Football clubs are more than just sporting organisations
All across Victoria, football clubs are the heart and soul of small towns. It’s where all of the locals meet every weekend and it’s a place that brings entire communities together to share a passion for sport, and their towns.
Players, volunteers, supporters, the parents of junior players, the committee members; they all work together to create something special within their respective clubs.
The stories of glory and winning flags are most often praised within regional footy, however, it is the hard work behind the scenes to keep clubs afloat that is most admirable, and undervalued.
Financial troubles, player exodus and damage to grounds are issues that could be enough to sink any club.
However, The Merbein Football Netball Club, Reservoir Football Club and Frankston Football Club, have illustrated the strength that is required to keep local football alive through such hardships.
Passion, commitment and perseverance – how three regional clubs fight from kicking behinds to kicking goals.
Merbein’s change rooms were damaged in a storm in 2016 - they’re still fighting to have them replaced.
November 11 2016, it’s 7.pm and the Merbein Football Netball club are hosting a fundraiser in their clubrooms at Kenny Park.
Whilst attendees and members are enjoying the function, an ominous storm rolls into the Sunraysia area. The guests gather by the clubroom’s windows to watch the freak storm hit the small town of Merbein.
What followed, no one expected.
The onlookers soon watched the storm, which would later be classified as a mini-tornado, tear the roof off the clubs 65-year old change rooms and onto the adjacent highway.
The park, which has been home to the club since the 1920’s and an iconic part of Merbein, had become a victim of the ferocious storm that sent shockwaves through the entire area.
This is where the Merbein Magpies’ troubles began.
* * *
Merbein FNC president, Toney Hurley, was initially shocked by the damage, but remained hopeful that the destruction might call for new change rooms to be built.
Built in 1955, the rooms had become out-dated and in need of upgrade, however, Hurley’s excitement soon diminished upon seeking assistance from the council.
“We went to the council [but] obviously they were busy and took several weeks to get out here, which was disappointing,” Hurley said.
“We didn’t know where to go or what direction to turn when the council seemed to be ignoring us.”
Hurley said the slow action taken by the council was worrying for the club.
“I can understand, it’s alright for me to think and worry about this little area here, but there was a hell of a lot of damage done in the storm.”
“I was getting a little bit too nervous because I knew there was a footy season at that time, 5 or 6 months away, and I thought, ‘what are they going to do in that time?’”
Eventually, the council contacted Hurley to set up a meeting and began putting plans in place for replacement change rooms.
“The things we had in place from the meeting that were to be done within a week took three or four weeks to happen, but in saying that, since they’ve been on board, they’ve been fairly good,” he said.
The journey to be ready for the 2017 season, however, continued to be full of obstacles.
Having to deal with the destruction of the change rooms, whilst waiting for the slow coming assistance, had resulted in a disappointing loss of revenue for the club.
“It has been financially a bit of an issue because we had to use our rooms as our change rooms for a couple of months and basically couldn’t hold any functions and fundraiser’s as we normally do in the summer,” Hurley said.
Hurley said they either had to decline people from holding functions or never received any of their usual calls due to a misunderstanding.
“I think a lot of people believed that the roof of the social rooms had blown off instead of the change rooms, so a lot of calls we used to get for functions, we never got,” he said.
Unless something was set up in time for the upcoming season, the club would have to forfeit hosting home games, which in the words of Hurley, would have a crippling affect on the club.
“It’s a battle I can tell you, it hasn’t been pleasant. I’ve been going on 4 or 5 months of hell now. There hasn’t been many nights that I haven’t actually been thinking about what’s going on,” he said.
When asked why he thinks assistance has been slow coming, Hurley suggested it could be a lack of understanding on the council’s behalf.
“One of my issues with the council, or one of my argument points was, is that they continue to look at an aerial map of Kenny Park and it’s just a little red dot, and I said that you’ve got to widen this, you’ve got to look a little bit wider – it’s a whole bloody town, it’s a community.”
“It’s not just a footy oval at Kenny Park, it’s a whole community it’s affecting. It’s the 15 to 1800 people that live here that love their football, it gives them something to talk about in the winter,” the president said.
