When his adopted team Carlton needs him most, Northampton’s Patrick Cripps bursts from a stoppage, weaves through traffic, and kicks a mighty goal. In front of a packed stadium, Nat Fyfe, born and raised in Lake Grace to a family of truckies and farmers, elevates above a pack and takes a hanger in Fremantle’s purple. ‘Buddy’ Franklin enters football immortality with his 1000th goal at the top level and people pour onto the Sydney Cricket Ground by their thousands to see him. He hails from Dowerin, a town with a population most recently measured at 436.
Some of the game’s great players come from humble beginnings in Western Australia’s regions, but the game’s impact on the places where they develop is a lot bigger than that.
A new source of participation
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Western Australia’s regional population grew by 7.3 per cent to 557,635 people between 2011 and 2021. The pace of growth for participation of country football in WA outpaced this comfortably. The 2011 West Australian Country Football League annual report counted 19,371 club participants across junior and senior levels. The 2022 report pegged this figure at roughly 26,500 participants, marking an increase of around 36 per cent. While population percentages don’t tell the whole story, country football is an expanding entity.
The growth is being driven by the game being more accessible than ever to the half of the population traditionally excluded. The Australian Football League launched the AFL Women’s competition in 2017 and the league claims the visibility of elite female football has been a driving factor for substantial increases in women’s participation at the community level.
Tom Bottrell is the executive manager of affiliates and facilities in country football for the West Australian Football Commission. He says the importance of women’s football for country clubs cannot be understated: “All of a sudden, it’s an extra couple of teams of females. You’ve got their families and friends and partners that are attending club functions and being part of the clubs, so the vibrancy of clubs has improved as well since female footy’s exploded.”
South West Football League general manager Jason Crowe says the continuing growth of women’s football has been a major factor in the competition growing from 30 teams seven years ago to 41 today: “It gives a different fabric and a different perspective on things.”
The traditional country family Saturday was the father and the son heading off to football while the mother and the daughter shot off to netball, but it is now genuinely feasible for the whole family to spend the whole day in one place playing the same sport.
Getting players on the park is one thing, but country football is kept alive thanks to the hard work of those behind the scenes. Last season, the WAFC counted 5000 people who volunteered their time and energy for the betterment of a WA country football club. They do a wide range of jobs, with the same people often doing two or three at a time; they run junior programs in the morning, they strap up the senior players in the afternoon, they manage the bar at club functions, and they represent the club at league meetings.
Reece Reynolds is one of the 5000 and he does more than most. As well as playing in the South Bunbury Football Club’s reserves side, he is the assistant coach of the league team and sits on the club’s board as both vice president and football operations manager. The hours he puts in on a weekly basis are around that of a part-time job. His reasons for giving up what he does for the club he loves are not complicated.
“If we didn’t have volunteers, mate, nothing would happen,”Reece Reynolds, volunteer
Crowe explains that volunteers are important at any level of football, but country football volunteers have some extra motivation. The environment created by the game acts as a conduit for people to connect when they have limited opportunities to do so elsewhere: “A lot of the smaller communities come together for that one day their team plays a fortnight, so it’s not just about footy, it’s about the community.”
Reynolds agrees and says: “A lot of guys have a lot of issues going on outside the football club. Being there with a group of guys you’re mates with and can have a beer with, people generally need that, and that’s what our football club provides.”
The connectedness has real benefits. Due to structural factors and reduced access to assistance and services, people living in regional areas may have struggles their city counterparts don’t experience. Football clubs are trying to play a part in filling this gap, formally as well as informally. Last year 2300 people across 65 clubs participated in mental health workshops facilitated through a partnership between the WACFL and Healthway.
It is not a unique challenge as the percentage of people volunteering is declining nationwide, but maintaining a steady supply of volunteers is just one area that country football’s governing bodies is trying to future-proof.
“They’re getting more important because there’s less and less of them,” Bottrell says. Crowe agrees and says: “Some of those jobs have been done by the same people for the last 15, 20, 25 years. There needs to be a larger take-up from a younger demographic to ensure all these roles are fulfilled well into the future.”
Proactive governance is the key to country football’s continued survival and growth. The WACFL, which governs WA’s 25 country football leagues, is preparing to rebrand into a new organisation named Country Football WA with expanded responsibilities. The change is designed to align junior and senior football to ensure player retention and reduce pressures on volunteers working in duplicated roles. Bottrell explains that this is a positive shift because: “What footy doesn’t traditionally do well is looking five years ahead and saying ‘what does it look like in five years?’”
A key pillar of the WAFC’s strategy is a concerted effort to upgrade country football facilities, some of which are more than 50 years old. Another, Bottrell mentions, is a concussion management trial giving regional players with symptoms the option to remotely connect to head trauma experts, saving them travel time and reducing the load on strained regional health networks.
Despite the best efforts of those in charge, Bottrell says some forms of change are unavoidable. “We’ve all driven through towns where your dad would say there used to be a footy team there, and you sort of can’t believe it, but there’s going to be more of that. There’s not a lot we can do about that, unfortunately,” he says. Overall, the game is growing but decline is impossible to prevent in some areas. The game finds a way but it is not uncommon for teams to bear the name of two or three towns due to forced amalgamations.
When you ask people involved in country football why the regions punch above their weight in producing elite footballers, no one is quite sure. Some think it is because they are exposed to playing against bigger bodies earlier, while others reckon its because there are fewer distractions in regional areas and that allows players to focus more on their game. But nearly everyone has the same answer when you ask why country football itself is special: It’s the sense of community. Producing footballers like Cripps, Fyfe, and Franklin is just an added source of pride.