Siren

WOMEN MADE THIS HAPPEN

 

The development of women’s footy in Queensland: Part One

By Kirby Fenwick & Gemma Bastiani

A crowd of more than fifteen thousand people filled Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast for the inaugural AFLW grand final in 2017. They rode every bump, loudly protested every decision that didn’t go their way and implored their team to lift. To push that little bit more. To win.

Sitting in the stands on that warm Saturday afternoon in March was Karen Russell. A pioneer of women’s football in Queensland, Karen remembers exactly where she was sitting that day and who she was sitting with because for her, “it was a big deal, a very big deal.”

She’d followed the Lions across that inaugural season, gone to as many games as she could, and had even offered to buy every player a football: “I just said, every girl should have a football she should be taking home and playing with and going down the park with her friends and kicking it and just living and breathing their footy. And I offered to buy them all a footy but I wasn’t allowed to because you know, salary caps or whatever,” she recalls laughing. 

1985 South Brisbane team photo
1985 South Brisbane team photo. Supplied: Murray Bird

In the 1980s, when Karen was working tirelessly to get a women’s competition off the ground in Queensland, the idea of a national league was something she never even dreamed of happening. 

“When AFLW came about, I was just… I’m actually going to cry now because it’s actually so raw, it’s that raw,” she says, her voice cracking. “Like the emotion. You’ve got to consider I’m 57 now [so]… It was a long time waiting for this moment for women to get their go.” 

Karen is all in when it comes to Aussie rules. Her dedication to and love of the game evident in the scrapbooks she keeps. Scrapbooks that tell a story of women’s football in Queensland, a story that may otherwise have been forgotten. 

During the 2017 AFLW season, copies of Karen’s scrapbook pages were hung on the walls of the office of Brisbane Lions Women’s CEO Breeanna (Bree) Brock—the pair had met years earlier when Bree was working for AFL Queensland. Karen says that Bree wanted the women who would pull on the Lions guernsey in 2017 to know where they had come from. To know the women who had paved the way for them. 

Perhaps those scrapbook pages—filled with newspaper clippings and photos and snippets of a long history of women and Aussie rules in Queensland—had inspired the team. Perhaps they had propelled them to Metricon Stadium on that Saturday afternoon in March. 

Out on the field that day, the Brisbane Lions were playing a game no-one had expected them to play after a season that few outside of Queensland could have imagined them playing. There were twenty-two women wearing the maroon, gold and blue; seventeen of them were locals—born and bred Queenslanders or transplants that had lived long enough in the Sunshine State to legitimately call it home. Prior to that inaugural season, scant attention had been paid to this team. 

“There’s still the imbalance of representation in media”

Sam Virgo

Comments that the Brisbane list ‘lacked depth’ suggested little about the team and more about the writer’s research skills. Because the Brisbane team of 2017 was stacked with decorated players like QAFLW best and fairest winners Emma Zielke and Leah Kaslar, QAFLW Rising Star Tahlia Randall and grand final best on ground medallists Kate Lutkins, Emily Bates and Tayla Harris. This was a team bursting at the seams with talent. Talent that had been nurtured and supported in Queensland. 

Throughout the inaugural season and even during the club’s preseason preparation, the Lions were defensive—bordering on indignant—at how the rest of the country viewed their highly talented list. As captain Emma Zielke explains, “that internally made us be like, we want to shock the opposition, we want to shock them. And that’s exactly what we did each week”. Brisbane remained undefeated for that 2017 season. Right up until the grand final.

There were distractions during that grand final week. Brisbane had earned the right to a home ground advantage because of their superior home and away record, but that home ground—the GABBA—had dramatically become unavailable just days out from the match, forcing the Lions to Metricon Stadium. 

Come game day, however, it didn’t matter. The ball was bounced with famous Queensland footy names Emma Zielke and Emily Bates lining up in the centre circle. Tayla Harris—the first player signed to Brisbane—was physical up forward, bumping opposition players and taking strong contested marks. Sam Virgo and Leah Kaslar were cool while in unenviable match ups against Erin Phillips and Sarah Perkins. Kate Lutkins wasn’t only taking her now signature intercept marks, but laid a goal saving run down tackle in the second quarter. All while the 15,610-strong crowd chanted “Lions! Lions!”

Inaugural AFLW Grand Final
Brisbane Lions v Adelaide Crows, March 25th 2017 
Metricon Stadium

The footy gods may not have been smiling on the Lions that day, but this was nonetheless a prodigious moment in Queensland football. But it’s a moment that is more than sixty years in the making. Because the story of women’s football in Queensland does not begin with the Brisbane Lions and that inaugural AFLW season. 

Even a cursory glance at the way that female football developed in Queensland over the last twenty years would reveal that women were the driving force of that growth. Three of these women—Charmaine Ferguson, Julia Price and Breeanna Brock—were at Metricon Stadium that Saturday. Their role in the development of football for women and girls in Queensland is hugely significant. AFL Queensland’s Brad Reid says the trio were instrumental in making things happen. 

“They’re kind of all really different personalities [with] different approaches, different skill sets, but were totally the right people at the right time. So we’re pretty fortunate I reckon.”

Brad is absolutely right. Different people. Different skill sets. But the right people. The right time. And all with a common goal. Charmaine came on board in 2004 with a focus on doing the groundwork and building participation from the bottom up. When Julia Price stepped into the role in 2007, she added elite talent pathways to those priorities and worked to continue filling the gaps between junior and senior football. By 2013, the landscape looked remarkably different from what it had a decade before, and when Breeanna Brock took the reins, the task became building women and girls football into the day-to-day operations of AFL Queensland. Oh, and AFLW of course. 

