AS HIS club endures yet another season of hardship in the Loddon Valley Football-Netball League, Inglewood senior coach Darrell Billett says the Blues have still been able to find positives out of the 2021 season.
While the results haven't been pretty - as three goal-less games in their past four matches will attest - the Blues are one of only four clubs in the league fielding all three football teams this year, while Billett believes the willingness for his young side to continue to remain upbeat through adversity is building their character.
With the LVFNL season on another lockdown pause, his side 0-9 and having not won a game since April 28, 2018, Billett chats about the challenges that have confronted the Blues this year.
LUKE WEST: When you were appointed coach of Inglewood in November of 2019 you no doubt would have known you had a big job ahead of you given the enduring struggles the club has faced since 2004. Given what has unfolded this year with the results, has it been harder than you anticipated?
DARRELL BILLETT: "It probably has been a bit harder, but I attribute a fair bit of that to the COVID situation last year and not being able to play in 2020.
"We knew we had a lot of good kids coming out of the under-18s and were getting ready to play senior footy, but they had to take 12 months off, so their young bodies haven't had the chance to mature footy-wise.
"Every week they are coming up against older and bigger players and getting knocked around a bit.
"It has been a hard year, but we believe there is some light at the end of the tunnel."
What is that light you see from within the club that those on the outside wouldn't?
"The kids are coming through, we're very confident of that.
"We know that we're definitely going to need to add some bigger bodies, more mature players and some quality.
"And we know we can't sugar coat the situation; the results look terrible when you don't score goals against sides like Maiden Gully (round 9) and Serp (round 11), but the reality is on those days we had six and seven guys doubling up from the reserves.
"We've been hurt a fair bit by injury, which hasn't helped, but I come back again to there being some quality kids coming through."
Can you give some perspective as to just how young the senior team is.
"There was a game a couple of weeks ago where before we ran out I went around the group and asked each player to say their age.
"The answer was 17, 18, 18, 18, 17, 19, 18 and so on. I think there's only two or three blokes who are over the age of 22.
"One of them, Cody Stobaus, is playing some really good footy for us. He's playing down back, so he's seeing a fair bit of the ball, but he has been a real pillar for us and has indicated to me he's pretty keen to go again next year with us.
"We've got Luke Matheson over from South Australia, who landed on our doorstep, and has been really good in the handful of games he's played.
"Daniel Lloyd is towards the end of his career at about 37, so apart from those three, the rest of the players are all mostly 18 to 20-year-olds and still getting to know each other.
"We know it's hard and that we're not going to just be able to flick a switch next year, but we lost 52 players after the 2019 season, so in that regard we feel we're having a win because we're fielding all three footy sides every week and one of only four clubs to be doing that."
We feel we're having a win because we're fielding all three footy sides every week and one of only four clubs to be doing thatDarrell Billett - Inglewood coach
In an ideal scenario when you're introducing young players into senior football, you like to ease them in, whether it be out on a wing or in a forward pocket and such. What are some examples of having to throw kids to the wolves this year so to speak playing roles more accustomed to those with experience?
"Cameron Martin and Kyle Simpson straight out of the under-18s are playing centre half-forward and centre half-back for us.
"They are the positions you normally have your 25-year-olds who have played 100 games and are a decent size filling.
"These kids are skinny 19-year-olds who hadn't played any senior footy before this year, so when you look at it in that context, that's why we've got to surround them with some experience and what we'll be hoping to do next year, but so too is every other club.
"Riley Murphy doesn't turn 19 until November and he's playing key position for us and a bit in the ruck, which he is handling alright.
"My nephew Jaxon (Billett) hasn't played 20 games of senior footy, but he's the captain of the club, which was voted in by the boys.
"When your captain hasn't played 20 games of senior footy, it really is boys playing against men."
Given the team went goal-less in three of its four games in between the two lockdown season pauses, how has the morale been around the group?
"Of course they get a bit disappointed, but they seem to be holding up alright.
"I've had discussions with every other coach who has played against us and had a lot of encouraging feedback.
