Tom Goss’s Football Stories – Part II, Narrandera Sportsground Field of Dreams

In late 1964, Dad received the exciting news that he had been appointed the Shire Clerk of Narrandera, another central Riverina town, but one considerably closer to ‘civilization’  For someone by now caught irrevocably in football’s irresistible enchantments, this was a giant step closer to heaven. Narrandera was the geographical centre of Riverina football and its home ground was like a country MCG.

When we arrived the South West was one the most powerful country leagues in the nation. The year before it had won the prestigious VCFL Caltex Country Championship. That a league, situated in NSW territory fought bitterly over by three codes, Aussie Rules, Rugby League and Rugby Union, was still able to overcome such footballing powerhouses as the Ovens and Murray, Hampden and Goulburn Valley leagues was remarkable, akin to Papua New Guinea winning Soccer’s World Cup.

In the late fifties and early sixties every team had great local footballers in its ranks and these were bolstered immeasurably by former VFL champions still in their prime such as ex South Melbourne captain, Ian Gillett (Coolamon), one time leading VFL goal-kicker Tom Carroll (Ganmain) and ex Brownlow medalist, Peter Box (Grong Grong and Narrandera). Amazingly, these great players could earn more money playing for obscure little towns than they could in the fabled VFL in the late fifties and early sixties.

By 1962, Peter Box was playing for the Narrandera Imperials. Box was an enigmatic loner, reluctant, brooding and often non communicative, but the finest country footballer I’ve ever laid eyes on. His barrel chested physique, a combination of genetics and hard physical labor wouldn’t be out of place alongside today’s gym sculptured Behemoths and his strength and toughness, allied with sublime skill made him the complete footballer.

I have one enduring memory of Peter Box. After he retired from football he took up golf. One afternoon, my brother Mike and I had finished our round and were waiting on the edge of the first fairway, for a lone player to hit down. We were about seventy meters away. I was around 14

Peter Box, 1956 Brownlow Medalist
and Narrandera FC capt coach 1962-64

and Mike 11. The player swung heftily, topped the ball and sent it hurtling along the ground in our direction. It took a couple of bounces and before we could move crashed into Mike’s thigh. The player raced in our direction terribly concerned and upset. I immediately recognised my footballing hero. Mike was fine apart from a large welt which later blossomed into a huge purple bruise, and the incident was quickly forgotten. Three days later Dad arrived home with a small, blue jewellery case in which lay a tiny, somewhat nondescript medal. Peter had dropped into Dad’s office, told him how upset he was and offered to lend us his 1956 Brownlow as a method of contrition. If Dad had handed us the crown jewels I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I have never forgotten Peter’s kindness.

The timing of our arrival in Narrandera was as sweet as an Adam Gilchrist cover drive. The Imperials were about to enter a golden period of success, winning premierships in 1966, 67, 72 and 74. The town was producing a seemingly endless supply of outstanding local players, Steve Margosis, Terry O’Neill, Gubba Powell, Murray Nielsen and the beautifully named Victor Hugo among countless others. When these were augmented by astute recruiting; Geoff Sharp, Warren Roper and the magnificent Jeff Hempell success seemed as natural as night following day.

The 1974 Grand Final was perhaps the most dramatic in South West league history. Narrandera was pitted against a powerful Coolamon team shooting for back to back flags. At the thirty-one-minute mark at the final quarter Coolamon kicked a goal which put it eighteen points in front and seemingly home and hosed. The Imperials then staged an incredible barnstorming finish. Two goals in succession narrowed the margin to one straight kick. With less than a minute remaining, Coolamon’s full back Dick Pieper rushed a behind. The resultant kick out landed in the arms of a supremely talented seventeen-year-old named Tony Turner, who calmly dodged an opponent to thread through the winning goal with the last kick of the season. Snatching an improbable victory when defeat appears certain is one of the most thrilling aspects of any sport, and the more important the game the greater the thrill.

