MOST football followers in Bendigo have an opinion on the Bendigo Gold and their move to go stand-alone in the VFL next year.
Considering the struggles of the former stand-alone Bendigo Diggers during their five years in the VFL between 1998 and 2002 when they won just seven of 95 games, the most common perception seems to be it’s inevitable that after failing once, the stand-alone model will again be unsustainable long-term.
Damian Drum has previously been at the coal face of a stand-alone VFL team in Bendigo as coach of the Diggers in their final year in 2002 before they were thrown a lifeline in 2003 by aligning with AFL club Essendon.
Drum has long been a supporter of VFL football in Bendigo.
Firstly, through his year as Diggers’ coach in 2002, and secondly, throughout his reign as Bendigo Football League chairman from 2005 to 2010.
He wants to see the Bendigo Gold prosper from next year and beyond, but drawing on his experience at the Diggers, he has no doubt that the club’s viability hinges on finance, and believes strong support from the governing body of the VFL competition, AFL Victoria, is crucial.
Drum believes AFL Victoria needs to support the Bendigo Gold similar to the way the AFL has in establishing new clubs Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney.
Otherwise, Drum says it’s going to be too hard for the Gold to survive long-term.
“I think without exterior finances then there’s the probability that it will really struggle or fall over in three or four years,” Drum said yesterday.
“It’s a bit like the AFL making huge mistakes in setting up Sydney and the Brisbane Bears in the ’80s and they have acknowledged those mistakes.
“Therefore, when it came time to put a team up on the Gold Coast again they put $100 million into it, which includes money to set-up alternative fundraising ventures.
“It has to get to the stage where Bendigo gets away from an environment of want, where they don’t have things such as their own social facilities. It’s an environment that their other competitors don’t live in.
“You can only ask the people of Bendigo for so much, and the Bendigo Bank again needs to be congratulated for coming to the party in a major way.
“It’s to their credit that many of our sporting institutions are still viable, but you just can’t keep relying on the Bendigo Bank.
“So I think AFL Victoria needs to look at it, bite the bullet and do whatever it can to support Bendigo.”
The Gold’s preparations for next season kicked up a gear earlier this month when former St Kilda player Austinn Jones was appointed coach for the next two years.
Like he faced in 2002, Drum believes one of Jones’ biggest challenges will be attracting players to Bendigo.
Drum was the highest-profile coach in the VFL in 2002, having just come off a 53-game stint leading the Fremantle Dockers in the AFL and he had a strong network of contacts around country Victoria.
But he found it a constant battle during the pre-season of 2002 to convince players to come to Bendigo.
His cause wasn’t helped by the fact Bendigo had failed to win a game in 2001.
At least this time for Jones it’s a fresh start at the Gold and Bendigo’s VFL team in recent years has proven a pathway into the AFL, with 10 players drafted since 2003 from what was formerly the Bendigo Bombers.
“I would suggest I had a reasonably strong regional football network, having grown up in country Victoria,” Drum said.
“I knew good football people in every part of Victoria, and had spent time in the AFL system, but to entice people to move to Bendigo, be it from Wodonga, Melbourne, Shepparton or wherever, was very difficult.
“We even had trouble enticing Shepparton-based students at La Trobe University to play for us, so that’s how significant the challenge was for us that season.
“The pull back for a player to their home club was significant... it’s a similar reason as to why players leave the Bendigo Football League and drive out to those smaller clubs in the bush, because they can afford to play top dollars for BFL players.
“At the same time, major leagues can afford to play top dollars for one or two VFL-quality players.
“We probably had a smattering of players like Nick Carter and Mark Brown, who were genuine VFL players, but in regional areas those types of players are hard to find.”
While Drum faced a recruiting challenge, he believes the stand-alone model that provides the opportunity for players to play every game, rather than the week to week uncertainty that comes with playing for an aligned club, could be a lure next year to players who still hold AFL ambitions.
“There are a whole range of talented players throughout Victoria who are probably contemplating their football dream and looking at the chance of being on the statewide stage of the VFL every week,” Drum said.
“A player will compare playing with, say, Williamstown, where they have to make way for AFL players each week, versus a Port Melbourne, which is stand-alone.
“Or regionally, they’ll look at North Ballarat, which has to make way for AFL players each week, and Bendigo, which will be stand-alone.
“The opportunity to get a game every week is going to be greater at a club like Bendigo, but the over-riding thing comes back to sheer dollars.
“The VFL continues to evolve into a high-class competition, where in recent years we have seen clubs won’t even play on your oval if it’s deemed to be slightly inferior to an AFL surface.”