Ray 'Dodger' Thompson wasn't your typical ruckman. Standing at around six-foot, his opponents would often smirk when they lined up against him. Thompson played in some fiery clashes in the Ovens and King and Tallangatta and District leagues, but he's the first to admit he'd never take a step back. The Border Mail's Georgia Smith caught up with the former Wodonga Demon at Birallee Park this week.
Georgia Smith: How did the nickname 'Dodger' come about?
Ray Thompson: It actually came from school. I'd like to be able to say it came from being evasive on the field, but it wasn't the case at all. One of the guys at school started calling me Roger. Raymond, Roger, Dodger. It just stuck from there.
GS: Where did your footy career begin?
RT: I started at Wodonga Showgrounds playing in the sub-midgets and played there until under-13s before going to under-18s. I played under legend Bill Hedley. He coached us to a grand final. The last year I played in the juniors I won the league best and fairest, league goal kicking, club best and fairest, club goal kicking and I think I got the coaches award as well. Other than the juniors I never won a club best and fairest.
GS: You then went to Lavington?
RT: I tried to get into Wodonga thirds and couldn't break into the side. When I was too old to play under-18s my brother and a few of his mates were playing at Lavington, so I went and had a year under Ken Roberts. I played mainly centre half-forward in the reserves.
GS: You got another award that year?
RT: During presentation night we were at the Lavington Sports Club auditorium full of people and they were going through the awards in the seconds and they said, 'leading goal kicker for the reserves, Ray Thompson.' I didn't realise I'd kicked that many goals. As I was walking up to the stage the announcer said, 'yeah Ray kicked 15 goals this year.' That was pretty embarrassing. I won the goal kicking with 15 goals.
GS: How'd you come to play at Chiltern?
RT: I worked with Des and Gavin Lappin. Gavin was a good mate of mine. I rang Kevin Mayhew, the president of Chiltern at the time and asked if they were looking for a centre half-forward. He said yes and asked what I wanted. I said I just needed money for petrol and spent the next four years there. The first year was under Jack Clancy. Jack was a legend as a coach and player. We went through losing one game for the year. Seven weeks out from finals we played North Wang at North Wang. I bent down to pick up the ball and Neil McMonigle came through with his hip and shoulder and dislocated my shoulder. I was out for five weeks and got back in for finals on the bench. We went straight out.
GS: But you had better luck the next year?
RT: The following year we went on undefeated and won the grand final in 1982.
GS: It was a bit of a bloodbath against Milawa?
RT: In that grand final we were down at half time by about three goals. One of the trainers hit one of our players on the boundary, that's why they called it a bloodbath.
GS: Chiltern were pretty tough?
RT: There were a lot of Lappins that played in the day. I wouldn't say they were dirty players, they were just tough. I remember the first game I played, Jock Lappin was full forward and we were walking out on the ground. I was centre half-forward and he said, 'listen young fella, if any fights start don't look back, just keep going forward because I'm right behind you.' I think I was 20 at the time, so it was pretty comforting.
GS: You went back-to-back the next year?
RT: Jack Clancy left and Terry Smith came to coach us. We'd lost 10 players out of the side. Halfway through the season we were bottom of the ladder and struggling. Terry was a very passionate footballer, but in being passionate, he was also very verbal. He was old-school in that when you weren't playing well everyone got a rev. One night myself and Rowdy (Lappin) pulled the boys up and said, 'we're not doing what we should be doing, we need to not ignore the instructions of Terry, but ignore the language and screaming and just play for each other.' We ended up making the five on percentage. We won the grand final against Beechworth by about 18 points. I think that year I was finally accepted as a Chiltern person.
GS: How'd you land at Wodonga Demons?
RT: They'd recruited Tom Doolan from Albury to coach, and him and John Perry, who is an absolute legend of the club, recruited Gavin Lappin from Chiltern. When Gav signed they said, 'is there anyone else you think might be interested?' He said me. They came around to talk to me and Tommy said, 'where do you play?' I said centre half-back. He looked at me and said, 'you're probably not big enough for a centre half-back. What sort of money are you looking at?' I said I was getting $50 travel money at Chiltern and if I could get that I'd be happy. Tommy said, 'yeah ok, I've never seen you play so I reserve the right to drop that if I don't think you're worth the money.' I said, 'no worries.'