It was a glorious finish to Narrandera’s finest ever season, winning both the reserves and under nineteens, as well as every junior grade contested in that unforgettable year.

In the delirium of victory, I was not to know that, many years later, I would be writing about the same match from a completely different perspective whilst I was compiling the History of the Coolamon Hoppers. There were many in Coolamon who muttered whispers of conspiracies and time keeping skullduggery around the extraordinary length of that fateful last quarter.

JACK DEAN ‘PRINCE OF PLAYERS’ IN SYDNEY FOOTBALL

Jack-Dean3-207x300In the 1949 interstate match between NSW and Victoria at the SCG nineteen year old East Sydney ruckman Jack Dean went up against veteran Victorian captain Jack Dyer at the opening bounce.

“He sat me on my arse!” Jack told me over a few beers. We were at Harry McAsey’s pub in Alexandra after a tribute lunch for our late mate and fellow NSW Football History committee member Ted Ray a few years ago. I put the tape on to record our conversation which was considerably enhanced by the consumption of schooners of Reschs.

“The Vics. cleaned us up that day, but it was a great thrill to play against them” recalled Jack. “We thought we were a chance, our coach Frank Dixon (later a Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney) was a great motivator and we trained for weeks in advance with a view to beating them”.

Victoria were ‘too polished’ according to Keith Miller’s report in The Daily Mirror. Yes, that’s right, the great Australian cricket all-rounder who had recently retired from football had taken up a new career as a journalist. Miller had represented NSW at the ANFC interstate carnival in 1947 after moving to Sydney to play cricket for NSW after the Second World War.

In addition to the grizzly old Tiger, Jack Dyer, other famous names in the Victorian team for that match were Bob Davis, Bobby Rose, Les Foote, Don Cordner and Bert Clay, who if state-of-origin rules were in place would have been wearing a sky blue guernsey. Clay was recruited to Fitzroy from Henty in southern NSW.

Jack Dean played 25 times for NSW in interstate matches and was voted the Blues best player at the 1958 centenary carnival in Melbourne in 1958. He must have been unlucky not to have been selected in the All-Australian team.

Born and bred in Paddington, Jack went down to Trumper Park with his brother Mal in 1944 and thus began a distinguished football career that took in almost 400 games until he retired in 1966.

His father Joe had played for East Sydney and Jack’s son Marshall also played for Easts. A handy rover, ‘Marsh’ is a raconteur who in tandem with Stephen ‘Bomber’ McClure (brother of Mark ‘Sellers’ McClure) provided their team-mates with many hilarious moments at their favourite pub in Paddington, the Grand National.

Jack was a star performer in the Easts teams that won a staggering six premierships in a row from 1952-59 firstly under captain-coach, Fred Pemberton, then Alf Penno with the last under club legend Roy Hayes. Following his stand-out performance at the 1958 carnival Jack took up an offer to coach Ardlethan in the South-West League in southern NSW.

“I was the only non-ex VFL player coaching in the league.”  ‘The Heap’ (former South Melbourne captain Ian Gillett) was coaching Coolamon, ex North Melbourne star Gerald Eastmure was in charge at Leeton, Footscray’s Brownlow medalist Peter Box was coaching Grongy (Grong Grong Matong), and Don Keyter (ex South Melbourne) was at Griffith. “It was a strong league”, recalled Jack.

“We struggled to match it with the clubs from the bigger places, but we always took it up to them. We had lots of good times afterwards particularly at the London (Ardlethan’s only pub). After 6 o’clock the publican would pull down the blinds and we’d have a great sing-along around the piano. The other clubs used to love to stay back after a game at Ardlethan”

“We made lots of good friends down there and still in contact with them”, but Joy (Jack’s wife) was a city girl and was pretty keen to return to Sydney to be near family, so we came back.”

Jack returned to his old club, East Sydney for the 1961 season. But the next season Jack was enticed to join local rivals Sydney Naval that shared Trumper Park with Easts, but trained down at Rushcutters Bay.

