By Dr Rod Gillett
The depth and spread of AFL football in Sydney continues. This season sixty-two senior teams compete in the Sydney AFL competition.
These teams are spread across six divisions. Additionally, there are two teams in the NEAFL, Sydney University and the Sydney Hills Eagles. Plus there are fifteen teams in the two Under 19 divisions. That’s a grand total of 79 footy teams.
The Sydney competition now includes clubs from Gosford in the north to Wollongong in the south and to Penrith in the west, down to Camden in the south west and out to Hawkesbury in the north west.
This is a far cry from twenty years ago when there were only twenty two teams in two divisions. And if we go back to 1904 there were just ten teams. Only three clubs survive from this period, North Shore, Balmain, and East Sydney albeit in a merged form with the University of New South Wales.
However, the structure of the current Sydney competition is not based on geography but rather on performance. The teams are placed in the respective division based on their final placing at the end of the previous season. Some clubs such as the Macarthur Giants and the Wollondilly Knights field only one team while Sydney Uni has teams in every division except division two.
The genesis of the spread was the uni clubs in Sydney instituting a ‘fourth grade’ to accommodate an excess of players, mainly on a social basis on a Saturday morning in the late 90s. It was informal competition to begin but the Sydney AFL administration eventually embraced it as a way for forward for new clubs.
Many new clubs had been formed in Sydney over the past century but had always struggled to get established while playing in the one senior competition. Over the years clubs such as Bankstown, Parramatta and Liverpool had entered and exited the main competition unable to match it with the established clubs.
The formation by the NSW AFL in 1971 of a second division provided a competition for new clubs to emerge. Three of the six clubs in the new division were from the universities: Sydney, UNSW (which had formerly competed disproportionately in the senior competition) and Macquarie, while a fourth, Salesians, were based on a boys home in the Sutherland Shire operated by the De La Salle order. South Sydney, a foundation club that had struggled since WWII, and new club, Warringah on the northern beaches made up the rest of the division.
Warringah, became Manly-Warringah in 1979, and became a powerhouse in the second division. The Wolves rise as a club in Sydney culminated in them winning the Premier division title last year. Manly, as they are most commonly known, have a strong junior base and an upgraded home ground. This season they field teams in three divisions and the Under 19s.
Alas South Sydney folded at the end of the 1976 season and Salesians lasted only the one season. But the pathway was established for new clubs to find a suitable competition; in the 70s new clubs from Pennant Hills, St Ives, and Campbelltown came through. In the 1980s further new clubs such as Baulkham Hills, Parramatta, and Penrith got their start in the second division.
Baulkham Hills, now known as the Sydney Hills Eagles, finished last in the first season in 1983. Thirty years later, the club from the Hills is in the semi national NEAFL after a strong run of success in the 2000s in the Sydney Premier division.
Now clubs such as the Randwick City Saints, the Blacktown Magic, and the Moorebank Magpies have an appropriate level of competition in which to play and prosper. Aligned with the AFL NSW-ACT’s approach to secure grounds by working closely with local council on development it augurs well for the continued spread of the game in Sydney.