The Merbein Magpies reached further than the local council, contacting AFL Victoria for help. However, after an initially positive conversation, AFL Victoria said they could not be of any assistance.
Hurley said the general lack of response has made the club feel neglected, particularly by the local council.
“It makes me think they’re not putting enough thought or time into little towns like Merbein. They don’t seem to care much about us, but I may just read it wrong,” he said.
“From the outside that’s how you see it, internally you just don’t know what goes on in there.”
“But they’re not aware of what we go through, I just wish there had been more football minded people I was dealing with.”
The Mildura Rural City Council finally agreed to install temporary change rooms at 12 metres long by 3 metres wide, significantly smaller than originally requested by the club.
“It’s not ideal, but it will get us through home games and it’s better than not having any’,” Hurley said.
With the rooms only installed to be ready for use one week before the first round of the season, Hurley said it was a close call.
“It’s interesting how it’s ended up, but we’ve got our rooms. Our permit only came through last week, so that’s how close we came to d-day.”
The club now waits to hear the fate of permanent change rooms, which Hurley says is not looking good.
“I’m dreading it, I’m thinking the rooms are just going to be patched up and not new ones.”
“I can’t believe it, the rooms are 65 years old so why are they going to try and patch them up? You’ve got the opportunity now to fix them, so why can’t they do it?” he said.
But despite the struggles the club has faced, Hurley remains confident in the strength of club and hopes for a successful season.
“It’s been a bit of a nightmare for us full stop on and off the field as they say, but we’ll get there,” he said.
“The club will be around for a while. It will definitely be around in my time I can assure you that. It can only get easier and better.”
* When contacted, the Mildura Rural City Council did not offer a comment.
Reservoir Football Club
Premiers in 2015 but no team in 2016 - How it all went wrong for the Mustangs?
2016 was meant to be a year of celebration for the Reservoir Football Club.
The Mustangs ended 2015 as the Northern Football League Division 3 premiers and were about to play in the second division for the first time since 2008.
All looked rosy for the Mustangs but the season didn’t turn out as planned.
Reservoir suffered a mass player exodus that prevented the club from fielding a team in 2016.
Over 2014 and 2015, Reservoir experienced a large number of player retirements and players leaving for opportunities at other clubs.
The Northern Football League requires clubs to have 50 players on their list at the beginning of the season, but during the 2016 pre season, the Mustangs had only 35 players.
“Our numbers weren’t great in pre season training and our numbers just dwindled,” said Reservoir president Steve Bower.
They (the players) had to find somewhere to play before it was too late so they all moved on and unfortunately we didn’t quite have the numbers”.
Steve Bower has a long history with the Reservoir Football Club.
Bower played junior football for the Mustangs between 1987 and 1988, but freely admits he was never good enough to make the transition to senior football.
Bower was elected vice-president to Peter Vining in 2016, but when Vining resigned from the position mid-way through the year, Bower was appointed the new president.
“No one else wanted the position and I wasn’t going to sit back and watch this club become extinct,” said Bower.
For Bower, the first step in getting the Mustangs back on track was to hire a coach.
Former Northern Football League player Daniel McFerran was hired to be the Reservoir coach in 2016, replacing outgoing premiership coach Ross Terranova.
It was to be McFerran’s first senior coaching position, but with no team for 2016, McFerran resigned from the position.
McFerran’s departure meant Bower and the Reservoir board had to search for a coach; a difficult task given the Mustangs had no playing list and was not guaranteed to feature in 2017.
Steve Bower admits the process of finding a new coach was daunting but was surprised by the amount of candidates who applied for the position.
“Surprisingly we got a lot of interest. (We) probably interviewed five or six that put their hand up, as well as a couple of internal ones that were willing to.”
After a thorough process, the Mustangs selected former Jacana mentor Aaron Collins as head coach.
Collins had plenty of clubs seeking his service, but the challenge of revitalising the Reservoir Football Club was a task he could not refuse.
“I was in two minds whether or not to coach again, but I thought it was a great challenge to see if we could get the club back up and going.”
“I spoke to my assistant and we both agreed it was a good idea to have a go and am rapt now that we took that challenge on and see it grow.”
