Country football creeps closer towards professionalism each season but some aspects are not keeping pace, writes JUSTINE McCULLAGH-BEASY.
THE Hampden league, one of country Victoria's powerhouse competitions, is not immune to the added pressures of modern-day football.
Coaches aren't just there to coach anymore and presidents' roles are expansive.
Everywhere you look there are areas which need improvement - dilapidated change rooms and showers, poor spectator areas, inadequate ground conditions and less than ideal coaching facilities.
Then there's player retention, junior development, umpiring standards, player payments and a lack of funding and support from AFL Victoria to worry about.
The Standard asked those in charge - senior coaches and presidents - what concerns them the most in its 'state of the game survey'.
Nine of the 10 clubs responded and facilities rated poorly in most areas with Warrnambool's Reid Oval, which itself has its detractors, named the best venue for players, coaches and spectators, with Koroit's Victoria Park ranked last.
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Player change rooms, warm-up and taping facilities, players' toilets and showers, coaches' boxes, spectator facilities and ground conditions received just three of a possible 54 'excellent' responses.
'Adequate' led the way with 28 and 'less than adequate' received 23 across the six sub-sections.
Coaches' boxes - at many grounds the brains trust stands behind the interchange bench, using it as a table, and without protection from the elements - were considered poor with more than half the respondents labelling them less than adequate.
Warm-up and taping facilities were also highlighted as a point of concern, with five of the nine respondents labelling them less than adequate.
"As most change rooms are quite small, which is OK, a space needs to provided for warm-ups," one senior leader said.
"If no space is available, e.g Melville Oval, then time between reserves and seniors should be set aside for the on ground warm-ups, e.g 20 minutes from the final siren of the reserves."
Viewing areas for the fans and the players could be improved too, according to the results.
"All change rooms' showers and toilets need upgrading to accommodate and welcome girls' and women's teams," one respondent said.
Another said "simple things like seating around the grounds and more undercover areas" would encourage more people to attend games.
Hampden league leaders are also worried their grounds are lagging behind other regional centres.
"There are good grounds with poor facilities and vice versa," one coach said.
"But all ground facilities and playing surfaces are sub-standard compared to major leagues in centres like Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong."
One of his coaching counterparts said Reid Oval, which is preparing for a major multi-million dollar upgrade, was "embarrassing".
"Reid Oval should be the showpiece of football in south-west Victoria but it's embarrassing for Warrnambool and the local area, on and off the ground," he said.
"The ground and change rooms in particular for a major league and large provincial town are unacceptable."
That same respondent stated "we need at least one ground that is at least TAC (NAB League) standard" to ensure the statewide under 18 competition returned to the south-west in the future.
VFL games and AFL practice matches would be a further boon which will only happen if the facilities meet standard requirements.
"Reid Oval is in the best place and this is where we need to start," he said.
Another respondent said Reid Oval should not host the grand final each season for a myriad of reasons.
"Currently it doesn't even have the best facilities or the best playing surface," the leader said.
"Also find it odd that it could be potentially be a home grand final to Warrnambool.
"It is unfair in many ways too because the Reid Oval is unique.
"It is the biggest oval by far in the league so the fact that Warrnambool gets to train on it and play on it for half the year is a distinct advantage compared to a side which only plays on it once.
"At the end of the day I get that a team which is good enough will win it regardless of the ground; Koroit have shown that.
"I also understand that it is probably a long-held tradition of the league too, however there are many examples of the status being changed for the better."
Two respondents considered junior development the biggest concern facing country football, another two highlighted player availability and another player retention.
One coach said the AFL needed to play a more proactive role in country football - the arm which provides a large chunk of its draftees each year.
He wants the AFL to "look after their own backyard instead of growing the game nationally and internationally while the birthplace of Australian Rules football is dying".
"They focus on Auskick but it feels like their priority here is to build AFL club supporter bases rather than help country clubs create player depth," he said.
"The AFL system seems more interested in people watching the game than playing it."
He said there were too many clubs and too many age groups which were "fighting against decreasing populations in rural towns".
The coach said it was also up to local leagues and clubs to work in the best interests of their juniors.
"The (AFL Western District) junior review came up with recommendations a couple of years ago and everyone disagreed with them and they were not enforced," he said.
"As a result nothing has changed. What's the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."
Another respondent said more funding, resources and support would help promote junior football and support volunteers.
All nine clubs were concerned about the number of umpires available and six of the nine believed the standard of umpiring needed improvement.
Three rated the standard 'good' and no one ticked the 'very good' or 'excellent' options.
One coach said the league needed to "stop changing the rules so much" which would ease the pressure on officials.
"Our umpires have a challenging job and I think we are making it too hard on them following all the rule changes in the AFL," he said.
"I believe there should have been a lot more 50-metre (penalties) paid this year, for and against us, but I think the umpires maybe (didn't) because of the new rules that could make them 100m.
"If some of those 50s (were) paid I think it allows the umpires to have more control of games as players know where they stand."
Another mentor said "from a club point-of-view our role is to support the umpires in their role".
"I am not 100 per cent sure umpires have adequate feedback systems, video reviews and individual training," he said.
"I have never been asked for feedback on umpires or umpiring in general.
"Many young children seem to pass through the boundary umpiring ranks for a year or two (and they earn handy pocket money) but most of these do not progress to field umpires. Retention is also an issue here."
Ex-players becoming umpires does not happen enough, according to one of the coaches.
"There needs to be better links between the umpires and the clubs, I know clubs have invited them out to training and this has not been taken up," he said.
The same coach said relationships between players and umpires were paramount and that it was "easy to be critical but I think the umpires are trying to do the best job they can".
Another mentor said "like our players they have good games and ordinary games" while another voiced his worries about "the fact the same thing can happen and each umpire calls it a different way".
One respondent said respect from players towards umpires was vital.
"Each club needs to ensure respect is given towards umpires," he said. "Even a simple 'thanks' and acknowledgement after the game."
Other points of interest in the survey included starting pre-season training later and a call for "footage of all games and any investigations to do be done within the week".
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