” ‘Nana’ guides Spiders to footy ‘Nirvana’ ” by KB Hill

Ray Baker’s a name that would scarcely ring a bell with even the most diehard Ovens and Murray footy fans.

 

He’s from a bygone era…….when the game helped to provide a welcome diversion from the woes of the Great Depression which had dragged the nation to its knees.

 

The Corowa Football Club held him in such high esteem that they named a quaint old wooden grandstand in his honour.

 

The “Ray ‘Nana’ Baker Stand” stood proudly at the John Foord Oval. Corowa players used to change in the rooms beneath it ………until it was completely destroyed by fire – along with some of the Club’s precious historical data. ‘Nana’s’ name also seemed to have been consigned to history.

 

The memory of the champ, whose deeds of wizardry were performed some seven decades earlier, was revived when he was named full-forward in Corowa-Rutherglen’s ‘Team of the Century’ in 2003………….

 

 

 

‘Nana’ had a big personality, far bigger than his five foot five and a half inch frame. Words like ‘pocket-rocket’, ‘elusive’ and ‘will-o-the-wisp’ were used to eulogise his footy attributes.

 

Many years ago, an old-timer who had seen him in action compared him to a latter-day Barry Cable.

 

Hume Weir, a club which sprung up in the O & M when the dam, 10km east of Albury, was being constructed, secured ‘Nana’s’ services in 1924. They came from everywhere seeking work on this huge project and he was probably like many others; the mere mention that he had a modicum of football ability was enough to secure a job.

 

After six years as a more than handy player with the Blue and Whites, he transferred to Corowa in 1930, when many would have considered him past his prime.

 

To the contrary, he produced the form of his career, especially when switched into attack. Despite always yielding height and weight to his opponents, he wreaked havoc as a spearhead.,

 

His season tally of 81 in just 15 games (including 13 against Rutherglen) in 1931 was a factor in the Spiders climbing into the finals for the first time in eight years.

 

After overcoming the disappointment of bombing out in straight-sets, they began preparing for the future. And ‘Nana’ Baker was the man they entrusted with the coaching job…………

 

***

 

Corowa had been striving for thirty years to break through for an Ovens and Murray flag. They first joined the competition in 1895 as Border United (a partnership of Corowa and Wahgunyah – the towns on either side of the Murray River).

 

The combine came close, finishing runners-up in 1900, ‘02, ‘03 ‘04 and ‘14. When they re-entered after the First World War as Corowa, the all-powerful St. Patrick’s kept them goal-less for three quarters of a forgettable 1921 Grand Final, eventually winning 7.19 to 2.3.

 

They boasted a few individual stars in that side, the best of them being Greg Stockdale who had moved from Rushworth to Corowa to play alongside his brother Charlie and work at Stockdale & Skehan Motors.

 

Greg Stockdale

 

A rangy left-footer who lined up on a back flank, Stockdale’s improvement was so dramatic that he was invited to play a handful of games with Essendon, interspersed with his Corowa obligations. The final game of 1922 was the last the Spiders would see of him.

 

Essendon believed he had the wherewithal to be a forward. In his first game as a full-time Bomber, he booted ten goals against St. Kilda on the way to winning the VFL goalkicking award and representing the State.

 

Following Stockdale’s departure and a fleeting finals appearance in 1924, Corowa began a downward spiral as they struggled throughout the 20sto keep pace with the powerful Albury clubs. A spirited revival in 1931 gave the Club fresh hope……

 

The strains of music from the Corowa Band accompanied the Spiders as they made their way onto John Foord Oval for the opening round of 1932.

 

The decision by O & M officialdom to reduce admittance money from 1/6d to a shilling, was a concession to the financial hardship that most people were enduring. Also appreciated was the gesture to grant free admittance to those who found themselves unemployed. Thus, a healthy crowd was in attendance.

 

Corowa had embarked on an extensive recruiting campaign, and players of the calibre of Jim Hall and Harold Payten (Leeton), Jim Webster (Wahgunyah), Keith Gregory (Murchison) and Des Davies (Corowa Stars) made their way into the line-up. Big things were also expected of a brilliant young centreman/half forward, Vic Carroll, in his debut season.

 

A heavy loss to West Albury in Round 5 left the Spiders at 3-2, and questions began to be posed about coach Baker and his methods.

 

But from then on everything clicked. They won their next ten games to finish four and a half games clear on top. The most significant of these victories had been a two-point thriller over Weir United – the first time they had ever saluted at the Weir’s home ground, Ebden.

 

‘Nana’ Baker produced another stellar season in front of the sticks. One ‘bag’ of 13, and several of 5 and 6 illustrated that he was more than a handful against the weightier, more cumbersome full-backs with whom he tangled.

 

But he was only one of a few key stars who had lifted the side into premiership contention. The Club’s stalwart was a slow-moving but deceptive ruckman, Frank ‘Gunboat’ Smith, a tower of strength who invariably stayed on the ball for four quarters.

 

And in half-forward Ray La Peyre, they had arguably the champion player of the competition, a stylish mover with pinpoint disposal.

 

The 20 year-old Vic Carroll (later to play with Fitzroy) improved immensely with each game and was undoubtedly the recruit of the year, whilst defenders ‘Dook’ Chisnall and Norm Carroll – both excellent disposers of the ball – combined superbly in the last line.

 

So Corowa fans felt more than the usual optimism when they lined up against West Albury in the Second Semi-Final. They started red-hot favourites, but virtually kicked themselves out of the contest in the second quarter, when they could only muster 1.11.

