Legend may be a term that gets used loosely in football these days. But there is no other way to describe Don Ross. Ross played in Footscray's 1954 flag and won the Bulldogs' best and fairest two years later. The classy centreman is also a Hall of Fame member of the Bulldogs, the O&M and North Albury. Ross caught-up with The Border Mail's BRENT GODDE.
BRENT GODDE: Do you have a nickname?
DON ROSS: Growing up the other kids used to call me 'Pud' because I was a fat little kid until I started to grow and get a bit taller.
BG: You were born in Ballarat and moved around quite a bit growing up?
DR: My father, Don Snr, was in the pub game and bought and sold hotels. We lived in quite a few different towns including Beechworth and Boree Creek.
BG: You attended primary school at Boree Creek?
DR: I went to primary school at Boree Creek and then I went to high school at Albury.
BG: There were only two high schools back in that era, either Wagga or Albury?
DR: Luckily, I went to Albury where they played Australian rules because if I had gone to Wagga it would have been rugby league.
BG: You never played sports in primary school?
DR: I was at primary school during the Second World War and didn't even know what sports was until I got to high school.
BG: So you never played football until you got to high school?
DR: I had a football to kick at home but I had never played or watched a game previously. There just wasn't any sport in the bush during the war.
BG: You proved to be a natural at Aussie rules?
DR: I was lucky enough to represent NSW in interstate carnivals in Perth and Brisbane and got runner-up in NSW's best player for the carnival in Brisbane.
BG: After completing high school as a 15-year-old you were on the hunt for a job?
DR: Ken Hunter was coaching North Albury juniors and got me a job as an apprentice carpenter.
BG: You decided to play for the Hoppers as well?
DR: I never played juniors for the Hoppers, I made my senior debut as a 16-year-old.
BG: You played Wangaratta in the grand final in 1950 in your first year of senior football?
DR: Don Wilks who previously played for Hawthorn was our coach. Unfortunately we got beat by 16-points but the Magpies were a powerhouse and went on to win a hat-trick of flags.
BG: The following season in 1951 you won the Hoppers' best and fairest as a 17-year-old?
DR: I was starting to grow in confidence as a footballer and was lucky enough to win the best and fairest at a young age.
BG: It sparked the interest of VFL talent scouts at the time?
DR: My teammate Norm Benstead was kicking a lot of goals and Footscray came down to watch him play a few times during the season.
BG: You also caught the eye of the Bulldogs' recruiters?
DR: They invited me to come down and play in a practice match.
BG: You were also on the recruiting radar of a few other VFL sides?
DR: Hawthorn showed a bit of interest because Don Wilks told the Hawks I might be worth having a chat to. Geelong invited me to come down and watch them play in the grand final in 1951.
BG: You joined Footscray in 1952. How did a country kid find living in the big smoke?
DR: I didn't find it too hard because I had left home at 13 to go to high school so I was used to living away from home.
BG: Footscray also found you a job?
DR: They got me a job as a maintenance carpenter with Smorgons. I was only an apprentice at the time but they paid me a full adult wage.
BG: You also got paid to play for the Bulldogs?
DR: I was on 10 pound a match which was handy money but you couldn't live off it at the time.
BG: The highlight of your career was playing in Footscray's premiership in 1954 as a 20-year-old?
DR: I was lucky to play because I was posted to Puckapunyal to complete my compulsory national service and I couldn't even train during the finals series.
BG: Your duties with the army still kept you fit?
DR: We used to have to march for five hours a day and did a lot of other activities that kept me fit.
BG: There are only six players remaining from the premiership side?
DR: I was watching TV the other day and one of my teammates Angus Abbey was on one of the footy shows. He is 95-years-old. The last time I saw him was when we went to the grand final in 2016 when the Bulldogs won.
BG: By the time grand final day arrived you had already used your three leave passes from Puckapunyal?
DR: It was the Friday before the grand final when I found out I wasn't allowed another leave pass to play. Missing the grand final wasn't an option so I decided to do a runner with Don Whitten.
BG: So you both snuck out?
DR: We waited until it got dark and hitchhiked a lift in Seymour where I had my car parked.
BG: You were involved in a car crash on the drive to Melbourne?
DR: It was raining and the roads were slippery and I had a bit of a bingle. The boot flew open and all our gear was strewn across the road. But we got to Melbourne eventually.
BG: How were the nerves when you were getting ready for the grand final?
DR: I was never a nervous player and when I was getting a rubdown before the match I could of nearly went to sleep.
BG: Your teammate and ruckman Harvey Stevens realised he had forgotten his boots when he arrived in the changerooms?
DR: Harvey was a butcher and had worked the morning of the grand final and forgot his boots in the mad rush to get to the ground so he had to drive back to his house in Collingwood to get them.
BG: Did Harvey make it back in time?
DR: We were waiting for him to get back and he only arrived literally a couple of minutes before the game started.
