The past 18-months have seen Ararat Eagles Football Club transform from a side struggling to exist to one that is exciting supporters and neutrals alike.
By mid-2019 the situation at the club was dire. The club had nearly folded at the start of the season due to a lack of players, and in Round 11 of the Mininera and District League, the Eagles' senior team were forced to forfeit a game to Tatyoon due to having insufficient numbers to play.
The club's president Nats McRoberts said the forfeit was "a blight on the club."
Three weeks later the Eagles suffered a 509-point defeat to Great Western, leading Mininera and District League president John Box to scrutinise the team's place in the league.
"I can't see any sense in a side kicking 79 goals in a game of footy," Box had said.
"It's definitely something we have to look at next year - they can't do what they've done this season, they have to improve. It is a bad look for the league."
Yet unbeknownst to Box and indeed most people at the club, the Eagles fortunes had already begun to change, ironically on the night of the forfeit to Tatyoon.
Former Ararat Eagles players Tom and Jack Taurau, Zac Jenkins, Naish McRoberts and Brett Sladdin were together that night and were discussing the state of the club. Jack Taurau said it was clear the season could be the Eagles' last.
"After they forfeited we came to the conclusion that if nothing happened to the club it probably wouldn't be around for much longer," he said.
As they talked the idea emerged that they could return to their former club in a bid to stop it from folding.
At the time, Naish McRoberts, and Jack and Tom Taurau were part of a Stawell Warriors team that would make the finals of the Wimmera Football League, while Zac Jenkins arrived from Redan Football Club in the Ballarat Football League.
Sladdin himself was a life member of the Ararat Eagles and had previously coached the senior team about a decade ago.
The group began making plans for their returns to the Eagles and in October 2019, the club announced Sladdin as the senior coach and Jenkins, McRoberts, and the Taurau brothers as new members of their playing squad.
Sladdin said he knew these signings were simply the first of many.
"When Tom (Taurau), Naish (McRoberts), Jack (Taurau), and Zac (Jenkins) decided they were going to come back it sort of changed the mood around the place a bit," he said.
"They did a lot of work those four blokes in bringing all their mates that they'd played with and talking them around.
"So, once we started attracting a few good players it kind of snowballed from there.
Due to COVID-19 cancelling the entire 2020 season, Sladdin is still yet to take charge of his first match at the club.
But when he does he will have about 30 new players to choose from since the Eagles last took the field.
Jack said the players who had signed were all united in their desire to revive the club.
"The club hasn't always been in a strong enough financial position to be paying players," he said.
"But the guys are happy not being paid, they're not doing it for the money."
Sladdin said the pandemic has also done little to dampen the team's enthusiasm.
"A lot of the blokes are pretty good mates, so they all see each other when they're allowed to," he said.
"There's only one or two that aren't as keen as what they were (before the pandemic) but we've probably picked up another half-a-dozen."
Sladdin also said there had been a notable change to the atmosphere at the club.
"Before everything stopped, everything was really positive.
"There were a lot of people around the club, and we were having barbecues at training and all of that kind of stuff."
Sladdin said he was still eager not to get "carried away" with expectations for the 2021 season.
Jack agreed and said the club needs to achieve the basics first.
"Our first aim is to put a team on the park each week," he said.
"We want to get junior teams together so we can create a spine and keep players funneling through.
"We don't want to ever forfeit."
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