The Northern Football Netball League made its long awaited return this weekend, after a year like no other.

As the worst of Victoria’s COVID-19 crisis became apparent in mid-2020, the Northern Football Netball League, after already being delayed from April, was forced to close for the year.

One year on, the league is underway with preparation for a return to the football competition.

Good Friday saw the league play games for premiership points for the first time in over 18 months.

In Return to the Local Footy, The Inner Sanctum gets an insight into a year like no other, and how preparations shaped up for the league’s return.

When the football competition was delayed from April, the league was hoping for maybe a June start.

It wasn’t to be, with the league being forced to closes its shutters for the year in the wake of Stage 4 restrictions introduced by the Victorian Government.

NFNL media manager Samuel Zito spoke about this decision and about what happened next.

“Once the second wave was coming through, it was pretty apparent from our state’s point of view that it was going to be pretty impossible to play,” he said.

“When we got the feedback from the clubs that their preference was to not play at all, it was pretty clear for us so we made the decision to cancel all senior competitions at the first week of June.

“The health and safety of the community is always our first consideration, as much as it was a tough decision to make, it was the only decision to make.

“It was difficult, but it meant that we could prepare for our comeback in 2021.”

Over the period of recess, business shifted to other areas, namely the function of the league itself.

One of these was keeping up to date on the financial status of the clubs that make up the league and supporting them wherever possible.

“We have a relatively small staff, so attention just turned to what next and what we could do to still provide the best level of support to clubs,” Zito said.

“Even though we’re not running a competition there’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes that has to be done.

“Liaising with clubs, because on their end they’d need as much support as possible because they are all run by a team of volunteers who after a year we had like last year football falls second or even third because you’ve got to manage your own work and your family, so from our end we were offering as much support as possible to make sure they were all fine to go for 2021.

“Thankfully every single club is back and ready to go for 2021 and none are in a worse financial position than they were this time last year, which is a great result.”

This period, in which they were able to check up on all the clubs, was one of the lone positives to come as a result of the shutdown.

“The main positive was we’ve never had a year like last year where we’ve been able to engage directly with club committees, because of the fact that we were able to talk to them directly, on a daily basis to keep them informed, it probably garnered a better relationship with clubs,” he said.

“Because of the additional time, we get a better understanding of us as a league, and I think that’s going to be beneficial going into this year.”

Like most across Australia last year, the biggest challenge for the league was learning to adapt.

One of those ways of adapting came through a lack of new media content, which encouraged them to try new things and allowed them to explore new initiatives.

“When you prepare for a new week, you don’t have too much time to implement new initiatives, because it’s all systems go and with a small staff, there’s plenty of things to do,” he said.

“So during this period, we had a chance to think and plan for 2021 of new ideas we could bring in because we had time to prepare but also to keep engaging with our website and social media pages.”

To keep up engagement, the NFNL dug through the archives to celebrate the previous decade’s highlights, and fans of the league were allowed to choose a team of the decade for all three divisions.

Both of these things had very strong engagement according to Zito.

“One of the things that really took off was, we were able to create a fan team of the decade, given the time of when COVID-19 hit in 2020, we were able to look back on the decade before, that got great engagement and it was great recognition to the players and coaches who had been the best over the last ten years,” he said.

“That was something that we might not have been able to do under a normal season for lack of time, and it drove a lot of attention for our social media pages and our website.”

2021 will strive to be as normal as possible, and the league is determined to get things going once again.

However, there will be some differences due to regulations, and clubs will need to keep to them to get a season underway.

“There will be extra regulations that clubs have to follow to ensure that they are keeping in line with the COVID-19 regulations across the state,” Zito said.

“Some extra protocols will have to be set, and it all depends on what the Government’s measures are at any given time so we’ll just have to be adaptable.”

If there’s one thing the league learnt in 2020, it’s how to be adaptable.

“One of the things that we’re learning throughout this whole situation is that you have to adapt to new things,” Zito said.

“We just have to adapt to ensure that we get through these Covid situations, and get back to the best form of normal as quickly as possible.”

Putting the ‘N’ in the Northern Football Netball League

While the football competition run by the Northern Football Netball League has just begun, the Netball competition returned for the summer series, with the grand finals being played at the end of March.

The Fitzroy Stars emerged victorious over Hume in the Section 1 competition, while Northcote claimed the Section 2 flag.

You can find all the other results here.

Around the same time the football competition was closed, the netball league followed suit.

With a new normal in place, things looked a little different, Zito said.

“At the moment we’ve been able to restart our netball competitions,” he said.

“There are some differences, but we’re trying to keep it as normal as possible.

“The main difference in our summer competition is the no fans aspect because we have a cap of patrons that we can have inside our netball venue (at La Trobe Sport Stadium).

No fans is unfortunate, Zito said, but given the circumstances, it’s a necessary evil.

“Given the fact that the competition hasn’t been playing for 12 months, the fans and officials have been more accepting of the decisions.”

“Hoping that we can remove the no spectators rule coming into the season, but we do have to wait and see on the indoor capacity what they can be by the time we start in April.”

Spectators or no spectators the league was bigger than ever during this summer.

According to Zito, there are more teams and players than ever before.

“Even though we’ve had to implement stricter measures for this summer season, the fact is that we have a record number of teams playing in the summer competition,” he said.

“It goes to show that people are appreciating that they can be back part of a team environment, and competing in something that’s good for the body and the mind.

“It means people haven’t been fearful of getting back on the court, with the ever-present fear of Covid, because they’re keen to be involved and be adaptable.

“We’re hopeful that that will flow on to our winter season and get record numbers there as well.

“We have 10-12 sections of netball and hopefully that’ll grow by the time we get to April.”

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