Covid-19 is threatening the very fabric of regional communities as local sports clubs are forced to shut their doors and are left trying to puzzle out a way to survive the crisis. By Peter Hanlon.

Covid-19 and regional clubs

The teams from the Buchan versus Kinglake practice match last month – possibly the  only game they’ll play in 2020.
The teams from the Buchan versus Kinglake practice match last month – possibly the only game they’ll play in 2020.

When the AFL bowed to the inevitable and hit pause, just as the ninth and surely last game of the 2020 season was about to begin, the reaction of many was akin to grief. Lower your gaze to the grassroots, and the loss feels even more absolute. It’s especially acute in the country, where this weekend people are wrestling with a question most have never contemplated: how do we cope without football?

The void is all the more pronounced because it isn’t just footy that’s missing from people’s lives. The elite level likes to invoke the “football community” to give everyone a sense of ownership. In the country, where people belong to football–netball clubs, community requires no manufacturing.

At Buchan, getting stuck into training in the second week of January was a blessed relief. The road into town from Orbost was still closed, and club members had to get permits just to reach the recreation reserve, which had housed the main relief centre during the East Gippsland bushfires barely a week earlier.

“We were pretty keen to get back to some sort of normality,” club president Mathew Whelan says. “Even just to have a barbecue, get everyone there and get them talking, not just sitting at home by themselves.”

Football in the country can have a deeper purpose. In all likelihood, the one game Buchan will play in 2020 was a March 14 practice match against Kinglake, who reached out to offer a window on life after bushfire devastation. About 150 Kinglake folk made the four-and-a-half-hour journey. Footy and netball games were played, a band fired up, healing began.

“That night was so good for the community, talking to people about what they’re going through,” Whelan says. “Numbers were exchanged. Everyone let their hair down a bit.”

Now, the groups of mates who have been getting together to rebuild burnt fences have been told to stay home. Whelan, who also captains the Buchan seniors in what he calls a “release” from a president’s endless duties, says many are sitting at home staring out their windows at a charred and dispiriting landscape. “We do worry about them.”

Idle and isolated, people everywhere are aching. Every winter week, as he watches the under 13s, umpires under 18s, does special comments on local radio and is bailed up every minute in between by club folk with questions and concerns, Colac and District Football Netball League (CDFNL) president Peter Hickey meets people who live for Saturday. Not that a club’s embrace is confined to the weekend.

“One bloke who’s been his club’s timekeeper for a hundred years, who’s always lived on his own, on Thursday nights they make him two meals – he eats one and takes one home,” Hickey says. “For someone like that, it’s a massive hole in his life – and he’s gotta cook another two meals a week!”

Hickey feels for the volunteers, the people at every club who struggle in the face of life’s daily challenges, who through the ritual and routine of clubland experience a sense of belonging they find only at the footy or netball. “We’re all losing social contact, and that’s huge. Especially now, with a lot of young people struggling mentally. That’s their outing.”

He is confident every CDFNL club will weather this strange storm, thanks to past administrators who had the foresight to look beyond the end of their noses. “But some leagues and clubs haven’t planned for a rainy day – they’ve planned for today, and stuff tomorrow. Because in their mind, footy was always going to be there.”

Jason Muldoon knows this dilemma well. He reckons it feels like two years ago that he started his new gig as AFL Victoria area manager for the Wimmera Mallee region, when in reality it was March 9 that he “walked in the door and got punched in the face”. He had planned to use his learnings from a lifetime in football to work with clubs on their structure, how they handle their volunteers, their efficiency going forward.

“With the [Covid-19] virus, it’s changed to survival mode,” he says. “They’re just trying to get through.”

His patch includes nine football–netball clubs in the Wimmera league, 11 in the Horsham and District league, an umpiring group and two junior associations that operate out of Ararat and Stawell. “The utmost important thing is that every single one of them survives, so that when football is ready to go again, they are all able to get going.”

The north-west of the state has produced many greats of the game and been good to football, yet it can be harsh on its clubs. Many have merged or died. Muldoon, who grew up in Macarthur and enjoyed a fine career as a player and coach largely with Hamilton Imperials, points to the loss of Horsham United as “a big eye-opener for a lot of people”.

As the walls close in, resilience is a must, as is a capacity to look outside the box for solutions. With neither the population nor the sponsorship options of their metropolitan cousins, clubs in the Wimmera Mallee often lean on agriculture – a farmer growing some grain or running a few sheep, with the proceeds going to the club.

Muldoon is confident his clubs will be intact on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic, thanks in no small part to netball, a unifier that is now stitched into the fabric of every club. As hard as it will be for some, he says the financial side is really just figures on a page that people can translate into what they can and can’t afford. Isolation presents a challenge that feels far more real.

Every autumn and winter Saturday, until now, he’s seen people at the footy, chatting and bonding over a common interest, feeling part of something. People whose world for much of the week is a tractor cabin and an endless paddock.

“Maybe in the past we’ve seen the words ‘mental health’ and the full meaning hasn’t got through,” Muldoon says. “We’re going to physically see it now, that footy–netball clubs are the cornerstone of everyone’s mental and social health. That’s a big responsibility.

“It’s a dangerous time. The last thing we want to see is an increase in mental health cases, and inevitably suicides. Our communities can’t handle that.”

Hickey shares the concern, and worries for the game when the new normal arrives. He knows how many blokes are just hanging in there, playing seconds at struggling clubs to make up the numbers, juggling young families and jobs and life. “I fear that players are potentially going to walk away from the game, and say, ‘Twelve months off is too much for me, I’m pulling the pin.’ ”

The games we play for all manner of reasons will survive. But as with so much else, Covid-19 will force them to adapt. Sponsorship dollars will be harder than ever to find with so many small businesses reeling and ruined. The merit of paying big bucks to journeyman semi-pro footballers who flit through bush leagues is a discussion that’s already being had.

Muldoon knows a football–netball club’s importance to its country community, and believes it’s time to be proactive, not sit on our hands. “There’s always something you can do,” he says. “We’ve just got to find it.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 4, 2020 as "Bush whacked".

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