GS: But you always wanted to play for Wodonga Bulldogs?
RT: Ovens and King didn't play interleague back then but they named an all-star team in the local paper and I was named at centre half-back. I came back in and had a preseason with Wodonga and I desperately wanted to play there. I started the season in the reserves and was in the best every week for the first five games. Wodonga were trying to get Chiltern to clear me because you could only play five games under permit. Jock Lappin luckily said no. 'If you play him in the seniors then we'll clear him.' The following week they named me on the bench in the reserves. I went to the coach and asked what was going on. He said I was playing well but they had Bob Craig and Peter Ohlin coming back from injury. They said they didn't think I could play anywhere else but centre half-forward and I wasn't going to put Bob Craig out of centre half-back, so I went back to Chiltern. I was happy to then go to Demons.
ALSO IN SPORT:
GS: You played in another fiery grand final against Mitta?
RT: A Mitta guy ran straight off the bench and knocked Chuck Hedley out on the wing. A fight broke out and I went toe-to-toe with Andy O'Connell. He was a tough nut. I got on top of him and then thought you're done. Another scuffle broke out and the next minute I got a punch right behind my ear. It was Andy O'Connell. It was pay back.
GS: It knocked you around a bit?
RT: I could see double. I was playing in the ruck and went to Murphy to get him to play there. Five minutes later Hynes (Ross) came running down the wing. I led out, it was a perfect pass right in front of me, but there were two footballs coming at me. I chose the wrong one. The other one hit me in the face. After half time I lost the double vision and we went on to win the first flag here.
GS: Like playing ruck?
RT: In the juniors I was a ruckman and centre half-forward. In my third year at Demons Bert Hollands was coaching and our ruckman was injured. I said I could play ruck and did for the rest of the year. I'm only six foot and guys I'd play against would look at me and think it was going to be easy, but it wasn't. A lot of them were quite a lot taller than me and you could tell they'd get a smirk on their face. Matt Holgate from Yarrawonga was probably the best ruckman I played on. It was always a disputed thing with me and Steve Taylor about who got first touch in the grand final. He said, 'how could you have had the first touch, I kicked it out of the centre.' I said, 'yeah, but I tapped it.'
GS: It wasn't always easy for the Demons?
RT: We'd had recruits leave because there was no money left. I got on the committee in 1986 and suggested a performance-based payment. For every vote you got you'd get $15, so you had the potential if you got all the votes to earn $200. There were no paid players and we kept the same thing in 1987. Bert, Ian Butler and Marty Garoni were the only ones that were paid outside the system for coaching.
GS: You helped get Jack Clancy to coach at the club?
RT: We had a guy called Jim Jewell come to coach us in 1986. We were six games into the season and he got a work promotion and had to leave. The committee at the time were wondering who we were going to get to coach. Me and Chuck Hedley said we thought we could get Jack Clancy. They said they'd already asked him and he wasn't interested. He had the Murray River Hotel at the time. Me and Chuck went down to the Murray River and had a few beers with Jack and convinced him to come and coach us.
GS: You were runner-up in a Barton Medal?
RT: We played Barnawartha in the last game of the season. Ken Wright was umpiring and Mark Evans was by far the best player on the ground. I got invited to go to the medal count. Hughie Giltrap was leading, Ross Hillary was second and I was third, which was a bit of a surprise. They were reading out the last round and I thought I won't pass Hillary. The votes came out and and they said, 'two votes Mark Evans.' I couldn't believe he didn't get best. I got the three votes and passed Hillary into second place. Later on I was in the toilet and Ken Wright comes in. He said, 'are you going to thank me Thomo?' I said, 'what for?' He said Evo was so abusive that day he couldn't give him the three votes. He said, 'it's best and fairest.'
GS: You once had a close call?