BG: History says the Bulldogs scored an easy win in the decider?
DR: It was never in doubt really after we were 29 points up at the first break and went on to win by more than eight goals. It was a momentous occasion for the club being its first ever flag.
BG: How were the celebrations?
DR: Unfortunately I had to get back to Puckapunyal that night so I couldn't get too carried away.
BG: The celebrations were a bit of a shemozzle?
DR: We all arrived at a local hotel for tea but club officials had forgotten to make a booking and it was chock-a-block. A couple of the committee members had tea in the dining room while all the players had to sit in the hallway.
BG: What was on the menu?
DR: Since they were so busy all they had was the soup of the day for us.
BG: The players then went to the town hall to celebrate?
DR: By the time we got there it was packed. Charlie Sutton was going to introduce the players up on stage but somebody accidentally cut the cord and there were no lights and the amplifier didn't work.
BG: The players then decided to head back to the clubrooms?
DR: There were thousands of people back in the clubrooms because one of the officials said in the lead-up to the grand final that if we won the flag the beers would be flowing back at the clubrooms for free.
BG: You literally couldn't get in the ground?
DR: There were just too many people. So I headed back to Puckapunyal.
BG: In 1956 you enjoyed a standout season and won the Bulldogs' best and fairest?
DR: I had previously been playing in the centre and when we played Melbourne that year Ron Barassi was dominating as a ruck rover so they switched me to ruck rover.
BG: The swap in position was the catalyst for your best and fairest?
DR: I think it was and was where I played my best football.
BG: One of your teammates Peter Box won the Brownlow medal that season but you beat him in the best and fairest?
DR: It was controversial at the time because it rarely happens.
BG: You last season at the Bulldogs was 1958 which was the same season that Bob Spargo made his debut?
DR: I don't remember personally but Bob tells me I gave him a handball which resulted in his first kick in the VFL.
BG: You were only 24 when you quit the Bulldogs after 129 matches and 20 goals?
DR: It was all starting to fall to pieces. A few players left for other clubs, a few players went coaching. Ted Whitten was appointed coach and wasn't left with much of a side. Charlie Sutton got sacked which was also controversial.
BG: The committee tried to convince you to stay?
DR: I had to face the committee who told me there would be no way they would clear me to another club. I told them I didn't care and I moved back to Albury.
BG: Did any other VFL/AFL: clubs show interest in recruiting you?
DR: They did but Shirley and I had just started having a young family and I didn't want to raise my kids in the city.
BG: You decided to return to North Albury?
DR: I did but the Bulldogs wouldn't clear me initially. They offered me a stack more money and to fly me to Melbourne each week to play but I told them I was finished in the VFL.
BG: You ended up getting cleared to North Albury and got paid reasonably well to coach?
DR: There were a lot of former VFL players coaching in the O&M at the time because of the money. From memory I was on 40 pounds a match compared to 10 pounds at the Bulldogs.
BG: Who were some of the high-profile coaches of that era?
DR: Bob Rose and Murray Weidemann are two that come to mind.
BG: How did you find the challenge of coaching?
DR: I didn't rate myself as a good coach. A good friend of mine Jack Sheridan probably sums it up best and often says that I tried to do it all on my own.
BG: You worked with Gary Simonds when you were in Melbourne who went on to be one of the biggest home builders in Victoria?
DR: Gary and I worked together before his company got really big. I often joke that I could have done something similar but I would be dead now because of it.
BG: You were ulta consistent in the O&M and finished runner-up twice and third in the Morris medal?
DR: I think Bob Rose beat me one year, Jim Sandral did a couple of times and JIm Deane, so I wasn't getting beat by slouches I guess you could say.
BG: You represented the O&M on numerous occasions?
DR: I did but I didn't particularly like it. I voted against it after I retired when I was on the committee at North Albury.
BG: Any particular reason?
DR: I hated when players would play for the O&M and get injured and then be unavailable for club matches. The crowds had dropped off and most players are not as passionate about it any more.
BG: You only spent four seasons in the O&M?
DR: I had three kids which led to my decision. I did decide to go to Burrumbuttock for one season though in 1963.
BG: You regret your decision?
DR: I just couldn't find enough time to dedicate to footy with a young family. Also my building business was growing and very time consuming.
BG: Did you have any success at Burrumbuttock?
DR: We went through the home and away season undefeated but fell in a hole during the finals and got bundled out in straight sets.
BG: That was your last season of football?
DR: I retired at 29 to concentrate on my building business.
BG: You helped build the North Albury change rooms?
DR: Cleaver Bunton was on the council and North Albury president Ralph Marks helped to get all the funding and called tenders for the project.
BG: You got a phone call from Marks?
DR: Ralph called me to tell me that I would be building the new change rooms even though I didn't submit a tender.
BG: It's not what you know but who you know sometimes?
