BENDIGO City FC is excitedly counting down the days until its historic Football Federation Australia (FFA) Cup clash in early February.
Following a four-year hiatus, the club will make a stunning return to the senior soccer ranks in 2022.
The moment club officials have waited months for arrived late last week, with Football Victoria approving the club's bid for inclusion in the Men's State League (MSL) competition for 2022.
It followed months of negotiations and planning with key stakeholders, including the City of Greater Bendigo, Bendigo Amateur Soccer League (BASL) and Football Victoria.
After debuting in the NPL in 2015, Bendigo City FC has not fielded senior or under-21 teams since the 2017 season, instead shifting its focus to its junior teams, which remain in the NPL competition.
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Bendigo City technical officer Nathan Claridge said the club's entry into the state league had been a long time coming and described the process of getting there as 'rigorous and lengthy'.
He said Football Victoria's official approval had come as a big relief to all involved.
"We were really confident the whole way through, but its gone through a massive process, with a lot of engagement with stakeholders," he said.
"It's a really critical outcome for our club and for the sustainability of the junior boys NPL program, as well as the footprint of Bendigo in Victorian football.
"It was all pointing to it (being approved), but until they actually called us, it was a bit of a nervous wait."
Relief has quickly turned to excitement for all involved at Bendigo City.
Planning for the club's return to senior action is well advanced, with an enthusiastic squad of players in training since last month and having already notched up a pair of practice matches, most recently last weekend against Ringwood City.
Bendigo City will be led by Greg Thomas, who was one of the club's first coaches in 2015 during its stint in the NPL1, before coaching Eaglehawk to a three-peat of BASL championships.
The remainder of the playing squad will comprise an abundance of young local talent in either their early 20s or late-teens, with about 10 former players making their way back to Bendigo from either NPL or state league clubs.
The club will use its reserve team as a virtual under-21 team, with development opportunities expected to be offered to some of the club's most talented NPL juniors.
Claridge said following a break for Christmas, the club would have a near-full schedule of pre-season games from mid-January through until the start of the MSL season.
"Our first round of the FFA Cup comes up around February 12, so things are starting to take off really quickly now," he said.
"It's why we have had to get on the front foot and be in a position where all the groundwork is done.
"Once we got the phone call from Football Victoria, we wanted everything to be in place instead of waiting to get things done."
Bendigo City will start its journey back into senior competition in the state league's bottom division - division five.
Claridge and Thomas are not just hopeful of being competitive and are backing the Bendigo young guns to have a quick impact.
"We've made it quite clear in a few meetings with the boys that our expectation is promotion," Thomas said.
"And if we can get some good early wins, we are hoping to get the support of the community, who will see we are playing an attractive brand of football.
"It's going to be a very young side and the players will all be Bendigo-based, so hopefully we can get people out here supporting it.
"But we're not hiding the fact we want to get promoted. That's our first and foremost goal. This first year is all about winning games and setting us up for the future.
"We feel, and a lot of people involved in Bendigo soccer feel, this is something Bendigo needs. There is now a pathway for our good junior players at Bendigo City and those who want to play with the club."
Those sentiments were echoed by Claridge.
"We'll come in at the bottom of the pyramid and have to work our way up, but for us, that's a really good thing, because we can then build something that is sustainable over time," he said.
"There won't be that pressure straight away to perform and compete against the big clubs with massive player budgets.
"We could, one day, get back into that NPL environment, but if we do, it will be on the back of a long, long journey of building a club from the ground up."
A new start will be accompanied by a change in playing strip, with Bendigo City to adopt the blue and gold colours worn by many of the city's sporting teams, including the BFNL inter-league team, Bendigo Dragons Gridiron Club and the former Bendigo Gold/Bendigo Diggers VFL team.
The away strip will be predominantly orange.
Early signs have been encouraging with Bendigo City FC narrowly going down to Ringwood City in Saturday's senior match 2-3, despite the absence of several key players.
The reserves/under-21 team enjoyed a comfortable 3-0 victory.
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