Where do footballers come from

Sunday Morning Coming Down.

Emma Quayle has written an excellent intro to this years draft in The Age on Thursday last. That set me thinking about the provenance of those players. For example, it seems to me the number of Father-Son success stories at the draft seriously outweighs their genetics-based statistical-likelihood. I have as a parent, become involved with junior football which is very different to being a junior footballer, and I am enjoying the view from 10,000 feet.  Junior football is a genre-merge between spaghetti western and opera.

My son’s league is the YJFL, and not suprisingly given the location of that league, there are a lot of aspirational Father-Son Candidates  (FSC’s) running around. They are easy to pick – not because they play better footy but because the parent next to you points them out to you. Then they point out their dad, or if he is not present, their mum. If you do an experiment at a game with an FSC and wander around the oval stopping to chat as the opportunity presents, it is unlikely that the FSC will not be first on the chatting agenda.

Those kids play in the spotlight from tackers onwards. They mostly play in the middle and they always play in the top team in their age group. Always. None of that is any reflection on their parents, or the kids themselves – they have no agency, this happens, the machine guarantees it. My guess is that if they are actually not up to the top team by under 12’s they give the game away. I think for a fair number of them the spotlight must become too much. But those who persevere are seriously groomed for the AFL by every single junior football official they encounter. I’m guessing in Victoria almost all those FSC’s end up in TAC cup teams – where you need to be of course, if you have draft ambitions. That’s that mystery solved.

So what about the other 95% of the draft. Ask anybody on the boundary or the clubrooms and they will tell you that they all stand out from tackers. They are born to play AFL, you can pick them easily. Most likely you will be told (if no FSC is playing) there is no-one on the field who would make AFL, “such-and-such is pretty good and has a great attitude, but he lacks that stand-out quality”. So I delved into the juniors form of about the brilliant recent product of my sons club – Andrew Gaff.  Was not playing top team in under 12’s – conventional wisdom asserts that no player in this group can progress to the AFL. Period. Nat Fyfe – couldn’t get a game in the Aquinas College first 18 in year 11. I’m told by a current Marcellin College student that David Zaharakis had a similar arc in High School. My examples are anything but comprehensive, but they do prove one thing. Being ‘born to play at AFL level’ is only ever proved by the act of playing AFL – 5 years ago 10% of AFL players came through the rookie list, this year it is 20% and rising fast.

The book Moneyball was actually written over a decade ago but it has taken the thesis a long time to sink-in in ‘boys club’ AFL football department land – a square jaw and a nice running style was definitely part of what it took to make the elite level – just ask Michael Barlow. There has been sensible talk during the week about relaxing the age criteria for the NAB Rising Star award, I think the same might be applied to the draft itself. The current draft age and entry rules framework, along with its feeder comps looks ridiculously elitist

What I can tell you about Junior footy, is that the combination of spaghetti western and opera is working. If I reflect on my childhood, the standard of the games at any age level is much better by comparison now. It is no wonder the standard of the AFL just keeps getting better and better. The machine that props it up has more organisation, energy, and dedication than any large corporation in this country can harness – and that feeds directly into the myriad of high quality senior leagues from Groote Island to Augusta.

The thing is AFL football players come from where they come from. The last twenty years of the draft has certainly excluded a lot of great players through the elitist ‘born to play at AFL level’ paradigm that it is based on. It is time for a new system.



  1. Neil,
    I can only nod in agreement at many of the thing syou have said here.
    I watch a minimum of 3 junior matches each weekend (3 sons playing)
    and see many FSC’s running around.
    Being the son of a gun opens some doors, but there are no guarantees.
    I actually feel sorry for many of them, because there are plenty who
    do not get to even TAC Cup level, but keep plugging away, destined to
    live forever in their fathers’ shadows.
    P.S. I saw the u/11 son of a formere Bulldog recently, and he is the best
    10-year-old footballer i have seen.
    P.S.S. I am reminded of the old story involving Ted Whitten Jnr, who was
    abused by an oppostion supporter: “You are not as good as your old
    man”. To which Ted Jnr responded “Yes I know, but who is?”

  2. John Harms says

    Neil, this is far too well-argued to be a football article.

    I know you are interested in logic. How are you going with the discussion of Wellingham’s snipe of Simpson? I have to keep my guard up else the saturation editorial will have me believing Wellilngham is the victim.

  3. Neil Belford says

    Was sitting about 40 metres away from the action as it turns out. I couldn’t quite believe it, I dont think anyone could including the players. Now the framing of the contact was exactly the same as the Grover – Wood collision in the Freo Dogs game – with Grover and Wellingham in the same role running across the line of the ball but fractionallly going to be first to the ball, while Wood and Simpson were more or less with the sit in that they were both the intended recipient of a pass.

    Grover leapt in the air and turned to mark the ball and had first hands there – Wood made the spoil and in the process cleaned up the very exposed Grover – but without malice. Completely courageous – you would never expect any less from Grover.

    Wellingham made a late decision to pull out of the marking contest, but rather than pull out in a way that would have been visibly cowardly, he leapt in the air and took the opportunity to smash the totally exposed Simpson. Completely absolutely thoroughly gutless, on two counts – and that is what Wellingham is really going to have to live down.

  4. Neil Belford says

    Incidently I was sitting next to some Collingwood supporters – in their late 60’s I would say. Kade Simpson came off right in front of us and on first glance at him, the women immediately next to me promptly started barracking for Carlton, while on replay on the big screen, the whole Collingwood component of the crowd lost their voice, and the Collingwood team lost any stomach for the contest.

    Actually it reminded me a bit of the day Dean Solomon coathangered Cam Ling at Kardinia Park – Freo may as well have gone off immediately that day too. Solomon got 8 weeks for that (which was probably right) but it was no worse than Wellinghams effort.

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