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Friday, April 19 2019 @ 06:19 pm ACST

New season approaches but British regional football far from settled

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Late last year we reported on a proposed new league by Aussie Rules UK to be run in British population centres away from London. The ARUK league was designed to use smaller player numbers and groupings in smaller regions. This aimed to address some of the complaints levelled at the British Australian Rules Football League, but it appeared it would also be run partially in competition with the BARFL's Regional League. Some of the teams listed by ARUK were indeed BARFL sides so the UK Australian Football scene was clearly in for an interesting off-season as clubs faced a big decision. It has been two months since we last looked at this issue so WFN contacted the existing and proposed new clubs to ask them how their preparations for 2007 have been going and which league they intend playing in. We've also discussed some of the problems faced by regional clubs in the past, how the BARFL has or hasn't dealt with such issues, and how planning for the inaugural ARUK season is progressing.

The Debate

There is no doubt starting a new sporting club is difficult. When it is a sport relatively new to an area, away from the nation's main population centre, it can be even more difficult. Over the 16 years of the BARFL running Aussie Rules in the United Kingdom, the focus has unquestionably been London, due to the large population of expatriate and travelling Australians. Over the years there have been complaints that the London-based leagues have been too Australian dominated and not enough done to develop the game or spread it further afield (we'll hear those points in depth shortly). Criticism has also focussed on no widespread junior development priogram. On the flipside there are quotas used to encourage clubs to recruit Europeans, and some junior development work done on what appears to have been an ad hoc basis, and the national side, the Bulldogs, has twice travelled Down Under to compete for the International Cup. So whether these are reasonable complaints or unavoidable side-effects of a young volunteer-based sporting organisation have been the points of heated debate. Nevertheless, the BARFL has slowly grown to include a number of clubs in its Regional League, with 2006 featuring 6 such sides, and a separate Scottish League with two sides in each of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and one across the border in Middlesbrough. This was in addition to the 6 team London Premiership and 7 team London Conference, giving a total of 24 sides in action in 2006. Arguments can clearly be made for and against the status quo, and the way forward for footy in the UK is far from settled.

A Push for Change

Aussie Rules UK has pushed for change, launching their own senior league, as reported on in ARUK and BARFL to battle for regional Britain? and ARUK league to feature 5 divisions. A fan of ARUK and strong critic of the BARFL has been David "Dizza" Fearnley from the St Helens Miners, a club that formed around 2002 to play in the BARFL but struggled against the stronger London sides. Although they entered the BARFL Regional League in 2003 they folded in 2004. A pioneer of the game in Merseyside in England's northwest, he became frustrated with a perceived lack of support from the London-based authorities, and is a fan of the new concept being introduced by ARUK's Brian Clarke. Last December Clarke sent us Fearnley's detailed discussion of where he was disappointed with the BARFL's support back in the St Helens days. Fearnley was keen for his thoughts to inform the discussion, and his review of the issue was lengthy and beyond the scope of this article, but a large selection of his comments follow.

David Fearnley: "As the founder of the St. Helens Miners I have to say that I was not too impressed with the BARFL over the 3 years we had with them. The first year in 2002 was when we only had the one league, so we played with all the London clubs plus Bristol and Sussex. It was very hard work to set up the club - getting enough players to play full 18-a-side footy is a hard task alone. Then they had to pay League fees on top of that, not only to play in the league but we had to pay extra to get a group as we didn't have any sponsors. And of course the ground was hard work and a lot of money due to the pitch having to be much bigger with new markings.

Another hard task was to get these players to play away. Unfortunately our closest game was 4 hours away (with a good run), our furthest (Sussex) was 6 hours. These players had to pay for these games out of their own pocket due to no sponsor - the club could not even pay a little towards these. On top of this we were getting smashed by nearly 250 points every game (home and away). Of course people did not start to go to away games and who can blame them? We told the BARFL it was getting hard for us but we had no help at all on our away games".

Fearnley was also critical of the BARFL not awarding the Miners a trophy as country champions as had happened in previous seasons, something "which still upsets me to this day".

Fearnley again: "2003 saw the new Regional league come into place - this was played under 14-a-side rules. We told the BARFL that we could only play if we used a Rugby pitch (getting an oval was too much). They were not happy but knew they would lose a team very highly respected by the other clubs so they granted this wish. This league had us travel to Doncaster (2 hours), Bristol (4 hours) and Reading (4 hours). It sounded very good at first as we only needed 14 players, however this league was run very poorly. One major problem was that the home team provided the umpire and due to most players being English (like myself) it was English players who ended up umpiring (including myself at the time). We didn't really know much about the game as we were still quite new. Also, it looked better on a map to get to these places but in fact it was harder to get to them than London and just wasn't worth going to if you had to drive for so many hours. At least under the London league it was just a long train ride there and back - not piled in cars and having to rely on a driver too.

Fearnley had other points, but to summarise, the key issues were travel time and costs, lack of umpiring support and the difficulty in finding player numbers to support full sized footy (though the Regional League was playing 14 per side, and sometimes 9-a-side when numbers weren't available). "After we told the BARFL this they offered us money and tried to get sponsors for us, but we had told them for a year that we were dying and their offer was by then way too late".

