By Dr Rodney Gillett
From the turn of the 20th century until the advent of WWII, football in Hay revolved around a local four-team competition and inter-district challenge matches against near-neighbours Moulamein, Balranald and Deniliquin as well occasional forays east by train to play in Riverina “knock-outs”.
The local teams were Federals, Imperials, Suburbans, and Gymnasiums (from Hay Gymnasium and Social Club). The Hay Association played under the rules of the South-West District Football Association based at Narrandera.
Upon reformation of the Hay footy club after the end of WWII, there were concerted attempts to participate in inter-district games to heighten interest in the game in the town but again the problem of distance frustrated the club’s efforts.
For the 1950 season the Hay Rovers (as the club had become known) joined the Leeton & District FL (170 kms) which comprised of teams from Darlington Point (120 kms), Beelbangera (near Griffith), Leeton Ramblers and Yanco (near Leeton).
This morphed into the western zone of the South West District FL reserves competition from 1951 to 1955 that ended when that league decided that reserves teams would play with the seniors on a Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Hay club had decided to move in another direction, and in 1952 went south to the Edwards River FL based around Deniliquin (125 kms away) made up of Blighty, Conargo, North, East and West Deniliquin to save travelling. However, this competition folded in 1961 when the Murray league required Deniliquin to field a reserve grade side.
Hay moved on again in 1962 – going east again, this time to the Barellan & District FL. While Barellan was 180 kms away, other clubs such as Darlington Point, Yanco, Yenda (near Griffith, and Coleambly (all on the western perimeter of the league).
Hay Rovers made the finals in 1963 and the grand final in 1969 under captain-coach Rural Bank officer Ken McGowan (ex-Leeton) but went down to Yanco, 8.11.59 to 10.17.77.
Long-time Hay football club official and Hay Shire Councillor, Robert “Buck” Howard (pictured right) recalls Hay being very competitive in the Barellan league, “We more than held our own and had some great clashes over the years with teams like Sandy Creek, who were very strong, and Beckom.”
“It was a shame that the league folded at the end of 1971, we didn’t want to leave”, he told me in an interview for this story.
The demise of the Barellan league as a result of Kamarah-Moombooldool, Sandy Creek and the Barellan-Binya football clubs amalgamating to form Barellan United, Coleambally moving to the Coreen league as well as Yanco and Darlington Point folding forced Hay to look for yet another competition.
All approaches to play in leagues to the east and south were rejected on the basis of distance – “too far to travel for our clubs”, was the response from the South West league (Narrandera-185kms/Wagga 270 kms) and the Echuca (200 kms) & District league which included three teams north of Echuca based in NSW viz. Mathoura, Bunnaloo and Moama.
The Hay Rovers were left with no choice but to start a local competition once again; this time with four teams of sixteen players played on a Saturday afternoon on the Hay Park Oval. The teams were named after clubs in the VFL – Hawks, Tigers, Bombers and Saints. Players were graded and drafted to the respective teams.
“The games were played in a really good spirit, although some matches became heated, but after the game we’d all have a beer together at the Caledonian (Hotel). It did overcome the problem of travel but we all wanted to play against teams from other towns, and we needed to have under-age competition for the younger boys,” “Buck” Howard who played for the Saints.
“Going south of the border has enabled us to find the right level of competition”, Buck added.
Hay have found a home in the Golden Rivers league, of which they have been a member since 1981, the longest period the club has spent in a competition outside the town and district.
The Lions are currently fifth on the ladder and are drawn to take on fourth-paced Quambatook at home on the Hay Park Oval this Saturday (17 July). The Reserves are running sixth, Under 17.5s are 2nd, and Under 14.5s are fourth place. Auskick is run on Thursday after school followed by a sausage sizzle.
Additionally, there are six grades of netball ranging from youngest playing Net-Set-Go to the seasoned campaigners playing F Troop. Two buses head off to away games, the first at 6 am and the other at 7.30 am, such is the size of the Hay contingent.
Covoid restrictions by the Victorian government may prevent this round from taking place even though there are no cases between “Hay, Hell and Booligal”…
Recently, Hay played old rival second-placed Moulamein at Nyah West in order to enable the opposition’s Melbourne-based players to play. The Hay Lions knocked-off their more fancied opponents with the best second-half display in five years according to Buck Howard.
“We’re on a roll, we’ve got momentum” Buck told me, reflecting the optimism and can-do spirit that has defined the history of football in Hay since 1876.