“I’d formed a close friendship with (rover) Danny Wilson through playing together in state teams. Plus, of course, there was a bob in it for me. They were a well run club at this stage and were well supported by some of Sydney’s biggest bookmakers who fielded at the races on Saturdays and came to the Aussie Rules on Sundays.”

Sydney Naval beat Newtown for the 1962 premiership in Sydney of which Jack was part. He played out his career with Sydney Naval until he retired in 1966.

Following this, Jack then turned his hand to administration and after joining the East Sydney committee became club president from 1970 till 1982.  He presided over another golden period for the Bulldogs during which they won six premierships. The most satisfying was for the club’s centenary year, 1980, when under Austin Robertson they thrashed North Shore in the grand final at the Sydney Showgrounds by 121 points.

“After going through the previous season undefeated we got beaten in both finals, which was terribly disappointing. We got ‘Oscar’ to take over from Alex Ruscuklic. We had assembled a very good team with players like Wayne Goss, Ian Allen, Grant Luhrs and Jim Richardson, plus we had retained Peter Ruscuklic as full-forward.”

Ruscuklic was a prolific goal kicker for Easts booting huge tallies of 136 (1979), 156 (1980), and 213 (1981).

A big let-down was expected the next season after the centenary triumph, but Jack had the inspiration to appoint local player Greg ‘Huey’ Harris, who had returned to footy from rugby union in 1979 and missed the premiership season with a knee injury.

Harris master-minded one of the great comebacks in Sydney footy history by leading the Bulldogs to a 89 point win over Sam Kekovich’s Newtown in the 1981 grand final. Easts had been down by 90 points at ¾ time in the second semi but came back to lose by only 10 points.

“Greg was a natural leader. He possesses great people skills, he can lead men. I had become a good friend of his father Col, who I played against when he coached St George. I just knew he would make a successful coach”

“Huey’ sure did he led East Sydney to premierships in 1981, 1982 and 1983 moulding a bunch of eccentric characters and ace footballers into an almost unbeatable combination. Easts won another premiership for good measure in 1984 under Wayne Goss“ Jack Dean was chairman of selectors.

Jack was a selector for many years for State teams and was Alan Jean’s trusted chairman of selectors when Jeans coached NSW in the Escort Cup in 1979-80 when the Blues almost upset the highly fancied Fitzroy (remember the ‘fat full forward for NSW’ Laurie Pendrick kicking 7 goals on then Victorian full-back Harvey Merrigan?) and Richmond in its premiership season.

Jack would go out to the airport in his plumbing truck and pick up Jeans for training. “He is a terrific fellow (Alan Jeans), a great football brain, but more importantly he had the ability to pass it on” according to Jack.

He continued on as chairman of selectors under Sam Kekovich and later, Greg Harris. It was in this period that I got to know Jack as I was the Country team manager for the state squad. Sam and Jack would fly down to Wagga on weekends to conduct training. Following a brisk, light training run we would head off with fellow selectors local legend Greg Leitch and former Essendon star Bobby Greenwood (who would drive over from Griffith in his Pontiac Parisienne) for a long lunch to discuss team selections.

In those days most people in Wagga stayed at home for a roast on Sundays so I used to get a Chinese restaurant to open up especially for us. Sam would always order up big, then feign that he’d forgotten his credit card and ask Jack if he could pay for the meal and claim it back from the league. Jack would always pay and never make a claim.

These days Jack is highly involved in the NSW Footy History Committee and he heads up the committee that selects the members for the local Hall of Fame each year.

Jack was the first player elected to the NSW Hall of Fame in 2003. The Eastern Suburbs-UNSW best and fairest trophy is also named in his honour. He is also a life member of the club.

This year Jack has been nominated for the AFL’s Hall of Fame. In recent years players and officials from the other states have been justly honoured but there is yet to be a non VFL/AFL player from NSW elected. Unlike the other nomination from North Melbourne via North Wagga, there are no issues about character. Jack Dean is True Blue.

Story by Rod Gillett – former Commissioner NSWAFL and former History Society Committee person.