With Collins secured as coach, the Mustangs set out to recruit players for the 2017 season.
The Mustangs had to recruit at least 50 players to fill their senior and reserves side.
The process was made slightly easier by 20 former player’s returning to the club, including premiership captain and club legend Ryan Docherty.
For Docherty, the Mustangs are more than a club.
Docherty watched his father captain the Mustangs to the 1984 premiership
“With my dad being here for over 30 years, I’ve grown up around the club.”
“Last year I played with North Heidelberg, which was a good eye opener but at the end of the day Reservoir is my home club and it’s where I want to be.”
Along with the 20-returning player, the Mustangs had to recruit over 30 players from other sides.
Some of the players to sign for the club are La Trobe University students, who originate from country Victoria, but want to play for a club close to their schooling.
The difficulty with a large amount of new players at the club trying to fit them all under the player points system.
The player points system was designed by AFL Victoria to assist in equalisation in competitions stop the inflationary nature of the player payments by discouraging the movement of players and promote player loyalty.
The total amount of points a team can have in Division 3 in the Northern Football League is 45.
“The points is more challenging then the salary cap because of all the new players, there points are worth more because they have played for different clubs,” said Steve Bower.
“Points will give us more of a headache, that’s for sure.”
After 574 days Reservoir played their first game when they hosted Banyule at Crispe Park.
The Mustangs failed to kick a goal in the first half and lost the game by 125 points.
The result may have not gone to plan but it did not overshadow the achievements of everyone involved with the Reservoir Football Club.
In less than a year Steve Bower has led the rebuild of the 94-year-old Mustangs and his efforts have given the club every opportunity for long term success.
Frankston Football Club
'Stand strong, stand tall ... Proud to stand alone'
After 137 years of existence, the Frankston Football Club will not field a side in 2017.
For the past 50 years the Dolphins have played in the Victorian Football League (formally the Victorian Football Association).
The Dolphins have refused the temptation to align themselves with an AFL club, preferring to stick to their motto; ‘Stand strong, stand tall … Proud to stand alone.’
“We offer young talented players 23 spots every week to get a game,” said Dolphins General Manager Gary Buckenara.
“We provide such an important opportunity for young talented players to play at the highest level.”
The Dolphins have struggled in recent years, going winless in 2015 and winning only 20 games in the past eight seasons.
But the Dolphins did not expect to have their VFL licence revoked.
On September 26, AFL Victoria announced they had terminated the clubs VFL licence for 2017.
Four weeks prior, the Frankston Football Club went into voluntary administration with debts that exceeded over $1 million.
They had just celebrated their milestone of a half century in the VFL at their new function centre.
The enormity of debt is due to the failure of the clubs 27 pokie machines.
Former general manager, Mark Angwin said the club was losing $1600 on the machines each week.
“(Pokie machines) aren’t the cash cows people think they are,” said Angwin.
Despite their current financial situation, the Dolphins have produced several AFL players.
Matthew Boyd, Sam Lloyd and Mark Baguley, are some of the players who began their careers at the Dolphins.
The financial issues at the club have had an impact on the on-field performance.
Since making the semi-final in 2008, Frankston have not experienced any on-field success.
In 2016, the Dolphins finished at the bottom of the ladder with only two wins for the season.
At their lowest of times late in 2016, former Hawthorn president Ian Dicker walked into a club crisis meeting unannounced.
Dicker, a resident of the neighbouring suburb Mount Eliza, was shocked to read of the clubs plight.
Dicker was president of Hawthorn in 1996 when there were plans for the Hawks to merge with the Melbourne Football Club, amid financial turmoil.
But with Dicker in charge, the Hawks refused the merger and set out to rebuild the club, which now in 2017, has over 72,000 members.
Dicker used his expertise in rebuilding Hawthorn to develop a structure to keep Frankston afloat.
The first big appointment was Gary Buckenara.
Buckenara was appointed General Manager, soon becoming a key figure in helping the club rebuild.
Buckenara is well known as a four-time premiership player for Hawthorn, dominating the field in the the 1980s and has had a prominent role in building the Hawks recent success as a player recruiter.
