‘The man behind the story of the Saints’ 1970 glory……’ by KB Hill

KB Hill is Wangaratta’s leading sports historian. His stories highlight prominent sports personalities and events from north-east Victoria. Today he features David Johnston’s recently released publication 1970 The Year of the Saints about Myrtleford’s O & M League Premiership victory in 1970.


The idea dawned upon him in a light-bulb moment……


He’d always been keen to write a book on footy; convinced that it was just a matter of waiting for the right subject to bob up…….Then he twigged……Heck, it’s coming up 50 years since Myrtleford won their only O & M flag…..It seemed an ideal scenario to sink his teeth into……

So David Johnston got to work ….



‘Jonno’ has spent more than a year crafting ‘1970 – The Year Of The Saints’. 




What began originally, as a straight-out football book, morphed into a social history of the buoyant small town of that era, whose entire population got behind the footballers and rejoiced in a long-awaited Premiership.


“I’ve been around to witness the heartbreak that Myrtleford have endured since, in losing those three Grand Finals in the early 2000s. I appreciate how hard it is for smaller clubs to compete against clubs from the bigger areas,” he says.


“After they lost the last one, in 2006, you sensed that their window of opportunity had passed them by. The downturn came when they lost 62 successive games between 2007-10.”


“But their comeback last year was exhilarating . Several sons of former players were among the team’s stars. The core of the side was – and still is – basically local. They won only the second Third 18 flag in the club’s history.”


“Everything seemed to be jelling nicely. ”


What an ideal time to tell a fairytale story………




You won’t find many more isolated places than Swift’s Creek, ‘Jonno’s’ home town.


It’s situated on the Great Alpine Road in East Gippsland – roughly 380km from Melbourne…..A timber town of 350. His dad ran a Beef and Sheep farm near Omeo before recently retiring.


His brother Ron is now on the family property and has just came through a bad bushfire season. People were air-lifted off the Omeo football ground in ADF helicopters on one of its most severe days.


“ When I was growing up there was no commercial TV or radio. We’d only get the ABC……And if a storm went through the hills, the power would be off for two days.”


“We’d often travel to our aunty’s place at Bruthen (about an hour away) to watch World of Sport on Sundays. That was one of the highlights of our week-end. But I wouldn’t trade all of that for quids,” he says.


He fell in love with footy as a young fan of the Swift’s Creek Demons, who were always among the top teams in the Omeo & District Football League. The ODFL once comprised four teams and later expanded to six when Bruthen and Buchan were admitted in the mid-70’s. In more recent times Lindenow South and Swan Reach came in.


The comp’s been going, in one shape or form, since 1893, and Dave embraced its ranks when he began playing in the Under 16s.


Then he moved on to the Bairnsdale Under 18s (he was attending local Nagle College) and achieved what he deems the highlight of his modest footy career – as a member of the 1986 Thirds’ premiership side.


“The year before (‘85) we weren’t much good, but a few talented kids (like Jon Ballantyne, who later played with Footscray and Collingwood) came on board in ‘86. I was very lucky to get a game.”

But the boys were entitled to celebrate their flag. They’d sometimes be up at 5am on match-day to travel to the furthest destination – Leongatha or Warragul.

When Dave headed off for a year of University, he fulfilled an ambition by travelling back to play with the Swift’s Creek seniors, coached by the town’s publican, ex-North Melbourne player, Michael Gaudion.


His first job in Journalism came when he scored a Cadetship with the Bairnsdale Advertiser


Next stop was a job with the Gippsland Times, at Sale. He covered sport, and was mentored by two champion fellahs (and outstanding sportsmen in their own right) in Kevin Hogan and Blair Campbell.


“Once they realised you were interested they took you under their wing,” he says. “Sport was always the thing I wanted to gravitate to. I was in my element. I combined that with being Publicity Officer for the Latrobe Valley Football League.”


After moving on to spend three years covering sport at the Ballarat Courier, a further opportunity presented itself at The Border Mail. He’d only recently married Liz, in January 1995, and his initial opportunity came as the paper’s Racing Editor, covering every meeting throughout the North-East and Southern Riverina, from Benalla to Berrigan


Then, when Simon Dulhunty stepped aside at the end of the 1996 footy season, he was thrust into the role of chief football writer.


The Border’s coverage of the O & M was ‘must’ reading. Win a game on Saturday and eager fans would hardly be able to wait for Monday’s edition to hit the shops, to pore over the full details of the round. Double-page spreads…. spectacular photos….regular features.

Added to that, the League was flying in rep footy; there were ample personalities and no scarcity of controversies.


“I had a bit of luck, being new to the job, and with the O & M so successful in rep footy. I used to go to training… go away to cover all the rep games….That helped me get to know people…..You developed contacts with every club.”


“Nowadays, the Internet has changed everything. I love print but understand there are more and more eyeballs making the transition to digital. You’ve just got to go with it………”


Not that it was all beer and skittles during ‘Jonno’s’ 11-year reign as chief football writer.


“I copped plenty of ‘serves’ in my time,” he says. “Some coaches, like Tim Sanson, Richard Bence and Paul Spargo weren’t easy to get along with. But you’re not doing your job if you don’t cop the occasional ‘roast ‘.


