Winning in Wyche – Part 2: Combining to survive






Country football has a way of forging fierce competition.


Long-standing history between neighbouring towns develops easily, and is intensely stoked. When these communities clash on the footy field, it’s the telling method to settling year-long superiority. Reputations are based on these matches. Bragging rights depend on it.


Wycheproof was no different. A revival during the 1950s saw them join the North Central League and have an instant impact. But as the `60s came round, Wycheproof’s sheen began to wear off.


The town’s sporting encounters were supremely local – the biggest rivalry lay with their next-door neighbours in Narraport. Both teams held an intense hatred for each other, despite neither side experiencing any success to start the `60s. The feud lasted all year round – both the footy and cricket clubs were sworn mortal enemies and refused to relent; that is, until they were forced to get along.


Geoff Dixon’s first memories of footy centred around the Wycheproof – Narraport match-ups that dominated the region. It was the start of his involvement of the game – which eventually brought him plenty of premierships, including the 1969 Under-16s triumph. Despite struggling to remember the scores of the early games, Geoff lit up when describing “how very heated it would get.”


“There were quite a few fisticuffs,” Geoff detailed. “There definitely wasn’t any love lost between the two teams.”


It was this resentment that made 1964 such an incredible time for Wycheproof’s history. In a watershed moment, the town decided to merge with Narraport to improve the results of both cellar-dwelling teams. The amalgamation, which came to be known as the ‘Combine’, sparked fierce controversy between the two communities. The merger impacted the town so much that it stuck in the young minds of Wycheproof/ Narraport’s future premiership stars.


Mervyn Keane, in time, became Wycheproof’s shining jewel. After starring in various Wycheproof junior and senior teams, he took his talents to Richmond in time to snag three VFL premierships. At the end of his 13-year career, he featured enough for the Tigers to finish in their team of the century. During his time at the highest level, Merv experienced some of the biggest moments in footy history. But he still remembers the Wycheproof – Narraport amalgamation vividly.


His first memories were “how huge it was for the town”. As talks ramped up about a combine, the area was split into two.


“At the time there was a lot of resentment towards it by some people, mainly because the clubs were bitter rivals,” Merv said. “They operated out of the same town – it was like Catholics and Protestants.”


Merv, along with his young peers, all agreed that the amalgamation “had to happen”. Both sides had been starved for success. Junior teams were dwindling. It made sense to combine the two teams which had basically operated on top of each other up until that point.


Hayden Kelly grew up in the surrounds of Wycheproof’s pubs. He, like future teammates Merv and Geoff, was able to stand back and witness the drama caused by the amalgamation. When the dust settled, he described it as “a watershed moment in the history of the town”.


“The two teams finished bottom and second bottom in the North Central League during the 1960s,” Hayden recalled. “Since the ‘Combine’, they’ve been the dominant team in the league.”


Despite the initial grievances of the community’s members, the amalgamation was a superb move. In over 50 years since the merger, Wycheproof – Narraport has dominated the league with 19 premierships. It all started with some astute recruiting moves.


To soothe the naysayers, the combined club sought out Ralph Rose – the younger brother of Collingwood legend Bob. After 23 games at Collingwood, the youngest Rose upped and left for Wycheproof – Narraport, where he became the fledgling club’s first captain-coach.


Ralph Rose in his Collingwood days, before moving up to Wycheproof to coach the newly amalgamated Demons (Collingwood FC)


Joining as a dynamic centre-half forward, Rose had more than on-field woes to resurrect. The town was in uproar over the Combine and was beginning to split. It took something special to distract them – fortunately, Ralph Rose was the right person for the job. His experience and calmness over the next few years brought triumphs both on and off the field for the newly-created Wycheproof – Narraport Football Club.


By the end of 1964 the controversy was smothered by success. Wycheproof – Narraport resurrected their form and clinched that year’s premiership in the North Central League. If that wasn’t enough to confirm that the merger was the right move, Rose led Wycheproof to the 1965 and 1967 flags too.



The 1964 Wycheproof – Narraport line up



The latter flag featured another big name. Young Greg Kennedy booted 113 goals during the home and away season for the combined side, and added a further eight majors in the triumphant finals series. When he was the ripe old age of 17, the people of Wycheproof – Narraport thought they had uncovered a gem.


But Kennedy attracted attention from everywhere, including the big leagues. Hayden Kelly remembers Ron Barassi, then Carlton’s coach, and Blues president George Harris driving up to Wycheproof in a Rolls Royce to court the young goalkicker. Kennedy held off, first stopping by Eaglehawk (near Bendigo) until he finally joined Carlton in 1972. Despite promising so much, Kennedy’s career ended abruptly in 1976 due to numerous crippling injuries. His impact on Wycheproof – Narraport’s foundation years formed just another cog of a revitalised machine. Such a rush of success soothed the town uproar. Premiership flags blanketed disgruntled community chatter.


