On 7th August 1858, the first organised game of Australian rules football took place amongst the trees of Yarra Park. The-then Colony of Victoria was just seven years old at the time.

No matter which way you look at it, football and Victoria have grown up together. Despite all the bumps in the relationship over the years and the clashes between code and state, the two are still hard to split.

Victoria is football’s heartland, and its home. So why is Victorian football on its knees?

The Victorian Football League is broken. Stuck halfway between an AFL reserves competition and a genuine second-tier competition, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the VFL’s struggles.

No AFL clubs will field players in the league this season, leaving just eight teams to fight for the 2020 premiership after Carlton withdrew life support from the 138-year old Northern Blues.

Leader journalist Paul Amy says it’s not the first time the league has experienced significant issues.

“At the end of 1999 before the competition was revamped, the structure of the VFL was down to eight teams and struggling. The revamp in 2000 gave it another life,” he says.

AFL reserves sides were introduced to the league in 2000, but rumours persist the structure of the 2020 season could be the new normal as AFL clubs look to take greater control of their young talent, placing the future of the VFL in jeopardy.

“There’s a lot of speculation at the moment about an eastern seaboard AFL reserves competition plus some NEAFL clubs,” Amy says.

“If the VFL could prove themselves a worthy second tier of Victorian football, maybe linked in with the NAB League, then there would be TV support for it and general support from the football world.”

The football development system in Victoria is not linear unlike in South Australia or West Australia. For talented players under the age of 19 there is the NAB League, which is the main source of talent for the AFL.

Those who aren’t lucky enough to be drafted by an AFL club cannot continue to play for their NAB League club. Instead, they have to fend for themselves, weighing up lucrative local footy contracts against the opportunity to play for less in the VFL in the hope they may one day make it to the AFL.

Frankston Dolphins midfielder Nathan Scagliarini says he relied on the now-defunct VFL Development League reserves competition to bring his game up to the standard required after finding the jump from the NAB League to senior VFL football unexpectedly difficult.

“It’s not a smooth transition and you have to do a little apprenticeship before you start playing seniors. It’s a big jump. VFL is very physical whereas NAB League I’d describe it as bruise-free footy,” he says.

Amy says the decision to end the VFL Development League in 2017 to cut costs has been to the detriment of VFL clubs.

“The standard of development league football was terrific, and it was no surprise given most of the players came straight out of NAB League programs and were working towards senior stripes,” he says.

“When you’re in an alignment situation (like Sandringham, Box Hill, and Casey), and you’ve got no reserve team, there may be weeks when your players are only getting six or seven spots. These VFL teams are existing just to run half a dozen players – that’s not a footy club.

“Not only was it a good program but it gave clubs the feel of a genuine football club. I think a lot was lost from the prospective of VFL clubs.”

Players who don’t make the senior squads at VFL clubs are now forced to go back and play local football, and Scagliarini says the development of these players inevitably suffers

“A lot of talented players fall into the trap of doing the wrong things, they lose motivation and a sense of professionalism,” he says.

“The development league was awesome. It gave everyone an opportunity to play at a higher and more skilful level than local footy, which can be very brutal at times. It was a really good steppingstone for NAB League players to come out and build the foundations of a VFL footballer.”

South Australian football commentator Paul Bonsor says the one-club linear system in South Australia allows players to develop at their own rate, with ultra-talented youngsters able to play regular senior state league football, unlike in Victoria.

“The reserves competition in the SANFL has probably got the pick of the under 18 players in them,” he says.

“Your good under 18 players are playing against stronger bodies when they’re playing reserves. They’re playing against the players dropped or coming back from injury so they’re getting that experience against men.”

Amy says a proposal to merge NAB League and VFL clubs to create a system similar to South Australia could help keep talented players in the system for longer with the promise of further sustained development than local football can offer.

“VFL clubs have proposed hubs encompassing U17s, U19s and senior programs which saves costs in administration and submitted that to the AFL,” he says.

“These top picks in the SANFL and WAFL are thrust into senior footy over there, and it adds to their credentials when it comes to the draft.

“It’s all about opportunity. One thing VFL clubs can say is you’ll be well coached, you’ll work in good facilities and there’s the opportunity. It’s a good competition. VFL clubs can say you’ll be tested and for ambitious kids, that’s all they need.”

For Scagliarini, the VFL is where he wants to be to challenge himself and try to improve his skills.

“There is a lot more money being thrown around at local footy, but I just want to try and get the best out of myself and play at the highest level possible,” he says.

“Local footy is always going to be there but whilst I can play at a semi-professional level, I’ll take up the opportunity.”

Feature photo courtesy of Brad Hill on Flickr

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