WAFL Blues

by Mark Simms

Here in WAFL land, WA, we’ve just just enjoyed our Foundation Day round in perfect Perth winter football weather. Brilliant but soft sunshine ensured it was warm on the outer banks underneath the gum trees- though it was still a bit chilly in the shade of the 1950’s stands when the wind got up. Around 18000 people attended the four games.

To attend a WAFL ground these days , as opposed to going to Docklands, is to get outdoors and in touch with nature. There’s plenty of sky, grass and trees- the grounds still resemble  the grasslands of our evolutionary history where hunters from different tribes in their traditional costumes, and under their traditional tokens- Lions, Tigers, Demons- chase down the ball and each other.

But these are troubling times for WAFL fans, despite some signs of health such as better populated grass banks, and consistently decent competitive freewheeling football.

First, we were told that the traditional  spiritual headquarters of the WAFL, the hunting ground where the most important ceremonies are carried out -Subiaco oval, has been replaced by something called Paterson’s stadium which looked just like Subiaco oval and is in exactly the same position.

This has been very confusing and somewhat unsettling. Why commentators and newspapers insist on going along with this pretence is quite baffling. As someone who grew up playing amongst the legs of the old wooden stands at Subi  Oval,  it’s like living in one of those movies where everybody around you won’t acknowledge that your wife is missing or that you ever even had a wife.

Now, the WAFL family, if I may borrow a rhetorical device from Sepp Blatter,  is being pressured by it’s successful offspring- the Eagles and Dockers. Like grown up children hassling their parents for an advance on their inheritance, the Eagles and Dockers are asking for more parental sacrifice despite having trashed the nests on leaving home.

In particular, the Eagles and Dockers want their own reserves teams so that like Collingwood they can train their recruits under match conditions. In other words they want the WAFL season to become a glorified training regime.

You might think this is not putting things fairly as the AFL reserves teams, being composed of young men, will naturally try to win. Maybe, but for the first time in 126 years of WAFL history some clubs themselves will not have winning the game as their main priority. Development of the players will be their goal and if that means persevering with a player out of form or too young in an important position when someone else could do a better job and costing the team victory, then that is what they will do.

What the AFL clubs don’t like about the current situation is that a WAFL club will sometimes put victory ahead of helping draft pic X develop as a central defender or ruckman that very afternoon. But this is exactly what WAFL fans like about going to their suburban hunting grounds: winning means something. East perth, as a team, as a club and as a group of supporters, really wants to beat West Perth, and its inclination is to put the team ahead of the individual. To lose this would be to lose everything.

By the way, you’d think non AFL players in the reserves teams, the amateur and country fill ins, might also feel a bit put out about their own club putting the individual ahead of the team.

This leads us to another way of stating the problem facing the  WAFL here. Namely, that two teams won’t be tribal in nature and hence the WAFL will lose the basis of its importance to people. Football has to be tribal to be enjoyable, and this won’t be the case if the AFL reserves teams go ahead.

Firstly, the fill in players will not be equal members of the Eagles and Dockers tribes.

Secondly, Eagles and Dockers fans will quite likely not want their reserves to beat the Wafl clubs they support. A kind of cognitive dissonance may ensure, and that doesn’t sound too good.

Thirdly, the draft pics from the WAFL teams will be forced to play against their former tribes. Any pleasure a WAFL fan might take in a young player’s progression to the point of the player being drafted will turn to horror when the player lines up against his old team. Even worse for older players. For example,  Nikoski, Broughton, Grover, Priddis won’t make guest appearances for Subiaco during the year coming back from injury or poor form, and in doing so confirm their tribal allegiance to their parent clubs. Instead, horror of horrors, they will work for Subi’s demise. Dark days indeed.

You just have to listen to Dennis Cometti warm with pride when he calls a West Perth player. Cometti loves the fact that the Eagles have a West Perth forward line at times.  Irrational childish emotion, really, but football is all about irrational hunter gatherer identification with bloodlines, history, and origins.

The thing to remember here is that this absurd but real pleasure in identifying with a successful player as a member of your tribe is only possible in WA because the AFL is separate from the WAFL. They are of a different order.

