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Northern Blues died with a whimper, but hope remains Preston could return

“If it wasn’t for Carlton we wouldn’t have existed at all,” Papal told The Age.

“We felt we were ready for a good season. This feels like we have run a marathon and were about to get the prize only to have it snatched from our hands.”

Papal said Carlton couldn’t have been more supportive and chief executive Cain Liddle and head of football Brad Lloyd were in regular contact with him to talk through club and player matters.

Preston City Oval sits empty, with the VFL season suspended.

Preston City Oval sits empty, with the VFL season suspended.Credit:Getty Images

There is hope a Preston side may re-emerge at Cramer Street, but whether that happens and what league they play in remains up in the air.

Papal said his club had developed strong links with the Northern Knights, Northern Football League, Preston Junior Football Club and Preston Bullants Amateurs in the Victorian Amateur Football Association.

The Northern Football League finals were also regularly held at Preston City Oval and Papal hopes the ground will continue to be a hub for football in the area.

The idea they died in a Carlton jumper, you can’t rattle a tin for that.

Tony Wilson

Former Collingwood onballer Frankie Raso, who grew up in the northern suburbs and became captain at the Bullants in the early 2000s, feels something was lost in the Blues move.

“We’re not shocked, with everything going on in the world,” Raso said.

“But being a past player, being there for nine years and captain, it was sad to see the heart of Preston slowly dissolve over the last four or five years.

“In terms of Preston being Preston … it’s probably happened over the last four or five years, not over the last two weeks.

“It’s been a slowly, disappointing road as a lover of the club, but we’ve got to understand that there’s money, and there’s politics, and there’s staying alive.

“Sometimes it’s not viable when you stand alone. Coburg find it really hard.”

Papal acknowledged any side who has an AFL affiliate faced difficulties keeping supporters and players happy because the AFL players must be put first.

Author and former Prahran and Preston VFL player Tony Wilson was on the list when they merged with Northern Knights’ under-18 side in the mid 1990s, before later linking with Carlton.

“The idea they died in a Carlton jumper, you can’t rattle a tin for that,” Wilson said.

“It was a very frustrating competition to play in when I played and more so now, the priority has to be given to the players on AFL lists to play footy and play in the way the parent club wants it to be played.

Being affiliated with an AFL club means priority is given to players on AFL lists.

Being affiliated with an AFL club means priority is given to players on AFL lists.Credit:Getty Images

“You have these players who are greats of lower-level footy, they have to be pushed around for often inferior but athletically talented 18-20 year olds so the heart of the club gets destroyed as it’s not a meritocracy anymore, it’s a feeder system.”

Dual Hawthorn premiership coach Alan Joyce kicked 228 goals in 92 games for Preston while captain-coaching them to premierships in 1968 and 1969.

Both Raso and Joyce want to see Preston return.

“I heard it the other day and my immediate thoughts were ‘how could we save our club?'” said Joyce, who remains in contact with several former Preston teammates, including long-time Essendon doctor Bruce Reid and Collingwood 1964 grand final player Denis Dalton.

“The history there is long and important to me and to a lot of other people.

“I would love to get involved in trying to save the club, in some way, get a lot of those players that I played with in that era for about five or six years and look at doing something.”

Papal said he and the board wanted to look at those options, he also remains in contact with AFL Victoria about their VFL plans for 2021.

The pandemic’s economic impacts raise questions over what the VFL will look like should this season begin – or even next season – as all AFL sides must cut $3 million from their budgets.

“How are they going to find the next Kane Lambert or Michael Barlow,” Papal asked.

“It’s so important we get this model right. In my 13 years in the VFL we’ve had so many reviews but struggled to get the format right.”

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If the club returned in the VFL, Papal believes it would cost $800,000 to $900,000 a season to field a standalone club.

“We have an obligation to the keep the history of the club at PCO [Preston City Oval] and we’ve spoken to council about the way forward,” Papal said.

“Then if we are able to continue, whether it’s VFL or amateurs [VAFA], then we need to create a new club for that and probably steer back to either Preston or Northern Bullants.

“But I need to speak to our key affiliates and stakeholders and work that through – we are still digesting it.”

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