Local Footy: Encouraging juniors to go on to senior footy is vital for health of the game

Last year, according to AFL Victoria, there were 133,850 footballers who were registered with senior or junior clubs in the state. That’s almost double the corresponding figure of a decade ago.

The growth was recorded almost entirely in the juniors, thanks largely to the success of the Auskick program. When kids finished Auskick, they poured into junior footy clubs. But when young footballers finished juniors, only 30 per cent progressed into senior ranks.

A healthy sign in junior footy is that three new clubs have begun fielding junior footy teams this season: Brighton Beach (Moorabbin Saints Junior Football League), Lynbrook (Dandenong and District JFL) and Brunswick (Yarra JFL). Another healthy sign is that two new clubs have begun fielding teams in senior footy competitions: Point Cook (Victorian Amateur Football Association) and St Mary’s (Northern FL).

The Brunswick Junior Football Club was started specifically to encourage a flow of footballers into the ranks of Brunswick-based VAFA club North Old Boys-St Pat’s. North Old Boys was traditionally the club for former students of St Joseph’s College, North Melbourne. From 1972 to 1995, NOBs enjoyed 24 unbroken years in A-section.

But from the early ’90s, as the demographics of St Joseph’s College began to change, the flow of young footballers to the club almost dried up. At the end of this year, the flow to the footy club will officially dry up when the college closes.

In 2006, NOBs acted to encourage a flow of young footballers to the club when they formed an alliance with St Patrick’s College, Ballarat. The alliance has worked to an extent. While the current club captain, Simon Harwood, is a St Pat’s old boy, no former St Pat’s students have joined the club this season.

On Saturday, the NOBs-St Pat’s senior team had only three players from the two schools from which it draws, one from St Joseph’s College, North Melbourne, and two from St Patrick’s, Ballarat. The team lost its Division 1 match to Bulleen Templestowe by 41 points.

NOBs-St Pat’s president Trevor Ludeman started the Brunswick Junior Football club this season with one team, the under-10s. In years to come, the plan is to build a bridge from under-10s to under-17s and on to NOBs-St Pat’s. If it comes off, the club might well change its name to the Brunswick Amateur Football Club.

The St Mary’s Junior Football Club was formed in Greensborough in 1973. Last year the club had an unprecedented 600 players in 27 teams from under-nines to under-17s.  St Mary’s has produced more than a dozen AFL players, more than any other club in the past 30 years. Daniel Harford, Blake Caracella and Nick Stevens are among the alumni.

During the off-season, AFL Victoria asked St Mary’s why Australia’s largest junior club had no senior club. St Mary’s explained that its enormous success has been in part due to the fact that it had no senior club to leech from it.

AFL Victoria told St Mary’s that 70 per cent of junior footballers stop playing after under-17s. St Mary’s did its own research and found that, in the five years from 2004 to ’08, 68 per cent of its own under-17 footballers failed to go on to senior footy.

Tom Chapman, inaugural president of the St Mary’s senior footy club, said the club felt an obligation to form senior teams. “The bigger picture was participation,” he said.

This year St Mary’s fields teams in the NFL’s division three and under-19 competitions. The seniors are winless; on Saturday they lost to Parkside by 166 points. The under-19s, however, are undefeated. Spirits at the club are high.

This year the VAFA introduced a thirds competition for its Premier and Premier B sections. Most clubs in these sections now field seniors, reserves and thirds teams as well as a team in the social competition (the Clubs 18s) and at least one under-19 team.

Improving participation levels is one of the challenges of local footy. Changes can be expected in coming years.

Comments

  1. Pamela Sherpa says:

    I cannot for the life of me undertand the rationale behind getting rid of the tier system of first seconds and thirds at AFL clubs. One of the things I used to enjoy most was seeing young players develop and progress up through the ranks – and remember when we used to be able to call out- “You should be playing in the seconds!”

  2. John Butler says:

    Paul

    Cricket suffers from the same difficulty. I know of several clubs with huge junior numbers who continue to struggle at senior level. My old club would fit that category.

    Elite junior squads may fast-track the better players, but they do nothing for raw numbers. Or most local clubs.