David Fearnley had praise for some BARFL staff, singling out Trevor Wright and Mick Bolts. Fearnley played the 2006 season with the new Manchester team in the BARFL's growing Regional League, but feels the issues remain the same, with their closest match against Nottingham, "a good two hours away on a good run. Our furthest away game was Thanet - 8 HOURS AWAY! - bloody stupid. Now this year was 12-a-side and Thanet are a good bunch of lads, but I can't believe BARFL let them in this year, they only had 10 players and had to forfeit many away games. They did come all the way to Manchester, however, but with only 4 players. Anyway we have said to the BARFL that even though we have a lot of players some are dropping out because of our away games - we have to stay overnight and this is killing the weekend for them as they have family and other things to do - we just can't do it. Yes the night over is fun for the first year but it soon loses its novelty value. Yet the BARFL has no plans to change the Regional league".

Perhaps Fearnley's greatest criticism was reserved for the BARFL administrators. "I think the problem with the BARFL is that it is run by Australians for Australians. The league over here should be run to get locals to play Australian Football - how can the best game on earth become the best if only one nation plays it? To me it feels like the President of the BARFL just wants to show the AFL how good the league is and hope to get a job with the AFL on his return". He also questioned the BARFL's claim to be a British league, as opposed to England only, dismissing the Scottish division (four clubs in Scotland, one in England) as run by locals not the BARFL.

Fearnley is much more positive when it comes to ARUK (so much so that since this information was sent to us we've been told by a third party that he has joined ARUK in an organisational role, though we have not yet confirmed this). "The new Aussie Rules UK season sounds great and I can't wait for it to get going. I admit, playing under 9-a-side rules doesn't sound like footy but it's better then not playing at all. I have played under 9-a-side before and playing the "Lightning" Rules is a very exciting game indeed. Aussie Rules UK in its short history has got government backing, great sponsors and has created a National Junior Team (something Australia has not even done) and created so many Senior clubs. They have created more senior clubs in 6 months than the BARFL has in 16 years!" (Whilst we don't want to pass judgement on most of what has been said, a few facts should be noted, principly that the statement of more ARUK sides than BARFL clearly remains to be seen, and on the issue of an Australian junior team, Australia does indeed have such a side but it previously has only played International Rules against Ireland because it would clearly humiliate any other nation at this early stage of international development).

The Case for the BARFL

Of course there's two sides to every story, so to be fair we asked BARFL President Remon Gazal to respond. His comments were:

"Expansion and growth is a challenge for any sport in any league and this challenge is amplified when you add in the complication of travel and I think the frustrations that David expresses are not unique to his club(s), this league or this sport. It is a characteristic of a developing league.

The BARFL strategy has always been to contain travel requirements by looking to grow the Regional competition in Aussie Rules hotspots. This however takes time and while these hotspots develop, teams will have to travel until we have a critical mass to branch out into a subsequent region. Foremost though, we have focussed on sustainable growth. To some this may be interpreted as slow growth, however it is important that teams that develop do not subsequently forfeit and / or fold. The only thing more frustrating than travelling a full day for a game of football is to have a team forfeit on the day or worse still, to not be able to get a game on at all. To this end, it is important that new teams are sustainable teams. It takes about 30 guys around a club to put a 12-a-side team on the pitch each week and our focus is not only finding those 30 guys, but also making sure that there are three or four amongst their number who can sufficiently organise and develop them from a team to a club.

It is also important that as the leagues develop, the appropriate infrastructure is in place for those leagues to run efficiently. We didn't do that well with the Regional in 2005. Following feedback from the clubs we did a lot better in 2006, and in 2007 we will improve in that area again. The SARFL is a good model for where we would like to get to in the Regional areas. The SARFL are affiliated with the BARFL and particpate under the BARFL banner, however they have their own local infrastructure in place for administration and management and we share ideas on growth and participation as well as season planning and events.

In 2007, we are confident of retaining our core regional teams and hope to be adding Leeds to its number at a minimum. Unfortunately there has been a lot of distraction created during the off season and it is has been hard for both the clubs and the BARFL to get on and do what it wants to do, and that is play proper Aussie Rules football. We would have hoped to have added further clubs however there is only so much time we can commit to football and sadly much of it has been consumed by this distraction. However, we are happy to say that we are still providing a Regional competition with proper teams on proper football grounds playing proper contact Aussie Rules within a pathway that allows teams to start and develop while giving players an opportunity to play the full 18 a-side and a pathway to the national team, the British Bulldogs.

As for the future, we will continue to grow new teams in the regional areas and also pick up existing teams that find themselves without a competition to play in mid season. The current BARFL committee has started three football clubs, played over 20 games for the British Bulldogs, have combined experience of more than 20 years on the league committee, umpired over 100 games of football in the UK, coached over 100 games of football in the UK and has dedicated thousands of volunteer hours to the betterment of the game in the UK. There is a lot of experience there and most of it gained through the BARFL competition. Importantly also there is a lot of people providing support at the next level. This is critical to the survival of the game. There is only limited money in Aussie Rules in the UK. To have one person drawing a full time wage from this pot leaves insufficient funds for where it is needed most and unfortunately the UK is too expensive to survive in without drawing a proper wage, hence the reliance on volunteers.

