IMAGINE for a moment Corowa-Rutherglen signed Trent Cotchin as its coach in the weeks after Richmond claimed last year’s AFL premiership.
It simply wouldn’t happen, but 50 years ago was a far different football landscape.
Country clubs were cashed up and Ovens and Murray league teams had some of the deepest pockets.
Corowa claimed the wooden-spoon in 1967 and drastic action was required to turn its onfield fortunes around.
Fred Swift had lifted the VFL premiership cup aloft for Richmond with the full-back taking a memorable mark in the dying stages of the nine-point win against Geelong at the MCG in front of 109,396 people.
But his days at Punt Road were numbered and the Spiders pounced.
Corowa president Jack Fisher must have had a premonition about a revival when he wrote in the club’s annual report at the end of the season: “Our motto for 1968 – FROM LAST TO FIRST!!!”
He was bang on the money with an unforgettable premiership coming to fruition.
But a giant-killing run through September was needed and started with a must-win victory in the final home-and-away round against Wangaratta to scrape into the top four.
The Spiders beat North Albury in the first semi-final and then accounted for Myrtleford in the preliminary final at a time when the Saints were starting a march towards their first O and M flag in 1970.
The premiership pieces began falling into place earlier for Corowa with the Swift signing as captain-coach and his predecessor John Hoiles staying on.
Hoiles and John Lane were the onfield enforcers of a Spiders line-up sprinkled with some emerging talent in need of protection.
Bert Tait, Geoff Maclean, George Tobias, Peter Chisnall, Terry Phibbs, Fred Longmire and Dennis Hutton were all 21 years or under.
The Spiders also added a ruckman in Ike Illsley from St Kilda, a rover Lindsay Jacob from Walla and John Clancy, who would go onto win back-to-back Morris medals and later coach Corowa.
Swift’s impact was immediate according to those who played under him for two seasons at the John Foord Oval.
“He had no favourites,” Phibbs said.
“From the bottom or the top of the club you always rated with him.”
Tait, the youngest member of the premiership team at the age of 17, made his senior debut the previous year under Hoiles and said his decision to stay on was critical.
“(Swift) rated him highly,” he said.
“When I played my first game under him he said whatever you do, the only time you clench your fist is when you’re going to punch the ball.
“(But) If you are going to clench it in a pack do it so no bastard can see you.
“It was the way he operated.”
The Spiders also quickly embraced Swift’s brand of discipline and a simple, but effective game style of one handball and a long kick.
Corowa and Wodonga split their two matches during the season and the Bulldogs under former Collingwood back pocket Mick Bone were gunning for back-to-back flags after a break-through premiership the previous year.
Wodonga had stars on every line including defenders Brian Gilcrist and Ken Goyne, centreman Ray Smedley, wingmen Dick Grimmond and Ron Hill and forward Eddie Rogalski, who would kick seven goals in a losing grand final team.
Ruckman Gary Williamson was coming off a Morris Medal winning season in 1967, but had missed the Bulldogs’ premiership due to injury and 16-year-old Vin Doolan would go onto play 45 senior matches for North Melbourne and later return to the O and M as an undisputed star.
Grand final day at the W.J. Findlay Oval was warm with a strong northerly wind blowing straight down the ground.
Wodonga entered the match deserving favourites even though some big wagers were accepted by Spiders fans when they came through the night before to the Australia Hotel where Sid McCallum was the licensee at the time.
“There were no doubts they were the hot favourites,” George Tobias said.
“But we just went out and all did our bit.”
Both teams cashed in with the breeze in the first two quarters and Corowa led by 13 points at half-time before Wodonga responded with a six-goal third term.
But three goals into the breeze by the Spiders left them within striking distance at three-quarter time.
The lure of a drought-breaking premiership ensured Corowa lifted in the last term as the pace of Graeme Fraser, Longmire and Chisnall put victory within reach and Kevin Witherden’s fifth goal late in the match made it a formality.
