Country Footy: Crisis? What crisis?

by Peter Lenaghan

The rumours were doing the rounds before Christmas. The Mallee Football League was on its last legs. Years of dry weather and rural decline were taking their toll and the whisper was the competition would disband after the 2010 season. Clubs were launching big recruiting drives in a bid to win the league’s final premiership.

And yet, this sort of talk is nothing new. Resilience, compromise and extinction are common threads in the region’s long footballing history.

While the name might give the impression of a venerable sporting institution, the Mallee Football League is entering just its 14th season. It began in 1997 when the Northern Mallee and Southern Mallee competitions were combined. The newly minted league featured 12 clubs and covered a vast area; from Ouyen and Manangatang in the north, over to Nullawil in the east, down to Jeparit and Brim in the northern Wimmera.

Little more than a decade later, the number of teams has been whittled down to seven. Brim merged with Warracknabeal and joined the Wimmera league. Manangatang hooked up with southern New South Wales club Tooleybuc and departed for the Central Murray. Nullawil transferred into the Golden Rivers league. Yaapeet folded.

After tense negotiations, Sea Lake-Nandaly and Berriwillock-Culgoa agreed to a partnership. Unlike the other clubs seeking new horizons, the Tigers stayed in the Mallee Football League.

The reasons for this rationalisation featured prominently in a Victorian parliament report on country football published at the end of 2004. The authors found population decline, especially of men aged between 18 and 25, was a major challenge in rural Victoria. But the report also stated football and netball clubs were the “glue holding many small rural communities together”.

A locally-based agriculture research body, the Birchip Cropping Group, looked more widely at the damage a decade-long drought had done to the community. The group’s ‘Critical Breaking Point?’ study of 2007 reported that “the worst drought since records began” had increased many farmers’ stress and debt levels, and resulted in the loss of some basic services in small towns. It also confirmed the “depopulation” of the Wimmera Mallee region. As one person interviewed for the study put it: “We’re a bit light off for neighbours, that’s for sure.”

A study by the Wimmera Development Association found that the 2006 drought alone cost the Wimmera and Southern Mallee region’s agricultural sector $1.05 billion. The study also stated that the population of the region’s smaller Shires – including Hindmarsh, Yarriambiack and Buloke – was predicted to continue to shrink over the next 25 years.

Despite all of these years of loss and strain, Mallee Football League president Alan Malcolm says several clubs, especially Beulah and Jeparit-Rainbow, are recruiting well for this season. Conjecture about the league’s impending death, he says, was uninformed.

“None of the clubs have got that sort of attitude that this is their last year,” Malcolm says. “So, yeah, we can scotch that one.

“Even if we lost one team… I played footy back in the 1960s and 70s and we had six teams there for quite a few years and the league worked quite successfully. So, in a worst case scenario, if [the league] did happen to lose one team – and there’s no indication of that, certainly not this year – we could still survive.”

Malcolm says much of the gloom and doom talk surrounding the league was prompted by concerns that Woomelang-Lascelles might be close to folding. The Cats failed to win a senior match last year and also struggled in 2008.

Colin Barber has played 440 games for the club and been its secretary for 24 years. He says a Mallee league official rang recently to confirm if the Cats were indeed in trouble.

“[We were] very upset with them because it’s far from the truth,” Barber says. “We’ll be stronger than ever this year.”

Woomelang-Lascelles is hoping to win five games in 2010 and Barber says the club’s preparations are going well, with a new coach who has moved to the Mallee from Queensland, and fresh recruits from Swan Hill. There were 33 players at a recent training session and more than 100 people at a club function last month. Numbers are so strong, Barber says, he might not have to pull on the boots this year.

But he says only two senior players live and work locally. The rest are either employed or residing outside of the Woomelang-Lascelles district.

Recruiting large numbers of players from outside the local area has long been a reality for Mallee clubs. Walpeup-Underbool, west of Ouyen, has strengthened itself in recent years by bussing in players from Adelaide. Other clubs have members who routinely drive several hours from centres including Bendigo, Ballarat or Melbourne for a kick.

One of those travelling to play this year is Ryan O’Callaghan. After spending the last seven seasons in the Sunraysia league at Mildura, where he lives and works as a teacher, he will be the playing coach at Ouyen United. The Demons finished second in 2009 and have won just one premiership in the last decade. O’Callaghan says he’s prepared for the travel and excited about the prospect of playing alongside his brothers at his home-town club.

