Bendigo's VFL connection has ended

WHEN the news came, it was still a shock.

A city as big as Bendigo, a great footballing city, would not – and could not – renew its Victorian Football League licence past this season.

Bendigo Gold’s rapid demise highlighted just how tough the challenges are to be a country team mixing it with powerful metropolitan clubs, many of which are fully franchised offsets of AFL clubs.

It emphatically slammed home how fragile the link can be in state league sport.

Ballarat should be already well versed in this. The city is still enduring an anxious wait on whether its Victorian Netball League application will be accepted after existing club Ballarat Pride was axed in April.

Bendigo has lost a football pathway.

The city maintains its TAC Cup under-18 program Bendigo Pioneers, but for developing senior footballers, especially graduating Pioneers, this pathway is wiped out.

This is not good at all for the health of Bendigo football and football in the wider Bendigo region.

North Ballarat Roosters will be the only country team in the VFL from 2015.

We cannot take the Roosters for granted.

The Selkirk Roosters made a choice to evolve this season and adapt to the changing competition.

An increase in AFL-branded teams, without reserves, would have spread Roosters’ staff thin.

They axed their development team, sending players not required at senior level back to grassroots clubs.

This has forced the Roosters to strengthen ties with regional clubs to ensure those on their list are ready to be called up, sometimes at short notice.

Bendigo has struggled with evolution.

Bendigo Diggers joined the VFL in 1998 as a club created to represent the city – kind of like the Brisbane Bears for Queensland – but never really fulfilled its promise.

Even Bendigo’s home ground, the beautiful Queen Elizabeth Oval, has always felt borrowed from tenants Sandhurst and South Bendigo.

The Diggers, as they were known until 2002, formed a full alignment with AFL club Essendon for 10 years and tasted some finals football. 

By the end, it was far from a happy partnership.

There was a strong neighbouring rivalry in the early days with North Ballarat, similar to Ballarat’s blockbuster showdowns against Geelong and Bendigo in the South East Australian Basketball League.

This faded when Bendigo’s identity became smothered in black and red.

After a break with Essendon at the end of 2012, Bendigo Gold emerged as a stand-alone club and battled hard, really hard, to win financial and community support.

Gold secured a devoted and passionate coach in former St Kilda player Aussie Jones, who moved his family to the city, and proudly promoted his adopted town. That included always taking the time to speak to The Courier when called on.

Jones was working hard to promote young home-grown talent.

This was always going to take a little time to develop, but Gold could really rattle rivals – and almost snatched victory from the Carlton-aligned Northern Blues a fortnight ago – despite not having won a game in 28 matches.

It seems winning is vital for survival.

The Roosters accepted a VFL licence in 1996, stepping up to the next level from being a dominant Ballarat Football League club.

Fellow country club Traralgon, representing the powerful Gippsland football region, joined the same year and folded two seasons later.

Pathway wiped.

The Roosters formed a partial alignment with North Melbourne in 1996, which they now share with Werribee, and the Kangaroos undoubtedly played a key role in helping the Roosters capture three straight VFL flags from 2008-10.

But Roosters-listed players have always maintained a strong presence in the team.

Roosters coach Gerard FitzGerald says a long, close partnership with TAC Cup club North Ballarat Rebels, offering a seamless transition for footballers, has been crucial to list development, and perhaps something Bendigo Gold lacked with the Pioneers.

Of the Roosters’ 2014 list, 54 per cent are former Rebels and 83 per cent have come through TAC Cup ranks – including Bendigo.

A strong partnership with Federation University, where 10 of 16 Roosters’ university students study, and the City of Ballarat, which has been a strong backer behind Eureka Stadium and an AFL push, bolster the Roosters’ vitality.

The Roosters views their responsibility to help develop the region’s football.

FitzGerald maintains an open-door policy for all coaches to talk about training, structures or injury inquiries.

Bendigo clubs will lose this.

The final Ballarat-Bendigo bout will be broadcast on ABC television when they meet at Eureka Stadium on July 19.

That will be it for promoting Bendigo football statewide.

Marquee sporting teams, in any code, offer more than a pathway. They offer inspiration that a city’s best can mix it with the state’s best, and often the nation’s best, athletes and coaches in their chosen discipline.

This is rarely easy and Bendigo’s demise shows just how quickly this can be lost.

melanie.whelan@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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