Buckenara brings crucial experience to the Dolphins, something the club desperately requires in their quest to return to the VFL.
Since his employment, Frankston’s membership tally has exceeded 600 members (as of May 19, 2017), a stark improvement from the 200 members in 2016.
The Dolphins aim to reach 1000 members by June 30.
“People really want to see the Frankston Football Club doing well,” said Buckenara.
“Our membership was around 100 people, we are now up to 600 people.”
“That has shown their is a level of support from people wanting to get involved.”
Although AFL Victoria has reduced the total debt to $410,000, Frankston are still on the long road to recovery.
The Dolphins have recently built a new community function centre, that will become a key financial asset for the years to come.
The Dolphins have held functions in their new facilities to help raise money.
Sydney coach John Longmire and AFL legend Leigh Matthews have appeared as guest speakers at the function centre.
The club will meet with AFL Victoria on June 30 to discuss a possible return to the VFL and are hopeful they will be lacing up their boots for the 2018 VFL season.
But Frankston are not focusing solely on 2018.
The Dolphins strive to become a club that unites Melbourne’s entire south-eastern community.
They hope to grow young talent and want their players to be proud of wearing the famous red, white and black.
Frankston don’t want to be easy beats anymore. Frankston want to win.
What are they doing to fix issues at local clubs?
Difficulties at local clubs can been unfortunate and unavoidable such as the storm at Merbein. Player exodus at clubs like Reservoir can also make a huge impact on club sustainability, whilst competing against AFL aligned clubs in the VFL as a stand alone team will always provide challenges for clubs like Frankston.
However, AFL Victoria is trying its best to ensure community club sustainability in local football for both the short and long term.
Stopping clubs from deteriorating through poor off-field management and financial decisions is a major concern for AFL Victoria.
For the 2016 season, a player points system policy was introduced for all community football leagues across Victoria and following this, a salary cap was implemented for the 2017 season.
All local clubs must ensure their total player payments per year does not exceed the salary cap and that their senior team does not have more than the maximum amount of player points allowed each week.
AFL Victoria’s Club Community Sustainability Manager Darryl Collings says one of the reasons these two systems were introduced throughout Victoria is to stop clubs from spending money to recruit players which resulted in them becoming financially unstable in the future.
“Clubs were actually paying over and above what they could afford,” Collings said.
Overpaying players when they cannot afford them can cause clubs to find themselves in piles of debt. When the club can no longer keep these players, their results will likely become poor on-field as well as off-field.
Reducing player payments will help clubs become more profitable by reducing their expenses, allowing them to spend money on other areas that will benefit the club overall.
The player points system aims to prevent players moving from club to club, resulting in clubs struggling to retain players and keep a sustainable playing list.
It also aims to entice clubs to develop and keep their ‘home players’.
AFL Victoria were mindful of clubs having to adjust accordingly to these changes so it was important that the points system was introduced one year prior to the salary cap.
“The burden of setting these things up does take time and a fair bit of effort,” Collings highlighted.
“Volunteers in particular have to run their footy club and keep doing that so we thought a staged approach to address points in the first year and salary cap beyond that (was the best approach).”
Both of these systems are long term processes that are not a quick fix for local football. AFL Victoria estimates it will take approximately five years to take full effect.
This is once again for the benefit of the clubs, especially those who will be affected by the policies and had already made recruiting decisions two or three years ago.
It will also allow clubs like Reservoir who have struggled for numbers to be able to recruit enough players, making the club sustainable.
The player points system then creates an incentive to retain these players as they will be worth one less point each year they stay with the club.
This creates the best opportunity for struggling clubs to get back on their feet benefiting not just their club, but their entire community.
A La Trobe University study shows that for every dollar invested in local football reflects approximately a four dollar value for the community. This amplifies the importance of local football on a broader scale for the community and it is not lost on AFL Victoria.
Every decision made by AFL Victoria in relation to these policies is first and foremost for the benefit of local football and their communities.
“The key focus is having more clubs as population grows in certain areas of the state and allowing them to operate within the framework we have in place so they can continue to be sustainable,” Collings said.
“It is important that we continue to support local footy. They provide great benefit to the local community.”