STRATFORD and Woodside have not been able to enter under 16s sides in the Traralgon and District Junior Football League for the 2020 season.
After the North Gippsland Football-Netball League called off its under 18 competition three weeks ago, Woodside was hoping to give some of its younger players a game in an under 16s competition.
Stratford was also keen to put an under 16s side in the T&DJFL after the East Gippsland FNL abandoned its under 17s season late last month.
Stratford under 17s coach Mark Nicholls was motivated to get his players a game this season.
With an inkling the EGFNL would cancel its season, Nicholls emailed AFL Gippsland and the EGFNL asking for a decision to be made quickly.
Nicholls heard the T&DJFL under 16s competition would be going ahead and 19 of his 24 under 17s players were still eligible for that age group.
“I tried to get the ball rolling and was told to just cool my jets I suppose … just wait until the East Gippsland league make their decision” Nicholls said.
A week later, the decision to call off the season was made, so Nicholls began pursuing the prospect of joining the T&DJFL for season 2020.
At the same time, Woodside was also trying to enter a side in the T&DJFL under 16s because the Wildcats also believed the NGFNL under 18s would not go ahead.
But after meetings last month with T&DJFL clubs and AFL Gippsland, the decision was made to not include Stratford and Woodside in the 2020 competition.
Nicholls said AFL Gippsland was “very helpful” and “insistent that as many kids get a game as possible”.
However, Nicholls had heard there were fears in the T&DJFL about being outnumbered by clubs aligned with the Sale and District Junior Football Association. Nicholls said reasoning like that “just sounds crazy in a time like this”.
It is understood the initial proposal for more teams was knocked back by AFL Gippsland and the T&DJFL clubs, because the 2020 under 16s season was a legitimate competition for a premiership.
AFL Gippsland commercial and operations manager Nic Fogarty said “if it was only a hybrid competition that was formed for one year” then it could have been done.
“Any club that wants to join a competition there’s a process that they’ve got to go through, as per the AFL Victoria handbook,” Fogarty said.
“That process is from August 1 to October 30, so obviously they missed all their deadlines.”
Fogarty said a hybrid competition “wouldn’t constitute a premiership, so clubs were against that idea”.
There were also issues with the timing of the vote, with T&DJFL clubs only learning of the proposal the day beforehand, but Nicholls said he made contact with AFL Gippsland as soon as the T&DJFL announced it would be running an under 16s competition.
“The T&DJFL fixture wasn’t been completed before they made the decision not to have us.
“In a year like this they definitely had enough time,” Nicholls said.
“I would hope that at an under 16 level, the coaches are more worried about how many kids are playing, not whether they’re winning.”
With travel another issue raised by the Traralgon clubs, Nicholls assured them his side would travel every week just to get a game of football.
“I had a very keen bunch of boys, so to get told we couldn’t play was pretty devastating actually,” he said.
It is understood clubs aligned with the S&DJFA wouldn’t have minded if Woodside and Stratford put a team in, but they didn’t have a say in T&DJFL meetings.
It was then proposed by Woodside and Stratford that the S&DJFA created a five-team under 16s competition for 2020 alongside Heyfield, Sale City, College and Maffra, which was also rejected. That move would have left the T&DJFL with only four under 16s teams this year.
The S&DJFA had an under 16s competition until 2017, before it was combined with the T&DJFL’s as both had a shortage of team numbers.
S&DJFA clubs believed it was too late for the proposal to go ahead, while there was also a fear the clubs could be stranded in 2021 if they left the T&DJFL under 16s because of the decline in the number of junior players in the area and Woodside or Stratford returning to NGFNL under 18s and EGFNL under 17s respectively.
If the S&DJFA did not get enough teams for a season in 2021, the clubs that would have left the T&DJFL in 2020 might not be allowed back in.
Woodside president Ashley Walpole said he was “disappointed in the process of adults, for political reasons, stopping kids playing footy”.
“People who are involved in junior sports’ first priority should be to give everyone a game of sport if you can,” he said.
“Nobody had any consideration.”
Walpole was worried about youngsters missing out on a year of football.
Woodside was one of five clubs who wanted to have a junior season in the NGFNL this year, but the league made the decision to call it off two weeks ago.
Walpole thought a year off for players in that age group would create huge issues in getting them back to football.
“I think the issues with junior retention is going to be a hell of a lot harder next year than what it’s ever been in the past,” he said.
“We’ve kicked the can down the road a lot further, and it’s only going to get harder.
“There’s a huge drop-off of numbers in kids, and not having a season of football is not going to help this issue one little bit.”
Nicholls was also worried about Stratford’s ability to retain players for next season, but his players had shown solidarity.
“My boys have requested that we keep training together, so I’m still getting at least 14 to training on a Monday night,” he said.
Some of Nicholls’ players have gone to other clubs so they can play footy this season, but he was hoping they’ll be back at Stratford in 2021.