So long Dons

THE HISTORY:

The Bendigo Bombers were born out of an alignment between AFL power Essendon and fledgling VFL club, the Bendigo Diggers.

The Diggers had endured five unsuccessful years in the VFL from 1998 as a stand-alone club as it struggled to compete with teams stacked with AFL-listed players.

Just seven wins in their 95 games tells the story of how difficult it was for the Diggers.

However, at the end of the 2002 season, the Diggers were thrown a lifeline when, after months of negotiations, they formed an alignment with Essendon to create the Bendigo Bombers, with former St Kilda and Brisbane Bears player Peter Banfield appointed the inaugural coach.

2003

The Bendigo Bombers made their debut in round one of the 2003 VFL season at Trevor Barker Oval against Sandringham on Sunday, April 6.

And what a start it was for the Bombers when they scraped over the line by three points, 16.12 (108) to 15.15 (105), with Andrew Welsh and Jim Cail the best players, while it was a goal to captain Nick Carter in the dying stages that sealed the win.

“I’m happy we won the game, but even more happy that these guys will now have belief in themselves,” Banfield said.

The following week the Bombers played their first game at the QEO against Geelong, with the result a nine-point defeat.

That loss would be the start of eight-straight games without a win for the Bombers, although, that stretch included an 87-all draw against Tasmania in round seven when the Bombers kicked a woeful 11.21.

Languisihing in 12th position with one win from their first nine games, the Bombers turned their season around with six wins in a row against Port Melbourne (18 points), Geelong (5),  Springvale (27), Werribee (14), Sandringham (35) and the Northern Bullants (3) to get back into the top eight.

That six-game winning streak has never been replicated since by Bendigo.

However, having got back into finals contention, the Bombers lost their last three games to Frankston (5), Coburg (9) and Williamstown  (78) to end the season 10th with seven wins – equalling the total number of Diggers’ wins in their five years.

The final game against Williamstown at the QEO was a shocker when the Bombers were held to just one goal.

2003: Finished: 10th (7-10-1).

Coach: Peter Banfield. Captain: Nick Carter.

Best and fairest: Nick Carter.

Leading goalkicker: Shane Harvey (25).

Draftees: Nathan Lovett-Murray (Essendon) – No.27, rookie draft.

2004

It was an up-and-down second season for the Bombers.

Their finals hopes looked shot when they won just five of their first 14 games and sat in 11th position.

But they got on a roll and won their last four games to sneak into eighth position.

Among those victories was a 30-point win over Coburg in arctic conditions at Windy Hill in round 19. So cold was it, Coburg officials asked umpires to consider calling the game off at half-time as some players reportedly suffered hypothermia.

With a spot in the eight secure, Bendigo’s first VFL final was a trip across the Tasman to play Tasmania in an elimination final.

The Bombers got off to a flyer to lead by 27 points at quarter-time, but couldn’t sustain their advantage as Tasmania fought back to win by 19 points, 16.10 (106) to 13.9 (87).

Star recruit Jordan Doering, Guy Campbell (four goals) and Essendon’s Mark Alvey were Bendigo’s best players.

Soon after the season finished, Banfield quit as coach after he wasn’t prepared to relocate to Bendigo, which was a stipulation put in place by the board of its coach

Banfield later signed on as coach of fellow VFL team Casey Scorpions for 2005, while the Bombers appointed former Richmond captain Matthew Knights, who had just coached the Port Adelaide Magpies in the SANFL, as their new coach.

Much to the annoyance of Bendigo Football League clubs, the Bombers also made the decision to field a reserves team from 2005.

The reserves would remain for five years, and while many future stars of the BFL came through the program, the side was never competitive, winning just 14 of 87 games before being wound up.

2004: Finished: 8th (9-10).

Coach: Peter Banfield. Captain: Nick Carter.

Best and fairest: Jordan Doering.

Leading goalkicker: Andrew Lovett (26).

Draftees: Guy Campbell (Sydney) – No.12, rookie draft.

2005

This remains Bendigo’s most successful season in Knights’ first year as coach.

The Bombers won their first four games of the season to sit at the top of the ladder.

 One of those victories included a 98-point flogging of North Ballarat at the QEO, 25.14 (164) to 10.6 (66), which still is Bendigo’s biggest winning margin in the VFL, and one of only three wins in 22 clashes against its country rivals.

Bendigo spent all season in the top four, and as late as round 15 was on top of the ladder with an 11-3 record.

But the Bombers lost their last four games, including single-figure defeats to Sandringham and Tasmania, to finish fourth, before losing a qualifying final to Werribee under lights at the QEO on a Friday night in front of a massive crowd.

The Bombers were beaten by 18 points, with Werribee forward Jade Rawlings the match-winner, booting seven goals.

