Recruiting high calibre players is the key to a team’s success, and one of the best in the the recruiting business was Carlton’s Ken Hands during the 1950s and 1960s. Hands is remembered primarily for his role as a player in the 1945 and 1947 premiership teams, but his contribution to the club was far greater than that, as he was behind the recruitment of some of the greatest players to ever pull on a navy blue guernsey. Amongst the players he had a large part in recruiting to Carlton were John Nicholls, Kevin Hall and John Goold.

Ken Hands played VFL football in a much tougher era than today. Hands, although just a teenager at the time, was on the wrong end of the fights in the bloodbath grand final of 1945 and it resulted in him receiving concussion, a broken nose and the loss of two teeth. In this infamous match against South Melbourne, Hands spent not a single second on the bench. Instead, he played out the whole game with the effects of concussion and remembered little more than a few moments of the last quarter.

“Carlton was more or less like a family. We stuck together, if anyone got belted and you did in those days, there was always someone there to back you up,” said Hands.

The Carlton team of the late 1940s was arguably one of the toughest ever to play football. Outside the football arena few of the Carlton players took what could be termed “soft jobs”. As Ken Hands said, “Not many of them were clerks. Jim Baird was a builder, Ollie Grieve and Mooring worked in a factory and Rod McLean was a trucky.” Charlie McInnes had the most physically gruelling job of any of the Carlton players at the time. He worked in what was known as “the drop hammers” section at K.G Luke’s factory. Requiring a good dose of hard yakka, McInnes had the gruelling job of pulling a heavy hammer down into a metal cast over and over again, five days a week.

Seven years after playing in the bloodbath grand final of 1945, Ken Hands became captain of the club. From then on he became part of the Blues’s player recruiting group that included committee men Perc Bentley, Micky Crisp and the secretary Larry Floyd. It didn’t take long for Hands to find out that the competition was just as fierce in recruiting as it was on the playing arena. Yet by being wise and resourceful in recruiting Hands’s long-term impact on Carlton’s premiership success in the 1960s and 1970s would be significant.

Don Nicholls – 1956-61 – 77 games, 32 goals
Image In the 1950s Don Nicholls, the older brother of John Nicholls, was a highly sought after player in his own right and for good reason. Don Nicholls had won the Ballarat League’s best and fairest award whilst only 16 years of age. It was an achievement that had officials, secretaries and captains from six VFL clubs scrambling to sign him up.

In those days, captains of football clubs were sent out with a committee as a way to impress the potential recruit.Amongst the captains of VFL clubs that paid Don Nicholls a visit on his family’s farm, in the hope of enticing him to play for their club, were Bob Davis from Geelong, Des Rowe from Richmond and Noel McMahen from Melbourne.

“I remember mum saying that there were so many people coming and going we’d wear out the tractor to and from the house,” said Don Nicholls.

All of the clubs made a good impression on Don Nicholls, but there were two factors that swayed him towards signing with Carlton. Firstly, Carlton found him a job as a cadet industrial engineer and secondly the efforts of Carlton officials in Perc Bentley and Ken Hands impressed him.

“I came down from the country to stay the weekend at Ken’s house in Glen Iris. He was the only one from all the clubs to invite me into their family home and I signed on that weekend,” said Nicholls.

Don Nicholls played for six seasons at Carlton with 77 games to his credit as a utility and as a centre half-back, and he gave great service to his club during this time. When looking back on his time with Carlton, Don said that one of his biggest regrets is that he didn’t quite make the 100 game mark with Carlton. Nevertheless, as they only played 18 games in a home and away season in those days, as opposed to 22 games today, the opportunity for him to reach the 100 game mark was limited. Barring injury, an extra four games per season would have just got him to the 100 game mark.

John Nicholls – 1957-73, 328 games, 307 goals – AFL Team of the Century, AFL Legend.
1968, 1970 & 1972 premiership player

By signing Don Nicholls obtaining the signature of his “little” brother, John, became easier, yet it was never a done deal until that signature was secured. Recruiting was a risky business and any team could get under your guard and steal a player from your grasp.

“I was working in a bank and Ken spent a lot of time keeping in touch and seeing me at the bank. Ken was probably the best recruiter Carlton has ever had and he did a very good job in convincing me that my football future was with Carlton,” said John Nicholls.

