Let’s do the twist: Ben Vardy, the brother of Geelong ruckman Nathan Vardy, during the Allies’ win last weekend.THE tension was so great during the last quarter of last weekend’s Alberton league game between neighbouring clubs Devon Welshpool-Won Wron Woodside and Toora & District that it became too much for some to handle.
”I think the secretary, Gary Farley, locked himself in his office and wouldn’t watch,” Devon Welshpool president Phil Vicino said. ”I was just trying to keep myself busy. Every now and then I’d hear a roar and I’d look up to see who’d kicked the goal or the point, and then I’d find something else to do so I wouldn’t have to watch it.
”Our drinks man, Rick Beckwith … decided it was too close, so he left the water bottles by the boundary and went for a walk up the road in his gumboots. He wasn’t game to watch it.”
The reason for the tension was that both sides had gone into the match without a win to their name. In the case of Devon Welshpool, known as the Allies, the club was attempting to end a 51-game losing streak that stretched to July 2009. Toora & District had not won since defeating the Allies in April last year.
When the siren sounded last weekend, the Allies had won by 15 points. For their players and supporters, it was akin to winning a premiership.
”It was a day to remember, especially for everyone who’s worked so hard during the last few years to keep the club going,” said Vicino. ”For all the diehard supporters and long-suffering committee members, I suppose it just meant that we can see some light at the end of the tunnel.
”We’ve been battling all year to improve our performances. Our thirds have won a few games and our reserves are winning quite a number of games. We’ve managed to get the average age of our reserves back from about 45 to around 25 or 26. That’s made a hell of a difference.”
For Toora & District, the result was heartbreaking. Given they don’t play the Allies again this year, it is likely that the Magpies will finish the season on the bottom of the ladder, with a zero in the wins column.
”A couple of the players have taken it pretty hard,” said club co-president and dairy farmer Dan Knee. ”A few of them reckon they’ve taken most of the blame, so they reckon they’re going elsewhere.
”It’s been pretty tough. But I’ve got one of the young players working for me and he’s still positive. A lot of them are still positive. They want to keep playing football together.”
It is little consolation, but Toora & District is by no means the only club staring at the prospect of a season without a victory. Before yesterday’s matches, there were 27 winless senior teams in the Victorian Country Football League.
Some of the struggling clubs are perennial battlers. Kyneton looks set to take home its second Bendigo league wooden spoon on the trot. The Tigers have made the finals just once in the past decade. Hampden league club Port Fairy has endured a similarly lean run since it contested a preliminary final in 2005.
A number of the other battlers have fallen rapidly from the top. Mathoura played in the Picola league’s North West division preliminary final last year but is yet to win a game this season. Ten months ago, Western Border league club West Gambier was celebrating its second premiership in a row. Now it finds itself on the bottom of the ladder.
For all the struggling clubs, including Toora & District, the winter slog is hard.
”I can tell you, it’s pretty tough to keep going,” said Knee, who has been lining up in the reserves to ensure the Magpies can field a team. ”A few of us would probably rather be standing on the sidelines supporting than playing.
”A lot of weeks we’ve had players in the seniors who probably should be in the seconds. Then we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel for the seconds. But we’re carrying on, we’re searching for players, and that’s about all you can do.”
How long Toora & District can survive without an on-field turnaround, or a change of leagues, remains to be seen.
And although they won last weekend, the same applies to the Allies. They have won only a handful of games since the club was split by a dispute over whether it should play its home matches at Alberton West (home of the old Devon-Welshpool FC), or at Woodside. The fracas ended when the Woodside people packed their bags and formed a new club. Now both are locked in a battle for survival.
”I believe that unless we have some type of enterprise or industry start in this area, like a coalmine or a deep-sea port, it’s not sustainable to have Woodside, Yarram, us, and even Toora, drawing from this region. There’s just not enough kids,” Vicino said.
”I just reckon that somewhere along the line, whether it’s in five years, 10 years or 20 years, there’ll probably only be one team here, and it will have to be based in Yarram, because the major town in the district must have a footy side.
”But we’ve got great facilities at our ground and we’re not about to let that go. We’ve got plenty of community support and sponsorship, plenty of money, and we’ll keep battling on. We often knock over 100 to 110 main meals on a Thursday night after training, whether it’s blowing a gale or a nice evening.”
”If our club was to close in the future, it wouldn’t be for financial reasons. It would just be the fact that we had run out of player numbers. I hope that doesn’t happen for a long, long time.”
Despite the threat of extinction, the Allies, inspired by their win last weekend, are thinking big.
”We’ve got a four-year plan in place to win a flag,” Vicino said. ”Like I say, we’ve got plenty of money; it’s a matter of getting the right cattle on the track.”
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