The end of a two-decade premiership drought
The Leongatha Knights senior men’s team make club history by winning their first ever premiership in the Gippsland Soccer League. Dan Kavanagh reports.
For the Leongatha Knights, the 2023 season was all about redemption.
After a devastating loss in last year’s semi-final against Trafalgar FC, the Leongatha Knights senior men’s team returned to pre-season this year seeking to make good. And make good they did, making amends for the disappointing end to the 2023 season.
The Knights finished top of the ladder of the Gippsland Soccer League last season, and were expecting to go all the way, until they lost 3-0 in the semi-final.
“We finished minor premiers last year, on top of the ladder and we went into the semi-final fairly confident, nervous but confident, and we got pumped,” said Knights forward Aidan Hall.
Aidan Hall came to the Leongatha Knights at the start of the 2022 season and is still disappointed in last year’s performance.
“It wasn’t a good day, I got benched at half time and didn’t come back on because I wasn’t performing well,” said Hall.
Leongatha Knight’s leading goal scorer, Aidan Hall, celebrated the win by dying his hair. (Photo: Dan Kavanagh)
Heading into the 2023 season, the team acquired a number of new players from all corners of the globe.
“We had a few international players come in like we had Ed [Benedict] from France playing centre back for us, and he’s the best player I’ve ever played with or against,” said Hall.
“We also had a couple of other new guys come in like Darcy [Johnstone] and Luke Knights.”
However, this season was not without its challenges.
“We lost our goalkeeper in Round 5 from injury, so we had to make do with what we had and develop the young players.”,
Unlike the year before, the Knights had finished in third place on the ladder, below Phillip Island and Trafalgar, which were the two teams that the Knights failed to beat during the regular season and went on to face them both in their finals campaign.
“Phillip Island beat us twice during the season” said Hall, “But we pantsed them in the semi-final and won 3-1, so we got on top of when it mattered”.
After a triumph performance against Phillip Island, the Knights advanced to the final and had to face their toughest rival, Trafalgar FC.
But the Knights were locked in and had their eyes on the prize.
“We wanted it more, it was the goal, it was the aim”, said Hall.
The game, played on a neutral pitch in Lang Lang, was as close as possibly can be. Both teams were scoreless until the 38th minute when James Heneghan scored for the Knights, putting Leongatha up 1-0. The Knights defended valiantly after they scored and would not allow Trafalgar to respond.
“There was a point with about three minutes to go, I was through on goal, about to score, and their centre back has just performed a professional red card tackle and took me out,” said Hall.
“He got sent off and then we just knew we had to defend because they were down to 10 men and even if they did score, we still had the advantage.”
That was the moment Hall knew the game was over.
“When they got that red card, we sort of knew that we’d won,” said Hall.
The Knights had finally reached the promised land and won the game 1-0, finally breaking the 20-year premiership drought.
Whilst Aidan is a relative newcomer to the club, some players had been a part of the Knights organisation for many years but had never ended a season with the silverware until now, including defender Jack Bainbridge.
“I’ve been playing for the club for about 10 or 12 years”, said Bainbridge. “I started playing when I was a kid and have loved it ever since.”
Bainbridge was emotional once the final whistle was blown.
“I was on the verge of crying after we won, it was a massive team effort to just get into the final and to win it was something else,” said Bainbridge.
Given it was the first final that the team had reached in its 20 years of history, the Knights faithful members came out in droves to support their beloved team.
“We drew a really good crowd and there were a lot of past players that came along,” said Hall.
“It’s the first time the club has even made a grand final, so it was fantastic to win it”.
Hall attributed the stellar season to the Knight’s head coach, Beth Milkins.
“It almost feels like she’s another player, she’s really part of the team and not like an autocrat. She asks players what they think she should do, and she takes on all of these opinions.
“She’s a fantastic leader for the team and the club.”
Milkins has been a valuable member of the Leongatha Knights family for almost a decade.
“Next season will be my 10th year at the club,” she said.
“I’ve made wonderful friends and been given a range of opportunities that I wouldn't otherwise have been given.