If they were instead in direct competition on the field, then it would be more difficult for football fans to identify with a WAFL and AFL team at the same time and, either, one identification would have to go, or both pleasures would have to be diluted. The people at the Eagles and Dockers should  remember that their clubs came from tribal, suburban, Saturday afternoon, grass bank football and its their duty not to weaken it any further.


  1. Andrew Fithall says:

    I appreciate some of what you say Mark, but not all. The potential you describe is what happpens in the VFL. My team is Williamstown which is linked to the Bulldogs, and my AFL team is Collingwood. When they meet in the VFL, my allegiances are with Williamstown, at the same time wanting Collingwood to do well. I did enjoy the period when Willy and Collingwood were linked but am happy for Collingwood to now be stand-alone. It is odd supporting Bulldogs players against Collingwood players. At present is doesn’t mean much as there have been only one or two players with seniors experience lining up with the Collingwood VFL team.

    One aspect you haven’t mentioned are the non-WA players drafted to Freo or WCE. I assume they are allocated to teams by some system. Last weekend Michael Barlow played half a game for Peel Thunder reserves. This week it will probably with Peel Thunder seniors. I can understand Freo wanting to closely manage his return (although I have just read there is a chance he will be rushed back into the Freo team). Under the system being proposed, Freo will be able to do that to their own and the player’s benefit without negatively impacting on the game-day performance of a traditional WAFL team.

  2. Dave Nadel says:

    I sympathise with you Mark, but the trouble is that the WAFL, VFA and SANFL wanted the AFL to solve their financial, spectator and ground problems for them, while the AFL clubs wanted to spare the expense of their own seconds competition.

    There is no doubt that the best decision for the Eagles, Dockers and the other Victorian and South Australian clubs is to follow Geelong and Collingwood’s example. It is not a coincidence that three of the last four premierships have been won by clubs with their own Seconds (and that these two clubs are currently top of the ladder) It is clearly not the best decision for the WAFL, SANFL and VFL. But at the time football went national these organisations had little choice. At the time the Eagles applied to join the the VFL (1986) seven out of the then eight WAFL clubs were technically bankrupt. During the decade before the AFL took over the VFA more than half the clubs withdrew from the Association for financial reasons.

    The VFL, SANFL, and WAFL want their traditional competitions but they also want access to the best footballers possible (which most of them can’t really afford). The most rational solution would be for the AFL to establish a national Reserves competition and for the WAFL, SANFL and VFL (which should resume the name VFA) to become semiprofessional competitions composed of players who fail to get drafted to the AFL.

    If this doesn’t happen the fate of some of the VFL clubs will be worse than Mark’s fears for the WAFL clubs. Rumours exist that Richmond, Melbourne, Carlton and possibly Hawthorn will follow Collingwood and Geelong’s example. Essendon doesn’t need to because the Bendigo Bombers are virtually Essendon already (they seem to play as many home games at Windy Hill as they do in Bendigo). If the others go, Coburg will probably have to drop to the Essendon District League and Casey to either the Southern or Mornington Peninsula League. Neither would be viable as stand alone VFL clubs. Northern Bullants might but it would be a struggle and like stand alone club Frankston they wouldn’t be competitive.

    Like Andrew I miss the old VFA. As a Northern Suburbs boy I followed Preston, most Collingwood supporters did. After the VFA collapsed and became a division of the AFL Collingwood amalgamated with Williamstown (to the horror of traditional supporters of both clubs) and Preston, now called Northern Bullants, aligned with the traditional Collingwood rivals Carlton. Suddenly it became easy to support Williamstown, if Northern Bullants was Carlton Seconds, then it was no longer Preston and I wanted nothing to do with it. But I am much happier with Collingwood having its own Reserves and if the Bullants break from Carlton I would go back to supporting then, especially if they were no longer in the same competition as Collingwood Seconds.

  3. Neil Hassa Allen says:

    It is amazing people will contemplate the imposition of a major change on a 125 year old competition – all for the sake of 30 odd players AFL listed players. Especially in a time when the interest in the WAFL is at a post WCE inception high.

    I’m not convinced the proposed introduction of 2 AFL reserves teams in the WAFL is in the best interests of WA football. Only a season ago WA was lauded for becoming the best developmental state in the country, producing the best talent in the country. The WAFL reserves competition – a key component of the local league system & structure would not survive with the introduction of two more teams.