The Spiders won 14.11 (95) to 12.16 (88) in front of an estimated crowd of 12,000 people.
“Corowa raced to the 1968 Ovens and Murray League premiership with a superb display of speed and skill against Wodonga,” The Border Mail’s Bob Phefley wrote.
“Watched by a cheering, sun-drenched crowd of 12,000, the Spiders forged to the front in the final term, then denied the Bulldogs challenging finishing burst to beat last season’s champions by seven points.
“Bulldog coach Mick Bone was one of the first into the Corowa rooms to offer congratulations on a great effort and he singled out John Clancy for special mention.
“’It was the good work of Corowa's little players that beat us and John Clancy was one player we could not counter’.”
Phefley predictably had tipped Wodonga to win before the grand final with a qualification of there being few who would begrudge the Spiders being victorious given their success-starved existence.
Among the Spiders fans who raced onto the ground after the final siren was their 1932 premiership coach Ray “Nana” Baker.
Corowa merged with old foe Rutherglen 11 years later and had to wait until 2000 before winning another flag.
The Spiders had decided to travel together to all finals matches by bus and the triumphant return trip on grand final night ended prematurely at Wahgunyah where the players climbed aboard a flat top trailer owned by Bernie Bott and did a victory lap of Sanger Street before settling in for a long night of celebrations at the John Foord Oval clubrooms.
“It was a triumph for what football meant to people in the Corowa community at the time,” Longmire said.
“History shows we haven’t won too many premierships in the Ovens and Murray and there is no doubt about it we did it the hard way.
“A lot of things had to come together and lucky for us they did.
“We could have been out in the first week of finals because Stan Sargeant cut loose and kicked a bag of goals on Swifty by half-time.
“It’s hard to comprehend all these years later where we had come from.
“After we beat Myrtleford at Albury in the preliminary final you could hear a pin drop in the rooms.
“We were all shitting ourselves thinking what we were suddenly doing in a grand final against a team as strong as Wodonga was at the time.
“Especially us young blokes.”
Longmire’s son Beau captained Corowa-Rutherglen to the 2003 O and M premiership team with Chisnall’s son Guy also in the line-up.
Swift coached the Spiders for one more season before joining Latrobe Valley league club Morwell as captain-coach in 1970-72 before a stint in charge of Kennington-Strathdale in the Bendigo league in the late 1970s.
Fifteen years after leading Corowa out of the premiership wilderness tragedy struck when the man who has a shelter at the John Foord Oval named after him was murdered in his own home near Bendigo.
Two intruders disguised in balaclavas and one brandishing a sawn-off .22 calibre rifle had entered the Swift family home with the gun used to shoot Swift in the heart and thigh.
He died soon after and the horrible news spread like wildfire with Corowa sharing in the football world’s grief at a man killed at the age of only 44.
“It hit a lot of people really hard,” Tobias recalled.
“The devastation was unreal.”
In the ensuing years Kevin Witherden, Bill Phibbs, Lindsay Jacob and most recently John Lane have died.
Corowa-Rutherglen has its backs to the wall again in the O and M, but miracles can happen as shown half a century ago.
*The Corowa Spiders 50-year premiership reunion will be held at John Foord Oval on Sunday, May 27.
COROWA 0.3 6.8 9.8 14.11 (95)
WODONGA 4.5 4.7 10.13 12.16 (88)
Goals: COROWA: Witherden 5, Jacob 3, Clancy 3, F. Longmire 2, Chisnall. WODONGA: Rogalski 7, Bone 2, Whitehead, Williamson, Cherry.
Best: COROWA: Fraser, F. Longmire, Clancy, Illsley, W. Phibbs, Jacob, Chisnall, Swfift, Eales, Hoiles. WODONGA: Scammell, Rogalski, Bone, Whitehead, Smedley, Coysh, Williamson, Doolan, Bastian.
Crowd: 12,000 (estimate) at W.J. Findlay Oval