Three years ago, a country football club set a league record and made news headlines with a 509-point loss for its seniors’ team.
Ararat Eagles Football Netball Club was on the brink of collapse in 2019 and hit its lowest point soon after the brutal thrashing when the seniors forfeited a game because it could not field a team.
Now the club is relishing in the aftermath of its first grand final win and celebrating the remarkable comeback.
The Eagles seniors defeated Tatyoon by 45 points in the final of the Mininera and District Football League on September 10.
Long-time club president Nats McRoberts said the win was a “big relief”.
“For everybody who has been involved in the club … all the hard work, it felt like it was all worth it,” he said.
Ararat Eagles Football Netball Club was formed in 2000 after two Ararat clubs, Prestige Trinity and St Mary’s merged.
But 2019 was not the first period of turmoil for the club, with a failed bid to change leagues from Lexton Plains to Mininera in 2008 leading it dangerously close to collapse.
Mr McRoberts was one of a handful of people to turn up to the AGM and said the role of the president “pretty much landed in his lap”, and with that, a determination to rebuild the club.
“That involved a lot of barbecues, going to talk to a lot of people, prospective players and coaches,” he said.
The momentum was building, but only a few years later, there was another disruption when the Lexton Plains League disbanded and Ararat Eagles was thrust into the Mininera League.
“There were definitely some dark times,” Mr McRoberts said.
“There has been a lot of blood, sweat, and tears over the duration of the journey, but that was the commitment I made.
“My family has been heavily entrenched in the club. My son played in the premiership, my wife is the treasurer, and there are other families that have stuck by the club throughout the entire journey.”
Mr McRoberts said the Eagles’ success could be attributed to the families and players that stuck around through the hard times.
He said they did a “power of work” to help the club tread water through 2019.
“The club was broke. We were scratching our heads as to how we were going to make it through the following week,” Mr McRoberts said.
“Players were playing two games. They were exhausted. We did whatever we had to do to get the club over the line.”
The extensive media coverage of the 509-point loss to Great Western proved a turning point, prompting former players to return to the Eagles, hoping to help turn around the club’s fate.
A group of four highly regarded players banded together and committed to returning to the club, which Mr McRoberts said started a “snowball effect”.
“We got wind of the boys coming back in 2020, and everything sort of just lifted,” he said.
“Sponsorship started coming in and, support grew immensely over the remainder of 2019, and by the time we got to pre-season, it was unbelievable.”
Joint seniors coach Damian Joiner, known by the nickname Buhn, followed the players to the Eagles, wanting to help turn the club’s fate around.
“Country footy has always been the heart and soul for every town around, so you see a club struggling that bad, you can’t help not helping in some sort of way,” he said.
Co-coach, life member and former seniors coach Brett Sladdin returned during the same period in 2020, driven by his past links.
He and Joiner said they were excited to take on a new challenge in rebuilding the seniors’ team from the ground up.
Their aim was to have fun and help the players and supporters enjoy football again.
While on-field success was not the main focus, the calibre of the players that returned helped achieve it quickly.
“It was a fun ride to go on. We didn’t think we would be in this position that early,” Joiner said.
Sladdin said the grand final win would help build future success.
He said work had already started for next year.
“We have been in contact with everyone that played. We have to keep building so in the years to come we are still strong, to make sure it is not just a one- or two-year thing and we don’t bottom out again,” Sladdin said.
“It will be a lot easier to attract people now than a few years ago.”
Joiner said he believed it was ” just a kickstart”.
“We want to keep improving as a club and a team and working together to make sure we are on the same page and enjoying country footy,” he said.