‘The coach who lived close to the edge…’ by KB Hill

Caught up with my first senior footy coach a couple of weeks back……….He’s 83, still chirpy and self-assured ……..And when he walks into a room it lights up, just as it did some 55 years ago……..


He made the trip up from the Big Smoke for one of the occasional lunches he has with a few Wangaratta Rovers players of his vintage. Someone thanked him for making the effort……”No trouble,” he replied. “I really value what we achieved together and the lifelong friendships we made …..”


He was labelled a football villain in his day……..But to us he was a fearless leader….. charismatic personality……. shrewd strategist…….idolised by his own players and supporters…….




It’s a long way from Ken Boyd’s present abode – an elegant two-storey residence in leafy Kew – to the tiny, single-fronted two-bedroom weatherboard home in which he was raised at 25 Napier Street, South Melbourne.


He lived there with his parents, three sisters and grandfather, and says you could hardly swing a cat in the place, which had a frontage of about 20-foot.


“Fair dinkum, mate, “ he says. “ I come from the School of Hard Knocks.”


“I slept on the verandah, with a flapping canvas blind, a single bed and nothing else until I got married at 22.”


“There was no such luxury as hot water in our place, so my job as an 11-12 year-old was to push a pram around to the local factories and collect wood for the fire…..”


“We’d raid the AJC trucks which bought fruit from the Goulburn Valley…..Climb on the back and fill the front of our jumpers with fruit, on its way to the Jam Factory….We could run faster than the trucks with their solid rubber tyres.”


On week-ends he’d catch a train to Clarkefield (out near Kalkallo) for the princely sum of four and fourpence return, to go ferreting and chasing rabbits, then flog them off to the neighbours for two bob a pair.


But he reckons some of the best skills he learned – which stood him in good stead in a highly-successful career as a salesman – came from his time as a paperboy.


He was posted to a back street at the rear entrance of the Army Barracks, up in St. Kilda Road.


“It was a bit too quiet there……so I decided to go inside the building and, being a cheeky young bugger, the guys all took a liking to me, were giving me tips, and my sales went through the roof. I kept going back and asking for more newspapers…..Trouble was, the bloke I was selling for went crook, and said: ‘I thought I told you to stay in Wells Street, and not to go inside.’ “


“My response was: ‘Stick your job . I’ll go and sell papers for old ‘Rabbit’ White in the city…………”


Ken left school at 14 and would ride his pushbike the 9km or so from South Melbourne to Hawthorn to his first job as a sheet metal worker at Gardner and Naylor’s.


When he turned 15 he became a plumber.


“I worked for a local firm in South Melbourne; they were heating engineers and we were doing a lot of labouring work, installing pipe-work in Boilers……..I didn’t get any real experience as a plumber….”


“I considered transferring to a domestic plumber for experience, but found myself down at the wharves as a Painter and Docker for six weeks.”


“Anyway, I returned to the firm to finish my apprenticeship; passed all the theory exams and got presented with this beautiful parchment certificate telling me that: ‘Kenneth John Boyd is now a qualified Sanitary Plumber, and qualified to work on all Melbourne metropolitan sewerage’. “


“I thought: ‘What a load of bullshit….I didn’t even get to see a sewerage pipe, yet here I was, qualified.’….I had to get out……. I gave sanitary plumbing 12 months and went into selling…….and never looked back……”




He arrived upon football quite by accident in 1955.


“Actually, Myxo had wiped out the rabbits, so that put a stop to my ferreting trips of a week-end……I’d got to know all the Painters and Dockers very well, and they asked me down to their club, the Southern Stars, to run the boundary.”


“Then they suggested I have a game. I hadn’t had a kick since school, but enjoyed it immensely, and took to it quite well…..”


I suggest to him that, from all reports, the footy in the Sunday League was nice and tough.


“Yeah, brilliant…..Right up my alley.”


