Country football is in the most precarious of positions.
As I farewell The Shepparton News after four years, I am going to tell you what state the game is truly in.
In my opinion and that of many other close followers, senior football in the bush has never been in a worse spot than it is right now and there seems to be nothing that can stop the death spiral.
I know I am going to sound like an alarmist to some people, but I am writing this because I have a passion and love for country footy; you simply could not do the job I have without that.
Since I started covering the Goulburn Valley League in 2014, the standard of football has declined at a ‘‘I see it, but I don’t believe it’’ rate.
There is not just one single reason why it has happened — there are many — but they have all created a perfect storm.
The growing juggernauts in metropolitan leagues can be to blame — clubs and leagues across Melbourne simply have truckloads of money to splash around.
No longer do you get the same number of players going to the country after finishing up in the AFL or, even, the VFL.
Country clubs used to be able to offer an appealing place for quality recruits, creating a great competition where others would want to be.
Outstanding footballers would take less money to play in a successful environment, enabling a flow-on effect for a sensational standard.
Every off-season covering football in the Goulburn Valley region, the number of recruits entering has dropped from the previous year while the players departing has always gone the other way.
Clubs are now even resorting to announcing on social media that good players are sticking around for another year just to give their supporters something to be happy about.
The so-called equalisation measures brought in under AFL Victoria’s Community Club Sustainability Program have done nothing to make competitions more even.
In fact, the complete opposite has happened in this region.
Kyabram has not lost a game since the player points system came into effect.
Before the 2016 season, the last team to have won a GVL premiership undefeated was in 1939.
The Bombers have done it two years in a row.
Powerhouses in the Murray Football League (Nathalia) and Kyabram District Football League (Nagambie) claimed their third and second straight flags, respectively.
Rennie in the Picola District Football League’s south-east division was the exception.
However, the Grasshoppers’ situation was far different as they were basically under no cap.
The PDFNL was dragged kicking and screaming to adopt the player points system only weeks before the season began and were granted a huge exemption.
Rennie, a tiny club in a small farming community, lost 42 games in a row before topping up with quality recruits during the last off-season.
The Grasshoppers’ rise from the cellar-dweller to champions was one of the best stories in country football this year, making news across Victoria after the grand final was live-streamed.
However, Rennie could be back on Struggle Street next year with the player points system taking complete hold in the PDFNL and the Grasshoppers will drop 19 points in their cap.
Coach Craig Ednie was at a loss when speaking to The News last week about how to tackle the issue.
‘‘The points system isn’t really designed for country clubs who don’t have a junior system — we will struggle to recruit, generally, most players are worth about four points,’’ Ednie said.
The argument against that would be, well get a junior system.
But how are clubs, that have been around for up to a century or more, supposed to build a junior system when the whole demographic of their town probably has changed dramatically in the past 20 years?
Smaller clubs used to rely on generational change, with sons following in their father’s footsteps by staying on the family farm.
All some of these communities have now is a football/netball club and a general store, a primary school as well if they are lucky — it is not just as simple as creating a junior system.
What the points system is doing is handicapping the already handicapped and making powerful clubs in larger towns more successful.
When it was first introduced, coaches and players were willing to give the new measures a chance.
There had been some incredibly lop-sided leagues across Victoria where teams were winning premierships year after year.
But that had never been the case in the GVL, apart from maybe Seymour’s three-peat in the 2000s, but that was a misnomer.
Tatura was the most successful team in terms of premierships from 1995 to 2015, but being a smaller town without a high school, the Bulldogs may struggle to scale such heights again under the equalisation measures.
Almost every club had its shot at the top during the aforementioned 20 years, with only Mooroopna and Euroa failing to win a premiership in the GVL during that period.
Coaches, especially, are starting to wake up to the detrimental effect it is having on the GVL.
But it does not discriminate, the coaches who are becoming frustrated are varying from widely successful clubs in the GVL and KDFL, right down to the small, battling clubs who it is affecting the most.
In most conversations I have had with coaches during the past six months, they would bring up the points system themselves and want to chat about the impact it is having and certainly not the other way around.
AFL Victoria needs to think about scrapping the player points system and salary cap — at the least overhauling it — immediately, otherwise you will see clubs go under in the next decade and those small towns with a few tumbleweeds.