A new era for the East Gambier Football Club and Matt Willson awaits in 2022 after the latter announced a homecoming to his first senior club.
It finishes Willson’s five-year stint at McDonald Park which was one of the most successful in the club’s history.
The Bulldogs have appeared in every finals series since 2017, recorded a drought-breaking premiership and played a home grand final.
However, since opening up a new Sesh Training gym in Naracoorte, most of Willson’s personal life has been spent up north and he decided the time was right to return to the Kowree Naracoorte Tatiara Football League.
He confirmed he will take over the Demons’ A Grade coaching duties in 2022, the place where his senior journey started a decade ago.
“It has been 12 months in the making I guess with our business opening up and kids going to school in Naracoorte now, everything is steering towards that direction,” Willson said.
“As much as I love “The Kennel” and enjoyed my time at East Gambier, a lot of things outside of football are behind this decision.
“I will be having a kick in the KNT and have accepted the coaching job at the Naracoorte Football Club.
“It will be an exciting new chapter in our lives.”
After a stint in Adelaide, Willson’s first taste of senior football was in a Demons jumper in 2012 before he moved to Penola and East Gambier.
“Willow” still has a big personal connection to the club and believes the team is almost a mirror image to the Bulldogs when he first arrived at the Kennel.
This year Naracoorte scraped into the finals with a solid fifth place finish on the ladder in a must-win final round game against Bordertown.
Unfortunately, the elimination final did not go to plan against Keith when the Crows overcame the Demons at the last possible moment.
Despite more than a decade since the club’s last flag, Willson said there was a lot to work with at Naracoorte.
“It has been 10 years since I played for Naracoorte, so to come full circle in my footballing journey and potentially finish my career there is special.” Willson said.
“After having a bit of a crack in Adelaide I played 30-odd senior games at Naracoorte and it will be great to come back again and play with my brother and some really good mates.
“Naracoorte is in a fairly similar position to when I first got to East Gambier with a young and exciting list inside the 20 to 25 age bracket ready to take the next step.
“They have played some pretty good finals over the last couple of years and only lost to Keith in the elimination final on the last kick of the day.
“So they are around the mark, but we have a lot of work in front of us to take the next step because it is one thing to make finals, but another to go deep and have success.
“It is exciting, but definitely will be a challenge.”
Looking back at his time leading East Gambier into battle, Willson said the growth of his players not just on the field, but off it is his fondest memory.
“I came in at a really good time with the team eager to learn, up their preparation and everything outside of football,” he said.
“The biggest thing I saw change was the bond our group had and how many of them went from being kids in their early twenties to now having kids.
“I think there are now 20 to 25 kids around the senior squad which created a brilliant family atmosphere.
“The opportunity of being a part of a great group of men growing in their work and family lives has been really rewarding.”
When Willson arrived at “The Kennel” he brought a new level of professionalism, intensity and fitness to the club as coach and the proof was in the on-field results straight away.
The Bulldogs managed to overcome the might of modern powerhouse North Gambier on grand final day at Island Park in 2017 and snap a 29-year hoodoo.
There is no doubt that special afternoon was the on-field highlight of Willson’s East episode.
“Obviously it is right up there being a very special day,” he said.
“It did not get much better in my whole career than seeing the reserves and seniors win both premierships on the same day and the A Grade break the drought.
“That day is at the top, but there are also other games and finals that sit right up there too.”
One year later East fell agonisingly short of scoring back-to-back flags on home turf at McDonald Park when Millicent broke more three decades of pain of its own.
The red and black were also premiership contenders in the last two WBFL seasons, but could not topple the Tigers in this year’s elimination final.
Willson said he felt the perfect finish to his dogs’ days was on the cards.
“I think naturally when you do not play in a Grand Final you underperformed,” he said.
“Without taking anything away from North Gambier because they were much better on the day, we definitely felt we could have gone further and give it a good shake, but did not play the right football at the right time of the year.
“There were a couple of special moments throughout the season where our boys pushed through some trying times to stick together and stay motivated.
“We had a day when 16 A Graders were missing at Casterton and we still played a really strong brand of football, so that day sticks out with me.
“Looking at the type of characters in the team, the club is in a good spot for the years to come.”
Willson said the supportive individuals at McDonald Park made his East stint even more special as he looked forward to what was next.
“I just want to thank Aaron Davis, Rob Johncock and the committee for giving me the opportunity to coach the club over the last five years,” he said.
“Until you have been inside the East football club, not many realise how special the place is and I am honoured to have been a part of it.
“I have made a lot of life-long friends over a solid five years.”