DR: Ralph gave all the tenders to tradies who supported North Albury football club. Even some of the players who didn't have a job were employed to help out.
BG: What would you consider the highlight of your career?
DR: No prizes for guessing the premiership with the Bulldogs. But right up there is playing alongside Charlie Sutton, Ted Whitten and Brownlow medallist John Schulz who in my opinion are three of the greatest Bulldog players ever.
BG: Have you got any regrets?
DR: I would have liked to have put a bit more thought into my coaching career. I consider myself successful in most things I've done except for coaching where I didn't even make finals.
BG: What were you like at recruiting players when you were coach of North Albury?
DR: Albury always trumped us whenever a high-profile recruit was available and we would end up with the second raters.
BG: Why was that?
DR: Albury always had outstanding coaches. Blokes like Jack Jones and Freddy Goldsmith come to mind.
BG: Did you ever get reported?
DR: Only once in my first season at the Bulldogs. My opponent was giving me a bit of lip so I rubbed his face in the mud when the opportunity arose. He chased me afterwards so we went toe-to-toe.
BG: How many weeks did you cop?
DR: We both got three weeks.
BG: Did you get any serious injuries during your career?
DR: When I was playing at high school I ruptured a kidney. It was the first match of the season when I was 15 and I wasn't allowed to play for the remainder of the season.
BG: Did you go on any memorable football trips away?
DR: Probably the one I enjoyed most was with Burrumbuttock. We went to Hay on a fishing and camping trip and stayed on a big station and slept in the shearers quarters.
BG: You and your teammate Jack Sheridan were the victims of a prank?
DR: Jack and I were asleep in our accomodation and a few of the blokes backed the truck up to the door. We were trapped when we woke up in the morning.
BG: You also got egged?
DR: When they finally decided to let us out all our teammates decided to egg Jack and I.
BG: Did you go on many footy trips when you were at Footscray?
DR: I didn't miss too many and went to places like Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane.
BG: The Bulldogs are obviously into another grand final on Saturday. What are your confidence levels like?
DR: I can't really split the two sides and it's just a matter of who makes the most of their chances in front of goal.
BG: You attended the grand final in 2016 to watch the Bulldogs win?
DR: The club invited all the past premiership players and it was an awesome experience. I would have loved to have gone again on Saturday if it was at the MCG.
BG: Do you still like to go and watch a match locally?
DR: I haven't the last two years because of COVID but previous to that I used to go watch North Albury a bit.
BG: You were a long-time horse trainer who always had a couple of horses in work as a hobby?
DR: I spent some time learning off Merv Norman and Jim Parr who were local trainers before breeding a few horses myself.
BG: You also spent some time down in Melbourne at different stables?
DR: I went down there for a couple of weeks and just spent time with trainers to learn as much as I could.
BG: You had a different theory on how to train horses to most trainers?
DR: My theory was I was going to train my horses the way I would want to be trained if I was a horse. And that's what I did.
BG: You bred all the horses you trained.
DR: All my horses had lad in their names. Sordon Lad was Don Ross spelt backwards and was one of my most talented horses. It won a Wagga Cup.
BG: Sordon Lad also won in Brisbane?
DR: Don Calder, Shirley and I went for holiday to Brisbane for six weeks and took the horse with us. We decided to run him and he ended up winning and paid for our holiday.
BG: What do you consider your best training effort?
DR: One of my horses won six races in Melbourne including an Oakleigh Plate which was my biggest win as a trainer..
BG: You weren't a fan of the Victorian stewards?
DR: After winning a race down there one day, the stewards wouldn't let me into the saddling enclosure because I wasn't dressed appropriately which really grinded my gears.
BG: You had to front the stewards?
DR: They told me that they expected me to dress a bit better when I was at the races. I told them they didn't have to worry about it because I wouldn't be back.
BG: You decided to focus on winning country cups instead of racing in the city?
DR: I contacted a breeding expert and told him that I wanted to focus on breeding country cup horses.
BG: It proved to be a smart decision?
DR: I won the Benalla Cup, Wangaratta Cup, Wodonga Cup, Corowa Cup, Wagga Cup and Albury Cup.
BG: You beat one of Lloyd Williams' runners in the Wagga Cup?
DR: I remember being in the committee room after the cup and they were all making a fuss over Lloyd even though he had only run second.
BG: You aren't Williams' biggest fan?
DR: I overheard him say in the committee room that at least the cup went to a battler which I didn't appreciate. I didn't have the same amount of money as Lloyd but I could write out a substantial cheque if I had to.
BG: You hold a unique record at Albury?
DR: I won the Albury Cup, the Base Hospital Cup and the Invitational Stakes over the Albury carnival which was prestigious at the time.
BG: Did you punt on your horses?
DR: I trained for forty years and had three bets during that time which all lost. I didn't have to bet because I owned and bred all my runners and was getting good prizemoney.
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