 


 

The Lucas Girls
The Lucas Girls played in one of the earliest documented women’s Aussie Rules games. Source: National Library Australia

Timing is everything. Especially when it comes to women’s footy. Followers of the game will likely be familiar with the stories of women playing Aussie rules throughout the twentieth century. Those black and white photos of women in tunics and hats and wearing shoes not designed for kicking a footy. The first recorded game of women’s football was in 1915 in Perth. It would be another forty-five years before evidence appeared of women’s football in Queensland. 

While piecing together the history of Aussie Rules in Queensland for their book More of the Kangaroo, 150 Years of Australian Football in Queensland–1866 to 2016, Murray Bird—who had worked for AFL Queensland throughout the 90s and into the 2000s—and Greg Parker scanned thousands of newspapers searching for the story of the game. It was while doing this that they found reports of local clubs Wilston Grange and Sandgate fielding women’s teams in the 1950s. According to Bird and Parker, the two teams—the Brisbane Bombers and the Sandgate Sirens—played a match in 1955 in front of a crowd of 4000 at Brisbane’s Perry Park. 

While Bird believes there may have been other games played around that time, “there was no more mention of it in 1956 or 57”. It wouldn’t be until the 1970s that women’s football reappeared. This time in the form of one-off, social games. Bird mentions clubs like Southport, Labrador and Coolangatta on the Gold Coast as well as South Brisbane and Mt Gravatt, but the evidence is scarce. 

“There wasn’t much in club annual reports or newspapers then either,” Bird says of these games. 

Kate Guy, whose family has been involved with the Mt Gravatt Football Club for decades, grew up loving the game, “I just loved it from the word go. I used to go and train with the boys but was never allowed to play, which was a bugger”. Instead, she’d do what she could around the club to stay involved, including running water. But Kate did eventually get an opportunity to play—in those social games in the 1970s. 

“We used to have an annual ladies game,” Kate explained. “It was normally Mount Gravatt against South Brisbane.”

“I think I was 14 in 1973 when we played that first game and there were other clubs around. But we’ve got photos from 1973 and 1979.”

Women's footy in the 1970s. Image: provided by Kate Guy
Women’s footy at Mt Gravatt in the 1970s. Supplied: Kate Guy

“It was mainly the mums [who] would get it together and young [or] teenage girls who wanted to play…there would have been the senior players’ girlfriends, just wives and girlfriends and mums from the club and sisters.”

“Some of us took it a bit more serious, because we could actually play and I mean, I learnt to kick [playing] with my brothers for forever, since we were kids. And we had some quite good footballers around then, but there was nothing else to it. We’d just play once or twice a year.”

The idea of starting a serious competition is something Kate says she probably thought about but it never happened. Instead, she took up coaching—a space hardly overflowing with women now, let alone in the 1970s. 

For decades these social games were the only opportunity for women like Kate Guy to play the game they loved. Women’s football just wasn’t on the agenda. Then, in the 1980s, an attempt was made to establish a competition. At the heart of that attempt was Karen Russell, then Karen Slinger. 

Karen’s family were involved with QAFL club Wilston Grange, and she remembers watching her two brothers play and being desperate to get out there herself. 

“I just wanted to play,” she explains. “It was back in the days when girls never really expected to have equal rights, honestly, in the 1960s or 1970s. All I did was go ‘please, please, please, I’ll cut my hair off, I’ll do anything, let me play’.

“I just spent my whole life wanting to play. But nevertheless, I stayed heavily involved with the club and my brothers played for a very long time. Even after my brothers stopped playing, I stayed involved with the club. My dad was president.”

Karen would have to wait until the mid 1980s for her chance. But when it came, she grabbed it with both hands. 

“I heard that Western Districts had a team. They were a top level QAFL club like Wilston Grange was, in the boys. So I went out and trained with them.”

At the time, Karen recalls that there were only two teams, Western Districts and Wynnum. She knew that wasn’t enough for a serious competition.

“I just went well, we’ve just got to have more teams and we need to set up.”

“So, I just wrote to every club. I just found every club in the Brisbane and greater district, whether they were a top Queensland Australian Football League team or whether they were in the second division or third division, it didn’t really matter. I just contacted all those clubs and suggested that they might have a bunch of ladies who’d like to play.”

Karen Russell's letter to Brisbane clubs in 1986
Karen Russell (nee: Slinger)’s letter to Brisbane clubs in 1986

 

“Dear Sir,

You may have hears that a ladies Australian Football competition is hitting the Brisbane scene. The prospect is quite exciting for all those ladies who have followed the game for numerous years and always wondered how they’d fair if they had the chance to don a jersey. And of course there’s always those who have never had any desire to play Australian Rules but figure why not give it a go anyway.

I’m hoping that this letter will spark some interest amongst the ladies of your club, or perhaps amongst the men, most of whom are keen to see their better half play.

There are at the moment only three teams in the competition and obviously this causes a few clashes over who’s going to play who, when and where. For this reason I am approaching your club and other Australian Rules clubs in the Brisbane and Districts area in the hope of strengthening the competition.

If you’d like more information, or perhaps would like to know where future games are being held so you can have a look, please call me on 311 690 (work) or 359 5271 (home).

I’ll look forward to your call.

Yours in football,

Karen Slinger”

 

In the meantime, Karen set to work establishing a women’s team at Wilston Grange. 

“On game day, I stood at the gate where everyone was coming in and paying to park or whatever and I just approached every woman sitting in a car who was coming in with her husband, or her boyfriend or parents. And I got many, many names after that. Far more than we needed for a team. And we just started training.”

Karen’s youngest brother, David, took the reins as coach and the team trained a couple of nights a week.

“Once we sort of felt that we had enough skills and fitness, we played Wests. And then we played Wynnum and then Wynumm played Wests and we just had these three teams playing each other. And oftentimes, it was on a Friday night or it might have been just an exhibition match at half time of the boys game.”

