‘Tommy (the terrible Turk) takes Tigers to the top…..’ by KB Hill

 

The fortunes of Ovens and Murray football have ebbed and flowed in its 127-year existence. The only impediments to its continuity have been two World Wars and, dare I say it, the Pandemic which has rudely interrupted this season.

 

It’s significant, though, that after the previous interludes, the League quickly dusted itself off and gathered momentum. ‘Transmission’ will hopefully resume as normal, when the dreaded Covid-19 dissipates.

 

…….Just as it did in 1946…..After a five-year break, a seven-team competition battled its way through 12 rounds, culminating in an epic Grand Final. Wangaratta’s nail-biting 5-point win over Albury had O & M fans salivating for more…………..

 

***

 

Season 1947 saw the debut of a new club, North Albury, and the arrival of some big names. The most celebrated of these was Bob Chitty, the gladiatorial, swashbuckling Carlton hardman, who had played a key role in the Blues’ win over South Melbourne in the notorious 1945 ‘Bloodbath’ Grand Final.

 

Chitty was lured to Benalla as captain-coach. Favourite son, ruckman Jack Eames, returned to lead Wodonga after a season at Richmond, whilst Albury, hunting for a replacement for the legendary Doug Strang, opted for a tireless, talkative 36-year-old ball of energy from Port Melbourne. His name was Tommy Lahiff……….

 

***

 

Lahiff, born in 1910, grew up with an insatiable appetite for sport. At the age of 19 he’d made his District cricket debut with St. Kilda, alongside Test players Bill Ponsford, Leslie Fleetwood-Smith, Don Blackie and Bert Ironmonger.

 

The following year, after a brief, ill-fated sojourn with VFA club Brighton, he transferred to the love of his football life, Port Melbourne.

 

Tommy once spoke of the build-up to his debut with ‘The Borough’:

“Bobby Skilton’s father, who I was a great admirer of, had captained Port the previous season. I asked his advice: ‘What have I gotta do, Mr. Skilton ?’ He replied: ‘Well, when you play with Port son, there’s always going to be a fight. It’ll break out somewhere. Don’t waste your time running to where it is; just belt the bloke who’s next to you……’ ”

 

“Which I did……That’s how they played at Port…..If a fight started and you weren’t in it, they didn’t forgive you……”

 

He recalled some of his teammates ‘winding him up before one game:

“They had a bloke playing for Northcote called Ernie Wilson. He was tough; he’d played for Collingwood. I was a cheeky little bloke and some of the Port fellahs said: ‘Ernie Wilson’ll be minding you today. He’s as weak as water; give him a biff behind the ear and he won’t come near you.’ ”

 

“So I did that and the next thing I’m flat on my back. And every time I gave him a biff he gave me two back. When we went in at half-time I said: ‘I thought you said this Wilson was weak.’ They said: ‘Oh, you didn’t hit him hard enough.’ ”

 

“All right, I thought, I’ll hit him harder. So I went out in the second half and the same thing happened. It got to about three-quarter time and Ernie Wilson said to me: ‘Look son, I don’t know what your idea is, but I’m getting tired of knocking you down.’ ……And I said: ‘And I’m getting tired of getting up again.’”

 

“He replied: ‘Well, forget about it and play the ball. Someone’s given you the wrong impression……’ ”

 

He learned quickly and in 1931 finished runner-up in the VFA’s Best & Fairest Award named, at that time, The Recorder Cup.

 

But he took time to fully establish himself as a top-notch player. The aggressive edge that marked Lahiff’s play was emphasised when he was ‘rubbed out’ for a total of 12 weeks in 1932 – four weeks for charging a Northcote player and eight weeks for striking in a match against Sandringham.

 

The two disqualifications earned him a nickname, handed down by teammates, which he would carry for life – ‘The Terrible Turk’ – after a wrestler of the 30s who displayed the same ruthless streak.

 

By 1935 the 5’6” rover/forward had landed at Essendon, where he was to play 49 games and boot 67 goals in three seasons, before returning to his beloved Port.

 

 

They appointed him captain-coach (he was also captain-coach of Port’s Sub-District cricket side) and he concentrated on rekindling interest in the Club by working hard with the young local players.

 

“The wharfies (who exerted a powerful influence on the Club ) came to see me when I got the job,” Tommy recalled. They said: ‘We’ll support you, Tommy, but there is one rule. No cops! If you have any problems, we’ll sort them out for you. But we don’t need any cops !‘ “

 

He reflected: “There wouldn’t have been a boy who played footy or cricket at Port that I didn’t get involved with in some way….. I had a great interest in kids. I watched ‘em all grow up….. Some of them became champions….This endeared everybody to Port…..We became so close that people thought we were all related…..”

 

After coaching for two years, he was replaced by a League star, Frank Kelly, who led Port to the 1940 flag. On the eve of the finals, the following year, Kelly was ousted, and Lahiff, who had been the ‘acting’ coach for the majority of the season, was re-instated.

 

He promptly guided the ‘Borough’ to another title. Tommy was a hero. They crowned him the ‘Unofficial Mayor’ of Port.

 

 

When VFA footy was suspended two months later because of World War 2, he resumed his League career, firstly at South Melbourne, then at Hawthorn.

 

Again, Lahiff’s charisma endeared him to teammates, and he proved a popular figure at Glenferrie Oval. He was approached to coach the Hawks in 1944, following the retirement of the incumbent, Roy Cazaly, and was handed the job – as a non-playing leader.

 

The resumption of the VFA competition in 1946 saw Tommy resume the reins at Port – as non-playing coach. He led them into the finals, and at season’s end, let it be known that he’d again be an applicant for the job in 1947.