The Bombers bounced back to defeat Port Melbourne in a semi-final the following week, 20.6 (126) to 13.10 (88), in what is the only final Bendigo has won in its history.

While he is now Essendon captain and one of this season’s Brownlow Medal fancies, seven years ago Jobe Watson was a regular for Bendigo, and kicked five goals in that winning final against the Borough.

With Bendigo just one win from a grand final, the Bombers led Sandringham by five points at three quarter-time in the preliminary final at Port Melbourne.

But with the wind at their backs, the Zebras piled on 10.3 to 3.1 in the last term to prevail by 39 points, and went on to defeat Werribee in the grand final the following week to win the second flag in their premiership hat-trick.

During the season, Nick Carter (above) became the first to play 100 VFL games for Bendigo in a 10-goal romp over Box Hill on the Queen’s Birthday Monday at the QEO.

2005: Finished: 4th (12-9).

Coach: Matthew Knights. Captain: Nick Carter.

Best and fairest: Jordan Doering.

Leading goalkicker: Kain Robins (30).

2006

The Bombers were unable to replicate their strong season from the year before and were never a serious finals threat.

The season started with a 70-point loss to Werribee at the QEO and after five games they were 0-5, before breaking through for their first victory against Tasmania by 25 points at Windy Hill.

By season’s end they had won just four of their 18 games and finished 12th.

However, the Bombers had no luck in close games, losing four matches by less than a kick – Frankston (5 points), Box Hill (1) North Ballarat (4) and Williamstown (5).

The loss to North Ballarat at the QEO was the most disappointing after the Bombers had led by 21 points with six minutes remaining.

2006: Finished: 12th (4-14).

Coach: Matthew Knights. Captain: Nick Carter.

Best and fairest: Ben Jolley.

Leading goalkicker: Nick Carter, Sam Lonergan (17).

2007

The Bombers were behind the eight-ball from the outset in 2007 when they won just one of their first six games.

Those early losses included a seven-point defeat to Windy Hill in round three when Essendon’s Adam Ramanuskas made an emotional return in front of 2000 people for his first game in more than two years after battling cancer, while star recruit Hayden Skipworth suffered a season-ending knee injury just four games in.

After their sloppy start, the Bombers regained form, winning seven of their last 12 games, and despite ending the season with a mediocre 8-10 record, it was enough to scrape into eighth position.

Playing North Ballarat in an elimination final at Port Melbourne, the Bombers looked on the way to the second week of the finals when they led by 59 points early in the third term. At that stage it was how far Bendigo.

But in what was a dramatic turn around that no doubt has everyone involved that day still scratching their heads, the Roosters kicked 17 of the last 19 goals of the game to turn than 59-point deficit into a 37-point win in just an hour of footy.

Later that month after three years as coach of Bendigo, Matthew Knights was appointed the successor to Kevin Sheedy as coach of Essendon, with Adrian Hickmott his replacement at Bendigo.

2007: Finished: 8th (8-11).

Coach: Matthew Knights. Captain: Simon Rosa.

Best and fairest: Kepler Bradley.

Leading goalkicker: Kepler Bradley (31).

Draftees: Jarrod Atkinson (Essendon) – No.21, rookie draft.

2008

In Hickmott’s first season as coach, the Bombers got off to a positive start with a 29-point win over Tasmania in round one.

But after the promising start, the Bombers won just four of their remaining 17 games, with the last month, in particular, a disaster.

Three of the Bombers’ last four games were losses by more than 100 points, with the low point coming in round 18 when they kicked just 1.4 (10) – Bendigo’s lowest VFL score – in 155-point loss to Williamstown on same day the reserves kicked 0.2 (2) in a 239-point loss.

2008: Finished: 13th (5-15).

Coach: Adrian Hickmott. Captain: James Flaherty.

Best and fairest: Hayden Skipworth.

Leading goalkicker: Brent Hartigan (21).

Draftees: Hayden Skipworth (Essendon) – No.5, pre-season draft.

2009

The less said about this season the better.

The Bombers lost all 18 of their games by an average of 57 points, with the closest they came to a win being round one against the Northern Bullants when they lost by nine points at Visy Park.

Highlighting the struggles of the Bombers, Essendon’s Darcy Daniher won the goalkicking that season with just 14.

However, there was some joy for the club when the reserves beat Sandringham by 18 points in round 13 to end a 31-game losing streak.

Most of the 2009 season was played amid constant speculation that Essendon would seek to end its alignment with Bendigo at the end of the season.

However, Essendon reaffirmed its commitment with Bendigo by extending the alignment for a further two years.

2009: Finished: 13th (0-18).

Coach: Adrian Hickmott. Captain: James Flaherty.

Best and fairest: Paul Scanlon.

Leading goalkicker: Darcy Daniher (14).

Draftees: Stewart Crameri (Essendon) – No.43, rookie draft.

