An excerpt from Never Surrender
THE FIRST GAME OF AFLW I ATTENDED was at Blacktown International Sportspark. The ground is about 40 kilometres west of Sydney’s CBD, in an area more often associated with rugby league. The Giants played the Fremantle Dockers. Round three of season one. It was over 30 degrees and unless you had managed to snag a coveted seat in the small grandstand, there was no shade. My stout, middle-aged body was uncomfortable sitting on the grass in the sun.
I was not prepared for the joy I experienced watching women play football in the colours of AFL clubs. It was not the standard of football I had become used to, sitting in the grand Sydney Cricket Ground stands, watching the Swans play. I realised early in the game, however, that ‘standards’ had become irrelevant. It was who that was playing that was important. Women like me. Women like my sister, my mother. Women who had watched the game for many years but were kept separated from it by an invisible line of gender. None of us would have thought that we could have played football – not this kind – and I felt the power of knowing that now women could.
The game ended in a draw, a rare result in Australian Football. Almost every player from both teams sunk to the grass at the final siren, some of them beating the ground with their fists. I was with my sister and we stood and clapped. I clapped with my hands over my head and could feel myself doing that smile I do when I don’t know whether I’m happy or I actually want to cry. I was done. This was the team for me. Sydney was now orange and charcoal.
A women’s AFL season is short and turbulent. While the men’s competition plays through a 23-round season, the women’s version squeezes everything into eight rounds, with three weeks of finals. In 2020 the season was shortened to six rounds and three weeks of finals due to measures taken to curb the spread of COVID-19. After a single week of finals, the competition was abandoned, with no winner declared. The global pandemic exacerbated the usual mass of intense emotion generated during an AFLW season and then obliterated the competition, leaving only silence.
In November 2019 I asked the Giants if I could be embedded with their AFLW team for the coming season in order to write about it. Of course, at the beginning of this work I had no clue that it would end the way it did. How could any of us predict what our life would become by the end of March in 2020? It escalated quickly. What was important on one day became less so the next day, and almost forgotten after that. Football was overshadowed by things that were rightfully more pressing: how will people survive physically and for some, financially?
Day by day football became more incompatible with the way we were forced to live: unable to leave our houses without a legitimate, state- sanctioned reason. Afraid to touch surfaces in public places. Holding our breath when someone walked past us on the street. Our hands both weapons and vulnerabilities. In Melbourne, the spiritual home of football, measures were even more extreme, with curfews imposed, gatherings abolished and the population only allowed out of their homes for one hour a day. There was no sport on television. The footy channel was forced to replay ‘classic’ matches. All men’s games. It was as if women’s football had been wiped from the collective memory once again.
I’ve always considered playing football to be an inherently political act for a female. By taking the field women challenge the dominant narrative of this particular sport in this country: it is played by, coached by, commentated by, and watched by men. If women do any of these things, even as a fan, they deviate from the norm, even now.
When I was seven, I demanded to play soccer after almost turning myself inside out having to watch my brother play from the sidelines. My parents didn’t argue, the local association allowed it (there were no girls teams) but I was always conscious of being the only girl in the competition. I never expected, or tried, to be the best player in the team – I just didn’t want to be the worst. I wanted to blend in, and my short haircut helped with that, up to a point. There were comments, of course. ‘We’re going to beat them because they have a girl on their team,’ as we lined up before a game. ‘Don’t let her beat you!’ screamed at a boy by his parents when I looked to be getting the better of him.
After the U11s season I was told my days with the boys were done. I would not be allowed to move on to the U12s. I was told I could join a women’s team if I really wanted to keep playing. My adult teammates now smoked before games and if one of them cracked the top off a small bottle of Victoria Bitter at half time you were not to judge. I probably did not understand a lot of what they said, I was still in primary school.
I’m not sure what they would have said, those women living in and around Lismore, New South Wales, in the 1980s, if you’d pointed to the political nature of their football. Many of them also played cricket. Another sport not given to strong female representation at that time. They didn’t think about what they did, they just loved playing. Their teams were refuges. Very few of them had small children so they weren’t constrained by family commitments. They had autonomy over themselves and their time and could spend six hours standing in a field on a Saturday. Some did have adult or teenage children and occasionally mother and daughter played in the same team.
I can no longer play football of any description. A particularly ugly knee dislocation put an end to all that several years ago. If anything, my inglorious retirement has only brought into sharper focus how large a part sport played, and continues to play, in how I think about the world. The way in which a society frames women and football tells me all I need to know about my position in it. When women are paid less to kick a ball, given negligible and grudging media coverage and criticised for even thinking they could enter the field of play – I know we still have a long journey ahead of us. In Australia, where sport is central to our culture, it demonstrates that some arenas are still walled off, defended against the entry of women.
There are many ways to play Australian football. There is no one way to engage in the game that absorbs so much time, attention and money in this country. Every team interprets the game in their own way. The football public has only recently been exposed to the way in which female players, and teams, express the game. The Giants women’s team are football outsiders, even more so than their counterparts in Victorian AFLW teams. Not only are they females playing a sport dominated by men, they play it in a state where it is largely ignored. Media coverage for them, let alone the game at large, is scant. Their club is more often maligned or ignored than loved. Many of the players have same-sex partners. They’ve spent much of their life on the outside.
They do, however, play very good football.
This is the story of their 2020 season.
From Chapter 2: Pre-season
I spoke to Giants AFLW coach Alan McConnell before the last training session of the year. It was being held in the morning as many of the women were heading away for the break, some driving back to Melbourne as soon as training finished. They can’t usually train in the mornings because most of the squad work at other jobs. They were able to do it this time because most had finished for the year. Only one had to manipulate work to accommodate the early session.
