Girl footy (part two): Girls against boys

Gym soccer took Oak Park High School by storm in 1984.  Stephen McNamara, a geography and history teacher, organised a competition among year eight students, eight teams to contest for the inaugural premiership.  The games would be played at lunchtime on the basketball court in the gymnasium.  The ball was no soccer ball.  It was a huge tennis ball.


The game was played under normal soccer rules with three exceptions.  Teams were restricted to five players and a sub.  A kick that went above shoulder level was penalised.  The three-point throw line used in basketball was an exclusion zone limited only to the goalie.  Anyone other than the goalie who entered the three-point line gave up a shot on goal.


McNamara followed Fitzroy.  AFL was his game.  He was experimenting with lunchtime exercise to keep the kids active.  A couple of teachers helped, but McNamara drove it and did most of the organising alone.


News of the competition excited a bevy of kids.  Recruiting was aggressive.  If anyone understands high school, the best sportsmen invariably become mates.  The teams were put together on a mate basis.  When the lists were announced, it was obvious who had the best side.  They were known as the Pasta Munches.


I played for the Dirt Bags.  We played like it in the early rounds.  Unfortunately, the names of the other teams have been lost to memory.  The games drew big crowds, cheering and booing.  It was confined soccer, usually exciting and high scoring.


It wasn’t without controversy.  During one game, Jason Ball tapped Chris Nicademo in the guts with his right foot.  Ball was booed off the field.  In another game, Craig Fisher completely lost the plot and refused to play, running around the court without interest, refusing to come off.


Oak Park High School was a multicultural school.  Kids born overseas or into a soccer family had a better handle on soccer than those born in Australia.  The skilful players stood out.  In the best game of the season, the Pasta Munches were challenged by a team consisting of European players.  The grunt of the Munches ensured a win.


McNamara, inspired by the crowds and the skill, organised an inter-school competition.  It was standing room only in the gym.  A bunch of rabid kids screaming for Oak Park and booing the opposition.  Oak Park lost.  The winners had to be escorted by teachers from the school.


In the last round of the season, the Dirt Bags had to defeat the Pasta Munches to make the finals.  The day before the game, tragedy hit the Baggers.  One of our best players, Adam Gangur, was hurt playing baseball.  Adam was on first base.  Mick Anastaciou was running for first base.  There was a collision.  Some kids said it was Mick’s knee that hit Adam in the head.  Other kids said it was his elbow.


Everyone said Mick didn’t mean it, he wasn’t that sort of kid.  Adam ended up with a black eye that lingered a week.  He was lucky not to have fractured a cheekbone or eye socket.  The day of the final, he went for a jog around the block and came home sick.  He couldn’t come to school, missing the game due to concussion.  That meant the Dirt Bags were a man down, no substitute.  Against the might of the Pasta Munches, the underdogs became no chance.


We battled gamely.  It was one-all late in the second half when Robert Romeo ran into the protected zone and gave up a penalty.  Our keeper, Charlie Slidders, couldn’t keep the ball out.  We missed the finals.  The Pasta Munches went on to win the premiership.


At the end-of-season presentation, Slidders took out the competition’s best and fairest award.  He had given up less goals than any keeper during the season.  He was humbled as he accepted the trophy to raucous applause.


McNamara promised the 1985 season would be bigger and better.  But he couldn’t have foreseen what was about to happen.  No one could.


It involved my sister, Juliette.


The girls want to play


Juliette was incensed.  The girls wanted to play gym-soccer.  She had asked McNamara if the girls could play.  He said no.  Juliette remained undeterred.  She quietly gathered the support of a few students.   Importantly, she found an ally, Ms Saunders, who was engaged and pregnant to McNamara.


Saunders was supporting the girls with everything she had.  She would’ve had an interesting chat with McNamara at home about the girls who wanted to play.


When Juliette kept pushing the issue at school and home, I tried talking her out of it.  Girls against boys.  They had no chance.  Juliette was adamant. Excluding girls from the competition was discrimination.


‘Women don’t play in the VFL,’ I said.


‘This is gym-soccer and we want to play.’


I was embarrassed.  At school, the embarrassment continued.  Mates found out what Juliette was doing.  A meeting was scheduled between Juliette and several teachers.  After school that day, Patsy, our mum, first heard about Juliette’s plan.


‘Why do you want to do that,’ Patsy said.  ‘What if you get hit in the tits?’


Embarrassed, Juliette shrugged off the worry.  ‘You can’t kick higher than your shoulder.’


‘Your tits are lower than your shoulders,’ Patsy said.


