Winning in Wyche – Part 1: Growing up in the shadows of a mini landmark


Wycheproof, or Wyche, is up the Mallee. Last year Sean Mortell was commissioned by Almanac patron Hayden Kelly to complete extensive research for a series of articles about a key moment in Wycheproof history: the Under 16 footy premiership of 1969. This is the first article in the series.





Mt Wycheproof.



Wycheproof, at least in a physical sense, is just like every other Victorian country town that surrounds it in the Victorian Mallee. It has people. Schools. Pubs. Sporting teams. A train line. Farms. But it also has something that sets it apart from its neighbours; a mountain.


Mt Wycheproof is no hulking giant. In fact, it’s more of a molehill between gun-barrel straight roads and flourishing farmlands. A lump so small that if it popped up on your back you wouldn’t bother a doctor. But it’s still technically a mountain; the smallest registered mountain in the world at that. It rises just 43 metres above the nearby land – a dream for out-of-shape hikers and mountaineers. Mt Wycheproof represents a minuscule town up north from Bendigo; a community that loves to stay down to earth.


Wycheproof is a humble place. Its inhabitants always hold a dash of humour and a fond love for the area. The arid town is more likely to experience a torrential downpour than hear a brag at the local pub by one of its longstanding citizens. Yet, this township of 600 people has produced stirring stories; ones that deserve transfixed ears. Like most Australian communities, the peak of Wycheproof’s talking points doesn’t revolve around a record-breaking mountain, but instead a collection of defining sporting moments.


During Victoria’s widespread lockdown in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, an intriguing story idea came floating out of the standstill. Over 50 years ago, Wycheproof (roughly 140 kilometres north-west of Bendigo) produced a team of young boys, arising from various famous local families, which claimed a junior Australian football premiership. None of it sounded extraordinary – flags had been contested and won regularly for over a century of footy history. But delving deeper into these players and the futures, it becomes clear they went on to have leads to many wonderful tales.



Wycheproof sits north-west of Bendigo, surrounded by its closest footy rivals



It all started in 1964. Back then, Wycheproof was a thriving farming town that loved its sport, specifically footy.


Hayden Kelly was just a teenager when Wycheproof was in full swing. He developed into a sports-mad kid who took in the freedoms afforded to the town’s citizens. From an early age, he worked out, as he likes to say, that “it was a good place to grow up”.


“It was a thriving town, and everyone was fairly friendly,” Hayden said. “It was also very prosperous at the time – there were plenty of farms and plenty of work to be done.”


Hayden’s soon-to-be premiership teammate in Sandy Denney also took joy in Wycheproof’s outdoor offerings. Sandy is the fifth of six children born into a family soaked in Collingwood and Wycheproof history. His father Alec moved down to play 35 games for the black and white; while he was down there, he married Betty Coventry, the daughter of VFL legend Gordon.


After his two seasons for the Pies, Alec and Betty took their children, which newly included Sandy, back to Wycheproof. Alec’s talents were keenly scouted by Wycheproof captain-coach Hugh Coventry, who was also Betty’s cousin. As a fellow ex-Magpie (Hugh was the son of Collingwood legend Syd Coventry), he struck gold – Alec went on to help the side clinch back to back premierships in 1951-52.


A rare newspaper clipping of Hugh Coventry during his Collingwood days



The first success saw them claim the Tyrell Football League flag. In ’52, Denney went on to win the League best and fairest en route to Wycheproof’s 74-point Grand Final win that saw them victorious in their first season in the North Central Football League. Ever since, Sandy lived has his life as a proud member of a famous Wycheproof name – he has lived, worked and breathed Wycheproof for the majority of his years (except for when he was sent to complete his HSC at Caulfield Grammar and played a season for Caulfield Grammarians in 1974). From the get-go, Sandy revelled in the free lifestyle that his hometown boasted.


“Jeez, it was pretty carefree and open,” Sandy said. “We played a lot of sport – friends could come down from Melbourne and let their kids wander around without the fear they’d usually have in the Big Smoke.”


