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
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.