The AFL and its predecessor, the VFL, have always been a rich source of exasperating characters. It would rival politics or a Fox News station.
The so-called Victorian Football League is heading boldly into 2021 with a 22-team competition that will cover three states.
However, while some are celebrating the return of AFL reserves footy, there are others with axes to grind from far and wide.
One of the first victims of the COVID-19 restrictions was the VFL, which along with the NAB League, was cancelled in 2020.
AFL clubs from Victoria were forced into hubs and their depth players had only limited practice to prepare for scratch matches that didn’t even have recorded scores.
Meanwhile, VFL clubs were plunged into lockdown, AFL affiliation or not, having to bear the losses like any other business amid the uncertainty. One such club, Northern Bullants, were dropped from their partnership with AFL club Carlton.
But in a sign of the times, climbing out of the wreckage of the failed Northern Blues venture is the Northern Bullants, whose submission for acceptance into the new VFL was accepted, along with erstwhile VFA powerhouses and now non-AFL aligned clubs Frankston Dolphins, Port Melbourne, Werribee Tigers and Williamstown Seagulls.
Casey Demons, Box Hill Hawks and Sandringham Zebras, who were also longtime fixtures of the VFA, have maintained their affiliations with Melbourne, Hawthorn and St Kilda, respectively, while Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, the Western Bulldogs, Geelong, North Melbourne and Richmond will field reserves teams of their own.
North of the border, the NEAFL competition was abandoned and out of five non-AFL affiliated clubs, only two – Southport Sharks and Aspley Hornets – were able to meet the criteria for the east coast second tier competition, leaving Canberra Demons, Redland Bombers and Sydney University to rejoin lesser competitions, with NT Thunder having dropped out of the NEAFL in 2019.
Perhaps the biggest victim in all of this has been Tasmania, who were due to have their own VFL team introduced in 2021, but have been left high and dry, with premier Peter Gutwein and Gillon McLachlan in a stand off over a new timeline for AFL expansion into the state.
And yet the Northern Territory, which is currently in the grips of NTFL grand final week, is another big loser, with no second tier entity to retain talented players, while all the best talent is still poached out of their system by AFL clubs with no compensation.
The WAFL and SANFL meanwhile have two AFL clubs each and remain very strong competitions in their own right, with the reserves players of the AFL lists playing alongside semi-professional players and the elite junior talent that rises to senior level every year.
However, the nationalisation of the competition means that the independent clubs of these competitions remain constantly at the mercy of AFL clubs picking off players during the three draft periods. The new VFL poses more of a threat than in previous years when WAFL and SANFL clubs could entice delisted AFL players to return to their home state, whereas now those same players are seeking east coast opportunities.
What’s in a name?
The naming of the new competition has been controversial too, with many predicting NEVFL (North Eastern and Victorian Football League) or just the East Coast Football League, yet the VFL is simple and appropriate in so many ways.
Since merging with AFL Victoria in 1994, the VFA’s remaining teams have survived and flourished, despite a fairly bloody transition that saw clubs returning to suburban footy. The junior clubs that now form the NAB League were affiliated and the second tier competition was ultimately able to merge with the AFL reserves in 2000.
Despite six teams coming from outside Victoria, only two are actually new to the VFL, with both Queensland teams – Aspley Hornets and Southport Sharks – coming from QAFL and NEAFL backgrounds (both NEAFL premiers), unlike the four northern AFL clubs.
The Sydney Swans have a long and storied history with the VFL, while the Fitzroy half of the Lions shares that same history, with both clubs being integral to the competition’s rise to a national entity. Both the Gold Coast Suns and Greater Western Sydney Giants also played for the VFL in the year preceding each club’s inaugural AFL season, so with 20 out of 22 clubs with some tie to the brand, it really isn’t unsuitable.
The mystery fixture
What remains to be seen is how this unwieldy competition ultimately fixtures 19 rounds and three byes, with only the first two rounds revealed so far and no sign so far of competition parity, not to mention why the AFL believes that merging two competitions together will be cheaper when they’ve just quadrupled the distance necessary to travel for all teams to compete.
In what is an all-round Melbourne-centric competition, regions have missed out. Where is the plan for teams to play out of the ACT, NT and Tasmania? Why has the most populous state only got two teams? When will Queensland develop a league with teams from its regions that supports the growing number of juniors coming out of nurseries in Mackay, Townsville and Cairns?
Perhaps at the end of the day, as it did with the VFA, it is all a matter of broadcasting rights. If the AFL is unable to fund appropriate second tier competitions in the eastern states while receiving half a billion dollars a year for broadcasting and then turns around and says that scratch matches can’t be televised due to clashes with Foxtel’s AFLW coverage, what does that tell you about VFL coverage and the competition’s ability to generate income?
We could be back to this point in a matter of days, weeks or months as it appears that the AFL is making things up on the spot with regards to the VFL fixture and its future.