Yallourn Football Club - 1945-65 - Ron "Knuckles" Lee (incl footnote re Scott Lee and Neil & Phil Ashmead) - by Roger Spaull

RON ‘KNUCKLES’ LEE

Ron Lee was born at Merbein (16 km from Mildura) in 1934. Ron’s school days began at Merbein Primary School and he advanced to the Higher Elementary School. In 1949, Ron attended Bendigo Technical School and, while his studies were important, it was in Bendigo that his football was ‘cultivated’ and flourished.

School football led to playing at Sandhurst Football Club. Sandhurst FC (established in 1861) is one of the most enduring sporting organizations in Australia. {Note: Thousands of Irish immigrants flocked to Ballarat and Bendigo to seek ‘their fortune’ during the gold rush. The Irish not only brought their love of whisky and music from the Emerald Isle but an exciting yet rugged game called ‘Gaelic football’. Bendigo was one of the first towns in the colony to embrace Gaelic football.}

Sandhurst FC has a magnificent history of producing great players. As at January 2013, fifty-six VFL/AFL footballers began their careers at Sandhurst. {Note: Don Palmer (North Melbourne~1959-64) coached Sandhurst FC before coaching at Yallourn Football Club in 1968-69}.

Ron Lee had it ‘in his blood’ to be a good footballer and Sandhurst FC enhanced his prospects to play at the highest level.

Ron crossed paths with other talented footballers while at Sandhurst FC. He played football with Fred Swift (Richmond 1958-67/Morwell), Brendan Edwards (Hawthorn 1956-63), Fred Le Deux (Geelong 1956-58), Graham Arthur (Hawthorn 1955-68) and Kevin Curran (Hawthorn 1940-51~ including War Service).

One of Ron’s lasting memories is of Kevin Curran (originally from Traralgon) demonstrating to Fred Swift the fundamentals of kicking a football. Kevin must have been an effective tutor, as in time, Fred was to become one of the most prodigious kicks ever seen in VFL/AFL football.

Along with Paul Vinar (Geelong), ‘Tassie‘ Bob Johnson (Melbourne) and Geoff Southby (Sandhurst/Carlton), Fred could consistently boot a ball 55-60 metres from full back.

Ron’s first taste of success, in senior football, came when he played for Kangaroo Flat in the Bendigo Football Association Grand Final in 1955.

Ron’s father had been the vice-captain/ruckman of the 1948 Kangaroo Flat premiership team. He was appointed coach of the ‘Green & White Kangaroos’ in 1955 and his return to the club brought immediate success.

Ron (Snr), Captain Rex Kelsey and Andy Danson had ‘worked wonders’ with Kangaroo Flat and had lifted the club from ‘cellar dwellers’ to Grand Finalists within twelve months. {Note: It was another remarkable tale in VCFL football and similar to what Jervis Stokes had achieved as the coach of Moe FC (LVFL) in 1956}.

The Kangaroos 11.16 (82) defeated North Bendigo 7.10 (52) at the Queen Elizabeth Oval that day. It was a very proud Ron Lee (Snr) who raised the BFA Premiership Cup to the loud cheers of the ‘Flat supporters. His son Ron (Jnr), together with Noel Miller, Rex Kelsey and Noel Hinson, had starred in that historic victory.

With the memory of the premiership win ‘fresh in his mind’ and his football boots in his kit bag, Ron arrived at Yallourn in 1956. He commenced work at the Yallourn Open Cut as a boiler maker. At just 22 years of age, Ron had a reputation as a ‘handy footballer.’ He was a ‘ready-made’ recruit for the Blues and was warmly greeted by Yallourn’s coach, Gerald Marchesi (ex-North Melbourne). Ron was an automatic selection after exhibiting his talent, fitness and attitude on the training track and he was selected to debut for the Blues against Morwell in the ‘local derby’.

On match day, Bob McGregor (YFC property steward) issued Ron with the number 28 jumper and he ran onto the Yallourn Oval to play his first game of LVFL football.

Ron didn’t take long to ‘get the feel’ of local football or acquire the nickname of ‘Knuckles.’ Early in the game, Tiger back pocket, Laurie Wilson, went down heavily and it ‘sparked an incident.’ Modern video-replay would have shown that Ron was ‘pretty close’ to the action. In the ensuing skirmish, Morwell wingman, Norm Trembath, ‘entered the fray’ with his eye firmly fixed upon Ron’s jaw.