“I didn’t want to coach at Mildura again – I’ve sort of been there and done that,” the 31-year-old says. “To go back to Ouyen was a good challenge, given that’s where I played my junior footy, and I’m probably at the age where I suppose if I don’t go now I may not get to back there and coach.”

Ouyen is about an hour’s drive from O’Callaghan’s home. He will commute between the towns, along with a group of colleagues from the Mildura area who will play with Ouyen United for the first time.

But he says the club’s isolation makes it harder for it to attract quality footballers.

“They’re not going to come just for the fact that they’d like a drive down to Ouyen,” O’Callaghan says. “So you do have to have a bit of a crack and probably offer a bit more money than what you would like.

Swelling the thinning ranks each season costs clubs many tens of thousands of dollars. Depending on your perspective, that sort of expense during years of drought can seem perverse, heroic or simply necessary.

The money is raised by tireless volunteers and canny schemes. Mobs of sheep and wheat crops have generated precious income in recent years. Players and volunteers donate their time and machinery to help shift grain between bunkers and silos after harvest. Service auctions are welcome money spinners.

Victorian Country Football League area manager Bruce Petering says most clubs are innovative fundraisers and prudent spenders.

“We don’t see a lot of clubs that are really financially in strife,” Petering says. “And I suppose it’s like a business to people nowadays. A club looks at its income and then spends accordingly. They’re really good financial managers nowadays. Whether they’re spending it in the right areas, that’s sometimes debatable, but there’s not too many that overspend anymore.”

Despite this financial acumen, ingenuity, hard work and the willingness of players to travel long distances, Petering expects more clubs will eventually go under. After all, he says, merger and extinction has been a feature of the region’s football for 100 years.

“There will come a point, if the current sort of migration of people continues that, yeah, some of these clubs will become unviable in the long term because they just won’t have the people around or as many to fill those spots.”

Alan Malcolm remains hopeful clubs will continue to defy the seasonal and demographic trends.

“I would never take that negative attitude because I think clubs have proved they can be very resilient,” Malcolm says. “They’re very reluctant to throw in the towel because you have to realise a footy team is such an important part of a community, and you talk to any town that’s lost their footy team and they’ve lost such a great part of their community.”

Comments

  1. Stephen Cooke says:

    More articles of the calibre of this will ensure The Footy Almanac’s future. Great work Peter, good to see a well written piece on grass roots footy.

  2. Peter Lenaghan says:

    Thanks, Stephen. Much appreciated.

  3. Rocket Rod Gillett says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for this update on the Mallee Football League.
    Very pleased to hear that they’ll be going around this season, and hopefully beyond.
    Given player shortages would it be feasible for the comp to revert to one team per club to keep it going?
    Reserves football is a post-1960s phenomena before that clubs in most district leagues fielded only one team. Of course, it was more closely settled and they were situated closer together.
    The Millewa Football League further up the road along the Murray has a successful league in which the clubs field only one team.
    It’d be great to see a place like Jeparit – once a member of the Wimmera Football League – a stand-alone club again!

  4. Rocket and Peter,

    I completely agree with the no-reserves idea. I once suggested in an article that there should be no reserves for all district leagues and various VCFL board members wanted to lynch me. I thought it just made sense, because of the fact that there are very few young men left in the farming districts.

    A reserves team in the Mallee league would feature eight 15-year-olds, eight 45-year-olds and not much in between. Footy is a young man’s game. It’s sad, and wrong, to see it otherwise.

  5. PS. Great article, Peter.

    That parliamentary report was a helpful exercise for all in footy.

  6. Peter Lenaghan says:

    Thanks for the comments Rocket and Daff.

    My main worry about ditching the reserves competition would be the financial implications for clubs. Would this cut clubs’ playing membership even further and make them unviable?

    Such a move might ease the pressure on clubs to field two teams each weekend, but it might also cut the amount of money coming into the club in registration fees, canteen takings, raffles, etc.

    Any thoughts?

  7. Rocket Rod Gillett says:

    Hi Peter,

    I remain a strong advocate for one team – it’d ease costs, but more importantly ease the work load. Running a footy club now involves a bureaucracy – not just timekeepers, boundary and goal umpires, but interchange stewards, etc. Additionally, you need people for the gate and canteen.

    Every time a genius coach like Sheedy advocates an extended bench I grown with despair. They only think of themselves and their clubs at the top level. All footy clubs want to play on the same basis as the AFL in terms of number of players, etc. This does not help country footy or clubs on the frontier – all struggling with player numbers.

