The Whole of My World
Glen Waverley in the 1980s was mostly just a lot of paddocks, football ovals, and wide, newly rolled streets, dotted occasionally with an AV Jennings cream brick veneer and a lot of unfinished building sites. The Glen was essentially a Target and a Woolies, with a small Coles-style cafe wedged between them — all of them closed from noon on a Saturday until Monday morning. There really wasn’t much else to do in those long winter months except play footy. So that’s what my twin brother and I did, joining the Glen Waverley Rovers two years too young to be allowed to play Under 9s. We played the second year in the youngest age range while our older friends were promoted to the Under 10s, and then we stayed at the club throughout the junior years.
Actually, when I say “we” played footy for the Rovers, what I mean is, my brother played, while my involvement was limited to training with the team twice a week, and wandering wistfully along the boundary line every Sunday, hoping I might one day get a game. It’s not that I wasn’t good enough. The coach loved to use me to inspire his team to run faster, jump higher, and tackle harder. I could match most of the A-team stride for stride, mark for mark, but no one wanted to be beaten by me, even though, I say with all modesty, a good number of them were. Eventually, the coach selected me in the A-side, half forward flank, switching with my brother on the ball.
But there was a problem. I was a girl. Still am, last time I checked.
Back in 1980, girls didn’t play footy. There was no Auskick, or women’s league, no junior girls footy, and no AFL Women’s Round. Girls didn’t even play soccer then and were only allowed on a basketball court if we agreed to some modified rules, a smaller ball, a ring with a net, and a lot of weird hopping and stepping that ended up as a different game now known as netball. (Basketball was too taxing for the female body, apparently.)
So it’s not surprising that girls didn’t play footy. Most girls didn’t want to either. All that mud and cold, the tackling and kicking, the leaping on shoulders, the throwing to the ground… None of that would appeal to girls, surely.
Except it appealed to me. And probably a lot of other girls if they’d been given half a chance.
However, wanting to play is a vastly different prospect to being eligible to play. In real games, anyway.
It’s odd that I didn’t really question it at the time. Just another of life’s injustices that seemed always to exclude someone on the grounds of age, or religion, or gender. There were plenty back then, and that was just another, albeit a very personal and frustrating one. So I consoled myself by stealing every minute of game-time that I could, during twice weekly training sessions, practice matches, and intra-club games — whatever was on offer, whenever they’d let me.
And life went on.
But then, when I was 11, some six years after I’d attached myself to the team, the coach who’d coached us throughout, approached the junior football administrators to request permission for me to officially play. That’s what I was told anyway – I’ve never been quite sure what happened and I was never given the opportunity to plead my case. This was when kids were still largely seen but not heard, and we were rarely consulted about family decisions or even our own futures. The coach told me the plan was I’d be playing half-forward, swapping with my brother to rove later in the game. My brother wasn’t exactly rapt with this idea but I was being selected for the A-team, and even in the face of public humiliation he would never question the wisdom of a coach who’d taken them to more than a couple of premierships by then.
My excitement didn’t last long. The tribunal or whatever the junior footy administrators were called back then, rejected the coach’s application, declaring that the ban on girls playing in competition would remain, on the grounds that footy wasn’t ‘safe’ for girls.
I remember my coach being really disappointed at the time, then joking that I should cut my hair and pretend to be a boy. He paused for a minute — I remember this — as though really considering the idea, then he quickly added, as though this would make everything all right, that I was too pretty to pass for a boy anyway. I remember blushing because it felt like I should but also because I was angry, and didn’t understand why.
The thing is this rejection was worse than the years of having no one even try to get me a game because suddenly it was official. I realised then that, while I’d not argued or fought for a place, I’d secretly nurtured a hope that one day things would change and I’d be free to take up my rightful position as an official member of the team. I’d get to play a real game. The decision killed any hope of that, and with it, regrettably, any desire to play. If they didn’t want me, I didn’t want them either, I reasoned.
In a TV show or a movie, the heroine would then take up some productive, vindicating pursuit — maybe start her own competition, or write a stunning article condemning the sexist ways of the world, forcing change eventually within the limits of the three-act arc.
But in my reality, I still had to go and watch my brother play every week, even though I wouldn’t be joining him. For consolation, the coach asked me to take team statistics week after week, marking down each kick, handball and goal I would never be allowed to take with a stubby pencil on a rain-spattered chart I’d turn in at the end of the game. I took the job seriously because, well, I took everything seriously back then. I wonder if the coach ever even read it.
A couple of years later this ban was lifted for girls under 14, and more recently a revision of the rule has allowed girls up to 15 years of age to play on a case-by-case basis. Since then, we’re about to have the first ever women’s only AFL match as a curtain raiser before the Bulldogs versus Melbourne match on Round 14. I try to imagine what it would have been like to play a real game back then, to feel the rush of power when you side-step a tackle, the glory of kicking a goal, or even that elusive rush of taking the much vaunted speccy — imagine doing that, and having it count.
So, yes, I still think about footy in the 80s, but mostly because of what could have been, rather than what was.