SPORTING LEGENDS: Celebrating the sporting life of our local citizens Ron Critchley
When Murmungee made the news
Wangaratta’s Kevin ‘KB’ Hill regularly writes about local sporting legends on his blog KB on Reflection. The following piece is about local footballing legend Ron Critchley. We will look to feature more of KB’s pieces in future Monday editions. His blog can be found at https://kbonreflection.wordpress.com/author/kbhill7.
MURMUNGEE is a speck on the map, roughly 18km from Myrtleford, and a touch under 39km from Wangaratta; a sleepy little farming hamlet, populated by its fair share of Nearys, Raes, Fergusons and Witherows.
It rarely makes the news; except for the Annual Pumpkin and Harvest Festival, or when they transfer the occasional rural city meeting to the local hall.
But I’d like to take you back to a time – January 1963 – when every footy talent scout and journo in the area took particular interest in its whereabouts.
A 22 year-old league player, in the very prime of his career, had decided to turn his back on the glamour and glitz of the city, to become the sole teacher at the seven-pupil Murmungee State School.
The pursuit of Ron Critchley didn’t exactly develop into a frenzy, because by the time the nearby O&M clubs had got wind of the potential prize recruit, he had already been nabbed.
It could be described as a perfectly-executed ‘recruiting sting’.
“I’d no sooner arrived up there to have a look around, when a couple of Whorouly fellahs, Silas McInnes and Trevor Harrington, lobbed on the doorstep,” Ron recalls.
“We hit it off pretty well and they made what I thought was a really good offer to be playing coach. I just couldn’t refuse it.”
Ron had spent a few of his growing-up years at Marysville, and made his senior football debut with the locals at 16.
As a lad of obvious potential, the usual offers that are accorded to good country kids came his way. He was at Teachers’ College, in the early stages of treading the same career- path of his dad, when he received his first approach from Hawthorn.
They’d heard, they said, that he had a bit of talent. Ron was invited to Glenferrie Oval, and was also informed that if he wanted to play league footy he had no option; it had to be with the Hawks, because he was residing in their recruiting zone.
He played six reserves games on match-permits, then returned to Marysville, where he figured in an agonising one-point Grand Final defeat.
But Hawthorn was keen to have the strongly-built, 6’0”, 13 stone Critchley back in Brown and Gold. He topped the VFL Reserves goalkicking in 1960 and played in another Grand Final nail-biter – a five-point defeat at the hands of Geelong in the Reserves curtain-raiser.
The highlight of his 1960 season, though, was his senior debut. His three games gave him a sniff of the ‘big-time’, but the only dampener on a developing year was a damaged shoulder, which required a total reconstruction.
A bout of peritonitis, on top of the recovery from the ‘reco’, cost him a season. “But I came good in 1962 and got really fit. I won the Reserves Best and Fairest and played pretty well in three night games at the old Lake Oval at the end of the season,” he recalls. It was around that time that he accepted the job transfer to Murmungee.
Hawthorn wanted Ron to drive back to play each week. “When I asked about travel money they said: ‘No, that’s not on. You owe us. We had to pay for your shoulder reco’.
“When I told them I’d play locally, they were adamant that there’d be no clearance.”
The local newspapers dubbed the tug-of-war, ‘The Critchley Case’, and it lingered on for some time. The fascination about the tussle between tiny Whorouly and the VFL giant, Hawthorn, captured the imagination of the football public.
Finally, five weeks into the Ovens and King season, the Hawks relented.
“His arrival had a terriffic impact on the town and put us on the map,” recalls Brian ‘Barney’ Elkington.
“‘Critch’ is the best player Whorouly’s ever seen. In fact, I can’t remember any O & K player being as outstanding as he was that season.”
The Maroons had been woodenspooners the previous year, and were again languishing, with their coach forced to watch from the sidelines. But his on-field presence had an immediate effect, as they scored 87 and 37-point victories.
Successive drawn matches against Moyhu and Beechworth certainly didn’t help their cause, and they finished just outside the four.
Critchley, despite playing only 13 matches, took out the O & K’s Baker Medal from veterans Bill Comensoli and Rex Allen.
