DESPERATE to halt the decline of his much-loved club, AFL star Nathan Thompson has returned to Kyneton.
Nathan Thompson knows his mere presence isn't enough to save the Kyneton Football Club.
It's been 15 years since the Tigers last tasted premiership glory, and most of the seasons since have been spent in the doldrums of the Bendigo Football League.
Last year the Tigers were winless, with an average losing margin of 21 goals.
Embarrassingly, the club's games against Castlemaine - who finished second-last on the ladder, beating only Kyneton - were lost by 74 and 78 points.
Despite the enormous challenges, Thompson put reason aside and signed on as playing co-coach of the Tigers last August.
The former Hawthorn and North Melbourne key forward said he couldn't ignore what his heart was telling him.
"I love the club, it's pretty simple," Thompson said.
"Unfortunately the place was looking like folding.
"It was really dire, and it still is, to be honest.
"I looked at it and thought if I didn't go back and the place folded, I'd be pretty disappointed that I didn't at least give the club a year."
Thompson, a veteran of 179 AFL games, played four matches for Kyneton last year and drew huge crowds to the once-mighty club.
But he knew the occasional trip up the Calder Freeway from his base in Melbourne wouldn't guarantee the club's survival.
"I realised it was going to take more than just someone popping up and playing a couple of games," he said.
"It was going to take a group effort, basically stripping the place back to its bare bolts and pretty much starting again."
The process began last season when the Tigers appointed Derrick Filo as senior coach.
Filo, a legend of Bendigo football and coach of Kyneton's most recent flags in 1995 and 1997, boasts one of the most enviable coaching records in country footy.
In his 17 seasons as a Bendigo league coach - with Kyneton, Kangaroo Flat and Eaglehawk - Filo has made the finals 15 times for four flags.
The 44-year-old, co-coach with Thompson this year, said he had returned to Kyneton to repay the club that gave him his first senior coaching opportunity way back in 1995.
"The list was pretty well primed when I came here the first time, so it's a bit different now," Filo said.
"But you've got to work for it sometimes - anyone can walk into a club that's second or third and keep it going."
Despite his advancing age, Filo pulled on the boots 11 times last season in a bid to protect the Tigers' young players from tough contests for which their still-developing frames weren't equipped.
He is confident he won't have to do the same this year, after Kyneton secured some mature-age recruits, many of them returning players, in the off-season.
"We've got some decent kids, but some of them got pushed into senior footy the year before they'd have usually played," Filo said.
"But just to have the older fellas there to help them along, I think we're going to be very surprising this year.
"We're not thinking about anything ridiculous like competing with (three-time reigning premier) Golden Square, but if we can just get more competitive and win a couple of games, we'll be heading in the right direction."
Thompson admitted Kyneton's return to the top of the Bendigo league was likely to be a long, slow process.
"We're just taking small steps but it's been a real challenge," he said. "Recruiting is a really tough environment for local football, especially when you're competing against bigger clubs in the area."
Daylesford premiership coach Luke Beattie heads the list of returning Tigers.
Beattie, an assistant coach with the VCFL's Division 2 representative team last year, played in Kyneton's 1997 flag.
Darren Chambers, a midfielder who captained the '97 triumph, has also returned from Daylesford, along with former Darley hard nut Brent Dryden, a Kyneton best-and-fairest winner, and onballer Mark Scerri, who played more than 100 games for the Tigers before a stint in Melbourne.
Thompson, too, is expected to be a solid on-field contributor, despite admitting his best fitness and football were "a long way behind me".
On Good Friday, in the 123-point Round 1 loss to Gisborne, Thompson booted two goals.
"I've been training since November with the boys, but the fitness has been a battle," he said.
"At stages I've felt super-fit, then I've had troubles with different injuries.
"I'm fighting the good fight and trying to hold it together ... but just being out on the ground and providing a target down forward for the guys to kick to is certainly going to be a positive for the club."
Filo said Thompson's return had helped fast-forward Kyneton's revival.
"It has helped with sponsorship and it has helped with recruiting. At least you get in the front door now," Filo said.
"Potential players can see we're on the right track and I get the feeling that more players will be interested next year once they see how we go.
"I think what Nathan has done is probably speed up the (rebuilding) process another year or two."
Filo was clear Kyneton's resurgence wouldn't come overnight, or even in two years.
But he said many of the young guns would have 40 games of senior footy under their belts by the end of the season, signalling an even greater improvement next year.
"If we can get this right, there's no reason why that in three, four or five years down the track, Kyneton can't get back to the top of the ladder."
Although admitting his commitment to Kyneton had taken its toll on his football media career, Thompson said he had no regrets.
During the season, Thompson will work on Tuesday nights, leaving coaching duties to Filo.
He will train with the Tigers on Thursday nights and play on Saturdays, fulfilling his commitments with Nine's Today Show before leaving Melbourne on Saturday mornings.
On Sundays, he remains a match caller with SEN.
"I lost a lot of work in taking this on, so obviously it's costing me money, but my heart's telling me to help out," Thompson said.
"I've got a wife and three kids to support but I sat down with my wife and said 'I really want to do this', so we're making it work."
Thompson said while the Tigers were back on the right track, the future of the club still depended on the Kyneton community.
"We've got great support, but the whole (losing) situation has seen it fall away and not everyone is buying their membership," he said.
"But we don't have pokies or a businessman who's tipping in $50,000. We're a real country club and we won't survive unless the community gives us a chance to show that we're here to develop our young kids and be a club for Kyneton locals."