The Lockout

As we approach AFLW Season 7 with all eighteen clubs represented, Julia Faragher provides a creative piece reflecting on the night that started it all.

Maddy Nguyen had never owned a fridge before. It seemed impossible that this giant metal box had taken so much of her time to find and so much of her money to buy. At least having one appliance unwrapped made her new apartment less bare. Maddy ripped open a few boxes from the mess on the living room floor before she found her Western Bulldogs 2016 Grand Final magnet to proudly display on her fridge. Now it looked a little less weird and white. But she would have to unpack and decorate later, there was somewhere she needed to be.

She made sure to leave her apartment with plenty of time to spare. She triple-checked that she had her keys to avoid having to face the embarrassment of calling the real estate agent during the first week of having her own place and squeezed down the corridor, past another stack of boxes and a bubble-wrapped university diploma. Thankfully her apartment was near the train station and she didn’t have far to walk. Sweat was already starting to stick to the back of her neck. She pulled the hair tie off her wrist and swept her long, dark hair up into a high ponytail. She felt underdressed, but she reminded herself that it was summer and perfectly normal to wear a cherry blossom-print dress and white sneakers to the football. 

She stood waiting on the harsh concrete of the train platform, the strength of the sun reflecting onto her skin. Her phone buzzed from inside her handbag, announcing a new message from her friend Richie. He’d ignored her final plea to go to the game with her and she was now officially going by herself.

Why do you care about Collingwood and Carlton, anyway?

You don’t get it. She furiously replied as the train blared past, grateful for the sudden gust of wind.

Maddy got lucky finding an empty seat on the train and she scrolled through her previous messages with Richie, grimacing at how desperate she sounded. PLEASE COME she’d texted him in all-caps yesterday. IT’LL BE FUN! It felt weird to go to the football without him, but she had already made up her mind.

When Maddy arrived at Flinders Street Station, she paused beneath the clocks to check Google Maps on her phone. She’d never been to Princes Park before and her knowledge of Melbourne’s tram routes was now three years out of date. She had barely taken her first steps when she looked up and noticed the sea of people in front of her.

She saw a Carlton guernsey first, so big that it almost swallowed the little girl who was wearing it. Her dad was wearing a scarf. There were three teenage girls in matching Collingwood caps. A group of mums in Carlton polos. 

Maddy didn’t need Google Maps. She could follow the flurry of footy people. Princes Park was on the other side of the city but there were already fans everywhere. In the distance, she could just make out the tram stop among the flood of people where there wasn’t even enough space to wait on the platform, fans flooded out across the road. Maddy watched as each tram arrived at Flinders Street and people packed themselves in like sardines as the tram driver rang his bell signalling the stragglers to back off and wait for the next one. If only Richie could see this, she thought. He’d never believe it.

Eventually, Maddy managed to squish herself onto one of the trams by standing in the stairwell. She had to take a deep breath every time the tram stopped to avoid being crushed by the doors. But no one was getting off to make room for new passengers and she felt bad for people waiting along the route as this tram had just become an express service to Princes Park.

Maddy had taken the train to the football countless times before. She knew that Melburnians were capable of packing themselves onto a footy express more tightly than her mother packed carry-on luggage for a Jetstar flight to Hoi An. Last year, Maddy had been on the train home from the Grand Final, when her beloved Western Bulldogs had won a flag for the first time in decades. Everyone belted the song at the top of their lungs with gigantic smiles plastered across their faces. Maddy hadn’t touched a single drop of alcohol, but it was the drunkest, most delirious she’d ever felt in her life.

But nothing could prepare Maddy for Princes Park. There were people everywhere. The ground was swamped, the nearest queue was at least a hundred people deep from the gate with everyone scrambling anxiously to get inside the stadium. 

They had all come to see the first ever game of women’s Australian rules football in a national competition.

Tears came to Maddy’s eyes. She put her hands over her mouth, her phone and Richie forgotten in her handbag. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t come. Everyone else had.


Maddy was in the line to get into a gate, any gate, when she first heard people talking about a lockout.

“They’re not letting anyone else in!” someone shouted from the front of the line. The crowd started to disperse and Maddy didn’t know who to follow. It seemed the same thing was happening around most of the ground. She opened her phone to check what people were saying online, but everyone had the same idea and blocked the system. She couldn’t get a signal. It was time to take a chance. Skipping past the new queues that were forming, Maddy power-walked around the ground to gate number one. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, Maddy saw her gamble pay off when there wasn’t a line and managed to get inside the ground just in time. 

She heard the siren go, once, twice, as she scurried up the stairs to try and find herself a seat. So much for soaking in the atmosphere and reviewing her footy record before the game started, she was running up the stairs two at a time, trying to miss as little of the game as possible.

Princes Park was a lot smaller than the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Maddy knew that there couldn’t possibly be a hundred thousand people here. But when she surfaced into bay number one, the crowd felt more alive than any crowd at the MCG. Everyone roared with the first bounce. Maddy spun around to face the ground, not wanting to miss a second, and was met with the glare of the setting sun. She returned to her mission of finding somewhere to sit and scurried up the rows until she found an empty seat with a denim jacket half-draped on it.

