George Ilsley, Carlton’s homesick rural recruit who earned legendary status in the Bendigo Football League, has died at the age of 84.

Born in the Murray River town of Koondrook in 1932, George Ilsley’s prodigious football talents were such that by 14 he was representing the neighboring Kerang club at senior level.

In 1949 Ilsley joined Eaglehawk for what would become a lifelong association both on and off the field with the Bendigo League’s Two Blues. There in ’53, Ilsley finished runner up in the League’s Best and Fairest to Sandhurst’s Noel Evans – the same year Eaglehawk took the pennant under the watch of its captain-coach, the Carlton Premiership player Ollie Grieve.

By then, Ilsley had made his mark as a big occasion player and matchwinner of renown. Though he stood just 174cm in his long stops (and specially heeled boots) he tipped the scales at 80kg. Ilsley was regarded as the Bendigo Football League’s most accomplished centre half-forward, and performed just as capably in the back half.

During the ’53 season, and almost certainly at Grieve’s urging, Ilsley trialed briefly in five Carlton reserve grade matches. The following year, match permits were arranged and Ilsley turned out at senior level, albeit briefly. 

Wearing the No.27 (co-incidentally worn by Grieve who remains Carlton’s games record holder in the guernsey), Ilsley, then 22 years old, lined up on a half-forward flank against South Melbourne, in what was the opening round of the ’54 season.

George Isley, in the lead-up to his first senior game for Carlton, together with Denis Zeunert, Princes Park, 1954.

That Saturday afternoon at the Lake Oval, Graham Kerr, Noel “Nobby” O’Brien and Denis Zeunert also turned out for the visitors for the first time. 

Ilsley booted a goal in that game, which went South’s way by five points in a nail biter. The following week he turned out in an injury-depleted outfit which fell 29 points adrift of Melbourne at Princes Park.

Not long after, Ilsley advised coach Percy Bentley that he was going home.

Back at Eaglehawk, Ilsley took over from where he left off, earning Best on Ground status when the Two Blues beat Kyneton to claim the 1957 BFL flag. Between 1958 and ’60 he captained and coached Eaglehawk, before briefly defecting to Northern United in the Golden City Football League. 

Flying Ilsley! One of many high-flying marks taken by George Isley for Bendigo against Ballarat, in a best-on-ground performance at Queen Elizabeth Oval in a representative match, 1956.

In 1962, Ilsley was adjudged Best and Fairest in the GCFL, then returned to Eaglehawk to eventually rack up more than 350 senior games. During that time, he also represented the BFL in more than a dozen inter-league matches.

In 1965, Ilsley was appointed Ground Manager for the Eaglehawk Football & Netball Club at Canterbury Park – a position he held until he passed.

Throughout it all, Ilsley was constantly acknowledged for his lofty on-field achievements, as Life Member and Hall of Fame member of both Eaglehawk and the Bendigo Football League; and centre half-forward in the Two Blues’ Team of the Century – a team which included fellow former Carlton players Grieve, Rod Ashman, Alf Baud, Des English, Fred Jinks and Greg Kennedy.

Ten years ago, Ilsley was further acknowledged when Eaglehawk’s Best and Fairest trophy was renamed the George Ilsley Medal.

Ilsley’s eldest grandson, Mick Ilsley, said his grandfather never harboured any regrets about what might have been with his VFL career. 

“My grandfather was very content with his life and how it all panned out. He was later asked to try out at Geelong and numerous other League clubs but he just couldn’t be lured down,” Ilsley said.

“He always said football in the big smoke wasn’t for him. He didn’t like the hustle and bustle of city life and he loved the country.

“He was a very quietly spoken man. He didn’t like to talk about himself or his football exploits, and we actually had to talk him into attending the Bendigo Football League Hall of Fame to be inducted because he didn’t want to go.

“This was because he was never one to dwell on the past. It was more about the future and his family.”

Ilsley died suddenly at his home on April 8. He is survived by his beloved wife Mollie, sons Terry, Chris, Mick and Gerard, and their extended families.

A service of thanksgiving for the life of the late George Ilsley will be held in the Mulqueen Family Chapel, 15-25 Bridge Street, Bendigo on Thursday, April 14, at 11.00am. The funeral cortege will leave at the conclusion of the service for the Eaglehawk Lawn Cemetery, by way of Canterbury Park, the home of the Eaglehawk Football Club.