Every year, young country footballers eye off the AFL draft as their golden ticket to a better life.
Almost a quarter of Australian Football League (AFL) draftees are from country Victoria where their opportunities are limited and an AFL career is like a lottery win.
The Victorian government has increased support for country sports clubs by pouring more than $22.3 million into regional football and netball clubs as part of a rural grants scheme. This year, clubs can apply for grants worth up to $100,000 to improve club’s facilities.
The Newsroom interviewed two former AFL players on their career and the continuing need for well-equipped sports clubs in regional Victoria.
Darren Crocker grew up in the once rural town, now outer suburbs, of Ferntree Gully and spent most of his teenage years climbing gumtrees, playing backyard cricket and football, riding to the shops on his push bike and fishing with his siblings.
“We used to get Mum’s coat hanger and stockings and set a yabby pot and catch yabbies from local dams and bring them home and Mum would boil them up,” he said.
Crocker’s AFL career began when he was scouted from club Scoresby, in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs, at 16 to play for AFL club North Melbourne (NMFC) in their under-19s team.
“It’s always a bit daunting playing just local footy to all of a sudden playing with a bunch of blokes that you haven’t grown up with,” Crocker said.
Listen: Darren Crocker talking about his childhood.
Troy Makepeace has lived both sides of the AFL dream, recruited from the Gippsland town of Moe in the La Trobe Valley and now back in the country coaching.
After being scouted from Moe seniors, Makepeace played in NMFC’s reserves preseason and was then drafted at the end of 1999. He said NMFC was similar to Moe in that it was a team environment. Although looking back on it now, he said: “It was a little bit of a fend for yourself thing: These are the expectations, turn up to training.”
Makepeace said clubs currently pair country players with a senior figure, such as an assistant coach, to help them adapt to city life and the AFL.
Makepeace, forced to put his electrical apprenticeship on hold after being drafted for NMFC, said the club encouraged him to get his Responsible Service of Alcohol and gaming licences so he could work at NMFC’s social club on Arden Street, the home of NMFC.
Following a successful career playing for NMFC, Crocker worked in coaching roles at AFL clubs Richmond and North Melbourne, while remaining loyal to his inner country self. He took Catani Football Club for training one night in south-east Victoria and found the atmosphere of the regional club phenomenal.
“It really reminded me of why you start playing footy in the first place. And that’s for that camaraderie and that spirit,” Crocker said.
He said people in regional areas are often drawn to their local sports clubs because “their mates all go there and they know it’s where you can gather to have a good time and to get fit”.
For some country players, the Saturday paycheck from playing football is the extra cash that gets them through the week. Although regional clubs who pay their best players in hopes of winning a premiership, can lead to “loyal locals” losing interest and leaving the club, Makepeace said.
“Sometimes that can leave a club in an even bigger hole.”
Makepeace estimated regional clubs that pay their players spend between $70,000 to $100,000 a season, although “some of them will be a lot less”. In 2015, player payments totalled $200.2m across all AFL clubs.
Following Makepeace’s AFL career, he finished his electrical apprenticeship and after a year playing in the Victorian Football League for Casey Scorpions, returned to Moe to coach the club’s seniors.
Local football is the heartbeat of many country towns, forming the most “down-to-earth” people, Crocker said.
“Country football really does play an important part in just bringing the community together, be it on a Saturday afternoon or a Thursday night for training,” he said.
The Victorian government grants will ensure many country football clubs are given the cash injection needed to boost facilities and help country footballers achieve a place in the AFL draft.
Crocker is now the Director of Coaching at NMFC. Makepeace is coaching an under-12s interleague team in Gippsland, is a radio commentator on Gippsland football, and works at a power station in the Latrobe Valley. -Matthew Male
Photos by Matthew Male