Daily Sun Weekend Magazine, 5 July 1986. Provided by Karen Russell
Daily Sun Weekend Magazine, 5 July 1986. Supplied: Karen Russell

With only three teams, Karen says the competition in 1986 was very “ad-hoc”. But there was plenty of interest.  

“It was very popular and I think it was popular because it was unusual. It was popular at Wilston Grange because we had an exceptionally good supporter base, as in we as a club as a whole, not women. But the club as a whole was a very good, family-oriented club, that was just known to be a good club. And so people got behind everything. So when we put it on a Friday night, I think our first game might have been against Wests on a Friday night, and the bar took record takings because so many people packed down to the club to watch us.”

There was some limited support from AFL Queensland, who put notices about Karen’s efforts to get a competition up and running in the weekly record for the premier men’s competition but, as Karen says, women’s football just wasn’t on their radar. 

The work Karen and Wilston Grange and the other teams were doing received some media attention throughout 1986 and Wilston Grange’s Annual Report of that year noted that women’s football was a positive for the club.

“The Jewel in the Crown was the establishment and the performance of our ladies football team. Great credit for this must go to Karen Slinger [Russell]. She not only started our side, but tried all season to set up a Ladies Competition. I hope through next year she carries on work in this area and we see a viable Women’s Australian Football Competition come into being.”

The teams played throughout 1986 and kicked off again in 1987—Karen made sure she returned from her honeymoon in time to play—but by the end of 1987, the competition had stalled. 

“When I set the competition up, we were a bunch of girls who’d never played football in our lives. So we didn’t have skills. We didn’t have any footy smarts except the ones we’d gathered by being spectators,” Karen explains. “It was all very raw.” 

Karen had been the driving force behind the competition, sending letters and making phone calls, approaching women at game day at her club and signing them up to play. But she says it just wasn’t enough and she couldn’t do it all. 

“What you needed was someone at one of those clubs who received that letter to find someone within their club to push it and it didn’t happen. 

“Because I don’t think an outsider necessarily can drive it at a club. Because you’re a nobody. On reflection, I don’t remember how I thought at the time, but on reflection now, I would have had to go to everybody’s club and go to their games and then approach every woman on the sideline. That’s the only way I would have been able to do it. Because if you haven’t got someone within each club, then you have to actually do it yourself. And you have to go one by one.

“And then you sort of say to yourself, was the world ready for it?” 

After this early iteration of a competition stalled, women’s football retreated and all but disappeared in Queensland. Fast forward to the early 2000s and the story was beginning to change.

FROM THE GROUND UP

Perhaps inspired by the new women’s competition that was finding its feet in the state, or more likely realising that their growth would always be stymied unless they embraced the half of the population the game had long sidelined, AFL Queensland looked to develop Aussie rules for women and girls in the early 2000s. Their first move was to secure funding for a position that would focus on that development. The person who would step into that role had a big job ahead of them. Charmaine Ferguson, then Lowrie, was up to the task. But she says it was a role that she hadn’t planned to apply for. 

“I didn’t even throw my hat in the ring and the [AFLQ] CEO at the time, Richard Griffiths, phoned me and said ‘What are you doing? Why aren’t you putting in?’”

“I was fortunate. Just the right time, the right place kind of thing,” she says. 

Charmaine is modest but she had the credentials for the role. She’d spent a year working with local clubs for AFLQ, helping them to apply for grants and sponsorship and making sure they were operationally sound. She had a sporting background, having played volleyball at a state level. Plus she had a passion for ensuring girls had opportunities in sport. 

“That’s always been my focus. Yes, I think elite level sport is excellent. But I think when you look at the stats of girls dropping out of sport… I just think it’s important for girls to be able to [participate] whether they do it because they just want to hang out with friends, my attitude is I don’t mind as long as they’re doing something. 

“So, I think for me, it’s always been about girls just being out, being physically active. And also I think that social aspect in those teenage years and a sense of belonging to a team is really important.”

Charmaine says her role came with a simple brief: grow participation and get started on building that all-important pathway. 

“There were girls participating at an Auskick level,” she says of the landscape when she took charge of female football at AFLQ. Alongside Auskick, Charmaine says that there was a “scattering” of girls playing in junior boys competitions.

“And then there were females participating at the women’s level. But there was really nothing in the middle to support the female pathway.”

According to Brad Reid, Charmaine’s focus was more a bottom up approach. 

“Promoting female participation through Auskick, kicking off the first junior girls competition. So we started small,” Reid explained. 

It was no easy task. As early as 2001, AFLQ had begun offering support to the league that would eventually become the premier women’s state league in Queensland, but the opportunities for girls and women were still very limited. As Charmaine says, after Auskick the only real opportunity for girls was to play with the boys. But at the time, AFL Queensland regulations—like most across the country—restricted girls from playing in boys teams after a certain age, anything from 12 to 14. This left girls with two options: playing with senior women’s teams or leaving the game behind. 

“Back then you had your Jade Pregeljs and your Katie Brennans that are superstars now, [but] they were all playing in a boys team and I mean, they were brilliant. They were just as good if not better than the boys but I guess size and the physicality of it obviously comes into play as they start developing,” Charmaine says. 

 

Jade Pragelj in her days at the Logan Cobras
Jade Pregelj in her days at the Logan Cobras. Supplied: Murray Bird

In 2005, a young Jade Pregelj—now playing for the Gold Coast Suns in the AFLW—was being forced out of the boys team she’d been playing with at the Logan Cobras. 

“I remember by that stage, I’d played U11, U12 for two years [and] I’d been U14 for two years with the boys,” Jade explains. 