    After a long time trying, there still seem to be too many attractive alternatives for a lot of kids.

  3. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Agree John, re Elite junior squads. And what happens to so called elite juniors when they don’t live up to the unrealistic expectations placed upon them? Do they return to the fold of their clubs or do they drop out of the sport and system altogether? It’s not surprising to see that the junior numbers don’t flow up through the ranks. The elite system we have has put paid to that. Then people look in awe at the older age recruits and wonder how they were overlooked.

  4. pauldaffey says:

    Pam and JB,

    I’m not sure that elite squads are to blame for the problem of juniors not going on to senior sport. Members of elite squads who fail to make the grade at elite level sometimes drop out, but I think they’re separate issues.

    One of the problems seems to be that many juniors feel abashed about joining a senior club. More efforts should be made to help the transition.

  5. John Butler says:

    Paul

    At my old cricket club, we have debated this issue for years, and have come up with no conclusive answers.

    I think you’re right to say that the transition to a senior club is a large part of the problem, but mine and other clubs I know identified this years ago, and have attempted various things with limited success.

    The current generation of kids seem to view and react to things very differently than I remember when I started playing seniors. Even when we’ve sought their views on matters, I don’t feel much progress has been made.

    Once they reach 16-17, there are so many alternatives/distractions nowadays, that competitive sport pales for many as an option.

    My reference to elite squads was based on the experience of the group of kids I coached the longest. They stuck together from 8-10 y.o. through to 16-17, but when the most talented couple were drawn away in rep teams and higher, it seemed to affect the group dynamic. Without the linchpins, it seemed easier for the rest to drift off.

    There’s a paradox here. On the one hand, James (one of the afore mentioned) has gone on to be a regular in Premier League firsts, and you wouldn’t begrudge that for a moment. But I reckon some of the others would still be playing with us if he were still around. At the very least, our sides would be more successful, which never hurts when you’re attracting players.

    But you want the best kids to reach their full potential, so what to do?

    If anyone reckons they have the answer, I’m all ears.

  6. Tony Robb says:

    Paul,
    One thing Ive noticed in Canberra is the huge disconnection between the junior and senior clubs. They have seperate committees and budgets which is logical but they never seem to interact. I coached a junior side for the past six years and other than the occasional visit from a senior player, my kids did not attend senior games nor had any affinity with senior players. It wasn’t until late last year that we were “VIP” guest team at the senior game that the kids really took any interest. Ive always believed that senior players should be junior coaches. As a kid we always had a senior player coaching and we always went to the footie to watch him run around and dream of doing the same ourselves one day.

  7. John Butler says:

    Tony R

    Where that separation exists, I think you are on the money.

    But even in clubs that are completely integrated, with the majority of coaches still active players, the same issues still seem to present.

    I’m more familiar with the culture of cricket clubs, and there may be differences in footy that I miss, but it seems there are many common problems.

  8. Ian Syson says:

    John

    At Brunswick CC we are moving towards the better integration of juniors and seniors. Things seem to be working well generally. With five senior grades there is scope for juniors across ability levels to play senior cricket when they are ready. There is a fair bit of desire on the part of the kids to play senior cricket and the seniors are very keen to encourage juniors into senior teams.

    We’ve only had a junior section (coming over from East Brunswick) for 6 years so I guess we’ve grown from disconnection to connection. It remains to be seen how things look in five years time when Brunswick ex-juniors have a strong presence in senior ranks.

    And (to all) if your girls and boys live in the area of West Brunswick and they want to play for a club that has an internal pathway to turf cricket let them know that Brunswick would welcome them and their mates.

  9. pauldaffey says:

    Hi all,

    I often hear about disconnections between senior and junior clubs and I’m stunned every time. I’ve heard of such a schism at Fitzroy and I can understand it, as the senior and junior clubs have very different histories and cultures. Hopefully a bridge can be built in years to come.

    But most senior and junior clubs don’t have such differences in culture. My understanding is that it comes down to personalities and a resentment on the part of the junior club, as alluded to by the St Mary’s example, that the senior club wants to pillage it.

