Footy doing it tough in the bush and the ’burbs
Suburban and country footy is kicking into the wind. Six clubs have gone into recess this off-season, others have had to downsize and there are signs that the initial vibrant bloom of the women’s game has paled.
Some clubs are victims of peculiarly local circumstances. Corowa-Rutherglen in the Ovens and Murray, home club of Sydney coach John Longmire and where his brother still coaches juniors, lost its clubrooms to ruinous flooding last November.
Corowa-Rutherglen’s rooms were swamped last November and are unusable.Credit:Facebook
It also suffered from the squeeze of three nearby clubs in other competitions in a stagnant, even dwindling population, a chronic and ever more acute country problem, and from an exodus of young players back to work and study in the city when Victorian COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. Nearby Wahgunyah spent last season copping 50- and 60-goal beatings.
“COVID was a big blanket that protected everyone there for a little while,” said Corowa-Rutherglen president Graham Hosier. “Now there’s 80 jumper spots and 40-odd local players.
“I’m shattered. I’ve been there for a long time. I’m not putting the blame on anyone. It was just a perfect storm.”
Rushworth in the Kyabram District league lost players after losing a coach mid-last season, could replace neither and on the sidelines join Ardmona, who dropped out last year.
John Longmire with Corowa-Rutherglen mates after North Melbourne won the 1999 AFL premiership.
Wyndham-based Glen Orden in the Western Region Football League and Jacana in the Essendon District Football League – alma mater of Chris Johnson and the legendary Bruce Doull – struggled and failed to drum up numbers in communities whose complexions are changing fast.
Old Mentonians, a 50-year stalwart of the Victorian Amateur Football Association, lost the school grounds, their coach and a job lot of players to neighbouring Beaumaris. And Glen Waverley in the Eastern Football League found that players, parents and sponsors melted away after an infamous scandal involving a public sex act between two players last Mad Monday and will sit out 2023.
The great Bruce Doull.Credit:Fairfax Photographic.
But there are generic issues that mean that even as the elite game thrives, the ecosystem that supplies and ultimately sustains it is feeling the stress. COVID-19 disrupted age-old rhythms. Simultaneously, construction boomed. Tradies became used, or were required, to work on Saturdays again. People’s attitude to sport generally changed.
Jason Reddick is a life member at amateur club Therry Penola who worked at Carlton in the AFL and Williamstown in the VFL and is now chief executive of the VAFA. “Back in the day, if you played footy, it was your No.1 priority, and you worked everything around it,” he said.
“What I’m hearing loud and clear is that in this day and age, footy is not necessarily the priority, it’s something players do. The lower down the grades you go, the more so that is.”
Reddick knows of an A-grade club who fear a mid-season collapse when 25 players go overseas, and of a D-grade club where four good players suddenly made themselves unavailable for a crucial match late last season – because they had booked a fishing trip.
This lifestyle-first perspective applies also to volunteers, the vascular system of grassroots footy, and women in lower grades who only ever came to footy for recreation in the first place.
“Coming out of COVID, it’s not just AFL, it’s all sports,” said Andrew Johnston, chief executive of the Essendon District league, who has previously worked in athletics. “COVID did hurt. Lifestyles changed, people stayed home. Now, financially, it’s harder, so people have to pick and choose what sports they do.”
The Glen Orden Hawks can’t field a senior team.Credit:Joe Armao
AFL game development manager Rob Auld applies caveats. Junior registrations are still rising yearly and a new senior men’s club has bobbed up in Gisborne and two new women’s sections at Bonbeach and Mt Martha. “Our numbers are telling us that it’s not all doom and gloom,” he said.
But Auld acknowledges that the landscape is patchy. Where it has worn through, the AFL has identified three phenomena. One is demographic, the thickening of migrant communities who have not grown up with AFL, to wit South Sudanese, Indian and Chinese. Jacana and Glen Orden typify this. Notably, Glen Orden still has two cricket teams that play all year around.
Another is societal. “Communities have different expectations of footy clubs now,” Auld said. “Are they inclusive, culturally and in gender? Is the match-day experience welcoming? How are they with looking after kids? With racism? With vilification? Some clubs are finding it difficult to adjust to those new expectations.”
Even 10 years ago, Glen Waverley might have expected to tough out its mortifying Mad Monday, but not now.
The third is shifts in population. Footy is atrophying in some suburbs and regions, but flourishing in others. “On the Mornington and Bellarine peninsula, we’re actually seeing really good growth,” Auld said.
The thinning in women’s numbers is harder to track because it has only recently become evident. “There is a struggle,” said Reddick. “Has the initial bubble of women’s football plateaued? Is it on the decline? There does seem to be a drop-off in those who’ve said, ‘Tried it, had a go, it’s no longer for me’.”
Anecdotally, other factors are in play. As for men, COVID-19 put a kink in the works. Women resumed other sports, focussed on careers, even stopped to have babies.
Some agitated in vain for more specialised coaching for women, who learn differently to men. They’ve also pressed for shorter matches and fewer players on the field to relieve congestion and mitigate the risk of injury, which seemingly concerns women more than men. In this concussion-conscious time, they think of and with their heads.
Simon Lethlean with a VAFA team in 2013.Credit:Fairfax Photographic.
Footy being footy, no one is giving up. Corowa-Rutherglen is calling this year a reset, not a recess. Amalgamation is one possibility. Rushworth will field teams from reserves down.
Jacana and Glen Orden both have been in recess previously, so they know the scale of the fight they have on their hands. The VAFA is likely to re-introduce a rule to prevent wholesale transfers from one club to another. All six shuttered clubs intend, if not all expect, to be back next year.
The AFL stands ready. “We see this as our job,” said Auld, “bullseye AFL work.” It’s impracticable to think that the AFL can save clubs one by one. But as a first step, it is setting up development squads in Wyndham, Melton and Monash.
The emphasis will be different to Auskick, concentrating on alternative formats with less contact, aimed at football illiterate populations. “They’ve not been brought up on footy,” Auld said, “and we’ve just got to go about it a bit differently in those areas.”
For women’s footy, the elixir may be time. The girls who were inspired to take up Auskick when AFLW began in 2017 still are not old enough to have travelled all the way down the previously non-existent pathways to senior competition to replace the pioneers.
“There was always going to be a huge gap,” said Reddick. “We’re still in that vacuum. We’re waiting for the next wave to come through.”
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