“Is this seat taken?” Maddy asked the girl in the next seat.

“Oh!” The girl scrambled to remove her jacket. “No, go for it!”

Maddy sat down. Her view of the game was far from great, it was half-scoreboard and half-sun. But in front of her was a group of women playing football. The game she’d loved her whole life. And it didn’t matter that her seat was horrible or that she was out of breath from running halfway around the ground because Maddy felt something new that she had never felt watching football before. Not even when she’d seen her team win a premiership the year before. This was an entirely different feeling. The Grand Final had been a celebration. This game was full of hope.

“So who are you going for?” The question came from the girl sitting next to her. 

“Um. Carlton, I guess,” Maddy said. 

“You guess?”

“Well, not Collingwood.”

The girl laughed. “Correct answer.”

“I’m a Footscray supporter, usually,” Maddy explained. 

“Saints.”

Maddy tried not to laugh, but a smirk escaped her lips. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, I get it.”

“I wanted you to win in 2010.”

“Yeah, I know. Not Collingwood.”

“No, truly! I wanted you to win.”

“I’m teasing. I know we’re a punching bag.”

“So were we, until last year.”

The girl pulled a dramatic face. “Why can’t that happen to us?”

Maddy laughed. “It’s nice to meet you, by the way. I’m Maddy.”

“Eve.”

Their conversation ebbed and flowed with the natural pace of the game, with football weaving itself within their sharing of life stories. 

“I started actively following in–BALL!–maybe 2004?” Maddy caught herself a few times and would’ve apologised, but Eve was doing exactly the same thing. Maddy felt at ease in the comfort of conversing with another passionate footy fan. 

“Can you get any reception in here?” 

“Only one bar.” Eve refreshed her notifications, letting it sit for a minute. “It’s officially a lockout.”

“Wow.” Maddy couldn’t believe it. She’d been to countless games during her high school years, but she’d never been this close to getting turned away at the door for a game of footy. 

“It’s amazing,” Eve said. “And it just goes to show that this game should be somewhere bigger than Princes Park. What’s happening at the G right now? Is the cricket even on?”

“I wouldn’t have the slightest idea.”

Maddy let the news of the lockout wash over her. It was amazing. But looking out over the ground it was also the little things that amazed Maddy. Like the ponytails. How satisfying it was to see elite athletes dive for the ball as their ponytails swung back and forth. And the drive. This game had the energy of a long-standing grudge match, or even a final. Not game number one. Except, it’s not really game one, is it? Maddy thought. It’s more than a hundred years in the making.

Related: Netball Practice

The half-time siren blared. Eve went in search of food and Maddy volunteered to mind their seats. She thought about the last time she’d been to an AFL game, the men’s Grand Final several months ago. She thought about how excited she was to go to such a big game, how she’d booked her plane ticket back to Melbourne especially for that weekend. She thought about how she’d forgotten that they sung the national anthem at finals and she was surprised that she could hear her own voice so loudly and clearly. Then she’d realised she was standing in a group of men.

The same wasn’t true here. There were probably more women here than had been at that Grand Final. Maddy thought about how this might be some of these fans’ first ever games at the footy. Because why would you bother with a sport if it doesn’t include you? Maddy had spent all those years watching men’s AFL, watching ads for beer, gambling and hair loss, not realising that she didn’t fit in until suddenly she did. 

Eve was back with two serves of chips. “These are for you.” She passed one to Maddy.

“Legend.”

“So, Maddy, do you play?”

“Play? Footy?”

“Yeah.” Eve laughed. “Did you know that women can play, too?”

“I played a bit in high school, but there wasn’t actually a competition.”

“You went to high school here? I thought you said you were from Sydney.”

“I just went to university there,” Maddy explained. “I grew up here. I actually just moved back.”

“Well, then you gotta come to my local league. We have try-outs next week. Here, let me give you the details.” She pulled a crumpled flyer out of her bag and offered it to Maddy.

“Thanks.” Maddy took it. “Maybe I will.”

The rest of the game was a blur of emotion, excitement and pride. Carlton won that night, and Maddy and Eve grinned at each other. “Not Collingwood!” They laughed at the final siren. But it also didn’t matter. This game meant more than that. 

Maddy gave her new footy friend a hug goodbye and reluctantly made her way back to her apartment where she dreaded the pile of boxes waiting for her to unpack them and get started with her new life back in Melbourne. She slowly edged open the door, careful not to knock any boxes and flicked on the light switch to reveal the mess. Her eyes met the fridge, the only appliance not in a box. She unfolded the flyer that Eve had given her, placing it under the Bulldogs magnet. She didn’t feel scared at the thought of new beginnings anymore. 

She felt ready to take on anything.

Julia Faragher is an artist and writer living in Canberra. She is currently participating in the Siren Sport Emerging Sports Writers Program and previously completed an internship with ABC Sport. She was recently awarded the Anne Edgeworth Writer’s Fellowship 2022 from ACT Writers for her young adult manuscript.

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