Stepping back in time by KB Hill

“Everything’s just like it was in ’69………It looks like you have stepped back in time………”

 

Jim Comensoli is re-counting the highlight of his sporting career……

 

It’s early September 1969, and he has guided Milawa into their first Ovens and King League Grand Final in 13 years. This proud old club hasn’t tasted premiership success since 1940.

 

They get away to a flier, with two early goals, but Beechworth peg them back. It becomes a nip and tuck affair…….. Just as Milawa look to be assuming control in the final term, the Bombers nail two goals in as many minutes.

 

The Demons’ wayward kicking threatens to cost them dearly, but they hang on in the dying stages of an engrossing clash to clinch the flag by 16 points.

 

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They’re holding a shindig out at Milawa this Sunday – a 50-Year Re-Union of that famous side. There’s no doubt that tall tales and true will be spun. Jay will be involved in most of them.

 

He’s a born raconteur. Get him yapping about his 13-year stint in the O & K and he’ll knock the cobwebs off many of the yarns he collected along the way.

 

Like the time he was approached to coach Milawa………

 

“I worked for Les Brown, the builder, who was a dyed-in-the-wool Demon. And Arthur Clarke was a good mate of mine. We were always into each other, so when they came out with: ‘Would you like to coach Milawa ? ‘ I didn’t believe ‘em.”

 

“I said: ‘You blokes are having me on, aren’t you ?’ When I finally ascertained that, this time, they were fair dinkum I said: ‘I won’t even think about it – Yeah, course I will………”

 

The Comensoli’s are a legendary local footy family. Jay’s the youngest of four boys in a tribe of nine kids.

 

He followed his brother Bob to Junior Magpies, then on to the Wangaratta seniors, where he played 21 games in the ‘ones’, interspersed with a number of Reserves appearances.

 

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Jay (back row ,left) at Mac Holten’s Footy Clinic. Ian Hayden and Ian Rowland, also in the group, went on to play VFL football.

 

At 19, he developed itchy feet. “Bill ( eldest brother) was coaching Beechworth at the time and ‘Ab’ ( another brother) was his rover. Wang were keen to get hold of a Beechworth player, Normie Stewart, so they instigated a swap and I headed up to join the boys.”

 

Jay had a day out in the Bombers’ 1961 Grand Final win. He ‘led beautifully and was rewarded with six goals in a fine performance up forward’ according the the Chronicle scribe.

 

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With Bill controlling the big man duels and Bobby Billman on fire in his forward flank, Beechworth launched a torrid onslaught in the dying stages to overwhelm a tired Greta and prevail by 13 points.

 

Two years later, he’d been lured to Tarrawingee. Their live-wire President and ace recruiter, Brien Stone, put forward an offer of 2 pounds a game. “I said don’t worry about the two quid. I’ll play provided someone pays my wages if I happen to get injured. Old Brien was rapt in that; even chipped in for a new pair of footy boots.”

 

The Bulldogs got great value out of their new recruit. Playing mainly across half-forward, Jay helped them to successive flags (1963, ‘64) under the coaching of Ray Burns.

 

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He was vice-captain of Tarra for a fair portion of his 85 games in Red,White and Blue and remembers being on the selection committee when they suggested that a fat kid in the Seconds might be worth giving an opportunity.

 

“Brien Stone, who was also Chairman of Selectors, wouldn’t have a bar of it…Said we were doing the Club a disservice by playing a kid that unfit and that young ( almost 15 ) who probably wouldn’t amount to anything.”

 

“So we out-voted him and gave Mick Nolan his first senior game. Brien was a bit ‘put out’ for a while.”

 

At this stage, Jay’s brother Bill was coaching Milawa, Bob was in his first year in charge of Moyhu, and ‘Ab’ was Glenrowan’s leader.

 

“I came up against Bob for the first time when we played Moyhu. He’s delivered a perfect right- cross to flatten our rover, Jimmy Grant. I raced in to fly the flag for Jimmy, and said to the umpy: ‘Did you see that ?’ I don’t know whether he did, actually, but he’s booked Bob, who copped two weeks.”

 

“That year, we played Milawa in the First Semi. I was chasing Rex Allen, and, out of the corner of my eye, caught someone steaming in from the left. I thought: ‘Oh, it’s Bill, he won’t hit me.’ I was wrong, he’s cleaned me up nicely, although I always tell him he woke me from my slumber, as I managed to kick 4 goals after that……..”

 

By now, his wife Val had become well-acquainted with the pitfalls of life as a footy ‘widow’. Previously she’d become used to waiting in the car outside the pub while Jay enjoyed a few after-match beers with the boys. But her and the kids were welcomed into the Plough Inn and shared the hospitality of Mary Nolan and the rest of the Tarra people.

 

“They were a great crowd, Tarra, and it was a bit of a wrench to leave them,” says Jay. But I’d always been keen to coach, and I knew Milawa were a fantastic Club.”

 

Jay’s appointment was a deviation from the O & K tradition of luring stars from the Ovens and Murray. But the success of he and Greta’s Johnny O’Brien proved that there was no real risk in drawing coaches from within the League.

 

He succeeded his brother Bill in the role, and harbored the usual self-doubts about how well the playing group would accept him……Particularly considering that the side contained the Club’s three previous coaches – Bill, John Holloway and Rex Allen.

