We take many things for granted in life.
Personally, I have never thought twice about how many AFL or international cricket matches I have been able to watch live from Melbourne’s sporting precinct (the number is more than 100).
However, after moving to the regional sporting capital of the world, I realised I had been lucky to live only an hour drive or 45-minute train ride from the CBD, making late night football and all-day cricket an easy option.
With an almost three-hour trip from Shepparton, not to mention a lack of services in a suitable time slot, most of the population would be lucky to get to a handful of matches a year, let alone triple figures across two decades.
It got me thinking about what else I have taken for granted, in a sporting capacity.
In fact, my mind turned inevitably to an issue that has been bubbling in the back of my mind for most of my time in this wonderful city.
Before I get to it, I must make an apology.
Maher’s Musings has been decidedly tame of late, with no hard-hitting claims, outlandish predictions or insane ideas — and for that, I am sorry.
I know my regular followers (all eight of you) expect much more from my weekly ramblings.
Rest assured, both barrels are cleaned, oiled and ready to fire today.
The target? Junior football systems in the region, or more specifically, the distinct lack thereof.
Despite moving a large amount of times as a kid, everywhere I went I found a strong junior system with clear pathways to attached senior clubs.
It made teams strong, rivalries fierce and loyalty concrete.
The Ballarat Football League, the competition where I finished my junior career, had senior and reserve teams at under-10, 12, 14 and 16 level.
All junior clubs were off-shoots of their senior affiliate and school football stayed where it belonged — between the hours of 9am and 3pm on weekdays.
Matches were all on a Sunday, played at the same ground and straight after each other across the day, with netball games coinciding on adjacent courts.
It is a system that promotes a family day at the football, as well as encouraging unity as a club and a team.
It is also a system I took completely for granted.
When you look at the four leagues we at the News cover extensively, the Goulburn Valley, Kyabram District, Murray and Picola and District, there is only one word I can come up with to describe their collective junior pathways.
To be fair though, lumping all four leagues in together leaves the slate far too open for generalisation, and does not paint a true picture of where each one excels and fails.
So let’s assess them individually, starting with the competition in the best health and moving towards the elephant in the room, before I prescribe a catch-all cure to fix everyone’s problems.
What it does right: The Shepparton District Junior Football League allows many of the GVL teams to have strong junior pathways across plenty of grades.
What it does wrong: Not all GVL teams play in the SDJFL, diminishing the ability to ingrain fierce rivalries into the youngest club members. I also completely disagree with schools being involved in any aspect of weekend football. Why should where you go to school have anything to do with where you play football?
Picola and District
What it does right: Under-17 and under-14 football before the open matches gets a massive tick from me, as does the recent and ongoing trial of another younger competition.
What it does wrong: Not a lot to be honest. I would like to see a smaller gap between age groups though, it would help decrease massive blowouts.
What it does right: Much like the PDFL, a club unity attitude with juniors playing before the seniors and reserves creates plenty of team rivalry and loyalty.
What it does wrong: Again, not a lot. The MFL and PDFL systems are where the rest of the region should be looking to see an example of what to do right, with a few tweaks.
Kyabram and District
What it does right: N/A.
What it does wrong: Where do I start? The KDFL under-18 competition is having major issues with numbers for a reason. There is no junior system in place to draw players to a club and keep them there until they are ready to be a senior star. Any club with lower-level juniors are playing in different leagues, under different names or in blasphemous school competitions. Something needs to change quickly, before the league loses clubs to the sheer attrition of scrambling for players week in, week out, year after year.
The key theme here is that there is no key theme — every competition does things differently when it comes to junior football.
Fair enough for regional and metro areas to employ vastly differing strategies, but for leagues within a Sav Rocca torpedo of each other it is simply too divisive and confusing for everyone involved.
As numbers dwindle and the amount of clubs struggling to field sides every week increases, a united front is needed more than ever if every team in the region is to survive.
I personally do not believe the BFL system needs to be brought up here, with far too many people against a whole weekend of football and not enough players to fill eight junior sides a club, but we can draw its core principles out and use them effectively.
We must do away with standalone junior leagues completely, bringing the youngest members of each competition under each one’s overarching banner, and play all football on a Saturday.
Play under-13, 15 and 17 matches in the mornings across all leagues, followed by reserve and senior games at the same ground.
It means all teams in a club will play at the same ground, on the same day, and encourages everything that makes a football club great.
There will be more support, volunteers, loyalty, rivalry and players for everyone.
Eighteen-year-olds will be thrust into the open competition a season earlier, but it must be done if we are to sustain the numbers needed to fill so many teams in the region.
It may not be a popular solution, and there will surely be better ones floated, but — and I have said this before — something must be done.
All 54 clubs in the region can be saved from extinction or mergers — someone just has to do the saving.