'Un-ladylike'. A little bit uncomfortable. Inspiring.
A large space enclosed only by a fat white line. 30-ish people step into said space and run around for over an hour, all fighting for a prolate spheroid object which one way or another needs to make it’s way from one end of the turf to the other. There are only a few people ‘controlling’ those running wild, and said ‘controllers’ use funny hand gestures and a whistle.
But seriously, how good is footy?
'Un-ladylike'. A little bit uncomfortable. Inspiring.
They're just a few varying reactions and opinions we saw emerge after the inaugural AFLW season. A season that has caused the influx of girls into the nation’s game.
Somewhat shamefully I admit that only last year was the first time I thought “wow, this is for real, women and footy is real.” I went to the Exhibition match at EJ Whitten Oval; Melbourne vs Western Bulldogs, where the best talent from around the country was on show. And I was done, I was just done. I wanted to be them.
Now, I don't have the most awe-inspiring, career-defining sporting history like some of the women we saw during the 2017 season. (Um, hi Erin Phillips.)
Alas, I share with you now my love of the game; the un-ladylike, uncomfortable and well, only-my-mother-could-be-inspired-by story.
I grew up with football.
Dad played it, and he played it well - VAFA A Grade premiership and all. Pa was a professional umpire. My brothers both played it through their young years but injury plagued them season after season and they’ve since turned to other sports; the likes of hockey and touch rugby. When we played in the backyard, the apricot and the lemon trees acted as goalposts at one end, the posts of the pergola the opposing goals. It was generally Jonny and me versus Sammy. (My involvement was minimal, my main jobs were commentating and running around like a headless chook.)
Dad was the physio at Collingwood for years, including that flag in 1990. Inspired by the friends he made in the changerooms, my brother Jonny refused to answer to anything but ‘Gavin’ (after Gavin Brown and Gavin Crosisca) for weeks. Damian (Monkey) Monkhurst was our plumber and 1987 National Draft pick number 3; Graham Wright, would regularly come round and trim the trees.
Dad took me down to Auskick in prep with the brothers and for a couple of years I spent more time rolling down the muddy hills than I did kicking the ball. But eventually dad got me more interested. (Probably bribed me with a filthily fantastic hotdog.) By 8, I was one of three girls in the whole program. Molly, Jess and I donned our woollen, long sleeve jumpers and ran amock with the boys.
But when my brothers started high school, they had to take part in compulsory Saturday morning sport. And I took a keen interest in tennis. Mum was happy about it because of all the various injuries the sport of football had inflicted on the family: broken hands, a spiral-fractured leg, concussions, broken cheek bones. Ergh.
And thus, my illustrious footy career took a serious hiatus.
I tried tennis. Won some competitions, was co-captain of the school’s Firsts team, got an Australian junior ranking (think; high thousands in Australia). Pretty mediocre stuff.
I tried soccer. Loved it. Had six years of it at school, played in the Firsts XI. Only stopped it because I then...
Tried touch footy (rugby) and was actually looking to do quite well, but tore my left ACL. That old chestnut put me out of anything fun for 12 months. Upon my return to sport, I played two seasons in the Victorian Touch League for Melbourne University Blues and Melbourne Phoenix.
But then I went back to soccer. I turned up to soccer pre-season at AH Capp Reserve in Preston, the home ground of the Darebin Women’s Sports Club.
I was at the pub one day after a soccer game, where I met the President of the time; Julia Chiera. She smiled sweetly and spoke calmly. But ‘Pub JC’ is the complete opposite of ‘Footy Field JC’ who is fierce, competitive, loud. She said she’d seen me play soccer. She’d seen me that day foul someone on the pitch for giving a hard bump. She said I would not have been fouled like that on a footy field. She said “play footy.”
So in the heat of November 2016 and much to the distaste of my mother, who generally sees footy as a melting pot of disaster, I crossed the little playground from the soccer pitch to the footy oval for pre-season.
I needn’t bore you with further tales of how much Jesse made us run, or inchworm our way to the ends of the earth. But it sure as hell was un-ladylike, so too was it uncomfortable. But I’d like to think the team camaraderie of a random group of women gunning for each other to better themselves physically and as a collective was nothing short of inspiring.
I was hooked. I was hooked on the sport, I was hooked on wanting to kick it further, break through packs, mark a ball with my little legs more than 10cm off the ground. I was hooked on the club, the people and the community.
Even after all the running, grass rashes and stains, triumphant wins and painful losses, I have made it through the best sporting season I’ve ever endeavoured upon.
So even though this season feels like I myself have gone on a personal discovery, (I imagine a similar euphoric feeling as to what Darwin felt once he discovered various finches on the Galapagos Islands), the fact of the matter is;
Women’s footy has been around for ages.
It just hadn’t been given the time of day.
You only have to look around the hallowed clubrooms at Darebin Women’s Sports Club to see some really great side fringes and headbands from the 1990s and early 2000s, which rival team photos full of handlebar moustaches and mullets found at any local mens’ clubs.
I hope the influx of girls of every age into the sport continues, despite the naysayers and those who label women’s football as uncomfortable. (Admittedly naysayers; you’re right, there really is nothing comfortable about being out-marked by Katie Brennan or burned by Daisy Pearce - take it from someone who’s been there done that.)
But yay for footy, and yay for trying things that seem out of your comfort zone, and here’s to the sport that some call a hobby, some call a religion, some call a profession and that we can now truly call the nation’s sport.
“You can’t be what you can’t see.” - Marian Wright Edelman
Photos: Leo Vredenbregt & Rob Lawson Photography