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    Ron James a young star for Williamstown and Footscray

    Ron James a young star for Williamstown and Footscray



    He was just 14 when he debuted in a senior grand final and it didn’t take long to realise his dream of playing in the VFL. Then, at 19, a tragic accident took away a young star who could have been one of the greats. Here’s his emotional story.

    It scarcely seemed believable.

    A 14-year-old called up to make his senior debut?

    In a VFA grand final?

    The story ran in the Sunday papers on the day of the 1985 decider between Williamstown and Sandringham at the Junction Oval: the Seagulls were going to play schoolboy Ron James.

    It created a buzz around the ground but many spectators weren’t prepared to believe the sensational selection until they saw the kid run through the banner.

    And there he was, Ronnie James, 14 but already built like a man and enjoying the confidence of Willy captain-coach Terry Wheeler to make a contribution in the last match of the season in his first senior game.

    And he was into stride early. Wheeler knows the passage of play off by heart and has recalled it many times.

    “Well bugger me, Kim Kershaw gets the first knock, straight to Stan Davidson,’’ Wheeler told Inside Football in 2010.

    “Stan kicks it to the forward pocket and who’s on the end of it, Ronnie. He swings around, has one bounce, has a shot, misses. But he’s running hot within the first 10 seconds of the game.’’

    Tony Hannebery, who was president of Willy at the time, recalled on Monday: “And when that happened the crowd went berserk. Sadly he missed. But it was one of those unforgettable moments.’’


    Ron James in the Footscray jumper in 1988.

    James more than justified his call-up, having nine kicks, six handballs and five marks as Willy went down to the flag favourites by six points.

    Hannebery can recall the talk about James before the start of the grand final.

    “People couldn’t believe he was going to play, a 14-year-old,’’ he said. “But even though he was 14 he was already a grown man. He had the body of an adult.’’

    Just over five years later, Hannebery delivered a eulogy at the funeral for James at an overflowing Holy Trinity Church in Williamstown.

    Ron James was killed in a water skiing accident on the Murray River on January 1, 1990. He was only 19.

    Two months shy of what would be James’s 50th birthday, Hannebery refers to him as the “boy’’ and remains convinced he would have gone on to be a star league footballer with Footscray.


    Ron James (front row, third from left) in Willy's 1986 premiership team.

    He joined the Dogs in 1987, after playing in Willy’s 1986 senior premiership. He had skills on both sides of his body and a step to get him out of trouble. Opponents had to be on to catch elusive Ron.

    “I was hopeful he’d march straight in and win a Brownlow Medal,’’ Hannebery said of his wish for James. “I was just so confident in his ability. As it turned out he probably took a bit longer to adjust.’’

    James’s three seasons at Footscray brought him 16 matches under the coaching of Mick Malthouse.

    Hannebery and James’s twin brother, Craig, are adamant the appointment of Wheeler as coach for 1990 would have ignited his football.


    Simon Beasley crashes over the top of Ron James and Magpie Michael McGuane.

    Craig thinks the brother he called “RJ’’ would have played at least 200 games for the Bulldogs.

    Craig vividly remembers the night the selection for the grand final was confirmed.

    That year the twins had joined Willy’s Under 19s from West Newport, where Ron had won the league best and fairest in 1984 and Craig had finished runner-up.

    Ron had trained on with the seniors, enjoying the experience of being on the track with senior men like Wheeler, Davidson and Kershaw.

    When he came home from a training session early in grand final week he told his family he’d never trained or felt better.

    The phone rang a short time later.

    “I heard dad (Ian) saying, ‘Yep, uh-huh, uh-huh’ and I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’ Craig recalled.

    “They were basically telling him to bring Ron back to the club. We’re all going, ‘Here we go, what’s happening here?’ That was our first inkling of what was going on. No mobile phones back then so we had a nervous wait until they got back home.

