‘The Old Football Sage…’ by KB Hill

 

It’s 1958…….. Wangaratta Rovers have assembled a classy line-up, which is on the verge of premiership glory…….

 

Attention focuses on Bobby Rose, the champ wearing the Brown and Gold Number 1 guernsey, who has guided the Hawks from irrelevance to become an O & M power.

 

Undeniably, ‘Mr. Football’ is the ‘leader of the band’ ……….but who’s the venerable gentleman in the suit and tie, with whom he intently confers at the breaks………and who studiously follows play from the Rovers bench……

 

Someone says: “Oh, that’s Ben Ward, ‘Rosey’s’ right-hand man………”

 

***

 

We slide back through the pages of history – more than a century in fact – to trace the career of this old football sage who was born in Myrtleford and raised on a dairy farm at Meadow Creek, roughly 10km from Moyhu……..

 

When Ovens and King football resumed in 1919, after the Great War’s intervention, he was among the many untried kids who lined up with the Green and Golds. Strong, courageous, and a born leader, he became Moyhu’s nominal skipper the following season, aged 20.

 

Wangaratta and Eldorado were the dominant O & K teams of this early-20’s, but Moyhu were constantly nipping at their heels.

 

Wang’s elevation to Ovens and Murray ranks in 1922 saw them cast their recruiting net throughout the district. Ben Ward, who had starred against them, was among the first to be approached.

 

The boy from Meadow Creek could scarcely have envisaged that his arrival at the Showgrounds would be the precursor to ten Grand Final appearances in thirteen years.

 

In four of the five in which he was involved with Wangaratta, their opponents were Albury’s powerhouse combination, St. Patrick’s. An intense rivalry developed from the initial clashes between the two clubs, and reached epic – and probably unhealthy – proportions.

 

No wonder. The ‘Pies were decidedly unlucky in 1922. They held out their fast-finishing opponents by a goal in the Final. St. Patrick’s, as Minor Premiers, exercised their right to challenge, and the two teams tangled again the following week. This time the ‘Greens’ prevailed by four points – 6.9 to 5.13.

 

 

When brilliant Footscray small man Matt O’Donoghue took over the coaching reins in 1923, he was so impressed with the tactical nous and leadership qualities of the rising 23 year-old Ward that he installed him as his vice-captain.

 

St. Patrick’s’ narrow ascendancy continued when they got up by a goal in sloppy conditions at the Albury Showgrounds. For the return, Round 11 clash, minor league games were cancelled, to enable people to head in to Wangaratta.

 

And they came from everywhere. Three trains ran from Albury and Myrtleford, and a crowd of over 5,000 paid £183.10/- ( a North-East record) to witness another classic.

 

‘O’Donoghue, Ward, Martin Moloney and Jim ‘Coco’ Boyd were Wangaratta’s best, but St. Patrick’s sneaked home by 5 points in one of the finest games ever witnessed’, according to the match summary. In assessing the contest the Chronicle scribe drily commented that: ‘..This Wangaratta side is a good one. It should be good. It has cost a lot of money………’

 

After falling short in three straight Grand Finals, Wangaratta had become close to paranoid about bridging the gap to St. Pat’s who had now collected four flags on the trot.

 

But luck’s a fortune……..The Postal Department had scheduled the construction of new lines through the Wangaratta district, and many jobs were created….. And, if you happened to be a handy footballer, you were a fair chance to land a job on this project.

 

With several high-profile recruits and a new coach – former Collingwood champion ruckman Percy ‘Oily’ Rowe – hopes were high that the ‘Pies would land their first-ever O & M flag in 1925.

 

As the side resembled something of a ‘foreign legion’, it was crucial for the local players to maintain a presence. Rowe ensured that the popular, resilient Ward retained the deputy-leadership.

 

The ‘Pies drew the opening match of the season with Hume Weir (12.11 apiece), then embarked on an unbeaten run to the finals.

 

The hotly-fancied St. Patrick’s surprisingly imploded in successive finals, leaving Wangaratta and Hume Weir to fight out the ‘Big One’.

 

After the Weir had raced away to an early lead, Wangaratta had the game in their keeping at three quarter-time and cruised home to win 10.11 to 7.8.

 

 

Wangaratta’s unbeaten 1925 Premiers. Ben Ward is third from right, back row.

 

Wangaratta retained most of their premiership line-up in 1926 and continued the tussle with St. Patrick’s for league supremacy.

 

They finished the home and away games in second position but, just before the finals, eight members of the side lost their jobs due to the completion of work on the telephone lines.

 

A public meeting was held to attempt to keep them around but this setback seemed to have an unsettling effect on the players’ morale and led to what became known as ‘The Bust-Up’.

 

The Magpies reached the Grand Final easily enough and tangled with old foes St. Patrick’s, who had exercised their right of challenge as minor premiers, after dropping an earlier final.

 

Wangaratta were annihilated – 18.20 to a meagre 6.9…………….

 

***

 

Legend has it that certain players laid down……that money had allegedly changed hands in the Council Club Hotel during the week of the game…..that things blew up and a fight broke out on the train as the team returned from Corowa.