Wycheproof circa 1964 had its structures and routines in place. Hayden remembers the baking-hot sun making summer days “as hot as a saw”, while the winter gave way to freezing nights. Wheat and sheep farms dominated the land. There were two schools – the St Michael’s School and the Wycheproof Prep-12 State School. There were roughly four pubs; the Cricket Club, Mount Wycheproof, the Royal Mail and the Terminus. The latter two remain open – Hayden Kelly’s grandfather Andy was the proud owner of the Terminus for nearly 50 years.


The town’s identity was starting to throw off the Catholic/Mason divide that had characterised rural Australia for so long. But remnants were left littered through Wycheproof. Some businesses were owned by Catholics, meaning only Catholic people were employed, while the Mason-owned shops hired anyone non-Catholic. None of this stopped some of the more common rituals of the tiny town – young and old alike flocked to the movies at Shire Hall on a Saturday night until a drive-in was built at nearby Birchip. Some of the crowd would forgo this pastime for the weekly Saturday night dance, while the kids used every ounce of available daylight to hang out at the swimming pool (or the dam on a Sunday) and then go yabbying. It was a carefree place, where its youth enjoyed the laidback environment and learned about life from experience, not the classroom. Life became about the outdoors, and of course sport.


Robert White is part of a famous family that he says “goes way back” in Wycheproof history – for generations the White name has been at the forefront of the town’s footy endeavours. His first memories of footy were of the local matches on a Saturday – a breeding ground for future Wycheproof premiership players to learn and enjoy.


“From about seven or eight you’d go down to Under-16s training with older brothers and just run around and kick balls back from behind the goals,” Robert mused. “On the weekends I spent most of my time in the changerooms before the game and then try to collect bottles or work the scoreboard for some money.”


Sport may have been popular in Wycheproof, but it wasn’t their primary tourist attraction. Just like their unusual mountain, the small town had other quirks.


Before 1964, Wycheproof’s main claim to fame was their steam train. In another reference to the town’s unique structure, the train line runs down the middle of their main street ‘Broadway’. Back in time only one diesel passenger train came a day, leaving steam and smoke billowing down Victoria’s Broadway for half an hour after.



A train travels down the middle of Broadway, circa 1960s



Not much has changed, as another train splits Broadway in two in 1999



Physically these structures were no different (apart from the train line) from the constellation of rural settlements that popped up over Victoria and Australia. Yet each establishment had its own character; Wycheproof’s was based upon humble enjoyment of the land and a deep love for sport. When it came to the preferred pastimes of footy, cricket and hockey, Wycheproof sparked into a competitive powerhouse.


It was what made 1964 such a defining year for the country town. Usually a sporting shake-up wouldn’t become a pinnacle for the township as a whole. But such is Wycheproof’s passion for sport and footy that 1964’s decline into near extinction created a milestone moment for the home of the world’s smallest registered mountain.


The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in 2021. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order HERE


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  1. Peter Clark says

    Sean, you have captured the unique geography of Wyche beautifully.
    I will be interested to read more.

  2. An excellent start, Sean. Look forward to reading more.

  3. Daryl Schramm says

    Just got around to reading this. Never been to Wyche. Can’t wait for the next installment.

  4. roger lowrey says

    This is great stuff Sean. My uncle had a pub at Whyche for many years. RDL

  5. David Lloyd says

    I’m looking forward to the rest of this series. I played for Wedderburn in the under 16’s grand final against the combine. Unfortunately very few memories of the game, but l know we had a simple game plan: get it to Wellsie Jackson and get out of his way! Wellsie was one of the great footballers who never came to town, a decision he regrets now.
    l also remember Greg Kennedy kicking a bag on our ‘rugged’ full back, Frank Kelly, without leaving the goal square, presumably because of an injury. Also seeing him play for the two blues against Geoff Southby’s Sandhurst

  6. Hayden Kelly says

    just read your bit .I reckon our game plan was don’t let them get it to bloody Wellsie He was a very very good player who could have played at a higher level .
    I remember Barry Andrews , David Hannah and Kenneth Holt as good players for the Redbacks as well which would suggest they made the interleague team we played in .
    I still get the local paper sent down and it seems Wellsie is multi talented as he has been the best lawn bowler in the District for a number of years.

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