 

His coaching reign started shakily enough. In his first year (1967) Milawa won just six games and finished seventh. However, a seven-point loss in the ‘68 First-Semi indicated that they were on the right track.

 

Jay was cleaned up by one of his old foes, Chiltern hard-man Kevin Lappin, in the latter part of that season. A badly broken nose necessitated a hospital visit. The nurses were preparing him for the operation when another patient was admitted.

 

“Forget about Mr.Comensoli for a while. This patient’s in worse condition,” they said. “At that moment, Kevin Lappin was wheeled in past me.”

 

“Bill, who’d gone out out to give ‘Ab’ a hand at Glenrowan, called in to see me. He had one glance and said: “I think I’d better come back to look after you.”

 

And he did return in 1969, to become one of the key figures in a dominant season.

 

“Bill was a ‘protector’” says Jay. “ I remember Ross Gardner playing his first game – he was no more than 15, I think, and was getting jostled by his opponent. Bill’s walked up and said: ‘Touch this bloke today, and you’re a goner.’

 

“There’s a big peppercorn tree behind the goals at Milawa. The ball was stuck in a branch one day, and they were taking ages to get it down. One of the old ducks from the opposition yelled out. ‘Hey, Commo, go and get your chainsaw and cut it down.’ Bill replied: ‘It’d be quicker if you’d get on your broom and fly up and get it’. ”

 

Jay says the Demons ran a tight ship in those days, and jokes that with blokes like ‘Mocca’ Coleman, the purse strings were well and truly clamped.

 

“In seven years at Milawa, I had two pairs of socks. I went to ‘Mocca’ to hit him up for a replacement pair and he looked at me incredulously: ‘Why ?’…….’Because they’re full of holes,’ I snorted…….’Doesn’t Val darn…..?’, he said.“

 

“ ‘Mocca’ was the Property Steward, a Selector, Caretaker and ‘Gopher’. He got the blame for everything, even when it rained. One of the things I was finicky about was having plenty of Ice on hand on game-day.”

 

“ ‘Mocca’ forgot to buy it one day and I kept at him about it. He eventually rounded some up and came back with his tail between his legs. He muttered: ‘Are you happy now ?’”

 

“I was in the shower after the game, and wondered why all the other quickly players drifted out. ‘Mocca’ came in with a bucket. ‘You know that Ice you wanted,’ he said…….’Here it is ! ‘ “

 

Milawa dropped just two games in the 1969 home and away rounds, to top the ladder. They booted 8.5 in the first quarter of a soggy Second Semi against Beechworth, to cruise home by 64 points.

 

The Bombers bounced back, and outlasted Greta in a tough Prelim, to enter the ‘Big One’ as distinct underdogs.

 

Their confidence grew when Milawa’s big-occasion player Bill Comensoli was accidentally knocked out 10 minutes into the first quarter and stretchered from the ground.

 

Bearing in mind that Beechworth’s hard run to the Grand Final was expected to have them at a disadvantage, they surprisingly kept nipping at the heels of the classy Demons.

 

Trailing by just two points at half-time, they hit the lead at one stage in the third, and were within two goals at lemon-time.

 

But Milawa took control of the air in the final term, as the Bombers’ big men tired. Youthful, barrel-chested John Michelini, who’d played a great game- along with veteran defender Rex Allen -came to the fore in the dying stages.

 

Rod Reid had also proved damaging around the packs and chipped in with three majors. But when Beechworth again threatened in the last, through Ron Burridge, Jay pushed himself down back as a loose man, to curtail the dynamic Bomber.

 

As the siren blew to signal a 13-point Milawa victory, their supporters unleashed 29 years of pent-up emotion and carried their heroes to the rooms.

 

Besides the veterans of the side: Bill Comensoli (36), John Holloway (33) and Rex Allen (32), the premiership line-up boasted a few up-and-comers like 16 year-old Mervyn Holmes, Best & Fairest winner Ray Anderson, Eddie Kipping, Rob Tobias, Kerrie Taylor and the burly big-man, Michelini. It was a well-balanced side, bolstered by a number of hand-picked O & M recruits who had proved their mettle.

 

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Milawa remained there or thereabouts in the next two seasons. They were unable to contain rampaging King Valley spearhead Ray Hooper, who booted 11 of the ‘Roos 14 goals, to lead his side to a 34-point victory in the 1970 decider.

 

And Chiltern edged them out by six points in a see-sawing ‘71 Grand Final, which saw the emergence of precociously-talented youngsters Barrie Cook, Ross Gardner and Gary Allen.

 

Jay relinquished the coaching job after that – his seventh O & K Grand Final – but played on for a further two years, to finish with just on 150 games with the Demons.

 

He often reflects on that ‘69 flag. “I can still remember Ross Schutt, who was an emergency, and a much-loved figure around the club, being overcome with emotion in the rooms afterwards.”

 

Ross said: “I can’t celebrate………I’m too distraught……….”

 

P.S:  Jay won his first – and only – cricket Premiership, aged 40, when he kept wickets and played alongside his son Paul, with WDCA club Rovers in 1980-81 . Deciding to go out on top, he promptly hung up the gloves.

 

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This piece first appeared at KB Hill’s On Reflection blog.

 

For more from KB Hill, 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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