 

This time, though, they opted for the ex-North Melbourne small man Billy Findlay, much to the chagrin of the dyed-in-the-wool Lahiff………………..

 

***

 

Tommy Lahiff nursed his wounded feelings and weighed up his choices. With 175 V.F.A. and 74 VFL matches to his name he was one of the most experienced footballers around……..And his appetite for coaching and faith in his ability was as strong as ever.

 

Despite his age (36) he knew he’d be able to knock himself back into playing shape, despite not having graced the field for three seasons. He was appointed to both of the coaching positions he applied for – at Albury and Tocumwal – but chose Albury…….. For the princely sum of eight pounds per week the Tigers had got their man.

 

Tommy, with his wife Freda, and young son Graham, made the trip up the highway to their new life. He soon ingratiated himself into his new Club and, with a doctrine of hard work on the training track, Albury began to loom as a premiership threat.

 

The Tigers had won three of the last four Pre-War flags, in 1937, ‘39 and 1940, and were accustomed to success. But a few other Clubs had begun to stamp their credentials.

 

Tommy knew it would take time to adapt to a different standard of footy, but soon hit top form. He proved ever-dangerous in his role as a rover/forward, relishing the silver service provided by champion left-foot on-baller, Jimmy ‘The Master’ Matthews.

 

With 60 goals Lahiff was runner-up to Bob Chitty (86) in the League’s goal-kicking Award, as Albury dropped just two games – to Benalla and Border-United, to finish on top of the ladder.

 

The Tigers were always in control in the Second Semi-Final, leading from go to whoa to thrash Benalla by 52 points. Matthews and Leon Power, with four goals apiece, were irresistible, whilst Chitty was held to just the one major.

 

But Chitty, the ‘Wild Man of Football’, ominously hit the target in the Prelim. His haul of nine helped the Demons to a 44-point win over Border-United, to set up a mouth-watering clash at the Wangaratta Showgrounds.

 

He was also on fire in a riveting first quarter of the Grand Final, nailing three early goals. Benalla, showing their supremacy in the air, had jumped the Tigers and led 6.2 to 2.4. Poor kicking continued to dog Albury’s attempt to climb back into the game, but at three quarter-time they had reduced the margin to one point – 6.16 to 8.5.

 

Jimmy Matthews reflected on the turning-point of the game years later: “Tommy Lahiff was a super coach and had the ability to pull the winning move at the right time. He made several positional changes in the last quarter, which helped make the difference.”

 

The principal of these was shifting spearhead Loy Stewart into the ruck, whilst backman/follower Tom Davey moved to full forward. Regarded as a notoriously inaccurate kick, Davey drop-kicked three telling goals in the final term to be a major factor in the 15-point Tiger triumph – 11.18 (84) to 10.9 (69).

 

The brilliant Matthews, one-armed ruckman Ossie Bownds, backmen Reggie Gard and John Briggs, and coach Lahiff with four goals, also starred for Albury.

 

“It was an extra-hard game and I congratulate all you players for fighting it out,” said Lahiff in the jubilant, raucous Tiger rooms after the win………….

 

 

***

 

Many Albury fans predicted that, under Tommy Lahiff’s coaching, Albury would enjoy an extended reign at the top. But it wasn’t to be. The official reason given for the parting of the ways was that they had rejected his request for an increase from eight, to ten pounds a week in his salary.

 

But his wife Freda was also eager to return to Melbourne. Tommy played, and coached, in the city for the next three years, then bobbed up again in the O & M as captain-coach of Corowa in 1951.

 

They threw a handsome salary (15 pounds per week) at him and he took on a job as a painter during his two-year spell at the John Foord Oval.

 

Despite initially electing to coach from the sidelines in 1952, Tommy decided that his young side desperately needed on-field guidance. He again pulled on the boots at the age of 42, and quickly regained form.

 

But success eluded the Spiders and, by mutual consent, Tommy parted ways with them at season’s end and returned home. His days as a player, much to his sorrow, were now over…….

 

He remained deeply involved in sport, and had further coaching stints, with Sandringham, a fourth term at Port Melbourne in 1962, and as assistant-coach to Bob Skilton at South Melbourne for two years.

 

The remainder of his sporting involvement was as a popular media indentity, alongside his mate Harry Beitzel, with a succession of radio stations.

 

When Tommy Lahiff passed away, aged 86, he was mourned as a much-loved character who had touched countless sporting lives, not least in two Ovens and Murray border towns……………….

 

 

 

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. A ‘colourful character’ indeed! Great skills used to bring this story to an equally colourful level – well done, KB!

  2. Great story telling KB. I have fading memories of the SANFL and VFL in the 60’s, but your detailed recall/research of the 40’s and 50’s is remarkable. I know names like Tommy Lahiff (from his radio days) and Bob Chitty (“hardman” came immediately to mind) but you provide the colour and nuance. Those Port Melbourne recollections are priceless. Not tough – brutal – kill or be killed. Knew nothing of Bob Skilton’s dad but his son was scrupulously fair. First truly great player I saw live on a family visit to Melbourne around 1966.

  3. Kevin Densley says

    Loved this, KB – a fine piece about a much-loved figure.

  4. Ta KB. I never knew of ‘Tommy’ being up in the Riverina. I’ve learnt a bit here.

    As a Port Melbourne supporter, whose maternal family are from Corowa, this has been something i’m glad to find out about.

    I remember seeing ‘Tommy’ at Port Melbourne games. Of course he and Harry Beitzel provided a great pairing covering the footy on the radio for a few years.

    It took many years for a policeman to play for Port Melbourne. This goes back to police shooting unarmed wharfies, killing one, during the 1928 dispute.

    Did Bob Chitty star as Ned Kelly in a movie?

    Glen!

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