'We just want to play footy'

A GROUP of 16 boys look like missing the first bounce of the footy season, because they don't have a league to play in.

Their parents and football club are asking AFL Central Victoria to stop putting politics before people and let them play in an age-appropriate U16 division.

The only options for the boys to play this season are to join the U17 competition in the Loddon Valley Football Netball League, or split up and play for separate teams already registered in the U16 division in the Bendigo Junior Football League competition who are short of players.

All except one have said they would not like to play in the U17 competition season if that was forced on them, and would stop playing football.

Loddon Valley United Junior Football Club president Adam Bish said the club had gone to great lengths to keep the team together and give the boys the opportunity to continue playing sport.

“As a club, we listened to our players and the player’s parents on what they wanted, which is to play age-appropriate football,’’ he said.

“The drive for the new club was to be able to offer country kids in the Loddon Valley area an opportunity to play football with their mates in age-appropriate teams.

“Some of the kids are still scared in U14s, let alone U17s.

“Some kids came to us and couldn’t even kick a footy – so to keep them together is really important to us. It’s a culture out here.

“I don’t know why junior footy is this hard – these boys, they’re just kids … they just want to play a game of footy.

“If we don’t have kids, we won’t have football.’’

The Calivil United Junior Football Club sent a proposal to the Loddon Valley Football Netball League in July last year, proposing to create a new junior club to play in the Bendigo Junior Footbal League in the U12, U14 and U16 divisions.

Applications to form the Loddon Valley United Junior Football Club were approved in December by the BJFL and Victorian Country Football League.

But in February this year, the BJFL and AFL Central Victoria did not allow the club to field an U16 team in the BJFL for the 2014 season.

They were told:

* The Loddon Valley U’17’s competition was under threat in its current format. The Commission does not want to endanger the health and vitality of the league by introducing an U16 team in a region that is particularly struggling. This relates to club sustainability and participation elements of the Commission’s Strategic Plan.     An U16 team is contrary to the current structure of the LVFNL. Whilst that structure is under review it is the current system and the framework on which a decision must be based.

* It is advisable for all junior clubs to provide a feeder network to Senior club (s). This involves building relationships with clubs to help build sustainable pathways. Despite the efforts of the LVJFC this has unfortunately not occurred. The club in it’s current format does not provide a pathway as we do not have parties working together. It is recommended that work is put in to this over the course of 2014.

* The Commission understands the concerns of parents in terms of age appropriateness and moving from U14 to U17 teams. It was felt that this reason in itself was not strong enough to override the danger to the overall LVFNL U17 structure.

The club then approached Maiden Gully Junior Football Club to form an affiliation, and to ensure the players from the LVUJFC remained together.

“They seemed to be a good fit to what we were trying to achieve,’’ Mr Bish said.

“As it turned out they were struggling to find enough U14 players and our numbers have now filled the U14 team.

“Our U12 players have also fitted into the U12 MGJFC team and we even have one boy playing for their U10 team.

“Because we already had enough players to register an U16 team MGJFC were very excited to take on the U16 boys and submit the first MGJFC U16 team to the BJFL.

“This was a momentous occasion and given the growth area of Maiden Gully it was a perfect time for the club to continue to build on their already successful junior club. ‘’

But in March, the Maiden Gully U16 submission was also denied entry to the BJFL competition.

The reasons given by the BJFL were:

* Sustainability of the current BJFL U16 competition: At present, based on current team nominations, the BJFL has many teams within our existing club base that have vacancies within their U16 teams. We can appreciate the influx of players from the Loddon Valley has presented Maiden Gully with a unique opportunity however the league is responsible for supporting all its clubs, teams and members. The league can confirm there is ample vacancies in our existing competition to accommodate all of the Loddon Valley players within its current structure. It should also be noted that in most instances these vacancies are within a geographically suitable areas for the players concerned.

* Further, although you have indicated that you are not “pillaging” from other teams, several of our existing U16 teams are not only reliant on maintaining all of their current numbers but are actively recruiting to ensure they have enough numbers to field a team. In some instance the movement of even a minimal amount of players will in fact see the club unable to enter the team and a large amount of players be forced to find a new club at last minute or potentially not play at all.

* The League in partnership with AFL Central Victoria will actively work with the Loddon Valley players to assist them finding clubs within our existing competitions should they prefer to join the BJFL.  

* Consideration of other leagues: The BJFL is also concerned about the detrimental effect the movement of the Loddon Valley players may have on that league and confirm there is options for the Loddon Valley Players to be accommodated within their existing league in the U17 competition.

In October last year, the AFL Central Victoria Commission held a forum on the future of junior football in the region.

In a letter to clubs, it stated that research found that in the 12 months prior,  56 per cent of players from BJFL U’16s did not play football the following year and  56 per cent of players from the LVFNL U17’s were not playing football.

In contrast, the Heathcote league U17’s recorded only a 10 per cent drop off, despite a 46 per cent drop off of players playing in their own league.

“It is clear that there is delineation between clubs located closer into Bendigo and the ones further out,’’ the letter stated.

“Both LVFNL and HDFL clubs that are closer to Bendigo are losing players after U14 level as parents would prefer their children to move to U16 level rather than U17 level.

“A move to U16 and U18s is a clear preference for them.  Clubs that are further out do not have the numbers to sustain U16s and U18s.

“What is abundantly clear is that there is not one clear solution that will benefit the majority of clubs. ‘’

The AFL Commission reviewed the findings and those from across the state and found it was “premature to change the age grouping until we see the results of the practical action being taken and until we understand better the reasons for the boys dropping off”.

Maiden Gully U16 coach Tim Hawken said he was angry and disappointed because the club “didn’t just do this for the sake of it’’.

“There was a need, we were going to lose all these kids who weren’t going to play,’’ he said.

“These kids have all played footy since they were 10 – they’re being robbed of the opportunity to play.

“This has affected the kids and parents, they’re upset … it doesn’t make sense, other clubs are allowed to play an U16 team.

Mr Hawken said the boys were playing a practice match today, and were “jumping out of their skin’’

“These 16 kids don’t want to be broken up, but they don’t have anywhere to play.

“We see their faces week after week asking ‘are we going to play’.

Mr Hawken has two sons in the team and said if they were to split up and play for separate teams in the BJFL, it would make life difficult for his family.

“And what if one child has a spot and his brother can’t play altogether?”

Mr Hawken said he had the opportunity to coach other teams, but the boys had stuck together so he was “there for the kids and in their corner all the way’’. Maiden Gully Junior Football Club president Jason Lee said “the kids are in an awkward position’’ while the club appeals the decision.

That decision may not be made until April 9, and the beginning of the playing season. BJFL president Scott McLeod and AFL Central Victoria regional general manager Paul Hamilton were unable to comment during the appeal stage.

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