As the West Gippsland Football League returns next season, Catani will remain firmly with the Ellinbank and District Football League. It solidifies a decision made 40 years ago when the club moved from West Gippsland to Ellinbank to ensure its very survival. This Saturday marks the reunion of those first Catani EDFL and EDNA sides, as RUSSELL BENNETT reports…
IN local sport, reunions are usually the domain of premiership-winning teams.
But in Catani’s case, this weekend’s celebration remembers the footy and netball sides that helped save the club.
In the mid-1970s, the Cats – as they were then known – were battling to stay afloat in the West Gippsland Football League. They were losing young players left, right and centre because jobs in the local area had dried right up.
Confronted with the task of playing against teams from much larger towns such as Pakenham, Drouin and Korumburra, as well as Garfield, Bunyip and Nar Nar Goon, for the best part of a decade the Cats struggled to pull themselves up from the bottom rungs on the ladder.
Facing the prospect of having no money or players, they made a decision that changed the course of their history – saving the Catani Football and Netball Club as everyone now knows it.
This Saturday, Catani plays host to Buln Buln – the first club it played against, and beat, when the (now) Blues joined the Ellinbank football and netball ranks in 1976.
Players from those inaugural Catani EDFL and EDNA sides will come from over the country to remember a defining chapter in the club’s history.
Blues icon Colin Hobson was the president of the club in the mid-1970s.
“It wasn’t my idea – even though I was president at the time,” he admitted of the move from West Gippsland to the Ellinbank league.
“The league was about half as much – cost-wise – as it was in West Gippsland,” he said.
“West Gippsland had this professionalism in the back of their minds and in reality ‘professionalism’ meant money, money, money.
“Everyone was getting paid. But, we went to Ellinbank and our administration costs were exactly half – they dropped from about $7500 to $3800.”
In late 1975, the prospect of changing leagues was raised at a meeting at the Catani clubrooms.
“It didn’t have a hope in hell (of passing),” Col said.
“We lost the vote with five in favour of it and more than 30 against it.”
What followed was the busiest few months of his footballing life.
He and his late wife Bev spent weeks driving around and speaking to club members one-on-one – convincing them of the benefits of the move.
The club came together again on 14 January 1976 and that vote had switched, incredibly, to 33 for and only two against.
One of those two people was Col’s great mate, and Blues royalty, Ron Banbury. He’d been a part of West Gippsland since 1953 and was worried about the state of the grounds and facilities throughout the EDFL.
But, recently at the Blues’ Taplins Road rooms, he agreed with Col. Not only was the move the best thing the club could have done, it was crucial for its very survival.
“We just explained to people that, long-term, if we continued in West Gippsland we wouldn’t continue to exist as a club,” Col said.
“It was as simple as that.
“We had the vote again and it was 33-2. It’s really amazing what a bit of hope can do for a club.”
With the move coming into effect for the 1976 season, one of the first issues the Catani needed to resolve was with its club colours. Originally royal blue and yellow, they would clash with the Ellinbank Football and Netball Club.
“We went with Carlton jumpers,” Col explained.
“We always had a big committee – at the time we had 16 or 17 – and seven or eight at least barracked for Carlton.
“The club had three alternatives – Hawthorn, North Melbourne or Carlton. Now, if you were to say to a mother what would you prefer to have – a white jumper with blue, yellow and brown, or a navy blue you could dip in the mud, wash out and still have it look ok.
“The jumper already had the CFC – and obviously we’re Catani – so everything about it worked.
“Memorabilia wasn’t that big back in those days, but we could obviously tag on to Carlton’s stuff so that’s really how we came up with it!”
Beryl Banbury and Bev Hobson then had the task of sewing every number on to the back of more than 50 new jumpers.
“We had the seniors and reserves in Carlton jumpers and the thirds played in our original royal blue and gold,” Col recalled.
“When they played Ellinbank we just rented Nar Nar Goon jumpers for the day. We didn’t want to put parents through buying another set of gear!”
Before long, the Blues experienced what Col described as ‘a surge of energy’.
“We had Buln Buln here in the first game and skittled them!” he said.
“They were what you’d call a middle-of-the-table side, so what it did was give us hope. That’s all that surrounded us.
“From then on we were never a top club but we were always competitive.”
The Blues didn’t win another senior football premiership until 1992, with their last West Gippsland flags coming in 1953 and 1954.
But their survival was no longer threatened. After playing Buln in their first game in the EDFL, the Blues faced off with the Lyrebirds again midway through 1976. This was a game that started a great rivalry between the two clubs.
“We played Buln Buln up there in the ninth or tenth game of the year and one of their guys decided he’d smash our coach,” Col said.
“The ball was at centre-half forward and he hit him about 25 yards out from the goal at the other end and broke his jaw.
“To be honest, we’ve never been that friendly with Buln Buln ever since. It’s a bit like Carlton and Collingwood – we probably like to beat them more than anyone else.”
From where the Blues had been in West Gippsland – at one stage winning three games in the space of five years – a finals appearance in their first season in the EDFL gave their members legitimate hope for the future.
“We were happy with the season because we thought we only had to build a bit more and we’re in there, but it took us another 20 years to win the premiership” Col said.
“Still, we had hope.
“If we didn’t do it I’m sure we would have folded. Think of a coal miner, who struggles like hell on a minimal wage in Wales or England and then suddenly he gets a promotion and he’s the manager and he never looks back.”
About 75 people have been invited along to the reunion at the Catani clubrooms this Saturday. The function kicks off from 12.30pm, with speeches from Col Hobson, current president Peter Duff, and 1976 coach Peter Norton from 1pm. There’ll be a light lunch before all the action of the senior footy and A Grade netball.
(Published in the Pakenham-Berwick Gazette on 27 April, 2016)