 

They led by a goal at the big break but, from then on, West Albury ran all over them to win by 33 points. The task of overcoming dual-premier Weir United in the Preliminary Final confronted the Spiders.

 

It proved a battle of the defences with just one goal being scored in the second half of the game. United led 4.5 to 3.3 at half-time but could only add three points from then on. Corowa had most of the play in their half, to add 1.9. At the final bell they had triumphed by 4 points, to clinch a Grand Final berth and send their fans into raptures.

 

The Corowa Free Press waxed lyrical in the lead-up to the big clash with West Albury:

“Sporting enthusiasts have, for the moment, forgotten about ‘King Depression’. No longer does this monster, with his tentacles of misery occupy the sole topic of conversation – at least in Corowa !”

“For the sportsman’s mind is directly focused on the Red and Blacks’ prospects of winning a Premiership in the Ovens and Murray League.”

“Everybody – even those in our midst who do not care a snap of the finger for the winter sport – are keenly debating the team’s prospects. This little old burg will sure go baloney if the boys return triumphant tomorrow………….”

 

***

 

The 1932 Grand Final was one of the most exciting in Ovens and Murray history and thrilled the huge crowd which thronged around the picket fences of the Albury Showgrounds.

 

 

 

Corowa kept West Albury goalless in the first quarter, before George Bunton came into the picture early in the second, marking strongly and converting for full points. Then the Spiders regained the ascendancy when Baker succeeded in kicking the most difficult angled shot. His was a remarkable effort and spectators wondered at the sagacity of the little chap.

 

 

 

His side led by 20 points at half-time but powered away in the third. The crowd again marvelled at Baker’s uncanniness in finding the big opening with an over-the-head shot. Corowa’s leader was certainly in form. At one stage, his side had led by almost seven goals but, by three-quarter-time, West had trimmed it to a touch over four.

 

Ominously, the Spiders had been kept goalless in the final session and their premiership hopes were hanging by a thread.

 

They clung to a three-point advantage. In the dying seconds, West’s Clarrie Nolan had a long shot for goal but the kick fell short. Corowa swept the ball downfield but could only add a point – making the margin 4 points.

 

Again West Albury attacked. Pollard kicked deep into the teeth of goal; George Bunton set himself for the mark but, in the excitement of the occasion, his team-mate Clarrie Nolan flew with him. The ball spilt to the ground as the bell sounded to hand Corowa their first-ever premiership : 11.14 to 10.16………

 

‘Nana’ Baker, with seven of his side’s goals, had been the Spiders’ hero. But Vic Carroll played the game of his life and Payton, ‘Dook’ Chisnall and La Peyre also starred……………

 

***

 

Premiership celebrations raged for weeks. At the Club’s Dinner, ‘Nana’ was congratulated for his efforts in the Grand Final and, indeed, for his job as coach during the season. He was presented with a Cup – 18” high, adorned with Red And Black ribbons. From the sides were suspended handles that resembled two bananas. Inscribed on one side of the Cup was ‘Presented to ‘Nana’ Baker from the Barrackers of the Corowa Football Club’. On the other was a crowing Rooster……

 

After coaching Corowa into the 1933 Finals, ‘Nana’ handed over the reins to his star player, Ray La Peyre. From then on he drifted in and out of the coaching role, taking it on again mid-way through 1935, being replaced in 1937, then stepping into the breach again in 1938.

 

His final stint came in 1946, when the Spiders re-formed after the War as Border United (reverting to Corowa in ’48).

 

“He was certainly a character,” recalled one old Corowa identity. “He continued to follow the footy, and was also mad-keen on the horses.”

 

“He’d never miss a race-meeting in the area. He had an old mate, Sam Hamilton, who’d cart him around. Sam would pull up outside the course and ‘Nana’ would climb in the boot to avoid parting with the entrance fee.”

 

“One day, when a storm hit they cancelled the Corowa races and the Course announcer advised that patrons were entitled to a refund. ‘Nana’ lined up for his, then shot around the back of the queue and put his hand out for another one.”

 

“ ‘Fair go ‘Nana’,’ said the Gate-Keeper, ‘…I know your form…..You’ve never paid to get in yet’…………”

 

 

 

KB Hill is Wangaratta’s leading sports historian. This article appeared first on his website On Reflection and appears here with permission. For 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.

 

Comments

  1. Imagine that – a 166cm full-forward!!! Boggles the mind in this era of the 195+cm comparative giants up forward. And a real character to boot judging by the story’s denouement. Thanks again, KB, for preserving for us these important pieces of local sports history.

  2. Good stuff KB. The old photos are superb.

    I’ve got photos of my grand uncle Larry Conrick, who died whilst out rabbit shooting,in the early 1920’s. I’m fairly sure he played for Corowa around the time of the ‘great trade war ‘, or was he with Coreen, or Rennie?

    His sister, my grandmother, Margaret Johnstone, nee Conrick did the sandwiches for many years at the Spiders. Her son,my uncle,Frank Johnstone played a few games for them in the early 60’s.

    The name Chisnall is there. Where’s Peter? I last saw him when he had the Tungamah Pub, but he left there around 2015-2016. I heard he was driving a bus for the prison near Murchison, but Peter would be 71 or so now.

    Glen!

  3. Roseville Rocket says

    What a famous victory by the Spiders!

    So well-told by that Wang Rovers former star footballer and Victorian Country rep cricketer (v West Indies 68-69) at the centre of sporting universe – Wangaratta.

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