League's demise leaves development questions

The script couldn’t have been written any better for Brad Carlton, Josh Sloan, and Jared Fletcher when they lined up for Werribee’s Development League side against Box Hill on Sunday.

With the Tigers in need of replacement players, Geelong & District Football League club Werribee Centrals happily offered the services of its three talented youngsters for what proved to be a memorable triple debut.

In a classic wet-weather contest at Box Hill City Oval, Werribee turned the tables on the same Hawks side it had lost to by 119 points a fortnight earlier to prevail by 20 points, Carlton helping to set the tone for the turnaround with an early goal.

“They loved the experience,” development coach Daniel Fraser says of his new recruits.

“I suppose they picked a really good day to come down and experience it given we had such a big win and the turnaround of the result from two weeks ago. They got involved with our group and really enjoyed the higher level of footy.

“It’s really pleasing when you see kids come into the club from outside the system and get a reward like they did on the weekend. You could see they were glowing after the game and had big smiles on their faces.”

The story of Carlton, Sloan, and Fletcher highlights one of the biggest strengths of the Development League: the ability of VFL clubs to develop and nurture talent in their own backyards.

That has been especially important for aligned VFL clubs as a means of retaining their identity and links to their local community, and a quick look at Werribee’s playing list reveals the big focus the club has placed on local development.

As well as its three most recent offerings, Werribee Centrals also facilitated the entry of Tito Nyawela into the Development League ranks, while Spiros Amarantidis (Deer Park), Jackson Menadue (Werribee Districts) and Brandon Houlihan (Hoppers Crossing) have all played plenty of Development League football this year after being recruited locally.

But with the Development League set to wind up at the end of this year, Fraser is uncertain of what the model for local talent development will look like going forward.

“There’s no doubt it’s going to have to change,” he says.

“You’re not going to have your younger kids that you can see as a two-to-four-year project to play senior footy.

“[Currently], if you decide you’ve got a project player who will be a senior player in three years’ time, you’ve got him playing development footy under your nose and are working with him week in, week out.

“[Going forward], you’re handing your future kids back to local footy every Saturday, so you lose a little bit of control.

“My gut feel is it will slow their development, but you’ve just got to have a bit of faith there and a strong relationship with the local clubs.”

The demise of the Development League makes Werribee’s move to go standalone in 2018 more timely than ever, as it will mean more senior opportunities for Wyndham products such as Nick Buykx, Jason Robinson, and Harrison King and could help the club position itself as the destination club for local players looking to take their footy to the next level.

But the flip side to that, Fraser believes, is that the club may need to take a different approach to list management and player development.

“We’re going to have to be really smart with our recruiting,” he says.

“There’s probably going to be a bit more emphasis on the young kids back in local footy and making sure they’re doing the right things.

“They’re not going to be under our watch as much, so they’re going to have to be really self-driven to take the next step and get into our senior team.

“It’s going to change things around immensely.”

IMAGE (left to right): Brad Carlton, Josh Sloan, and Jared Fletcher after Werribee's Development League win over Box Hill.

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