It is getting junior footy back, removing devices from house-bound COVID-zombies and persuading boys and girls to join their mates at the nearby oval for a game.
Gillon McLachlan and his commission have taken myriad measures to save what has become known as the football “industry”, but the task of preserving and protecting football’s community – the vast ecosystem of local clubs, parents and volunteers who participate – is both more important to Australian society and a harder task.
In large part, the grassroots game can’t be “saved” by the AFL. Local clubs are only as resilient as the will of their players, communities and volunteers.
My local footy team, which bears the historic name of Fitzroy, offers some measure of the magnitude of the challenge ahead.
The Fitzroy Football Club plays at the Brunswick St Oval in the Victorian Amateur Football Association (aka “the ammos”), wears the traditional Roy jumper and takes considerable pride in the historic link with the VFL/AFL entity that died and saw its organs donated to Brisbane.
To take the field on the sacred soil of Brunswick St, the boys (and girls) of New Fitzroy will be counting on the government easing restrictions that limit training to two groups of 10 that can’t touch one another – an easing expected in June; to play, they need the health officers to permit up to 50 on the field.
The AFL says that the road map for “return to play” in Victorian community footy – the operational nitty gritty – should become evident within the next week. Like the AFL competition, state-to-state variations reflect what local teams can and can’t do across the country. And they have the added bureaucratic layer of local councils.
As with other suburban club folk from the Northern Football League, the Essendon District Football League and fellow ammos, the Roys reckon they’ll need two weeks to train and prepare for senior footy.
Like hundreds of other clubs, the Roys will be banking on no one getting sick with COVID-19, hoping that no one’s gone to the wrong McDonalds or private school cocktail party and subsequently infected a fellow player or official at training.
In addition to those who coach, escort umpires, time keep, goal umpire, cut up the oranges, man or woman the canteen and organise transport, Fitzroy and every other local club in Victoria will need a hardy soul to put his or her hand up for the new, mandatory role of “COVID safety officer”.
In 2020, the person who plays the position of COVID safety officer (CSO) will be more essential to your team’s function than the ruckman, best midfielder or coach. The local team, in any competition, cannot train and play without a CSO.
Joan Eddy, the president of Fitzroy, believes that the role of CSO involves such commitment that her club plans to share it between six or more people. The only formal qualification will be completion of AFL Victoria online training, but he or she will need a willingness to enforce COVID protocols and a commensurate thick hide.
Several local footy folk whom colleague Damien Ractliffe and I spoke with in recent days were hopeful, rather than supremely confident, that their teams would get on the park in 2020.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Eddy. “I’m only 50-50 at best,” said another official from the ammos, which has 71 clubs and 14,000-plus players. Ian Kyte, the chief executive of the 10,500-strong Essendon District League, was “hopeful” the EDFL would proceed. Local footy in Victoria, slated for July or August, must be completed by mid-October to allow cricket to take over the grounds.
Amid the COVID maze that local leagues and clubs must navigate, without the facilities or resources of AFL clubs, two crucial questions loom: How many players will come back for the proposed nine-week home-and-away season from July or August? And what will happen to a club and/or competition if there’s a couple of COVID-19 positives?
“I think some will choose not to play,” said Eddy. “How many they [teams] will lose, I don’t know. I don’t think that will be the majority.”
An official from a Northern Football League club wondered if tradies who’d worked on weekends during the shutdown would come back, worrying what the absence of even smallish crowds – which took out the bar – would mean for his club and league.
Financially, the leagues whose clubs pay players – the EDFL, the NFL, the Eastern League and their counterparts in the south and west – have had their salary caps of about $200,000 cut in half for 2020 and then reduced to a pro-rata amount, which means ex-AFL players at strong clubs like Balwyn and Vermont in the east, will be playing for far fewer dollars.
Conversely, it’s quite conceivable that the prolonged time indoors will build enormous pent-up demand, like Richmond’s 2017 premiership, and that every able-bodied local footballer will be bursting to play.
If the extent of participation is unknown, there also seems to be little notion of what would happen at local level if there are COVID positives in and around the club – AFL Victoria’s guidelines, thus far, don’t specify. Local footy represents a higher risk than the AFL, where every player is tested twice per week and doctors put players through daily health checks.
While club officials fret about public liability, their clubs are actually covered by the AFL’s insurer (Marsh), albeit the policy might not protect them if they don’t make their best efforts to adhere to COVID safety procedures. Eddy questioned whether AFL Victoria, which sets the guidelines, had a realistic idea of “what it actually means for community clubs”.
Footy has the advantage of having deeper community roots – especially in country towns (which some think will pay better) – and, despite their imperious distance, a top level (the AFL) that doesn’t hoover up grassroots money, as per soccer.
But Australian football has the disadvantage of being a contact sport during a contact and proximity-based pandemic. Cricket can play with players spaced apart and there’s only 15 afield, counting umpires. Soccer, with fewer players and less contact, might be more appealing to some kids and parents.
“I think we’ll lose kids because soccer has already got a start date,” said an EDFL junior club volunteer official.
In sport’s dystopian winter, this battle for the grassroots participant – to get on the park, get players back and keep the wheels of community clubs turning – might be the most consequential contest of the year.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.