FOR eight years the Essendon Football Club has been in partnership with Bendigo’s VFL club, the Bendigo Bombers.Without Essendon coming to the rescue at the end of the 2002 season, no doubt VFL football would have been lost to Bendigo as the fledgling Bendigo Diggers – after just seven wins in 95 games over five years – simply couldn’t compete any more against clubs stacked with AFL-listed players courtesy of their alignments.A growing regional centre like Bendigo with its size and rich football history should have a presence in the VFL, and Essendon threw out a much-needed lifeline at the end of ’02 to a region that was once the territory of its sworn enemy, Carlton.Of course, there were benefits in the alignment for Essendon, one of them being the opportunity to grow its membership here and turn Bendigo into Essendon’s ‘Bomberland’ away from Windy Hill.Speaking exclusively to the Bendigo Advertiser in September last year in his last days as Essendon managing director, Peter Jackson said: “If we can develop a piece of area in Victoria, and that community respects us for what we’re trying to do and for the way we do it, that is important for us because we get brand recognition and enhancement over a number of years. It seems to make more sense to do that in a region like greater Bendigo, rather than just some inner suburb in Melbourne.’’But eight years into its Bendigo alignment, clearly, the Essendon Football Club is still to make its mark and be fully accepted into the Bendigo community.Yes, Essendon should be applauded for its On the Ball program that has benefited a number of Bendigo schools – and who knows where Matthew Knights, Maryborough’s Stewart Crameri or Jarrod Atkinson would be now if VFL football in Bendigo wasn’t given that lifeline to survive – but Essendon is still very much looked upon as an outsider here.For mine, this ongoing Queen Elizabeth Oval saga provides a perfect opportunity for Essendon to make its mark on Bendigo and show that it’s fair dinkum about helping to foster the development of football here.About $2 million is needed to upgrade the much-maligned playing surface of the QEO, which at the moment is not suitable for VFL football to be played on.As has been well documented in recent weeks, it’s a disgrace that what was once regarded as the mecca for regional sport in Victoria doesn’t have a surface that can sustain a game of VFL football.The City of Greater Bendigo in its budget has committed $500,000 to the surface upgrade project, meaning another $1.5 million needs to be sourced elsewhere before the overdue works can start.The council had hoped the remaining $1.5 million would be provided through the Federal Government’s Local Infrastructure Program, but the application has been unsuccessful, meaning the money needs to come from somewhere else.This is where I see an opportunity for Essendon to step in and show some leadership and commitment to Bendigo.Yes, Essendon has contributed financially in recent years to the Bendigo Bombers to ensure the club survives – particularly significantly in 2007 – but putting some money towards the QEO upgrade would help to substantially enhance the standing of the club in this community.Essendon is regarded as one of the power clubs of the AFL – I haven’t heard the two terms “AFL handout’’ and “Essendon’’ in the same sentence before – so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask the question of why the club can’t put its hand in its pocket and contribute financially to a project that, ultimately, its players are going to benefit from by playing on a pristine surface.To again quote Jackson – who recently compiled a report titled Football and Netball in Bendigo: An approach for the future, that indicated $12 million needs to be spent on the QEO precinct as part of a master plan – Essendon wants respect from greater Bendigo. Putting its money where its mouth is and contributing to a project that will not only have some benefit to Essendon, but to the greater community, would go a long way to starting to achieve that respect eight years after the club first set foot into town.The community benefit would come in the way of, clearly, a new QEO surface, opening the doors to a whole range of top-level sports being attracted to Bendigo. In the interest of balance though – if Essendon – which itself is trying to source $28 million for its own facility upgrade – was to chip in some funds for the QEO works, the club would be a private investor and therefore wanting, and deserving, to have a say on who plays on the ground.After all, Essendon would want to ensure its investment is protected, but the QEO is Bendigo’s ground – it has been since it was known as the Upper Reserve as far back as the 1870s. Do we want a Melbourne-based organisation telling us when we can and can’t play on Bendigo’s ground? I don’t think so.So what’s the answer? In the interests of what’s best for the QEO, hopefully, the $1.5 million needed can be funded through government grants, ensuring the project gets done and Bendigo maintains control of its ground.There’s no doubt, though, more work from Essendon to engage the Bendigo community certainly is a must. And that’s coming from a one-eyed supporter whose mood – as sad as it may seem – during the week is often dictated by Essendon’s result the previous weekend.