    I reckon a one team policy could have saved the Benalla and Coreen leagues, now sadly both gone.
    It would in all likelihood starve off mergers off even more clubs in the bush.

  8. Rocket,

    I once posed a “carnival” concept for district leagues and was greeted with a silence so damning I squirmed.

    Instead of pouring money into improving the facilities at every country footy club, improve the facilities at one particular ground that would then serve as the centre. Or maybe two or three grounds.

    All clubs would meet at those centres each week. That is, the representatives of four or six clubs would meet every Saturday at the one venue. It would be like a weekly carnival. Players could be shared among clubs according to shortfalls.

    Of course, distinctiveness among clubs would be lost.

    In 1999 I went to watch my brother play for Yaapeet, one of the clubs mentioned in Peter’s article. The Yaapeet people were very proud of what they called the “mud hut”, their social rooms, which was built in 1993. But the footy club went out of existence after the 1999 season.

    The mud hut still gets used by the small Yaapeet community, but its original purpose was negated when the footy club had to fold. I couldn’t help by think that the money could have been spent more wisely elsewhere.

    Yaapeet and its mud hut could even have become the centre for the weekly Mallee carnivals.

  9. Richard Jones says:

    Rocket and Daff (Pete probably already knows): at last December’s Bendigo League a.g.m. the motion to increase the senior bench from three to four was defeated.
    The clubs voted 5-5 but the board of management cast the deciding NO vote as the motion didn’t have a clear majority.

    Strangely enough, the Magoos in the BFL run around with 4 i/c, but there’s just three in the Ones.

    I was sitting next to Kyneton president “Ox” Law at the AGM and he said the extra impost with four senior interchange for the country clubs — Kyneton, Castlemaine, Maryborough and Gisborne — over an entire season would be just too much.
    Maine prez. Ronnie Cawthan agreed and so did the Eaglehawk delegate. I have a feeling new club Strathfieldsaye was also against the proposal. Conversely, Maryboro and Gisborne were in favor of fielding four senior interchange.

    You’d like Ronnie Cawthan, Rocket. Like P. Lenaghan and myself he’s a super keen Cats’ fan. This time 12 months ago at the opening night of the biennial Castlemaine State Festival I had to tell Ron at interval how Geelong was faring in the Round 1 fixture against the Hawks. As we all know, despite a last quarter Hawthorn surge (it was far too late!) the Mighty Catters saluted: again.

  10. pauldaffey says:

    Richard,

    I can vouch that Ronnie Cawthan is a good fella. Still smarting about his omission from the the 1992 premiership team, though. A bit of a Derek Kickett figure.

    Ox Law is one of the characters of footy. I reckon he’s right, and Rocket is right, about the interchange bench.

    Why did the board vote the way it did?

  11. Rocket Rod Gillett says:

    A carnival concept is a brilliant idea!

    I would like to see the idea tried in Wagga by the Riverina Australian Football Club that has 2 grounds alongside each other plus lights. It could mean the reformation of the Central Riverina League as the Wagga AFL (Amateur Football League) catering for the village teams, services (Army, RAAF), Uni and school old boys’ teams. The Carroll Cup for schools is huge so Wagga High, Mt Austin High, and the catholic schools could each provide a team for players not playing in the RFL or Farrer league. Old CRL club Marian Dons originally were founded in this way.

    Along with a netball carnival it would make for a sporting extravaganza!

  12. Richard,

    I did vote against the 4 man on the bench and as i said at the time that with our club struggling that for us to be competitive we don’t want the 3 we already have on the bench going on the ground.
    I think a few clubs said that it would give an under 18 a chance for a run. With our depth being weak we already last year had 12 under 18s play 2 or more senior game this included one player playing 18 senior games coming out of the under 15 grand final the year before and another from that game playing 8 senior games. The cost if we a minimuim player on the bench for the year ($50) it would cost us $900 for the season not that breaking.
    The other comment i made was when a kid had been named and played 8 senior games although he may have not played a lot of game time some seen it as worthy to offer this player more money to go to lower league. It s reality that some see that them 8 games he maybe good enough for $100 a game out the road and he says thats fine im off. Loyalty is probaly not as a deciding factor now a days to play at the club for 5-10 years is rare. Some loalty comes through sucess and not have the need to leave.

  13. So where are things at? The ABC had a story today saying the Mallee League is folding after this season. Apparently the League is down to five teams.I don’t know much about this neck of the woods but it all sounds sad.

    Glen!

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