It is not known if Norm was a Boy Scout but he certainly wasn’t prepared that day. Norm had very little ‘mail’ on the ‘new Blue from Bendigo’ but he received a short but sharp message. As often happens in football, ‘foe becomes friend’ and years later, Ron and Norm still laugh about the way they had become acquainted. Norm recalls that he …‘had to drink through a straw for six weeks.’

And so it was, that in a ‘baptism of fire’, Yallourn supporters (at the bar at Parkside end of the Yallourn Oval) dubbed Ron Lee “Knuckles’ and it ‘stuck like glue’. {Note: There is something of a twist in the nickname given so willingly by the Yallourn supporters that day. Apparently in the ‘good old days’ when pugilists (boxers) fought with bare knuckles (often known as fisticuffs), an English champion of the period was a gentleman named William ‘Bendigo’ Thompson (1811-1880)}.

However, as Yallourn supporters were to discover, there was a lot more to Ron Lee’s football than his ability to ‘mix it’ when things became ‘up-close and personal’. Ron was a forceful, courageous and highly skilled footballer. He was adept in all facets of the game and his strong and accurate left foot kicking was a feature of his play. In time, Ron won wide respect as one of the leading centre men in local football.

Ron played on the best in the LVFL but he ranks Moe’s Lester Ross as the hardest opponent he encountered in all his seasons at Yallourn FC. As mentioned before, Lester Ross was a remarkable footballer who won the Trood/Rodda Medal (1958), played for St Kilda and starred in the SANFL. Other players Ron admired were Brian Hammond (Traralgon), Nick ‘Candles’ Mills (Warragul) and Kevin Coverdale (Bairnsdale/LVFL medallist in 1961).

When asked to list players who impressed at YFC, Ron mentioned that Murray French and John Hutchinson have been an important part of his life in so many ways. Ron also had the utmost respect for Steve Szabo (Trood/Rodda Medals~1960&65), Bruce Knight and Rick Belford (Trood/Rodda Medal~1962).

Ron’s coaches at Yallourn FC were Gerald Marchesi (1956~ex-North Melbourne), Vin Sabbatucci (1957~ex-Fitzroy/St Kilda), Vic Lawrence (1958-59~ex-North Melbourne), Jim Dorgan (1960-61~ex-South Melbourne) and John Hutchinson (1962-63 also Fitzroy).

Ron’s career highlights with YFC included:
1. Played for a decade with Yallourn (1956-66).
2. Played 130 senior games and 19 reserve grade games for YFC.
3. 55 goals (approx).
4. 1956~Most Reliable Player Trophy.
5. 1958~Best Clubman.
6. Vice-captain of YFC.
7. 1959~Best Clubman.
8. 1960 Member of the Semi Final team v Bairnsdale.
9. 1962~Best Clubman.
10. 1966~Reserves Coach (Runners-up).

His other involvement in the YFC, as a non-player, was extensive:-
1. Coaching the Yallourn Under: 16 team to a flag in 1972.
{See the photograph that has been posted with this story. Two of Ron’s best friends in life John Hutchinson (& son Peter) and Murray French, who acted as team officials, are in the photograph. Ron’s son is also in the team}.
2. Ron was Chairman of Selectors for two seasons.
3. Acted as a club trainer.
4. YFCPP&OA President and committee member.

Ron explained why YFC was such a special place in his life in those years…“I enjoyed the comradeship, the club spirit and the good relations we had with the people we played against…and the social life headed by Roy Norden, the President, who opened his house to all every Saturday night.”

It is true that Roy Norden was a popular, warm-hearted and gregarious President of YFC. Roy and Dorothy Norden both played a vital role in fostering comradeship and unity within the playing group, officials and supporters. Roy’s children (Heather and John) were also very active and willing volunteers around the club.

Ron clearly remembers the great fun that the players had at the Annual Balls in those days. Ron has never forgotten when the players performed on stage as GO-GO dancers. Apparently, the boys were no threat to Denise Drysdale’s career that evening!