Ken Hands could remember clearly the moment when he signed John Nicholls. “I signed him up in my car sitting outside the bank on Centre Road, Bentleigh.” It would become a significant signing, as John Nicholls would win nearly every accolade possible in his peerless 328 game career and also be considered as Carlton’s best ever player.

Kevin Hall – 1963-70, 169 games, 52 goals
1968, 1970 & 1972 premiership player

Image Kevin Hall must have been one of the most reluctant recruits Carlton has ever had. Although he lived in Carlton’s recruiting territory and was therefore obliged to play with the Blues unless they decided to release him, Hall was unwilling to play for the Blues until he ran into the iron will of Carlton’s Ken Hands.

Kevin Hall was eager to play for Footscray for a variety of reasons. “My mother barracked for Footscray, my second cousin Bernie Lee had played for Footscray & Ted Whitten had invited me to play at the Western Oval,” stated Hall.

Footscray was so eager to recruit Kevin Hall that they suggested that he change the record of his birthdate, thereby making him appear older and ineligible for the under 19’s competition. He was also told by Footscray officials that when at Carlton’s training sesssions to“Turn up with my socks down, kick left foot and try to look as bad as possible.”

This ruse didn’t fool Ken Hands and after training that night Hall found out what it was like to be on the receiving end of Hands’s anger. “Hands grabbed me forcefully in the changeroom and said, ‘I know exactly what you are up to, but you’re in Carlton’s territory and you’ll play for Carlton,’”said Kevin Hall.

That confrontation ended Hall’s deception and as a result Carlton held onto a player that would play a significant role in three premierships, including the 1970 grand final. Providing grit and physical steel in defence, Hall was deemed the only player capable of taking on Collingwood’s masterful goal kicking legend in Peter McKenna by coach Ron Barassi in that grand final of 1970.

The coach had seen McKenna’s domination of two other important Carlton defenders in the home and away season and in the semi-final and decided Hall was the only solution. Although McKenna kicked six goals in the grand final, Hall kept the Collingwood spearhead goalless in the vital last quarter and that proved pivotal in the final result.

John Goold – 1963-70 – 108 games, 3 goals
1968 and 1970 premiership player

If Hands hadn’t stepped in to change the course of events then the stylish, classy and much loved Carlton player John Goold would have most likely have ended up as a Richmond player. For anyone who has navy blue blood in their veins and has seen this player in action, imagining him playing in Richmond colours of yellow and black is a difficult proposition to entertain.

Ken Hands remembered the night that John Goold came to train with the Blues. “Goold came to training with us at Carlton and he had made arrangements to go to another club (Richmond) for dinner that night. I asked the secretary to leave out a recruiting form for me, but he didn’t do it. He had already gone home and had locked up his office.

“So I parked my car outside the window of his office, got on the roof of the car and climbed up a water pipe to get in his window. John (Goold) then signed it and I made certain it was lodged at Harrison House that night before he met up with the other club.”

John Goold also remembered the night Ken Hands climbed up the pipe to obtain the recruiting form. “I wouldn’t have minded if he didn’t get the form that night as I had been invited to dinner with Richmond, but Ken (Hands) wasn’t going to let me go until I signed that form. Another thing I remember was that he wasn’t a young man at the time, he held down quite a responsible job and here he was climbing up a pipe,” said Goold.

Recruiting Goold would be of immense benefit to Carlton, as he became a player who served his club with distinction – particularly in the 1970 grand final. Amongst all of the achievements of John Goold as a player nothing tops his role in the 1970 grand final, as he played the match whilst he had a burst blood vessel in his shin bone. Goold carried this painful injury from the preliminary final as he was determined to make the sacrifices needed to help the Blues secure a victory in the grand final. His role in the early part of the 3rd quarter comeback was one of the most inspirational moments in Carlton’s finals history.

When all is said and done, football clubs are made up of people who are passionate for the cause and who want to shape their club for the best. In Ken Hands, the Carlton football club had one of its most dedicated and loyal servants who was not only passionate for the cause on the playing field but also as a coach and an official. With a key role in the recruitment of the Nicholls brothers, Hall and Goold, one can state without hesitation that Hands well and truly shaped his club for the better.

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