The time is approaching midday as I turn left off Havelock Street and pull into the Barnawartha Football and Netball Club, winding down my window to be greeted by the beaming smile of a giant figure dressed all in black. I'm early for the afternoon's senior game, yet Errol Gibb has already been here for five hours. The car park up ahead is packed with cars and Gibb has taken the entrance money for them all.
He and Trevor Jones, in matching club polo shirts, have given a combined 90 years' service to the club where they played and then coached before taking on gate duties.
"It's a common joke for a lot of people that we've found our true position," Jones laughed. "Errol's been here longer than me, 50 years, I'm about 40.
"The club's importance to all of us was exemplified by COVID. I was a little bit bemused by people saying they missed their football fix but it's not an exaggeration, it's true. People, this year, have embraced the fact they've got to get out and there's something for them. It's been incredible. People, in lockdowns, were so hamstrung and we probably have more awareness now of our fellow people. Until you couldn't see them, you didn't truly appreciate them."
"There would be 1500 people here today and it's terrific for a little town like ours," Gibb added. "Apart from the pub, the football-netball club is it. There's not much else here unless people go into Wodonga - but they want to come here.
"Have a look around. There are kids under five running everywhere. The culture we've got at the club has made it extremely family-orientated.
"We run the past players group, we do raffles at Eddie's Tavern in Wodonga and we put that money into our juniors, rather than on senior players. The club does not spend exorbitant amounts on players; we're not into that."
Excited children's voices drift our way from the netball courts, with the faint sound of the whistle in the reserves football punctuating their shouts.
Netball president Michelle Hamilton is getting ready for the A grade clash with Kiewa-Sandy Creek, a game which will feature two of her daughters. Chloe Butters, 20, is also the coach, while 17-year-old Rylee is on court alongside her. Younger sister Darcie has already played for the under-13s and is lending a hand in the canteen.
"When I moved here from Melbourne, I didn't know anyone," Hamilton said. "I bought a house in Barnawartha in 1996 and started playing here in 1997.
"This is where I met all my friends. It's a really close-knit community. Everybody knows whose kids are whose and it's a great place to be."
It's not just the love of netball which runs in the family but an unbreakable affiliation with the Tigers. Chloe won a C grade premiership alongside her Mum and is now looking to add senior honours to a string of junior flags.
"Win or lose, Barny's home and always will be," she said. "I've been at this netball court since I was six weeks old so I didn't really get a choice!
"Playing with one sister and coaching the other is very special for me and as for Mum, she's well and truly secured her spot among the bones of the club.
"She's here at bird fart, she's the last to leave, she helps on under-13s and A grade and everything in between. The whole club should be very grateful for the amount she does behind the scenes. Not many people see it - but I do."
Watching the footy from the boundary is Steve Ramage, the club's only dual premiership player, and the man who mentored the 2002 side, Shaun Leech.
"Dad played here and so did my grandpa," Ramage said. "You see guys that have been around for 30 or 40 years and you're in awe of them a little bit, wanting to be part of it.
"Junior footy here was good. We made four grand finals, lost them all but we had some good players and really good mates through those times. I still stay connected to those guys.
"I played three years at senior level, made three grand finals and won one. The club hadn't won a grand final for almost 50 years and having been there for two years in a row, we realised it wasn't easy. It was special at the time and it's nice to look back on it now."
Ramage moved to Ballarat to study for a teaching degree but the pull of Barny remained strong.
"I was lucky enough to win another grand final in 2013," he said. "We came from fifth that year and Leechy was involved again.
"My wife's played netball here and my daughter plays now. That's the good thing about the club, you come in and you've got families here. At the time I was playing, my son was doing water boy, my daughter was only two years old and we had a lot of support people looking after them while we were both playing.
"It just allows you to catch up with people. When you have to organise a catch-up otherwise, you've got to go down the street or have people to your house whereas here, you naturally catch up with all your mates.
"It's a connection you build that is lifelong."
"It's the central hub, it's the meeting place every weekend," Leech agreed. "It's not just one generation but that family bond which makes you want to come back.
"I was a Bendigo boy and moved up with work. I played a couple of years with the Raiders and I was lucky enough to come out here at the right time. We had a group of young men who were all quality people and I was able to tweak a few things and bring a couple of other recruits to the club.
"We lost in '01 but in '02, it was an amazing place to be around. That grand final day, we actually won all four football, which is the only time in the league's history it's ever been done. As the day grew - because the senior side had lost the last two premierships - the pressure was growing. At half-time, we went around all the players and the steely look on everyone's face told me we weren't going to let this one slip.
"We backed that up with two netball wins on the day as well. That's 20 years ago next year and I think it'll be a really special occasion for the footy club. After such a long dry spell, to see guys who had given 40 years service to the club crying and the emotion flowing, it was good to be able to deliver for them.
"We broke the mould and made them realise 'we can be a successful club.'"
"The key word for me is family. We had so many babysitters here when our children were young, it was that trust factor that everyone looked after each other."
With the class of 2021 assembling in the race for their game against Kiewa-Sandy Creek, it's time to make my way up to the timekeepers' box for an elevated view of proceedings.
Fred Blunden has his finger over the stopwatch but like so many others, his weekend starts long before the siren sounds.
"I was down here on Friday with a pressure hose cleaning the cement," he said. "I do the watering on the ground when required and I've done the time-keeping on and off for 20-odd years.
"This place means a lot to the community and it means a lot to me too. I'd never heard of the place when I first came down here in the Army but I got out in 1987 and decided to stay in the Albury-Wodonga area.
"Who's that in the pink boots?" Blunden suddenly asks his KSC counterpart. "Is it number 23?" He continues. "Like most footy clubs, you've got a decent bunch of blokes around you and it's just part of country life.
"You make friendships for life. It's similar to the military; you meet blokes in the Army and you become mates but the only difference is I see these blokes every week. I enjoy it here, win, lose or draw."
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Mateship is one thing but with his wife Debra running the canteen downstairs, the Blunden household is totally intertwined with Tigerland. The pair met while playing Uno online, Fred messaged Florida-based Debra and their relationship blossomed after Fred flew to the States.
"By the time I'd lived here for three years, the canteen manager was ready to retire," said Debra in a strong American accent. "I stepped into the role - not knowing what I was in for.
"I do all the food orders with vendors, a lot of personal shopping, cleaning and prep work, so generally it's between 40 to 60 hours a week volunteering in the footy season. I get here at 7am on Saturday and don't leave until 7pm.
"I absolutely love this place and I think it's important to give back by volunteering.
"Community spirit is huge here in Barnawartha. Neighbours help neighbours and everybody's interested in making the best for everyone that lives here. You can't lose your dog in Barnawartha. It's going to show up within two hours on our Facebook page.
"I fell in love with footy, it's marvellous. I lived in Wodonga for eight years but I felt like I became a true part of the community when we moved to Barnawartha."
The visitors prove too strong on the day but as Blunden sounds the final siren, there are still smiles around the ground. It's time to round up the kids, grab a final sausage in bread or head to the bar to discuss the day's victories and losses with mates.
"This is what we missed last year," said Jones. "Errol organised a couple of great days though. We came down here and weeded the ground. Four or five of us came down and it was just great to catch up.
"Sometimes you can organise a working bee and you won't see people for dust but that was something that allowed us to have a yarn together.
"The club's impact on me is a little bit hard to describe. There were great predecessors to us, the hierarchy of the club when we came here as young blokes and they probably developed that bit of club spirit in us.
"We could always do with more volunteers but we've got a great core here at Barnawartha."
From start to finish, I could not have been made more welcome in Tigerland.
No wonder people keep coming back.
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