    Fiefdoms, all fiefdoms, I say. But I expect I’ll find out first-hand in years to come when my two boys move grow to junior footy age.

    Re- cricket, it seems from my distant vantage point that the transition from junior cricket to senior cricket would be easier because the lower grades of the senior teams often feature mid-teenagers, who play juniors in the morning and seniors in the afternoon. That’s got to help the transition.

  10. A fear, Daff, was that junior footy clubs raise the funds and seniors spend it…that seems a soccer issue also. The AFL (and CA) certainly inject effort at the very beginning stage (Auskick and have-a-go)but there are concerns in areas where seniors are paying big money for players that this might not be in the interests of the junior section. Pathways, as Ian points out, are needed. (I also endorse his spiel for Brunswick CC and have no connection with the club).

  11. Ian Syson says:

    Thanks Crio. Pathways are needed — very much in the plural. We have boys and girls at the club who have very different ability levels and need to have a great variety of destinations available to them if they are to feel welcome in senior cricket. We’ve also introduced a kind of gap year concept for those kids graduating out of U16s who will have the option of playing U17s next season in a different Association rather than being thrust into seniors.

    We also run the club with a credo: First we give everyone a game and we help them to enjoy it. No-one is turned away and mates get to play with mates. Second we focus on skill development appropriate to the child’s needs. Third, given that 1 and 2 are running smoothly, we then think about winning games, one week at a time of course. At present we’re tossing about the idea that U12 batting needs to be focused on partnership-building at the expense of frenetic run gathering. The consequence of this is that the teams will lose more games than they perhaps would otherwise. The pay-off will be that kids who graduate to U14s will already have the understanding of slow-build innings that is needed at the higher levels. If we go this way we’ll need to have awards that acknowledge a whole different set of values. Eg most balls faced, biggest partnerships, most not outs etc.

    Soccer is a train wreck (having happened; still happening; and yet still about to happen). It generally costs around 250 per cent more to play soccer than it does footy. For example Essendon Royals charges U14s $500 per season. Our reserve-sharing neighbours Moonee Valley FC charges less than $200 (I’m informed). I have no idea where the money goes and all efforts to find out come to nothing. 400 kids at Essendon Royals . . . you do the maths. Senior players are charged a mere $200 per season!!

  12. pauldaffey says:

    Ian,

    $500 a season for a 13-year-old to play soccer, or any sport, at the local level is outrageous. How does the senior club justify itself to the junior committee? It’s the sort of thing that should split a club and prompt players to go elsewhere.

    My uncle, Peter Daffey, coached Brunswick in the Sub-District cricket comp in the early ’80s. I suspect he was more interested in knocking off batsmen’s heads than bringing on juniors, but I’ll have to ask him.

  13. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Ian, when I coached and managed junior soccer teams my understanding of where the money goes was that some of it just naturally went to head office because that is how soccer is organised. Soccer also seemed to think that they were the only sport in existence, running seasons for under 8’s that went longer than an AFL season.

  14. Dave Nadel says:

    My daughter played a season with an Essendon Royals Girls team three years ago. The costs are even harder to justify when you add in the fact that the Royals ran a much better canteen than any of the teams they played against and they had to have been making lots of money from it.

    Royals also treated female teams very badly. The Under 18 Girls got last choice of pitch i.e. if the under 10 boys were playing at the same time they got the better pitch. When the coach of the Girls team moved clubs he wasn’t replaced, Essendon just dropped the team. Some of the girls went to other clubs, a majority (including my daughter) gave up soccer.

    I shouldn’t have to say this, but this is not an anti-soccer statement, it is an anti-Royals statement. I am aware of Aussie Rules clubs who have behaved just as badly to women’s Aussie Rules teams.

  15. Ian Syson says:

    Dave. No worries. Soccer does its own job of being anti-soccer; everything else is just a footnote.

    The only thing keeping us at the Royals in my son’s coach. The interesting question is how well would soccer do if it were run by fair-minded and ethical people. If it were then Demetriou might actually have something to worry about.

    Pamela. You’re spot on. There’s an arrogance beyond belief in the financial management of these clubs.

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