When my friends at school used to talk about what they wanted to be when they grew up I was envious. Some wanted to be doctors, some veterinarians, some teachers. All I knew was that I wanted to be a footballer. But in the 90s this wasn’t an option – because I’m female.
For as long as I can remember I have been mesmerised by AFL. My family are mad Melbourne supporters, my dad especially. My sister was more interested in basketball and calisthenics, so I became the one that Dad would kick a footy with.
Every Saturday Dad would take me to Vickick (now Auskick) and I was matching it with the leading boys in the group. But when I turned 12, I was told I could no longer play. I had to give the game away. I had known that, eventually, this day would come. I was a girl; I could never be an AFL player.
I still followed footy closely, going to games with Dad at every opportunity. We’d head to the MCG to watch David Neitz, Garry Lyon and Jim Stynes. I’d play at lunchtime with the boys and even found some girls at my all-girls high school to have a kick with.
But at the age of 21 I discovered something life-changing – the Victorian Women’s Football League. I joined the St Kilda Sharks, just down the road. I had found my people – 30 to 40 other girls just like me. We all love footy. We love watching footy. We love talking about footy.
We’re from all different backgrounds; some are nurses, some tradies, others are students. When we get to the footy we are all the same. We are all there to win.
At the Sharks we are more than teammates, more than friends; we describe ourselves as a family. If there was something worrying me either at footy or away from footy, I know I could call any of the 20 other girls on my team to help. Playing on Sundays is the highlight of my week.
As a Melbourne supporter, one of the biggest moments of my life was being selected by the Demons. In the rooms before the game at Etihad Stadium, our coach asked us to think about how we got to where we were, to think of those who supported us along the journey, specifically who bought us our very first pair of footy boots. I immediately thought of Dad; how proud he would be of me wearing his beloved red and blue. Tears welled. He wasn’t at the game; he was in Europe on a holiday. I wished he was there. I wanted to play well in the Demons colours for him. The team won and I played a part.
I have seen the game develop in leaps and bounds: from an amateur sport to a semi-professional sport. We train three days a week with around 50 players on the track, have compulsory recovery sessions and conduct whiteboard analysis on our opposition.
Not only has our sport changed, but so have people’s perceptions. When I first started, people would look at you as though you had two heads when you told them you played football. They’d ask questions like, “Do you mean soccer? Are the rules the same? Do you tackle?” Now when people find out I play football, they ask questions like, “Which club do you play for? What position do you play? Where are you on the ladder?” Female footballers are now on the front page of the Herald Sun, we’ve had our games broadcast on live TV and played on some of the best grounds in Australia.
The legitimacy of women’s football will go from strength to strength with the inception of the National Women’s League next year. To see women playing and training in elite facilities, wearing the colours of AFL sides and being paid to play is what I dreamed about when I was growing up.
The NWL means a lot more than just giving women the opportunity to play AFL. It shows girls like 12-year-old me that they can be and do whatever they like, that their gender won’t prohibit them. It shows how far we have come.
This year I have helped coach the East Malvern Football Club’s under-12 girls’ side. One of the players wrote a speech that she presented to her class, revealing: “In 2017 everything will change for women like myself who love sport. The new women’s AFL will help women feel like they are not the weaker gender as they were called 100 years ago. I know that this might seem crazy, but before women’s AFL was introduced I thought that I would be better off as a boy, because I knew as a girl I wouldn’t be recognised as an AFL player. Now myself and my teammates have a chance to become AFL stars. This will give us the chance to show equality between both men and women.”
» Phoebe McWilliams is a freelance writer who plays with the St Kilda Sharks and has represented Victoria. She hopes to play in next year’s NWL. For more, see afl.com.au/womens.
This article first appeared in Ed#520 of The Big Issue.