Axing the VFL Development League one year on

4 September 2018

Written by: Brynn O'Connor

What’s changed since AFL Victoria dissolved the VFL reserves competition?

Seniors and reserves—it’s a structural format which has been the traditional cornerstone of club football for decades.

Reserve grade football has often given players who weren’t up to the standard of senior football a chance to develop their game and push their case for selection at a higher level.

This is why controversy reigned among the footballing community in July last year when AFL Victoria made the decision to axe the VFL development league, a grade which preludes the VFL senior level, with the governing body citing cost and the rise of women’s football as factors for its demise.

Eight clubs were forced to lose their reserve teams, meaning any player not selected for a senior game must go to a community club and work on their game at the local level.

At the time of the decision, there were fears that players who went back to local clubs would lose a high-level platform where they could continue their development in the hope of being drafted into the AFL.

However, have the fears of the axing been substantiated and are clubs actually worse off under the new model?

VFL club Williamstown’s General Manager Stephen Soulsby says it has been difficult managing players who are spread over multiple clubs.

“It’s certainly had its challenging moments,” Soulsby told upstart.

“[You’re] not watching your players on a weekly basis, so obviously that’s a challenge in itself in ensuring that they continue their development in VFL football, things that they’re required to go back and work on.

However, Soulsby says a positive of the situation is the rapport that has been built between Williamstown and community clubs.

“In saying that, we’ve been able to foster some really positive relationships with the clubs they’re based at,” he said.

A challenge which the eight VFL clubs who previously fielded development league teams have shared is the ability to ensure feedback and improvements are implemented with their players at community clubs.

“We are always in contact with other clubs each week,” Soulsby said.

“Each [VFL] club that I’ve spoken to has said that’s been the number one focus on its club, to ensure they’ve got really strong connections to players to ensure that any communication, whether it be positive or negative, is carried out each week.”

Although some changes have been a challenge to work around, Victoria’s football governing body has a different perspective on the situation.

John Hook, AFL Victoria’s Competitions Manager, says it’s too early to tell whether the axing has had a profound effect on limiting the VFL talent pathway.

“I think you’ve got to put things into perspective—I mean, it’s only year one,” Hook said.

“To draw a fair comparison, you have to look over something like that over two or three years. We haven’t even gone through a draft system yet.

“The decision was made because it was a costly exercise to run the development league from a competition perspective and also a club perspective.”

After funding was cut for the development league, clubs started moving towards tapping into the potential of investing in the growth of women’s football.

Hook says women’s football is where the future for most VFL clubs lies.

“With any change, you’ve got to adjust to it,” he said.

“I think clubs are moving to different models. With the explosion of the women’s competition, a lot of them are starting to get into that.

“They are working towards it, some have already done it like Williamstown, who’ve got a team in the VFLW, they play as curtain raisers to some of the senior games and a lot of clubs are already doing that, which has taken the spot of the development league.

“For a lot of clubs, it’s a male team in the seniors and also female team.”

Hook does admit though that breaking years of structural tradition in the VFL has invariably thrown a cat among the pigeons.

However, he believes this newfound direction is the right path in a burgeoning football world.

“It’s not an easy thing to do overnight, this will probably take two or three years before they work round the logistics of players playing in community football,” he said.

“There are a whole lot of learnings that clubs would’ve got through this year.

“It’s a new landscape now, I think over the next few years clubs will tweak it and they’ll get better at it.”

Soulsby agrees with Hook’s sentiments about the changing face of the VFL and the realisation that the development league is most likely a thing of the past.

It’s why Soulsby says Williamstown is now working to ensure it can provide the same professionalism to its players in the face of a competition shakeup.

“I think we are only given the direction from AFL Victoria, it’s unlikely to come back so we need to continue in ensuring opportunities are still available for players coming out of the under-age programs,” Soulsby said.

“Even if we could look at some changes initially just to limit the initial impact, it will be until two or three years time when the full impact [of losing the reserves competition] will be known.”

The future of Victoria’s premier footballing state league appears to favour a senior men’s and senior women’s format.

While the change is so drastic from the previous format, Hook says those who are wallowing in the past will quickly be swallowed up.

“There will not be a revisit of the development league, we’ve got to go forward. Going forward means a women’s competition in the VFL, that’s what the model will look like now,” he said.

“The reality is we’ve got a growth in women’s football and we are trying to make sure the more vulnerable clubs in the VFL, some of them over 150 years old and older than AFL clubs… are relevant and this competition remains.

“The ones who survive are the ones who embrace [change] and adjust to it, the ones who just keep on saying this is no good, are the ones who die on the branch.”

Brynn O’Connor is a first year Bachelor of Media and Communications student majoring in sports journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at: @brynno97

Photo: IMG_7024 By Brad Hill available here and used under a Creative Commons Attribution.