GROWING up at Murtoa as a child, Hugh Delahunty always supported Essendon in the Victorian Football League – but never thought he would one day be good enough to make it to the best league in the country.
“Before zoning started I had been invited to train with Essendon, but I wanted to come back to the land,” he said. “I didn’t think I was good enough, and that was a mistake I made.”
Despite his doubts, Delahunty did make it to Essendon after spending his junior career at Murtoa and Hamilton.
“I played under-16s at Murtoa and then in secondary school I went to Hamilton and played there,” he said. “I then came back to Murtoa and played seniors in 1967. In those days, Murtoa was one of the lower sides – if we finished within eight goals of Horsham we were doing well.
“Around 1971 I decided wanted to play with Essendon, so I went down to train. I wasn’t invited that year, but I was invited the two years before that.”
During round three of the 1971 VFL season, Delahunty made his starting debut for Essendon. It was round three and the Bombers lined up against Collingwood.
“We were playing Collingwood at Windy Hill and my brother Mick had been recruited from Monivae College (in Hamilton) to Collingwood,” Delahunty said. “He was actually still zoned to Murtoa and therefore Essendon, so we really should have been lining up alongside each other. It was my brother’s third game and my first.
“Before the game started my grandfather Michael sent both of us a telegram and it said, ‘Best of luck to you both, I hope it’s a draw’, and it was a draw. I played on the back flank and Mick was in the back pocket, so we were never really near each other. There was one moment he kicked the ball out of bounds on the full and I took the free kick, but that was as close as we got all day. That year we finished second last on the ladder and Michael played in the finals.”
During his three seasons at Essendon, Delahunty returned to Murtoa on the odd occasion.
“I returned to see Murota play in the 1973 grand final and be beaten by Rupanyup,” he said. “It was pretty tough trying to start a family and play football, as well as studying.”
For a young footballer from Murtoa, playing in front of huge crowds at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the club he had always supported was special for Delahunty.
“It was a fantastic thrill after the game with people running out onto the ground and people asking for your autograph,” he said. “To play on the MCG in front of about 70,000 people was a great memory. I was very nervous because I had this underlying doubt that I wasn’t good enough. It was only after the first year that I realised I had made it and that I needed to keep improving.
“Playing VFL football for the team I supported as a child was a dream come true.”
In the 1973 season, Delahunty played all but one senior game for Essendon in what would be his last year at the club.
“In 1973 we played in the finals and it was the first year of the final five,” he said.
“We played St Kilda at VFL Park, and we were beaten. It was the first final to be played there.”
Delahunty played VFL during the amateur era, and so when a job offer came from Donald after the 1973 season, he could not turn it down. He finished with 46 senior games to his name for Essendon.
“We all had jobs – I was a meat inspector and we all rushed to get to training,” he said. “In some ways I wish I stayed longer. We never earned a lot of money, and the last year I played every game bar one and I cleared $1000 after tax. I don’t regret anything. In some ways I would have liked to have stayed, but I put my family and my career first. I always thought I wanted to be a farmer again, but that never happened.”
Delahunty spent three years playing and coaching at Donald. During that time, he coached the North Central interleague squad and also won the league’s best and fairest medal.
In 1977, Delahunty returned to his boyhood club.
“I came back to Murtoa in 1977, and coached from 1978 to 1981,” he said. “We lost the grand final in 1979 and I didn’t think we had as good a side in 1980, but the hurt from losing that grand final carried us to the grand final where we beat Stawell at Dimboola. That was Murtoa’s one and only premiership, and to be playing coach of your home team was very special. That was fantastic personally but the whole community had been dreaming for that for a long time.
“There have always been a lot of Delahuntys playing over at Murtoa. My brother Mick and a couple of cousins were in that team. There was something like eight of us playing at the club from juniors up to seniors in 1980.”
Another fond memory for Delahunty was coaching the Wimmera interleague side to a victory against Ballarat in the same year as Murtoa’s only premiership.
“In 1980 we beat Ballarat in the interleague grand final and that was a thrill because Ballarat was the top league at the time,” he said.
Following his football career, Delahunty became involved with local government and was the first mayor of the restructured Horsham Rural City Council.
“I was elected to Horsham City Council and was mayor there for one year, and then I went up to Mildura for two years, and came back and was the first mayor of the new restructured council in Horsham,” Delahunty said.
“I then thought I could take it further and took over the then state Wimmera seat in 1999 from Bill McGrath. I was a state member of parliament up until 2014 and in the last four years of my career we were fortunate enough to win government.
“I was minister for sport and recreation and also minister for veterans’ affairs. Sport has always been such a big part of my life, so being minister for sport was fantastic. There were nearly 70 sports I was responsible for. We were able to get a lot of money into country areas.”