‘The milestone men of the O & M…’ by KB Hill

 

 

Image: en.wikipedia.org

 

Jack King’s marathon journey towards 300 Ovens and Murray games – and beyond – began in 1895 on a rough, tussock-laden paddock behind the family home…….When Wangaratta’s Daine Porter reached the target a fortnight ago it was on a floodlit oval in front of a large, adoring home crowd, which cheered his every possession……..

The ‘paddock’ on which King honed his footy skills was re-shaped to become Barkly Park, home of the famous Rutherglen Redlegs.

Of the seven King brothers who played their part in helping the ‘Glen become a behemoth at the turn of the century, Jack was the pick of them.

St.Kilda lured him to their Junction Oval for a brief eight-game stay in 1904. But he was content to ply his craft back home, chalking up 11 premierships in a 26-year career before hanging up his boots, aged 47, in 1926…………….

***

In fact, King is the only member of the O & M’s exclusive 24-Member ‘300-Club’ to have played League football……Would a few of the others have made it had they so desired ?………Maybe, but that’s purely hypothetical…..

Robbie Walker, for instance, simply reckons he wasn’t good enough. He was invited to play with North Melbourne’s Thirds and Reserves but homesickness got to him……..307 games later, with four Premierships, 12 Wangaratta Rovers Best & Fairests and 5 Morris Medals behind him, he retired as a Legend of the local game.

It’s said that Essendon made overtures at one stage, and Footscray offered to draft him, with the promise of senior games, but he resisted.

After winning his fifth Medal in 2003, a debilitating back injury cut him down whilst there was still plenty of footy left in the Walker legs.

At various stages in his career, Walker played alongside six other 300-gamers in the Hawk line-up – including the unflappable Mervyn Holmes.

Holmes, a Carboor farmer, was the epitome of the tough-as-teak country footballer. He also provided ample leadership. When Robbie Walker was making his way in the game, it was ‘Farmer’ who was his coach and inspiration.

Michael Wilson took over Holmes’s prized Number 16 locker and did it proud. For 17 years and 316 senior games, Wilson ran harder, and tackled and harassed more ferociously than anyone. He was acclaimed as the model clubman at the W.J.Findlay Oval and wore the Black and Gold O & M jumper on 23 occasions.

Wayne Pendergast was one of the opponents who often crossed paths with Merv Holmes. He had the unique distinction of playing in premierships with three clubs – Wodonga (1981), North Albury (1984) and Lavington (1986) in his 312 games.

When his son Matthew started coming through the ranks at Lavington, the good judges salivated. Matt was more skilful than his dad, ultra-competitive, and almost as tough. A regular inter-league rep and five-time Lavi B & F, he made 262 appearances with the Panthers and a further 38 with Wodonga Raiders.

Kerry Bahr had the distinction of playing with both of the Pendergasts. He was recruited to Lavington from Walla Walla in 1987 and played in a losing Grand Final against Wang Rovers the following year. A skilful left-footer and renowned on-baller, he morphed into a dogged tagger and played a key role in two Panthers flags in the early-2000s.

Mark Booth arrived on the scene just as the Rovers embarked on their Golden Era of the ‘70s. They didn’t come much tougher – or more durable – than the 13-time O & M rep whose first flag came in 1974…..and his fifth 17 years later.

He would have added another in 1988, only for a moment of madness in the final home-and-home game, which saw him rubbed out for the finals…

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Talking of ‘hard-men’, there were few who played with the spirit and endeavour of Johnny Smith who hailed from the hill-country up near Mitta. Smith first stripped with Rutherglen under the coaching of his brother-in-law, Frank Hodgkin before moving on to North Albury, Wodonga and Myrtleford.

His sole flag came in 1980,when he played a starring role in a North victory which prevented the Rovers’ bid to win four in a row.

Smith won four B & Fs, represented the O & M 33 times and clinched a Morris Medal in 1973.

He was poised to play in a flag that year, but the Hoppers were upstaged by Benalla and Smith’s legacy from the game was a six-week suspension.

It cost him another Medal as he also topped the count in 1974, but was ruled ineligible……It was the major disappointment of his 315-game O & M career………

Johnny Hunt’s game was based around gut-running and speed……He patrolled the wing at the Lavington Oval for nigh on two decades, played in two flags for the Panthers, won a Did Simpson Medal and a B & F in a premiership year………So he was no slouch…..Year after year, when Hunt’s demise was predicted, he kept producing, playing a league-record 420 games.

John ‘Shorty’ Martiniello became an institution at the Benalla Showgrounds, after making his senior debut in 1977. The tiny rover’s first – and only – opportunity to play in a premiership came the following season when the highly-fancied Demons were belted by Wang Rovers in the Grand Final.

‘Shorty’ was forever burrowing feverishly around the bottom of the packs and won six Club B & Fs. He finished runner-up once and third twice in the Morris Medal, and represented the O & M on eight occasions during his 316-game stint in the Red and White guernsey.

