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Bendigo FNLThe Archive | Gisborne's star midfielder Matt Fitzgerald had achieved just about everything in the BFNL by late May in 2008.

Two Michelsen Medals, two Nalder Medals for best afield in grand finals and three premiership medallions – Fitzy had just about done it all. But there was something missing on his stellar footy CV. He’d never captained the Blue and Gold in an inter-league campaign although he’d played in three prior to 2008. Until a few days before June rolled around, that was.

Fitzgerald, 24, was named the 2008 BFNL inter-league skipper for the campaign in Sale at the VCFL Pool B country championships. Following on from his senior debut for the Gisborne Dogs in Rd. 15 2000, when he was just 17, by May a decade ago he was still only 24. The BFNL had been aligned with a tough group. Opponents in Pool B were perennial powerhouses Mornington Peninsula-Nepean, Geelong and host league West Gippsland-LaTrobe.

Fitzy said he was honoured to be named BFNL captain. “Actually I’m really flattered to have received the captaincy. It’s certainly something I didn’t expect considering how many good players there are in the BFL. “To get the chance to lead the very best out this weekend is going to be a good feeling. But it’s just a tag and now I have to lead from the front and show why I was given the captaincy,” he told the Bendigo Addy sports team. “There’s no point in being captain if you’re not going to perform on the big stage.

BEFORE looking back at what happened down at Sale 10 years ago, let’s retrace Matthew Fitzgerald’s marvellous career. As noted above he made his senior debut for the Graveyard Dogs in Rd. 15 2000, the year Gisborne joined the BFL from the Riddell District F.L. In 2001 he was a member of the Calder Cannons TAC Cup premiership team and then in 2002 and 2003 (when he still sported curly blonde locks) was part of Gisborne’s flag-winning teams in the BFNL. In addition he won the Nalder Medal in both those victories. Furthermore, Fitzy took home the 2003 Michelsen and in both seasons represented the BFNL in its inter-league campaigns.

He spent the 2005 season with Ballarat F.L. club Darley and was named first rover in the Ballarat F.L. Team of the Year. Fitzgerald represented the BFNL in 2002, 2003 and 2007, and he was the ’07 Michelsen Medallist, although he’d missed BFNL duties in 2004 and 2005 through injury. But Fitzy conceded his inter-league performances had been well below his expectations. “Hopefully I can play a bit better down at Sale than I did last year because I was fairly ordinary and we got smashed by Ballarat,’’ said the 2008 skipper.
“Every game of footy you play you would firstly like to win and then, secondly, you would love to get a few kicks. That would be nice,” said Fitzy with a smile. “I have been setting myself for this weekend for a few weeks now so I’m really looking forward to it.”

SO WHAT happened on that fateful Gippy weekend exactly a decade ago? Advertiser sports editor Adam Bourke wasn’t happy with the then inter-league format of three mini-games spread over two days. “It’s a Mickey Mouse format,” he wrote in the regular Friday Final Word column where Bourke and Luke West discussed footy issues of the day
Westy agreed, a tad reluctantly, but added the old system where full four-quarter games (with time-on added) ate into the home and away seasons across Victoria.
“In that format if you went all the way there would be three full weekends just devoted to inter-league,” he replied. The ‘Mickey Mouse’ format of two, short halves certainly did not favour the Blue and Gold. Bendigo went down in all three games and were relegated from Pool B of the VCFL country championships to Pool C for the 2009 series.
The Blue and Gold had a chance in the final Sunday game of the round-robin series to avoid relegation, but after leading hosts West Gippsland-LaTrobe by a point at half-time couldn’t withstand the home league’s second half blitz. Gippy roosted 4.7 to 1.2 in the second half to prevail by 22 points.

Dejected BFL coach Brett Fitzpatrick, who seemed likely to stand down when the Addy story was published in May 2008, said “the depth of the league seems to me to be a bit light-on for a genuine Division 2 competition.” “The physical pressure needed to win contested ball regularly is very demanding. “We were good in this area at some stages but as the carnival wore on we couldn’t maintain it.

“The pressure was just relentless and we don’t have that at club level back home for the guys to get familiar with,” said Fitzpatrick. Kain Robins was named the BFL’s Player of the carnival. He started at centre half-back in the matches against Geelong and Mornington before used predominantly in the midfield against West Gippsland. Casey Summerfield, Mark Lloyd and Shannon Milward were also consistent performers over the three games contested by Bendigo. Captain Fitzy (corkie), Daniel McLaughlin (corkie), Leigh Davies (knee) and Michael Cornish (quad) were all ruled out of the final fixture, the game against West Gippsland.

The carnival opened disastrously for the Blue and Gold. Bendigo was out of the contest by half-time of the Geelong game on the Saturday morning.
Geelong, the eventual champions, won 8.9 (57) to Bendigo’s 3.2 (20) and showed why it entered the carnival as the Pool B favourites. On the big Sale ground Geelong exploded out of the blocks slamming on 5.6 in the opening 24 minutes before Bendigo had even opened their scoring account. The Bendigo defence was under constant siege in the first half. Within the first six minutes the Blue and Gold had given away three free kicks inside their own defensive 50. From two of these frees Geelong landed two goals.

Although Bendigo dominated the stoppages and had just as much ball inside their attacking 50 the Blue and Gold forward zone broke down consistently. Key forward Jordan Barham was unable to exert any influence on the game. The Blue and Gold almost pinched the second game against Mornington Peninsula-Nepean in the Saturday afternoon game. Bendigo led by 26 points into the second half before Mornington snared six of the final eight goals to win a thriller by three points.

It was a heartbreaking loss for Fitzpatrick and his Blue and Gold charges as they looked well on track to post their first win of the carnival. Especially when they slammed on 5.4 to 0.1 between the seven and 17-minute marks of the first half. Fitzgerald, Matt Johnston (until he rolled an ankle), Damien Lock, Milward, Gareth Bowes and Lloyd were the key players as the Blue and Gold dominated. “Whoever we put into the middle took it upon themselves to put their heads over the ball and have a real crack,” Fitzgerald said.

Bendigo’s final scores and best players – Geelong 8.9 (57) def. Bendigo 3.2 (20). Goalkickers: R. McNish, K. Robins, L. Davies. Best: K. Robins, M. Lloyd, C. Summerfield, C. Carter.

Mornington Peninsula-Nepean 7.10 (52) def. Bendigo 7.7 (49). Goalkickers: T. Downie 2, J. Barham 2, M. Lloyd, S. Milward, L. Davies. Best: M. Fitzgerald, J. Barham, K.Robins, M. Lloyd.

West Gippsland-Latrobe 7.12 (54) def. Bendigo 5.2 (32). Goalkickers: C. Carter 2, T. Downie, B. Herdman, D. Lock. Best: C. Summerfield, J. Barham, S. Milward, M. Lloyd.

Final Pool B standings: Geelong 3 wins 0 losses; Mornington Peninsula-Nepean 2 wins, 1 loss; West Gippsland-LaTrobe 1 win-2 losses, Bendigo 0 wins, 3 losses.

By Richard Jones