Three weeks later, he was again in the headlines when Myrtleford found a loophole in the rules and controversially included him in their line-up for the O & M second semifinal replay.
“Ron Branton, who was coaching Myrtleford, was injured in their drawn semi against Benalla. He called out to see me and explained that there was an obscure rule that allowed them to fit me in on matchpermits,” Ron recalls.
But the Saints were convincingly beaten, then bowed out against Corowa in the Preliminary Final, despite the performance of Critchley, who was best afield.
For Wangaratta, who were seeking a replacement for Neville Waller, and had been eyeing Critchley, his display was the final exclamation mark that he was the man for the job. He was appointed captain-coach for the 1964 season.
Playing principally up forward, in tandem with an aggressive Maryborough recruit, Geoff Scott, he booted 62 goals, and was always a dangerman.
The Pies finished second on the ladder, but surprised their hometown enemies, winning a bruising second semi-final by 14 points.
For the Rovers, who were unbeaten to round 15, it was their fourth straight loss. But they recovered their mojo with a convincing win over Myrtleford, then piled on six goals to nil in the third quarter, to defeat Wang in a high-standard Grand Final, in front of a huge crowd.
Wangaratta looked to be the team to beat in 1965, particularly when they belted Yarrawonga in their opening final, to march straight into the ‘big dance’.
The Rovers had got there the hard way, sneaking into the finals on percentage, and convincingly winning both finals.
Their battle for the flag was a classic. Half-way through the final quarter, the Hawks had extended their lead to a seemingly unassailable 16 points. But goals to Critchley and Jeff Hemphill reduced the margin to 4.
In the dying minutes, Pie winger Herbie Dowling had a flying shot which drifted off-line for a point. Then, in one of the last passages of play, the ball landed in the waiting arms of ruckman Maurie Koop, 40 yards out from goal.
He had the opportunity to be a hero, but his kick fell short, to be swept away as the siren sounded to signal more disappointment for the Pies.
Wangaratta again headed the ladder in 1966, on percentage from Albury, who had assembled a ‘foreign legion’ in a bid to win their first flag in 10 years.
The Tigers got up by a point in an exhilarating second semi, which meant that the old rivals, Wangaratta and the Rovers would clash in the Preliminary Final.
It was a torrid affair. At one stage it took the umpires four minutes to restore peace after ‘war’ broke out in the third quarter. The Pies regained their poise and won comfortably, but the side-effect of the stoushes was that they were missing a few players the following week.
Albury ran away with the ‘66 flag, winning by 55 points. “We were certainly undermanned, and Murray Weideman had them fired up,” Ron recalls. “I remember he shook hands with me at the start of the game, and then followed it up with a right to the jaw.”
So in his three-year term as coach of Wangaratta, he had successfully guided both the Seniors and Reserves into the Grand Final each year – and lost the lot.
Ron proved to be an O & M star, either up forward or in defence. He was an automatic interleague rep, where he spent time at either end of the ground. “To be honest, I felt my best spot was centre half back,” he says. But his 139 goals with the Pies indicates his value upfield.
He stayed on with Wangaratta and played a season under Trevor Steer’s coaching, then took the Whorouly job on again in 1968.
Ron, Monika and their growing family moved to Goornong the following year. He played a season with Eaglehawk, then headed out to Mount Pleasant in the Heathcote and District League for two seasons, finally winning that elusive flag.
The Critchley footy career ended, aged 35, following his three years with Eastern District League club Coldstream. But he soldiered on with another sporting passion.
Old-time Wangaratta cricketers will remember him as a left-hand batsman and right-arm quickie with Whorouly and Magpies, and a regular North-East Cup rep.
His association with Croydon (Sub-District) Cricket Club began when the family moved to the city in the early-seventies. His on-field contribution and services to the club as a junior coach were rewarded with a Life Membership, and he was still playing Veterans cricket 15 years ago, before reluctantly putting the cue in the rack.
Ron and Monika’s principal interest now are their four kids – Christine, Cheryl, Paul and Maree – and their seven grandkids.
But he probably harks back occasionally to the sixties and wishes he could convert a few of those nine losing Grand Finals into more premiership glory.