MICK McKinnon can recall a time when North Warrnambool Eagles were the Hampden league’s battler.
Their entry into the south-west’s premier football competition 19 years ago went as expected – wins were few and far between and huge losses a common occurrence.
But the bold decision to convert Northern Districts – itself a merger of the Grassmere and Bushfield clubs –from a Warrnambool and District league outfit and jump into a major competition was made with the long-term future in mind.
That foresight will culminate with the Eagles’ first grand final appearances in seniors, reserves and under 18.5 grades on Saturday.
“This year we’ve won, as a club, 54 games out of 57,” McKinnon said.
“Looking back when we first started, we probably won three games a year over the whole three grades.
“That was discussed when we decided to go to Hampden league – that it was going to be 20 years of pain for long-term gain. That was our motto and it’s probably on the money now.”
The success-starved club’s most recent premiership came under the Northern Districts’ banner in 1994. McKinnon, whose sons Sam and Joe play for the current-day Eagles, was the coach.
Grassmere Magpies’ final triumph was in 1972; Bushfield Bulldogs last saluted in 1977.
Magpie Gerard Lynch and Bulldog Sandy White were part of the committee which oversaw those two proud clubs’ merger in 1986.
They became Northern Districts as a way of honouring the past without clinging on to too much.
“We kept the black and white of Grassmere and two of the three colours of Bushfield,” White said of wearing the Saints’ strip.
“We could have held our pride in our clubs and walked away. The two clubs hated each other.
“But the only way to keep the sport in the district was to bury our past and work together.”
That amalgamation happened quickly – within a few months of the 1986 season starting.
North Warrnambool Eagles were given more time to settle.
A vote was passed in 1995, paving the way for their introduction to the Hampden league – a competition which still featured separate Terang and Mortlake outfits and the now Geelong-linked Colac – 18 months later.
McKinnon said Northern Districts’ final Warrnambool and District league campaign reflected their mindset.
“We finished sixth and copped a lot – ‘how are you going to go in the Hampden league if you can’t make the five?’ – but there were a lot of distractions that year getting ready,” he said.
The decision to join the Hampden league was made with a plan to grow the club – even the North Warrnambool branding was picked to give it more recruiting power.
That was a stark contrast to the birth of Northern Districts some two decades earlier.
As White and Lynch recall – that was a move made out of necessity.
“The first thing that happened was Ken Shepherd, who was the president of Bushfield, had a shop over here and we supplied him with his stock,” Lynch said.
“I called him one day to do his order. There was a very short time to the 1986 season and I said ‘how are you going?’ and he said ‘we’ve got three players at training’. I said to him ‘we need to call a meeting’, about amalgamation. We thought if we don’t do it that both of us are going to be like Tower Hill and teams that have gone by the wayside.
“In ‘86 we had the right sort of people there to talk to one another to make sure that we did survive and I think that was really important.”
All three have followed North Warrnambool Eagles’ fortunes since their Hampden league inception, with McKinnon and Lynch game-day regulars.
McKinnon played in the early days and vividly remembers the rise in competition.
“It was sort of a shock, thinking ‘how are we going to match it with Warrnambool and South?’,” he said of the league switch.
“I don’t think we realised how big a step it was; it was a huge step. But we did it and we got our arses kicked for a lot of years. The seniors went two years without winning a game.”
The Eagles’ first win was coincidentally against its grand final opponent Koroit.
“That was your Jason Mifsud, Tony Russell era, so it wasn’t ordinary footballers,” McKinnon said.
“That night was like winning the grand final. It was great satisfaction for the ones who bit the bullet, to get off their butt and go to the Hampden league.”
Long-time supporter Rodger Henderson has ridden the highs and lows too.
He has enormous respect for those who took the leap.
“When the opportunity came to have another club in the Hampden league, they had a crack even though it would take them out of an environment they were quite comfortable in and could have had a bit of success in,” he said.“It’s been a journey – the football sides, up until the last five or six years, have been a battle and this year is like a dream.”
Henderson said a senior premiership would be the perfect reward for the club’s hard-working volunteers.
“North Warrnambool has always had a strong following, even when they were getting belted by 20 goals a game,” he said.
This year we’ve won as a club 54 games out of 57. Looking back when we first started, we probably won three games a year over the whole three grades.