Only two years earlier, Helen Taylor, Penny Cula-Reid and Emily Stanyer had taken the Moorabbin Saints Junior Football League and Football Victoria (now AFL Victoria) to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. The trio were fighting against the Football Victoria regulations that stopped girls playing in junior boys teams at age 12, a regulation which had seen the girls kicked off their team at Murrumbeena halfway through the 2003 season. They would technically lose their fight, however the case would push Football Victoria to establish a footy program for girls. A win by any measure.

“I’ve [since] become aware that other girls actually tried to keep playing with the boys as well in other states,” Jade says, recalling that defining moment in her footy career. “But [at the time] I wrote a letter to AFL Queensland and said, ‘Hi, I really want to play with the boys. Can I please play under 16s?’ And they said no.”

“And so I turned 15 and my only option if I wanted to keep playing was to go to the women’s side.” 

Jade was lucky. Her club—the Logan Cobras—were fielding a team in the senior women’s competition at that time, they were one of only a handful of clubs who were. But jumping into a senior competition as a 15-year-old was an intimidating prospect. 

It was this yawning gap that Charmaine was tasked with trying to bridge. But where to begin? With only a scattering of girls playing in boys competitions, there wasn’t the support—or even the players—to launch a serious competition just yet. Primary schools and high schools were identified as targets to grow participation with an eye on developing junior and youth girls competitions from there. 

Brad remembers that whenever AFLQ ran schools programs, there was always a lot of interest from girls. “We just weren’t capitalising on it,” he says. “And I think it’d be fair to say, we traditionally ran programs for boys, and then we would just run the same program for girls. And I think what Charmaine brought to that was there’s different things that girls want to get out of their sport.”

Season One, Round One
Melbourne Demons v Brisbane Lions, February 5th 2017 
Casey Fields

Charmaine believes offering the sport at schools, allowing girls the opportunity to try without having to commit, was an important step in the development of the game. 

“I think it was vital to be honest, and I think it’s one of those things, with any team sport it’s not just about the game. It’s about all the other things, [the] social aspects that come with it. And I know those nine-a-side school competitions, the girls loved them.” 

“I also got into the Catholic Girls Sports Association and they still to this day offer it as a Wednesday afternoon sport.”

Brad agrees with Charmaine’s assessment of the value of giving girls the chance to try without the commitment at that point in the development of the game.

“You weren’t committing to a whole year of sport, but you got a taste of it,” he said. “A lot of our offerings were designed in a way that you could sort of still play netball and do a bit of footy on the side. And then that just kind of grew to a point that you sort of had an equal offering to the other sports and girls could opt in a bit more seriously.”

School football remains a significant part of the pathway in Queensland with as many girls sides competing as there are boys. Sam Virgo, who played for Brisbane and is now co-captain of the Gold Coast Suns, is the assistant coach of the Darling Downs U17 regional team who play in the Queensland State Championships. She says the numbers tell the story. 

“I think it’s well known about our school participation numbers, how popular [Australian rules football] is in schools.” 

In December of 2015, there were more than 58,000 girls playing school football in Queensland in a number of different competitions for primary and high school students including the Carol Berry Cup. Those numbers increased in 2016 with the introduction of the AFL Queensland Schools Cup. 

Julia Price, who would step into Charmaine’s shoes in 2007, reiterates the value of school football to the development of the game. 

“To me, getting into the schools [was] the key thing, because that just normalises it.”

Julia Price

Charmaine says in those early days, it was very much a ‘see what works’ kind of situation. With the support of Brad and AFLQ, Charmaine says she felt free to give things a shot. 

“I wasn’t given stats that I had to meet or whatever. So I felt, yeah, a sense of freedom. Sometimes you’d try something and you wouldn’t get a good response. 

“In that very first year, it pretty much was trial and error. And sometimes you’d create this big competition and you wouldn’t have enough to run the competition. So at times it was a little bit deflating, but I just kept on pushing and educating.” 

“It was an exciting time. There were times where you’d go: I’m never gonna crack this [but Brad] was always very supportive and the funding was there to help run these programs and get girls involved. So it was kind of a couldn’t lose situation for me, because I don’t know that [AFLQ] even knew where it could go. I guess we would never have expected it to be where it is. I mean, that would be the grand plan. But once that groundswell started happening, it almost just started to sell itself, so to speak.”

After making inroads at schools, the next step was representative football with Charmaine starting an U16 State Championship in around 2005.

“We’d go up to Cairns. It was fairly small but there was a team from Townsville, Cairns and Brisbane.”

Papua New Guinea also often competed and in later years, that four-team competition would expand to eight teams. But even at that early stage, Charmaine says the development of girls participating in the U16 competition was obvious. 

“We certainly noticed the skill level increasing coming through from having that base at primary school and filtering through to high school. The competition, definitely in the few years that I was doing it, the skills increased significantly.”

 

Kate Guy coaching U9 girls in 2013
Kate Guy coaching U9 girls in 2013. Supplied: Kate Guy

Community based junior teams aligned with existing clubs was another part of the puzzle that was building the pathway between junior and senior football. In a series of challenging tasks, it was a big one.  

“That was a big part for me to go out to each of those clubs and really help with the recruitment. We provided them flyers and development officers to go out and help set up their training. I’m pretty sure we even offered free coaching courses for anyone that was taking on a female football team, and different workshops of how to coach females. So we were just trying to throw little carrots out to ensure that the program was being set up well and being run by coaches that are accredited as well.”

At clubland, Charmaine faced plenty of battles. Not least of which were negative attitudes to women and girls playing the game. They came up with a slogan: You Kick Like A Girl, Good For You to try and encourage girls to play in what was traditionally a male sport. It wasn’t always appreciated at clubland. 

“I did cop a fair bit of flack… the old traditionalists would be like ‘girls don’t play footy’.”

