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Grass Boots: Leitchville-Gunbower bouncing back from the lean times

Club great Matt Hawken returned to coaching when his club needed him. Photo: Adam McNicolThere were concerns aplenty for the Leitchville-Gunbower football club late last year.

In the space of a few months, the Bombers lost their senior coach, Marty Shadbolt, to Bridgewater and one of their best midfielders, Russell Lee, to Lancaster. For good measure, Lee took a couple of talented players with him.

Given Leitchville-Gunbower had been on a steady upward trajectory since joining the Heathcote league in 2010, and were coming off a preliminary final appearance, the defections were a big blow.

“It left us in a fair hole,” said club great Matt Hawken. “We also had a couple of players leave for Echuca, so things were looking a bit shaky.”

However, the Bombers’ fortunes soon began to turn around. Hawken, who had recently hung up his boots at the age of 39 after a long and decorated playing career, put his hand up for a second stint as senior coach.

Then the replenishment of the club’s playing stocks began when Tim Lincoln decided to return. Lincoln had previously spent time with the Northern Bullants in the VFL before taking a break from footy.

The Bombers received a further boost when a number of other recruits jumped on board.

A key figure in the recruiting campaign was Steve Pretty, a Melbourne-based player who had just finished his second season with Leitchville-Gunbower.

Pretty had previously played at Pascoe Vale in the Essendon District league, and he convinced three of his former teammates to drive up the Northern Highway with him.

“The boys were keen to come and play close to the Murray River,” Hawken said. “They love their fishing.”

Six months down the track, Leitchville-Gunbower find themselves in contention to win their first senior premiership since 1995. Before Saturday’s home game against fellow finals contender Huntly, the Bombers were undefeated and sitting proudly atop the ladder.

“I knew we had a good side,” Hawken said. “We’ve got some elite runners, when it comes to speed and endurance, and that’s been our big strength. I don’t think we’ve lost a last quarter. When we get a dry day and a big ground, we’ve been able to really run sides into the ground.”

Leitchville-Gunbower were formed by a merger of two former arch-rivals in the lead-up to the 1995 season.

The Bombers won the Northern and Echuca league flag at their first attempt, but they have endured plenty of lean times since them. In fact, they have not made a senior grand final since ’95.

Leitchville-Gunbower began to struggle after the Northern and Echuca league was broken up in 1996. The club subsequently spent a decade wandering the countryside looking for a competition that suited its needs.

A stint in the North Central league was followed by a few years in the Central Murray league.

Under Hawken’s coaching, the Bombers made the finals in 2007. But the need to travel west to outposts like Tooleybuc and Balranald put off many potential recruits and the club fell away again.

However, things have slowly turned around since Leitchville-Gunbower joined the Bendigo-based Heathcote league.

The Bombers’ senior side made the elimination final in 2013, then reached the preliminary final last year, only to lose to Lockington-Bamawm United, who went on and won their fourth successive premiership.

Now the club has become a pace-setter, with a team that has a classic mix of youth and experience.

A group of local lads, many of whom played in a thirds premiership in 2012, make up around half the side.

They lead the way during training sessions at Leitchville and Gunbower, while the Melbourne-based players stay in shape by training at Maribyrnong College with others who travel north to play for Charlton and Ballarat.

“They have around 25 blokes at those sessions,” Hawken said. “They’ve got a synthetic deck to train on, so it’s a pretty good set-up.”

Leitchville-Gunbower’s most impressive wins so far this season, according to the coach, have been over flag fancies Colbinabbin (twice) and North Bendigo.

The Bombers also demolished Lockington-Bamawm United in round 12, although LBU are struggling this season after a mass exodus of gun players.

Hawken’s men will have to remain at their best to finish the home and away matches on top of the ladder, as they face a number of fellow finals aspirants in the remaining rounds.

“Things are going to get tougher from here, that’s for sure,” Hawken said. “But there’s a real buzz around the place. It’s great to have the club back in really strong position.

“Most of our football and netball sides look like they’re going to make the finals, and everyone in the community has jumped on board now that we’re winning.

“We’ve just got to make sure our players are focused on playing each game on its merits and not looking too far ahead.”

LEITCHVILLE-GUNBOWER FNCNeville Bruns, who played 223 games for Geelong between 1978 and 1992, was recruited from Leitchville.Leitchville and Gunbower have a combined population of around 1200. 

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