North Melbourne’s controversial decision to axe club stars Brent Harvey, Drew Petrie, Nick Dal Santo and Michael Firrito, as well as the loss of star midfielder Daniel Wells to Collingwood via free agency, robbed it of 1588 games of experience.
The message out of the club, both from within the playing group and coaching staff, as well as the board, was clear: the club was in full rebuild.
Fast-forward one season, and North Melbourne finished 15th in season 2017, with 6 wins and 16 losses. Although had they lost to the Brisbane Lions in Round 23, they would’ve finished bottom of the ladder, six wins and three extremely narrow defeats represented a very respectable season for such a young side.
Most of the list building action, however, came off the field. North were very serious – and public – players for the two major stars of free agency last season: Dustin Martin and Josh Kelly, as well as others.
Given the club missed out on every single young or star talent it chased, North’s strategy has turned away from ‘accelerated rebuilding’ and onto the draft instead.
While this looks a good idea on paper – topping up talent from the bottom end – the problem is on North’s list. For so long, North have been a side of mostly B-grade footballers – good, but not great. Jack Ziebell is an example, a player who is highly valued at North, but not in the elite category of midfielders.
This means North’s rebuild will be longer than most clubs, for two reasons. One, a failure to attract any talent will keep the club lower down the ladder for longer, but also, the club has enough talent on its list to stop it from finishing last. Six wins and some close losses in what will arguably be their worst season of the rebuild is testament to that.
Herein lies the problem, however: North’s strategy of going to the draft arguably requires it to finish in the bottom two or three for several seasons.
There are two reasons for this: generally, there is a gap between the best two three players and the rest in drafts, as evidenced by this current draft class – Paddy Dow, Cameron Rayner and Luke Davies-Unakie are the standout three, and North will miss out on them with pick 4 – but also because finishing in the bottom two or three gives North access to two top 20 picks, and at the very least a stronger hand to trade up from.
The consequences of this are dire in the long term: a lack of star power means North will not rebuild to a premiership level team, and the cycle will begin again.
An example of a club successfully using the draft as a strategy is Carlton, who have looked to acquire as many top 20 picks as possible in the past few years. They’ve been bold, trading stars such as Bryce Gibbs – great players who are fan favourites but ultimately aren’t going to be lining up for them in a Grand Final four or five seasons from now.
North Melbourne, with their absence of A-graders but solid quantity of B-grade footballers, do not have the required currency to trade and increase their draft hand, which will mean that, unless the club gets an unusual return on mid-to-late picks (for example, Adelaide and Sydney), the club will struggle to cobble together talent good enough to build a premiership team out of.
Teams like the Brisbane Lions, who had three or four top 25 picks for each of the last three drafts (including 2017’s), Gold Coast, who have two first rounders next year and had four last year, and Fremantle, who have two top five picks, had two first rounds last year, are trading talent to stockpile early draft picks.
This gives these clubs a decade-long core of seven to ten players to build an era around – all similar in age, but specifically drafted from the same three-year drafting strategy.
Because of it’s absence of A-grade talent, North does not have access to a hand which can land them draft picks to accelerate their rebuild. And yet, their B-grade-heavy list means they will struggle to finish low enough to have access to enough high draft picks to build a list around.
North Melbourne, so often battlers in the VFL/AFL, are in a paradox. Spending their spare salary cap on one or two elite talents will lift them up in the short term – but depth of elite talent is needed to challenge for a premiership. Conversely, the club will struggle to finish low enough to attract elite level picks.
The clubs list strategy needs a re-think, and fast, or North Melbourne, success-starved in recent times, will continue to middle-out in the depths of mediocrity in the AFL.
And then there were 20… after some controversial picks yesterday, here’s the second part of Finn Devlin’s ‘REAL’ Top 30 AFL Players, free of the disease he calls ‘Victorian bias’… the final act will be posted tomorrow!
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.
Devastating to see @VFL Development League scrapped! Where do our talented kids go who don't get drafted? The journey has no destination
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.
Mark Grant had a simple message, a benchmark that he repeated throughout the season. It was a reference point for his coaching.
“Play like the Carlton half-back line.”
And yet when Grant told his team this, it wasn’t Brendan Bolton’s team he was referring to. It was the Carlton women’s side.
28 members of the first-ever University High-Victoria University Women’s Football Club (UHSVU), coached by Grant, attended the inaugural AFLW match, watching on among 24,568 who squeezed through the claustrophobic turnstiles at the iconic Ikon Park.
They watched as four goals from Darcy Vesico and that display through half back powered Carlton to a 35-point win over the old enemy, Collingwood.
“We didn’t come as a playing group, and we didn’t even all stand together that night,” Grant says, “But I think it shows the pull of the competition to get that interest rolling in from the local community when the competition was just starting.”
The fact that the AFLW can be described as having ‘pull’ was unfathomable, for even five years ago, an AFL Women’s competition seemed an unthinkable concept.
For so long, women had taken a back seat in the game. It took until this year for the first female CEO, Tracy Gaudry – the now-former Chief Executive of Hawthorn – to be appointed to an AFL club. She lasted just five months. Richmond’s Peggy O’Neill remains the only female chairperson of an AFL club.
Yet now, as people look back on it, there is a general astonishment that no one saw the potential market for women’s football sooner. For a long time, women have made up an extremely large, and ever increasing, minority of AFL supporters. They were an influential supporter group as well.
As one AFL insider recently explained, “For any major change to the competition being mooted, the AFL will almost always reach out to mother’s groups to canvass their opinion, because ultimately the game won’t grow if mothers don’t let their children play and attend the footy.”
While the idea of UHSVU having a women’s side had been floated around for a number of months, the first session, aptly named a “come and try” session, was intended to gauge the level of interest around the side.
