Diggers' days relived ... Diggers-Bombers team of the decade

THEY may have finished as a VFL team in 2002, but tonight – eight years on – the Bendigo Diggers will be recognised once again as part of a function at the Shamrock Hotel.A Bendigo Diggers-Bombers Team of the Decade will be unveiled tonight as part of the Bombers’ end-of-season Carter Medal best and fairest function.Among those who will be attending the event will be Ken Yates, the inaugural general manager of the Bendigo Diggers, who joined the VFL in 1998, and one of the selectors of the Team of the Decade.“It’s very pleasing for all the ex-Diggers players to be able to come back and have a get-together to relive some of the early times of the Diggers’ concept,’’ Yates said this week.“They were very committed guys, some of whom had to travel a long way to Bendigo to play with the Diggers.’’As part of the lead-up to tonight’s function, Yates this week recalled just how challenging it was to start up a club from scratch in the VFL.Before his appointment to the Diggers – a position that had been advertised nationally – Yates had been the manager of the Bendigo Harness Racing Club since 1989.“It was tough in the beginning where I basically walked into an empty office and had to build it from the ground up,’’ Yates said.“I was appointed by the VFL in May of 1997 and had until the end of September 1997 to create a club that was financially viable.“Fortunately, it kicked off by securing a major sponsor in Jetport Parking, which contributed $100,000 per year, and we were also fortunate in that first year to attract a lot of major support sponsors, like the Bendigo Bank and TEN Victoria.“We picked up another 62 sponsors as well, so by the end of September we were certainly financially viable.’’Next on the agenda was establishing a name for the club, which was initially based out of an office in the Golden Square shopping village alongside the Bendigo Pioneers.A three-week competition through the Bendigo Advertiser was held to find a name for the club, with an added incentive being a trip to London to be won.From hundreds of entries – some from as far away as Queensland – Kay Pearse’s suggestion of the Bendigo Diggers was selected.“The board was unanimous in selecting that name, so from there we then had to create a logo design for our jumper and apparel,’’ Yates said.For the jumper and apparel design, the club turned to the graphic design students at Bendigo’s La Trobe UniversityThe winning design was Justin Ebbles’ blue and gold jumper with a diggers’ pick slashed across the front.With financial backing secured, a name and jumper design established, and a board of management headed by chairman Maurie Sharkey in place, the focus then turned to on-field – securing an inaugural coach and selecting a training squad.“Graham Warfe was our chairman of selectors, so he, myself and Neville Strauch from the Bendigo Pioneers travelled from Mildura to Albury to Gippsland and all through Melbourne during the 1997 season talking to many players,’’ Yates said.“We gathered a list of 80 players who started pre-season training with us in November of 1997.“The first training run was at the oval at the university, and we used that up until Christmas.“Of course though, we had to secure a coach and we certainly looked for a high-profile coach who had a bit of toughness about them.’’The successful candidate for the coaching job was Ross Smith, who had played 224 AFL games with North Melbourne before retiring at the end of 1996.Smith had coached Canberra powerhouse Ainslie to a premiership in 1997, before accepting the Diggers’ job, saying he was excited by the challenge of helping to build a VFL franchise from scratch.“We were quite impressed with the way Ross presented, so he obviously took part in the recruiting and I believe we put together a reasonably strong squad,’’ Yates said.The club was launched at the All Seasons Quality Resort in October of 1997, with the night complemented by the unveiling of a Bendigo All Stars Team, which featured the best 22 players from the Bendigo region to have played VFL and AFL from 1972 to 1997.The launch attracted 300 people and featured the unveiling of the club’s theme song, based on the Richmond song, while Rowan Warfe, who was playing for the Sydney Swans at the time, modelled the new jumper.From the initial training squad of 80, it was whittled back to a final playing list of 42 six weeks before the club’s first game against North Ballarat at the Queen Elizabeth Oval on Saturday, April 4.Unfortunately, the Roosters spoiled the Diggers’ historic debut game, winning by seven points, 13.12 (90) to 11.17 (83), in front of a crowd of about 1700.The club’s first goal was kicked by former Bendigo Pioneers’ captain Ryan O’Callaghan at the three-minute mark of the opening term, with their standout players in their debut game being David Lancaster – who would go on to win the best and fairest in 1998 and again in 1999 – Chris Curcio, Col Durie, Ashley Tointon, who kicked five goals, captain-coach Smith, Simon Elsum and Reece Langan.However, after the disappointment of losing its first game, the club quickly rebounded the following week to defeat Coburg by 23 points, 10.13 (73) to 6.14 (50), in Melbourne to post its first victory.Unfortunately, wins would be few and far between for the Diggers during their five years in the VFL.The club won four games in 1998, also defeating Williamstown by 45 points in round eight; Box Hill by 16 points in round 10; and Coburg again by 11 points in round 13 as the Diggers ended their first season 10th in the 11-team competition with a 4-14 record and percentage of 73.8.However, that win-loss record could have easily been so much better considering the Diggers lost four games by less than two goals, including a one-point heart-breaker to Sandringham at Sandringham in round four.The 1999 season under new coach Nathan Bower yielded two wins, both over Preston by 29 points in round one and by 21 points in round 12, as the side finished on the bottom of the ladder.Among the candidates Bower had beat to secure the coaching job in 2000 after Smith had left to join Geelong as an assistant to Gary Ayres at the end of 1999 was Dean Laidley.While Laidley missed out on the Diggers’ job, later in 2003 he was appointed coach of AFL club North Melbourne.“At the time Dean wanted to remain in Melbourne, but we wanted our coach to move to Bendigo and be part of the community and involved in development programs in schools, so that was one of the main reasons he missed out on the position,’’ Yates said.Following their wooden spoon in 1999, the Diggers again finished on the bottom of the ladder in 2000, this time with just one victory – a come-from-behind 13.19 (97) to 12.19 (91) win over the Murray Kangaroos at the QEO in round 17.The Diggers, with Neville Massina as their new coach, went through 2001 without a win, with the closest they came to a victory being a two-point loss to rivals North Ballarat in round three.In 2002 the Diggers attracted a major coup when they landed former Fremantle coach Damian Drum as their new coach.However, Drum couldn’t guide the Diggers to a victory either, although, they came agonisingly close in round 14 when they drew 89 apiece with the Murray Kangaroos on a Sunday afternoon at the QEO.The 2002 season would be the last for the Diggers before the club evolved into the Bendigo Bombers following an alignment with AFL club Essendon.Ironically, the Diggers’ final game was against Essendon at Windy Hill in round 20 of 2002. The Diggers were gallant in going down by just 11 points, having earlier led by 32 points at half-time.During the Diggers’ five years they played 95 games, in which they won just seven – the last of which was their 53rd match.In those 95 games the Diggers kicked a total of 921 goals compared to their opposition’s 1671.For Yates, he held the position of general manager until the end of the 2000 season, before moving to the Sunshine Coast with his wife Kaye.“Looking back now, to put it all together in such a short space of time was fairly stressful, but also very enjoyable at the same time,’’ said Yates, who is now the general manager of the Kangaroo Flat Sports Club.“It was a unique experience to be able to put a club together at VFL level.“The financial part of it was certainly the hardest.“We were draining financial resources from within the Bendigo area, along with a lot of other sporting clubs in the region.“There’s only limited dollars out there, so definitely, the financial side of things was the hardest.’’Tonight’s Team of the Decade Function at the Shamrock Hotel starts at 7pm.

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