A suburban crisis
As published in the Melbourne Herald Sun 1 September 2008
Ask the AFL and they’ll tell you junior football has never been in better shape. Coach out in the suburbs, as I did this year, and you’ll tell a different story. After more than 312 games as a player and coach with Coburg and three glorious premierships in the mesmerising VFA of the 70s and 80s, followed by fours years in the rarefied air of federal politics I never imagined I’d return to coaching. The last thing I wanted was mud under my feet and a cold wind at my face on a desolate suburban football ground.
However, once my eldest son, Ruairi, was taken by football what could I do? The step from watchful parent to impassioned coach was inevitable. And so in 2008, twenty years after the first of those exhilarating consecutive premierships at Coburg I now have another premiership medal. On a heavy track at Greenvale my under-16 boys produced a fightback against Keilor that was simply awesome, pinching victory with two minutes on the clock.
West Coburg is no ordinary club. Among the 22 players are six Lebanese and a cluster of Greeks and Italians, in a competition where the Muslim hijab is as common as the beanie. Unfortunately, life on the terraces isn’t always civilised and abuse towards umpires and players is too common. Sometimes the sabre rattling of coaches only fuels the firestorm.
A few weeks ago I watched with anger and disbelief as a boy who’d been ordered off for pushing an umpire shrugged off the conciliatory words of his mother and swaggered on to ground after the siren to create yet another scene. Why hadn’t something been done months earlier when it was clear he was on the warpath and frightening smaller players, I thought? At the tribunal he was suspended for five years. The next week he jumped the fence during a final at Coburg City Oval and struck a West Coburg player.
Whilst such events are rare, there’s a lot that’s wrong with junior football. It’s incomprehensible that the multi-million dollar AFL can’t recruit more adult umpires to junior football. Does anyone seriously think 16-year-old boys can handle a big swaggering bloke with testosterone flowing through his veins? And where are the experienced ambassadors, counselling and educating junior coaches as to strategies to stop bullying, whether by players or parents? We don’t need Kevin Sheedy, just flying around Australia promoting Aussie Rules. We need him and dozens more ambassadors wandering through junior football extolling the value of discipline and courage, over bravado and bullying.
It’s time Andrew Demetriou –whom I respect – asked whether the AFL propaganda about its support for junior football matches the reality. It’s time the AFL found the money to attract experienced umpires to junior football and assigned every AFL club with a genuine development role. It’s time governments and municipal councils matched the rhetoric with money to build decent facilities for the juniors, not just the elite.
And it’s time the AFL addressed the war on the terraces, instead of
wasting money on trivial peace games such as the one played between Palestinians and Israelis this week, in Melbourne. It’s time those parents and volunteers who sustain Australia Rules football in the park, to be treated with genuine respect.
Phil Cleary if a former VFA/VFL premiership player and coach. He has been part of the ABC’s telecast of VFA/VFL football since 1987.