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The northern academies, designed to attract and nurture young players from the non-football states, have garnered much controversy since their introduction several years ago – mostly centred around the quality of the players being produced, and their draft value.
The AFL’s website states that the academies “are aimed at increasing the opportunities for young people in NSW and Queensland to learn about and play the game of Australian rules football.
“The four northern AFL clubs are incentivised through draft concessions for their role in growing the Australian Rules talent pool in NSW and Queensland, and ultimately strengthening the state and community leagues in those states.”
In that regard, the initiative has been a remarkable success.
Sydney youngsters Callum Mills and Isaac Heeney are the two most successful products of the system, but Brisbane, Gold Coast, and Greater Western Sydney have also reaped the benefits.
The academies are an important part of our game, as the continued focus on attracting and developing young players who would otherwise have likely turned to different sports expands reach and popularity.
However, the itinerant nature of football coaching – where former players often move interstate for their chance to join the coaching ranks – has thrown up another permutation to the mix: young players who are eligible to be drafted under both the father-son rule, and the academy system.
Two players in particular fit this year – Nick Blakey, son of former North Melbourne and Brisbane player John, who is eligible to join both clubs under the father-son rule, but is also eligible for Sydney’s academy, given he has lived there for the past 12 years, and John is on the coaching panel.
Likewise, Bailey Scott, son of former Geelong and North Melbourne player Robert, is eligible to join those two clubs as well as the Gold Coast as an academy selection, having lived there since he was nine.
This raises questions over the purpose of the academies, the sanctity of the father-son rule, and the AFL’s intentions in this space.
Blakey and Scott are representative of a wider issue – they are players who, due to their fathers’ careers, have been around football since a young age, and would have almost undoubtedly been playing it regardless of whether they had moved interstate or not. The fact that they are now eligible for Sydney and Gold Coast goes against the academies’ founding principle of growing the talent pool in non-traditional states – it has not grown the talent pool, merely found itself the beneficiary of two, young, Victorian footballers.
Yes, the Suns and Swans have played an important part in developing the pair (Blakey is widely viewed as a top-five selection, while Scott looks a likely mid-range prospect; both are members of the AFL Academy squad), but this would likely have been the case had they been playing in the TAC Cup for their local clubs.
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Having grown up in their respective zones, they obviously have an affinity with those cities and clubs, but I’m sure there is also a connection with the clubs for which their fathers played.
The father-son rule has long been a way for clubs – based on their own good fortune – to acquire talented players at discounted rates, while preserving club connections, something valued by fans. It’s one of the unique and treasured tenets – or quirks, if you like – of our game.
Clubs should be comfortable in the knowledge that traditional connections will continue under the system, and have likely been planning for several years for these players to join their club in the future. The fact that this system can be over-ridden by the academies seems to go against the AFL’s oft-stated tenet that the father-son system is an intrinsic part of our game.
Blakey and Scott are the first players to be faced with this scenario, but will most likely not be the last, which is why this issue needs to be addressed now – to provide certainty for both the academy and father-son clubs.
Perhaps one solution could be that where players are eligible to be drafted to a club under the father-son rule, they are then not eligible for the academy system.
However, if the current situation is more in line with its views, then it needs to clarify or possibly change its definition of the purpose of club academies.
Blakey has already made his choice of club, nominating the Swans last week, and it’s likely that Scott will nominate Gold Coast. I don’t begrudge either their choices – they are merely doing what the system allows.
However, the way the system currently operates lacks clarity, and calls into question the value of something we have always held dear.