15 players came that night, and the club was inundated with expressions of interest. Incredibly, like so many teams in the suburban leagues experimenting with women’s football, UHSVU had to impose cap the playing side, at an astonishing 35. Such was the momentum, the club hopes to field two teams in 2018.
“There weren’t really many differences between coaching boys and girls,” says Grant, who coached a male U18’s team a number of years ago. “The biggest challenge was that 31 (of 35) girls had never played football before.
“I think the biggest difference gender wise that I observed is that the girls wanted to talk things through a lot more, and understand why you were making a particular decision, or teaching a particular skill, on a deeper level.
As to how Grant approached coaching a team of players who were in the paradox of having watched football for a long time, but mostly never played, his idea was to keep it simple. “We mainly focused on building basic techniques: kicking and tackling, and then handballing later on.”
While coaches can only teach so much, having an end goal, in the form of an elite level women’s competition, was just as important in feeding the local competition, as the local competition was in feeding the AFLW with talent.
The two levels of competition have a bond that is extremely unique. They need each other to get stronger, in order to get stronger themselves.
AFLW’s first season was always going to be a challenge. It would invariably be compared to the men’s game – the biggest sport in Australia – in every facet: skill level, crowd numbers, finances and interest.
Yet its biggest strengths are its differences from the men’s game. Chief among that is its links to the grassroots of footy. “A number of girls actually had friends on the field (in the AFLW’s initial season). There are so many links to the community,” says Grant.
Inspiration at your doorstep
It’s a sentiment echoed by Maddie Sheedy, a first-year player just across the road at University Blues, one the biggest amateur men’s clubs, and a pioneer in having a women’s football organisation of some scale.
“We have 18 AFLW representatives from last season playing at our club. While most of us never got to play with them, because they were at VFL level and we were at local level, it was an amazing experience to come to training and go ‘look: there’s (Collingwood forward) Mo Hope, there’s (Brisbane star) Kaitlyn Ashmore, there’s all these other stars.”
Unlike UHSVU, The University Blues have a comparatively large women’s history, and are etched in VAFA folklore – they are AFL CEO’s Gillon McLachlan’s team, and at one stage last century stage had a VFL team.
Their locality to inner Melbourne and access to the third-largest university in the state has meant the club has never been short on access to high-level amateur talent.
However, Sheedy says it wasn’t the prestige of the club that saw a sharp rise in women’s participation, but the introduction of an elite level competition.
“The AFLW’s publicity brought along people who may have thought they wouldn’t or couldn’t play footy. I think last year (University Blues) had about 100 people on their list. This year, with the AFLW coming in, it’s well over 200.”
“It also gave the girls who’s parents may have gone ‘that’s not for my daughter’ that opportunity, because the parents would say ‘oh, well, if the girls on TV can do it, my daughter can.”
Sheedy also says playing footy has opened up a new perspective on being involved in a team.
“The social aspect is huge. I’ve never been involved in a sport with such a special environment before. I did my tennis, netball and rowing throughout the years, but I’ve never had to understand where everyone fits in, their strengths and their weaknesses on this level. You’ve also got to learn how to pick people up after a bad game, and get the best out of yourself and other people.”
While the season didn’t go too well – “the losses piled up” – Sheedy said that her team made up for it with its bond.
“Even if we didn’t have the skills, we knew we had the passion.”
Culture breeds success
Passion is half of what drives football clubs to success. The other half is mostly made up of culture. The AFL media still talk about the famous ‘Blood’s Culture’ of excellence and accountability that drove Sydney to two premierships in 2005 and 2012. Richmond’s 2017 premiership win was largely credited to a culture overhaul after a dismal 2016 season.
At local clubs, culture is what keeps players around. The change in culture at UHSVU was extremely noticeable, particularly to club president Chris Marchio.
“ It turned what was an old boys club into a family and community club in my opinion. It’s great seeing many partners training and participating in social events together.
“From personal experience my partner Lauren loves footy now and is looking forward to playing next year. She even represented her country (Great Britain) in the recent international cup after playing less than a season.
“It could probably even extend my career a year or two as a result!”
Marchio says the idea to field a women’s side was bred from a conversation with VAFA officials about playing an exhibition match at half time of the 2016 Women’s Appreciation Round.
“We couldn’t get the numbers at short notice (for the exhibition match) but from that UHS started a social netball team in, and from there there most in that team joined the UHSW team.
“The VAFA have been extremely supportive, for sure. They have provided many workshops in 2016 and early 2017 to help clubs get the woman’s league up and running.”
There were many highlights for Grant and his side in the 2017 Season. UHSVU finished 5th in Division 2 (of four) in the VAFA Women’s League, despite their inexperience. Yet, it wasn’t on field success that brought him the most satisfaction.
“(The highlight was) just getting to know a fantastic group of younger women, and watching them develop.”
“Not only that, seeing my own daughter play, when she never thought she’d be able to play, was fantastic too.”
Sheedy says her parents were inspired by her dedication too.
“I’m actually sporting a broken hand at the moment, from the end of the season. My parents were a little wary of all that, but they know that I’m definitely going to play next year, and they are proud that I’ve put so much into this sport.”
Local football inspires passion, amongst players, coaches, administrators and even fans. It’s a chance to give back to a sport that gives so much in emotion and entertainment. People can live their own dreams for two hours each Saturday, 20 times a year.
With the introduction of AFLW, women finally have the opportunity to live that dream. For coaches like Mark Grant, it’s a chance to unlock the potential of others. For players like Maddie Sheedy, it’s a chance to actually line up alongside heroes that are accessible, both in proximity and end goal.
The AFLW needs local football to be stronger, to grow stronger. And local football needs a strong elite women’s competition to inspire participation. Both these competitions win battles for each other. They are bonded by two things over all else: dreams and passion.