The Benalla All Blacks are on the verge of something special — the club’s first premiership since 1981.
After 18 home and away matches, and winning 16 of those, and a semi-final win over minor premier Tarrawingee, it comes down to this.
The Panthers will play Glenrowan in Saturday’s Ovens and King Football League grand final at WJ Findlay Oval in Wangaratta at 2.15pm.
It is the senior side’s first grand final appearance in 22 years — if they win it will be their first flag in 36 years.
Back then, the Panthers were not part of the Ovens and King Football League, and the league they were attached to has since been abandoned.
This is a serious Cinderella story.
Panther president Blake Goodwin admitted the side ‘‘was never meant to go this far’’ in the season — but it would be a dream come true if they were to return with the title.
‘‘It’s a fantastic achievement,’’ Goodwin said.
‘‘We didn’t expect to make it this for at the start of the season, we set our eyes on the finals but had no idea it would take us this far.
‘‘Credit goes to Harry (coach Harry Moran) and the playing group to get this far and the sky is the limit for us now.’’
Goodwin said to go from the wooden spoon in the OKFL to potentially winning the competition just two years later was remarkable.
‘‘It proves what we’re doing here is right and that people are buying into the club,’’ he said.
‘‘It shows we’re heading in the right direction.
‘‘By signing big name players, such as Al Jacka is an example, to attract the higher-class players has been difficult for whatever reason in past years.
‘‘There’s a lot of credit to go to Harry in that regard, but it’s the people and the change in culture that has put us in good stead and that attracts the right type of people.’’
Moran agreed with Goodwin, saying changing the club’s culture was top of his priorities when he joined.
‘‘It was one of my main focuses when we took over the club,’’ Moran said.
‘‘I knew in our first season we wouldn’t be as competitive as I would have liked, but the main idea was to change our reputation, to gain that respect back from the community.
‘‘Why would a local business want to sponsor a club that doesn’t have a good reputation?
‘‘It’s come such a long way in the past two years that we can’t even compare our 2015 team to the side we have now.
‘‘To turn that around in the few years is a compliment to Blake and to the committee.’’
Moran said winning the premiership ‘‘would be everything’’ having poured his heart and soul into this side.
‘‘I think I’ve put 150 per cent into the club, and knowing its history, it’d be a massive achievement, and one of the bigger things I’d do in my footy career,’’ he said.
‘‘You don’t take a coaching position just to play in the season; you take it on to win premierships.
‘‘We’ve tried to instil a winning culture at the club and a playing group, and credit has to go to the players we have.
‘‘It would be everything if we won.’’
Moran’s brother Riley agreed it would ‘‘mean everything’’.
He said the chance to play in a grand final did not come around often, so the side would be doing ‘‘everything we can’’ to bring the title home.
Goodwin said winning the title in the way the side had gone about business this season would sum it up perfectly, and lead on into the next.
‘‘It’d be unbelievable,’’ Goodwin said.
‘‘It’d just be a full stop on the work that has been put in around the club over the years.
‘‘It was 1981 the last time a premiership was won.
‘‘Our last grand final was 1995, and the last time we saw a premiership at all was our thirds team in 2011... it’s been a long time coming.’’
For some Panthers it will be the biggest match they have ever played in.
Leading goal kicker Jack Ellis said the final would be something to look back on in his footy career.
‘‘The game against Tarra was a highlight of my footy career,’’ Ellis said.
‘‘I had a bit of a quiet game, I was up against their full back, who is one of the best defenders in the league.
‘‘So I was more making space for the other forwards.
‘‘The way we came back from being 24-points down — I think we kicked seven goals, five in the last — it was fantastic.’’
The side has been made up by young players for a number of years, before Moran decided at the end of last year to bring in more experienced heads — the likes of Chris Lockhart, Nick Spencer, Al Jacka and brother Riley Moran.
His decisions have proven to be good ones — the side finished second in the normal season, and qualified straight through to the grand final.
Some of those names brought into the side have been the Panthers’ best players this year.
Riley Moran and Jacka were both named in the O and K’s team of the year recently, while Harry Moran was named coach of the year.