Five months after a split with Carlton seemingly forced it out of football for good, historic VFA/VFL club the Northern Bullants is fighting to return to the field next year.
The club has appointed respected football administrator Steven Icke as chief executive officer and lured former AFL Victoria president Bob Tregear to its board as it plans a comeback as a stand-alone entity.
It will operate as the Preston Football Club and trade as the Northern Bullants, reclaiming a nickname and brand so synonymous with a club formed as Preston in 1882.
The Bullants established a VFL alignment with Carlton in 2003 and a few years later changed their name to the Northern Blues.
The alliance lasted until March this year when Carlton, under financial pressure brought on by COVID-19, suddenly cut ties with the Northern Blues.
An emotional Blues president Steve Papal said at the time that the club would have to fold.
“To see our football club unable to continue its operations is as difficult as it gets,” he said.
“Our history extends 138 years and we are proud of each and every one of those seasons.
“This football club has a rich history and we will do everything possible to ensure it remains in the hearts and minds of our supporters forever.”
But in the past two months Papal has quietly been working behind the scenes to revive the Bullants and join Coburg, Frankston, Port Melbourne, Werribee and Williamstown as a VFL stand-alone club.
The appointment of Icke is seen as a significant step towards the Ants’ resurgence.
Icke played in North Melbourne’s 1977 premiership and won Melbourne’s best and fairest in 1982.
He was general manager of football operations at Carlton and Fremantle, and more recently general manager of WNBL club Dandenong Rangers.
“Yes, we are planning to be part of the VFL in 2021,” Papal said.
“Back in March everything was emotional – we couldn’t see a future – but since then we’ve had time to reflect, reach out to some very good people who have assisted us, and making this dream to resurrect the Bullants as a stand-alone into a reality.
“We’ve had fruitful talks with the City of Darebin and they’re supporting us.”
He said the appointment of the experienced Icke, the inclusion of Tregear to give guidance on governance issues and the strategic plan, and the support of coach Josh Fraser had been crucial in the fightback.
He said Fraser had kept the players together through the split with Carlton.
Blues captain Tom Wilson was meant to make his return from a knee reconstruction this season.
The three-time Laurie Hill Medallist said it was exciting to hear the club was getting back on its feet.
“It’s pretty exciting, it would be terrific to see the Bullants run around again at Preston City Oval,” he said.
“From what I’ve heard things are progressing well and AFL Victoria are fairly supportive of it.
“It’s a good thing for footy and a good thing for people in the area that have grown up with the Bullants and Preston in their backyard.
“It would have been hard to see it pissed off into history for want of a better term.”
Wilson said he would weigh up his future until the structure of the 2021 VFL season was confirmed.
Under Fraser the Blues finished 10th in 2019 with seven wins.
The Bullants have been hinting at a return on social media, and Papal said the teasers had generated a lot of enthusiasm.
He said he hoped people would extend their support to taking out a membership.
“Everything is together for us to be viable,” Papal, an AFL Victoria life member who has been president of the club for 13 years, said.
“We’ve got the best of the best. All of our board have got the proper skill-sets … someone for functions, someone for marketing, a sales coach, Bob Tregear to look after governance, Steven Icke to look after football.
“We’re going to welcome everybody. Every member will count.
“The great thing about the Bullants is the people, solid people, good football people, and we want to bring more people like into the Ants nest.”
Papal said he had received tremendous support from AFL Victoria and other VFL club presidents.