Reports of the young fellah’s progress filtered through to South Melbourne. Their Thirds coach Alan Miller invited him down to have a run with the Swans.


Ken fitted in playing with South Thirds on Saturdays and with Southern Stars on Sundays. Both teams were runners-up in 1955 and won flags in ’56.


“I owe a lot to Alan Miller,” he says. “He was an extremely good coach….. became my mentor……also my accountant…..We became very close.”


Six rounds into the 1957 season, the 19-year-old Boyd was selected for his VFL debut, against Melbourne, at the MCG.


“Big Terry Gleeson gave me a nice welcome – a smack in the mouth before the game had even started…..They got stuck into me a bit and I lost my bearings. I wouldn’t say I was concussed, but with my first possession in League footy I kicked the wrong way.“





“I wasn’t a good kick at the best of times, but this one connected. It brought a roar from the crowd, that’s for sure.”


I suggest that, after that abrupt introduction, he was able to fend for himself quite capably.


“Look, I was pretty rugged. At 6’2” I never regarded myself as a top ruckman, but I was always hard to beat…..made it difficult for opponents by being determined……and certainly didn’t shirk things at all……”


“South was a very happy Club…..had very good camaraderie……We had good big men like Don Keyter, Jim Taylor, Ian Gillett…..and Skilton and McGowan were probably the best roving combination going around.”


“In hindsight, though, the Club needed to be more professional. They changed coaches too often and skills teaching was non-existent. Probably because we were all working 44 hours a week, the coaches didn’t have time to teach you as much as they could’ve…….”




Ken’s first job in selling was in the promotion of Urinal Air Deodorisers. But he says that one of the best lessons he learned came from the experience of one his mates.


“Wally was a very good plumber and did a job for a client who was a Professor at the University. The Plumbing Inspector said it was the best work he’d seen on a block of flats. Unfortunately the Professor didn’t pay him for months and that was the end of Wally working for himself.”


“ I said: ‘Shit, that’s a very good lesson….Whatever I do, from here-on-in I’m going to get my money upfront….So you know what I did ?….I became a Real Estate agent.”


“I met John Fields through South footy club; an extrovert, but a very good salesman, and I became his protégé…..I used to specialise in War Service Home Loans on very low deposits; even piggybacking clients through unmade roads with up to a foot of mud, showing them houses. In fact, I sold every house in Staples Court, opposite Fawkner Cemetery……..”


“I worked from daylight to dusk, and became a fully qualified Agent…….”




His first major setback in League football came in his ninth game when he was suspended for eight weeks following two separate incidents involving Collingwood’s Mike Delanty.


Two years later, aged 21, he was regarded as one of the Swans’ most important players. He also deemed it his obligation to protect his smaller team-mates, including roving guns Skilton and McGowan. His loss for four weeks, after striking Essendon star Hughie Mitchell, was sorely felt.





But South were rarely able to climb above the lower ranks of the ladder. After a fine year, individually, in 1960, the Boyd career struck rocky terrain the following season.


He copped six weeks in suspensions – three for each incident – for striking both Carlton’s John Heathcote and John Nicholls in a match at South’s Lakeside Oval.


It was hard to believe that the return encounter would bring down the curtain on the burgeoning 60-game VFL career of the 23 year-old. It all came about when his blood boiled over after another altercation with Nicholls, the Blues’ champion……




“One of the characteristics I have is that I have great trouble telling lies,” Ken says.” I’m fundamentally a very honest person. It’s the reason I’ve been successful in business.”


“The umpires saw nothing…..Nobody saw what happened with Nicholls…..It was just that a couple of journos fronted up and asked me about it and I said: ‘Yes, of course I hit him’, and I showed them the stop marks down my groin.”




“I said: ‘Mate, if I could’ve pulled a picket off the fence I’d still be hittin’ the bastard.’ They said: ‘We can’t print that.’ “


“The only reason I got rubbed out for hitting John Nicholls was because I gave an honest answer to a question…….When I fronted the Tribunal they asked if I was provoked…….I said ‘Yes, blah, blah, blah’…….Well, what option did they have ?……..They gave me 12 weeks…..”


