By Dr Rodney Gillett
Hay (population 2400) is located on the north bank of the Murrumbidgee River half-way between Sydney and Adelaide with Balranald to the west, Narrandera to the east, Deniliquin to the south, and Booligal to the north.
And at different times over its history, the Hay footy club has played in competitions to the east, west and south as well as amongst themselves.
Hay currently plays in the Golden Rivers Football League against clubs based on either side of the Victorian-NSW border. The nearest opponent is its oldest rival Moulamein, 120 kms away to the south-west, and the furthest is 299 kms away at Nullawil, deep in the heart of Victoria’s Mallee district
For a time in the early 1970s the Hay club wondered if they would ever find a competition to play in after the Barellan League disbanded and approaches to the South West league based around Narrandera and the Echuca and District league were all rejected.
From 1972 to 1975 the Hay Footy Club had to run its own local competition with four teams.
“It kept us going,” according to Hay football stalwart Robert “Buck” Howard, who played for the Saints in the local competition. “It was fun, but we got tired of playing each other, and we needed under-age footy for the kids”.
A break-through came for season 1976 when the Mid-Murray League based around Swan Hill finally admitted the Hay Rovers on appeal into the competition. But the Rovers which had worn a red and black strip in the Barellan league had to change to red, white and black because of a clash with Nyah West.
The Rovers struggled to compete in the Mid-Murray FL which is a major league and sought a move to the Kerang and District League (renamed Golden Rivers in 1998) in 1981 which was granted, but it involved another change of colours as Quambatook wore the Saints colours, so Hay became, and remains, the Lions.
Hay came fifth in its first season in the new competition; it was also able to resume its rivalry with Moulamein which stretched back to the mid-twentieth century for the Conroy Cup.
The newly minted Lions break-through for the club’s first-ever premiership when it took out the 1982 title with a stirring 13-point win over Appin, a rural district just outside Kerang.
The Hay Lions famously won the 1992 premiership which was the subject of a recent podcast by Albury broadcaster Robbie Mackinlay. You can hear it https://yoursportandmedia.podbean.com/e/hay-1992-the-triple-treat/.
The Lions won all three grades that season, and then won another senior flag in 1995 by beating Moulamein.
The Hay Football Club was founded in 1876 at a meeting at the Royal Hotel:
The new club was duly formed with “…fourteen members subscribing names, and there is hearty prospects of play this present season” (The Riverina Grazier, 24 May 1876)
The new club initially played matches between its members just like in other country towns. The Riverina Grazier (31 May 1876) reported of a football match arranged for the Queen’s Birthday “… a good romp outside will do both old boys and young boys much good”.
White settlement began in 1840 with a coach station and a town was established in 1859. The area on the Hay plain soon became renowned for its fertile grazing land and pastoral runs were taken up for producing wool and fat lambs for the Victorian goldfields.
Hay became a major transport hub with the main form of transportation the paddle steamers that conveyed the wool down the inland river systems to Echuca on the Murray River and returned with stores for the town and district pastoral runs.
The NSW Land Selection Acts of the 1860s and 1870s unlocked land held by the squatters for closer settlement by new arrivals to the area mainly from Victoria who bought their recently established football game with them.
In 1882 the railway line was extended to Hay from Narrandera thus connecting the town to Sydney, and this facilitated inter-town challenge matches with Hay travelling to Narrandera.
By 1885 Hay had regular challenge matches in town and district from teams called the Snaggers (shearers), Half-Holiday Association (shop-keepers and retail workers), the Golden Templars’ Lodge, and the Eli Elwah sheep station (shepherds/farm hands). The Riverina Grazier reported that, “…200-300 attended the football which is fast gaining popularity in Hay” (25 July 1885).
In 1895 the Hay Football Council was formed to administer the local competition.
The rail connection to the east enabled Hay association to play in a round-robin tournament against the Wagga and Narrandera associations in 1899 that attracted a crowd of 700-800.
Hay teams continued to use special trains to travel east to play in Riverina knock-out carnivals at Leeton, Whitton, Narrandera and Ganmain right up until the mid-1950s:
“A special train to the football at Leeton will leave Hay at 8:00 am and return at 8:15 pm” (The Riverina Grazier, 1 September 1939).
Keep tuned here for Part II.