The AFL: The Archaic Football League

AFL supporters filled up talk back radio with anger and disillusionment when North Melbourne were on the verge of packing up and relocating to the Gold Coast. When Carlton traded Brendan Fevola to Brisbane a few years ago, Blues fans were calling for heads to be chopped as they were ripping up their membership renewals.

The same happened when each of Callan Ward, Gary Ablett Jnr, Tom Scully and other ‘traitors’ took the cash on offer and moved to expansion teams over the last 12 months. Each of these seemingly ridiculous events show just how much the average AFL fan is living in the times of the past. 

Allow me to explain. The first seemingly ludicrous move: shipping the Kangaroos to the Gold Coast. Such a move would mean better facilities, access to a larger supporter base and, most importantly, the financial security of the club forevermore. An uncle of mine, a North supporter, bemoaned the decision to stay in Melbourne knowing full well that in doing so the Kangaroos remain a small battling club – one that will always struggle to keep their head above water both on and off-field.

In America, teams move about as often as Charlie Sheen skips his AA meetings. The naysayers state that teams lose their heart, soul and the sense of calling a place ‘home.’ Well, this may be true but it is also beneficial to ending up on the scrap heap. At least Fitzroy supporters aren’t disillusioned from the AFL and have a team to follow, as well as the 3 flags that came with the Brisbane Bears merger.

The Gold Coast Kangaroos? Better than no Kangaroos at all...

And anyone that thinks all 10 Victorian AFL can survive existing in their current residences is seriously deluded. Some, if not most, will eventually have to look elsewhere – much like Hawthorn and the Kangaroos have already done by going to play home games in Tasmania (North Melbourne have a 3 year deal starting in 2012). Even Richmond, the Bulldogs and Melbourne have played home games further north in Darwin, Canberra and Cairns. Further to the point, home stadiums in Melbourne are shared. Carlton don’t play at Princes Park, nor do Essendon at Windy Hill or St Kilda at Moorabbin – they all play at the sterile Etihad Stadium in Docklands.

It goes on. Some clubs aren’t even based at their geographical homes anymore – Collingwood are now based at Richmond, St Kilda at Seaford, Hawthorn at Waverley Park and Essendon recently announced they are building a base at Tullamarine. Even the Bulldogs are no longer from Footscray but are the ‘Western Bulldogs.’ So let’s get over our nostalgia – most of our teams either don’t play at ‘home’, aren’t based at ‘home’ or want to be associated from their ‘homes’ anymore. At the end of the day if teams merge or move we will still get to see them play every week, it would just be under a different moniker. Let us remember that our players aren’t allocated to ‘zones’ and thus aren’t technically representing these areas anymore. Instead they are drafted from a national pool so could come from anywhere.

This archaic mindset extends to trade week. Every club has gaps, holes and spots where there is either a dearth or an excess of personnel. Clubs with half a mind may actually seek out trades to strengthen their player stocks, rather than pontificating for a week and end up doing nothing, then drafting a bunch of 18 year-olds who, to the club and supporters bemusement don’t cut the mustard when it matters most. Look at Richmonds ruck stocks, Carlton’s lack of talls, Fremantle’s depth in midfield, Essendon or Adelaide’s foot speed, Port Adelaide’s…well, there’s too many areas to cover there. You get the idea.

Jolly and Ball to the Pies. Arguably Collingwood won the 2010 flag in Trade Week 2009

The point is, clubs have been known to trade for the last piece/pieces of the jigsaw and win premierships as a result. Look at Darren Jolly and Luke Ball in 2009, Brad Ottens in 2004 and John Barnes in 1999, to name a few. You could argue if Carlton had a viable replacement to cover for Jarrad Waite, Michael Jamison or Matthew Kreuzer, this season may have resulted in a top 4 berth. From there, who knows? Instead they were severely lacking in key areas and had to make the long haul from 5th to try to make that elusive preliminary final. A potentially fruitful season goes down the gurgler.

Basically, it’s high time more clubs took greater risks for greater reward. Richard Tambling may not amount to much at Adelaide, Mark Williams was a flop at Essendon and Andrew Lovett – well we all know what happened there, but it was great to see those clubs take a risk knowing that the reward was equally high.

But the most archaic notion of them all is the reactions to the poaching of established players to expansion clubs. The outcry and anger at these players is truly mind-boggling. First, we all decide to expand the league. This was seen as a good idea to strengthen the league and broaden our appeal into the rugby league dominated states of Queensland and New South Wales. To do so, half-decent or (dare I say it) decent players would have to represent these clubs. We accept this fact, sign off on it and then turn back in fury when clubs garner the services of players from the clubs we support, even when they get compensation by the way of draft picks.

We must come step outside the darkness of the past and into the light of the future where we accept that players moving clubs is a good thing – for both the club and the player. A greater amount of player movement (regulated with a salary cap, of course so that a Collingwood or Carlton can’t turn into the Chelsea and Manchester United of the AFL) means that more clubs have a chance of securing good players. This in turn means more clubs have a chance at being successful in any given season.

A sight to make any Cats fan recoil in disgust

This is coming from someone whose favourite player is now playing for a team inexplicably named the “Suns” (see above). It was disappointing to see him go, even more so to a team named after something as uninspiring as a STAR, but do I wish a plague on his house and the Suns to experience nothing but utter humiliation every week? Well, I would be lying if I wholeheartedly said “no” – but I do want the Suns to ultimately be a successful club…much much further down the track, that is, and for the little master to remain as the little master for many years to come. After all, I am a footy fan and want to see 18 successful clubs genuinely competing each year rather than in soccer where only 1 of the same three or four clubs have any chance of winning a title in any year.

So before you brand these players as “mercenaries” or “traitors,” or complain about your clubs lack of trade activity, or go up-in-arms when a club throws up the notion of relocation – maybe remind yourself that times have changed. For the better.

–Adam

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