By Ewen McRae
The familiar sounds of football will soon be ringing out on ovals across the west, but it won’t be quite how you remember it.
AFL Victoria recently gave the all clear for local clubs to return to training from May 25, however contact work is still prohibited, and clubs must train their players in groups of no more than 10 and at opposite ends of the oval.
It’s a tentative first step back to hopefully playing games, but how are local clubs coping with designing a training program for a contact sport when no contact is allowed?
In the Essendon District Football League, Keilor coach Mick McGuane said it would take some getting used to, but it was an important move.
“I think it’s fantastic that we’re back,” he said.
“I think it’s just what most people in society need, to be able to play sport, so I can’t wait to get going.
“It will be challenging no doubt, but if we’re any chance of getting a season going this micro-group training is something we’re just going to have to get used to.”
Keilor will have training groups running most nights of the week in order to accommodate all their mens, women’s and junior sides.
Under the current parameters from AFL Victoria, clubs can have two groups of ten players on an oval, but the groups cannot interact and social distancing of 1.5 metres must be observed at all times.
Tackling, bumping and marking contests are prohibited, and change rooms are unable to be used.
Each club must also appoint a COVID safety officer to undertake government training and ensure all these and other measures are being adhered to.
In the Western Region Football League, Wyndhamvale coach Chris Moreland said after a losing division three grand final effort in 2019 his side was simply happy to get the ball back in their hands.
“I think every footballer in Australia is happy to get back to training,” Moreland said.
“It’s a new situation for everyone, but we’re itching to get back now. We ended last year on a pretty bad note, so we’re chasing that redemption and hopefully we get that chance.
“We’ll listen to the experts and do everything right as a footy club.”
In division one, seven-time defending champions Deer Park will return to the track this week, but coach Marc Bullen said the changes would be a new test.
“It’s very challenging,” Bullen said.
“You throw out a red Sherrin and 10 people will want to touch it, so trying to get those 10 people to train while social distancing is going to be very challenging.
“But in saying that I want to see footy return and we’re hopeful more than anything that that can happen.”
While returning to training is one thing, a start of some sort of premiership season is another issue entirely, with no word yet from AFL Victoria on whether a season start date is likely.
Any start to a season is likely to be without crowds, putting additional pressure on clubs to generate revenue from gate takings or a canteen.
McGuane said despite some drawbacks, a return to playing had to be a priority for local clubs.
“I think we still have time to get a season underway at the back end of July, finishing in October,” he said.
“We’ve got to be optimistic and positive and I think it’s a great opportunity to galvanise your club and your supporters.
“A lot of people have been doing it tough, but sport gives you that outlet and it’s important for mental and physical wellbeing, and we want to make sure we give everyone that wants to be involved in sport an opportunity to reconnect.
“It’s an opportunity for clubs to look at themselves and see if they’ve become too reliant on certain income streams and maybe there’s a better way of operating.”
However Bullen said if fans were barred from attending games, he would favour scrapping the season.
“We want that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that if we start training that we can get back to playing,” he said.
“Having said that if there’s no crowds there’s no football in my opinion, it’s as simple as that.
“We play football to be around your mates and to give back to the volunteers and your supporters, so it’s just not viable to play without fans.”
For Moreland, a return to play would come down to individual players making their own call, including giving up their playing wages.
“You never say never,” he said.
“It can definitely happen, it’s just about finding grounds and avoiding a second wave of the virus, but I think it comes down to the love of the game and if you love it enough you might have to sacrifice a bit of coin to make it happen.
“Some guys are on massive money and some are on nothing, but if you’re passionate about playing you’ll do what you can to get out there and run around.”