Who’s Number 6 for Darebin?

 

‘Who’s Number 6 for Darebin, that girl in the middle?’

 

Believe it or not, some idiot asked that question at Piranha Park during the 2016 VFLW grand final. A little later: ‘Who’s that big blonde at centre-half-forward?’ Both questions were met with a degree of surprise, not to say scorn, by the surrounding spectators; naturally enough since the players in question were Daisy Pearce and Katie Brennan. It was as if some clown had turned up to a men’s match at Kardinia Park having never heard of Joel Selwood or Tom Hawkins. But hey, it was the first quarter, it was 2016, I’d been delayed en route in Brunswick by a mate and a bottle of Scotch, I’d forgotten to grab a record as I came through the gate, and it was my first ever women’s football match! Yes, I’m afraid that idiot at Piranha Park was yours truly, and I can only look back at the man I was then and completely disown him. That man should be behind bars, either with the usual sort of criminal or with the criminally insane.

 

 

Not that it’s against the law, even now, not to have heard of Daisy Pearce and Katie Brennan – though it should be. No, what kills me now, looking back, is just that I missed out personally, deprived myself of a huge amount of pleasure by not discovering these amazing athletes earlier. These two, and all the others who were playing with or against them on that memorable day in Coburg: Lauren Arnell, Melissa Hickey, Elise O’Dea, Karen Paxman, Darcy Vescio, and the other Falcons on the one hand; and Ellie Blackburn, Alicia Eva, Emma Kearney, Brooke Lochland, Nicola Stevens, and the other Melbourne Uni players on the other hand. It’s history now that thirty of these women were drafted to AFL clubs for the first season of the AFLW, and most have now played two seasons for one club or another; three have been club captains, another an acting captain, several are now premiership players, two have won the goal-kicking award, one has just snagged the best-and-fairest, and eleven of them have been named in one or both of the first two AFLW All-Australian teams.

 

 

Why had I not taken an interest in women’s football previously? Why had I not been to a single match before this one at Piranha Park? Sure, there were the usual reasons – work, idleness, scepticism – and I’d never heard of Daisy Pearce or the Darebin Falcons prior to 2016. I know now that there were exhibition matches from 2013, but I knew nothing of these at the time; I hadn’t even heard of Mel Hickey though she hails from Mildura, my home town. But I had heard of Melbourne Uni, in fact I’d played for Melbourne Uni, I knew there was a women’s team, and I’d seen them training and playing on the uni oval as I’d wandered past from time to time. So, what can I say, really, except that I was a fool and a numbskull for many years.

 

 

Still, no use beating myself up, I guess – better late than never and all that. I have redeemed myself, I hope, or at least made up for lost time, to some extent. Regrettably, I only got to four AFLW games last year, but when the VFLW started after Easter I went to a match every week, and sometimes two matches a week as the season progressed. This amazed my friends and colleagues, most of whom are sceptics to this day and utterly bewildered by my new-found passion. The fact is, that I enjoyed last year’s VFLW season more than I can say. While there were several reasons for this, which I touch on below, it was chiefly because of the footy. I mean, I like women and especially athletic women, and I get the social and political importance of the women’s game, but I wouldn’t go and watch women play football on a regular basis if they couldn’t play; I’d go and watch the men, or I’d go and watch netball.

 

 

In fact, they can play, as I discovered at that final in Coburg in 2016, and as I observed repeatedly last year. Are they as good as the men? Of course not, nowhere near it; but the best of them are damn good and the rest are not bad. Are the games low-scoring affairs? Yes, quite often; but not invariably, and fortunately – as with other sports like soccer and hockey – low-scoring games can be tremendously exciting, as goals are at a premium and the contest can be alive until the final minute. We saw this several times in the second season of the AFLW, most notably in the Round 7 game between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs. This is not to say that the women’s game wouldn’t be better with more goals – it would. Goals are great as a rule, but only if both sides are scoring them, or if one side is scoring them and it’s your side!

 

 

I have so many happy memories of last year’s VFLW season that I can’t possibly list them all; nor would they all be of interest to the average reader. In general, I enjoyed watching the players I’d seen and admired already, especially the Darebin and Melbourne Uni midfielders – the former with Ebony Marinoff thrown in for good measure. I also enjoyed watching the players I’d just seen in action during the first AFLW season: Christina Bernardi, Steph Chiocci and Katie Loynes for Diamond Creek, Bri Davey and Jasmine Garner for the St. Kilda Sharks, Sarah Jolly and Shelley Scott for the Western Spurs, and Emma King and Jaimee Lambert for the Eastern Devils, to mention only a few. Finally, I enjoyed discovering new players each week, players who were new to the game or new to me – Jenna Bruton and Maddison Gay for St Kilda, Kerryn Harrington for Diamond Creek, Emma Mackie for Box Hill, Chloe Molloy, Monique Conti…

 

 

I’ll never forget seeing the magnificent Molloy in action for the first time, nor the sight of Conti dancing round an opponent, Daisy-style, and bursting out of the centre square at Melbourne Uni. This was one of the ‘WOW!’ moments of the season; I was gobsmacked. ‘Who on earth is that?’ I shouted. ‘It’s not Blackburn. I don’t think it’s Kearney. Is it Eva? Who the hell is it?’ And a lady standing next to me, who’d evidently seen the dark-haired little dynamo before, calmly replied, ‘Young basketballer, Conti, plays for the Boomers.’ Of course, anyone can pick a winner after the event, but it was obvious then and there – as in Molloy’s case – that I was looking at a ready-made star. Molloy impressed me with her hands and strength and kicking skills. Conti absolutely lit up the park with her pace, perkiness and poise with the ball.