    I’m also not convinced the West Coast Eagles or the Dockers will benefit in their premiership question by having reserves teams. The WCE have played 5 grand finals in a total of 38 finals since 1987 – many of them at the MCG when the outdated system forced them to play at the MCG. As Commetti said, “This shows simply re-enforces something an old music buddy of mine loves saying ‘if it ain’t baroque don’t fix it’”.

    The two AFL clubs are basically offering each WAFL club $68k for entry into the competition. The proposal estimates each WAFL club would make another $61k in match-day earnings from the AFL reserves games – but the AFL clubs will not guarantee that amount. Yet it the two clubs state this is the most important issue they are facing at the moment. Why if it is such a critical issue do the offer pittance?

    The classic thing on how flawed this system is was a few weeks back when the Dockers only had 25 players available for selection. So add an emergency to the AFL team – meaning in the proposed system their WAFL reserves team would have had 2 listed players plus 20 from amateurs & who knows where. That’s great development tool – playing with not even WAFL standard players!!

    It’s a complete joke. The WAFL clubs have to power to veto any new team entry into their competition.
    My mail is it stands at 9-0 against. So can’t happen & end of story. Thus this is a complete waste of time for all involved.

  4. Mark Doyle says:

    A good discussion!
    Mark Simms, You are not alone! Football culture is the same everywhere – Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Hobart and Brisbane and regional W.A., S.A., VIC., N.S.W., TAS., QLD. and N.T., including the TIWI Islands. You can also include European countries such as Germany. Do you watch the Deutsche Welle TV program ‘Kick Off” on channel 31 at 2.30pm on Saturday? It is one of the better TV football programs.
    Dave Nadel, I agree with the sentiments of your para. 3.
    For my football interest, life could not be better – I am a very happy Geelong supporter living in Barwon Heads. I can watch Geelong at an excellent boutique stadium for 7 games each season plus ‘block buster’ games against Collingwood, Essendon, Carlton, St,Kilda and Hawthorn in Melbourne, which is only 100 kms. from home. I can also watch good community football in Barwon Heads in the Bellarine Football League. Also, as a former Albury resident, I am interested in the O & M League and especially my team North Albury. The annual ANZAC Day game in Albury between Albury and North Albury is highly recommended.
    With respect to comments made by Mark, Andrew and Dave, I believe that the best structure for Aussie Rules Footy is as follows:
    1. One Professional AFL competition with 12 teams – Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Geelong, Sydney, West Sydney, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Adelaide, Port Adelaide, West Coast and Fremantle;
    2. Nine or Ten semi-professional competitions:

  5. Thanks Mark. Well written and I very much agree with your views.
    To me it comes down to a very simple question – are you a ‘footy supporter’ or an ‘(Insert AFL team) supporter – generally Eagles or Dockers’ in WA. 3 years ago I might have said the WCE/Freo reserves teams was a good idea. Then I started following my nephew with Swan Districts colts, and attending some of their league games and functions. Reawakened my awareness of the critical importance of grassroots footy. Not just for developing future AFL players. WAFL (and SANFL, VFL, country and suburban league clubs) are a crucial part of the development of young men in society.
    The AFL is a great elite sporting competition, but all the other leagues and clubs involve the 98% of players, coaches, trainers, girlfriends and supporters who will never get close to AFL level. In an age where we daily lament social disfunction, local footy clubs (for all their flaws) are one of the few things that unite and engage local communities – and young men in particular.
    The Eagles and Dockers get a 0.5% performance advantage, at the cost of destroying WAFL credibility – for all the reasons outlined above.
    Rosich and Nisbett are like the colonisers offering the Indians glass beads in exchange for Manhattan Isand. What angers me are the AFL club sycophants in the media who toe the Eagles/Dockers line just to curry favour for a few leaks or player interviews. Thats why the Almanac and the ABC are so crucial – intelligent, open debate.
    One argument against the proposal that has not had a lot of airing is just the dilution effect of 11 WAFL clubs. The WAFL is a good competition, but Peel and Perth have struggled in recent years to have credible teams in a 9 team comp. Both have improved recently. It is not about individual clubs – but who wants to watch or play when 4 teams (and often 4 games a week) have teams getting flogged by 20 goals? Also the Colts have a close link to the league teams, with good role modelling and mentoring from them playing at the same venues. That will be lost with Dockers and Eagles not having ressies or colts, forcing a separate draw and venues.
    That is what concerned men most about the AFL going to 18 clubs. Dilutes standards, and hence interest in the long term. We all want our teams to be in the finals regularly, and now less than 50% get that opportunity. I fear that even with salary caps the AFL will develop a permanent underclass.
    Mark – I agree with you in principle, but 12 is taking it too far. I always thought 16 with North and Melbourne dissolving, replaced by GWS and a Tassie team.
    Would be a true national comp, and have a logical Vic/Other State balance. I acknowledge that achieving it is near impossible

