Nine broken fingers: the story of determined girls and their footy game
By Lucia Nardo
The women’s movement came early to Williamstown High School. As Fifth Formers in the early 1970s, we had tired of being restricted to a curriculum of domestic ‘arts’ and a limited range of sport offerings. We wanted our share of the action! The most vocal of us mounted our arguments and persuaded the teachers to let us organise an all-girl footy match.
The venue was Fearon Reserve, Williamstown, traditionally the oval used by the boys on sports days. One of the maths teachers agreed to umpire and we were allowed to use a school football. That was the sum of our external resources.
Back then, football boots for girls were unheard of so we had to play in our runners. We had no jumpers and the boys’ teams were not keen to lend us theirs. We borrowed jumpers from brothers, friends or wore our own long sleeved tops. The teams were distinguished with colored patches – one team red, one yellow. My yellow patch had no number on it, just a big black ‘L’.
There was no selection committee; we simply added out names to one of two lists, making sure that we had a reasonable distribution of height and weight across the two teams.
There was no coach or chance to practice. Our playing skill came from games we had watched and any opportunities we had to kick a ball around in our own time. Our strategy was simple: get the ball, kick toward goal.
In the two week lead-up, hype turned our match into a major event. All student levels who had sport scheduled that day were given permission to leave the school grounds and attend the game. As the start time drew closer, the crowd grew; boys with rolled up sleeves, loosening their ties, preparing their throats for a good laugh. Junior girls, quieter, eyes transfixed; wondering where this crazy sisterhood was taking them.
More nervous about the jibes than the game, we had come too far to turn back. Each team took position, the whistle blew, the center bounce shot skyward and we were away. The ground was dry and hard, every footfall jarred. Soon our heartbeats reverberated in our ears. Squinting against afternoon sun, the distances between team mates seemed to elongated, impossible to bridge. We weren’t great. We fumbled, missed goals, the ball didn’t go long most of the time but we were determined novices and we played on.
My position was in the back pocket. I took my cues from Carlton’s Barry Gill, who had been my fifth grade teacher. He had coached most of our primary school’s sports teams. I remember his encouragement, the way he made us believe we could be winners and I wondered what he would make of girls on a footy field. But there wasn’t a lot of time for thinking of anything except where the ball and the opposition were. It was all about moving, running, the heaviness of the ball, falling hard, bruising and getting up again. My best mate Jo was flattened by an opposition player, left breathless and stunned. ‘She didn’t even say sorry!’ She laughs about it to this day. In the 1970s we expected politeness even in the roughness of an all-girl footy match. It didn’t hold Jo back; she went on to kick four goals.
The goading from the sidelines—don’t break a fingernail, girls can’t kick, give up now— made us more determined. We had a point to prove.
At the end of each quarter we guzzled water, hoped that our hearts would not explode and that somehow, we would draw breath again. By the last quarter, the laughter had subsided to a brief silence then replaced by cheers; begrudging from the boys, euphoric from the girls. It wasn’t because we played great footy, it was because we played. We had spilled ourselves onto the Fearon Reserve as hard as the boys ever had. When it was all over, and we were spent and nursing our injuries, we shook opposition hands, even hugged. We were ecstatic. The outcome of the game didn’t matter. What mattered was that we showed ‘em!
The Melbourne Herald Sun recently ran an article about the instigation of Victoria’s first junior girls’ football competition being a step closer to former premier Jeff Kennett’s dream that a woman would one day play in the AFL. I like to think that the girls from Williamstown High, in our borrowed jumpers and without footy boots, had started preparing ovals around the country for these changes almost forty years ago. The seeds have certainly sprouted—my niece retired last year after playing 100 games for three clubs in the Victorian Women’s Football League. Nobody ever told her she might break a finger nail. She did break various fingers nine times over in the course of her career. She was fearless on the field; gutsy as.
On my fiftieth birthday, my son made a nervous, incoherent speech about my ‘qualities’. Searching for something more to say, his face suddenly lit up. He went on to tell an anecdote about watching a football I had kicked sail high over his head and how far he had to run to retrieve it. He beamed, ‘My mum sure can kick a footy!’
He will probably be telling that story long after I’m gone. I’m pretty happy about that.
And I suspect the ghosts of the all-girl game at Fearon Reserve are too.