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Sixteen year-old Anthony Pasquali walked into a sports store owned by two Wang Rovers stars in 1983, and asked how he could go about joining the club. They could scarcely believe their luck. ‘Pas’ was to become a champion, sharing in three flags, and representing the League 12 times.

He finally cracked it for a Club B & F when coaching GV club Benalla (he also won the Morrison Medal), then returned to lead the Hawks for three years.

Nic Conway’s was a different story. He grew up as a mad Wodonga fan (where his dad had been a star) but played his junior footy with Wodonga Demons. When the Raiders (who originated from the Demons) finally gained acceptance to the League in 1989, young Nic went with them.

He rode all of the highs and lows of the fledgling club but his loyalty was vindicated when he helped them to a flag in 1998.

Like Conway, Matthew Allen’s dad also made his name with a rival club. Rex played in Wangaratta’s 1957 premiership but the young fellah was enticed ‘over the road’ to the Findlay Oval, in 1983.

A strong-marking defender, with an ungainly but effective left-foot kicking style, Matthew Allen played the last of his 416 O & M games in 2010, amidst universal acknowledgement of his consistency and effectiveness. He even showed his adaptability by booting 83 goals in 1992 in a rare foray up forward.

Interspersed with his time at the Rovers was a three-year spell with Corowa-Rutherglen and a season in the Bendigo League, with Northern United.

Ross Hill’s boyhood dreams were realised when he lined up alongside his heroes in 1995. Unfortunately for him, the Rovers era of prolonged success was drawing to a close but he became a stalwart and long-term skipper during an 18-year career with the Hawks.

Denis Sandral had a hard act to follow, treading in the footsteps of his famous triple-Morris Medal-winning father, Jim.

But he made more than a decent fist of it and is recognised as one of the competition’s finest-ever defenders.

Denis showed early promise when he played in Wangaratta’s 1977 Grand Final side whilst attending Champagnat College. He then returned home to become the cornerstone of Corowa-Rutherglen sides for almost two decades.

Like his father, he was a five-time B & F winner, and represented the O & M 21 times.

Playing alongside Sandral for a good portion of his career was Paul Bartlett, a talented, pacy all-rounder. Proof of ‘Barty’s’ consistency was his ten consecutive top-three finishes in the Club B & F. He broke through for a win in 1989.

Persistence was also a Bartlett trait. He tried out with five AFL clubs before coming to the conclusion that it just wasn’t to be.

Undoubtedly his career highlight was playing in the Roos’ record-breaking premiership victory over North Albury in 2000.

Brendan Eyers also ticked that box. The giant ruckman toiled manfully in the ruck – sometimes against the odds – after making his senior debut for Corowa-Rutherglen in 1989.

The arrival of Peter Tossol as coach introduced a degree of professionalism which hadn’t been seen at John Foord Oval and, in turn, led to the Roos two memorable flags – 2000 and 2003. Eyers was a crucial component of those line-ups.

***

Matthew Fowler was recruited to Albury from Hume League club Walbundrie at the age of 16, just in time to slot into one of the Tigers’ finest eras. A bulky forward with a booming right foot, he played his part in a hat-trick of flags in 1995-97, and was there when they repeated the effort in 2009-11.

With six premierships, 812 goals, captain of the Tigers for a decade, and 354 games to his credit, he earned a ranking as one of the O & M’s finest forwards.

There was always conjecture among the good judges as to where Daniel Leslie was best suited. He could hold down centre half-forward or CHB with ease, and had all the attributes – power, pace for a big man, and a prodigious kick……..

He played an important part in North Albury’s 2002 premiership after having debuted on a wing two years earlier.

Leslie became a key man for the Hoppers for a decade and a half, captained the side for eight years, and booted 354 goals in his 300 games.

Xavier Leslie, likewise, is held in the highest esteem by all at Yarrawonga. The classy small man played his first game for the Pigeons, aged 16, in 2002. He featured in Yarra’s 2006, 2012 and 2013 premiership teams.

He also achieved the personal highlight of his glittering career in 2013 when he took out the Morris Medal by four votes.

Smooth-moving Darrell Spencer came across the border in 1987 from his home town of Rutherglen to try his luck with the Roos.

He never left…..A magnificent kick who rarely missed a target, Spencer was appointed captain in 1998, just as Corowa-Rutherglen were entering a new era. Two years later he held the premiership cup aloft……in 2003 they saluted again.

Spencer finally retired with 333 games to his credit……equalling the club record of champion Denis Sandral.

Last week-end, he and Sandral handed the record over to Kade Kuschert, a hard-working, strong-marking defender, who has been part of the furniture since he arrived at Corowa-Rutherglen from Buraja in 1999.

His team-mates strove valiantly to clinch a win against power team Albury, to honour the contribution of their 38-year-old team-mate.

Much to their dismay, the Roos fell short by two points…….

 

Editor’s note: To see pen pictures and the key stats of these players in the original article click here.

 

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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Comments

  1. Quite an achievement on your part, KB, to feature all of these warriors. No wonder you have such a reserve of identities to write about. And this is just the footy!

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