 

This claim was hotly refuted. Many people believed that the inability of the out-of-work players to train regularly with the team contributed to the dramatic capitulation.

 

Whatever the case, the Magpies’ magnificent era was over and the cream of this star-studded side headed off into the sunset.

 

Ben Ward, who had played such a significant role in keeping things together, returned to his spiritual home, taking over as coach in 1928.

 

He’d been just a nipper when Moyhu pulled off a hat-trick of flags two decades earlier, but fate decreed that Ben was to lead them through another Golden Era.

 

By 1929 they had assembled a crackerjack line-up, which included seven Johnstons ( Terry, Jim,’Spot’, ‘Pos’, ‘Skin’, Jack and Eric ), four O’Briens ( Bill, Jack, Maurice and Larry) and two Flanigans.

 

But their dominant season threatened to be railroaded in the Grand Final, despite establishing a 10.11 to 5.10 lead over Myrtleford at three-quarter time. Their opponents bounced back to draw level after booting four unanswered goals early in the last. Two rushed behinds in the frenetic dying moments enabled Moyhu to scramble home.

 

 

Moyhu’s 1929 Premiership Team. Coach Ben Ward is in the middle, front row.

 

The O & K Premiers challenged an almost full-strength O & M finalist, Wangaratta, the following week and clinched a great contest by five points. To complete the almost-perfect season, they also defeated Benalla to lay claim, with some justification, to be the North-East’s leading club.

 

After another fine season the absence of Eric and ‘Spot’ Johnston through suspension cast a cloud over Moyhu’s 1930 Finals prospects. Beechworth outpointed them in the Final but, as the Minor Premiers, Moyhu exercised the right of Challenge and turned the tables the following week.

 

Another flag came their way in 1933 when they resisted a strong Myrtleford side to win by 32 points.

 

“Moyhu repeatedly outpaced the Blues,” the Chronicle reported . “Their turn of speed was reminiscent of their style a couple of years back…. Both teams were well led……Jack Mahoney is younger and more spectacular than Ben Ward, but Ben does a lot of work that goes unnoticed……”

 

Then Moyhu put the icing on the cake in 1934 with their fourth title in six years. Myrtleford were again their victims in a thriller. Considerable friction had developed between the arch rivals in a lead-up match when spectators rushed onto the ground after an incident and adopted threatening attitudes.

 

“……This match was played at high tension and weight was freely used throughout,” was the summary. “The Moyhu team has been built up mostly of local boys, with the addition of school-teachers, and several players from Myrrhee and Greta.”

 

“Their win is another tribute to Ben Ward – the best captain in the competition…….”

 

***

 

The old warrior finally hung up the boots in 1936 when he damaged a knee. Two years later, though, he sustained much more severe injuries when he was helping to quell a fire outbreak near Greta.

 

As captain of the Moyhu Fire Brigade he was travelling in a truck which stalled whilst rushing water tanks and a pump to the fire. Badly burned, he continued to pump water on to the Truck, extinguished the flames, then rejoined his men at the main outbreak………

 

The coaching career of Ben Ward was over………in his opinion, anyway ……..until Moyhu came calling again on the eve of the 1947 season.

 

The incumbent, Mick Dalton, was reluctant to do the job, and expressed his concern to star player Jim Corker: “I don’t like to put pressure on Ben to take it on. Would you mind asking him, Jimmy ?”

 

So began the campaign to a most unlikely O & K flag.

 

At the conclusion of the home-and-away rounds Moyhu were in fifth position and out of the finals on percentage. But, in a sensational development, top team Myrtleford were stripped of several games for playing an unregistered youngster.

 

They were ruled out of the finals and Moyhu found themselves contesting the First Semi. Far too slick for King Valley, they won going away, by three goals.

 

The Preliminary Final against Greta was a dramatic affair and in the balance until the dying moments, when a free kick – and goal – to Cyril Corker, clinched Moyhu’s berth in the Grand Final against Milawa.

 

Wayward kicking prevented the Demons from stitching up the Flag. The form of the Gardner brothers, particularly Jock (who was best afield), gave them the ascendency but they were unable to shake off the persistent Moyhu, who had the better of the play at ground level.

 

 

 

In another terrific finish, Moyhu’s 14.9 gave them a five-point win over the errant Milawa (11.23). Ward lavished praise on his players: “We must be the smallest team to have won a premiership. But the boys were very determined…..”

 

***

 

Ben Ward maintained his enthusiasm for football – and racing – until his passing, aged 75. His nine kids produced several offspring who followed his footsteps into O & K ranks.

 

The most recent was his grandson, Hall of Famer Gerard Nolan, a veteran of 250 games, who figured in four Moyhu Premierships in the latter part of a 25-year career.

 

His 10-goal haul in one of them, spearheaded the Hoppers to the 2005 flag, 86 years after ‘Old Ben’ took the first, tentative steps on his football journey…………

 

This story first appeared on KB Hill’s website On Reflection and appears here with permission.

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

 

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Comments

  1. Just another outstanding piece of work.
    So interesting. So well written.

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Great regional football history!

  3. A bottomless wellspring of O&M stories, I always look forward to another KB Hill piece!

  4. Hayden Kelly says

    Thanks for another great read KB .

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