By LIAM DURKIN
BOOLARRA Football-Netball Club players and officials gathered recently to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the club’s momentous 2011 Mid Gippsland Football-Netball League premiership.
Stories from the Demons last premiership season were shared, as those in attendance reminisced about the match itself and how much it meant to the small town.
So much and yet so little has changed in the space of 10 years. The Demons still have the same coach as the one who guided them to that premiership in Tony Giardina, while co-captains Simon Buglisi and Michael Cleaver are also still wearing red and blue – Cleaver as a player and Buglisi as president.
The significance of the 2011
premiership for Boolarra was something of a cultural event for the club given the romance attached.
Going into the match rank outsiders against an undefeated Trafalgar, who had lost just four games in three years, the Demons were given little to no chance.
However, the Demons won the hearts of many with a true Cinderella story in what has gone down as one of the greatest grand final upsets in Gippsland football history.
This is how they managed to pull it off.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
IN terms of journeys to the 2011 grand final, the contrast between Trafalgar and Boolarra could not have been more stark.
The Bloods ended the 2009 season with a premiership flag – the Demons ended it with a wooden spoon.
Coming to the club that year as senior coach after stints at Mirboo North and Devon-Welshpool-Won Wron-Woodside, Tony Giardina said what greeted him at Boolarra was undoubtedly the biggest challenge of his career.
“I’d coached Mirboo North to a losing grand final in 2004, and that took me three years to get them into a grand final,” he explained.
“Boolarra rang me up, the bug to coach was still there and I thought why not give it a go and see if what I did at Mirboo North wasn’t actually a fluke.
“When I first got here it was just hopeless … no one was training. There were a lot of sleepless nights thinking ‘gee we’ve just been belted by another 40 goals, what am I doing?’”.
The Demons on-field struggles paled in significance to what happened just weeks before the opening round of the season when bushfires whipped through Boolarra in a fury.
Boolarra stalwart Simon Buglisi described it as a highly emotional time.
“A lot of people around town were pretty flat after the fires and football was way down the list of priorities for people that year,” he said.
“It wasn’t ideal preseason in ’09 at all, that contributed to how we ended up but we worked hard to actually keep the place positive and then build from there.”
FOUNDATION FOR A FLAG
AFTER a disastrous 2009 season, Giardina set about laying down the law in his second year as coach.
Although the Demons only won four matches in 2010 and finished ninth on the ladder, the coach said there was a noticeable shift after some tough calls were made.
“I actually told guys at training on a Tuesday night ‘see ya later’ – kicked them off the track, told them to wait for their mates at the gate,” he said.
“I remember people telling me ‘you’re crazy, what are you doing? We’ve got no players, we’ve got no one’. I said ‘it has to be cleaned out – simple. We’re not winning a game now so it makes no difference – get rid of these guys, so that’s what we did.
“2010 was the big turning point, the attitude of the guys changed so you could actually bring more players in and you knew it was going to work. You couldn’t do it before because you had to change that culture.
“You could then see the improvement, I didn’t care about the wins, but the attitude had shifted – that was the biggest thing.”
While on-field results might have suggested otherwise, Giardina could see the team was on the right track.
SEASON 2011 started without much fanfare for Boolarra, as after Round 2 the Demons had recorded a nine-point win over Yarragon followed by a one-point loss to Hill End. Wins over proven finals performers Yinnar and Morwell East in the next fortnight made people sit up and take notice, which were followed by losses by just six and three points against Mirboo North and Trafalgar respectively.
Giardina liked what he saw.
“You could feel it, the boys had a never say die attitude,” he said.
“We never got flogged, except toward the end against Newborough and that was probably the best thing that happened to us.
“We weren’t talking about winning a flag, it was just win games and finish top three, that was our biggest thing because I thought we needed to have two finals games.”
The Demons were eventually able to grab third spot on the home-and-away ladder from Newborough on percentage. Come finals time, Boolarra defeated Mirboo North in the qualifying final, which Giardina believed sparked the team into genuinely believing it could go all the way.
“Mirboo North was our hardest team, getting over Mirboo North was the biggest hurdle. Once we got over them in the first final we were right,” he said.
From a playing perspective, Buglisi said the mental strength garnered from defeating Mirboo North proved pivotal.
“One of the things we spoke about all year was just about having belief in how far we could go,” he said.
“For me going into finals we hadn’t beaten Mirboo North or Traf that year. Beating Mirboo North in the first final gave us a lot of confidence, we then beat them in the prelim and at that point we really thought we were good enough and deserved to be in the grand final.”
CALM BEFORE THE STORM
ARRIVING at Ted Summerton Reserve, Moe on grand final day 2011, the two combatants entered the arena with differing subplots linked to their name.
For Trafalgar it was the chance to win the club’s first hat-trick of senior titles, while for Boolarra, the opportunity to exorcise years of torment.
It was this element that Giardina said he looked to draw on in his pre-match address.
“The biggest theme before the game was about the club being 130-odd years old and only having three flags,” he said.
