WHEN a cellar-dweller footy club switches leagues, it could be a case of much ado about nothing.
But in Stratford's case, the Gippsland hamlet hopes it will be more a case of all's well that end's well.
Stratford, nestled on the Avon River, not only shares its name with Shakespeare's birthplace, but hopes its switch from the North Gippsland league to the lower-standard East Gippsland league will be a successful play.
Stratford Football Club is determined to play finals this year, an ambitious aim for a club that has won 10 senior games in eight years.
After languishing at the bottom of the ladder since returning to the North Gippsland league in 2004, the Swans voted late last year to switch to East Gippsland.
Stratford operations manager Matt Cutler said the transfer proposal was first raised by the playing group at the end of the 2010 season, when the Swans finished last with only one win.
Cutler said the idea was canned because many junior players wanted to have one last crack at proving themselves in the North Gippsland league.
"We made a pact as a playing group that if we didn't succeed the next year (2011), we'd have another look at going to East Gippy," he said.
The issue came to a head last winter when, after more demoralising defeats, many of Stratford's players and spectators indicated they would walk away from the club if forced to battle on in the tough North Gippsland league.
By October, the Swans were the seventh member of the East Gippsland league.
Gippsland footy veteran Peter Morrison is in his third year as Stratford's senior coach.
Morrison, who played 91 VFL games with Footscray and South Melbourne in the 1970s and early '80s, said the switch had given Stratford a new lease on life.
"There's probably people in the town who are disappointed we've gone to the other league, but a lot of those people aren't members of the club anymore, anyway," Morrison, 56, said.
"My concern was there'd be no footy club if we didn't move.
"I played here as a 15-year-old and I remember sitting under the fence watching blokes like Ivan Cartledge, the Nowaks, "Bottles" Anderson drop-kicking it 60m. They were legends of the footy club and we haven't had legends for 10 years."
A decade ago, in 2002, Stratford's stocks were up, as the club collected the first of two successive senior premierships in the Riviera Football League. In 2003, they lost only one game on their way to a nine-goal grand final demolition of Nambrok.
Stratford had joined the Riviera league in 1989, after its first stint in the North Gippsland league from 1974 to 1988 failed to deliver a senior flag.
But the Swans' woes began when the six-team Riviera competition was wound up at the end of that near-unblemished 2003 season, forcing the club - and three of its opponents - into the North Gippsland league.
Fast-forward another 12 months and two of the four Riviera clubs who switched to North Gippsland - Nambrok and Newry - were in recess, unable to compete against stronger, richer clubs.
Stratford and Boisdale-Briagolong battled on, but neither has had much success, particularly at senior level.
Boisdale-Briagolong has failed to win a premiership in any grade of football or netball since the Riviera league folded.
The Swans managed some memorable moments in their second stint in the North Gippsland league, winning three consecutive under-18 football flags in 2008-10 and a B-grade netball premiership in 2009.
"I think every grade of netball, bar C-grade, has played North Gippy finals and our reserves made finals for the first time last year," Cutler, who coached two of the under-18 flags, said.
"The only side that hasn't had success is the seniors.
"Two years ago we were the only club in the North Gippsland league that won two flags for the year, yet we didn't have a strong senior side, so people looked at us as a weak club.
"Realistically, we haven't been a weak club for a long time, it's just that we haven't got the bigger bodies to compete at that level of senior football."
Morrison admits he coached defensively in the second half of last year, in an attempt to stem the huge losses and propel the Swans' reserves into the finals.
What resulted was another senior wooden spoon, with only two wins and a average losing margin of 12 goals.
But Morrison is adamant the Swans' lack of senior success wasn't due to a of lack effort.
"It didn't matter how much we tried," he said.
"We'd train well during the week and we'd be right in it for 15 minutes in a quarter, but we would get flogged - you've seen the scores.
"In that respect, I think my age certainly helped. If we got flogged by 20 goals, I'd have them up and about, I'd buy them a beer, that sort of thing.
"If we'd had a playing coach, or someone who hadn't been part of the footy club previously, I think they may have struggled to get teams on the ground."
This season, Morrison's aims are more about striking knockout punches than lessening the blows.
"We need to kick 16 goals a game, and if we do that, we'll win more games than we lose.
"In the past, to kick four was hard work."
While Stratford's senior side remains relatively young, most have at least 15-20 senior games under their belt and many have tasted success in under-18s.
Cutler said the club's aim was to build a strong core of players to help the Swans take the next step.
He said that after some research on the Swans' new opponents - Lindenow, Wy Yung, Lakes Entrance, Paynesville, Orbost-Snowy Rovers and Lucknow - he believes the club will be competitive.
"Whether we'll be serious contenders is up in the air and it really depends how our young players have developed," Cutler said.
"Because we do have a young side, I think we'll be up and down a bit. We'll beat sides when we shouldn't and we'll lose to sides we shouldn't.
"But I think we'll give a lot of sides a fair shake."
While Stratford will be the East Gippsland's westernmost club by a distance of more than 40km, switching leagues has added only 42km to the Swans' travel for the season.
Its longest trip will be to Orbost, 141km to the east.
Cutler said Stratford to Bairnsdale, around which many of the East Gippsland clubs are based, was a 30-minute drive, while Traralgon, the hub of the North Gippsland league, was a 45-minute drive.
"For the majority of the games, travel will actually be shorter from Stratford," he said.
"But, to be honest, travel's not really an issue. I'd travel to Orbost every second week if it meant we could win some games.
"And if we get some senior success, then everyone will see the club for what it really is."
The Swans will face one of their biggest tests for the season in Round 1, when they meet reigning premier Lindenow on April 14.
Morrison was a keenly-interested observer at Lindenow's 62-point grand final win over Wy Yung last year, acknowledging the Cats were "very, very good".
"They are certainly the measuring stick, but it's probably a sensational way to start. Win, lose or draw, it's a step in the right direction."