The current Benalla Football Club can trace its origins back to 1896, although there is no doubt that football was played in Benalla much earlier than that. Indeed, another club bearing the name of Benalla is known to have competed in the short-lived Yarrawonga Line Football Association during the 1880s.
Benalla’s first senior premiership arrived in 1920 when it beat Devenish by 23 points in the grand final of the Benalla Yarrawonga Line Football Association. A brief sojourn in the Ovens and Murray League proved unsuccessful, but the club's record in the lesser local competition was outstanding. During the 1920s and 1930s Benalla played in a total of nine premiership deciding matches (either grand finals or challenge finals), but apart from their 1920 triumph enjoyed success only twice more. Nevertheless, Benalla was widely acknowledged as one of the powers of the competition, particularly during the second half of the 1930s when five successive grand finals were engaged in.
After comprehensively defeating Yabba Dookie to claim the 1939 Benalla Mulwala Football League premiership there was a feeling that Benalla was beginning to outgrow its origins, but with the onset of war it looked as though the club’s ambitions were going to have to be put on hold. The BMFL opted to suspend operations at the end of the 1939 season and Benalla, it seemed, would have to follow suit, but the following year it was offered a temporary and quite unexpected lifeline by the Goulburn Valley Football League.
Throughout its existence the GVFL had functioned as a Wednesday competition, but during the 1930s there was mounting pressure on it to switch to Saturdays. In May 1939, following weeks of torrid and at times bitter debate between the club delegates who favoured a change, and those against it, a proposal to implement a Saturday competition forthwith was put to a formal vote, and narrowly endorsed. Founding member Shepparton FC promptly withdrew from the league in disgust, as did its opponent in the previous year’s grand final, Mooroopna, and although the league had little difficulty in covering these losses in a purely numerical sense (in actual fact, by admitting Avanel, Euroa, Nagambie and Seymour it went even further), it soon became obvious that the standard of the competition had declined.
By 1940, with the impact of war beginning to be felt, the GVFL underwent further erosion when Kyabram announced that it would be unable to field a team, and then, just four weeks from the end of the home and away season, Euroa and Tatura were reluctantly forced to withdraw. It was at this point, in a move that was probably born more of desperation than aforethought, that Benalla was invited to ‘even up the numbers’ (to six), enabling the league to play four full rounds of three matches, without byes, in the run up to the finals.
Despite not having played any serious football for almost a year, the Benalla players rose to the occasion superbly, not only qualifying for the finals, but ultimately carrying off the flag with a grand final defeat of Rushworth. Surely few premierships anywhere have been won in such unlikely, idiosyncratic fashion.
The GVFL went into mothballs because of the war in 1941, and when it resumed five years later, Benalla had moved on. The next half century saw the club competing in the powerful Ovens and Murray competition, in which it was successful in capturing the premiership on four occasions from eight grand final appearances. By the 1990s, however, it had begun to struggle, and in 1995 even went through the entire season without recording a single win. Two years later the club successfully applied to return to the Goulburn Valley Football League where, over the course of the ensuing decade, its performances were inconsistent. In 2006, the Saints as they were by then known  headed the ladder going into the finals, but ultimately had to be satisfied with second spot after losing a hard fought grand final to Seymour by 31 points. This was followed by tenth place finishes in 2007 and 2008 and the calamity of a wooden spoon in 2009. Several seasons of mediocrity followed before the Saints slumped to another wooden spoon in 2012. The 2013 season brought marked improvement with the side qualifying for the finals and ultimately finishing fourth.
The Saints made a legitimate bid for premiership honours in 2014 but it ended in disaster. Top of the ladder with 18 wins from 18 games they cruised into the grand final on the strength of a resounding 15.13 (103) to 7.6 (48) second semi final defeat of Kyabram. Opposed in the grand final by Shepparton Swans few doubted that Benalla would claim their twentieth victory of the season to procure their first GVFL flag. Whether or not complacency set in is, of course, impossible to judge, but the simple fact is that the Saints, whose kicking for goal was horrendous, fell short by 3 points. Final scores were Shepparton Swans 7.6 (48) defeated Benalla 5.15 (45).
The Saints qualified for the grand final again in 2015, but this time the boot was firmly on the other foot. Second on the ladder at the end of the home and away series Benalla lost another match during the finals before going on to confront their conquerors, Kyabram, in the decisive match of year. It proved to be an unexpectedly one-sided affair, with underdogs Benalla pulling away after half time to record a convincing victory by 59 points, 16.16 (112) to 7.11 (53).
The 2016 season brought a marginal fall from grace as the Saints bowed out of premiership contention at the preliminary final stage, beaten by 35 points by Rochester. A year later they qualified for the finals in sixth spot but were unable to get past Seymour in an elimination final. This was followed in 2018 by another elimination final loss, this time to Mansfield, which on this occasion consigned the Saints to fifth place on the premiership ladder. A slight decline in fortunes in 2019 saw the side finish seventh and therefore miss finals qualification altogether.
- The Benalla Yarrawonga Line Football Association became known as the Benalla Line Football Association in 1931, and then as the Benalla-Mulwala Football League the following year.
- Several Victorian country leagues favoured Wednesday competition during this era as Wednesday rather than Saturday was often the preferred day for a half holiday. Some of the better country league players even lined up for their country teams on Wednesdays and travelled to Melbourne to play with a VFL club on Saturdays.
- Until 1995, Benalla’s nickname was the Demons.
John Devaney - Full Points Publications