AFTER nearly four torturous years, the Alberton Football-Netball League merry-go round finally stopped spinning this week, after all six AFNL clubs were accepted into the Mid Gippsland Football-Netball League.
From next season, Fish Creek, Foster, Toora, Stony Creek, Meeniyan-Dumbalk United and Tarwin will play in the MGFNL.
The AFNL clubs were accepted into the MGFNL during a special general meeting on Monday night, where it is believed seven of nine current MGFNL clubs voted to accept all six AFNL clubs, while one voted against and another abstained.
At this stage, the addition of the six AFNL clubs will create a 15-team MGFNL, although the futures of current clubs Trafalgar and Yallourn Yallourn North are still up in the air, with both exploring their options.
The set of arrangements is not a merger, but simply the six AFNL clubs joining the MGFNL.
What is to become of the AFNL’s assets is still uncertain, although with no club affiliation it appears certain it will eventually dissolve.
For the first time in a long time, clubs in both camps have been able to enjoy some peace of mind, and the clarity surrounding the situation has no doubt lifted what was a dark cloud that hovered over Gippsland football and netball for longer than perhaps it should have.
Although the road to reach this point has been rocky, and the fall-out has left battle scars from both camps, those involved will take some solace from the fact that it’s finally over.
By coming into the MGFNL, the AFNL clubs will be ready to move forward and forge a new path as best it can.
Stony Creek president Mark Le Page said the AFNL clubs were optimistic as to what lay ahead.
“I think I can speak on behalf of the other Alberton clubs, if we didn’t get out of Alberton, I’m not sure where some of our clubs would be,” he said.
“We would have struggled to attract any players in a six-team comp, it was just not a viable option, I don’t know what we would have done to be honest.
“For us it’s been dragging on four or five years, but to have a new home is very exciting and we’re extremely grateful for the Mid Gippsland clubs to let us join their league.
“We are looking forward to taking up our rivalry with our Alberton clubs, the Fosters and Fish Creeks of the world, but we’re also really excited by starting new rivalries, friendships and new relationships with the Mid Gippsland clubs.
“Our supporter base and communities are very similar, large farming, small townships, so I think the relationship is going to be a strong and vibrant one and we hope it stands the test of time and can be a footprint for other competitions that have more teams.”
Le Page wished to pay tribute to the work of all AFNL clubs, the Mid Gippsland executive and MGFNL clubs in seeing the arrangement come to fruition.
“Our focus was not to save the Alberton Football-Netball League, our focus was to save the Alberton Football-Netball League clubs,” he said.
“There was always going to be football in south Gippsland whilst there was six clubs. If we had of continued the way we were going there wouldn’t have been six clubs.
“By joining the Mid Gippsland Football-Netball League, what we are hoping to bring is sustainability, strength in numbers, and hopefully make Mid Gippsland stronger.”
The Alberton-Mid Gippsland saga has its roots in late 2018, after AFL Gippsland made a recommendation to merge the two leagues.
The MGFNL won an appeal against the recommendation at the time, but the debate was again thrown into the spotlight in March this year after an independent review commissioned by AFL Victoria was released. That independent review also recommended combining the two leagues was the best way forward.
While some may wonder if much actually changed in the time the two reviews were made public, MGFNL publicity officer Rob Popplestone believed the timing of the second review allowed greater consultation between clubs to formulate a detailed plan of how an arrangement might work.
“At the start of this year we decided to put some more attention to this because we felt as though the AFL were cornering us into a room so we wanted to make sure that if it was going to be inevitable, as much as possible we would try to do it on our terms, but with as much knowledge as possible,” he said.
“We put together a team that was dedicated to finding out what we felt it needed to look like to work, and that is, find out a bit more about the individual clubs rather than some of the work had gone down about population and growth corridors, actually talk to the people running the clubs and talk to the players, talk to the coaches, talk to the communities and find out how actually engaged they were.
“That was a bit of a process over three or four months and as we got more and more information we felt more and more confident about how it might look and one of the biggest components was travel, but when we sort of felt as though a portion of the travel could be taken out of it by being a bit more strategic in where we host games then it became more and more likely that we could make it work.”
With the AFNL clubs now aligned to the MGFNL, Popplestone said smoothly transitioning the new kids on the block would be the next step.
“If you have six clubs from Alberton you’re probably led to believe you’d have to go down there on at least six occasions to play each of those clubs on a home and away basis,” he said.
“But I think what you’ll find is Mid Gippsland clubs may travel down just on three occasions during the course of the year so it makes it comparable to a North Gippsland side that would travel twice to play Woodside and Yarram.
“We are most looking forward to making it work.
“A 15-team competition is going to be a stretch, there’s no question about that, but I think if everyone comes in with a certain degree of positivity that’ll assist.
“I think most of it’s been psychological and it’s all been based around not wanting to change. Whenever someone is confronted with change they’re a bit apprehensive about it, but once we get into a bit of a rhythm they might find it quite exciting to play new teams at new grounds in a new part of Gippsland.”
While the intricacies of issues such as preserving the history of the AFNL are still to be finalised, Popplestone said the work of so many people behind the scenes was noteworthy.
“I think people are just keen to get out and play footy and netball, and having this clarity now is like breathing a big sigh of relief,” he said.
“I’m not only proud of the board, but proud of every individual club to sit back and absorb all the information.
“Like members, supporters and volunteers, when the first suggestion from AFL Gippsland came down the guard was up from everyone, but after a bit of a journey I’m really rapt that they saw the bigger picture.
“What I really love about the Mid Gippsland executive and club delegates is that I think they changed their tack from trying to look after Mid Gippsland to actually realising they are custodians of football in their region and that they have an obligation, if possible, to find a solution, to six teams that were wanting to keep on playing football and netball, and that was pretty satisfying.”
The MGFNL is expected to release a draft fixture in the next four weeks, and its next item of business may be to address jumper clashes. Foster and Mirboo North are the Tigers, Toora and Yinnar the Magpies and Boolarra and Meeniyan-Dumbalk United the Demons.