IN an unexpected move, all six Alberton Football-Netball League clubs have applied to join the Ellinbank and District league.
After AFNL clubs were granted an exemption to transfer to another league outside the formal transfer period of August 1 to October 31, the entire Alberton cohort decided to lodge applications to join the EDFNL by Monday's deadline.
The EDFNL now holds the fate of all AFNL clubs in its hands, and has 16 days to respond to the applications.
In a whirlwind week for country football and netball, this latest episode adds another chapter to the seemingly never ending search for a solution to the embattled Alberton league, which had pinned its hopes of a merger with the Mid Gippsland league last year, only for it to be rejected by its proposed suitor.
It is believed last year's snubbing by Mid Gippsland has served as the catalyst for all six Alberton clubs looking to affiliate with Ellinbank, a situation an Alberton club representative, who did not wish to be identified, believed would have been avoided if the original merger went ahead in the first place.
"They [Mid Gippsland] made it clear that they didn't want us six months ago so clubs are exploring other avenues," the spokesperson said.
"There will be more waiting around in the next couple of weeks, and it is up to Ellinbank, they could accept a few or they could reject all of us."
In a statement the Mid Gippsland FL said despite receiving no applications from AFNL clubs before the deadline, it would remain open to teams expressing an interest to join with the desire to have an even number of teams (currently at nine), compete in the MGFL in 2020.
With the Alberton clubs facing more uncertainty, the situation has generated a great deal of discussion in sporting circles, with some, including outspoken Yallourn-Yallourn North player Luke Webber, believing a merger of the MGFL and AFNL could work "if both leagues wanted it to".
"We [Mid Gippsland] need to stop acting like they [Alberton] solely need us and have a look at the situation objectively," Webber said.
"I understand the time frame initially given to us for the merge was unreasonable and there were far too many details to sort through in such time. However, the issue remains. Alberton is on the brink of death - and we could use some new life, provided such details and terms are agreed to amicably."
Meeniyan-Dumbalk United president Jason Harris said there was a degree of agitation toward the MGFL, which he believed was shortsighted in its initial rejection.
"Everyone [in Alberton] was fed up with Mid Gipspland not accepting us and it looks like their league is struggling big time now," Harris said.
"I think they outsmarted themselves last year and now the Alberton clubs are saying 'bad luck'.
"The merger debate has been dragging on far too long, we would have been happy to go over there [Mid Gippsland] this year but they didn't want us and they made a big mistake."
If Ellinbank is to accept all AFNL clubs, the number of teams in the EDFNL will be increased to 16, meaning the competition will virtually return to what it was in 2016 when it accommodated 15 teams.
The EDFNL ran a two-divisionalstructure in 2014, but was forced to
scrap it after one season as clubs were unhappy playing the same opposition on a semi-regular basis.
The thought of continuing the Alberton league in its current form was described as a "worst case scenario" by a club representative, while another said that "they'll be no Alberton next year, 100 per cent".
"Everyone's sad to see the Alberton league go but at the end of the day six teams just isn't going to work and that's just the way it is," the representative said.
The writing appears to be on the wall for a number of Mid Gippsland clubs, some of whom have lost close to 70 per cent of senior football matches in the last 20 years, while the rumour mill is rife that due to diminishing junior numbers from once powerful clubs, the league will be abolishing its under 18 and 16 competitions after Easter and creating a sole under 17 division.
It is not known whether the seventh Alberton club, Devon-Welshpool-Won-Wron-Woodside, which is currently in recess, was invited to submit an application.
The AFNL could not be reached for comment, while the EDFNL met on Thursday night for a scheduled board meeting.