The sight of yellow footballs flying under lights is one you’ll see at most ovals on any given Thursday night during winter. In country football, Thursday is the main training session, where the team for the weekend is named and the players enjoy a meal post-session, talking rubbish until the bar closes.

This Thursday night, however, is a different one at the Hastings Football Club. There’s a lot more people around watching, and the players have an extra spring in their step. Former AFL superstar Brendan Fevola will be joining the team for training ahead of his club debut on the weekend.

For 20-year old Hastings midfielder Jack Winton, it’s a surreal moment. “He did not miss one kick,” says Winton. “Having such a legend of the game out there on the field, calling your name, it’s just crazy, even if it was just training,

“I’d love to be able to play a game with him at some stage this season.”

Fevola signed a deal at the start of the season to play an unspecified amount of home matches for the Mornington Peninsula Football League club. He’s not the only former AFL player who will pull on the boots in country footy this season, as the trend of retired big-name stars returning to football for a Saturday afternoon stroll, pay check, and a pint continues to grow.

“It’s happening quite a bit,” says Frankston Leader journalist Simon McEvoy. In recent years the likes of Daniel Kerr, Stephen Milne, Drew Petrie, and Barry Hall amongst a host of others have graced the Mornington league with their footballing presence.

“Barry Hall was the most successful, I think. He kicked 8 goals including the match winner. That was on Good Friday a couple of years ago and the crowd was huge at Pearcedale. I think it’s a good thing for local football – suburban football. They’re proud footballers these blokes. Barry Hall, he turned up fit as anything and really determined. Drew Petrie looked good last year.”

It’s often the clubs who struggle on and off the field who look for that marquee player to turn their fortunes around for one week. While the Mornington league was recently converted into a two-division competition to make weekly contests more even, the financial disparity between some clubs remains evident.

Sorrento are perennial Grand Finalists in Division One. The club that produced Richmond spearhead Tom Lynch has won six premierships in the last 15 years, and has a strong community backing in the Southern Peninsula region, which allows the club to contract former AFL players like Chris Dawes, Andrew Lovett, and former junior Mitch Hallahan.

A club like Tyabb, on the other hand, have a hard time off the field, as it’s not only a smaller in population but more disadvantaged according to the SEIFA Index of Disadvantage. The Sorrento-Portsea-Blairgowrie area is in the 84th percentile, while Tyabb’s newer area and its older area sit in the 74th and 54th percentile respectively. The neighbouring town of Hastings, where Fevola is playing, is in the 14th percentile, meaning that only 14% of Australian suburbs are more disadvantaged.

“It’d be a fairly significant [financial difference] between Sorrento and Tyabb definitely,” says McEvoy.

Tyabb are a club who have invested heavily in coaxing former AFL players back for a game. Daniel Kerr, Stephen Milne, and most recently Travis Cloke have pulled on the Yabbies guernsey in an attempt to turn the club’s fortunes around.

“A large chunk of the last decade, the club’s probably struggled on the field and that’s had an impact off the field in terms of financially and how the club operates. Prior to last year we’d won two games in five years and really struggled. We always had numbers but really struggled with any real quality,” says Club President Mark Brady.

“It’s been both a conscious and opportunistic decision to go out and sign such players. We talked about it this season but never really wanted to do it for the sake of doing it. This time around we had a unique opportunity, a mate through a mate who could get a hold of Travis Cloke. He was interested and we didn’t chase anybody else,

“Our aim in doing it is twofold. We’re really interested in increasing the brand of the club, and this is something we can do to get our brand out there and get us in the news. Clearly though also one of the reasons for getting a marquee is to get a big gate and lots of people at your ground so you can turn a profit. We felt that Travis suited that in terms of his profile and the type of player you want – a big strong key forward that people come to watch them.”

Cloke’s appearance resulted in a take “three times” the regular gate, and total take was also “three times” the regular amount. Sure, the crowds came and cleaned out the canteen, but was the price worth the cost?

“It was very significant financially but it was great to get people at the club and that sort of flows on into other future activity,” says Brady. “It’s purely out of the club’s purse. You roll the dice a little bit in terms of investing in the player, and you hope it turns dividends. I will say this though, Travis was a reasonable fee, it wasn’t outlandish. That certainly made it a lot more attractive.”

McEvoy believes Tyabb certainly gained more than they lost on the Cloke investment. “I was speaking to someone at the club on Saturday. He said they sold a couple of his jumpers and Travis won the club draw of $1000 but donated it back, and that pretty much covered half of what they paid him. It sounds like maybe $5k or something?”

As these one-off appearances become more frequent, disrupting starting lineups and challenging opposition teams, the question of whether it’s fair has arisen. McEvoy says he’s only heard good things around the traps.

“I don’t really hear any negative stuff to be honest,

“I don’t believe [clubs complain]. The feedback I get from coaches is that they think it’s a good thing for their players to play against these guys. Just the experience of playing against a really good player, coaches think it’s a great thing. What a highlight for their career,

“Tyabb had a lot of Collingwood supporters in their team apparently, young guys, so they’re looking at Cloke like they’re starstruck.”

Brady agrees. “I reckon it’s great for local footy, as long as the clubs are being responsible and reasonable about it, and not killing themselves to do it. It’s great that retired AFL blokes come back and have a kick because it sparks some interest. We had 16 thousand hits on our website when Cloke was announced. That’s six times anything else we’ve ever had. We had articles in the Herald Sun and three articles in the local paper with Tyabb and Tyabb photos.”

Cloke and Fevola won’t be the only former AFL players to pull on the boots in the Mornington League this season.

“Robin Nahas is going to play at Pines,” says McEvoy. “They’d be looking for him to come in and play good footy rather than bring in the crowds. Brendon Goddard is also going to play at Pearcedale in a few weeks in a one-off.”

For Tyabb, Brady says they haven’t ruled out doing it again, but would like to focus on their youth program and build support from the ground up.

“We’d probably look in the future to do it again. Trav has said he’s probably not going to do anymore but we’re going to stay in touch with him and we might be able to get him to do another one. He’s thinking about moving down to the Peninsula,

“Never say never, but if we’re a really strong, successful club then you probably don’t necessarily need to look at doing it, so we’d like to get into the position where we don’t need to. If it suits us and it’s the right person we’ll do it, but we’re not stuck on the idea.”

McEvoy says Yabbies supporters are already looking ahead to 2020. “There were a few people in the crowd saying, ‘Next year we’ve gotta get Jonathan Brown’ not just because he’s a good player but he’d be good at the club in the luncheon after the game.”

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