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.

Tom Goss’s Football Adventures – Part I – Footy on the Hay Plains

This is the first in a series of articles contributed by Tom Goss of Coolamon

The Hay Oval

The first fine flush of infatuation for Australian Rules started stirring for me in the late fifties when the family moved to the hot, dry outback town of Hay in western NSW.

Before that we lived in Goulburn, a place where they send Arctic explorers to acclimatize and references to Australian football were rarer that naked underwater Hockey in Siberia.

Dad, who was born in Flower Street Essendon, a couple of hefty John Coleman punts from Windy Hill, had been appointed the Hay Town Clerk, and once it became known he was a devoted ‘Rules man, was quickly persuaded to accept the Presidency of the Hay Rovers Football Club.

In the late fifties, Hay was a member of the now long defunct Edwards River League, based around Deniliquin and comprising teams such as Pretty Pines, Blighty and Conargo.

Hay was a lonely, isolated town, the nearest large towns were around 160 kms distant and back then, the roads in and out were all unsealed and every away game required a minimum 200k dead flat round trip. This was challenging enough when the roads were dry, but after heavy rain was like trying to swim through a sea of black molasses in a raging torrent.

Looking back, the fact that inter-town football was played at all by Hay, considering the obstacles, is astounding.

About 1960, Dad convinced the club that it would be much better off joining the Barellan League. There was apparently some skullduggery over the ringing in of players from the higher standard Murray League in a Deniliquin side Hay played in a late fifties Grand final which left many highly disgruntled. Hay lost both the game and a significant sum of money gambled by supporters on the result.

Dad also reasoned the standard would be higher and there would be much closer contact with the mighty South West League. Barely remembered hamlets like Sandy Creek, Binya and Kamara Moombooldool along with the small towns of Barellan, Yanco, and Beckom were some of the teams pitted against the newly accepted Hay Rovers.

How wonderful were those days of Saturday football on the picturesque Hay Park oval. The iron sheeted, lineament scented dressing sheds which my father forbade me entry, for fear I’d be contaminated by the rough language, (I always disobeyed and snuck in unobtrusively anyway); the masculine nicknames, Cocky and Blue, Bull and Stumpy, Pig Shooter and Thumper; the saveloy seller named Foley who displayed his advertising sign, ‘Have a roll with Fol’ in front of a huge wood fire heated steel barrel and the magical home games which Hay invariably won inspired by roaring speeches delivered by fire and brimstone coaches, always thunderously critical irrespective of the score.

In 1962 Hay played off for the premiership against Sandy Creek which was led by a man with a fearsome reputation in Riverina football, Les Stockton. Les was reputed to fight like a champion bare knuckle Beefeater in Wellington’s Waterloo army and was the bogeyman we had to neutralise that day. Hay was captain coached by a superbly talented footballer recruited from Tasmania by the name of Darrell Hills.

I have absolutely no recall of anything in that epic Grand final bar the final minute. Hay was trailing by two points when our young wingman, Tony Tassell took possession of the ball on the wing with open space ahead. Alongside was Darrell Hills whose kicking accuracy was like the trajectory of a William Tell arrow. Hay had never won a premiership. This was the moment.

Perhaps unnerved by the tension and excitement, Tony ignored the unattended Hills pleading for the ball, and rushed his kick. I was directly in line and can still replay the agony over fifty years later as it deviated sightly to the left in flight and missed; the siren sounded simultaneously, leaving Hay one point in arrears.

It was my first crushing football disappointment. I felt as if I’d had my hands on the Holy Grail only to have it ripped away. Hay was to remain a premiership virgin until 1995, by which time we were long gone.