“I think the success soon stopped the bitterness that some people held,” Geoff Dixon remarked.


“Thank god there was immediate success,” Keane laughed. “Winning a premiership in the first year was an awesome feeling for me as a young kid and a fanatic.”


The amalgamation may have been a controversy at the time, but in the years that have followed it’s logic has become clearer by the day. To Sandy Denney, who was a part of a proud Wycheproof and Collingwood family (his father Alec made quite a name for himself in his two seasons at Collingwood, where Lou Richards famously nicknamed him ‘the Wycheproof Bullet’), Narraport was “just another Wycheproof team that was only seven or eight miles down the road”.


“At the time, Wycheproof were limited to a five-mile radius due to Narraport being there,” he said. “There was a tin shed down the road and now it’s gone. There’s a reserve lying down at Narraport and that’s all.”


The Wycheproof – Narraport merger was a momentous occasion in the town’s history that spurred on the next generation. From keenly watching the senior side experience success at the local Wycheproof Recreation Reserve on a Saturday, the seeds were sewn for the 1969 Under-16s premiership; a season full of famous names, both in the region and in Australian footy.


As a group of young boys rallied together to commence the 1969 season, they carried on proud traditions of a Victorian country town. A town of crops, tractors and footy. A town still revelling in the boldest yet best decision in their history. But to the Under-16s, they were just playing the game they loved. A game indelibly a part of their lives.



Read the other parts of Sean Mortell’s Winning in Wycheproof HERE





  1. Dr Rocket says

    This is fascinating Sean. Well done.

    But I’m intrigued to know how it was determined prior to the “combine” who played for Wychie and who played for Narraport given that as Merv Keane “both teams operated out of the same town” – and given the religious divide – was that the basis for who played for who?
    This is a crucial social history question.

    I saw Greg Kennedy kick six goals in teeming rain at Eaglehawk against Rochester in 1971 – mesmerised me.
    Great to see Greg, and his brother Jim, who also played for the Borough that dayin the 1964 Under 16 team.

  2. Hayden Kelly says

    Geography or religion didnt come into it .
    You were Wyche or Narraport by blood handed down through your family
    The Dennys farm was closer to Narraport but they were Wyche
    Keanes farms I reckon were closer to Corack and Wyche so perhaps they should have been Watchem Corack or Wyche but they were Narraport
    Mick Giddings Narraports greatest player lived on the outskirts of Wyche and effectively drove past the Wyche ground to get to Narraport
    As for the Kennedys jeez they could play .Jim was laconic to say the least.but a very good centre half forward in both the North Central and Bendigo leagues
    I saw Greg kick 8 on Geoff Southby in a Bendigo final and I reckon if he hadnt been cut down by injury he may well have been the best player from the area . In his 1st year at Carlton he kicked 76 goals but was never fully fit again . I reckon he kicked 11 on Kelvin Moore one day , not bad for a 1st year bush boy .
    Hayden Kelly

  3. Hayden Kelly says

    Dr R
    On closer inspection the J Kennedy in the 1964 under 16 photo is the 3rd Kennedy brother John or Jacka as he was known .Jim was a bit older . Jacka was a more than handy player as well and followed the family tradition Wyche to Eaglehawk .
    There is a little fellow in the front row Brendan ‘Herbie Keane’ who won a Feeny Medal for best and Fairest in the North Central League . He then went to Bendigo [Eaglehawk of course] and finished at Sandhurst . He represented the Bendigo league and is a BFL hall of famer . Very good player .
    Not sure I addressed the religion bit of your question last night but for football it didn’ t really come into it . If I use Saint Michaels the local catholic school as a guide Keanes ,Brennans , Smiths etc had Narraport blood and Kennedys ,Whites Kellys etc were Wyche and at school we were all mates . Same for the local High School .

  4. Dr Rocket says

    Thank you Hayden for providing a deep insight into this from within the Wychie tribe.

    It sure was interesting way how the players and supporters divvied up between Wychie & Narraport.
    Fascinating. Maybe family rivalry cuts deeper than religion or social class?!!
    Your case study of St Michael’s school validates your point.
    It really is fascinating.

    Thanks for explaining it. It really belongs in the story – its at the core of the rivalry.

  5. Excellent article.
    Agree with the above comments: this is fascinating stuff.

  6. Daryl Schramm says

    Can just imagine what turmoil occurred. Great read Sean. Maybe a few other stories on mergers on how they came about. We have had a number over the years in country SA. A few clubs known by initials only for a while now.

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