When 19 year old Tony Ongarello played his first game for Fitzroy in 1952, it was against Richmond, the side he grew up supporting. This would, understandably, be a slightly uncomfortable experience for any young footballer, but one that would be quickly forgotten once the ball was set in motion. In this instance, however, his knowledge of the Richmond side gave him a greater understanding of what playing against the Tigers would mean; Don “Mopsy” Fraser would be on the field.
Mopsy was a fierce competitor, and one of the names most easily recognisable as one of the VFL’s bruisers. In his eight seasons of football with Richmond, he would be suspended for a total of 16 games. After his stint at the Tigers, he would play four seasons for Port Melbourne in the VFA, and be suspended for a whopping 30 matches.
The spectre of a shady world hung over Mopsy, and his was a different existence to that of the young Ongarello, who was fresh out of Parade College; schooling he had received following a singing scholarship.
Despite being slightly overawed by the experience, Tony had managed to kick a goal before Mopsy was moved onto him. The 29 year old veteran Tiger was physical from the outset and Tony noted that he was quite literally frothing at the mouth as he stood the young debutant.
Brutality is a side of VFL footy from the middle of last century that is often romanticised and remembered with fondness. It can be easy to overlook that young men had to live with that as their reality for the enjoyment of others. I think the majority of sport lovers would agree that the world has rightly moved on from the likes of Mopsy Fraser.
The other side of VFL footy that is looked back upon fondly, and rightly so, is that concerning the highflying marks. Though the specky is still present in our game today, if those who were there to witness the game are to be believed, it was especially present back then. Tony, who played 131 matches in nine seasons and kicked 247 goals, was a great exponent of the high mark, and thus a crowd favourite.
A junior high jump record holder, he played in the Sunday Under 19 competition for Thornbury YCW, and was a key member of their 1951 Premiership side. This team happened to be coached by former Fitzroy player Frank “Hoot” Gibson. As such, it was no great surprise when Fitzroy started to show an interest in the young full forward, despite him being zoned to Collingwood.
He was in the process of moving from the Magpies’ zone to the Fitzroy zone during his signing to the Roys, and had to remain hush about the move lest the signing be disallowed. A Collingwood official would later tell him that they would have stopped it if they had known. No VFL story from the 1950s is complete without a shonky recruitment story, and Tony’s is no different. It is with great affection that he looks back on those junior football days; it is often the simpler times that offer the most enjoyment. His father Gino “would rent a furniture van for the day. (The team) would use it as change rooms, as the grounds rarely had them.”
Looking at a photo of the 1951 side, Tony reeled off the names of the young men pictured as if he’d played with them on the weekend. These men, now in their 70s or 80s would no doubt look back on their days of playing junior footy with Tony Ongarello with the same wistful reverie.
A man of simple beginnings does not necessarily have great expectations, and that is just as well, for Fitzroy did not have much in the way of facilities to offer its footballers. What it did have, says Tony, is “great people”. The club was not the tenant of the Brunswick Street Oval, the cricket club was. Thus, despite bringing in the crowds that brought the money, Fitzroy would take whatever the cricket club was prepared to give them.
The Fitzroy people: players; administrators and family, would do whatever they could to help the club get by, be it selling sausages or beer at the weekly Sunday morning social or whatever. Despite this critical shortage of cash, in Tony’s first year, 1952, Fitzroy would go all the way to the Preliminary Final. They would lose to Collingwood by 19 points and Tony would kick two goals. They were surely aided in getting there by their new young star, as he had kicked 50 goals for the year; their leading goal kicker in his first season.
With the unnerving first game with Mopsy Fraser frothing at the mouth out of the way, Tony had eased his way into VFL footy and had got his career underway with six goals against Carlton in his third game. In Round 8 of 1952, the league organised for all the matches to be played interstate in a bid to broaden the VFL’s appeal. Fitzroy played Melbourne in North Hobart.
“The air came in off the mountains and you felt like you could jump ten feet in the air. I kicked seven goals for the day and it was one of my best matches and great experiences.”
