THE only chance to get food in Mininera on a Saturday is when the football-netball club's canteen opens.
The recreation reserve is a hub for the south-west farming community - and has been for more than a century.
It's home to SMW Rovers - the result of a 1954 merger between Mininera, Westmere and Streatham which were all founding clubs when the Streatham and District Football Association formed in 1921.
The competition, which became the Tatyoon and District Football Association in 1926 and Mininera and District Football Association four years later, had one more name change in 1956.
The Mininera and District Football League - unique for its large geographical sphere which encompasses five local government areas - will celebrate 100 years with a special occasion at Mininera on Saturday.
It will be a celebration for John Box whose life is entwined with SMW Rovers.
The former farmer, now 71, played his first game for the club as a six-year-old in the 1950s and pulled on his footy boots for the final time at the remarkable age of 53.
He's been club trainer for three decades and helped out as president and secretary.
Most recently Box, who now lives an hour away in Dunnstown and completes the two-hour round trip to training each Thursday, was league president.
He's remained a constant but has seen an abundance of changes during his 60-plus years' involvement.
"At Mininera there's three houses and a football ground and the railway line and at Tatyoon there's one house and a football ground," he told The Standard.
"When I first started playing junior football at SMW Rovers we had a milk bar over the railway line and there were railway houses there with people living in them.
"Streatham had a hotel and probably four or five shops - a hardware shop, garage and all that sort (of stuff). Now there's nothing in Streatham and the closest town is Lake Bolac to do shopping.
"There's just a canteen at the footy grounds now."
Karen McIntyre, who played 350 games of netball for Wickliffe-Lake Bolac and edited the book Mighty Mininera League The Centenary of MDFL 1921-2021, said a changing landscape faced the competition, which had seen its share of mergers.
"Things boomed when solider settlement happened and there were lots of families in the district," she said.
"Pretty much since that time of large population growth, a lot of the (farming) properties have been amalgamated.
"With amalgamations the teams have been able to stay for the local population to follow. A lot of footballers now come from the larger towns such as Ballarat and Geelong.
"The locals are still involved - they're still supporters, they're still going along to the footy and they're still enjoying the community get-together and ability to help, volunteer and the camaraderie around the club."
Caramut premiership coach Jason Mifsud, who helped the Swans break a 27-year drought in 1994, said the league's importance to its supporters could not be underestimated.
"Farmers would donate a crop for the year or donate stock - sheep, cattle or hay - and there was always wood cuts going on at different clubs," he said.
"What it demonstrates is what all of those local clubs mean to their communities.
"That is what community is and I think that is what is undersold in local football. Of course we want to win...but it is a sense of community and sense of belonging (which matters most). It gives people a sense of place and pride.
"The scoreboard is important but inevitably not the most important thing, it is much bigger than that."
Mifsud is now based in Melbourne but pays close attention to the changing landscape of country lifestyle and is aware of football-netball clubs' importance to rural areas.
"I think history would say, particularly in the Western District, that the pub is the first thing to close, then the post office, shop, primary school and then sporting clubs," he said.
"Inevitably they are probably the last things to go in those very small communities and that is because people are passionate about it and people have a strong sense of commitment. And there's a history and heritage."
Mininera and District has 12 teams at present - Ararat Eagles, Caramut, Glenthompson-Dunkeld, Great Western, Hawkesdale-Macarthur, Lismore-Derrinallum, Moyston-Willaura, Penshurst, SMW Rovers, Tatyoon, Wickliffe-Lake Bolac and Woorndoo-Mortlake.
Tatyoon, which joined the competition in 1924, is the most successful sole entity with 12 premierships.
Wickliffe-Lake Bolac, which joined forces in 1986, has 21 flags in total including nine as a merged entity while SMW Rovers has 24, eight of those as a combine.
Individuals, including former GWS Giants coach Leon Cameron (Caramut), three-time Richmond premiership player David Astbury (Tatyoon) and current Fremantle ruckman Lloyd Meek (SMW Rovers), started their careers in the country league before joining the AFL.
Other players have left an indelible mark on the competition.
"One notable player was Jim Knight. He won nine Lewis Medals which is the best and fairest in the Mininera league," McIntyre said.
"That is just remarkable, an unbelievable record."
Mifsud holds the record for the most goals kicked in a game (28) and in a season (205) - something he achieved when the Swans claimed the holy grail in 1994.
The dynamic midfielder-forward admitted it still felt surreal 28 years later.
"At the time I think I was only the sixth person at any level of football to kick 200-plus. It still is a rare feat," he said.
"It was quite extraordinary. I was a playing-coach and was more concerned with the team. Caramut had a chronic under-performing history and there was a whole range of other things we were trying to get right and that (the goals) was a nice by-product."
The 28-goal feat came on Mifsud's 21st birthday on May 8, 1994 against Dunkeld.
"It is quite surreal, even when I say it all these years later, it's nearly embarrassing," he said.
"I still remember at quarter-time, our chairman of selectors, a good mate of mine in Wayne Burrows, came up to me. I can't remember what the score was but I do remember him saying 'you'll break the record today'.
"I looked at him curiously and said 'what record?' and he said 'the goal-kicking record'. I was a bit bewildered and said 'what is it?' and he said 21. I said 'how many have I kicked?' and he said 11. By half-time I had 19 or 20."
Mifsud, who also played for Caramut in 1995 before a decade-long stint with Hampden club Koroit, wasn't named best on ground in his record-breaking game.
"I remember I only got two votes in the league medal (that round). I can't remember who got the three but they must have played pretty bloody well," he laughed.
The league - like many others - has endured highs, like Mifsud's feat, and lows, such as the day Ararat Eagles conceded 515 points against Great Western in 2019.
It stopped for World War II and again for the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
McIntyre said while mateship was one of the enduring facets, other areas had undergone vast changes.
"I think the thing that sticks in my mind is the adversity they came from," she said. "They had very primitive facilities, no change rooms or hot showers or first-aid people, lights or even electricity.
"They made their footy ovals out of sheep paddocks and shooed the sheep off or collected the cow pads before the game.
"They wouldn't necessarily have a fence around their boundary, they'd just have a ditch or a set of flags.
"In the beginning they had very long quarters too and they used to only record goals, they didn't have points way back in the beginning."
Box knows the league will endure more changes as the landscape alters.
"The farms used to have six or seven families on them and now there's no one," he said. "The farms have gotten bigger and get contractors in.
"Country football is very important. It is the lifeline for people out in the country; it's where we meet of a Tuesday and Thursday night.
"It's been difficult but we've held in there and I can see that we'll hold in there for a little bit longer."
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