The BARFL is entering its 18th season and has had countless other committee members and survived all of their comings and goings and will survive countless more. The next few years we will take it to the next level as we look to steadily add new clubs, continue to improve Junior participation in the UK which has benefited positively from the affiliation with ARUK for Juniors, and continue the strong improvement in the class and quality of the National team. The quality of International football is growing exponentially and our challenge is to grow ahead of the curve".

The Clubs in Question

The BARFL are quietly confident that they will retain most of their clubs this year. So what will be the likely make-up of the 2007 regional competitions? We contacted all 21 of the originally proposed sides in the ARUK divisions to see whether they will be part of ARUK in 2007. The responses have ranged from clubs saying they are committed to either ARUK or the BARFL, through to some waiting to see how events unfold. Curiously the majority of proposed new clubs did not respond.

Existing BARFL club the Manchester Mozzies played a very straight bat, going on the record as saying they intended being around for a long time no matter what happens and that their club is growing steadily, and that "The Manchester Mozzies are waiting to see what happens before we commit to any league. We have had discussions with both the BARFL and the ARUK. Both leagues are committed to the development of the game in the UK and supporting regional football". Their position was that "At the end of the day we will do what is best for the club and whatever gives the team the most opportunities to play footy". While we waited for replies from our relevant parties Manchester contacted us again to advise that they would definitely be remaining in the BARFL Regional League in 2007.

We contacted the Sussex Swans through the email address on the ARUK website and were advised by Sam Dixon that "We are entering two teams in to the ARUK 2007 season the Sussex Swans and Brighton" and he spoke of their 15 year history with the BARFL. At first we took this to mean that the club was confirming they would be swapping to the new league. Clearly we misunderstood, as the BARFL's understanding was that the Sussex Swans would be maintaining their two BARFL sides, as well as aiming to field two additional teams in the 9-a-side ARUK southern division. Based south of London, this should give Sussex the best of both worlds. Sussex President Dave Bell then told us "Yes, you're right, 2007 sees big changes for the Swans, we are aiming to strengthen our performance in the BARFL by establishing a Central London base, whilst working to develop the game in our heartland, Sussex. From our Brighton base, we are working with other new and established South Coast clubs to establish a workable competition to enable the game to prosper. With a large amount of work going into 2007 from a committed group of stalwarts during the miserable Northern winter the Swans are a club to watch and be part of.". Although that didn't directly reference ARUK, further communication from Bell was that the club was still considering the best way forward for any sides in addition to their two BARFL teams.

We didn't receive a response from the Middlesbrough Hawks, a member of the Scottish league in 2006, but the SARFL's Eddie McAvinchey was reasonably confident they would continue in the SARFL.

ARUK's Wales division appears much more settled. Expatriate South Australian Bryce Stone, also of ARUK, and of Welsh heritage and now based in Wales, is in charge of getting four sides up and running. He told WFN that they have the basis for four sides, all from the south of Wales, to compete in what will be called the Welsh AFL. Stone: "These teams are South Cardiff Panthers, Cardiff Double Blues, Newport Tigers and Swansea Magpies (these are the official teams and nicknames as the information on aussieruleswales.com has not been updated as yet). The league is due to start on Saturday, 5th May 2007. At this stage we are still recruiting players and with everything going to plan all teams will be up and running for this season". Stone stressed that it was early days for footy in Wales, but was optimistic about its future prospects.

Likely Outcome

With Clarke announcing the new league and ARUK's website listing many new clubs as well as existing BARFL Regional League sides amongst the 21 teams in their proposed five divisions, the likley makeup of the respective leagues in 2007 has been difficult to untangle. The ARUK website now indicates the 5 divisions have been reduced to 3, with the regions now being Northern, Southern and Wales. With the decision by Manchester to stay with the BARFL, and if they also pick up Leeds and the SARFL hold onto Middlesbrough, but if Sussex field two sides in ARUK's Southern division, that would give a total of 11 sides for ARUK. The website does however say more can be created if there is sufficient demand. Presumably organisers will be keen to at least maintain this level so travel does not become an issue for them also.

No doubt another drawcard for ARUK was Clarke's statement that a major sponsor would be announced late last year. It has since been reported elsewhere that the deal is worth an impressive 5-figure sum. We had hoped to get confirmation and a further update from Clarke but he did not respond to our questions.

There are a variety of other rumours doing the usual international footy circuit, but for now we've told you all that people are confident of putting on the record. To predict the format of regional footy in the UK in 2007 would, at this point of the pre-season, probably be foolish. We had hoped to gain a clearer picture but at this stage it seems nothing is certain for the fast approaching season. Maybe the BARFL will successfully continue its Regional League and ARUK will run 3 smaller divisions, or perhaps one body will be forced to scale back plans. Who knows? So the same wish continues as we expressed in our first story on this matter - that everything works out in the best interests of footy.

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