They say a week is a long time in football, but what about 81 weeks?
It took exactly 567 days for the local football siren to echo around football grounds in the Geelong region after COVID restrictions cancelled the 2020 season. St Mary’s football operations manager Scott Hosking couldn’t have been more thrilled when he witnessed the umpire bounce the ball to start Saturday night’s opening round game.
“To kick if off on Saturday night, it’s sensational,” Hosking said. “We couldn’t be happier.”
Hosking’s 33-year journey with St Mary’s, which includes more than 250 senior games, has been dealt its fair share of highs and lows. But the 54-year-old admits 2020 was a low point.
Despite the difficult task of getting the show up and running again, the devoted clubman has welcomed the game and their supporters back to Anthony Costa Oval at Kardinia Park with wide open arms.
“Our players, our supporters, our members, just the general Geelong community – we’re just so excited to have footy and netball back, and a little bit of normality, I suppose. That’s the best thing,” Hosking said.
The club has been in hibernation since playing its last competitive senior football game in September 2019 where St Mary’s clinched the premiership in remarkable fashion by just two points with a goal in the dying seconds.
The look of the club has changed dramatically since that day too with the clubrooms receiving a multi-million dollar makeover complete with a gym, function room and bar that were ready to open in time for the scheduled 2020 season.
The opening of the new clubrooms, plus the unfurling on the 2019 premiership flag, in front of the St Mary’s faithful was suddenly placed on ice last year with no date of return in sight. Like the rest of the sporting landscape in the region, the club was forced to shut down at the drop of a hat.
“The toughest thing for us through COVID really was that we had these brand new rooms that no one was officially allowed to be in. So that was really quite tough to walk past and see,” Hosking admitted.
“They’re pretty spectacular, and we couldn’t actually use them. But we had a great night on Saturday night when we opened the rooms. It was just exciting to be finally in them.”
During the shutdown, Hosking revealed he was in talks with clubs and big-name leagues around the state in an attempt to keep the player fits and the club financially afloat, however his plans quickly dissolved as Victoria was placed under a raft of COVID restrictions.
“We did fight quite hard to get our seniors up and running, and we did try to go down a couple of other avenues with competitions like the VFL (Victorian Football League),” Hosking said. “We explored that to see if we could put a team in from St Mary’s to play if that was going to get up and running.
“We looked at a few other clubs in Melbourne and even spoke to some people in Ballarat to try and get the boys out there playing some competitive footy through last year, if we were allowed to. But that all didn’t happen. So that was a bit sad in the end, but it is what it is.
“We sort of put the cue in the rack, I suppose, and just let it go (after that).”
Torquay playing coach Dom Gleeson kept a glass half-full approach during the COVID-affected year too, relishing the opportunity to freshen up during lockdown in time for this season.
The 2017 Bellarine Football League premiership coach also praised the return of local football across the Surf Coast which started playing a week before the Geelong Football League.
“Everyone’s just pumped to have us back. I suppose there’s just a buzz in the air. It’s a very positive place to be around at the moment,” Gleeson said.
“The players are just super excited just to be out and about again, and being involved with something that’s bigger than them, which is a sporting club.
“So I think there’s a sense of feeling really refreshed in 2021.”
Clubs from around the region will open up further when junior and female football also make a comeback this Saturday. Junior football makes up the majority of participants in clubs, with more than 6000 players aged between nine and 17 spanning from Colac to Werribee.
Junior football briefly operated in 2020, completing just three rounds before being forced to shut down as Victoria’s coronavirus cases surged in August.
But despite AFL Barwon having 298 registered junior football teams in 2020, Hosking believes junior participation numbers have slightly dipped this season due to lingering COVID-19 concerns and social distance measures for players and families.
“I think junior footy has dropped off a little bit, and we’ve probably dropped off a tad,” Hosking said. “The reason for that, perhaps it is COVID, and people still might not feel comfortable coming back around footy.
“But it’s up to us now to provide an environment where, A, they feel comfortable, and B, they want to come back – because there’s nothing better than local sport. As a young person being involved in a team environment, that’s what it’s all about.
“All our junior sides were down here tonight trying to dust off the jumpers and get them all ready to go because it’s all kicking off this weekend – and the women’s footy too which will be exciting.”
Hosking and Gleeson also noted the importance of having “connection” back in community sport again as clubs start to welcome back spectators to football grounds once more.
“As long as we can provide an environment for people that they can come down here and enjoy themselves and enjoy one another’s company,” Hosking stated. “Because that’s the big thing.
“I think that COVID has highlighted to everybody that we just missed that connection with people again. It’s pretty important we get back to that.”
“It’s great having the sense of community back again. I think everyone’s really pleased to be back. It’s an outlet for those people,” Gleeson said.
“When we were all locked down, we probably just missed that human interaction that we’re now currently getting. So I think a lot of us miss that. It’s a great feeling that footy is back for certain.”
While it’s been 81 weeks since the last game, this year’s season is scheduled to run for 23 weeks with the 2021 GFL Grand Final set to take place on September 18.
But who’s counting?