They represent all 10 local clubs, and every one of them dreams of becoming an AFL footballer. Statistics suggest their chances are slim; a local kid hasn’t made the grade since Ryan Griffen played junior footy for Goolwa-Port Elliot and the Western Bulldogs picked him as a priority selection at the 2004 NAB draft.
Everyone says it’s time this region produced another AFL hero, and the blokes out on the field this night taking these kids for drills totally agree. But it’s more than just giving up their time for nothing (they don’t have their own kids in this squad) and helping them to be the best players they can.
It’s about helping the kids be the best in everyday life; becoming leaders by example and looking after themselves in things like nutrition, dehydration and fitness.
Among them is Jake Tarca, 15, who started his junior footy at Encounter Bay, and has gone on to playing for South Adelaide’s U16s and being named captain of South Australia’s State U16 team. The Victor Harbor High School student is a good lad, and with outstanding support from his mum and dad, Paul and Bec, he has a clear vision of what he would like to achieve if the AFL dream doesn’t materialise. The academy has taught him to see beyond the game.
We hear and read a lot of bad things about the culture of football – more so in rugby league – and kids like Jake are merely reinforcing the need for this program.
The academy, in its fourth year, has been driven by a group of blokes who care – Michael Simmons, who for many years has done so much for local football with Victor Harbor and as a highly respected journalist at The Times, former SANFL player Robbie McKinnon, Bryan Munn, who did some outstanding work with juniors at West Adelaide starting 15 years ago, and David Winn and John Griffen, both whose commitment to football at all levels has been equally outstanding. With support from other junior coaches, and especially the GSFL and its progressive clubs, they are taking football and personal development to a whole new level in the limited time they have with the lads.
Michael, the coordinator and a GSFL executive, explained they have the squad of 30 one night a week at rotating venues for about 14 weeks from March, so no one really expects them to turn the best local 14 or 15 year-old lads into absolute champions in such a short time.
“We identify the players with a bit more talent than the others and try to raise the standards,” Michael said.
“You need to understand we have a three-year gap in our football; sometimes the kids are playing at the top end in U15s and can be playing against 12-year-olds, and that’s not really helping their footy or giving them intensity which they need to develop.
“Giving them specialist coaching has also made us a lot more competitive at association level. Southern has always belted us, and we’ve made some ground the last three years. The first year they beat us by 20 goals – that was the norm.
“The next year we upped the academy work and we beat them for the first time ever, and last year we kicked 4.14 and lost by a couple of goals.
“We are very proud of that improvement, but this is not just about winning games. We like to think that we have also helped the young players to be better people. We push things like setting a standard and being a role model at their football club because they are the best in their age group and others their age look up to them. It’s about influencing others. It’s about teaching them to be leaders in life; not just football.”
The academy program is also about taking a step to changing this dreadful image covering football across all levels in terms of anti-social behaviour and not respecting your opponent on and off the field.
Michael said: “Before a recent junior colts game between Goolwa-Port Elliot and Victor Harbor, when we had squad members on both sides, we said to them, you might be rivals on the field when you cross that line, but afterwards mix and show that you can integrate rather than have the battle lines drawn for the whole day.
“We push that a lot, even though I don’t think that has been an issue with football here over the years. We say to our kids, say g’day to the opposition and get to know them better. The other kids see our players (academy members) do it, and hopefully they follow.
“The squad is not just about skills, but developing a better culture or image for the local game.
“Over the three years we have seen a number of lads come through the system and really develop – not just as players, but as good young men. Tom Neville is a fantastic example; he’s been hindered by injuries but he’s going really well. James Bradford from Goolwa-Port Elliot won the junior colts’ Mail Medal last year as a 14-year-old and this year he’s part of our program again. He’s moved on wonderfully well and he’s part of a mentoring program. Nathan Krueger is another one. It’s all good.
“South Adelaide reap the benefits of what we are doing as well; we’re doing the talent identification for them. That’s the pathway. “Obviously there are circumstances that says you can’t do it; a lot of things happen when you turn 16, 17 or 18 that can make you deviate off that path, but we like to think we are at least giving them a head start and pointing them in the right direction, not only in football, but life. Then it is up to them.”
Robbie played 259 games for West Adelaide from 1983-96. He played in its last premiership side in his debut season, and was highly respected for his skills, discipline and the approach to his game. Gawd he was a good player; now he is teaching this local junior elite squad the importance of nutrition, dehydration and fitness.
“Being involved with this academy is just something that I have always felt passionate about at U15 level,” he said. “We all do it because we love the game and we want the kids to have the chance to be better. If they don’t become a star footballer it is okay; it’s also about leadership and taking care of your body.
“A lot of this is about making them better athletes. Most kids don’t understand how to prepare properly, get their bodies ready for a game, play and recover. It’s educating them on becoming an athlete more than a footballer.
“They all have their natural ability which we try to nurture, but at this age some would not know enough about the role they play on the field.
“I help them with their fitness and preparation so they can do their best. Nutrition and general well being is something they can have for the rest of their life.
“There are blokes 30 and 40 years of age who still don’t understand how to prepare and recover properly. If they don’t learn it now they can struggle throughout their footy career.
“During my football lifetime I have seen a lot of good young kids go by the wayside because not enough attention was paid to them. But then again, times are different compared with when I grew up… you had two or three bigger brothers, and the whole dynamics of kids riding bikes and climbing trees has changed. Now they sit on computers.
“It is harder to educate them on keeping fit and motivating them. I always ask them to get their mum or dad to buy them a watch so they can start timing their runs so they can beat themselves. Back in the days when families had four or five kids you were trying to beat your brothers and sisters. We were fitter; the generations are getting lazier.”
Kids being kids, they probably don’t tell Michael, Robbie and the other outstanding contributors to this program just how much they appreciate them. It’s not cool to say much, but you sense they are listening and learning, not just about football but life.
One really hopes these kids get to play in the AFL. In the meantime, they should mention on their curriculum vitae when going for a job in a few years that they were members of the GSFL U15 academy. It tells employers they’re a leader; they learned that a footballer’s life is not just a kick in the grass.
And come future training nights, god bless the mums and dads sitting in the cold. Give ’em the best and fairest awards this season.