In last week’s Inside the EFL, CEO Phil Murton spoke about the EFL’s under-19 competitions…
The structure of transition age groups is an area that will be debated as long as football competitions exist. The more you talk, the more you investigate and realise it will never be perfect and as the world evolves, so will these competitions.
With some clubs in Division 1 struggling to field teams, it’s been an area of focus this year. Our team numbers are the same as last year and the year before that, and while we know some teams are a bit skinny on numbers, it’s interesting that when it’s teams at the top flight who can’t field sides it looks like more of a problem than when teams in lower divisions can’t. Maybe there’s a reason behind this?
Talk to people and there seems to be a utopian view of under-18 past where every club fielded an under-18 team. This is incorrect. From 1994 to 2001 clubs fielded under-18 teams 74% of the time. Prior to this it was even lower. In the 10 years leading up to the change from under-18 to under-19, that number increased to 83%, and since the change the number has been 82%.
While we would have hoped for an increase rather than maintaining numbers, overall for the competition we have 16 more teams annually as a result of the change from 16/18 to 17/19. That’s over 350 young men involved in our clubs who wouldn’t otherwise be.
In the 10 years leading up to change, teams in our north with juniors aligned to the YJFL fielded under-18 teams just 51% of the time, with only a 12-month age window from which to recruit players proving too difficult. In the seven years since the change this has increased to 87%.
We have more under-17s playing than ever before. Where the challenge used to be moving them at 16 to 17 years of age, now it’s 17 to 18. The transition from junior to senior footy is never easy.
Clubs have repeatedly expressed they don’t want to change from the current historical schedule of three games in one day against the same opposition at the same venue. Revenue, logistics and strain on volunteers are some of the reasons. While acknowledging these are genuine concerns, if we found a system that better encourages competition and participation, where we could still align 19s with seniors/reserves teams most of the time, would it be best not to start with this and then find ways to address any concerns? And where we’ve got gaps in the under-19s fixture in the current format, this will be forced on us anyway.
We’ve recently done some analysis on our under-19 competition vs that of AFL Barwon, which is a graded competition with teams from three neighbouring senior leagues. When we say graded, there are generally a couple of teams from each competition that are different from the seniors. There are two key numbers when comparing competitions.
Our average winning margin in under-19s over the last 5 years is 59.9 points, or almost 10 goals, while down the highway at AFL Barwon it is 42.9, or seven goals. The discrepancy between our top two divisions is even greater, at 57 vs 35 and 59 vs 40.
A bigger and probably even more worrying number is the percentage of games decided by over 50 points, where in the EFL the number is 47.2%, compared to AFL Barwon at 32.2%. This is reinforced by the fact that over the last 5 years, in the EFL under-19s we’ve had 290 games decided by more than 100 points, compared to AFL Barwon with 104. Closer games, less floggings. Sound like a way to keep young men engaged?
Talk to both clubs and administrators down in Geelong and they’ll tell you it’s the best decision they’ve ever made. While there was some unease with the change initially, clubs who used to struggle to get 18 players now get 25-28 kids together while stronger clubs have been able to field two teams.
If you look at the Division 1 clubs, who despite their best efforts, have had trouble fielding a team this year, their results last year paint a picture. South Croydon, Montrose and Doncaster each won just a few games and had an average losing margin of over 65 points, while East Ringwood’s was 58 points. How difficult was the discussion with the bottom age kids about returning this year? Unless you had a gun group of 17s coming through, where was the motivation for these kids to want to go around again getting flogged most weeks. If they knew they would be in a competition more commensurate with their ability may it be a bit easier to get them back?
It’s a challenging age group and one that will never be perfect. Different structures will suit some clubs better than others based on circumstances. The world has changed, and young men have more opportunities and different levels of commitment. One club told me on the weekend they lost six under-19 players to the Groove in the Moo music festival. Have we as a sport changed with the times to suit?
As we continue to look at the best way to structure all of our competitions to create the best possible environment, it’s an area of huge significance we’ll keep investigating and talking to clubs and players about. Grading won’t be the ultimate panacea, but it would help. The numbers tell you so.