By Nick Creely and Russell Bennett
Officer president Nick McLennan doesn’t want to see his club pushed back into the pack.
It’s why the Kangaroos – as a football club – won’t be entertaining or fuelling any talk about a possible shift to a restructured divisional model which would include Gippsland clubs from 2021 onwards.
They are – for the foreseeable future – completely committed to making the AFL Outer East’s divisional model work. It is, in their mind, the right path for his club’s future.
McLennan told the Gazette that former South East Football Netball League (SEFNL) clubs – scattered between Premier and Division 1 – need to stay the course and let the AFL Outer East competition evolve naturally.
He believes that any talk about disbanding from the competition is not in the best interests of local football and netball moving forward. It’s going against exactly what they moved for in the first place, he argues.
“Entering into this new competition, Officer and other clubs made a commitment to this new competition and any talk of leaving it now is premature,” he said, clearly in no mood to mince his words.
“Leaving now also goes against everything that we discussed and all agreed to.
“We entered this competition with the understanding that it would take two or three years for the competition to balance out and for sides to find the division that best suited them based on the promotion and relegation system.
“Any former SEFNL clubs dreaming of going back to West Gippsland are doing so for nostalgic reasons and don’t understand the current lay of the land in local football. We’ve been marched out of Gippsland before – they simply don’t want us.”
McLennan said that, for the first time in a long time, his club feels like it belongs, and that it has the best possible chance for success from both an on-field and off-field perspective.
“AFL Outer East has been fantastic and has breathed new life into local football for many clubs, including Officer,” he said.
“On-field we are seeing competitive football for the first time in years and there is no game (result) that is a certainty (in Division 1).
“For the first time in a very long time I get the sense that players, staff, volunteers and supporters are all excited about spending their afternoons at the footy.
“There is a real sense of anticipation leading into Saturdays and I, for one, cannot wait for each Saturday to roll around.”
McLennan said that despite some lop-sided scorelines in the first year – particularly in Premier – the results are somewhat misleading.
“These teething issues are just that, teething issues. They will organically sort themselves out due to the nature of divisional football,” he said.
“This being said, I’m not convinced that the teams in the Premier Division are as far apart as results have suggested, just look at Wandin versus Berwick in Round 1 or Olinda Ferny Creek versus Cranbourne recently.
“I think the issue here is that some of the former SEFNL sides have slightly greater depth and are able to cover players who are out through injury better than others.
“It’s no different to the issues we’ve faced in the past but, like some clubs, we are looking to improve our entire list, not just our best 22.”
With Beaconsfield emerging as a key voice in evoking change in the region from 2021 onwards – with renowned past president John Airdrie stepping forward with a concept that would see five former SEFNL clubs join a restructured West Gippsland competition – McLennan believes that, even if his club had an interest in the proposal, it’s not even possible.
“It’s also worth noting that teams in West Gippsland have no desire to start a divisional competition right now,” he said.
“They’ve only just started their new league, under a promise that it wouldn’t be changing for a number of years.
“I am aware of the new proposed divisional model that at least one team is pushing for and I can openly say that we would not be entertaining any move that would see the Officer Senior Football Club pushed to the back of the pack again.
“If they had their way we would find ourselves back in a Premier Division with Narre Warren, Beaconsfield, Cranbourne and potentially Berwick (if they don’t join Eastern), and we joined the AFL Outer East to get away from these clubs to allow our club to grow and experience some success and we don’t plan on rejoining them a minute before we are in a position to be competitive against them.
“Local football has become fun again and this new competition has given us all a new reason to get out of bed early on a Saturday morning and I cannot see a reason why we would do anything to jeopardise that.”
McLennan said that AFL Outer East has given his club the stability it has craved for years.
“Off-field this commission has been great to work with which is a refreshing change,” he said.
“I have found the league to be easily accessible and happy to help, no matter how big or small the matter.
“They have also been proactive and sought feedback from clubs about what they want. Aaron Bailey and his team should be commended for all their hard work – they are a great example of how a local sporting competition should be managed.
“Practically all the staff at AFL Outer East have come from a local football club in one capacity or another so they understand the challenges we face and are prepared to work with us to solve any issues that we may be experiencing.”
With the state of community football and netball a hot topic – particularly within the Gippsland region – McLennan said that it would be foolish to move just for the sake of it, and urged the AFL to take action.
“I would like to highlight that the team at AFL Outer East have been great to work with and other competitions, and AFL Victoria itself, could learn some serious lessons by paying attention to how these guys run their competition,” he said.
“However there is no doubt that there are some serious problems with grassroots football.
“Locally you just have to look at AFL South East and the state of football in Gippsland to see that there is a problem. I am convinced that a lot of people at AFL House don’t understand just how hard it is to run a local football club.
“Costs are going through the roof and clubs are struggling to deal with the increasing financial burden associated with playing football.
“Grassroots football is about having fun with your mates, but also about generating a pipeline so that those who are good enough can strive to play at the highest level.
“Currently it feels like local football is working for AFL House, not the other way around, which is a sad turn of events. It’s no wonder we are losing future superstars to other sports including soccer.”