“I know for a while in the earliest stages, I’d go to all these club meetings and talk about clubs getting on board with putting a girls team in and I’d have a lot of men at the back of the room with their arms crossed, and yeah, not too interested.”

“And I used to cop a few comments like ‘Yeah, well, the women do have a role, they’re in the canteen’ and things like that, but you just ignored that.”

Charmaine Ferguson

Charmaine says alongside these kinds of attitudes, she also battled against parents concerned about the physicality of the game—this would be an ongoing battle. Another hurdle was simply convincing girls to give it a go, especially without an elite level competition to aim for. At that point, in the mid 2000s, there were no U18 National Championships and certainly no AFLW. The highest level you could aim for was the Women’s National Championships which at that point were not even an AFL sanctioned competition. 

“Good athletes are good athletes across other sports as well. So it was those girls having to make a choice—are they going to move away from say netball to try something completely different? So just getting them to take that leap. And that’s where I think the school program came into play because they could obviously still play their Saturday sport but give it a go through school sport.”

Charmaine’s role in laying the groundwork and pushing to change the perceptions at clubland around girls football was incredibly important work. She says that by the time she left AFL Queensland in 2007, the conversation was beginning to shift. 

“I remember around the office, there were a few people going, ‘boys play too you know’, so it was definitely a good shift towards females participating. And, obviously, the rest is history with where it is now.”

DANGEROUS WOMEN

While Charmaine was working hard to develop the game for women and girls in Queensland, changes were afoot at the highest level. In 2005, Sam Mostyn joined the AFL Commission—the first woman to do so. It was a landmark appointment and one that would change the story for female football with Sam pushing the women’s game from the top.

“It’s fair to say women’s football was not on the AFL’s agenda when I joined,” Sam told Sam Lane for the 2018 book ROAR. In fact, Sam recalls receiving written hate mail after her appointment. 

“This is sort of pre-Twitter and social media, so I got very carefully written letters—often unsigned so I couldn’t respond—that warned me that what I was doing was dangerous, that it would take the AFL into dangerous territory and was the end of footy as we knew it,” Sam explained to the ABC earlier this year.

“[They said] that they would be watching me to ensure I didn’t change, I guess, the masculinity and muscular nature of football. There were a number of those.”

Then AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou was famously—or infamously—dismissive of the women’s game. But Sam’s appointment would be the first of a series that would change the shape of Aussie rules and ensure women’s participation was a part of the conversation.

Two years after Sam’s appointment, Jan Cooper joined the AFL as the Female Football Development Manager. Based in Western Australia, Jan’s role was initially one day a week. By 2009, it was a full-time position. 

Another significant appointment for the game nationally was Chyloe Kurdas, who joined AFL Victoria in 2007. That same year, AFL Queensland hired former Australian cricketer, Julia Price to take over from Charmaine Ferguson. 

“I think my initial title was female participation coordinator,” Julia explains. “And then it changed, by the end it was female programs manager.” 

“When I first started there were about maybe 3,000 women and girls playing total, and I think when I left there was about 42,000. So the job was enormous.”

The job was more than enormous. According to Bree Brock, who would take over from Julia in 2013 says in those days, anything related to female football was thrown Julia’s way. 

“It was like if it had the word ‘girl’, ‘woman’ or ‘female’ in it, it all went to this one person. So it was like nobody else’s business but one department, or when I say department, it’s one person,” Bree says.

Aasta O’Connor now plays for Geelong in the AFLW but she grew up in Queensland, where she began her footy career in the mid 90s for a local team her parents were involved in starting. She says Julia had a significant influence not only on the development of the game but also on her. 

“Legend, absolute legend,” Aasta says. “She’s an amazing person.”

Aasta describes her younger self as a “pretty lazy trainer”, but she says Julia encouraged her to work on that. 

“She reached out and said, ‘Hey let’s do some running on our lunch breaks’. And I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll give that a go’. And she’s a good athlete [Julia] and she’d run down to me at the Gabba and we’d run back to Coorparoo, do a few laps and a bit of conditioning, fartlek type training and then I’d run back to the Gabba. For so long people had just told me to train but [Julia] actually came and did it with me and taught me and she didn’t have to do that. It [wasn’t] part of her job… but she was all things to all people at the time. And I still remember that, someone wanting to go for a run with me that was from AFL Queensland and I thought that’s a big deal that they’re investing. But really, it was [Julia] doing it in her way.”

“She’s a pretty no fuss operator [and] I’m really grateful for her influence on me.” 

It was a fortuitous twist of fate that got Julia Price to AFL Queensland. When she was invited to play in a celebrity game of Aussie rules at the Gabba in 2005, she had no idea that it would lead to a role that would be crucial to the development of the game for women and girls in her home state. Julia is sure she kicked a goal that day. And she recalls that Hawthorn great Robert ‘Dipper’ DiPierdomenico’s attempts to ‘dack’ her resulted in him pulling a muscle from the bone in his arm—karma she says. But as entertaining as the game was, it was post-game that would hold that fateful moment. Julia got talking to some AFL Queensland staff about the work she’d been doing to develop cricket internationally. 

Julie Price statistic from @sirswampthing twitter
Julie Price had a highly successful playing career for Australia. Via: @sirswampthing on twitter

“I was talking about how I’d traveled a fair bit and helped develop cricket in the associate countries so like in the Netherlands and Scotland and Ireland and that was sort of what I did, [I] helped drive the game in countries that weren’t really traditionally cricket countries.”

It was a conversation that clearly stuck in the mind of those AFL Queensland staff. Because two years later one of those people, Brad Reid, called Julia. 

“And he said ‘look, we’ve had a position come up that we want to really drive women’s football in Queensland. I’m just wondering if you’d be interested in applying for the job’ and I was like, ‘wow’.”

