‘The Big-Man Who Made A Difference…’ by KB Hill

The talent-scouts were in a tizz when John Waldron arrived in town in that summer of 1951.

 

Burly of physique, and standing roughly 6’3”, the boy from Thornbury seemed a ready-made acquisition for the two Ovens and Murray clubs who were vying for his services.

 

Would he sign with the dual premiers, Wangaratta; chock-full of talent and rated the best outfit in country Victoria ?

 

And, accordingly, take the opportunity to play under the coaching of Mac Holten, the wizard from Collingwood, who had transformed a handy side into a ‘Machine’ which had perfected the newly- minted play-on game.

 

The alternative didn’t appear too exciting. Wangaratta Rovers had failed to register a win in their debut O & M season, and were a fledgling club in all respects. They were still battling to come to terms with the professionalism of major league football.

 

To the delight of the Hawks Waldron decided to throw in his lot with them.

 

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It was a major coup for the club. They were craving senior leaders – players who would lend expertise to a motley collection of youngsters…………..

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John Waldron had won the 1949 B & F and made his name with Thornbury’s CYMS football team. The club was notable for producing a host of VFL players, such as Billy Stephen (Fitzroy), Joe Kelly (Carlton), Frank Donnellan (Hawthorn), Charlie Cameron (North Melbourne), Bill Sneazwell (Collingwood), and Jim Cleary (South Melbourne).

 

It was a tough, uncompromising competition, and when the big fellah decided to accept a teaching appointment at Wangaratta High School, he was amply prepared for anything that O & M footy could throw at him.

 

His strong work in the ruck was one of the reasons given for the Rovers’ vastly improved performances, as they snared nine wins, to finish fifth. They had ticked off a number of milestones, zoomed up the ladder, and filled their supporters with hope.

 

The engaging personality of the ginger-haired Waldron won him a host of friends, and made him a key figure in driving the culture of the playing group. Such was the esteem in which he was held, he was appointed a Player’s Rep to the Committee after his first season at the Club.

 

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The Hawks hung around the middle reaches of the ladder in the succeeding three seasons, but there’s no doubt that Waldron’s finest year in Brown and Gold came in 1953.

 

He won selection for the Ovens and Murray’s representative clash with Bendigo League, which was the focal point of the town of Echuca’s centenary celebrations. The success of the match was to prove the catalyst for the introduction of the Country Championship Carnival the following year.

 

 

The two country football giants, turned on a classic. O & M, with a star-studded line-up, found themselves seven goals down mid-way through the third quarter ( 10.7 to 3.8 ). The O & M, rejuvenated by a couple of positional changes initiated by coach Mac Holten, stormed back into the contest.

 

They snatched the lead, but with four minutes remaining, Bendigo replied. In the dying seconds, a knock from Waldron found Rutherglen star and future Stawell Gift winner John Hayes, who thumped the ball forward. The elusive pill bobbled around in the pocket and Timmy Lowe’s snap-shot beat the siren by just seconds, to give the O & M victory by two points – 11.13 to 11.11.

 

Waldron took out the Hawks’ Best and Fairest in 1953, and also polled ten votes in the Morris Medal. He was now accepted as one of the League’s stars.

 

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He faced the unenviable task of squaring-off against a swarthy high-leaping ruckman, early in 1954, when the O & M met a touring East Perth combination at Albury. The youngster, touted as a player of ‘great promise’ gave Waldron – and a handful of other players who were thrown into the centre square – a decent hiding.

 

They called him ‘Pol’. And in the 15 or so years that followed, Graeme Farmer was to build a reputation as possibly the finest ruckman to have played the game.

 

Later that season, John Waldron was a prominent figure in the Ovens and Murray’s win in the first-ever Country Championships at Ballarat.

 

Having recorded an easy win over Goulburn Valley in their semi-final clash on the Saturday, the Yellow and Black lined up against Bendigo at Eastern Oval, two days later.

 

A boisterous crowd of 4,000 braved the cold and biting wind to watch the Final. The gusts were so strong that, at many boundary throw-ins, the ball would be carried out of bounds before reaching the waiting ruckmen.

 

They were impossible conditions for big men, and ruined the match as a spectacle. Bendigo were playing far better football and, had it not been for their shocking inaccuracy, they’d have had the game wrapped up by half-time.

At lemon-time they led 6.20 to 5.8, but soon after, Waldron fell heavily and was taken from the ground. There was a silver lining though, as elusive ‘Dolly’ Aked, who replaced him, had an immediate influence. He booted two quick goals and O & M sparked to life.

 

They hung on to win by eight points – 11.11 to 8.21…………..

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Waldron’s injury kept him out of action for several weeks, but he finished his final season at the Cricket Ground in fine style. He had played 66 games and kicked 50 goals in his four years. The announcement that he had accepted a school-teaching transfer to Mildura was accepted with regret by all in the Hawk camp.

 

He was quickly snapped up by Mildura, a power club of that era, who had appeared in the five preceding Grand Finals.

 

A premiership in 1955 was his reward, but the following season he was in the camp of arch rivals, Mildura Imperials, as captain-coach.

 

Imps had taken out just three flags in their 29-year involvement in the Sunraysia League, but with the big man at the helm they powered to successive titles.

 

Waldron was a ‘natural’ as coach, led by example and was tremendously popular with the players. But, rising 35, and wishing to focus on his profession, he handed over the reins at the end of the 1959 season, after four years in charge.

 

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Despite not expecting to be involved in football when he  transferred to Swan Hill, he was coaxed into taking on the job as  coach of the locals. Premierships followed in 1960 and ’61.

 

He played in both seasons, and was one of the stars of the 1960 Grand Final. After the return of ruckman Neville Martin from Geelong, he named himself on the bench for the ’61 decider. Keen to give valuable time and finals experience to the younger players, he sat out the entire game, as the ‘Swans’ won in a canter.

 

John and Eyrl then moved their growing family (kids Bruce, Ian, Jane and Alison) to St.Arnaud, where he was Principal of the local High School.

 

The final ten years of a dedicated career in Education were spent at Bell Park High, in Geelong, where he was Principal from 1975 -‘84.

 

Waldron maintained a keen interest in his old football clubs and was a regular returnee for re-unions. His last visit to Wangaratta was for the funeral of his great mate Bill O’Callaghan, with whom he played football and taught during the fifties.

 

.John Waldron passed away a fortnight ago, in Geelong, aged 94……

 

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More KB Hill stories can be found at his On Reflection website. Click here.

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