The Culture Club

It was UCLA Bruins football coach Henry “Red” Sanders who gave us arguably the most famous sporting quote in 1950: Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.

Coaches all over the globe have copied the line; you see it on the walls of our local football clubs. It neatly sums up the intensity that can exist in team sport.

However, the Goolwa Netball Club has etched its own meaning to this famous quotation. Their league team is finally winning games, earning the club respect as a competitor and creating a wonderful culture. If the league girls happen to win the tin cup this year or over the next decade, great, but to them it’s not the only thing.

We’re dealing with a club that has never made the Great Southern Netball Association league or previously A-grade grand final in its near 60-year existence. Their finals experience extends to 1965 and ’69 when they finished fourth, and in ’71 third. In recent times they won one game in 2014, were so bad that their top side played in the third division in ’15 winning just one game, and last year returned to the league competition and had three wins … whahoo!

Now, in one of sport’s great comebacks, bigger than those Hollywood clinkers like The Mighty Ducks and Vince Vaughn’s heroics in Dodge Ball: A True Underdog Story, the Goolwa Magpies have made this season’s finals series with possibly the best chance of seriously challenging Victor Harbor, which remarkably has dominated the competition for almost a decade.

Goolwa has an incredibly cruel history of losing by 60 or 70 goals through the ranks most weeks. Club president and life member Karen Robinson recalls playing 20 years ago when it lost to Milang by a crisp ton – 102-2.

Current player Rachael Norde said just winning a game was everything in recent years because she experienced the obvious; you get sick of losing. “You play because you love the sport, being with the teammates and club people around you, but when you’re 50-odd goals down every week and it’s raining you find yourself not going as hard for the ball.”

According to Karen, the key to this dramatic transformation of the club is that, like some other clubs, it recruited players outside of the town. But not just any players. It was about getting quality people to change the culture of the club, not just to win a few games at the highest level.

The change began two years ago by replacing an understandably worn-out committee, those who had the courage to put their hands up in grim times when no one else would.

With a committed club approach, Karen and committee person Olivia Longmire set out on what outsiders considered an impossible mission – recruit someone to possibly one of the worst netball clubs in the state.

“The club got to a stage where something had to be done,” Karen said. “We decided that as a group we needed to find players outside our own area. It seemed every time we had talent over the years we lost the players so quickly to other sports or other clubs that had more wins on the board.

“Our developing players feared playing at a higher level knowing what was going to happen. They were quite happy not to extended themselves or further develop their skills.

“We worked hard when we searched for a coach because had to find someone who would commit to the club for three years to start bringing our skills level up.

“We were honest from the beginning; we didn’t hold back when we talked about how bad the club was. We wanted someone who would be committed to taking on a real challenge, maybe someone at the end of their own top level career. Someone who wanted to invest in the club and get that sense of satisfaction community wise and support a club that was just struggling.”

The search ended with Jo Wilson, a State league reserves player at Oakdale Phoenix who retired three years ago; now a mother of three aged four, two and three weeks, and a link with Goolwa with her husband Hayden, having played football for Goolwa-Port Elliot.

As with many other clubs, Goolwa offered Jo remuneration for travelling from the city to come here to take training and on match days. Joining her over two seasons were five players from the city – none of whom have been paid.

Jo brought in new training and warm-up techniques and organised folders for all the coaches to follow; how teams would present themselves on the Saturday. They at least felt good for a change with new uniforms. There was this overwhelming feeling of needing to work harder to be better, and enthusiasm and hope soared among the 150 players representing 15 teams, the various committees and a host of much-valued volunteers – hard workers like Mel the canteen lady.

Karen said there was a belief that anyone who was coming into the side had to basically put the effort into the club, and the response was overwhelming. “It is so easy to rock up, not train and get a full game because of their skills and then walk away, but that does not help anyone else, especially the juniors and seniors who aspire to be better,” she added.

Now, on a training night at the club’s courts by the local oval or in the local community centre the place is swarming with juniors with Jo and four of five league players taking training with their respective team coaches. And this is where the culture really rises.

According to Karen, parents have noticed how their kids have become so enthusiastic about netball. “It’s a good place to be,” she said. “We now have more people interested becoming an umpire; young people too.

“We have juniors putting up their hands to play in more senior teams. They didn’t want to before because they couldn’t watch the senior teams getting flogged. Now we have inters (grade) players sitting on the sidelines for the league team for experience. It never happened before; that support and willingness to go the extra yard.

“It’s about enthusiasm and having confidence that you are going to be looked after rather than being put into the deep end.

“We were struggling to field teams last year, but now we have girls on the waiting list. We had 15 or 17 year olds getting crushed every week by 50-60 goals, and we’d say, come on girls, but you could see it in their eyes that they were absolutely deflated.

“Winning is so important; of course it is. But for us it’s been about being competitive first and foremost.”

Club coaching coordinator Cassie Stichel said the presence of the league team members at their trainings has had a huge impact on their development. “The kids are now keen to play; come Saturdays they stay around and watch the league girls and say, oh she helped me at training last week. They learn from them and aspire to be like them. That had never happened in our club.”

Obviously, Jo, in her second year at the club, feels good about the positive overall direction of the Goolwa Magpies, and the feeling is shared by the players from the city.

“Last year we had a huge focus on getting back good club people who had left for whatever reason,” Jo said. “We saw the need to retain players, and regain that close contact with the local community.

“The reality is that there is not enough local talent at that level in the town. We had to bring in players, but we’re not paying anyone.

“There is a real gap in top senior grades in town; people want to play at a good level, but it costs a fortune. Even if you step down to A or B level and just play for fun, often they are still required to train twice a week. You pay $400 in fees, you pay to get in the stadium every week; it’s costly.

“It’s such a good medium to come out here and play. You have the vibe of the footy and netball club.

“I am big in getting the right personalities. Yeah, we have five out of nine players who come up from the city, but they are genuinely interested in helping the town. They willingly do their share of the canteen duty, take training sessions with the juniors and just love mixing with everyone. To me, that’s what makes a club.”

The change in culture at Goolwa has had an enormous positive effect on everyone linked to the club. Its sponsors, quality people behind solid community supporters like Kies Building Supplies, Goolwa Hotel, Priceline Goolwa, Goolwa Foodland and Harcourts Goolwa who stuck by the club through its darkest Saturdays have helped the Goolwa Magpies so much on this amazing journey.

The support of the Goolwa & District Community Bendigo Bank, Goolwa RSL Sub-Branch, Alexandrina Council and the local Lions Club also runs deep; never to be forgotten according to the committee.

Life member Marg Bedford, who played in that 1965 finals side, recalled the days when Goolwa “played on a lovely grass court” which is now the bowling club’s third green. Now everyone is talking about the Saturday night this season when amazingly more than 350 packed the community centre to watch the Magpies play Victor Harbor – the first of hopefully many GSNA indoor games to follow. Well done GSNA.

Imagine that, people lining up to watch Goolwa play netball. The girls lost that night, and while they were disappointed with the result everyone saw a much bigger picture; a community enjoying a great game of netball, little kids from both sides screaming with every goal. See, winning is not everything.

The GSNA 1st & 2nd semi-finals will be played at Strathalbyn on Saturday, August 26; preliminary finals at Willunga on Saturday, September 2; grand finals at McLaren Vale on Saturday, September 9.