Ken decided, there and then, to get out of League football. He was, thereafter, inundated with offers, from 52 clubs around the nation…..


“I sat down with my old Thirds coach Alan Miller, and we decided I should take on the biggest challenge of all – succeeding Bob Rose at the Wangaratta Rovers.”


“I liked that they had a humble background, very similar to my own (they’d come from the Ovens & King League), and they reportedly had a good work ethic.”


“I was realistic enough to know that I was no Bob Rose. My attitude was that he was exemplary at a lot of things, but there were things I could do that he couldn’t…….I knew I was a good communicator and I had a background of being a bit of a leader.”


“I felt I had the right personality, and was a pretty confident person.”


But the Rovers struck an immediate obstacle when the O & M refused an application for their new coach to undertake his match-day duties from over the fence whilst serving the remainder of his suspension.


Rose was recalled as captain-coach for another season. Boyd played under Rose when his suspension finished and assumed the coaching role in 1963……..




The Rovers soon realised that they had struck the jackpot with their new leader. He took over a young side and moulded it into a powerful combination.



Players joked that he’d take half-an-hour to walk from one end of Murphy Street to the other, such was his personality – and propensity to talk to anybody and everybody.


The Hawks began Clubrooms extensions soon after he arrived……He insisted that the players attend the regular working-bees to assist in the construction.





“It was all about establishing a work ethic among the players,” Ken recalls. “We had a target to be the first country club to travel overseas on a trip away. I said: ‘Look, we can go to New Zealand, but we don’t want to be asking people for money. We’ll work and earn it, and I’ll be the first there…… So we carted hay and cut firewood…..and achieved it. That came through the players’ camaraderie and ability to pull their weight.”


Fifteen rounds into the 1964 season, the unbeaten Rovers were white-hot favourites for the flag. Then followed an inexplicable slump, during which they lost four games on the trot, including a painful Second Semi-Final loss to Wangaratta.


Four goals down early in the Prelim against Myrtleford, and facing oblivion, they miraculously turned it around……The following week, a pulsating win over the Magpies secured the Club’s third flag, with the coach playing a crucial role in the victory.





The following year the Hawks made it two in a row, clinching a dramatic three-point win over their arch rivals……….




Mid-way through 1966, the aching body of the Rovers coach had almost given way.


“I’d had manipulation under anaesthetic for my crook back……I was wearing a brace…. It’d take until the following Thursday to start hobbling around again……And with my style of play there was always somebody wanting to test you out,” he says.


Controversy had been his constant companion throughout his coaching reign but a Supreme Court case in 1966 again brought him to the eyes of the wider football world.


Ken sued the Herald & Weekly Times for libel, over an incident they’d reported on two years earlier.


‘KEN BOYD IS NAMED ’ was the screaming headline on the back page of the Melbourne Herald. It pertained to a collision between Boyd and Corowa captain-coach Frank Tuck during the 1964 season. It stated that ‘Tuck was struck by Boyd behind play’.





“In fact, Frank was diving parallel to the ground when I had the ball. The umpie, Lance Perkins, didn’t pay a free kick, and was a witness at the trial,” Ken says.


I remind him that, during the case (in my debut game) he quipped in his pre-match speech: “We’re the most famous football club in Australia.”


“Well, you’re right,” he replied. “It did hit the headlines.”


“The trial ran for 12 days, and was a huge risk to be taking, I can tell you…..Very expensive……But I had some pretty smart people working for me…”





“At the same time, Ronald Ryan and Peter Walker had killed George Hodson, the Pentridge warder, and were on the loose. Then Walker shot a tow-truck driver in the back of the head in Middle Park………People were shitting themselves left, right and centre….Well, they put Ryan and Walker on the third page, and my case was the ‘Lead Story’ on the front page. “


Against all perceived legal opinion – including those representing him – Ken was awarded considerable damages and was congratulated by the judge for his honesty.