When a man who was renowned for taking hangers recounts the day that was especially good for jumping, it can only make one wish to have been able to be there and see it. He was in fine form at the time, and two weeks later would kick five goals against Essendon. This is the game in which the great John Coleman was to be held goalless for the only time, with Vic Chanter the defender now famous for his efforts on that day.
On Coleman, Tony is adamant. “He is the greatest player to have played the game. He could do it all: he was quick, skilful, could jump and mark, was tough, but fair. He was without peer. I played in the game before his last. He kicked 14 goals on us and was untouchable. He would repeatedly jump and take the most sublime marks. Easily the greatest player I have seen.”
Later, when discussing the Brisbane Lions coaching predicament and board troubles, Leigh Matthews was mentioned.
“He would be Coleman’s competitor wouldn’t he?” I said.
“In what way?” he responded.
“As the best.”
“Not as far as I’m concerned. Matthews is one of the game’s greatest players, but to my mind Coleman stands alone.”
The game following his 14 goals against Fitzroy, Coleman would kick 5 against North Melbourne before dislocating his knee. He would never play again.
It is easy to see why Tony Ongarello was such a fan of John Coleman, they played similarly. There are differences of course, and the main one is clearly that Coleman was an elite kick. In his 131 games, Tony is credited with kicking 247 goals, but the records don’t show how many behinds he kicked. According to those who saw him, there were many.
Unfortunately for Tony, in the very same game in which Coleman was held goalless and Tony had kicked his five goals, he went up for a mark in the goalsquare against Essendon fullback Bill Brittingham. Tony landed face first and Brittingham, who was known for his angular frame, landed on the Fitzroy spearhead’s lower back.
Tony played out the season all through to the heartbreaking Preliminary Final loss, but it was only after he had stopped training and playing that it became evident just how injured he was. Excruciating pain in his back was met with shooting pain down his right leg. Diagnosed with severe spinal damage, his future in football looked over after just the one brilliant season.
Eventually he found a surgeon, “the brilliant John Jens”, who operated, removing a disc and performing a spinal fusion. With some months of rehabilitation, he was able to make it back for Round 12 of the 1953 season. His leap remained, but the follow through on his kick was gone. Never a great kick to begin with, he started having terrible difficulty getting the ball to go straight.
By 1954 he was being played as a tall defender and was able to use his beautiful leap to take marks in the backline. In 1955 he was tried once again up forward and it was in this season that he earned his greatest claim to fame. Despite all he has achieved in football, from Life Membership at Fitzroy to being named in the forward pocket alongside Peter McKenna in Parade College’s Team of the Century to Fitzroy Committeeman to a nomination for The Italian Team of the Century to being a 3 time leading goal kicker for Fitzroy, Tony Ongarello will always be remembered as the last man in VFL/AFL history to successfully score a goal using a place kick.
“In 1955 we were playing against Geelong at Brunswick Street and I had kicked three early but things started to go wrong. I had kicked four to six points in a row and it just wasn’t working for me. The game was tight and it was in the last five or so minutes of the last quarter when I took a mark.
“When I was a young Richmond supporter I would head down to watch the Tigers play. One day, I went to watch them at South Melbourne and Jack Graham, the South captain, put the ball down and kicked a place kick goal right in front of me. I’d never seen it before, so the next day I went down to the park with my football and tried it.
“I never attempted it again until I took that mark against Geelong in the last quarter in 1955. I just remembered it and thought I’d try it. I dug a little spot, put the ball in it, went back and kicked the goal. A couple of minutes later I kicked another with the place kick to put us in front. I finished with five for the day, but unfortunately they came back and beat us.
“I tried a couple of times again that year. Big John Kennedy, the Hawthorn ruckman, touched one on the line that was going to go through, and another didn’t go near it. And then that was it.”
As suddenly as it had arrived the place kick was gone and his VFL career continued in a mixture of the forwardline and backline play. He did not play in the finals again until the 1958 season. Not surprisingly, he kicked 54 goals for the season. Tony, however, attributes much of this success to Len Smith.