Brad explains that it was partly Julia’s work in developing cricket that led him to contact her but that wasn’t the only reason. 

“The reason I tapped her on the shoulder was [that] we’d started to grow the base, and we had sort of started to move into those youth girls age groups and… because we’d really focused on a bottom up, we probably hadn’t focused on the actual women’s competition so there was a real need to connect the two.”

While Brad was looking for someone who could be a good role model and understood what it took to retain girls—particularly teenage girls—in the game, what was as important was somebody who could make that connection between the junior and senior game.

“[Julia] was the perfect person for that at the time,” Brad says. “I knew she had an interest in AFL, she obviously had a sporting background herself. And the timing was just right, in terms of her cricket, [it] was sort of coming to an end and she’d done some development work in cricket prior to that. So it was all those things.”

For Julia, her personal situation at the time and desire to stay close to home made the decision to join AFL Queensland a pretty simple one. But she did face some skepticism about her appointment. How could a cricketer do this job?

Julia Price was Australia’s wicket keeper during the 1990s and 2000s

“People were a little nervous about me, I think initially, because of the cricket background they thought that the passion wasn’t there.”

They needn’t have been worried about a lack of passion. Julia is a lifelong Aussie rules and Carlton fan. But more than that—just like Charmaine before her—she simply has a passion for women and girls playing sport.

“I didn’t care if it was bloody cricket or football or whatever sport, I still believe that girls should be allowed to play whatever they want and I would have loved to play footy as a kid growing up in Queensland.”

Passion—for the game and for women and girls having the opportunity to play it. An elite background. Experience growing sport in new territories. This was what Julia Price brought to AFL Queensland. 

Brad admits that prior to Julia joining AFLQ, they hadn’t given much attention to women playing the game. 

“I think prior to that we would sort of just focus on the kids,” Brad says. “Whereas [Julia] really took responsibility for the full pathway and she was really, really big on sort of representative programs and options. For women as well.

“I remember we had discussions and debates because I remember my approach was like let’s sort of build the base first and then your representative team is representing something and I think she agreed with that, but she also said you actually sort of need to have those opportunities to aim for.”

“So, she did an amazing job. In one sentence, what did she do: it was completing the pathway from juniors into seniors and also providing the representative type of opportunities for talented girls.”

While Julia continued working on the U16 State Championship developed by Charmaine, building it out to an eight-team competition, she quickly identified that an U18 representative pathway and competition was a vital next step.

Following the national women’s championships in Canberra in 2007, Julia pushed for a talent pathway for girls to aspire to, recognising that playing in the women’s championships was not the best way to develop young talent. 

“They’d just plant out on a wing or they’d always be a defender and then not have those opportunities to score…and it was tough.”

Julia Price

As Julia was stepping into her role in Queensland, women’s football pioneer, Chyloe Kurdas was doing the same in Victoria. It would be serendipitous timing that would result in the development of the national U18 Championships.  

“We both had this real drive to get underage kids playing in some sort of pathway of their own,” Julia recalled. “So that they’re playing in a safe environment, plus they’re getting that competitive edge and also [it] would develop them sooner and give them more opportunities.”

Julia and Chyloe decided to pick two U18 teams and play a series of games. Victoria travelled north that first year and they played two games against the home side in Brisbane. Julia remembers that Queensland “got within seven points in the first game”. She recalls they called it the Interstate Cup Carnival but it quickly expanded from the two original teams when Western Australia found out what the pair were doing. 

“We were doing this every year because obviously kids grow up very quickly, so we’ve got to make sure we’re accommodating for that growth. And from there, because we had this U18 state team then it made us start developing U18 club programs.”

“So we started off with two teams and then eventually incorporated a Gold Coast team,” Julia says. “And it was a hard slog, we’re playing nine-a-side games, and we had people getting roped in every week and it was really hard work but at the same time, it was worth the effort in the end because then it obviously expanded out. A lot of girls again saw that pathway and there was that U18 competition that was gaining more and more respect.”

By 2010, the AFL decided to make the U18 competition that Julia and Chyloe had started an official national championship. The first AFL U18 National Championships for girls would take place that same year in Melbourne. Queensland finished fourth behind Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia and three Queenslanders—Katie Brennan, Megan Hunt and Breanna Koenen—were named in the 2010 U18 All-Australian team.

A teenage Katie Brennan features on the cover of the 2011 U18 national championships record
A teenage Katie Brennan features on the cover of the 2011 U18 National Championships record.

While originally the plan had been for a bi-annual competition, the AFL quickly recognised—or were encouraged to recognise—that a more regular competition would be beneficial for the players. The second U18 Championships were held on the Gold Coast in 2011, a nod to the competition’s genesis, perhaps. 

By the time the Championships landed on the Gold Coast, girls football in Queensland had made huge strides. An U17 Youth Girls competition had kicked off on the Gold Coast in 2011 and the same year the inaugural Under 18 Youth Girls State Championships saw teams from across the state compete. By 2011, there were also plans in place for youth girls competitions to start in 2012 on the Sunshine Coast, and in Mackay and Cairns. 

In the 2011 U18 National Championship record, the AFL’s David Matthews and Josh Vanderloo wrote that it was “critical for the development of the game that the most talented female footballers are provided with ongoing opportunities to develop their skills against the best this country has to offer”. Indeed. 

Ten of the best players at the 2011 U18 National Championships would be included in the AFL’s Female High Performance Camp in June of the following year. The culmination of which would be a game at the MCG, only a year before the first of the exhibition games that would eventually lead to the AFLW.  

Julia says that in those early days, she had enormous support from players who invested in the programs she was running.  

“I had really good buy-in from players that were helping to drive [the game], turning up to play games, and then they’d run off and coach one of my teams. That was really important to get that buy in from the current players as well,” she says. 

