AS FAR as returns to the playing field go, Bendigo City FC could not have asked for a grander stage for its re-entry to senior soccer.
Following a five-year hiatus, Bendigo City will this Saturday make its long-awaited return to the senior football ranks in no less than an Australia Cup fixture against Watsonia Heights.
The Australia Cup, formerly known as the Football Federation Australia (FFA) Cup, routinely attracts more than 700 teams from all divisions of soccer across Australia, pitting professional clubs against grassroots and amateur teams.
A total of 104 teams will be in action this weekend for the first round of qualifying.
While it's a new era for the competition following the name change to Australia Cup, it's also the case for Bendigo City FC, which is fielding senior teams for the first time since the 2017 season.
What better way to kick off a bright new beginning for the club than in Australia's largest knockout soccer competition.
Coach Greg Thomas, who is back at the helm after previously leading the club in 2015, said it would be an exciting new experience for nearly the entire playing group, with few having played in an Australia Cup match before.
"We're all back on board and it's all systems go," he said.
"It's been a long pre-season and obviously we've had to get a whole new squad together.
"There's still a lot of work to do, but it's all coming together slowly but surely.
"I think the guys just need to get some competitive games into them after what has been a long couple of years football-wise.
"The boys are really looking forward to it. They are a young bunch of guys and are all really enthusiastic and ready to go."
When regular-season action kicks off next month, Bendigo City will make its return in Men's State League 5 West.
Saturday's Australia Cup fixture will give Thomas and his players a good early gauge of what to expect, with Watsonia Heights a rung above in State League 4 North.
The experienced coach expects the team to be unfazed by its leap into the unknown.
"All I know about (Watsonia Heights) is they play State League 4 North, that's all we know," Thomas said.
"We know nothing about them, but that's no bother. At the end of the day we want to worry about ourselves and we will control what we control.
"Unless they've come to watch a few of our (practice) matches in Melbourne, they won't know anything about us either.
"That is the beauty about this Australia Cup, it's a real unknown who you are playing and it's the same for everyone.
"I'm sure we will give a pretty good account of ourselves."
There's still a lot of work to do, but it's all coming together slowly but surely.- Greg Thomas
On Thursday night, Bendigo City unveiled Aidan Lane as its captain for 2022.
He will be backed by two vice-captains Daniel Purdy and Will Keating.
Lane has returned to Bendigo following a stint with National Premier Leagues (NPL) club Green Gully and will take up the role of defensive midfielder.
Thomas said all three leaders had impressed in the team's early months together.
"All of them bring different qualities to the group and are all ex-Bendigo City juniors, which is a great thing," he said.
"Probably about 90 per cent of the playing squad is ex-Bendigo City juniors.
"Aidan coming back as captain bringing with him that NPL experience is great for the club.
"Daniel and Will have been playing locally for the past two years.
"We're really excited by them. They are well respected by the group, which is really important."
Bendigo City will enter Saturday's clash with plenty of confidence following a 1-nil victory in its pre-season encounter against State League 2 club Mooroolbark last weekend.
Thomas said it was easily the most impressive of their pre-season hit-outs to date.
Returning to the club he coached for one season during its days in the NPL has added an extra layer of excitement for Thomas.
He regards Bendigo City as a nearly totally different club to the one he left at the end of 2015 before embarking on a successful player-coaching stint at BASL powerhouse Eaglehawk.
"It's a totally different feel at the moment. The club is in a really good place at the moment, from the juniors all the way through," he said.
"It's probably the strongest position the club has ever been in.
"For me it's great, we are going to give plenty of opportunities to young players and we've already done that through pre-season, giving some under-16s and under-18s some chances."
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