Gillon McLachlan has vowed to find football grounds in Sydney for junior players being turned away by local clubs due to a critical shortage of facilities.
Pointing to the scarcity and inadequacy of grounds as “almost the biggest challenge facing our game”, the AFL chief vowed he would not “accept turning kids away” after holding talks in the harbour city on the eve of the finals with the president of Sydney’s biggest junior club.
McLachlan called a meeting with Eastern Sydney Bulldogs president Iain Dunstan after launching the finals on Wednesday in the harbour city. “The situation, as he explained it, was quite dramatic,” said McLachlan.
Dunstan, who turned away 70 juniors before this season and said that number would grow into the hundreds come 2018 registrations, pointed to the success of the two Sydney AFL clubs, the enormous impact of Lance Franklin, the influx of junior girls and the league’s growing impact in Sydney schools as creating a supply-and-demand crisis.
Of his meeting with the AFL boss, Dunstan said: “I think he was genuinely shocked. My view is the AFL has to put in some serious money to fix it and the current growth is only going to exacerbate.
“I understand the girls’ success caught them on the hop but right now it’s like running a business and spending all your money on advertising and then having no product to sell.
“I appreciated the time he (McLachlan) gave me and for listening, but I’ve had to resort to civil disobedience because I just think the AFL is spending the money in the wrong places.”
Dunstan’s club East Sydney was formed in 1880 and boasts 685 junior players, including 100 female players. Forced to share their 139-metre ground at Paddington’s Victor Trumper Park with rival club the UTS Bats, Dunstan said his club faced massive expenses renting facilities at the University of NSW 15 kilometres away.
For the second successive season both the AFL’s Sydney-based clubs are challenging in September and Dunstan said AFL NSW should have pushed harder to follow up negotiations with Randwick racecourse to establish an n rules playing field in the middle of the track – first proposed last season.
“We”re not getting our message across,” said Dunstan, “and we’ve got two successful AFL clubs, Buddy Franklin is a superstar here and kids are now playing at school on Saturday and wanting to play club footy on Sunday.
“It’s causing friction between the boys and the girls because we can’t send girls in their first season 15 kilometres away to play and the boys think we’re favouring them. I can’t walk down the street without disappointed parents asking why their kid is being turned away. Where am I going to fit them in?”
McLachlan conceded that while football clubs across were being stretched by a shortage of grounds, clubs in Sydney’s eastern suburbs were “bursting at the seams”.
“The facilities challenge for us is almost the biggest challenge facing our game,” added McLachlan. “We’ll play whatever role we can in turning it around and whatever the solutions are, I’m not going to accept turning kids away.”
The AFL boss said the competition was working with Sydney’s local councils and schools and confirmed the code was exploring establishing a football ground in the middle of Randwick’s racecourse. McLachlan added that the NSW minister for Sport Stuart Ayres had been sympathetic to the dearth of playing fields restricting the code in Sydney.
Easter Sydney was the junior club of Sydney’s Dane Rampe, Hawthorn’s Will Langford along with Paul Roos’ sons Dylan and Tyler. AFL commissioner Jason Ball coaches the under-15 girls team.