By sports editor Russell Bennett
A Beaconsfield football icon has serious doubts about the suitability of the AFL Outer East competition for his club moving forward.
So much so, that he’s formulated a plan for where he’d like to see the club from the 2021 season.
That plan would see the Eagles sensationally return to West Gippsland – where they once made their name.
John Airdrie needs no introduction to south east footy circles. He’s a past president at Beaconsfield, but also has a decades-long association with football in both the south east, and West Gippsland – as a player, coach, and president.
He says Beaconsfield’s ‘DNA’ – the fabric of the club – is family sport, and that it’s much better suited to a divisional football and netball model of a different kind.
His idea, which is bound to get people talking right across the region, would see a divisional, three-tier model transform the current 12-club WGFNC into a competition that would include 24 clubs.
In that model, Beaconsfield would be joined in the ‘Premier South East’ top tier by Cranbourne, Narre Warren, Officer, Pakenham, Inverloch Kongwak, Phillip Island and current Gippsland League club Wonthaggi. It assumes Berwick and Doveton would stay put in AFL Outer East, or head to the Eastern Football League and Southern Football League respectively.
The second tier – ‘West Gippsland’ – would include Kooweerup, Cora Lynn, Bunyip, Garfield, Nar Nar Goon, Tooradin-Dalmore, the Warragul Industrials, and Alberton league club Fish Creek.
The third tier – ‘South Gippsland’ – would include Foster, Meeniyan Dumbalk United, Stony Creek, Tarwin, Toora, Kilcunda Bass, Dalyston, and Korumburra-Bena.
The three divisions would include a promotion-relegation system, where clubs in the second and third tiers could be promoted if they felt they were ready and willing to accept the challenge of the higher standard in the next division.
The Gazette understands that, with his proposal, Airdrie is trying to create a more open discussion for clubs and where they see their futures headed.
“The basic DNA of our footy club is family, netball, and football combined,” Airdrie said.
“We don’t want to go into the Eastern Football League because we still see ourselves as a country football and netball club with real family values.
“Right now, we’re worried about where we see ourselves going as a senior club from 2021 onwards.
“We realise where we are, and that we have to hold tight until an opportunity opens up, but we don’t know what’s going to happen with AFL Victoria.
“What we’re putting on the table here is an option so that everyone could be happy in a divisional competition.
“What we’ve got on the table is an opportunity to grade sides as part of the structure.”
Airdrie’s proposal would include a full slate of junior and senior netball grades, in addition to under-16, under-18, reserves, and senior football.
The competition would also be overseen by a general manager.
Airdrie made it clear that his proposal would leave the bulk of the existing ‘West Gippsland core’ intact, and said it was largely based on geographical factors.
“There’s this paranoia about the West Gippsland clubs (being split up), but this doesn’t change their league – not really,” said Airdrie, whose son finished his playing career at Stony Creek.
“Most of them still stay together, but we would encourage promotion-relegation.
“With the second tier, if you win the premiership you go up – but it wouldn’t necessarily be automatic in the third tier.
“If they feel they’re ready to make the step up to the next division, they have every right to look at that. If they don’t, they could stay put and so could the side that finishes on the bottom of the second tier.
“The benefit to Beaconsfield in all of this is that we have a lot of kids. We could then have firsts, seconds, thirds, and fourths football – which we don’t have now. We have to play a lot of teams in Dandenong.”
Airdrie said the bigger clubs involved with this proposal could also field junior sides in other competitions.
He has also aired his concerns in regards to the gap that exists within the Premier tier of the AFL Outer East competition.
“I don’t think they’ll ever be able to fill the gap of competition between our (south east) sides and their sides (further north) because they have nothing coming up from underneath. They just don’t have the numbers,” Airdrie said.
“We’re all about developing our kids, and we can’t do that if there’s no competition.
“The only time we get that competition for the kids is when we play Cranbourne, Narre Warren, or Berwick.
“In this proposal, we’re assuming Berwick goes to the Eastern Football League.
“We’ve heard the talk. But they might change their thinking with this model into Gippsland. This forces them to make a decision.”
Airdrie’s proposal is the first club proposal to be put into the public domain, and while he knows it will be met with plenty of opposition, he also knows the discussion it will create.
“We were told the clubs in the Yarra Ranges would be within five goals of us (in the Outer East competition),” he said.
“They’re not, it’s been proven they’re not. How’re they going to bridge that gap? Where do we go from here in the future?
“We’ve made it clear that we’re talking about our options in the next couple of years. They’ll fight like hell to keep us there, but I can’t see it happening because of the weakness of their juniors.
“We’re going to seek a meeting with AFL Victoria once this concept is out on the table – we want a meeting with them, and to present this to them.
“If we could get this right, we’d be the envy of many, many country football leagues.