2010

The Bombers had a new coach at the helm in Shannon Grant, who got off to a flying start by leading Bendigo to five wins in its first six games.

Those wins included a 49-point victory over Port Melbourne at the QEO in round two to end a 25-game losing streak.

It was Bendigo’s first win since beating the Northern Bullants by 32 points in round 14, 2008.

However, the club hit a major off-field hurdle when Grant was arrested for drunkenness outside the Shamrock Hotel and locked up in Bendigo police cells for four hours early on the Sunday morning of the bye weekend in late May.

A remorseful Grant was suspended for two games, leaving Gary O’Donnell to coach the Bombers to a six-point loss to Casey Scorpions, and Hayden Skipworth in charge of a 15-point loss against Coburg. 

After their strong start, the Bombers ended the home and away season eighth and were hit with injuries going into the elimination final against Box Hill, losing by 65 points.

Throughout the season, the Bombers lost three games by a goal or less, including a one-point defeat to the Gold Coast in Cairns. Bendigo had led the Suns by 40 points at half-time, but lost with a goal after the siren to Gold Coast ruckman Zac Smith.

2010: Finished: 8th (10-9).

Coach: Shannon Grant. Captain: James Flaherty.

Best and fairest: Michael Quinn.

Leading goalkicker: Michael Still (20).

Draftees: Stewart Crameri (Essendon) – No.43, rookie draft.

2011

The Bombers set themselves up nicely for a tilt at the top four when they won seven of their first 10 games.

However, their return in round 13 to the redeveloped QEO for the first time in more than a year signalled the beginning of the end for the Bombers.

They lost that day to Williamstown by 79 points, which was the first of six defeats in their last eight games as they finished eighth, and just like a year earlier, were bundled out in the elimination final, this time to the Northern Bullants by 28 points.

The second half of the season was full of off-field distractions surrounding the future of the alignment.

Essendon had signalled in August its intentions to sever the relationship at the end of the season and field a stand-alone team in 2012, following the model of Geelong and Collingwood, who have won four of their past five AFL premierships.

However, it was  announced in late September the alignment would remain in place for one more year, only, the club would drop the Bombers name to become the Bendigo Gold and wear a more traditional Bendigo blue and gold jumper.

With Grant landing an assistant coaching job at the Western Bulldogs, Bendigo appointed former best and fairest winner Hayden Skipworth as the 2012 coach.

There would be significant changes to the list after four players – best and fairest runner-up Tory Dickson, Sam Dunnell, Shane Biggs and Tom Campbell were all drafted by AFL clubs.

2011: Finished: 7th (9-10).

Coach: Shannon Grant.

Captains: Ben Duscher and Trent Shinners.

Best and fairest: Ben Duscher.

Leading goalkicker: Matthew Little (50).

Draftees: Tory Dickson (Western Bulldogs) – No.57, national draft. Sam Dunnell (St Kilda) – No.12, rookie draft. Shane Biggs (Sydney) – No.13, rookie draft. Tom Campbell (Western Bulldogs) – No.27 rookie draft.

2012

The final year of the alignment was an inconsistent season for the newly-named Bendigo Gold, who loomed as a genuine flag contender at one stage, before only just scraping into the finals.

After six games the Gold were 2-4, before they hit back with five wins in a row to climb into the top four as they looked the real deal.

However, after surrendering a 29-point three quarter-time lead against eventual minor premier Casey Scorpions, it was the start of five losses in a row, before the Gold defeated Box Hill by 19 points on a Friday night in round 22 to secure a finals berth.

Yet for the third year in a row, the Gold couldn’t get past the elimination final after losing to Williamstown by 12 points a fortnight ago in the final game of the Bendigo-Essendon alignment.

Bendigo – with only four Essendon-listed players – had been 30 points down at three quarter-time, but closed to within five points late in the final quarter, before the Seagulls kicked the last goal of the game to seal victory.

With the loss, Bendigo ended its 10-year alignment with Essendon, having played 190 games for 73 wins, 116 losses and one draw, but most importantly, had nine players drafted directly from them, plus Knights’ elevation to senior coach at Essendon.

2012: Finished: 8th (9-10).

Coach: Hayden Skipworth.

Captains: Ben Duscher and Trent Shinners.

Best and fairest: Yet to be announced.

Leading goalkicker: Matthew Little (52).

THE FUTURE:

As was the case with the Bendigo Diggers, the Bendigo Gold will now go it alone from 2013, with former St Kilda player Austinn Jones appointed their coach for the next two years. 

Going on Bendigo’s past inglorious stand-alone history with the Diggers, Jones faces one of the toughest coaching gigs in country Victoria, but he’s enthusiastic and excited by the challenge that lays ahead.

Meanwhile, Essendon will also field a stand-alone team in the VFL next year, with one of the more interesting games on the calendar next season to be when it locks horns with the Gold for the first time.

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