It's back to basics in the junior ranks

Wednesday, June 5

IN the hurly burly of AFL footy these days, it is easy to forget where it all began for our modern-day stars.

It wasn't that long ago that they were just a face among the crowd of young kids chasing a kick in junior ranks.

My kids have given me reason to get back where it all started in recent years and it's been a refreshing experience.

Like most blokes my age with a son or two, I've been dragged along to junior footy of a Saturday morning by my 13-year-old Thomas, with my seven-year-old, Joe, next in line.

It is another generation starting over again. The cycle just doesn't stop.

Many of us struggle to get out of bed on those cold, frosty and quite often wet Saturday mornings.

Unlike school days where it is us doing the nagging, it is usually the kids dragging us to the car to get to the game on time.

Once you ward off the frostbite, get the matchsticks into your eyes and settle into your role of goal umpire or timekeeper, you realise just how much this time means to the kids.

In 10 years or so some of these kids will have the pressure of AFL coaches, supporters and the media bearing down on them.

But for now, it is all just fun, and great to watch.

It doesn't matter if they are short, fat, skinny, slow or fast, everybody gets a game and don't they love it.

Forget positions, they chase that ball around like there's no tomorrow.

I asked the under-14 coach the other day how his game was going.

``It is a great game of soccer at the moment, none of them can pick it up,'' he laughed.

While AFL clubs ride a week-long wave of emotion depending on if they win or lose of a weekend, the result is largely irrelevant in junior ranks.

Apart from the odd pushy parent, everyone is happy to see the kids just running around with a smile on their face.

It all couldn't happen without the help of the many unsung heroes who are there week in, week out.

There are mums umpiring, dads pouring the drinks and fathers who give up even more time during the week to coach the boys.

It is an infectious atmosphere; everyone working together to let the kids play, effectively continuing a tradition that started not long after Thomas Wills introduced the game to Geelong way back in the 1850s.

Today's junior competition is a great set up. There's four or five grading games at the start of the season so that some teams are not being thrashed every week. It remains competitive, yet fun. Everyone is placed in a division that suits their ability and each year gradings are held because some kids simply develop faster than others.

It is a far cry from when I was a kid growing up at Nullawarre, just outside Warrnambool.

We had to chase the cows off some grounds (read paddocks) before we could start the game.

The junior competition in Geelong today is well constructed and gives the kids every opportunity to develop their football in a friendly environment.

Just the way it should be.