THE seasons 1997 through 2002 were without doubt the darkest in Wangaratta Magpies' history.
Six successive wooden-spoons tested the resolve of even the most staunch of supporters with a constant churn of coaches seeing Maurice Wingate, Robbie Richards, Gary Cameron and Col McClounan come and go before favourite son Jon Henry accepted the Ovens and Murray league's most unwanted job at the time.
The Magpies were in the doldrums.
"We were more than $200,000 in the red and the clubrooms phone had actually been cut off because we hadn't paid the bill," Russell Canning, a board member during good and bad times at the Norm Minns Oval, said.
"The club was devoid of players and devoid of supporters.
"It was paying the price for a perfect storm of poor decisions.
"Whatever was negative about 1999 and the years previous is the complete opposite today."
In the 2001 final round, Wangaratta and Albury had one win apiece and the Magpies led by 38 points before being run down by the Tigers.
Twelve months later in Henry's first season in charge, the Magpies began the final round one match clear of bottom-placed Wodonga, but the Bulldogs had an upset win over Wangaratta Rovers, who would play-off in a grand final a month later.
But on Sunday, Wangaratta plays in a third successive senior grand final after sticking fat with a formula which began to evolve at the end of those tumultuous times 20 years ago.
A production line of homegrown talent supplemented by top-end recruiting, rock solid, stable administration and retention in key roles of influential club figures, who had previously played, coached, or both in some instances, such as Henry, McClounan, Richards, Dean Stone, Brendan Cairns, Carl Norton, Justin McMahon and Peter Whittlesea, has been the Magpies' secret to success.
McClounan was in his second season as coach in 2001 when the Magpies lost the seemingly unloseable last round match, but president two years ago when the club stopped the Tigers equalling its record of four successive flags from 1949-52.
"We just got rid of the rat bags," he said.
"I coached two wooden-spoons and Henners one, but the culture shift had started.
"It took five years for that to happen, but in 2004 all three teams made finals.
"It is about getting good people into the place because good people bring their mates, they volunteer and if we haven't got the best group of volunteers in the league we're not far off in the amount of work they do."
Henry coached the club between 2002-06 before staying on to play in back-to-back flags in 2007-08 and is still the club's game-day runner.
Stone played for Wangaratta in the early 1990s before returning to coach the under-18 team to a flag and then the 2017 senior premiership.
He has retained a game-day role after stepping down at the end of last year with Cairns also a former coach and player and still involved.
MORE GRAND FINAL COVERAGE
Richards returned to a coaching role at Wangaratta in charge of the under-18s with his two sons, Nick and Joe, lining up in a senior grand final again.
Wife Jane is also a Magpies board member with a specific focus on netball.
Norton and McMahon are also former players, but importantly recent under-18 premiership coaches of teams from which 12 players, who took the field in the second semi-final a fortnight ago, graduated from.
The investment at under-age level has positioned the club in the sweet spot for the player points system with the Magpies having 10 points up their sleeve on second semi-final day.
Wangaratta became a destination club in the early 2000s with 2007-08 premiership coach Jason Lappin, Dale Carmody, Sam Higgs and Jon McCormick returning and the recruitment of top-line recruits including Paul Kirby, Damian Lang, Ben Cosgriff, Matt Byers, Leigh Symons, Luke Mullins and Brendan Liddell.
Two players central to the culture change were brothers Judd and Daine Porter, whose father Noel had been a 1970s premiership player for arch-rival, Wangaratta Rovers.
They both made their senior debuts in 2003 and amazingly played their 250th senior match for the Magpies on the same day early in 2017.
Judd was elevated to captain at 21 and was in the role when the Magpies won flags in 2007-08.
After a career in which he also had a stint as senior coach, Judd played his final match when Wangaratta stopped the Albury juggernaut in its tracks in 2017.
Daine, 33, is still going and is the senior member of the Magpies current line-up after making his debut as a 16-year-old.
He planned to retire after the Magpies win two years ago, but upon relocating home from Melbourne he played in Tarrawingee's premiership winning team last season.
The Magpies identified early ties Judd had with some Wangaratta juniors including Steve Johnson at Junior Tigers, but there was another reason for them to pounce.
"Noel obviously played at the Rovers, but (wife) Lynne is an Adamo and her brother 'Spud' was one of Wang's really good players for a long period," Henry said.
"Also with a few friends like Jordy Fisher it fell our way.
"They have both been great players for Wang with Judd a bit of a late developer, but Daine was ready to go when he was about 15.
"He has still got his speed, his strength and is still a competitor so they are three pretty good ingredients to have longevity."
The Magpies under-18s production line is showing no signs of slowing with their team finishing minor premiers and being the first team into the grand final.
Senior player Matt Hedin is coaching the team for the first time and they take on a rejuvenated Myrtleford, which didn't field a side last year.
Wangaratta will also defend its A grade netball crown tomorrow against Corowa-Rutherglen, which 11 years ago couldn't field a team in the O and M's top section.
The Magpies were also a one-time netball easybeat.
"It was disappointing not to win the footy last year, but I was just as excited about the netball," McClounan said.
"We set the program up and invested in it for three years.
"To win the A and B grade flags last year after being probably the worst club in terms of netball was fantastic."
The grand final is also back at the Magpies homeground with another former president and builder Paul Challman a key player in the venue's redevelopment.