SPORT­ING LE­GENDS: Cel­e­brat­ing the sport­ing life of our lo­cal cit­i­zens Ron Critch­ley

When Mur­mungee made the news

Wangaratta Chronicle - - Front Page -

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.word­­thor/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.

Ron Critch­ley

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