook, where Wallis was coach. There, Hogan would train, before trotting out for the Nullawil side on the weekend.

 

 

“I found that form of training the best – because I wasn’t one of the locals as such, they gave me a pretty hard time. I was match-hardened by the time I lined up on a Saturday.”

 

 

Quambatook local star Joe James was likely one of those putting Hogan through his paces. Ironically, he would in 1963 transfer to Nullawil, where he would vice-captain the 1964 premiership team, before coaching the Maroons in 1965.

 

 

However, Gerald’s arrangement with Qumbatook came to an end when it was apparent the Maroons were becoming a footballing threat.

 

 

“They eventually figured me out, and I got banned,” he says.

 

 

In 1961, Jim Wallis was just 19 years old and coaching senior football. His footballing talent led to his St Kilda appearances in the ’60s, but also to widespread adoration and respect in the Mallee. On the Tuesday after their third consecutive Grand Final loss in 1963, Wallis held a training session for the Nullawil players. All those who were fit participated. Wallis was playing a semi-final that week for St Kilda, a loss to Melbourne, where the forward kicked one goal.

 

 

Gerald remembers each Grand Final, drily remarking that the best celebrations followed the three losses as the Maroons drowned their sorrows.

 

 

“In the final stages (of the 1961 Grand Final), I kicked the last goal for Nullawil, which put us 17 points up,” he reminisces over a crackling phone line.

 

“Someone said that three-and-a-half minutes of time on had elapsed. Berriwillock defeated us by a point.”

 

“That was fairly savage.”

 

 

In 1962, Culgoa was the opponent, and rain played havoc to Nullawil’s chances. The Maroons, fine-tuned to the brutal, rock-like grounds in the Mallee, were greeted by “a downfall the night before of about three inches”. The reserves Grand Final was postponed over concerns that the field would be churned and boggy by the time Culgoa and Nullawil took to the turf.

 

 

 

Nullawil’s 1962 senior team. Ken Townrow is seated in the front row, first from the right. Gerald Hogan is second from the left on the front row. [Source: Ken Townrow.]

 

“We went onto the ground with plastic stops that hadn’t been changed all year. They served us well on dry grounds,” explains Gerald Hogan.

 

“But Bill Evely (ex-Richmond player, and Culgoa coach) had every one of their players with new stops in their boots that day. We ‘Nully’ boys didn’t, and we were slipping and sliding all over the place.”

 

 

There had been a draw in the semi-finals, pushing the Grand Final back a week. This also ruled out one of Nullawil’s better players due to a scheduled wedding, which ‘couldn’t be helped.’ Nullawil would lose the ’62 Grand Final by two goals, and then the ’63 Grand Final by seven points, despite easily accounting for Manangatang in the semi-final.

 

 

“(The club) had to make changes,” says Gerald. “I went from the centre to the wing, the centre half back went to the wing, and we picked up a few promising footballers.”

 

 

This included Ron Pollington, who as a playing coach had led Jerilderie to the 1963 premiership in the Coreen & District Football League the year prior., and Maurice Koop, who eventually go on to form the Pappas, Carter, Evans and Koop management consulting firm, which merged with the Boston Consulting Group. The ‘Carter’ mentioned in the group is Colin Carter, ex-AFL commissioner, ex-President of the Geelong Football Club, and recent publisher of a report into the viability of a Tasmanian AFL team.

 

 

Maurie Koop was a mate of a local – like many weekend fill-ins. Nullawil players would go away to the city or elsewhere to work, and return home with a mate who, invariably, turned out to be a handy footballer. The staying power of a successful club that competed for premierships brought Nullawil footballing talent from outside the region alongside its homegrown talent.

 

 

1964 was the year that changed the town’s footballing fortunes changed. Thanks to the lack of wider recognition of the 1945 premiership, it had been 27 years since a universally acknowledged Grand Final victory, and the township was champing at the bit after three successive Grand Final losses. But with the inclusion of key players, and the appointment of legendary coach Tony Tuck, the Nullawil Maroons broke through to begin an unrivalled period of footballing success.

 

Part 2 in Paddy’s series will be published soon.

 

 

Read more from Paddy Grindlay HERE

 

 

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Comments

  1. Great stuff mate, very happy to read some longer form history-based stuff from you!

    A corner of the state I have very little knowledge of, but now I’ve got more of a feel for the colour and movement.

  2. citrus bob says

    Like JL said “Great stuff”. Should be more of this history put to paper around the bush. Not enough local sporting histories about clubs of all descriptions being the focal point of towns. Still waiting for someone to repaint the Culgoa premiership work on the water tower in Culgoa before it disappears like many historical moments.

  3. Hayden Kelly says

    Paddy
    Thanks a great start . My interest in Nullawil goes back to the 60s when on Monday morning the Nully school bus would roll into Saint Michaels Wycheproof and for the next few days we would be regaled with stories of the doings of the mighty Maroons in the Tyrrell League from the Nully kids .Smiths ,Ryans ,Hogans and Shanleys come to mind .
    It didn’t seem relevant that Wycheproof Narraport at that time were dominating the stronger North Central League as to them the only team that mattered was Nullawil .
    I continue to watch them from afar via country newspapers and it amazes me how their sporting teams not only survive but thrive . Last year they were fielding 4 footy teams and 6 netball teams .In summer in conjunction with Culgoa they field 2 cricket teams and the best tennis team in the District . I reckon they have won around 10 of the last 15 tennis premierships competing against much bigger towns including St Arnaud and Donald .
    A word of warning for those who fancy their tennis ability if you are ever drawn to play against a woman from Nullawil I suggest you don’t back yourself to win .
    Look forward to next instalment .
    Cheers

  4. Andrew Kelly says

    Terrific article Paddy. It captures the true spirit of the town. I am Hayden’s brother so also experienced the Monday morning stories from the Nully kids of how the mighty Maroons had flogged some hapless opponent the previous Saturday. I think I may have envied them despite the fact that Wycheproof was doing the same in the North Central league. I look forward to your next instalment. Cheers Andrew

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