Unsupported at home, with concerned parents and an embarrassed brother, Juliette prepared her presentation.  She recalls meeting with Ms Toll, McNamara, Saunders and another physical education teacher.


Juliette was asked to explain why an all-girl team should be allowed to play.


‘It isn’t fair that girls aren’t allowed to play,’ Juliette said.  ‘We believe being excluded is discrimination.’


The gang of teachers considered the request.  Given Saunders was supporting the venture, McNamara had no choice but to include an all-girl team in the competition.


They didn’t win a game.  Mostly they were hammered.  The girls couldn’t out-muscle the boys when the ball was at their feet.  They weren’t as quick or skilful.  The boys didn’t go easy.  For three games the girls didn’t score.


I had a quiet word to Juliette at home.  ‘All you’re doing is running up the field following the ball.  That last game you barely got a kick.’  She looked at me, thinking I was sledging her.  I was, but her eyes were hard.  I grabbed her notebook and turned to the back pages.


‘Look,’ I said.  ‘When they’ve got the ball, you’ve got to man up.  When you’ve got the ball, you need to find angles.’  I drew stick figures and a ball on the page.  ‘When you’ve got the ball, you’re running straight.’  I drew an arrow straight down the field.  ‘You should run across the field into space.’  I drew an arrow on an angle.  ‘Find space for that left foot and open up the field.  You’re all chasing the ball instead of chasing space.’


Juliette looked at the page.


‘Pick an opponent,’ I said.  ‘Stay on him the entire game.  But run sideways when you’ve got the ball.’




I left her to her homework.  In the next game, Juliette broke away a few times, getting her left foot to the ball, setting up teammates.  My mates were still giving me shit, but her play quietened it somewhat.


That night at home, I told Bill and Patsy she played well.  All it took was five minutes of my time.  She learned quicker than I thought.  When they scored a goal, the howls of delight were the same as the excitement of men.  The outcome was no different.  A goal.


When the Dirt Bags played the girls, it was sibling rivalry, brother against sister.  We won 6-2.


In class after the game, Russell Costello teased Ms Saunders about the win.  Ms Saunders proved inclusion in the competition wasn’t just about winning, and she sledged Costello back.


‘We kicked two goals,’ she said.  ‘We’ve never kicked two goals in a game before.’


Costello didn’t know what to say.


‘We played our best game for the year against you,’ Saunders said.  ‘You’re not as good as you think you are.’


Silence.  Saunders smiled and got on with the lesson.


The girls finished the eight-game season last.  They didn’t win a match.  No one expected them to.  Yet Juliette thought they performed beyond expectation.  Saunders did too.  It had nothing to do with results.  It was all about inclusion.  Girls can do what boys can do.


Years after we finished high school, Juliette told me how she felt, having been shunned by her brothers as we grew up.  ‘I had two brothers and you never taught me to play football or cricket,’ she said.  ‘You never even asked me.  How do you think that made me feel?’


I had no idea.  She was a girl, and they didn’t play football or cricket.  It was part of Australia’s culture, a game for men.  Nick and I played football or cricket every day after school for hours.  We loved it.  It’s a great childhood memory.  And my sister sat at home.


I never knew she wanted to play.  Juliette wasn’t a doll lover.  She was rugged and rough when need be.  When she was agitated, I often ran from her.  One night, when I was outnumbered by blokes in a possible fight, she stood by my side, ready to throw if necessary.  She was quick and strong, a body built for sport.  I never encouraged her.


Not knowing she wanted to play was pointless.  Had she suggested it, I would’ve told her to boot off.  Because girls did not play footy or cricket.  At school, Juliette played netball and softball, like all the other girls.


At high school, she dropped sport.  Without encouragement at home, why bother?


My older sister, Samantha, was a solid junior tennis player.  She could serve too fast for me.  We only played a couple of times and Samantha wiped me from the court.  I was supposed to be helping her train for a competition and I couldn’t return serve.


They both had talent.


It seems inconceivable that Oak Park High School management sanctioned a girls’ team to play against the boys.  This wasn’t a debate or spelling contest.  The boys didn’t go easy.  It seems inconceivable that the school didn’t organise an all-girl competition.  There was enough girls at school to fill eight teams.


‘They were pricks,’ Juliette said of the teachers who gave the girls what they wanted.  ‘They boys were pricks too.  We wanted to play.  They should’ve organised an all-girl competition.’


Who knows why it never happened.


What happened was Juliette refused to accept exclusion.  Girls can do anything the boys can do.  She proved that.  In an all-girl competition, she might’ve been a star.  Against the boys she was no star, but she proved her star quality…


About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…

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