AFLW Round 4 – Western Bulldogs v Collingwood: Heartbreak for trailblazers
7:10pm, Saturday 25 February
Whitten Oval, Footscray
By Kate O’Halloran
I don’t know Kate Sheahan, but on Saturday night I crumpled onto the cold, Whitten Oval turf with her. A Collingwood rookie, Sheahan, was unleashed into the game just before half time to applause and anticipation, not least because of her famous footy name and journalist father, Mike. Fox Footy’s commentators had barely finished talking about her return from a finger tendon injury before she was in the thick of play. Sheahan got on the receiving end of a handball from Lauren Tesoriero, and took off with her name still ringing in viewers’ ears.
“Here is Kate Sheahan, with her first touch…”
“Oh…” joins another male voice.
The commentary team is momentarily lost for words as Sheahan does not register a touch at all, but slips Angelica Gogos, dodges suddenly to her right, and inexplicably drops the ball, Gogos far out of tackling distance. A pack forms around the suddenly discarded Sherrin, and a ball-up is quickly, mercifully called. Competitive beasts on both sides fixate distractedly, not on the ball, but on Sheahan. Captain Chiocci shakes her head as she walks towards her fallen teammate, but the grief is bipartisan. Bulldogs defender Hannah Scott joins Gogos in immediately checking on Sheahan, while Emma Grant keeps a hand on her shoulder and scoops Sheahan’s mouthguard off the ground as she cries in pain. The viewing spectacle becomes more akin to a horror show as we cut to Sheahan being carried from the ground by two trainers, screaming in pain, or crying in desolation – it’s hard to tell.
We learn that her AFL dream has lasted less than 45 seconds.
This is not a scene or experience typical of the men’s game. The inaugural AFLW season has been notable for the goodwill it has generated across traditional battle lines, from fans to commentators and journalists to players alike. This is not the same as saying that it has not been fiercely competed, because it has been played with a desperation that has put the simultaneous JLT community series to shame. Yet, for women’s sport fans at least, results are often secondary to the future and success of a sport so overdue for its time in the spotlight. For the players, many are friends who have trailblazed this path together. What unites them all is the exuberance of a chance to fulfil a childhood dream that for the likes of Sheahan must have appeared over before it begun. Sheahan is 35 after all, an age at which no male player would debut.
Her story is a familiar one for many women; she played football until 14, the only girl in a boys-only league. As Eliza Sewell has reported, she was no hack, playing in a premiership for Balwyn alongside brothers Sam and Luke Power. She left AFL once she could progress no more, and concentrated on tennis, becoming a successful professional tennis coach. She did play one more game of football, for the women’s Melbourne University team in 2006, but in a cruel twist of irony, a broken wrist spelled time on her footy career. As Sewell reported in September last year, Sheahan had decided not to risk her tennis career for a sport with no professional pathways to speak of. But AFLW meant times had changed:
“The reason I’m taking the risk now with my tennis career is this is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” she said to The Herald Sun.
Father Mike added that he had feared Kate’s time had gone: “When the push was on (for the women’s league), I thought, it’s just a pity for Kate it’s happened now and not 10 years ago.”
Mike cut an unmistakable figure in the crowd last night. Himself never lost for words, he appeared frozen on screen in disbelief while his daughter was carried off. It was left to journalist Sam Lane to face the cameras at half time, her voice cracking as she told of the ‘shell shock’ of the Collingwood rooms. “We’re fearing the worst,” she added, but it didn’t need to be said.
On a gloomy night for all, it was remarkably Sheahan who provided the highlight. On crutches in a tracksuit, she was back out for the third quarter, barking instructions from the bench and in the three-quarter time huddle. After the game she hugged her jubilant teammates on the ground, posed for photos, and relished in the team song. On Sunday morning she took to Twitter with a photo of her and her Dad in the changerooms, holding a photo plaque of her debut: “This was our dream Dad and we did it,” the post said. “It didn’t finish perfectly, but I made you proud and that’s what matters”.
No doubt it was their dream and tragedy, but for many women who have aspired to play at the top level, Sheahan embodied our jubilation and heartbreak too. Time might be up for Kate Sheahan as it is for many of us former sports players too old, chronically injured or just too far down different paths because this one was never properly available to us. It might not be our time, but Sheahan can retire knowing that she has paved the way for so many more.
Western Bulldogs 0.2 1.4 1.4 3.7 (25)
Collingwood 1.1 1.1 5.2 5.2 (32)
Collingwood: Garner 2, Hope, D’Arcy, Eva
Western Bulldogs: Lamb 2, Blackburn
Collingwood: Eva, Hutchins, Cameron, Tesoriero
Western Bulldogs: Lamb, Blackburn, Callinan, Lochland
VOTES: Alicia Eva (Collingwood) 3, Meg Hutchins (Collingwood) 2, Jessica Cameron (Collingwood) 1