Mark Grant had a simple message, a benchmark that he repeated throughout the season. It was a reference point for his coaching.
“Play like the Carlton half-back line.”
And yet when Grant told his team this, it wasn’t Brendan Bolton’s team he was referring to. It was the Carlton women’s side.
28 members of the first-ever University High-Victoria University Women’s Football Club (UHSVU), coached by Grant, attended the inaugural AFLW match, watching on among 24,568 who squeezed through the claustrophobic turnstiles at the iconic Ikon Park.
They watched as four goals from Darcy Vesico and that display through half back powered Carlton to a 35-point win over the old enemy, Collingwood.
“We didn’t come as a playing group, and we didn’t even all stand together that night,” Grant says, “But I think it shows the pull of the competition to get that interest rolling in from the local community when the competition was just starting.”
The fact that the AFLW can be described as having ‘pull’ was unfathomable, for even five years ago, an AFL Women’s competition seemed an unthinkable concept.
For so long, women had taken a back seat in the game. It took until this year for the first female CEO, Tracy Gaudry – the now-former Chief Executive of Hawthorn – to be appointed to an AFL club. She lasted just five months. Richmond’s Peggy O’Neill remains the only female chairperson of an AFL club.
Yet now, as people look back on it, there is a general astonishment that no one saw the potential market for women’s football sooner. For a long time, women have made up an extremely large, and ever increasing, minority of AFL supporters. They were an influential supporter group as well.
As one AFL insider recently explained, “For any major change to the competition being mooted, the AFL will almost always reach out to mother’s groups to canvass their opinion, because ultimately the game won’t grow if mothers don’t let their children play and attend the footy.”
While the idea of UHSVU having a women’s side had been floated around for a number of months, the first session, aptly named a “come and try” session, was intended to gauge the level of interest around the side.
15 players came that night, and the club was inundated with expressions of interest. Incredibly, like so many teams in the suburban leagues experimenting with women’s football, UHSVU had to impose cap the playing side, at an astonishing 35. Such was the momentum, the club hopes to field two teams in 2018.
“There weren’t really many differences between coaching boys and girls,” says Grant, who coached a male U18’s team a number of years ago. “The biggest challenge was that 31 (of 35) girls had never played football before.
“I think the biggest difference gender wise that I observed is that the girls wanted to talk things through a lot more, and understand why you were making a particular decision, or teaching a particular skill, on a deeper level.
As to how Grant approached coaching a team of players who were in the paradox of having watched football for a long time, but mostly never played, his idea was to keep it simple. “We mainly focused on building basic techniques: kicking and tackling, and then handballing later on.”
While coaches can only teach so much, having an end goal, in the form of an elite level women’s competition, was just as important in feeding the local competition, as the local competition was in feeding the AFLW with talent.
The two levels of competition have a bond that is extremely unique. They need each other to get stronger, in order to get stronger themselves.
AFLW’s first season was always going to be a challenge. It would invariably be compared to the men’s game – the biggest sport in Australia – in every facet: skill level, crowd numbers, finances and interest.
Yet its biggest strengths are its differences from the men’s game. Chief among that is its links to the grassroots of footy. “A number of girls actually had friends on the field (in the AFLW’s initial season). There are so many links to the community,” says Grant.
Inspiration at your doorstep
It’s a sentiment echoed by Maddie Sheedy, a first-year player just across the road at University Blues, one the biggest amateur men’s clubs, and a pioneer in having a women’s football organisation of some scale.
“We have 18 AFLW representatives from last season playing at our club. While most of us never got to play with them, because they were at VFL level and we were at local level, it was an amazing experience to come to training and go ‘look: there’s (Collingwood forward) Mo Hope, there’s (Brisbane star) Kaitlyn Ashmore, there’s all these other stars.”
Unlike UHSVU, The University Blues have a comparatively large women’s history, and are etched in VAFA folklore – they are AFL CEO’s Gillon McLachlan’s team, and at one stage last century stage had a VFL team.
Their locality to inner Melbourne and access to the third-largest university in the state has meant the club has never been short on access to high-level amateur talent.
However, Sheedy says it wasn’t the prestige of the club that saw a sharp rise in women’s participation, but the introduction of an elite level competition.
“The AFLW’s publicity brought along people who may have thought they wouldn’t or couldn’t play footy. I think last year (University Blues) had about 100 people on their list. This year, with the AFLW coming in, it’s well over 200.”
“It also gave the girls who’s parents may have gone ‘that’s not for my daughter’ that opportunity, because the parents would say ‘oh, well, if the girls on TV can do it, my daughter can.”
Sheedy also says playing footy has opened up a new perspective on being involved in a team.
“The social aspect is huge. I’ve never been involved in a sport with such a special environment before. I did my tennis, netball and rowing throughout the years, but I’ve never had to understand where everyone fits in, their strengths and their weaknesses on this level. You’ve also got to learn how to pick people up after a bad game, and get the best out of yourself and other people.”
While the season didn’t go too well – “the losses piled up” – Sheedy said that her team made up for it with its bond.
“Even if we didn’t have the skills, we knew we had the passion.”
Culture breeds success
Passion is half of what drives football clubs to success. The other half is mostly made up of culture. The AFL media still talk about the famous ‘Blood’s Culture’ of excellence and accountability that drove Sydney to two premierships in 2005 and 2012. Richmond’s 2017 premiership win was largely credited to a culture overhaul after a dismal 2016 season.
At local clubs, culture is what keeps players around. The change in culture at UHSVU was extremely noticeable, particularly to club president Chris Marchio.
“ It turned what was an old boys club into a family and community club in my opinion. It’s great seeing many partners training and participating in social events together.
“From personal experience my partner Lauren loves footy now and is looking forward to playing next year. She even represented her country (Great Britain) in the recent international cup after playing less than a season.
“It could probably even extend my career a year or two as a result!”
Marchio says the idea to field a women’s side was bred from a conversation with VAFA officials about playing an exhibition match at half time of the 2016 Women’s Appreciation Round.
“We couldn’t get the numbers at short notice (for the exhibition match) but from that UHS started a social netball team in, and from there there most in that team joined the UHSW team.
“The VAFA have been extremely supportive, for sure. They have provided many workshops in 2016 and early 2017 to help clubs get the woman’s league up and running.”
There were many highlights for Grant and his side in the 2017 Season. UHSVU finished 5th in Division 2 (of four) in the VAFA Women’s League, despite their inexperience. Yet, it wasn’t on field success that brought him the most satisfaction.
“(The highlight was) just getting to know a fantastic group of younger women, and watching them develop.”
“Not only that, seeing my own daughter play, when she never thought she’d be able to play, was fantastic too.”
Sheedy says her parents were inspired by her dedication too.
“I’m actually sporting a broken hand at the moment, from the end of the season. My parents were a little wary of all that, but they know that I’m definitely going to play next year, and they are proud that I’ve put so much into this sport.”
Local football inspires passion, amongst players, coaches, administrators and even fans. It’s a chance to give back to a sport that gives so much in emotion and entertainment. People can live their own dreams for two hours each Saturday, 20 times a year.
With the introduction of AFLW, women finally have the opportunity to live that dream. For coaches like Mark Grant, it’s a chance to unlock the potential of others. For players like Maddie Sheedy, it’s a chance to actually line up alongside heroes that are accessible, both in proximity and end goal.
The AFLW needs local football to be stronger, to grow stronger. And local football needs a strong elite women’s competition to inspire participation. Both these competitions win battles for each other. They are bonded by two things over all else: dreams and passion.