The Sydney Football League, NSW AFL, AFL Sydney or whatever title you want to give it, and its had a number of changes over the years, has really made few ground break decisions in its 124 year history.
In many cases the officials who ruled the game simply missed the boat.
The licensing laws only permitted a certain number of licensed clubs to operate in NSW up until the mid 1950s and this number did not vary.
Following WWII, Frank Dixon, who captained and coached the South Sydney club in a very successful period in the 1930s was appointed vice president of the league. He talked the executive into him approaching the then, Australian National Football Council (ANFC) for a loan of $10,000 to establish a licensed club in Sydney.
Dixon, a staunch Labor man who ended up Deputy Lord Mayor or Sydney City Council, travelled to Melbourne by train in 1949 to attend a ANFC Meeting. Incidentally, on the train happened to be the prime minister, Ben Chifley. Dixon returned with the guarantee of the $10,000 from the ANFC but a nervous executive in Sydney went cold on the idea and it never went ahead.
In 1948 three new clubs were admitted to the league, Western Suburbs, Balmain and Sydney University. Wests were the only club to go on taste success. They played off in successive grand finals of 1952-53 but had to wait until 1963 until they won a flag. Neither Balmain nor Sydney University clubs could boast success until much, much later.
In the meantime a team from Illawarra joined the competition in 1949-50 but the travel and their lack of success accounted for their departure.
This was a time when six clubs dominated the competition, Eastern Suburbs, Sydney Naval, Newtown, St George, North Shore and Western Suburbs. Liverpool joined the competition in 1954 after a couple of successful seasons in the Metropolitan Australian National Football Assn (MANFA – or really a Second Division, which folded in 1953). It was a time when the league should have bitten the bullet and formed two divisions. It didn’t. Sydney was a growing city and the league should have capitalised on the popularity of the game during the war and immediately after.
This was particularly the case again in the early 1960s after Uni had dropped out in 1958 but replaced by new club, Bankstown. Again they should have travelled down the two division track but failed to act.
In 1960 however they did introduce a dramatic change to Sydney football when they reduced the number of players on the field to 16. This was thought to produce better football on the smaller Sydney grounds and perhaps encourage the formation of new clubs and reduce the instances of backing up to a minimal.
The purists were enraged with this change and by mid-season clubs forced the hand of the league executive to return to the traditional eighteen aside.
The basically unsuccessful club of Liverpool joined forces with the other battler, Bankstown in 1962 then two years later encouraged another new club, Parramatta to combine with them to form a new club: Southern Districts. Initially this venture produced a competitive club but eventually failed. What it did do in particular was rob a team playing Australian Game from the then far western suburbs. Parramatta then played out of Mona Park, Auburn.
It was around the same time that efforts were being encouraged to form a licensed club for Australian football in Sydney. They had enough members, sufficient commitment and had identified premises at 224 Riley Street Surry Hills, a former hotel which was then trading as a private hotel (boarding house).
The prime mover in this action unfortunately died and so without a leader the whole issue fell flat.
Eastern Suburbs had a licensed club at Bondi Junction but as successful as it was could not maintain the repayments to a very expensive loan which funded the addition to the premises and the club fell by the wayside. North Shore went all out to gain a license in the premises of Polonia Northside soccer club in Walker Street North Sydney. They were successful in this enterprise but unfortunately too this eventually failed.
St George made it to the licensing court but were refused their bid for a license at Olds Park on some technicality.
Despite all this, there has been some success in Sydney football and this was quite recently.
Garry Burkinshaw, the man in charge of Sydney footy between 2007-2014 soon realised there were problems when he took over the reigns.
He listened to the gripes, he looked how they do it in soccer and studied Sydney football.
Burkinshaw maintained that Sydney footy was not as tribal as it is interstate. Players come to play their game and go. They don’t stick around for the next game and they certainly don’t stay all day.
He decided the answer was divisionalisation where teams from various clubs of apparent equal strength would be best suited playing against each other. So, apart from the Premier League competition, a reserve grade team which might have battled in the senior division was dropped to third or fourth division in the new setup.
He took advice from clubs and said there was no real opposition to the model. He got members from each club in a room and put his proposition. It took over three months in the planning and together with colleague, Bob Robinson, they introduced a competition which has, for the most part, been extremely successful.
There are more teams winning games and all but St George, Camden and Illawarra clubs, from twenty four participating in the Sydney league, have participated in finals.
This new and novel competition has promoted success in other clubs too. Penrith who were down to one team now boast three, North-West are fielding more sides along with Camden and there a four new clubs now participating in the competition. (this article was initially published in 2012)
This new system leaves it open for established teams to field more teams and enthuse new or junior clubs to field senior teams. The way is open for the establishment of more clubs but most particularly, nearly all competitions in Sydney senior football are competitive.
The downside to divisionalisation is that clubs MUST be particularly organised. Three teams could be playing at three different locations so all players and officials have had to commit themselves to turn up, in all probability in these circumstances, there would be not players to back up in the event there is not a full team to take the field. Each team must be a self contained unit: umpire (if required), goal umpire, runner, water boys, manager, runner etc.
At least one Sydney initiative has succeeded but apparently with those purists at it again is now up for change