No magic formula for bringing low-ranked footy clubs to the top

OPINION

Equalisation in football is truly a utopian aspiration.

The whole concept is extremely complex and, while the AFL says it has made great progress on leveling its system this week, no plan will fairly put clubs on an even playing field.

This issue is mirrored in grassroots football.

Strong, rich clubs get stronger and richer by building on success.

Winning games, and importantly premierships, draws crowds, builds bigger membership bases, significant sponsorship and, at AFL level, prime television broadcasting.

Winning games and the prospect of playing finals football makes clubs much more attractive in luring good players.

Those clubs with large backing deserve to be flourishing – this is something they have earned in ventures on and off the field.

Only, it perpetuates a capitalist circle that is tough for the poor or low-ranked clubs to break.

There was a healthy, enthusiastic vibe at Sebastopol training this week.

The Burras, traditionally dwelling near the Ballarat Football League’s ladder bottom, are working hard to completely restructure the club in business, culture and on-field performance.

New coach Phil Carman was impressed to inherit a group that, while needing a lot of skills fine-tuning, is prepared to listen and take his ideas on board.

The average age of the senior playing group is little more than 19.

Keep them together with a couple more years’ experience and the Burras could be flying.

When arriving back from covering training and recounting this to colleagues, it was the office pessimist that delivered a harsh, but fair, dose of reality.

The Burras will have a tough job by mid-winter in maintaining morale when weighed down by losses and knee-deep in Ballarat football’s trademark muddy grounds.

Players can get fed up, look for greener playing arenas, and the club becomes locked in a development phase.

But the Burras put out a call to the St Kilda Football Club, specifically Saints football director Chris Pelchen, last year for help to break this circuit bit by bit.

Experienced heads are invaluable.

St Kilda coach Alan Richardson told Fairfax Media this week that the AFL’s poorest clubs can play finals, maybe even contend for top four, but could not win a premiership.

Money in football department spending, he says, equates to covering all bases on the road to the ultimate success.

Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley said this week that success was built on player bonds and understanding within the team.

Premierships, on-field success and turning a club’s fortunes about rely on so much more than that.

Redan is the most well-documented story of reviving from near-death in 1998, not winning a game in four years, to a decorated 10-year reign that netted six premierships between 2002 to 2011. Twice the Lions went back-to-back.

There was no magic formula.

To simplify a complicated process, the Lions formed a strong junior base, networked to bring in the right people to lead all club departments, and gradually recruited well.

Success and belief in what the club was trying to achieve anchored the Lions’ progress.

A couple of star players are always handy – like four-time Henderson medallist Jarrod Edwards – but a core group of hard-workers offered stability.

Redan is not alone in clawing its way up.

Look to Springbank in the Central Highlands.

The Tigers broke into their first senior finals series for about a decade in 2012, under first-year coach Sam Giblett.

They backed it up again last year.

Attention and favouritism in the CHFL is always going to centre on the alleged big revenue earning clubs, like reigning premier Hepburn, but the Tigers are looming as a genuine premiership contender on the eve of the 2014 season.

The Courier’s CHFL expert Tim O’Connor says Giblett maintains his work at the Tigers is heavily based on what he learned as a Redan player during the premiership era.

And a lot comes back to culture with the right people in place.

Money can buy success to an extent but how often is there a case of headline recruits leaving to chase even bigger dollars elsewhere.

Sebastopol is making the first steps and the club, its supporters, and the league must be patient.

Sure, a more even money distribution in any league may help to an extent – investing in better facilities, programs and players.

But premierships are elusive and hunting one down is all about timing, seizing chances and having the right people and preparation in place to know when and how to pounce.

Plus a bit of luck.

melanie.whelan@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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