Richard Jones | Golden Square snapped a 12-year Bendigo Football League drought with an amazing flag victory two decades ago.
The Wade Street Dogs came from fourth spot on the ladder, meaning they had to win finals every week, in that September back in 2001.
And they did, eventually beating red hot flag favourites Sandhurst by 14 points in a top-grade grand final.
But let’s go back to the start of that season. Brian Walsh had been appointed senior coach in the summer months leading up to the 2001 season and hopes were high he could repeat his successes of the late Eighties: the 1988-89 flags.
Walsh and his recruiting team had been busy throughout the off-season. They’d signed 13 quality players with a long-term view to September and a grand final spot.
But 11 rounds into the season, past the halfway mark, and the Bulldogs were in strife.With just four wins on the board Walsh and his match committee were concerned. “We won our first couple of games, but after that we struggled for a while,” Walsh recalled. “We just didn’t gel as well and as quickly as we thought we would.”
Unimpressive wins over Maryborough and Castlemaine followed in rounds 12 and 13, but those victories finally spurred the Dogs into action.
Walsh led the Square to five wins-on-the-trot as the club rose up to fourth spot on the ladder at the conclusion of the home-and-away season.
And a berth in the 2011 elimination final.
But it led to Square supporters, footy fans in general and media scribes looking back on past BFNL history. Taking out a premiership from an elimination final isn’t achieved very often. In fact Square’s eventual premiership from that 2001 elimination final is the last time a team coming from fourth or fifth has won the BFNL premiership.
All that research didn’t deter Walsh and his players. They showed their seven-game winning streak leading into September was no fluke as they trounced Eaglehawk by 49 points in the knockout elimination final. The following week it was South Bendigo’s turn. The Square won the first semi by four goals, although pundits and experts (including your truly) expected the run to come to an end in the preliminary final.
Derrick Filo’s Kangaroo Flat was the pre-match favourite, yet Square led all day and the final margin of 13 points in the Square’s favour flattered the Roos.
And so the grand final loomed. Awaiting Square was their arch-enemies, the Sandhurst Dragons, coached by Mark Ellis.
The Dragons had lost just two games in that 2001 season and were coming off a 10-goal mauling of Kangaroo Flat in the second semi-final.
“Sandhurst deserved favouritism, but we were always confident we could beat them,” Walsh said. “In the finals we were a different side. There was a lot of confidence in the group that we could win the whole thing.” The Dogs led at quarter-time by three goals, but the margin at half-time was back to five points: 8.4 to 7.5. Square had jumped the Dragons, posting four of the opening five goals, but Sandhurst steadied and by the last change were still only a kick down: 10.6 to 11.6.
The Dragons looked the stronger side and closed the gap to one point. And then players started to celebrate a shot for goal from key player Tony Graham, but the ball faded late and slammed into the post. That was as close as the Hurst was to get. Consecutive goals to Marty O’Reilly, Dillon Anderson and Andy Freemantle secured Golden Square’s first premiership in 12 years.
As commentators and scribes looked through their notes to decide best player lists, Square had a number of standouts. O’Reilly dominated on his wing and was a deserved winner of the 2001 Nalder Medal. Centreman Gary Learmonth was outstanding not just in the grand final but throughout September action, while rookie ruckman Brad McCormick and defender Mark Billings played important grand final roles.
Centre half-back Greg Cox was involved in the match-up of the grand final against Hurst’s Ben Sexton with the Dragon centre half-forward pulling in a dozen marks, booting two majors and taking home the VCFL Medal.
But Cox used his ‘footy smarts’ to zone off Sexton and constantly held up Sandhurst when they went inside their forward 50. Cox’s influence on the end result was particularly significant as he took vital marks in the tense final quarter. “Ben (Sexton) played really well, but a lot of his marks were up on the wings so he wasn’t hurting us on the scoreboard from there,” Walsh recalled.
“Coxy took mark after mark in the last quarter. He was brilliant,” the Square coach added. Midfielder Christian Carter --- the current day Square non-playing coach --- did a fine job tagging Sandhurst rover and playmaker Chris Giri. Eight years later Carter captained Square to the 2009 premiership, the first of five-in-a-row flags for the Bulldogs.
Another Square player to stand out in 2001 was forward Andrew Reid who booted four of Square’s 14 goals. Hurting his hamstring at work on the Tuesday before the big game Reid had to pass a fitness test on the Saturday morning before being cleared to play.
Jimmy Angove kicked three goals for the Dragons and was in their best along with Sexton, Graham, winger Kieran Prowse and Vin Harrop.
Square skipper Paul Frew hoisted the Bendigo Advertiser premiership cup aloft in the QEO grandstand just six days after polling the most votes in the 2001 Michelsen Medal count.
He’d polled 22 votes but was ineligible to win because he’d been suspended during that 2001 season. It would have been Frew’s second Michelsen to go with his 1998 medal. Maryborough’s Jamie Bond, on 16 votes, was second in the count but he was also ineligible because of a mid-season suspension. He’d won in 1996.
In the end Castlemaine’s Paul Eyles and Lucas Mathews of Eaglehawk were declared 2001 joint winners with 14 votes apiece.
Grand final scores: Golden Square 14.11 (95) def. Sandhurst 12.9 (81).
Major goalkickers ---: Square: Andrew Freemantle 4, Andrew Reid 4, Ben Neve 2. Sandhurst: Jimmy Angove 3, Ben Sexton 2.
The Bulldogs then went on a grand final-winning spree in the late Noughties-early teens winning five in a row from 2009 to 2013, inclusive.