THE end for VFL football in the city has arrived.
The Bendigo Gold will play the 321st and final game in Bendigo’s VFL history at the Queen Elizabeth Oval on Friday night against Collingwood.
From 1998 through to this year, VFL football has been a part of this city through the Bendigo Diggers, Essendon-aligned Bendigo Bombers and Bendigo Gold.
But with the Gold’s stand-alone model no longer sustainable and years of walking on a financial tightrope finally taking its toll, the club’s VFL licence won’t be renewed at the end of the season.
Throughout the journey there have been constant struggles in the Diggers and Gold stand-alone years - they have won just seven of a combined 130 games - but also six finals series during the 10 Bendigo Bombers’ seasons.
As the curtain prepares to fall on VFL, here’s 10 games we’ll remember - some for the right reasons, some for the wrong.
April 4, 1998 - The first game
It was almost a dream start for Bendigo’s new VFL team, the Diggers, in the opening round of the 1998 season.
Pitted against country rivals North Ballarat at the QEO live on ABC TV, the Diggers were pipped by seven points by the Roosters.
With Ross Smith at the helm as captain-coach, the Diggers’ inaccuracy proved costly.
Bendigo had three more scoring shots than North Ballarat, but the Roosters won 13.12 (90) to 11.17 (83) in front of a crowd of about 1700.
Ryan O’Callaghan ensured he would become a part of Bendigo sporting trivia by kicking the Diggers’ first goal, while Bendigo’s best player in that historic first match was David Lancaster.
The former Kangaroo Flat spearhead revelled in a new role across half-back for the Diggers in that first game and would go on to win the club’s first two best and fairest awards.
The player who sunk Bendigo’s hopes of a fairytale first-up win was North Ballarat’s Ashley Martin, who came off the bench to kick five goals, including the last of the match.
Down the other end, Ash Tointon bagged five goals for the Diggers, who earlier kicked the opening three goals of the match.
The seven-point margin was one of five games the Diggers lost by less than two goals in their first season.
April 12, 1998 - The first win
After the near-miss of round one, the Diggers celebrated their first win the following week against Coburg.
The Diggers won by 23 points, 10.13 (73) to 6.14 (50), in wet and windy conditions at Coburg.
Coburg - aiming to end an 18-game losing streak - led by three points after a low-scoring first half, 3.7 to 3.4.
But the Diggers added seven goals to three after the break in a game where Craig Jennings, Col Durie and Chris Curcio received the 3-2-1 in the Bendigo Advertiser-Ten Victoria-3BO FM media award.
“Now the players can have belief in themselves they can play at this level,” coach Smith said.
July 16, 2000 - Last Diggers win
The Bendigo Diggers won just seven of their 95 games between 1998 and 2002.
The last of those seven came in round 17 of the 2000 season when they defeated the Murray Kangaroos by a goal at the QEO.
In what was a match that ended a 22-game losing streak, the Diggers came from 17 points down at three quarter-time to defeat the Kangaroos.
The Diggers kicked six goals to two in the final term to celebrate what would be the only win in their last 66 games before the Essendon alignment.
The Diggers were still as many as 16 points down 12 minutes into the last quarter, but Bendigo rallied with goals to Kieren Prowse (two) and Ryan O’Callaghan to hit the front as the QEO crowd of 1800 erupted.
The Diggers’ match-winning goal was kicked by best on ground Nick Carter when he somehow conjured a goal with a right-foot banana out of heavy traffic.
Carter’s goal was kicked at the 28-minute mark, but the Diggers had to defend grimly for a further six minutes before the siren finally sounded.
The victory came on the back of Nathan Bower announcing earlier in the week he would be ending his two-year stint as coach of the Diggers, while captain Darren Walsh admitted to shedding tears of joy at the final siren, as did general manager Ken Yates.
Bower - who kicked four goals - was chaired off the ground, while adding some irony, the Kangaroos were coached by Bendigo’s inaugural mentor, Ross Smith.
July 13, 2002 - Draw heartbreak
It had been almost two years to the day since the Diggers had won their last game against Murray as they prepared to host the Kangaroos again at the QEO in round 14, 2002.
In between they had lost 35 games in a row, but lightning wouldn’t strike twice. Instead, a heartbreaking draw in a game the Diggers had led by as many as 16 points during the third term.
The photos of coach Damian Drum with his hands on his head in the dying stages are priceless, while the front page of Monday’s Bendigo Advertiser showed a dejected Daniel Van den Ham as the Diggers had to settle for a 12.17 (89) apiece draw.
“It would have been nice to get another point,” quipped captain Nick Carter after the game.
April 6, 2003 - Bombs away
The first game of the Bendigo Bombers - born of an alignment between Bendigo and Essendon - garnered an immediate victory over Sandringham.
