“Knowing that an entire football community of past and present players, as well as their families and friends, were deprived of what has truly become a popular community interest was devastating.”
This is the way Eltham Football Club President Mick Smith describes the impact of two years of lockdowns, which were brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lockdowns saw the Northern Football Netball League (NFNL) cancel the 2020 season, and start but not finish the season in 2021.
The Eltham Football Club is 115 years old and is one of the longest living clubs in the NFNL.
Every single Saturday from March until September, the football community that is the Eltham Panthers comes together at Eltham Central Park to cheer on the senior men’s team.
When COVID-19 hit Australia in early 2020 the Victorian Government put the state in lockdown for majority of the year.
The NFNL was forced to cancel the 2020 seasons; after an entire year without one of Victoria’s most popular community activities Eltham president Mick Smith said he felt devastated for everyone involved.
With a high level of uncertainty, a lot of people in the local football community were left questioning the future of local football and if it would recover from the dropping of an entire season.
Will clubs struggle financially?
Will players decide they don’t want to play anymore?
Will people find other things to do on their weekends?
These were the sort of questions people were asking each other.
Eltham were getting ready for a normal season once again in 2021.
The season was moving along nicely for the club, sitting third on the ladder with seven wins and five losses after 12 rounds.
Unfortunately halfway through 2021 Victoria went back into lockdown, which ultimately resulted in the cancellation of the last half of the 2021 season.
This time the club had gone through an entire pre-season of training and were closing in on finals – only for it to all go to waste.
“It was disappointing for everyone, a lot of people give a lot of hours to this football club and to get so close to the finals for the season to just be cancelled was very deflating.”
Entering the 2022 season, the NFNL decided to halve the salary cap, which Mick believes put clubs in a great position going forward.
“Well, the salary cap’s half of what it was, and that makes it easier financially so I think most clubs are better financially then they ever have been.”
At the sport’s top level in the AFL, crowd numbers have decreased significantly from 2019 to 2022 largely thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and there were concerns this would trickle down to community sport too.
But Mick says COVID hasn’t stopped the Eltham community from attending games.
“Not to date, because we’ve had mostly pretty good games. And they seem to be pretty good from a number’s point of view if we compare them to say 2019, which is the closest comparison.”
It’s safe to say that after two tough years, local footy is now well and truly finding itself right where it was before the pandemic, when it was thriving and the lifeblood of the community.
Competitions are back up and running, participation numbers are high, and big crowds are attending matches.
As for the Eltham Football Club, it’s looking better than ever as they sit on top of the Northern Football Netball League Division 2 ladder, with 7 wins and 1 loss after 8 rounds, and a legitimate chance of delivering a senior premiership to the club for the first time in 20 years.
Mick says the two cancelled seasons made the playing group hungrier than ever to attack the 2022 season.
“Our player retention numbers from the two years have been really strong – it shows how much everyone still loves playing footy for this club, and how much people just want to have a normal season of footy with no disruptions.”