By Nick Creely
When Doveton coach and club icon Daniel Charles returned to the club for the 2018 season, the club was at a crossroads.
The Doves were badly struggling as a football club, and unable to field an under 19 side in what proved to be the final year of the now-defunct South East Football Netball League (SEFNL).
It proved to be a winless season for the senior group, while the reserves could only muster up a solitary victory.
While it may not seem that more on-field pain could actually bring the club out of its hole and closer together, things were improving, interest was growing and the Doves went down a different path.
In the end, it’s been the making of a club that relishes the underdog tag. It didn’t break them, it strengthened their resolve.
Charles told the Gazette just how far the Doves have come, and the hard decisions that needed to be made to make the famous south-east club survive.
“Before I took over last year, I got a phone call from (club president) Aaron Henwood, and he said that this was the last ditch effort to keep the club alive,” Charles said.
“So before I got there last year, they were thinking of actually closing the doors, so I got there, and yes it was a tough year, and I knew it was because my recruits were aged between 17 and 19.
“I thought, ‘there’s no point just trying to get us up for one year’, so I decided to get young kids in there that might struggle a bit in running out games, but they’ll be better in the long run.
“It’s worked out well.”
And in a remarkable chapter in the club’s history just a year later, the Doves are now playing in an AFL Outer East Division 1 grand final – it’s first since 2009 – after overcoming Pakenham in a remarkable wet-weather performance at Woori Yallock, 8.2 (50) to 2.4 (16) on Sunday.
The Doves scrapped, cracked in at the contest and found an extra edge. It’s the Doveton way, and not many local football clubs in Victoria can transform itself and defy its own deficiencies to strive for success in such a short amount of time.
While the Doves have talent, and recruited smartly – blending youth and experience perfectly – the remarkable resurgence has also come down to mindset, and the ability for every player to appreciate the moment, and not look too far ahead.
“I’ve spoken to the players all year about celebrating every moment of a football game,” he said.
“Whether it be the win, whether it’s a hanger, kicking goals, defending, exiting, we want to just celebrate the little victories that come along in a game of football.
“It’s certainly helped us.”
Ash Green’s Lions struggled to adjust the difficult conditions with pain pelting down from the start, being held goalless in the first quarter while the Doves managed just the one.
A beautiful running goal from a tight angle off the boot of Pakenham’s Zac Stewart gave the Lions a bit of a spark in the second term, but it was obvious the Doves were going to prove almost impossible to topple, with Mitch Pierce in particular showcasing some impressive forward craft as his side surged out to an 18-point lead.
Refusing to give the Lions even the barest of sniffs, the Doves kicked away further in a completely superb final half, knocking off the minor premier – a side they couldn’t overcome in the home and away season – with Pierce ending with four in a vitally important individual game considering the low-scoring nature of the contest.
Charles described the vibe in the rooms as electric as the Doves belted out its famous song with plenty of gusto and emotion.
“It’s a good feeling, the boys are up and about and the supporters packed the change room on the weekend after the win – the buzz was fantastic,” he said.
“The boys were up and about, they sung the song with gusto, it’s an enjoyable place to be at the moment.”
Charles praised his group for their pressure around the ground, cutting off Pakenham’s usually vibrant run and carry, and not allowing them to control possession at any point.
“It was a funny game, the ground was good under feet, it was just raining – the boys were fairly clean below their knees considering the conditions, and I think playing last week helped get rid of the nerves the players had,” he said.
“Come finals, the pressure mounts up, you’ve got external pressure, and pressure on the actual game, so the boys stuck to their basics and tried to put as much heat on Pakenham when they had the footy, and it worked out in our favour.
“But I’m sure they’ll bounce back next week.”