Back in July of 2000, Nick Carter had kicked the winning goal in what would prove to be the Diggers’ last ever victory.
Three seasons on, Carter also kicked the winning goal in the Bombers’ first victory as the new side - coached by Peter Banfield - defeated the Zebras by three points, 16.12 (108) to 15.15 (105), at Trevor Barker Oval.
The Bombers recovered from a 19-point deficit at three quarter-time, kicking 3.7 to 0.3 in the final term in a win Banfield said would help earn his side respect.
Essendon-listed Andrew Welsh was the best player in the Bombers’ first game.
August 29, 2004 - Finals footy
Bendigo got its first taste of VFL finals footy in 2004 when the Bombers tackled Tasmania at Launceston’s York Park (now Aurora Stadium) in a Saturday night elimination final.
The Bombers had thumped Tasmania by 77 points at the QEO a week earlier to secure their finals first finals berth.
But in front of a crowd of more than 6000, the Bombers were unable to capitalise on a flying start the following week when they led by 27 points at quarter-time, but were beaten by 19 points, 16.10 (106) to 13.9 (87).
Bendigo-listed players Jordan Doering, Guy Campbell (four goals), Nick Carter, Mark Vigus in his second game and Kain Robins were among the best for the Bombers that night.
April 23, 2005 - Rooster rout
Bendigo recorded its biggest ever VFL win in round four of the 2005 season when it thumped North Ballarat by 98 points.
Aaron Connaughton and Callan Beasy kicked four goals each in the 25.14 (164) to 10.6 (66) rout of the Roosters at the QEO.
The Bombers kicked six goals in the first quarter, five in the second, six in the third and eight in the last, with the win pushing them to the top of the ladder - one of only three times in its history Bendigo sat top.
It was also one of only three wins Bendigo had over North Ballarat in 26 encounters.
August-September, 2005 - daring to dream of a flag
This isn’t one game, it’s a combination of three throughout the finals series of 2005 - Bendigo’s most successful season.
In Matthew Knights’ first season as Bombers’ coach, the side finished the home and away season fourth with an 11-7 record that had at one stage been 11-3 before a fade-out over the last month leading into finals.
But despite finishing lower on the ladder, the Bombers were granted a Friday night qualifying final at the QEO against minor premier Werribee.
The Bombers led by 25 points 12 minutes into the third term, but by three quarter-time Werribee had whittled the margin back to two points.
And the Bombers were unable to regain the momentum as Werribee slammed on seven goals to three in the final term to win 19.8 (122) to 15.14 (104).
Jade Rawlings was a massive thorn in the Bombers’ side, kicking seven goals.
The following week, Bendigo recorded what would be its only win in a final when it saluted against Port Melbourne by 17 points in the first semi-final.
Scores had been level at quarter-time, but the Bombers broke the game open with a seven-goal to two second quarter on the way to a 20.6 (126) to 13.10 (88) victory.
Future Brownlow medallist Jobe Watson kicked five goals for Bendigo in a best-on-ground performance, while Nick Carter and Jordan Doering were also pivotal in the 38-point win.
Now just one game away from the grand final, the Bombers faced Sandringham in the preliminary final the following week.
The Bombers held a five-point advantage at three quarter-time, but couldn’t hold off the Zebras in the final term.
With the wind at their backs, the Zebras slammed on 10.3 to 3.1 to win 17.19 (121) to 12.10 (82), with Bendigo having no answer to Sandringham big men Paul Johnson and Mark Jamar.
Sandringham went on to defeat Werribee by nine points in the grand final the following week, while the Bombers were left to ponder what could have been.
September 1, 2007 - Capitulation
This game is memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Believe it or not, but the young Bombers led North Ballarat by 59 points five minutes into the third quarter of their elimination final.
However, in one of the greatest comebacks in VFL history, North Ballarat kicked 17 of the last 19 goals of the game to complete a 96-point turnaround, winning 21.22 (148) to 16.15 (111) in a result that seven years on is still tough to fathom.
It was the last game of the three-season coaching tenure of Matthew Knights, who was later appointed the successor to Kevin Sheedy at Essendon.
June 22, 2014 - So close
Even the club’s knockers had to feel for the Bendigo Gold in round 11 this year when - chasing their first win as a stand-alone club - they were beaten by the Northern Blues with the last kick of the game at the QEO.
With the Gold clinging to a one-point lead, a scrambled kick from a pack landed in the arms of the Blues’ Nick Holman 20m out.
With three seconds left, Holman goaled to sink the Gold as the Blues won 14.11 (95) to 14.6 (90).
Gold players slumped to the ground in despair at the final siren, with there now just one last crack against Collingwood on Friday night for that elusive win.