When asked about his experiences with coaches, he quite definitively states that Len Smith was by far the best coach of men and tactician of football he saw. To put that into perspective, Len was the older brother of Norm Smith, the AFL Hall of Fame Legend and Coach of the AFL Team of the Century.
“I saw Norm Smith coach; he was swearing and cursing and quite aggressive. It didn’t do much for me. Len, on the other hand was gentle and quiet and interested in his players. He was universally loved by those that played for him. It was quite a contrast.
“He had a great mind for the game and he had us playing a quick style that used the flick pass effectively.”
When asked if that was about the time that the great E.J. Whitten invented it, Tony clarified that it was Len who started the flick pass, but it was Teddy who took it and turned it into something which was later banned. As an aside, it turns out that Tony had Whitten as his opponent on a number of occasions. He saw him as a great talent who loved to talk.
On Len Smith, there is no doubt that Tony remembers him with great respect and admiration. Unfortunately, Fitzroy lost their 1958 Semi Final against North Melbourne by 4 points; he kicked one goal.
In 1959 they missed the finals and Tony, aged just 27, retired from football. Having taken over his father’s wine shop in his early twenties, he then went into the pub business with his great mate, Fitzroy captain and eventual ruckman in Fitzroy’s Team of the Century, Alan “Butch” Gale. With this heavy load he was finding it particularly difficult to spare the appropriate time to play football.
By 1960 he was playing some amateur Sunday competition football and found himself kicking some goals. Fitzroy came knocking: “They told me they were a fair chance to play finals and wanted me to play. I thought I could go around again.”
His first game back was in Round 10 against North Melbourne and he kicked six goals. The lure of finals was justified and the Roys were to finish equal on points with Melbourne at the top of the ladder. They would be knocked out in the Preliminary Final against Collingwood by five points, in which, in typical Fitzroy fashion, the game was lost by a kick off the ground from the pocket with only minutes to spare. Tony kicked three goals for the match, but “had little impact”.
This time he retired and retired for good. He moved into the world of broadcasting and would commentate on the radio and TV for the better part of two decades where he could make many times the money “without ever getting dusty or sweaty or hurt”.
He still watches footy now, because “that’s what you do”, but he doesn’t enjoy it as much as he used to. It reminds him of “rugby or under 10s games, how they are all on the ball or chasing the ball. No-one is in position. I know why they do it, but it isn’t good to watch.”
He is proud of his links to Fitzroy, and recounts some of the successes and great players of the ‘80s with pride. However, he believes that, although it was the right thing for Fitzroy to merge with Brisbane, Fitzroy “should have more of an outward presence” in Brisbane. In fact, he thinks they should have gone up and formed the club in the late ‘80s when they had their chance.
Tony is greatly unimpressed by any semblance of fame, yet he showed me a photo of him in his playing days dressed in his full Fitzroy playing kit, standing on an oval with a little girl. The photo had been given to him a couple of months earlier at a Fitzroy supporters function by the girl’s husband. She’d had it for 60 years. It seems that, even when someone doesn’t care for their own fame, others will.
When I tried to impress on him just how cool it is that he is a Life Member at Fitzroy he brushed it aside. When I expressed that it is every footballer’s great wish to be a highflying full forward in the big league he said, “It is only football. There is much more of consequence in life than footy.”
He is right, of course, but it is cool nonetheless.
He is softly spoken and well considered. He is well dressed and humble to a fault, with a twinkle in his eye. He is a gentleman out of an old movie; a dapper, smooth talking fighter pilot. Oh yeah, that’s right, he flew planes after being called up in the Number 1 National Service intake and getting assigned to the Airforce in 1951. Only in recent years has he had to give up his pilot’s license. What a guy.
As my Dad says about ice cream, movies and Australian batsmen, they don’t make ‘em like they used to. They sure don’t. A lot of new things may come to pass in the future of the AFL, but you will never see another place kick, and I reckon you’ll never see another Tony Ongarello.