It’s been a long and winding road for Preston Lions over the past few decades.
Relegated from the NSL in controversial fashion following the 1993 season and subsequently denied opportunities to re-enter the top flight in the wake of the Bradley Report, the club went on to re-establish themselves as a power of Victorian football and won three state Championships – the latest coming in 2007.
Hard times soon followed, however, and the Lions then found themselves falling all the way to the third tier of Victorian football by 2012 and came within a whisper of liquidation in the face of mounting debts.
Thankfully for the Lions, and Australian football as a whole, the club – despite being unable to lift themselves from State League One Northwest (SL1 NW) – has nonetheless got itself back on firmer footing since then: clearing its debts and stringing together a number of promotion challenges.
One of the traditional powers of Victorian football – Melbourne Knights’ President Pave Jusup recently identifying the club to the Daily Football Show as one of the four Victorian sides with the built-in supporter base that would potentially allow them to flourish in a hypothetical second division – the sleeping Preston giant briefly stirred in the penultimate round of the 2018 SL1 NW season when over 3000 fans packed into BT Connor Reserve to watch the club’s promotion push stymied by Geelong SC.
Reloading in the face of that disappointment, Preston now finds themselves top of SL1 NW after four rounds of the burgeoning 2019 season.
The club took another step on their road to redemption on Saturday when they eliminated NPL Victoria opposition Dandenong City 3-1 in the fourth preliminary round of the FFA Cup; former Perth Glory youth player Alexandar Tanevski netting a hattrick in the victory.
“I think we also need to recognise that we need to be humble,” club President Zak Gruevski said after that game.
“Yes, we’ve beaten NPL opposition, but they perhaps weren’t quite on their game.
“But, to be fair to our boys I think they’ve come out from the early part of the game and played some decent football. We’re really pleased.
“The other point I guess is that we’ve got through the game without any injuries.
“That’s critically important for us as we continue our pursuits in the home and away season next week.
“I was reflecting on this earlier. Before last week’s game I was talking to a couple of our supporters who were a bit disappointed about the previous week against Essendon [A 0-0 draw in Round three of the SL1 NW season].
“I said to them that if you’d given me ten points out of 12 after round four I would have got a tattoo.
“We’ve had pretty poor starts in recent years and we hadn’t won a round one game in fifteen seasons so for us it was critically important.
“We’re pleased with where we’re at the moment but there’s a long way to go. It’s a long season.”
Drawn against the high-powered and top of NPL Victoria Avondale FC for the fifth round of the Cup on Tuesday, the chances of the Lions continuing their run may appear remote.
However, as sides such as Redlands United, Heidelberg United and APIA Leichhardt can attest, the Magic of the Cup is a funny thing.
— Football Victoria (@footballvic) April 23, 2019
“Look, that would be absolutely phenomenal,” Gruevski said of a possible Cup run continuing.
“Not just for the exposure for the club, but for the exposure of our sponsors, our supporters and our members who stuck through thick and thin with us in recent years.
“We all know the journey we’ve been on in recent years and we’re starting to come out of that now with some real positivity on the pitch.
“We’ve got some decent stability off the pitch now, which is fantastic. A round of 32 game for us would be superb.
“Without going through the history in too long a statement, it’s only six, seven years ago that the club was almost bankrupt.
“We had next to nothing in the way of kids at the club – I think we were left with 30-35 kids – but we’ve got almost 300 kids playing these days and that brings a different life. You’ve got kids and parents, it’s fantastic that we’ve got that stability.
“People are jumping back on board. You can see around the ground today, the number of sponsors that are on board. They have been absolutely superb.
“They’ve come along for the journey, they’ve started to believe in something and we’ve given them a reason to actually believe.
“We’ve got a fantastic group of committed committee people and a number of volunteers who do things – as volunteers do – because they love the club, they love football and just want to make a contribution to see this proud club where it should be, where we believe it should be.
“It has taken us a little while but we’ve got every confidence that we’ll continue to climb up that ladder.”
Preston’s men’s side weren’t the only ones tasting cup success in the past week, with the club’s women’s side recording a 4-2 away win over Ballarat City in the third round of the NIKE F.C Cup.
Second on the women’s SL1 NW table with two wins from two games to begin the season, the Lionesses of Preston were drawn at home against Mazenod Victory in the fourth round of the Nike F.C Cup on Tuesday.
“We’ve been extremely fortunate and proud to have a women’s program for the best part of two decades, probably not too many clubs that can boast that,” Gruevski said.
“We’ve had a difficult period in recent years and have pretty much tipped the whole program on its head on the offseason. We recruited 15 or 16 new players to the club really on the back of some new coaching appointments – some people who are really committed to changing what we do with our women’s program.
“They had a terrific win against Ballarat in the Cup game down there.
“We’re really thrilled that we’ve started to unite the club as one: our women’s, our men’s and junior programs.”
HEADER IMAGE CREDIT: Preston Lions