“We really tried to encourage that and get our girls to upskill into umpiring and potentially go into coaching as well, and coaching underage teams, and they really, really enjoyed that.

“And I think that was also a key is to just foster that passion that they’ve got and ensure that they’re passing on everything that they’ve got to the next generation, and then that passes on to the next generation and just keep it consistent. You know, if we’re not driving it, well, we can’t rely on just waiting for someone else to do it.” 

By 2012, the pathway for girls and women in Queensland was nearly complete. The support from players was crucial to making that happen, but so too was support from parents. Julia says there were a lot of really great parents who got involved, and a lot of dad’s who put their hand up to coach teams. 

“Without them we never would have been able to to drive it as much as we could,” she said.  

“There was a guy called Lloyd Bates, that’s Emily Bates’ father. He was outstanding for Yeronga with the girls and he also helped me coach with the U18s. And he just drove it and drove it, and then unfortunately one night he just suddenly passed away.

Emily Bates is synonymous with women’s footy in Queensland

“It was such a loss for women’s football in Queensland because he did so much work behind the scenes and probably changed a lot of people’s attitudes, because he was so respected as a footballer in Queensland as well. 

“When you start getting people on board that are respected in themselves, then they make those changes. You’ve just to find good people constantly, and they’re all out there. But it’s just getting them to speak up and help you drive your cause.”

Another one of those allies was Craig Starcevich. Now the head coach of the Brisbane Lions’ AFLW side, Julia believes his move into women’s footy in 2014 contributed to improving attitudes towards the women’s game.

“Everyone knows who Craig Starcevich is,” Julia says. “I think having those game-changing guys that are the big personalities, if they’re supporting women’s football people start to look at it slightly differently and ‘oh if Craig Starcevich is involved in the program and driving it and running it and coaching the Lions teams and doing all this sort of stuff. Well, why wouldn’t I get on board? Maybe it is okay’.”

Chyloe Kurdas tweets about the NAB Youth Girls All Stars match from 2016, which she was calling with Julia Price and Craig Starcevich
Chyloe Kurdas tweets about the NAB Youth Girls All Stars match from 2016, which she was calling with Julia Price and Craig Starcevich.

 

When Julia stepped through the doors at AFLQ, Aasta O’Connor had already been playing in the women’s competition in Brisbane for five years. She says Julia’s appointment was a game changer. 

“I’ll put it like this: [her appointment] was in a newspaper, in the Courier Mail at the time. So that’s a big deal. The Brisbane Lions won three flags in a row and could barely get in the newspaper up there.” 

“Once they employed [Julia] then I guess I realised the commitment but that was a huge deal… it was like, ‘Whoa, they had funding for us? How amazing.’ [Julia] worked her ass off, she did absolutely everything and I’m really grateful for her for those times.” 

The development of representative teams. Completing that pathway between Auskick and senior competitions. Getting “football everywhere”. The impact Julia had on the development of the game was far reaching.

“If you want to play [today], you can go and find it really easily,” Julia explains. “Also, the high performance pathway is really, really good—including those academies—and continuing that drive on that second tier if you’re not in the elite group.”

With footy becoming so much more accessible to women and girls across the state throughout her tenure, Julia believes the cumulative effects of being in those environments creates a ripple effect.

“We’re going to start seeing girls come out of that with all this extra knowledge, and they go into coaching, and then they’re going to pass that on. And again, there’s more role modeling, and it’s just a cycle and it takes a while to get there. But yeah, we are getting there, and probably faster than we thought we would.” 

A TEAM OF ROLE PLAYERS

As 2013 rolled around, Bree Brock took over the responsibility of girls and women’s participation across Queensland. Different from her predecessors in the sense that she’d played a lot of footy and had worked hard to stabilise the South East Queensland competition in previous years, Bree was able to approach the role from a different perspective while still building on the efforts of both Julia and Charmaine.

 

Breeanna Brock
Breeanna Brock. Supplied: Murray Bird

 

Many in Queensland footy note Bree’s determination, work ethic and competitive nature. All of these attributes made her the ideal candidate to take over from Julia and continue that growing trajectory. Which is exactly what she did. Bree says that then AFLQ CEO Michael Conlon was a “competitive force” and one of her first tasks was to harness that.

“I went in to the CEO one day and just said, ‘right-o, what do you want to do here with this girls stuff?’ He’s like, ‘what do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, I reckon we could get to number one in the country participation-wise for women and girls, and we could be the best. But to do it, something’s got to change.’”

With this goal in mind, Bree—with the support of Michael—engineered a widespread structural change at AFL Queensland that aimed to share the responsibility of growing female participation and talent. They started with changing people’s job descriptions, recognising that “actually, girls fit in your portfolio,” and allocating KPIs around the participation of women and girls. 

“Everybody had KPIs, but none of them were around females. So we took out some male KPIs and put female KPIs in there and yeah, everybody wants to get a pay rise, right?”

“Doing that really changed the mindset of [the] business and in fact—probably for two years—the whole focus of the business was on getting women’s and girls up and going.”

Bree Brock

No longer was “anything with the word girl in it” handed to a single, underfunded department with a single person at the helm. 

Again, harnessing the value of competition, Bree reached out to different regions across the state and encouraged them to take ownership of their space. The growth of girls and women’s footy then became a point of pride for them.

“I couldn’t get up to Northern Queensland to run a competition for them, they had to do these things themselves. So just giving them the skills to recognise that there was a lot of girls stuff that they could be doing that was going to get them some good results.” 

Bree worked on programs at Auskick, clubland and in schools, which led to further development of state school competitions for girls. In 2013, when Bree arrived at AFLQ, the only state school competition that existed for girls was in the U15 age group, while the boys were competing in U12s and U15s.