“This concept will save clubs like Dalyston and Kilcunda Bass because they won’t be getting battered every week. They’ll have a competitive league, and can enjoy that competition.
“We know in West Gippsland that they’re strong in netball, they’re strong in family, and their juniors are reasonably strong.
“Stand back and be objective about this.
“Clubs have to understand this: Don’t be the tail that wags the dog. Don’t get rid of your best sides because you’re scared of them. Aim to be better! Aspire to be as good as them!”
The multi-regional concept…
‘Premier South East‘ – Beaconsfield, Cranbourne, Inverloch Kongwak, Narre Warren, Officer, Pakenham, Phillip Island, Wonthaggi.
‘West Gippsland‘ – Bunyip, Cora Lynn, Fish Creek, Garfield, Kooweerup, Nar Nar Goon, Tooradin-Dalmore, Warragul Industrials.
‘South Gippsland‘ – Dalyston, Foster, Kilcunda Bass, Korumburra-Bena, Meeniyan Dumbalk United, Stony Creek, Tarwin, Toora.
The current president’s perspective…
Beaconsfield Football Club president Troy Robinson clarified the club’s official stance by saying it would welcome the opportunity to explore options to be associated with the West Gippsland competition, in conjunction with AFL Outer East through a full competition review of the regional football structure throughout the area.
“Beaconsfield believes that this is the right time to get a full review completed of the regions, due to a number of ongoing challenges,” he said.
“There is no better time than now to get it done.
“Beaconsfield believes that the time is right now, due to the restructure of the defunct SEFNL competition and the newly-created AFL Outer East, and the current Gippsland challenges.
“AFL Outer East was the lifeline to the eight SEFNL clubs and has been excellent in building a model that we have wanted for years.
“Although it has a number of challenges, it’s only halfway through year one and will make its levels over time.”
But Robinson said this was the window in which to review the local region.
“This is the window of opportunity to once and for all complete a review to allow clubs and their volunteers, supporters, and players to simply just settle down and get on with local footy and netball.”
In regards to Airdrie’s proposed three-tier model, Robinson said: “Yarra Ranges teams could also apply to be part of the divisional structure, or simply stay as is – pre-Outer East.
“However there are some absolutely brilliant options to review a complete divisional model encompassing all clubs, and the ability to create divisional models based on geographic factors more for the outlying townships.
“If AFL Outer East could manage this (new league concept), they’d have all their bases covered and have loads of support from us as they have a vision and are driven to deliver results.”
Robinson said that was proven through their “superior communication” with the club during its transition from the SEFNL to the Outer East.
“Aaron (Bailey) and his team have a vision, they share the passion, and want us clubs to help make it work,” he said.
“And more importantly they understand our values as a family club and the link between football and netball.
“This is Beaconsfield’s way of coming out on the front foot, and looking to control our destiny.
“We need a vision – looking from now to the future, not just next year, as this is a big challenge but also a massive opportunity to get it right once and for all.”
And from the perspective of AFL Outer East…
Tony Mitchell, the experienced, highly-respected chair of the AFL Outer East region commission, said Beaconsfield – through both its football and netball arms – is “an intricate part” of the Outer East competition.
“They are willing to assist and support the growth of our competition, both in football and netball,” he said.
“The club sees our divisional structure as an absolute must for the development and growth of our game in our region, and encourages clubs throughout Victoria to assess the viability of divisional football.
“Beaconsfield sees this is the only way forward after going through a previous review and not achieving divisional football during that process.”
In regards to Berwick, Mitchell confirmed the Wickers are “assessing their options” when it comes to their long-term home.
“However, like Beaconsfield, they committed to develop AFL Outer East under a divisional model for a minimum period of three years, working with the commission and clubs to strengthen football throughout,” he said.
“We will continue to work with Berwick to understand how we continue to build upon divisional football and netball through the Yarra Ranges, Casey, and Cardinia regions.”
Mitchell was also refreshingly forthcoming when it came to outlining the biggest challenges facing the Outer East competition.
“AFL Outer East fully understood the challenges, as do our affiliated clubs,” he said.
“An expression of interest was placed to all affiliated clubs on where they see themselves within the three divisions.
“AFL Outer East has received six requests to go up and down within the (competition) structure. This will be assessed and discussed with the applicants over the coming 60 days, where we will interview each clubs’ executive and forward plan the football from 2020 and beyond.”
Mitchell was also abundantly clear on the identity of the Outer East competition, and exactly how it’s framed.
“Being blunt, there is no such thing as SEFNL, nor the Yarra Ranges Football Netball League,” he said.
“We are now one, so moving forward we are one, we are committed to growth and the development of start-up senior clubs throughout the region, such as the Berwick Springs project.
“Where other close-by clubs are concerned, our approach remains the same – that clubs have to do what’s best for them, their club, players, volunteers, and supporters. We at AFL Outer East cannot, and will not, influence clubs on their future direction or pathway.”