Football is a strong thread that binds the Lee family. Ron’s two sons (Ron & Scott) carved impressive football careers after playing with the YFC junior and senior teams. Ron was an accomplished rover/midfielder and travelled Australia playing football before settling in Adelaide. Scott was listed at Hawthorn and played 86 AFL games for the Adelaide Crows (1991-95). Scott was 27 years of age when he made his debut in the AFL. Round 13 in 1992 was Scott’s ‘breakout game’ when he ran the Carlton defence ‘ragged’ with 24 handballs, 8 kicks and 3 goals.

Scott played his last game for the Crows at the age of 32 in 1995. He was a highly decorated player in the SANFL where he played 245 games for Central Districts. He was second in the 1990 Margery Medal and is still coaching at Gawler FC where his twin nephews (Ron & Danny) are team members.

Once again, Ron Lee’s story underlines the reason why men, women and children, from all backgrounds and situations, came to love Yallourn and everything it offered in the way of sport, social activities and lasting friendships.

Special thanks to Ron for this wonderful account of his years with YFC and a note of appreciation from ‘Virtual Yallourn’ to John Hutchinson for his kind assistance in writing this story.

FOOTNOTES: SCOTT LEE~ NURIOOTPA~ NEIL & PHIL ASHMEAD (YFC).

1. Scott Lee coached in Nuriootpa (in the Barossa Valley~South Australia) from 2006-2008. He coached Nuriootpa in the club’s historic Centenary Year celebrations.

2. It will be of interest to Virtual Yallourn readers that, another well known Yallourn identity and talented YFC footballer, Neil Ashmead also lived at Nuriootpa. Neil (born May 1946) was a co-founder of the now famous ‘Elderton’ winery. Neil’s contribution to the Australian wine industry was considerable. He gained national and international acclaim for his label and was named a ‘Baron of the Barossa’ in 1992. He also won the prestigious ‘Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy’ in 1993 for wine making.

3. Neil grew up in Yallourn, attended Yallourn PS (4085), YHS and completed his Diploma of Civil Engineering at YTS. Neil played junior football with YFC and was vice-captain of the YFC Thirds in 1964. As a senior Yallourn footballer, Neil played mainly as a half back flanker. Neil represented Yallourn Swimming Club at the Gippsland Swimming Championships in individual and relay events. He was regarded as an exceptional surf board rider and later became involved in touring/rally car driving. The ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ (April 25 1989) described Neil as… “not your average winemaker.” It is true there was nothing ‘average’ about Neil Ashmead…he was a remarkable individual.

4. Neil served in Vietnam as a Sapper (combat engineer) when undertaking National Service (1968-69). Some years later, Neil worked as an engineer/consultant in Saudi Arabia.

5. Sadly, Neil passed away in 1997. His grave is located at the Nuriootpa Cemetery.

6. Neil’s father (Phil) was a prominent sportsman and respected personality of Yallourn. He was a member of the ‘Yallourn Blues’ team of the late 1930’s. Phil’s team was coached by former Melbourne-St Kilda champion Colin Deane in 1937. Stan Attenborough, who was later to play for North Melbourne (1943-44), was one of Phil’s team mates that year. Tom Knight coached the ‘Yallourn Golds’ that year.

7. Phil Ashmead can be seen in photographs of the YFC teams of 1937 and 1944.

8. In August 1944, Phil starred in an ‘exhibition/social’ match which had been organized to raise money for ‘The Prisoner of War Fund.’ The match was played at the Yallourn Oval and the collection raised £6. 10s.

9. In 1946 Phil played for YFC in the ‘Victory Day Carnival’ at Sale.

10. Phil served on the committee of the YFC in the late 1940’s.

11. Phil was an ‘A’ Grade cricketer and represented the CGCA at five Country Week Cricket Carnivals between 1939 and 1950. He won the CGCA Batting Average Award in 1939-40. Although a top line wicket keeper, Phil was a handy bowler when required. He was the stand-out batsman against the visiting Melbourne Cricket Club XI in 1948. In that game he top scored for Yallourn with 62 runs. Phil also played in the local badminton competition and, in time, became President of the Yallourn Golf Club.

Written for Virtual Yallourn by Roger Spaull~January 2013.

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Yallourn Football Club - 1945-65 - Ron "Knuckles" Lee

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Ron Lee and his Under: 16 team. John Hutchinson and Murray French can be seen in the photograph also.