Winning in Wyche – Part 3: Pressure unearths diamonds



Photo courtesy of Australia247




It’s 1969. Summer quickly gives way to autumn. Leaves fall. Jumpers replace t-shirts. Wycheproof, on the edge of the Victorian Mallee, heads into a chilly winter. As football begins to replace the sound of leather on willow at local ovals, Wycheproof-Narraport’s Under 16 side returns to training.


Key appointments are made early. Merv Keane, being the star player of the Under 16s side, is installed as captain and midfield general. He converses with coach Greg Goldsmith throughout the season, selecting teams on Wednesday nights after training.


Wycheproof-Narraport, despite their success at the senior level, were never one of the powerhouses of the junior league. Instead, St Arnaud, Donald and Charlton held a dominance at the Under 16s level which was broken only by Wycheproof in the pre-amalgamation year of 1963.


Robert White grew up witnessing these three clubs “raffle for the Under 16s for years”. By the time he came through the junior ranks, Wycheproof-Narraport were ready to contend against another surprise packet.


“From Under 14 times, Wedderburn were the strongest side we played against,” White said. “They held onto a very good side and we ended up colliding with them in 1969.”


Wedderburn sat primed and ready to upset Charlton, who were the reigning premiers. With the competition’s best player in Alan Jackson raring to go at centre half-forward, Wedderburn’s strong group was imposing. The rest of the competition took notice.


Wycheproof-Narraport’s preparation for the season was harshly interrupted by a variety of factors. A wide range of players were forced to travel away from Wycheproof for the school year, meaning they were rarely available for regular season games.


For those who could play, some would have to go and stand in front of the post office, where town members would pick them up and take them to their game. White remembers how some drivers had children playing in the side, but others drove the young players as they went to begin a day of spectating.


“I remember old Mrs Miller would come take us down to the under 14s at 10 or half past 10,” White said.


“People connected to the footy without kids would also pick some of us up and take us back home. It helped keep the place going.”


With the playing numbers stretched wide by school commitments, from the get-go, the Demons had to devise a way of sneaking this group of players in for rare games. But the practice matches brought along a fresh problem.


Mervyn Keane was clearly the best player on a Wycheproof-Narraport team sheet full of steady talent. His presence in the centre and through the half-forward line added the dynamic touch the Devils needed to match it with the League’s best sides. But a mid-game accident saw him sit on the sidelines for the start of the season.


“I got a knee in the kidneys in a practice match and started passing blood,” Keane remembers. “I ended up in hospital and thought I was going to die, but the bleeding soon stopped.”


His bruised kidneys meant he missed the first four weeks, leaving Wycheproof-Narraport undermanned. But a pattern soon emerged where consistent contributions across the board got the Demons off to a solid start without their star.


A variety of ages represented the Wycheproof-Narraport Under 16s in 1969. Geoff Dixon was only a little forward pocket that year, but he remembers an influx of players returning on school holidays to boost their prospects.


“Mervyn Keane and Lindsay Heffer were the standouts in our team,” Dixon muses. “But others like Colin Morrison, Stevie Coates, Hayden Kelly, Colin Noonan and Sandy Denney were also very strong members.”


Denney was a defensive general for the Demons. He started off the season in fine form at centre-half back. Many players from the 1969 side listed Denney as a key member of their side, balancing Keane and Heffer’s talents in the middle and up forward.


“But I soon broke my collarbone at Watchem early in the season and moved to a half-back flank,” Denney said. “I never quite got back to full fitness.”


Denney’s early injury saw him join Keane on the sidelines, leaving opportunities for others to step up. One who seized the chance was Bernie Kennedy, who was the younger brother of Carlton player Greg. With a spot at centre half-back open, Kennedy made it his own for the season.


“When Bernie got going, he could shut down their half-forward line and he helped us then get the ball forward,” Robert White said. “When we played Wedderburn, he was good enough to beat Alan Jackson, who was their star.”


Sandy also remembers the development of Noel Hooper, another “star” who would go on to kick seven goals in a senior Grand Final at the ripe age of 18. In the face of adversity, Wycheproof-Narraport’s Under 16s found a way to unearth more talent.


With a wealth of reliable players to choose from, Wycheproof started the season strongly and maintained the momentum. Before long, Keane and Denney were back. Lindsay Heffer was an impressive ruck/full-forward option, while Hayden Kelly’s strong presence in the centre position gave him the chance to play representative footy during the season. A Wycheproof – Narraport boy through and through (Hayden’s grandfather Andy Kelly owned the still-standing Terminus Hotel for nearly 50 years), Kelly went on to do his team proud in the inter-league games.




“It was a really big thrill to be picked in the inter-league side,” Kelly recalled. “Wycheproof-Narraport had four of us kids come into the side so we mustn’t have been a bad team.”


“It was an exciting time – I felt honoured to play and found it to be a real thrill.”


Kelly’s evolution as an emerging player was great reward for his dedication to sport. His childhood in Wycheproof is epitomised by playing a wide range of sports, from cricket and footy to tennis and hockey. In a household where sport was “the be all and end all” for Kelly and his brothers, Wycheproof provided the perfect grounds to facilitate such a deep passion.


“Growing up, if you weren’t playing sport then there was something wrong with you – that was the general consensus,” he said.


“Even kids who couldn’t play had a crack, it was just the expectation. Some must have hated it.”


“In winters, on Saturday you played footy, starting with the under 14s, then 16s then the adults – you were at the footy all day.”


Having grown up infatuated with sport, the representative team selection was an honour for young Kelly. He joined his fellow Wycheproof teammate in Keane, who was made captain, as the rep team took on mid-Murray Football League and managed to snag a win at St Arnaud. They played alongside other big names, including a young Graham Teasdale, who plied his trade at Charlton before being picked up by Richmond in 1972. His professional career resulted in 141 games at Richmond, South Melbourne and Collingwood, including the 1977 Brownlow Medal while at the Swans. But back in 1969 he was just another emerging prospect for Wycheproof-Narraport to combat.


“He grew about a foot in a year,” Denney laughed. “I played a fair bit of junior football and he was the best junior footballer I’ve ever seen.”


The Demons marched through the home and away season to finish in second place behind a dominant Charlton side who only lost one game. That loss came at the hands of Wycheproof-Narraport, who upset the ladder leaders in a tight final round contest. Not only was it a blow for Charlton; they also lost their ruckman to an unfortunate injury.


“In that last game of the season I broke the Charlton ruckman’s nose,” Robert White cheekily admitted. “The ball was bounced in the middle and went sideways. I got caught underneath and went to punch it, only for my elbow to get him flush on the nose.”


“He was off for the rest of the game, he may have been out the next week too. I might have taken him out, but it was an accident.”


The final round win was a fitting finish for the Demons, who booked a double chance in the first week of the finals. Key pillars of that 1969 side agreed on the importance their depth had throughout the season.


“We had plenty of blokes who had a reasonable amount of skill without being in the top 20 players in the League,” Robert White said. “We didn’t tail off as much as some of the other sides.”


“I’d say we had a stock standard side – we probably had around 18 to 20 good players that made us one of the top fancies,” Merv Keane said.


“Charlton may have been the dominant glamour team for the year, but we were sneaking under people’s guards.”


Having gone through the fluctuating peaks and troughs of a local footy season, Wycheproof had cemented second place ahead of Donald and Wedderburn. With players returning from school, and injury, the Demons began to turn their eyes towards upsetting Charlton in the finals.


…to be continued in Part 4 soon.


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


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