‘It’s a fine line between what’s best for the group and making sure it’s inclusive. You can only ask a certain number of times for girls to take time off work,’ McConnell explained.
Coaching this team involves a succession of compromises. McConnell is called on to push and pull and manoeuvre in order to provide the right environment where women can be happy while also developing as players and as a team. There is an oscillation between individual and team that is yet to be settled to his satisfaction. He believes they need to reach an agreement within themselves that will allow each player, and thus the team, to perform at a higher level. The team has to agree to standards and who gets to enforce them.
‘I’ve said it ten times and you’ve probably heard me say it, the biggest impediment to us being good is still what we accept from one another. They still require those boundaries to be externally put in place. I KNOW they really care, and they want to be good, but there is still an element of needing permission to do that.’
He gives me an example.
‘Right now Alicia (Eva) is the Captain but we don’t have a leadership group. So, if Alicia steps up its OK because it’s sort of expected; but who else has authority or permission right now to say, “hey, that’s not OK”? When we perform a drill that’s not so good, there’s no chance right now that someone will stop it, unless it’s a coach.’
High quality execution of drills is a priority. That has been obvious during every session I have observed. The level of skill displayed is at a higher level than I expected, I will admit. But it’s not just about executing, as McConnell points out, there needs to be an agreement about what is accepted and what is done when it is not achieved. Is it OK for a young player to ask an older player to do something again, if they get it wrong?
‘Most of our girls, when they execute with good technique, their execution is of a high standard. But the moment they’re slightly off the ball [it’s hard to recover] ... the boys are strong enough and powerful enough that they can get away with it a little bit and they’ve rehearsed it so much more.’
This leads McConnell to the differences between male and female players. A lot of the variances in skill can be put down to the difference in time allowed to practice. The way in which males have historically approached football also contributes. They were allowed to play. They had permission to learn the game in their back yards, in school playgrounds and on streets. They often show a familiarity with the ball that is only developed after years of spending time with it.
‘I’ve spent a bit of time in the cage [an indoor area, surrounded by netting, that is large enough to accommodate kicking and other team drills] with the girls in the last month and what I realise is most of them can’t check side kick because they’ve never tried. They’ve never played with the ball. So, when they get a ball, they’re always being told how to kick it. I would say three quarters of our girls couldn’t do it because they’ve never tried. They don’t just play with the ball. It’s always about business, as opposed to exploration.’
They’ve never been allowed to just learn; they’ve always been told.
‘One of the things I worked out pretty early on with the Irish girls is that you can become over-prescriptive. What I had to do is just let them play, make it spin that way, make it spin the other way, ask them, how would you hold it to make it spin that way? That’s experience. As a coach, you know where you want to get to, but you’re not always sure how you’re going to get there. You’ve got to be prepared to fiddle around with it a little bit and all of a sudden you think, yeah, that will work. I’ve taught kicking forever and I think I’m quite good at it, but I’ve also learnt in the last couple of years that sometimes not telling them what to do is better than telling them what to do.’
Maggie Gorham was the Giants top draft pick this season. She was drafted at number four from the Belconnen Magpies in Canberra. She is 18 years old. She is not a player that stands out immediately on the training track. She is good, but she is not going to demand a place in the team in her first season, like Alyce Parker did last year. McConnell is pleased with her training though.
‘The first week of training, Maggie Gorham came in the day after the first session and she was in the cage. She didn’t know I was watching her. She played with the ball for an hour. I’ve not seen one of our girls do what she did. She was lying on her back on a big crash mat, throwing the ball at the rebounder and catching it. No relevance to the body position she might be in, in a game, and she was throwing the ball up in the air and trying to have it bounce back at her, having it spin spirals.’
McConnell compares Gorham to former Giants’ midfielder, Adam Treloar: ‘One of our more obsessive and more highly skilled players’. He used to do the same thing. He would play with the ball for hours in the cage, experimenting. ‘It actually wasn’t training, it was playing.’
McConnell is at pains to get a better understanding of how women play football and how he can best coach them. He doesn’t believe his 30-odd years of experience has qualified him to do the job he has now. He’s getting a bit of help from his partner.
‘I’m lucky because my partner is a sex and relationships counsellor. So she can give me some insight in different ways. I’ll go home and say, “Oh god this happened today” and she’ll say, “Oh yeah, so?”’
Admitting to not being a great reader, he tells me his partner has helped out there too. She did some research that helped fortify him for the challenge of coaching this team. McConnell is particularly interested in the coaching of soccer in the US.
‘In the early 2000s the American soccer team that won the World Cup, they had the best player in the world and the story goes that she was ‘Little Miss Perfect’ and was unbelievably driven and set really high standards. What happened is, it marginalised her from the rest of the team, and so eventually the coach had a deputation of players saying, you need to reel her in, she’s off doing her own shit. And what he had to say to them was actually, you’ve come here to tell me that you want her to become more like you and what you need to hear is that you need to become more like her. In the competitive space right now, that’s our team.’
McConnell’s comments to me out on the field, sometimes said in passing, start to make more sense. I have a better understanding of what he is grappling with.
‘We’ve got a couple of competitors, and we need everyone to come along. The real challenge is, it’s not considered nice to be a competitive bitch. It’s not conducive to being liked. If you’re a really competitive bitch, excuse the French, that’s not how women are socialised to be.’
But surely they all want to win, I ask him. I’ve missed the point.
‘I’m sure they want to win. But what comes with that is saying, well, that’s not good enough, which is that wrestle with not wanting to make mistakes and wanting to be better. I don’t mean competitive in just you against me, but competitive me against me.’
He is planning to challenge them after Christmas, he wants the whole squad to take ownership of their performance, not just the leaders. This means the younger women have to feel safe enough to be able to pick up a more experienced player if what she has delivered is not good enough. They can’t sit back and wait.