"Gaddo (Greg Gadsden) after the Serp game (lost 249-1) spoke about how impressed he was that at no point during the game did our boys throw in the towel.
"Linton Jacobs said the same thing when we played Marong (lost 240-4) and got a fair old touch-up. Again, Lino spoke about us never throwing in the towel.
"We have played some good quarters of football, but can't put it together for a full game.
"The kids are out there every week trying their guts out and having a red-hot go. It might not seem like it at the moment, but they'll get there if we surround them with half-a-dozen to eight quality players.
"If we can do that the gap can close fairly quickly in Loddon Valley footy."
The kids are out there every week trying their guts out and having a red-hot goDarrell Billett - Inglewood coach
How big a character-building experience do you believe it is for your young players to be on the end of the constant heavy losses that they have been enduring, but continue to front up every week?
"There's disappointment after a game and the boys might be a little bit down, but the next time you see them at training they are up and about, running around and enjoying themselves.
"They are a really good bunch of kids who are level-headed and know where they are at.
"The message throughout the year to the boys has been along the lines of not to expect too much because we know we're not ready yet, but from what you learn this year and if we can stick together over the next few years and have some success, it's going to feel that much better because you've helped build something from the bottom."
Who of the playing group is really thriving this year?
"Jasper McClelland and Taj Rodwell have been really good and Matty Rowe has come into his own over the past month and playing some consistent footy.
"Young Tommy Alexander is raw, but geez, he has a red-hot go. He tackles well, chases and does a lot of the things that are right and he's still learning the game.
"Jed Edlin is another who is showing a bit, but he has been hampered by hamstring injuries.
"I mentioned Cameron Martin and Kyle Simpson earlier in those key position roles, but the challenge we know is going to be able to keep them all together."
Are you committed for the long haul?
"Yes I am if they'll have me and we've started to have some discussions already around next year.
"We need to get some stability in terms of the coaching and we're working really hard off the field to get it to turn for us and get more people involved to lighten the load.
"There's people working really hard, but not enough of them, so you need to get more people in to get that part of it right as well."
Given the struggle for numbers many clubs across the region are facing on the back of last year's cancelled season, how significant is it for the club to have all three football teams on the field each week?
"It's been huge. Leigh Lamprell (under-18 coach) has done a power of work to get our under-18 side on the park each week and kudos to him.
"We're not going to see the benefit of that for a few years because it's a really young side, but they are out there every week and not once have we forfeited.
"It probably would have been easier for us at times to forfeit a reserves game, but if we do that the 15 blokes who have turned up miss out on a game and we don't want that.
"If you take 52 players out of any club like we've had, they are going to struggle to field all their sides, but we've been able to do that.
"So the brand isn't broke, which might be strange to say because the club has been down for a long time; we've got the players, we just need to get more quality in."
Unfortunately, we're on another season pause at the moment and, hopefully, the league can resume sooner rather than later. When it does, what's your aim for the remainder of the season?
"The goal is to win a game. I know it's going to be hard, but that's what we'll be aiming for over however many games it is we've got left to play.
"The boys have shown that for periods of time they can compete, but we just can't do it for long enough and that comes down to the fact that we're just not mature enough yet.
"Ideally, we'd love to be able to do what a club like Marong has done. They've gone and brought in experienced players in Kain Robins, Brandyn Grenfell, Corey Gregg and blokes like that and you look at the improvement they have had this year.
"So that's what we've got to go out and do. Obviously, the scores we're dishing up will make it hard to entice blokes to have a look at us, but you never know... you've only got to try to extract one or two to get the ball rolling and we're going to go really hard for an assistant coach next year.
"What has set us back was I didn't get appointed coach until November of 2019, so you're ringing blokes late, and then after COVID last year you're ringing blokes who are honouring where they have signed, which I respect and shows character.
"But we'll be hoping to get some locals back to the club next year who can help us be part of the solution moving forward.
"I know the scores don't look that way at the moment, but with the right people in it can turn pretty quick."
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