WORK BEGINS: Mildura Rural City Councillor for Recreation and Sport, Glenn Milne, Merbein South Cricket Club social co-ordinator Nicole Apthorpe, Merbein Football Netball Club president Toney Hurley, and Merbein South Cricket Club vice-president Marlon Fraser at the Kenny Park works two weeks ago. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By MITCH RODD

OPTIMISM is arguably the most valuable commodity within a football club.

While form can be a fickle beast at the best of times, optimism is always a source of positivity.

That precious resource is certainly radiating out of Merbein’s Kenny Park.

One of the early superpowers of local football has found the going tough over recent decades. The Magpies have not won a Sunraysia Football and Netball League (SFNL) premiership since back-to-back flags in 2002 and ’03, and have only featured in finals once since that time, in 2016.

Mother Nature then showed her cruel side when the November storms of 2016 effectively destroyed the club’s Kenny Park facilities. 

In the two seasons since those storms, the club has won just five out of 32 games. 

Symbolistic? Coincidental more likely, but the ‘Football Gods’ can be devilish at times.

Work has now begun on the new facilities at Merbein’s home ground, and should be ready to go by the start of the 2019 SFNL season.

Not only has this harvested optimism, but hope and determination have also been found.

Merbein Football and Netball Club president, Toney Hurley, believes now is the dawn of a new era for the club, and that in a few years time they can become “a force” once again. It is certainly music to the ears of the club faithful.

BACK IN TIME

DOC, fire up the DeLorean! We’re heading back to 1919 when local football competition was organised.

Football in the region will celebrate its centenary next year, with the Mildura Football League first established following World War I. In the years since, the Magpies, one of the ‘originals’, has steeped itself in proud history to become one of the more synonymous names in Sunraysia.

The ‘Pies were one of the early superpowers of local football – one that has gone through multiple incarnations over the past 100 years. While they were regularly bathed in glory in the past, eventually the well began to run dry.

In the time of the MFL, which ran up until 1929, Merbein won two flags and South Merbein three. When the competition became the Mildura and District Football League from 1930 to 1940, Merbein won four premierships and South Merbein three. Football became secondary to World War 2, but even in the one year of the Mildura and District Football Association in 1944, Merbein won the premiership.

Following the end of World War 2 in 1945, the Sunraysia Football League was formed. In the first 20 seasons of its existence, Merbein missed the finals just three times, and featured in 24 of a possible 35 finals series up until 1980. That run included premierships in 1948, back-to-back flags in 1962 and ’63 and 1975, and were runners-up on five occasions.

The ’75 flag, however, would be their last taste of success for 27 years. Since 1980, the Magpies have made the finals just six times, including consecutive seasons from 1990 to ’92.

The club has only made three finals appearances since 2000, two of those being the back-to-back premierships in 2002-03 under the guise of the late, great Merv Neagle.

Only South Mildura have a longer premiership drought, with their last flag coming in 1998. Make no mistake, untimely injuries and player departures happening in close proximity do hurt.

Merbein have also had a number of individual stars and award- winners across the years. None spring to mind more than the great Graham ’Tommy’ Bland, after whom the SFNL leading goal-kickers medal is named. From 1969 to 1977 he finished as the top goal scorer on seven occasions.

Club legends have also claimed McLeod Medal honours, with the likes of Bob Rowse (1956), Rocky Pollock (1977), Matt Walder (1998), Jason Spivey (1999) and Leigh Riordan (2002) winning the SFNL best and fairest. Current player Ash Rowe also won the award in a three-way tie in 2016.

The club has also produced a number of talents to play the highest level, including AFL Hall of Fame member Harold ‘Hassa’ Mann, Brian Dorman, Don Keyter and most recently Colin Sylvia, who tragically lost his life last month at just 32.

As all players will tell you, however, any individual medal would be happily exchanged for one with  a premiership insignia.

NEW ERA

WHILE the new change room facilities at Kenny Park are realistically just bricks and mortar, the symbolism is much more profound.

As mentioned earlier, club president Toney Hurley believes this is the dawn of a new era for the club, with coach Jarrod Buckley to lead the team into the future.

Hurley admitted that Merbein would be unlikely to match payments on offer to players from other SFNL clubs, but believed having new facilities could create a selling point for attracting recruits.

“It means a hell of a lot,” he said while watching the earthworks begin.

“When we’re talking to players, trying to recruit players, we’ve got something to sell. 

“The amenities we’re going to have will be second-to-none in the competition, and I think that’s a bit of a selling point because coming from where we are – the bottom of the ladder – winning one game, you’ve got to be able to find something to sell.

“I think that is a very good thing to be selling that’s going to impact people.”

Merbein footballers only have to look at their netball club mates to see the impact having a new base can make.

In recent years, the netball facilities have grown from the solitary well-worn court, to a top-notch arena with four courts. In the two years since, the A Grade side made the finals for the first time in the club’s history, including making a grand final appearance this September. That success has also manifested across the grades.

The new rooms will also accomodate netball teams, as well as football, one of the first in Sunraysia to do so.

“There’s no excuses with the footballers now, the netballers are hanging it on them already, saying, ‘We have the new facilities and we’re playing finals in every grade!’,” Hurley laughed.

“The netball court has been unbelievable for the club. It’s brought more females back on a Thursday night and they’ve got their own identity and their own base now.

“They believe a lot of their success this year was due to that, they’ve got a base and somewhere to call home. It’s made them closer and it’s made the whole club closer.”

While getting big name recruits might be more difficult, Hurley said the club is beginning a strong rebuild with an emphasis on developing and retaining junior players.

Former South Mildura coach Pat Irwin, a man with a strong reputation for developing young talent, has added to the coaching staff for that reason.

“We believe we can’t go with a lot of these other clubs financially because we can only earn so much,” Hurley said.

“Paddy is going to run the junior development side of the club, so we’re thinking two or three years down the track we’re hoping to be a force and a premiership contender.

“Next year we’re hoping to make the finals but two or three years down the track we’d like to think we’re a chance of winning one with a lot of locally home-bred kids as part of it.”

Only time will tell if Hurley’s vision will come to fruition, but one thing is for certain, the SFNL is all the better for having a Merbein side on the rise.