“You have to have six teams compete for three years to make it a state championship. And there’s all this progression that you have to go through to get it to become a national age group” Bree explains.

Not one to shy away from hard work, Bree dug her heels in to create more school representative teams for girls. It paid off. Queensland is the only state with a full state championship for U12 girls in 2020.

“We have 13 regions compete, 400 and something girls come and play in it. We started it with a Brisbane North and a Brisbane South team that was like, seven girls or something. But it was the start,” she says. “The Queensland school people, they’re very proud and we’re still the only state who’s got a proper full blown championship for both girls and boys at under 12 level so that part was really good.”

At the same time that school footy competitions were growing exponentially, the talent pathways being developed were exploding too. Despite structural changes to share the load of female footy across much of AFLQ, Bree was still heading up many of these programs and it was simply too much for one person.

“I went back to the CEO and said, ‘I just want to check, you’re definitely going to pay for my divorce, right? I’m doing like three peoples’ full time jobs here. I have a six-month-old baby at home and my husband is a football coach at the Brisbane Lions, so he’s never home either. So just checking if you want me to keep working like this, but you’re going to pay for the divorce.’ So then he’s like, ‘What do you need then?’”

Around this time there was also movement at national level—women’s exhibition games were gathering steam. After launching in 2013 with seven Queenslanders selected, annual women’s exhibition matches were being held in Melbourne as curtain raisers to men’s games. The players donned Melbourne Demons and Western Bulldogs guernseys and were drafted from right across the country. These games were giving wide exposure to women’s footy for the first time, and were the precursor to the AFLW competition.

The coaches of these exhibition sides—Peta Searle and Michelle Cowan—headed to Queensland to scout talent in 2014.

“I knew that Peta Searle had sort of been making noises about quitting football because she couldn’t afford to support her family and all that kind of stuff… and so I said, ‘Well, look, there’s this lady. If we got her to come up here and start taking over women’s talent, like that full time guy you have doing men’s talent, we should do the same sort of setup.’ [Michael Conlan’s] like ‘Okay, yeah, let’s do it.’”

While it didn’t eventuate, Bree says her targeting of Searle actually helped move the Victorian’s career along.

“I think Victoria was like ‘oh these Queenslanders they can’t come and steal our best female coach’. So I think that’s when AFL Victoria helped fund that role for her at St Kilda, that role that she first started, so that was great. I got her a good opportunity but [it] left me with no coach.”

Bree Brock

This led Bree to Craig Starcevich who was working in the North East Australian Football League (NEAFL). With a footy, high performance and teaching background, he was an ideal candidate to take control of the female talent pathway in Queensland in 2014.

“So Michael Conlan, the CEO, said ‘right-o Starce, we’re gonna come and do this thing’. He was really that perfect storm of someone who had all the background that [we] needed and experience, just didn’t know anything about girl’s footy. So that was the start of the dynamic duo, my partner in crime. So he then took over all the talent stuff, which then meant I could continue to focus on all the participation and club strategy.”

As a team they developed AFLQ’s first ever Female Strategic Plan in February 2015 with a target of 100,000 women and girls playing footy in the state by 2018. They wanted to build on their 2015 participation numbers of 71,000 players across Auskick, clubs and schools—already a 37 per cent increase on 2013 numbers. 

 

Part of AFLQ's 2015 Strategic Plan
Part of AFLQ’s 2015 Strategic Plan. Via: AFL Queensland

Queensland expat Aasta O’Connor chases down Sophie Conway

Bree’s “gang of thieves” were not the only ones putting pressure on the AFL to give serious thought to a national competition. In the mid-2000s women like Sam Mostyn, Linda Dessau, Julia Price, Chyloe Kurdas, Debbie Lee and others were in discussion with the AFL. Julia explains, “already back then we were talking about having an actual league—a national league—and how we were going to do it. It was put then that [in] 2020 we were going to have this national league and we were all not happy with that timeframe, but that’s what we were given then by Demetriou”.

Change at AFL level worked in their favour, however, with Gillon McLachlan replacing Demetriou as AFL CEO in 2014, who Julia says “had a good relationship with females in the game already”.

At the same time, other sporting leagues around the country were starting to prioritise women.

“Cricket was really going gangbusters, Rugby League was talking about getting a women’s league. Soccer was really starting to be a professional thing, or I mean, it had been for a while, but it was getting more coverage. And we were starting to lose some first choice athletes and people were like ‘Well, what’s the point? You know, there is actually no point I can’t go any further here than what I have’,” Bree says.

There had been rumblings that an AFLW competition would launch in 2020, but no official announcements had been made to necessarily confirm this, so it came as a shock when McLachlan suddenly announced that the competition would begin in earnest in 2017.

Skeptical or not, Breeanna Brock and Craig Starcevich—alongside the teams at regional level—began preparing their state for the AFLW competition that was in fact on the horizon and, in turn, their move to the Brisbane Lions and their eventual involvement in that inaugural AFLW grand final.

“AFLW didn’t just rock up.”

Julia Price

That AFLW grand final is one triumphant part of the Queensland footy story, and yes, the efforts of Charmaine Ferguson, Julia Price and Breeanna Brock were key to making it happen. But there is much more to this story. There’s Dee McConnell and Marlo Brack who built a women’s league in South East Queensland—the competition that would become the premier women’s football league in Queensland. There’s Kate Guy who began breaking down barriers in the 1970s and never really stopped and Karen Russell, who after working tirelessly to create opportunities for women to play in the 1980s returned to the game fifteen years later. It’s women like Kath Newman and Grace Bradley and Jade Pregelj. It’s the story of school programs and representative teams and state leagues and coaches and administrators. It’s all the work done to grow the women’s game for decades prior to the AFLW’s launch.