‘At the last hurdle’: Longwood aiming to pass final barrier

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Longwood leaders: A-grade netball coach Meg Pellegrino and senior football mentor Michael Galvin. Photo by Aydin Payne

As the summer sun fades behind the gum trees around Longwood Recreation Reserve, a familiar scene greets you.

Footballers and netballers are busy working on their skills and doing the hard yards like so many of their opposition across the Goulburn Valley.

And while they might be red-faced, hurting from the pre-season fitness regime, there is one constant.

Enjoyment fills the atmosphere.

A-grade mentor Meg Pellegrino has her squad of players together on the netball courts, adjacent to where a brand-new court will be created, with dance music on loud enough that it creates a party vibe.

Senior football coach Michael Galvin, now entering his final season as coach of the Redlegs, breaks from his serious tone with a witty remark that has his players in stitches before the coaching persona is back quicker than it was taken off.

Children dart left and right around you, as they play games and create their first memories of being at a football and netball club.

The tireless volunteers, the heartbeat of all clubs, are here as well.

They are manning the barbecue, pumping up footballs and helping in any way possible.

One of them, devoted president Ricki Shiner, sees a tearful toddler crying out for his dad, who is one of the dozen footballers out on the ground.

The president drops his commitments, puts his parent cap on and picks up the youngster as if he is one of his own.

It’s an act that sticks out to some, but not to anyone inside the four walls at the club.

That’s just the way things are at the Redlegs.

Here is a football netball club in name, but a family in the truest form.

“Everyone who comes here, from whatever background, is welcomed from the get-go,” Shiner said.

“You are treated as an equal and that’s a big reason why people who do come here tend to stay.”

When training concludes, everybody sticks around to catch up like old high school friends meeting for the first time in years.

There are no shortage of smiles or laughs.

Of course, this is a scene that anyone who has grown up playing football or netball, or any sport for that matter, in a regional community knows all too well.

Unfortunately for the tight-knit family at Longwood, that’s where most similarities end with their fellow counterparts.

That is because success on the field and courts has been few and far between for the club.

Since joining Kyabram District League in 2010 from the defunct Benalla District Football League, Longwood is yet to have a taste of finals action in football.

During the past decade, the most amount of times the senior side has sung the song in a season is three.

A sign of how bleak things had become for Longwood came during the winless 2015 season.

Neighbouring KDL club Nagambie donated $500 after a match to help go towards Longwood’s survival.

Throw in a tumultuous year when the club ended up $50,000 in debt and it’s a long way back from scratch.

Which is what Shiner, a former coach and 300-game player, discovered when he took over from friend Mark Goodall as president.

Shiner credited the tireless work done by Goodall and his wife Kathryn (treasurer), along with his father Ian (vice-president) and wife Jade (secretary) during that difficult 2015 season.

“It hasn’t even been a build from scratch. It’s been a build from $50,000 down in debt, no players and no real interest, really,” Shiner said.

“Financially we are in a really good position now. We’ve got the club at the last hurdle, which is on-court and on-field success.”

Bringing new faces to the club has been hard for the Redlegs.

Wedged between two towns that boast Goulburn Valley League clubs and with fellow KDL outfit Avenel a short trip down the Hume Hwy, Longwood finds recruiting difficult.

The town itself, divided by a train line, features the idyllic White Hart Hotel and has a population of 200.

And the Goulburn Valley’s major city, Shepparton, lies only 30 minutes up the road.

Shiner cited the club’s poor on-field record as the main reason why potential players looked elsewhere to pull on the boots.

The passionate clubman said it was disheartening to have people not give the Redlegs a chance and wanted to help change the perception of the club.

“It’s just really frustrating,” Shiner said.

“We want people to not judge us from the outside in. We want them to actually come down here and see first-hand ‘hang on, you know what? This is a good place to be’, because it is a good place to be.

“It’s not all about winning games of senior football, it’s about making things enjoyable for everyone here at the club.

“People always come and go (at footy clubs), that’s a given, but the old past players who still come down always remember them. It’s sort of unique that way.”

Shiner highlighted one committee member who discovered the club and realised how good a place it can be.

“Serena (Bleckwehl) is a perfect example of our rebuild,” he said.

“Our reserves coach Brendan (Brewer) came out with Nick Brown when he coached and then ‘Brew’ brought his partner Keeara out, who is now our head netball trainer and assistant coach. (Keeara) then brought Serena out who had never been involved in netball before.

“And now she is a hard-working secretary, our super secretary.

“Our philosophy on our rebuild was bringing out good people.”

The club’s senior netball coach identified that the shift to Longwood had a wealth of benefits for her family.

Pellegrino — who has “brought her whole family out” — joined Longwood ahead of the cancelled 2020 campaign and hasn’t looked back.

“We travel from Numurkah and we would travel the furthest out of anybody at the club, but it’s worth the drive. We love it here,” Pellegrino said.

