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Women’s Footy Pioneers On AFLW

Pearce, Brennan, Hope.

They’ve quickly become household names and champions of women’s football.

But before they leapt onto the back page of the newspapers, there were female footballing pioneers toiling away at local level in the hope they’d one day see a national competition take form.

These women were stars in their own right, playing, training and advocating so the female game could grow to a point where the AFLW was possible.

Now comfortable in retirement, they looked on with a sense of pride as the ball was bounced on Friday night at Ikon Park to open the inaugural AFLW season.

Here’s how a trio of those champions of yesteryear reflect on their experiences and excitement ahead the first AFLW season.

Shannon McFerran

McFerran has long been one of the VWFL’s greatest players, winning the Helen Lambert Medal as the competition’s Best and Fairest on five occasions – equal with Daisy Pearce and Debbie Lee.

AFL 2009 Media - Womens National Championships Grand Final

“It’s really exciting, I can imagine how nervous and excited the girls would be at the moment.

Having been a part of women’s footy for so long in a playing and coaching capacity, I feel the connection. The build-up would be so nerve-racking but it’s a really proud moment for everyone who’s been involved in women’s football in any role – volunteers, past-players, coaches, we all have a great history and can be proud of how far it’s come.

I did see this coming eventually because there have been a lot of people driving this who were quite determined to see this happen for a while now, and with the amount of girls playing and the growth of the sport in recent years seems like the AFLW competition is a natural progression.

I coached the youth girls’ team when it was newly implemented and even the growth of the sport then was amazing and that was 10 years ago.

Sometimes there was one toilet that was able to be used and you can’t have people lining up to use the toilet before a footy game. So all little things like that needed to happen before we got to the stage we’re at now.

Everyone needed to get used to the idea of women’s junior and senior footy teams involved at their club before we could get a truly national competition, but the time is right.

I couldn’t play junior footy past the age of 12, so I went into umpiring whereas now girls can play all through those years. We also had some great players in the 1990s and early 2000s that could easily go into the AFLW competition and hold their own today, but I can see a progression in things like speed, agility and skill nowadays because the girls have the opportunity to play at any age.

I couldn’t be happier for the girls who have worked hard and have been given the opportunity to participate in something they love doing but on a national stage, they’ll always have my support and the support of everyone who’s ever pulled on a pair of boots.

I’m not jealous of the girls who get to run out there because what I achieved in my era was the best that I could do, whereas they now have the opportunity to do it on the national stage.

I was able to represent my state and go to Ireland and represent my country while also captaining my team along the journey, so I want these girls to have similar experiences and more.

I’ll always get itchy feet because I love football and there’s nothing better than running out and being part of a team.

I feel like I was fortunate in that I was able to be involved with the generation of women’s players before me, then during my time in the sport and now with the girls who are running out there this weekend, so I feel connected to all of it.

I just hope the history of women’s football can be maintained and celebrated in some way. Everyone has contributed to this game in one way or another and they should all be really proud of themselves.”

Michelle Dench

Daughter of North Melbourne premiership player David, Dench was a premiership player in VWFL after switching from basketball. She retired from the competition in 2009.

“When you look at where we’ve come from in the last 20 years with women’s football, and it goes back further than that, to think that they’re now playing women’s AFL at a national level is truly amazing.

There were a lot of people who were pushing hard to get women’s footy to a national level and, to be honest with you, I didn’t know if it ever would.

We’ve known for a long time that there’s a lot of skill in women’s football and I think finally the greater community are starting to see it as well, it’s only going to get bigger and better.

When I played, the game was a strong standard of football and it got better each year, but the standard they’re at now has blown me away really. I thought we were playing pretty good footballers back then and we trained like it was a national competition, but now they keep taking it to new levels. It’s a real credit to everyone involved.

We had really skilled and tough players, and the girls still have plenty of those tough players but their skill level is a lot better than what it was.

Participation in women’s footy has really grown, particularly in the last five to ten years. I was definitely born in the wrong era because the amount of girls playing now, all my friends and colleagues have kids playing football and all these little girls can actually grow up now and fulfil their dream.

I hope they realise how lucky they are.

If my body was up for it, I’d have a crack but I know I can’t do it. The game has well and truly left me behind.

I just loved playing and loved the competition I was in. I represented my country in the international rules and my state and the VWFL was a superb league, which at that time gave me everything that I needed.

It was super competitive and we all hated each other on the field. We loved to beat the Spurs and Darebin and you can bet we were just as proud winning a VWFL premiership as the girls who will win the first AFLW premiership – there’s no difference there. We had a lot of pride in our competition.

There’s no reason why the league shouldn’t have been accepted 10 or 20 years ago, the skill was there, maybe not the numbers, so it’s a little frustrating that it has taken so long for a league like this to get going and us oldies missing out on a great opportunity, but we’ll reap the rewards by watching the game grow.”

Debbie Lee

Lee played more than 300 games for St Albans and secured five Helen Lambert Medals. Afterwards, she moved into coaching and is also heavily involved in the administration side of the game.

AFL 2016 Training - Melbourne Womens Training 221116

“It’s a bit surreal to be honest. In terms of where it’s come from and how long it has taken, obviously it’s been a long journey and has taken a lot of people doing a lot of work along the way, so it’s great to see that it’s come to fruition.

For someone in my circumstances, who has been a part of the sport for more than 25 years, it’s a relief that it’s finally happened.

When I started playing, there were six teams in the competition and that was it. It was never a long season, you’d play 10 or so games and the types of players and athletes who were playing were nothing like they are now and that’s because of the progression of the sport with youth girls programs, talent pathways, coaching and changing from a social to a truly competitive sport.

My intention has always been to grow the game, hence why I started my own women’s footy team in Sunshine in 1993, went on TV programs and became a playing president. My drive was to ensure women and girls had a great opportunity to play the game they love.

I always wanted women to play in AFL jumpers and we advocated for that eight years ago but the sport needed more investment.

There were frustrations early on about the rate the women’s competition was developing. We were told regularly that women were never going to play AFL and play on the MCG, so there was a lack of support during the early to mid-2000s.

People weren’t interested in women’s footy because it didn’t have a currency but now it has that, you open up the paper and women’s footy is in there and there is broadcasts on Channel 7 and Fox Footy.

The AFLW had to make a start and it’s only going to evolve. People need to understand that it’s not going to be the same game as the men’s version. There are some rule changes but women are built differently, they kick differently and we think differently so if there are expectations that it’s going to be exactly the same as the men’s game, they’ll be surprised and that’s an attractive proposition – it’s a different product.

There’ll be more one-on-one contests, a more fluid contest which will require more decisions.

There has been a lot people doing a fair bit of groundwork to enable the competition to begin this weekend and in the end it doesn’t matter how long it’s taken – what matters is that we’ve got there.

Most people I have spoken to who played during the past era are really supportive of the competition and don’t reflect inwardly and say ‘that could’ve been us’, everyone is just so excited to see these athletes in the new league.

We always knew this was going to be a winner but it’s taken some time for someone else to listen and value it.”