    “They said he’d been selected for the grand final but we couldn’t say anything because the club didn’t want to make it into a circus. We had to say nothing. So he was bursting to tell everyone at school (Altona High) but couldn’t. It was hard because I was so proud of him!’’


    Craig and Ron James started out with Willy in 1985.

    He said his brother always had a football in his hands and from an early age told everyone he wanted to play league football.

    “I might be biased, but he was a natural, the most naturally gifted player I’ve seen,’’ he said.

    Although Willy lost the grand final, they made up for it the following year when they defeated Coburg. They also won the reserves and Under 19s.

    Craig was 15 when he played in the Under 19s premiership; he said with a laugh that any other year it would have been a talking point, but Ron’s achievement overshadowed his.

    Then he went to the Bulldogs, where at the age of 16 he made his league debut against Carlton in Round 3.

    But he was in and out of Malthouse’s team, and became frustrated.

    “I didn’t think he had the opportunities that he could have had under a more attacking coach, let’s say,’’ Craig said.

    “I think Malthouse, when he was starting out on those days, had a quite defensive mindset, which made sense given his playing history. Maybe he was trying to ease ‘RJ’ in as a youngster but I felt his form warranted more of a go.

    “The pattern was, he’d play a couple of games and be dropped. He’d get up for one or two more, then he’d be dropped again.


    Ron James in the Williamstown jumper.

    “There was no real consistency in the opportunities he had. It was very frustrating for him, because he’d always found himself lifting to the higher level, no matter what he’d played.’’

    He said his brother was excited when Wheeler was installed for the 1990 season. “You can put that in capital letters,’’ he said. “There was a lot of conversation about it. He was absolutely over the moon. ‘Wheels’ believed in him and at that time ‘RJ’ needed a coach who believed in him. He had his best pre-season ever. Everything was looking up.’’

    The accident intervened. Ron, his girlfriend and some friends had gone away water skiing and on New Year’s Day in 1990 he hit a submerged log and died instantly.


    Ron James with two Bulldogs.

    Craig and a mate were at a Torquay caravan park when a childhood friend made the drive from Altona to give him the tragic news.

    They drove home in tears.

    “Disbelief, denial … unbelievable sadness. Yeah,’’ he said.

    Hannebery received a phone call about it from a mate of Ian James.

    “I was devastated,’’ he said.

    Another former Willy president, John Grieve, was in Adelaide at the time, watching his children at a sailing regatta. On a lay day, he went to Rundle Mall and brought the newspaper. And there it was on the front page on the Sun, the news report accompanied by a photograph of a distressed Doug Hawkins (James and Hawkins had been tight from the day the teenager walked in to the Western Oval).

    Grieve broke down; more than 30 years later, the memory of it still makes him emotional.

    “I was in tears, absolutely in tears,’’ he said. “My wife came in and said what’s the matter. I said, ‘Have a look at this’. I’ve never, ever forgotten that. He was a ripper kid.’’


    Ron James was also an exceptional young cricketer, earning a write-up in the local paper after making more than 300 runs for Williamstown in the Sub-District Hatch Shield.

    Craig James thinks of his brother every day. It took him at least 10 years to get over the death.

    “I finally got some help. My family were concerned about me,’’ he said. “I just closed down completely. Yeah, was stuck in denial. The entire family – aunts, uncles, cousins – were devastated.’’

    He’s proud that Ron’s name endures in football. At Williamstown, each year the players vote for the Ron James MVP, and Craig has returned to the club a few times to present the award.

    He believes his brother is remembered not only for his football ability.

    “You’d meet him once and he’d know your name the next time he saw you …. he could make people feel good about themselves,’’ he said.

    “That was ‘RJ’. He was larger than life.’’

  2. #2
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    Re: Ron James a young star for Williamstown and Footscray

    Part of the Bulldogs history and fabric that is present every match day. What could have been but the promise that he manifested and his tragic passing way too young are part of Bulldog legend.

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