Weekly Times | IMAGINE combining your football club with one of its biggest rivals just weeks out from a new season.
That was the reality confronting the Omeo and Benambra football clubs back in 2007.
When Omeo-Benambra takes to the field on Saturday against Bruthen in Round 1 of the Omeo and District Football League season it will mark a decade since the club first entered the playing field as one team.
Benambra won the Omeo and District Football League premiership in 2006, and yet in the months leading up to the new season was scrambling for players.
Current club vice-president Russell Pendergast was involved with Benambra from the age of 15, going on to coach the seniors and also winning league goalkicking award in 1976.
He said he was against a merger until he realised “we’d better keep our identity somehow and the only way to do that was to put our name beside Omeo’s”.
“I had been around a long time and thought generally these pre-season things generally used to turn around ... we’d get (the players) and away we’d go,” he said.
“But other people had better ideas than me and they were definitely right the way it turned out.”
Darren “Rock” Hayward was Omeo’s president at the time.
He was at Ensay when it folded in 1995 so had seen what happened when a club disappeared.
But he said there were people from the club who felt the merger meant a loss of identity or it would be a takeover.
“Trying to find the happy medium was very hard,” he said.
Benambra players donned their red and white jumpers for the unfurling of their premiership flag in the first game of 2007, before switching to Omeo’s maroon jumpers for the match.
Later in the season Omeo-Benambra started wearing a specially designed merger jumper that contained all three colours, which they wore when they won the 2007 premiership. Members later voted to adopt a neutral jumper.
It has not been entirely smooth sailing and Hayward said there were people who refused to come to the footy.
“The ones that really support it understand this is the only sport we’ve got left,” he said.
“We don’t have cricket or tennis — there’s no summer sports anymore. Footy is all we’ve got. We’ve just go to do whatever we can to hold on to that.”
Pendergast worries about a drop in membership since the merger, but said he loved the social side of the club.
“Omeo (and) Benambra were fairly fierce rivals because during the ’60s Omeo won six premierships in a row and they were nearly all against Benambra, so there was a lot of rivalry,” he said.
“Some of those blokes now we sit around and we barrack hard for Omeo-Benambra, we have our beer and good fun and poke sticks at one another.”
Omeo-Benambra has never matched the heights it did when it won the premiership in its first year. It lost the 2014 grand final to Swan Reach and bombed out in straight sets after being minor premier in 2013.
It has missed finals the past two seasons, but there are hopes that will change this year under Hayward, who will be senior coach.
“As my Dad used to say, it’s all March stars and April fools,” Pendergast said.
“March stars are training like hell, but sometimes it doesn’t work like that ... hopefully some of the newer players to the town are not April fools.”
Dave Pooley moved to the area about 3½ years ago. He had retired from football, but was coaxed out of that retirement for games in 2013-14 and one last year.
He later went on to be a trainer for the seniors, and this season is club president.
“The hardest thing for us up here is probably having players to be able to field a side because we don’t have a lot of employment up here,” he said.
“One of the positives is the community support. A lot of people put a lot of effort into the club ... to keep our club running and being a very successful club.
“(It’s) more successful off the field at the minute than on the field, but hopefully all that changes this season.”