“There were a lot of blokes in the room like Corby (Vince Corbett) that had been belted for years and years. I said ‘you have a chance to play in a winning grand final – make the most of it. Make the most of it for yourself and the blokes that have been belted for years that played here’.”
These sentiments were shared by the captain, who felt no one in the team thought close enough was good enough.
“I think there was a little bit of nervousness, but excitement that we were playing in a grand final,” he said.
“For me what was overriding was ‘we’re here boys, we deserve to be here and let’s just go out there and give it our best’.
“I don’t think we ever thought we were happy just making it, I don’t think any player went in thinking ‘well this is better than we thought we’d ever do’.”
Meanwhile in the Trafalgar rooms, it seemed the team was self-sabotaging under the weight of expectation.
“Before the game I could just tell people were doubting each other,” captain at the time Chris Kyriacou said.
“It’s really hard to describe the support Boolarra had that day – anyone from country footy that came to watch didn’t want us to win.”
10 MINUTES OF MAYHEM
WHATEVER thoughts of self-doubt there may have been in the Trafalgar camp were surely banished early in the piece as Bloods forward Rhys Holdsworth ran riot.
Having won best on ground honours in the previous year’s grand final, Holdsworth could have been forgiven for thinking 2011 was going to be his crowning glory after kicking four goals within the first 10 minutes.
At that point friends and teammates feared they would never hear the end of it, while the man himself still isn’t exactly sure what transpired.
“For some reason in the first quarter the ball just kept landing in my hands … I kicked two goals from a metre out,” he said.
“Still to this day I don’t know what happened in that game. We were up by 30 points in the first quarter and then after that they just blitzed us – it was like ‘how is this happening?’”
Keeping his sense of humour, Holdsworth said he couldn’t help but think he was going to be a few dollars richer by the end of the match.
“Before the game one of the supporters said to me ‘if you kick five goals today I’ll give you two grand’.”
THE TURNING POINT
WITH Holdsworth kicking them from everywhere, there was the sense of the supernatural about the way in which the game was being played.
Toward the end of the first quarter Kyriacou said there was the lingering thought of things going a bit too well.
“I remember coming onto the interchange at the backend of the first quarter and saying to Luke Williams ‘this doesn’t feel right, this is just too easy for a grand final’,” he said.
Giardina was not perturbed, believing once his side settled they would be fine, and despite the early madness, at quarter time Boolarra only trailed 5.1 (31) to 4.1 (25).
With Demons ruckman Tyson Leys, (who ironically has since won a senior flag for Trafalgar) sent to the sin bin, Boolarra put Scott Boddy into the middle, and as is often the case in grand finals, an unlikely hero was found.
Boddy had not featured in the best players since Round 9, but played arguably the match of his life on grand final day to be among the Demons most prominent.
Boolarra wrestled back the lead by half-time, and as Buglisi recalls, that is when the dream was really alive.
“To the boys credit we dug in and fought back and maybe having our backs against the wall for a small amount of time and being able to kick a few goals and catch them gave us the confidence for the rest of the game,” he said.
“When we started to kick a few goals you couldn’t help but think ‘if we can do that one player down maybe this is our chance to really get on top’.”
LEADING by three goals at the final change, Giardina said he could smell victory even that early.
“Our three quarter time huddle was massive and when I spoke to the boys you could just feel the electricity coming off them and I thought ‘we’re home’,” he said.
Buglisi said he was a little more subdued, and didn’t want to go the early crow. There was another moment of madness late in the game as the scoreboard read Boolarra 13.4 (82) to Trafalgar 8.5 (53).
“We actually thought the siren had gone and a heap of spectators ran onto the ground,” he said.
“I don’t actually know what happened but after they cleared the ground and resumed play I thought ‘it must be pretty close to the end now’.
As the real siren sounded, captain and coach both experienced emotions of shock and jubilation.
“It was a little bit of disbelief,” Buglisi said.
“I’ve been at Boolarra for a very long time and haven’t had a lot of success. I’d just turned 30 and never thought I would see too much success so to actually win a grand final at the age I was it was just disbelief.”
For the coach, the overriding emotion was simple.
“Relief, it was relief,” he said.
“There was people crying, Simon (Buglisi), Cleaves (Michael Cleaver), they never thought they’d play finals let alone win a grand final, so they were the ones after the game that were amazing to be around because they couldn’t believe they’d actually won one.”
The after party was well and truly a ‘let your hair down’ affair, with celebrations lasting long into the following week and rolling into the players trip away to Airlie Beach.
While Buglisi admitted memories of the celebrations were a “bit hazy”, he was in no doubt as to where the 2011 premiership ranked in his career.
“It’s definitely the highlight. Not many people around town can say they’ve won a grand final so to be captain in the grand final for the club I’ve always played for, my dad played for, my uncles played for, I can’t put into words how special that is,” he said.
“Throughout the whole club it was an unbelievable feeling because traditionally we don’t have as many flags as some of the other teams in the league.
“Overall it was just happiness. We had a few older supporters that probably never thought they would see another one after 97′, there were a lot of older supporters that hadn’t seen a lot of success so I think the overall feeling was just joy for the whole club and the town.”