By Jarrod McAleese
Rumours were confirmed in late July when the AFL Victoria Board officially ratified the recommendation to cease the Victorian Football League Development League following the conclusion of the 2017 season.
Having evolved from the formerly established Victorian Football Association, the VFL has run a reserves competition since the 1920s, which has been officially referred to as the VFL Development League since 2012.
The closure of the VFL Development League has sparked great controversy among football followers in Victoria.
In a statement released by AFL Victoria, a number of factors were cited when the call was made to discontinue the VFL Development League.
“Clubs have varying views regarding the Development League. These views, along with a variety of other factors including cost pressures on clubs, scheduling difficulties, pressure on staff and volunteers given the scheduling difficulties, player recruitment, relationships with community clubs and leagues and how to best ensure the senior team can be competitive, are all considerations.”
A glaring vacancy
While these are valid concerns, there is no doubt that the loss of the VFL Development League leaves a massive gap in the pathway between junior, senior and elite football.
Presently, junior footballers in Victoria aim to reach the TAC Cup – the premier underage competition in the state with the aim of impressing AFL clubs in order to get drafted.
Inevitably, not all elite youngsters progress to the AFL however going unselected at the national draft as an 18 year old is far from the end of one’s dreams of reaching the big time.
Some players are not drafted from junior footy due to injury, others may have decided to focus on study over sport while there are also the late bloomers who simply take longer to develop and may not have caught the eye immediately.
For players that fall into this category in Victoria, the VFL is the perfect platform to chase a potential spot in the AFL.
The VFL is arguably the strongest semi-professional football league in the country and as such younger players may find it hard to crack into senior VFL teams right away, particularly if a club is affiliated with an AFL side, which sends its squad players to play in the VFL to keep match fit.
This is where the Development League is so crucial.
It provides a pathway for developing footballers who have the talent to reach the top to refine their skills before progressing to senior VFL football and eventually, if they were good enough, AFL football.
The Development League has produced numerous AFL players in recent years, such as Dale Morris, Cam Pedersen, Taylor Duryea, Liam Picken and Sam Gibson.
In the cases of Morris (one AFL premiership) and Duryea (two AFL premierships), footballers who were given the opportunity to grow as players in the Development League were able to go on and reach the pinnacle of AFL footballer.
To remove this pathway is a serious blow to young footballers all over Victoria, who will now be forced to play amateur football at local clubs if not deemed ready to play senior VFL football.
Taking the next step
Casey Demons midfielder Ben Giobbi played in this season’s 2017 VFL Development League premiership side.
A product of the Narre North Foxes Junior Football Club, Giobbi relished his chance at Casey after moving through the local football ranks having been in the TAC Cup system with the Dandenong Stingrays.
Clearly a talented young player, Giobbi battled past injury to excel in local football before making the step up to VFL.
“I played at the Stingrays through 18s, after that I had surgery on my hip so I didn’t play when I was 19,”
“Then I played at Narre for a year in the seniors and played the whole year there. I thought I had a pretty good season so I went to Noble Park in the Eastern league which is probably one of the best leagues in Victoria outside of the VFL,”
“I had another really good year there, made team of the year and played state so I thought I better give it a crack in the VFL.”
Giobbi had faith in his ability but needed a stepping stone before he was ready to play senior VFL football and credited the Development League for providing him with a football apprenticeship.
“I thought I’d be good enough to play in the VFL so I went down there and I had the skills and the ability to be able to play in the seniors,”
“I thought the Development League really helped me get that education for the first half of the year and I ended up playing the last half and the finals in the seniors until we got knocked out.”
As Casey are an AFL affiliiate, Giobbi was fortunate enough to work with Melbourne’s AFL listed players and staff who were playing and coaching down in the VFL and as such was exposed to elite footballers and game-day personnel.
“Everything is straight from AFL, you do everything exactly the same. All the training, all the coaching, everything’s AFL standard.”
Where to next?
After a successful first year in which Giobbi cracked the VFL seniors, he said he will remain a Demon for season 2018, but the removal of the Development League means he will have to fight tooth and nail for a regular VFL berth.
“I played 8 games and a couple of finals so I’ll definitely stay at Casey but it’s definitely going to be difficult if Melbourne have a healthy list and I’m not getting a game and I’m playing local footy wherever that may be … to sustain the quality of footy to try and crack back in.”
Giobbi’s dilemma will be akin to that of many other gifted young footballers as a result of the closure of the Development League.
With VFL Senior Lists expected to be whittled down from around 50 players to 25, competition for places will ramp up furiously.
And while local clubs will be bolstered by the returns of some of their homegrown products, Giobbi said the gulf in class between suburban and VFL football will be too big for many youngsters to combat without the Development League bridge.
“It’ll strengthen local footy but it’s going to be really hard for players leaving local footy to go to a VFL club and try and play the best footy they can.”
Ultimately AFL Victoria has identified that the Development League was unsustainable.
The foundation of the VFL as a whole is currently shaky as the structure of the competition as well as the clubs entered in it remain undefined for the long term.
But one most wonder whether the VFL did enough to save the Development League.
Though financial and logistical issues were present, offering hope to young footballers is priceless and the abolishment of the Development League is a detriment to those who dare to dream of a hard earned AFL career.
Giobbi’s story is as yet unfinished, but cases like his may become few and far between in the years ahead without the Development League.