“My kids have built amazing friendships and it’s also been worth it from a parental aspect.”

The netball leader highlighted the welcoming environment on and off the court.

“From a netball perspective, we see it more as a sisterhood,” she said.

“We help each other out in any way we can. A big message for us is that we accept people for who they are.

“We accept a whole range of people ... we all come in different shapes and sizes. Being together, sharing time on the court and just having fun is important.”

Another person who has found it hard to leave since he stumbled upon the mighty Redlegs is their current senior football coach.

Galvin, about to embark on his final year at the helm, joined Longwood ahead of the 2019 campaign.

The former Bendigo native and now Shepparton resident has been overawed with the commitment from Longwood’s volunteers.

“You just see how much it means to the people here, people like Ricki, who are busting their guts to help the club out,” Galvin said.

“And look at this (social aspect of club), you don’t want to leave this.”

Personal reasons are behind Galvin’s decision to step aside after 2022.

Galvin vividly recalled the first discussion he had with the club before his first season in charge.

“The first meeting I had with the committee, they told me to be a success at the club all I had to get was four wins ... three was the most they have ever had in the KDL,” he said on reflection.

“I remember thinking ‘how hard could it be?’ and as it turns out I don’t think we’ve even won that many (games) all up.

“Premierships are the absolute ultimate, but what the club is asking for is ‘let’s get four wins’ and build from there.”

At the helm: Longwood coach Michael Galvin speaks to his players at training. Photo by Aydin Payne

When you lose so often, it starts to become second nature.

But it doesn’t have to always be that way.

With a bit of luck and perseverance, success can come.

One particular example can be found in south-west Victoria.

Nirranda, a small dairy farming community, was able to turn things around after years of despair.

Just like Longwood, the senior football and netball outfits were anchored to the bottom of the ladder year in and year out.

Players and supporters would often wish the opposition teams who stood from afar could understand what really went on when they packed the club trailers and ducked home after away games.

The club would struggle to fill its junior sides and until only recently was in the same boat as Longwood.

Nirranda had not featured in finals action, let alone looked like making finals, since its 1999 premiership.

Until the 2016 season rolled around.

The young, inexperienced side just scraped through to fill the last spot in the finals, before it went on a Western Bulldogs-esque fairytale run.

A date in the grand final against the unbeaten premiership favourite beckoned.

The small club defied the odds to win that day and now, five years on, still reigns supreme in the competition as the team to beat.

One glance at the two clubs and you can see similarities between the old Navy Blues and the current day Redlegs.

Two small communities, filled with colourful characters, decades of history to preserve and a burning desire to be around for the next generation.

Take a closer look at Longwood and the early signs of a promising future are there.

It can be seen in the performances of its under-18 footballers, the rapid rise of improvement in the netball contingent and the excitement that comes from the soon-to-be-completed revamped netball courts.

The new netball courts are only months away from completion and VFL outfit Coburg is only weeks away from returning to play an intraclub match at the club.

The addition of a netball court is set to herald a new dawn for Longwood’s netballers.

“We only have one court at the moment and that has been difficult to work around,” Pellegrino said.

“With one court we have to juggle what nights the seniors and juniors train, which has meant we only train one night a week.

“Logistically, just being able to train on two courts is something we are really stoked about. It will enhance both our fitness and game skills as well.”

Before the 2021 season came to an abrupt finish, Longwood’s thirds football outfit was on the brink of achieving something that its senior counterparts have yet to do.

Part of the Longy family: Longwood’s Serena Bleckwehl and Dakota Pellegrino.

The youngsters finished the season in fifth spot, which would have guaranteed a memorable finals appearance.

At the KDL’s end-of-season presentation night, gun teenage talent Dakota Pellegrino took home the league best-and-fairest award in the under-18 football — becoming the first player at Longwood to be crowned a best-and-fairest winner in the league.

It was an extraordinary feat considering all of Longwood’s plights in the past decade.

Although Galvin is parting ways with the clipboard and won’t be in charge for Longwood’s next step forward, he believes the next mentor will take on a rewarding experience.

“Absolutely, 100 per cent it would be (fulfilling),” Galvin said.

“When I came across from Bendigo, the footy ground didn’t look like that.

“To see where the club has come from in the short time I’ve been here is unbelievable.

“The netball (side of the club) is kicking goals at the moment.

“And the fact we have Coburg coming up for the second year in a row is massive as well.”

In truth, there are dozens of clubs across Victoria, and the country, in similar circumstances to Longwood.

All of them are just as important as the next.

And with the coronavirus pandemic set to linger for a third straight season, ensuring that the lights stay on at these clubs is crucial for so many in the community.

Longwood, like its distant relative Nirranda, just needs a bit of good fortune to fall its way to ensure that the next hurdle can be jumped.