 

 

Pity there was nobody there to see it. Given the popularity of the AFLW, I was constantly surprised by the small crowds at these VFL games. A few mums and dads or other family members, the odd partner or friend, a stray dog or two, and that was about it on most occasions, even when the top teams were playing. Here I was watching Pearce and Paxman, Blackburn and Kearney, Bernardi and Molloy, or Garner and Davey, going about their business in brilliant fashion, and I had them all to myself pretty much.

 

 

This was sad, I suppose, for the players and the clubs – and for me too when I couldn’t find anyone to talk to or join me on the ground for a kick-to-kick at half time. There were distinct advantages, however. I was allowed to have a kick on the ground at half-time; I could move around at will and watch the play or the warm-ups from almost any vantage point; I could stand behind the goals and return a few balls when the forwards were practising their shooting; I could even speak to the players occasionally and wish them well as they took the field or congratulate them as they came off.

 

 

The contest out in the middle was always fierce enough, but the vibe around the ground was generally relaxed and peaceful. There was little advertising, no boorish barracking or sledging, no unnecessary use of the PA system (nobody urging me to ‘make a noise’ or cheer for the home side), and there were no scuffles in the outer, except perhaps occasionally between the stray dogs. Best of all, there was no pre-match entertainment, i.e. nobody had thought to organise a disco to coincide with the football match. Thankfully, I was left to entertain myself the whole time. I could study the team sheets, learn the names and numbers of the players I didn’t already know, admire the scenery, chat to other spectators if there were any about, enjoy a hot coffee from my thermos, and watch the game.

 

 

Other enduring memories of last year’s VFL season include: meeting Lauren Arnell after a game at Bill Lawry Oval and Mel Hickey at Ikon Park; watching Brennan kick seven at Peanut Farm; having a kick with Harriet Cordner’s father at a Spurs game in Footscray; having a kick with Lauren Arnell’s mother and Tegan Cunningham at A.H. Capp Reserve (not knowing it was Tegan Cunningham); and doing the scoreboard for the Melbourne Uni match at St Mary’s in Geelong.

 

 

Memories of the finals in September – or at least the last two of them – are especially vivid and pleasant: Arnell’s two goals to sink St Kilda in the preliminary final at Piranha Park; Karen Paxman jogging around the boundary with a young fan before the start of the game (when she must have had other things she could have been doing); the kick-to-kick with that young fan and her mother at half-time; Paxman’s performance in the grand final a week later at Docklands; the contest between Brennan and Harrington in this game; the courage of Chloe Molloy after being crunched in the third quarter; Daisy’s left foot goal in the third quarter; the tension in the last quarter when Chiocci and Loynes almost brought the Creekers back from the dead; and the loud applause for the Creekers from the Darebin fans after the game.

 

 

The VFLW is about to change drastically, and probably not for the better in every respect from my point of view. Whatever the gains might turn out to be this year, there’ll be no Diamond Creek and no Mel Hickey – no Sharks, no Davey, no Devils, and no Daisy. Two weeks from the start of the season, I’m still not entirely sure which players will be playing for which teams, or which team I’ll be supporting, if any. Probably the Falcons or Melbourne Uni, but it won’t matter. It will be a great competition, I reckon, so bring it on! If it’s half as good as last year, it will be highly entertaining and totally addictive, and I’ll be getting along to a match every week. In fact, I can’t wait for the season to kick off on May 5. Where’s my clipboard? Where’s my thermos?

 

 

Comments

  1. Kasey Symons says:

    Lovely piece – I love your honesty in this. And as a fellow Milduran, watching Mel Hickey become a star has been an absolute pleasure. She’ll come back from this injury stronger, she was back in the gym only a few days after her knee op. What an athlete. Can’t wait for the VFLW season to start!

  2. Yvette Wroby says:

    We should have an almanac meet up when we do!

  3. Rick Kane says:

    Well done L N Zoch, what a great tale. And one that could be added to the The Footy Almanac’s AFLW’s version of The Canterbury Tales (idea for a book right there!).

    Look forward to seeing you at a game or two this year. Go the Falcons!

  4. G’day lnzoch – this is the Dees supporter you bumped into a couple of times at AFLW games at Casey this past season. That’s if I’m guessing correctly who you are. :-) Hopefully we’ll catch up at some VFLW matches this year.

  5. Great essay, but who’s #6 for Darebin?

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