The Rise of Women’s Football Part 2: State

Just a stone’s throw from Simonds Stadium, the home of the Geelong Football Club, the 2015 State Schools’ Australia 16 and Under Australian Junior Girls’ Football Carnival was played out over the week between July 19 and 25. Girls from Victoria, Western Australia, New South Wales, the ACT and Queensland represented their states in a round robin carnival.

The first Australian football youth development squad was founded in 1923 when Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland competed in the National Schoolboy Championships. However it was not until 2007 that the inaugural female state representative carnival was selected: the Under 18s Youth Girls’ teams from Victoria and Queensland played a two-match series in the Queensland town of Cooparoo. The first time the girls competed alongside their male counterparts was at the School Sport Australia National Championships in Canberra in 2011 in the 16 and Under Schoolgirls’ Competition.

The establishment and ongoing development of a State level in Women’s Football – an environment in which players are tested, developed and primed for the burgeoning national competition, just as boys their ages are – has been a crucial component on the road to becoming more than just a gratuitous show of gender equality in the AFL.

Maddy Lister, 15, has been playing for Victoria at State level for four years and has played for St Alban’s (her current team) and the Sunbury Lions since first pulling on the boots for the Melton Bloods seven years ago in a co-ed team. She’s living proof that there is now no barrier to stop girls from playing footy.
“When I turned up to my first training session I could hear, ‘What’s a girl doing here, what’s a girl doing here,’” she recalls. “But I ended up winning Best and Fairest, so that shut them up.”
2015 marks Maddy’s fourth consecutive year in the State squad, however she knows that it’s a position earned, not guaranteed.
“Every year you’ve got to prove your spot, there’s always new talent coming through,” she says. “And we’ve recruited a lot of new girls to the game this year.”
As well as the off-field rules of dietary and behavioural discipline, all State players are expected to demonstrate professional and team-focused play during matches. Game day plans focusing on attacking play, accountability and maintaining team structure are applied with all the tactical nous and intensity of their male counterparts.

For these talented players, many of whom regularly finish in the best in their local footy side, the Carnival is a challenge to develop grit and leadership skills when faced with a higher standard of football. Given that many are looking to reach Women’s AFL, it’s a crucial stage of their journey. Maddy is hoping to be pushing for Women’s AFL selection towards the end of high school.
“I’ll be 17 in Year 12 [making her younger than most in selection] and most girls don’t really get picked in their first year, but hopefully I do.”

Maddy also makes it clear that players at State level are expected to think of the team first when it comes to playing the position that’s best for the team, rather than the one they prefer.
Each team plays five games across the week of the Carnival and players are expected to commit themselves to playing in specialist positions with tailor made game plans for defenders, midfielders and forwards. For those who still regard female football as a giggle-riddled lark, these developed tactics and strategies may come as quite a shock.
“It’s not Under 9s where you get to try every single position,” Maddy says. “But Gilly has tried to get everyone a turn in each spot in the past two games just to progress them as footballers.”

‘Gilly’ is Leeann Gill, who has been involved in Australian Rules football for 23 years, from coaching at the Rowville Junior Football Club to her current position as Head Coach of the Victorian 16 and Under School Girls side. She has first involved in female State football when she was invited to coach the inaugural Victorian team in the Under 18 Youth Girls’ competition by the AFL’s Female Development Manager Chyloe Kurdas in 2007.
Maddy’s observation that Gill places a very high priority on the development of female football is spot on: Gill is renowned for setting as high a standard of professionalism for the State female players as for the men she used to coach at Rowville.
“I say to the girls: do you want me to treat you as female footballers or do you want me to treat you as a footballer?”

For many years, Gill had to become accustomed to being the only woman in the room at coaches’ meetings and presentations. It’s therefore unsurprising that she has experienced sexism in sport more than many – when she was offered the position of Rowville assistant senior coach for the 2007 season by Rowville coach Paul Mynop, the extent to which some were unwilling to accept that women had a place in football was made very clear.
“I told him, ‘You know you’ll cop shit for this,’” she recalls. “And I had some horrible things said to me, about me and about my family.”

So the successful development of women’s football can be seen as a reward to Gill and her colleagues for their endurance and commitment to the game. However, she makes it very clear that now is not the time for the game to be resting on its laurels: State and AFL Women’s Football are not yet functioning on a self-sustaining level.

“My belief is that to grow a stronger competition doesn’t necessarily mean putting more teams in, because that dilutes the talent pool. To grow the competition and make it more competitive, make the existing clubs stronger first. My biggest fear is that once the really good players retire, there’s not that group coming through.”

Whilst the rate of growth in female football over the last 17 years has been fantastic – one in every five players is now female – the issue of maintaining the current participants and the rising registration rate is now a high focus.
Currently, the AFL plans to establish a National Women’s competition with at least six sides by 2017. With Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs currently fielding AFL Women’s sides, there are still four teams to be established between now and the 2017 season. Victorian sides Richmond, St Kilda and Collingwood have all officially announced that they plan to establish Women’s affiliate teams. Queensland and Western Australia both have strong set-ups for creating Women’s AFL sides while Tasmania and the Northern Territory may have Women’s AFL sides before the men’s AFL.
Throughout Victoria, AFL Clubs have been supporting the development of Women’s AFL in a variety of different ways.
“Richmond is the home of the Vic Metro Under 18 State team and North Melbourne is the home of the Vic Country Under 18s team and also has a relationship with the Melbourne University Women’s Club,” says AFL Female Development Manager Chyloe Kurdas. “Geelong have supported the AFL Barown Youth Girls’ competition and the Youth Girls’ Academy was initially based at Essendon.”

The question of whether or not the Australian public is willing to support a Women’s AFL seems to be reaching an encouraging conclusion. Gill recalls a meeting at a local match between the Eastern Devils and the Darebin Falcons.
“I had four men come over to me and say, ‘Oh my god those girls are good, aren’t they?’ And we want people to want to watch women’s football.”

The 2015 Australian Junior Girls’ Carnival ended with Victoria taking home the Cup following an undefeated week and the goal of a broader Women’s AFL competition in a closer position than it has ever been: 195,000 girls are playing football in Australia across 255 teams and that number continues to rise.
For Leeann Gill, who anticipates that this will be her final season as Coach, the final charge to establish a Women’s AFL will likely be someone else’s battle. Will it be the hardest phase of the development yet? Or will the momentum of female football’s growth carry it through with acceleration? Anyone involved would do well to remember the advice that Gill imparted upon this year’s State players.

“I say this to them: I never ever thought that I couldn’t do it and I never ever thought that I shouldn’t do it.”

 

 

About Callum O'Connor

Here's to feelin' good all the time.

Comments

  1. Rick Kane says:

    Great work Callum. The rise of women’s footy is very exciting. Youve captured that rise really well.

    Cheers

Leave a Comment

*