RT: I thought I was going to drown one day playing football. Bethanga's ground had a bit of a slope in it. The ball was on the ground where all the water was around the change rooms. I've dived in to grab the ball and as I've dived the water's come up into my face. I held my breath and grabbed the footy. I was about to hop up when six guys from both teams jumped on my back and my head was pushed into the water. When I came back up I was swinging. You can just imagine the headlines, 'footballer dies on country footy ground.'
GS: You usually didn't mind playing in the wet though?
RT: I used to like playing in the rain because it slowed everyone down to my pace and I could catch them.
GS: In 1989 Demons joined the Ovens and Murray league as the Raiders.
RT: I played my first full year of seniors in the Ovens and Murray, which was what I had always wanted to do. I did it as a ruckman. Mark Turner was the coach and he laughed when they told him I was the ruckman.
GS: How was the first game?
RT: Our first game of the season in the Ovens and Murray was against Benalla in Benalla. I was playing in the ruck and we'd recruited Shayne Dryden and Dale Smith, who were about 16 at the time. There was a guy playing for Benalla called Jamie Ronke, who was a good player. Rat was running down the wing with the footy and had just kicked the ball when Ronke came in and cleaned him up. I thought he didn't have to hit the kid and Rat was pretty skinny. I thought I'd just watch Ronke. Greaves was centre half-back for Benalla and every time he got the ball Ronke would run behind him and he'd handball out to him. I thought if I get a chance, the next time he comes out of the blind side I'm going to be there. Sure enough I got my chance. As he came out I was full steam with a hip and shoulder. He was lying on the ground saying I was dirty. I said, 'well you didn't have to do it to the kid, so I'm doing it to you.' He was taken off with his shoulder. I was quite proud of the fact that I settled the score. You had to look after the young ones.
GS: You spent some time at Barnawartha?
RT: I had two seasons there. The second year we played Mitta in a grand final. In the last quarter we were behind by two or three goals and I thought, I have to do something here to get us into the game. I did hit someone in general play and the umpire caught me and I was sent off. The last 15 minutes of my career I spent on the bench.
GS: Time right to stop?
RT: I probably would have kept playing but at the time I was 31, had a bad knee and started work as a shift worker. I thought in a couple of years' time I'd go back, but I never did.
GS: Ever play interleague?
RT: Every year I played in the Tallangatta League I made the interleague side, which was an honour. I got to play with guys like Barney Brown and Hughie Giltrap, who were absolute legends. They were as tough as nails.
GS: Ever coach?
RT: If I hadn't been a shift worker I probably would have coached. When my eldest boy, Mitch, started playing I coached him and I coached my youngest, Dillon, in Auskick and juniors. I coached the Bulldogs' under-16s to a grand final and the boys gave me a footy, which I still have.
GS: Get a hard time for them playing at Bulldogs and not Raiders?
RT: My god did I get a hard time. Every time I ran into someone from Raiders they'd say 'your boys should be playing here.' I said I'm not going to tell my kids where to play.
GS: They play much footy?
RT: Mitch was a workhorse and Dillon was quite talented. He represented Vic Country in basketball and played nationals for Vic Country in Western Australia in under-15s. We saw the likes of Darcy Moore and Jack Martin over there. Watching Jack Martin, I said that kid will play AFL.
GS: Biggest highlight?
RT: The thing I hold in the highest esteem was here at Demons. They had a great committee who worked really hard around the club. The last award on awards night was for best club member. It normally went to a committee person, but in 1986 I won it. I probably cherish that more than anything.
GS: Ever play any other sports?
RT: I played cricket in my younger days but lost interest because they made me wicket keep. I also played basketball in the summer to keep fit. Gav Lappin and I took up golf and played almost every Sunday. One day we decided to play a competition in Wodonga before a game in Chiltern. We finished at 12pm and cruised down to play footy. The first quarter wasn't so bad but halfway through the second quarter we were starting to feel a bit tired. By the third quarter I had nothing left and Gav started cramping. Needless to say we never played golf before footy again.
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