By Nick Creely
For many years, Ryan Ford has been a strong, vocal figure representing his community and local clubs with poise.
He describes himself as just a “cog in the wheel” – but he’s been one important cog for the south-east region as a dedicated volunteer.
A Warragul boy originally, the well-known local figure’s love for local football and community sport is boundless – his infectious energy is noticeable when he’s around the traps and his fierce loyalty for his region and the clubs he represents is admirable.
His love for the game traces back to his late father, Roy – a life member of the Longwarry Football Club and West Gippsland Football League – who was also a dedicated volunteer of the game.
“Growing up in Warragul, Dad was on the executive of the club for a long time – he was enormously dedicated to the Longwarry Football Club, and was the first life member ever awarded in 1959,” he said.
“He did a lot for the West Gippsland Football League, and also received in 1991 which is a rare honour, the VCFL Recognition Medal for services to football.
“There’s still a sign up in the Longwarry rooms that I’m immensely proud of – it was one of dad’s sayings and it’s been there since the 80s.
It says, “SHOW ME THE TRUTH – ROY FORD.“
Following a promising and successful junior career where Ryan played in both Warragul and Longwarry, repeated injury resulted in several shoulder reconstructions and never allowed him the long playing career he wanted and then after a stint as a runner for Longwarry, was lost to the game until Narre Warren came calling in 2010.
“After I finished, the travel got too much, so I didn’t do anything in footy until 2010 when Matt Shinners and Steve Kidd, my first cousin, got me down to the club,” he said.
“Steve asked me to come down to help, he was a star defender at the club, and then a couple years I helped in the box and then joined the committee.”
Ryan was then elected to the AFL South East Commission in December 2016 as the South East Football Netball League (SEFNL) representative, replacing Kahl Heinze, who held the role for the 2016 season, before taking over as the chair of the competition for 2017 and 2018.
During that time, Ryan was a force of strength for the league and region, giving the clubs a voice and combining that with an unbridled passion with the game and a strong business sense.
“I’m pretty humbled – if people can find a vehicle in life that allows them to serve the community in some way, whether through charities or some other way, that’s great,” he said.
“I was able to bring a lifetime of local sport into the business arm of the sporting community, and I guess apply some passion and skill into that.
“It’s an honourable position to be elected to that role and have people have faith in you to execute.
“There’s challenges along the way – I find local sport more passionate than business. You’re dealing with people who give up their time equally to serve clubs, and in some cases literally spilt blood on the field for their club.
“To have that link with them is important, and it brings out a passion stronger than in the business world.”
Ryan was also a driving factor in the merger between the SEFNL and AFL Yarra Ranges, which now forms the current league in AFL Outer East, where he is still on the commission.
He said that the process of being part of bringing together the two football and netball leagues was a rewarding experience.
“Realising the need for divisional football, we started talks with AFL Yarra Ranges – we went through that process which was different,” he said.
“Aaron (Bailey), Tony (Mitchell) and myself spoke to clubs and presented options, it wasn’t as forceful as what the MPNFL talks were, and here we are.
“I recruited Lauren Bourke to the SEFNL board to get a gender balance, I wanted our clubs who put in an enormous amount of work in the netball arm to not throw that away.
That was a key ingredient to make Yarra Ranges a good option – they were ranked side by side with us in interleague, and played them in 2018. On paper it was a good indicator of a strong future.”
Ryan said that to volunteer his time over many years was something he doesn’t take for granted – he’s honoured to be involved with clubs, football leagues and the local community.
“I’m happy to be a cog in the wheel,” he said.
“The game would not survive without volunteers, let alone thrive and be nurtured into a prosperous future, it simply wouldn’t happen.”
He also wanted to acknowledge the vast amount of people who he was worked closely with over the journey.
“I would like to mention Tony Mitchell (commission chair) and Aaron Bailey (Region General Manager) – to work with them, and the rest of commission and staff is something that keeps you going,” he said.
“We want to support and grow community sport, so they’re really inspiring guys. I just do what I do.
“I look at someone like Tony Mitchell – he’s a dedicated person, and I’m in awe of what he does to commit to his role.
“Aaron does more than his pay packet, he’s an amazing person and his commitment to the role goes beyond a job for him, it’s a hobby.
“For people like Tony, myself, the rest of the commission, club presidents – they’re all volunteers and it’s an incredibly important element of the success of local sport.”