His 82nd, and final, game with the Rovers – the 1966 Preliminary Final against Wangaratta – was a torrid affair. The game was slipping from the Hawks’ grasp when all hell broke loose in the third quarter. He found himself in the umpire’s book on four separate charges.





Again, the national press took immense interest in the Tribunal case which was held the following Wednesday evening in the Rutherglen Clubrooms – before a standing-room only audience.


“I didn’t go…..I sent a Stat Dec letter…..I’d already announced my retirement…..I just said :‘Do whatever you like’…..”


Ken departed Ovens and Murray football with an eight-weeks suspension…..




He returned to Melbourne amidst media speculation that he may succeed the retiring Bob Skilton as coach of South Melbourne.


Instead, his old mentor Alan Miller took over and Ken was on hand to help out, serving on the Selection Committee for some time.


But his attention was now focused on his business career, and in this regard he became spectacularly successful.


He originally became involved in Life Insurance in Wangaratta, firstly with Yorkshire, then with National Mutual. When he moved back to the city, National Mutual recruited him to management with a team of 23-24 salesmen under him.


“I did that for about 12 years, and tried to get them to focus on the more lucrative areas, such as Superannuation, Shareholder Protection and Business Insurance.”


“I decided, eventually, to branch out into the field myself, and finished up as the number 1 Salesman in the world, out of the company’s 3,000 agents, before I retired at 52.”




He was playing tennis with a good friend – and fellow member of the famous ‘Yabbie Club’, David Trevethan, whilst holidaying in Coff’s Harbour when he spotted a beautiful beachside penthouse overlooking the Solitary Islands.


He decided to buy it: “Best view in Australia”, he says.


That’s where he decided to settle, in his first crack at retiring.


In the meantime, he had financed 2 containers ($600,000 worth) of prawns which went missing on the Port of Piraeus, in Greece.


“It was an inside job on the ship; the wharfies were all in on it. However, the Insurance company refused to pay out on the theft.”


“But luckily enough, I have the knack of creating opportunities from adversity…..David Trevethan was looking to start a manufacturing business in Greece and said: ‘Have you got any money left? I need a bit of capital to do it’…..I gave him a cheque for $200,000 and we formed a company, Southside Special Projects.”


“I got my $600,000 back, with the help of the Share Market, within three years, and gained a friend for life…….We’ve raced a lot of horses and had a lot of fun.”


“We won a Benalla Cup with General Booth in 2004, the Ballarat Cup with Command n’ Conquer in course record time in 2005…..This year we won the Stawell and Colac Cups with Hard n’ Tuff……So we’ve had a pretty good run…..”


“My philosophy’s always been: “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room!”


Ken heads to Tasmania 6-8 times a year to fish for trout, and does a lot of pheasant, quail and deer shooting – always in the company of his great mate – his dog Rosie.


But life hasn’t been all beer and skittles.


He broke his neck in a tumble off a quad bike whilst chasing deer, and triumphed over a bout of metastatic prostate cancer about 15 years ago.


He nursed his wife Jan for five years or so until she lost her battle with ovarian cancer.


Ken has had to learn to cook, wash and iron, and says he’s got his place looking like the Botanical Gardens.


“I couldn’t even start a washing-machine five years ago……Now I can pull the bloody thing to pieces….” says one of life’s true characters.





This story appeared first on KB Hill’s website On Reflection and is used here with permission. All photos sourced from KB Hill’s resources unless otherwise acknowledged.


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  1. Ken Boyd, that makes an old South supporter misty-eyed, legend …..

  2. This is one of KB’s best-ever!
    Captivating story.
    He should have coached South after Bob Skilton!

  3. Ross Treverton says

    Another top piece KB. As a 4th generation Swans supporter, l heard lots of stories about the infamous Ken Boyd. Must have a been a great man to have on your side!

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