“I thought I was in real trouble one night, at the end of a Morris Medal count at the SS & A Club, when I came face-to-face with a coach whom I hadn’t had the best rapport with all year.”


“I owe a North Albury official at the time a large debt of gratitude for defusing a potentially tricky situation.”


“Of course, Albury people were always happy to let you know whenever you’d made a ‘blue’, or if they won when you hadn’t tipped them in the paper that day. Nothing has changed…….”


“It’s interesting to look back, though…in that period, between 1997 and 2008, every team played in a Grand Final……..”


“I loved my time covering sport. I’ve been lucky enough to cover an Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, and major race meetings in Melbourne, like the Melbourne Cup and Cox Plate”.

In the eleven or so years since, Dave has moved into General Journalism, with a particular focus on politics. But he’s retained an avid interest in the League, either through broadcasting stints with OAK-FM, doing match reports, and as a foundation member of the O & M League’s Hall of Fame selection panel.



With the seeds of his first book planted firmly in his head, he roughly outlined its structure.


Only four of the 20 players from Myrtleford’s 1970 premiership – Kevin Smith, Pat Quirk, Terry Burgess Snr and Bob Crisp – had passed on.


His first interview was with the coach, Martin Cross.


“We yakked for two hours and didn’t even get around to the Grand Final,” he recalls.


He spoke to fellahs like Johnny Bianco, a local boy who ended up playing just six senior games with the Saints before teaching took him around the state. He’s always remembered, though, for the part he played in the premiership…


And there was Graeme Ward, whose career as a stock agent with Elders-GM had seen him strip with Albury, Corowa and Golden Square. He represented both the Bendigo and O & M Leagues in a brilliant career, before spending the best eight years of his footy life with Myrtleford……..


Once he started interviewing the surviving players Dave found all of them had an absorbing tale to tell. They were in good shape, as were other sources, Jimmy Mattassoni, who was Treasurer…..and club stalwart Ken ‘Kanga’ Johnston (the Secretary)……


“ Tobacco was big at that time. Myrtleford was booming…… There were Hospital extensions….houses being built everywhere…Lake Buffalo had just been constructed.”


“The Crisp boys, and Derek Taylor were drawn to the area. Those guys moved to Myrtleford in the ‘60’s, formed a building business, and never left. They became an vital part of the Football Club…..and the town.


Dave devoted two chapters to VFL-zoning, which was in vogue. He caught up with revered North Melbourne administrator – and recruiting ‘guru’ – Ron Joseph, who was a central figure in a stream of O & M players heading to the ‘Roos’ during this era.


The most prominent was Sam Kekovich, who was mythically swept off the training track at McNamara Reserve mid-way through 1968 and took out North’s B & F the following season.


Joseph also nominated the O & M players he missed out on – Stan Sargeant (“could have kicked a VFL ‘ton”), George Tobias, Neville Hogan and John Smith – as certainties to have played League football.


Myrtleford’s pre-flag history, since their admission to the O & M (1950–1969), was also touched upon.


“The Saints had some excellent sides, and could have won a couple of premierships during the sixties. Then again, luck definitely played its part in the flag they did win……..”


“For instance, Wodonga champ Brian Gilchrist breaks a leg in the second last game of the 1970 season, to slightly expose the Bulldogs…..After 27 successive wins, the Rovers pip them in the Second-Semi Final.”


“Then Wodonga charge back after surrendering a fair deficit to Myrtleford in the Prelim….. Gary Williamson has a late shot which could recapture the lead in the dying seconds. The Saints hang on…..And the climax !…The Rovers take a handy 19-point lead into the last quarter of the Grand Final……Yet again, Myrtleford prevail…….”



“The pipe-dream was that Myrtleford could go on and repeat the feats of 1970 this season,” says ‘Jonno’. “But footy fairytales don’t come around too often, do they ?……..”


N.B: This week, his labour of love: ‘1970 – The Year Of The Saints’, becomes available to the public.


It hits the shelves of the following Booksellers: Edgar’s Newsagents, Wangaratta; Mahoney’s Newsagency, Wodonga, News Xpress, Myrtleford, and Dymock’s Albury. Orders can be placed at email: davidandliz5 @bigpond.com.au Cost: $30.


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.


To read more of KB Hill’s great stories on the Almanac, click HERE.


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  1. Paul Daffey says

    Thanks KB. I didn’t know about Johnno’s early travels in journalism. Solid grounding!

    The two blokes at Sale would be worth a long feature. They’ve had a huge influence on a lot of people.

    I’m looking forward to reading Johnno’s book. Great topic. Sounds like he’s given it the full treatment.

    I look forward to it!

  2. Paul Daffey says

    PS. The first photo was taken at Swifts Creek by Ian Kenins in 2002. Swifts Creek normally wear the Demons jumpers, but on this occasion, they were wearing the old blue and gold Ensay jumpers to recognise a reiunion of former Ensay players. Ensay folded in 1994 and the club was subsumed into the Swifts Creek club.

    The team in the old Swans guernseys (with the V!) is Benambra. They’ve since merged with Oneo to form Omeo-Benambra.

    Great part of the world. Some of my most memorable footy experiences have been at Swifts Creek.

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