Last year was a devastating blow for the VFL competition.
As a keen lover of the history of Aussie rules, it was the worst possible scenario imaginable.
Carlton ended their long-term alignment with the Northern Bullants, Frankston had only returned for two years after exiting the comp due to financial hardship. The history the competition had been founded on was at risk.
Despite delays to their seasons, the other big state competitions in the WAFL and SANFL were able to complete a 2020 season.
For rusted-on supporters of historied teams like Port Melbourne and Williamstown, they were unable to watch their team at all.
With the announcement of a merger with the NEAFL at the end of 2020, the competition was looking stronger than ever.
I was fortunate enough to make my way to three landmark games across round one, because simply put, I am footy mad.
Richmond vs. Sandringham (Friday, 12PM)
The restart of the VFL season was one that footy fans weren’t going to miss.
Tigers fans showed up in droves amidst the lunch-time rush to see their VFL side unfurl their 2019 premiership flag, which was won in a three-point thriller over Williamstown.
Walking up to Punt Road even brought up emotions in this diehard Bombers fan.
The last VFL/AFL game played at the venue was in 1964, the Tigers going out on a sad note and losing to the Hawks by 31 points. The Tigers VFL side would return to Punt Road in 2014, while their AFLW side played their home games there this year.
I could imagine the Tigers and Hawks supporters piled into the venue, desperately barracking for their sides despite both being eliminated from finals contention.
It’s the history of the sport that makes moments like these special.
I’m long removed from that sort of suburban footy, being born in 1997, long after most sides stopped playing at their traditional home grounds.
The VFL competition almost makes me feel like I’m in that era, living it like those who founded and supported the sport over a century before me did.
For the Sandringham Zebras, their relationship with their fans is a complicated one.
As of 2021, they stand as the only aligned team in the VFL competition that is not solely a secondary team for the AFL side.
A particularly disgruntled Zebras fan took umbrage at the guernsey they wore on their first game back.
“Why the **** are the Zebras wearing a Saints jumper?”.
Another fan on Twitter echoed the sentiments.
“Poor old Sandringham… Forced to give up one of the great footy jumpers. Disgraceful.”
It’s these complicated emotions that surround the VFL that form a part of my intrigue with the competition.
The game itself was anything but complicated for Richmond supporters, the Tigers running out convincing 40-point winners.
Samson Ryan, Maurice Rioli Jr., Riley Collier-Dawkins and Patty Naish impressed strongly and put their hands up for AFL selection.
VFL-listed Garrett McDonagh got the chance to show his chops, pushing hard up the ground out of the back pocket and creating his fair share of play for the victors.
For the Zebras, Oscar Clavarino had 20 disposals and 14 marks, while Shaun McKernan had 23 disposals, 10 marks and kicked four goals to cap off his day.
Bullocking midfielder Goy Lok had 22 disposals, nine incredibly hard tackles and kicked a goal.
Part of the charm of the VFL is being able to hear players like Lok threaten and intimidate young Tiger Will Martyn from the boundary line after getting slammed hard in a tackle.
Carlton vs. Southport (Saturday, 2PM)
A new standalone team entered the VFL competition on Saturday, Queensland powerhouse the Southport Sharks.
Founded in 1961, the Sharks have won 22 senior level premierships over their history. That’s over an average of one every three years for those playing along at home.
A huge Sharks contingent showed up at Ikon Park, cheering their beloved team all the way through to a thrilling ending.
Matt Owies and Ben Crocker kept the forward pressure on for Carlton, while Liam Stocker was a nightmare match-up as he pushed off half-back onto the wing.
As the sun set over the suburb of Carlton, the Sharks smelled blood.
It was former AFL-listed players Billy Gowers and Lukas Webb who were the heroes, Webb kicking a goal in the dying seconds to put the Sharks one point up after being behind from the early stages.
24-year-old midfielder Michael Manteit made club history, kicking the first ever goal for the Sharks in the VFL competition.
The Sharks’ story is one of resilience, adaptation, and a burning desire to play football and be the best at it.
Upon entry in the VFL this year, they have now played for premiership points in four different leagues.
Southport began life in the Gold Coast Australian Football League, winning the premiership in their inaugural year and setting the bar for years to come.
The club would spend 22 years there before requesting entry to the Queensland Australian Football League (QAFL), in which they would also win the flag in its first year.
It was here the club ditched the Magpies moniker and forged their own identity as the Sharks. 2010 would see them join the NEAFL alongside AFL reserves sides, the highest level that Queensland has ever seen.
Ruthless and hungry from start to end, the Sharks showed on Saturday afternoon why they deserve the powerful nickname.
Co-captain Andrew Boston laid 11 tackles, and was key in the middle all day long with his fierce attack on the footy. Former Suns Brayden Crossley and Jordan Dawson would further add 14 more tackles between them.
Northern Bullants vs. Williamstown (Sunday, 1PM)
Walking down from Preston Station before the first bounce in this game was simply unforgettable.
The sea of red was on the march, eager to see the return of the great Preston Football Club as a standalone entity for the first time since 2002.
Sausages were sizzling all day long, the station end of the ground covered by a billowing cloud of smoke for the majority of the game.
All this was a stark reminder of how different the VFL competition was nearly 20 years ago.
Werribee were aligned with the Western Bulldogs and were a powerhouse of the competition, the Murray Kangaroos were at the end of their short-lived tenure and the old, proud VFA battler Springvale was not far off re-locating to Casey.
Fast-forward to 2021, and there’s more standalone sides than ever.
The Bullants are one of eight standalone teams in the competition this year, alongside Williamstown, Frankston, Werribee, Port Melbourne, Coburg, Aspley and Southport.
While the game ended in a disappointing 52-point loss, the fact that the club got themselves to this point at all is remarkable beyond belief.
The joy felt by the Preston community despite the loss was palpable.
From the stands where the Silvagni family watched 20-year-old Ben for the Ants, to the hill where friends of Gulls defender Jake Greiser sprayed him all day long (despite ending up on 29 disposals!), it was a day of celebrating everything good about footy.
Even the pets got in on the action, a particularly overeager Golden Retriever nearly finding its way onto the field late in the final term if not for the quick reflexes of the owners.
To the visitors came the spoils, Gulls supporters cheering home every Jordan Gallucci or Joel Ottavi goal, riding the bumps of midfield hard nuts Mitch Hibberd and Adam Marcon, and watching in awe at the silky wing running of former Hawk Teia Miles.
For the Ants, the midfield brigade of Tom Wilson, Jean-Luc Velissaris and Paul Ahern battled hard all day. Youngster and Eastern Ranges product Kye Quirk also showed recruiters why he shouldn’t be overlooked, racking up 16 touches and seven marks around the ground.
In other momentous matches, the Suns, Bombers and Borough all travelled interstate as well, finding themselves in unfamiliar territory and all losing convincingly.
From a Friday night thriller in Frankston, to the Queenslanders putting their mark on the competition, to a poetic day in Sydney, the long-awaited return of the VFL left little to be desired.
Bring on round two tomorrow!
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