  6. Mark Doyle says:

    A good response Peter. Further to my proposition of a 12 team AFL, I also believe that there should be a 12 team AFL Reserves comp. This would result in the W.A.F.L., S.A.N.F.L and the V.F.L. being completely independent from the A.F.L..It would also result in a fairer and genuine AFL home and away draw with each team playing each other twice. I also think the present WAFL and SANFL comps. with colts or under 19’s are a better structure than the VFL, which has become nothing more than a defacto AFL reserves comp. VFL results are almost iirrevalant because the main focus is the development of young AFL players. My team Geelong has it’s own reserves team and it struggles to win games in the VFL because the young players struggle against the more mature bodies in other teams.
    I also believe that we need to distinguish between the different levels of football. The AFL is about professional sports entertainment for adults with very little community involvment. As you mention most suburban and country footy is a valuable social community activity. In Victoria country footy has a higher media profile than suburban footy in the media which enhances the community aspect. Victorian country footy is also stronger around the major population centres such as Albury/Wodonga, Shepparton, Geelong, Bendigo and Ballarat. In the small towns footy is struggling because of decreasing population. I am interested to hear that Peel Thunder are improving. I have never been to W.A. but think they are the team for the newer development areas around Mandurah and/or Bunbury and suspect their improvement is because there are more young blokes 18+.
    This is a good discussion which unfortunately does not happen in any of the media including the ABC. Most of the media coverage of the AFL in the Melbourne media is parochial, mediocre and superficial and a significant amount of the content is trivial and celebrity nonsense

  7. Mick Jeffrey says:

    In response to Andrew, each drafted player in the WAFL and SANFL gets allocated to clubs via a mini-draft, where the bottom placed club gets first pick of the AFL listed player coming in from interstate, 2nd last has the 2nd pick and so on until the player pool is exhausted.

    In regards to stand alone clubs, a lot of Doggie fans I know would love to have a stand alone club called Footscray in the 2nds comp. The big problem is expense, requiring medical staff, coaching staff and to improve the Whitten Oval to a standard where the ground would be able to host matches year in year out. As long as we have debts to settle (which we are attempting to do as a club, and something that Dimattina wants to also solve more so than get control of the club), then funding a reserves team is not worth the expense.

    In terms of competitions perhaps looking at what has happened in the Northern States with their league may be a model for the future. The NEAFL for those that are not aware is basically an amalgamation of the QAFL’s Premier Division (known as the Northern Conference, and features the reserve teams for the Lions and Suns plus an NT composite team and several Brisbane and Gold Coast based clubs) and the Canberra League (The Eastern Conference, featuring the Swans and GWS reserves as well as Canberra clubs). Maybe looking at that long term and getting the best clubs for the premier reserve competition can be an option where the stand alone Vic AFL clubs (Collingwood, Geelong, soon to be Richmond, Bendigo which is virtually Essendon) and some strong Tassie clubs like Glenorchy and Clarence can be integrated into a Southern Conference, and the Crows, Power (which would use the Port Magpies name), Eagles and Dockers reserves with the likes of Central District and Swan District could form the Western Conference.

  8. Mark Doyle says:

    Hello Mick Jeffreys, I am not sure that the NEAFL is a long term AFL model. I also believe that American and European models of conference and relegation are not going to happen in Australia.as well as the idea of having a season proper of 17 games where teams play once against the other teams. The biggest issue for the weaker Melbourne teams such as North Melbourne, Melbourne, Western Bulldogs, Richmond and St.Kilda plus Port Adelaide is their inability to generate gross revenue of $45-50 million dollars per year.

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