The date is March 16, 2020. A statement which no one wanted to read, or even less write, appeared on the Victorian Football League website.
“The AFL wishes to advise that following a meeting with AFL State CEOs a collective decision has been made to postpone the operation and/or the commencement of each premier State League and national and state talent program across the country.”
“This decision is effective until May 31.”
The plan to resume the state league seasons at a similar point to the return of the AFL season was laid out. Footy would continue. Footy would find a way.
South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, and Queensland would inevitably complete a season. The Northern Territory league, not scheduled to start until October, was in safe hands.
In Victoria however, the VFL couldn’t crown a 2020 premier.
For many clubs, the possibility of cancelling VFL and VFLW programs altogether was floated to save the dire future of plummeting bank books.
The Carlton Football Club was one of the teams who made the incredibly difficult decision, ending its alignment with the Preston Football Club and forging plans to field a standalone side in 2021.
The history-rich Preston, with 138 years of premierships, on field success and a strong connection to Melbourne’s northern suburbs faced the possibility of folding entirely.
In this two-part series, The Inner Sanctum goes inside the Preston Football Club to follow its remarkable journey to bring back the Bullants.
Bullants building off field
Involved with the Preston Football Club for over a decade now, club president Stephen Papal will be presiding over the Bullants for his 15th year in 2021.
Fears that his 14th year could be his last were running high after the official announcement of the alignment split with Carlton.
Speaking to The Inner Sanctum, Papal’s concerns were first and foremost over the history of his club.
“Our main concern was we didn’t want 138 years to go down the drain,” he said.
“Back in the old VFA days, there were 23 teams in the competition. There’s six left.
“We wanted to keep that alive.”
The journey to rebuilding the Bullants from the ground up was never going to be an easy task. One fateful meeting at a Prahran pizzeria changed the course of history for the storied club.
“When it happened, myself, (Bullants executive) Darren Bassett and (senior coach) Josh Fraser, we were devastated about it all,” Papal said.
“It just hit us like a ton of bricks.
“Josh was out of work, he has a passion for the Bullants and the Ants spirit. The three of us wanted to keep it alive, and we looked at the viability of being standalone.
“We put some numbers down over a pizza and a beer at Fratellino’s in Prahran. We put some numbers down on an Excel sheet, and we thought ‘you know what, we’re pretty close.’
“At this stage, we couldn’t see it moving forward and couldn’t see the viability in the emotions of the moment.
“As we investigated these numbers, I called on a few people.
“My first call was Bob Tregear, who’s an ex-AFL Victoria chairman.
“Ironically, in 2007 when I started, the Bullants license was in question back then. I had to sit in front of a board and Bob was the person that gave us that lifeline.”
From that point, Papal would go about seeking out sponsors and assessing the viability of resuming the Bullants presence in the VFL competition as a standalone side.
The Bullants have just recently announced their first major partner on February 23, securing ADS Australia as a guernsey sponsor for 2021.
Papal strongly stresses the importance of receiving the backing of various parties who hold a strong love for and believe in the possibility of a standalone Bullants team.
Most of that support, however, comes from the supporting community first.
“At the minute, the key thing to it is sponsorship and membership,” Papal said.
“Being back at Preston full-time, as a home-based community club playing in the VFL where we represent the Northern Football Netball League, our audience capture is from Preston to Kinglake. It’s one of the biggest audiences in footy.
“We’ve also got our affiliation with our junior football club, which has got 16 teams running through, we get that patronage. We’ve got our amateurs, with four teams, under 19s, reserves, seniors and women’s.
“We’ve got a huge network, we’re a huge club going from under 9s and amateurs right through to VFL. It’s a pretty exciting prospect with what you can get out of that.
“Not too many clubs can boast that, there’s not another VFL club represented in so many competitions.”
Firmly back on their feet with a month to go before the VFL season, Papal and his Ants are willing to tackle any challenges put ahead of them.
One of the unique challenges of the 2021 VFL season will be the need to travel, with six teams in the competition (GWS, Sydney, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Southport and Aspley) being based outside of Victoria.
“Financially there won’t be an impacting cost because the VFL will meet those costs, which is fantastic,” Papal said.
“Challenges will be the logistics of staff, doctors and trainers. Moving forward, what’s going to happen is the home team will host and supply doctors and trainers for both teams.
“AFL Victoria are right across it.
“The challenge will be travelling across and coming back the same day.”
While it would be easy for the Bullants to hold a chip on their shoulder at the ending of the alignment with Carlton, Papal still has nothing but praise for the club.
“I had a fantastic relationship with (CEO) Cain Liddle and (club president) Mark LoGiudice,” he said.
“I can honestly say in the 20 years we’ve been aligned, with myself there from 2007 to now, Carlton have been fantastic.
“Unbeknownst to everybody, this once in a lifetime COVID impacted the whole world, not just one footy club.”
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