Georgia Dunne speaks to footy fan and writer Georgina Hibberd about her new book, Never Surrender: the Inside Story of the Giants AFLW 2020 Season.
For author and footy fan Georgina Hibberd, the opportunity to spend the 2020 AFLW season with her team, the GWS Giants, with the goal of writing a book was a dream come true, both as a football fan and a writer.
“As a fan, I had to pinch myself, that I found myself suddenly standing in a meeting with all of the players that I’d watched on the field for the past few years. It was a bit weird. But you do have to kind of separate being a fan from being a writer. I just really focused on really observing everything and what was happening, and learning as much as I could about the game,” Hibberd told Siren.
“But just watching what goes on inside a football club, and getting to know the dynamics of the team and the coaches and things like that was fantastic.”
Hibberd’s Never Surrender: the Inside Story of the Giants AFLW 2020 Season is an inner sanctum account of GWS’s journey in a season that saw the competition prematurely and devastatingly cancelled without an overall winner due to COVID-19. But there’s much more to the Giant’s 2020 story than a pandemic.
For Hibberd, the overarching impression she gleaned from her time with the Giants was their authenticity, and how their personas on the field and in the media were true to their real selves.
“When you watch footy, you have ideas about what players are like, and I guess with [the Giants], what they show on the field was pretty much what I saw when I first went there. My impressions were they were just incredibly dedicated to what they were doing. They were really tight as a group, they really bind themselves together. And they have to, I guess, with things like trolling and the vagaries of the AFL being indecisive about the competition, and not always knowing what’s going to happen with their [season] each year, and they’re being thrown from city to city. As a group, they immediately struck me as being very tight, and that played out throughout the whole season.
“It’s not just a job, and the way they’ve found themselves together is quite special. It’s more than just a sport, it’s for them.”
Hibberd observed that the nature of the AFLW seasons, notorious for its briefness, was one of the contributing factors to the stress and build-up of emotion for the players throughout the eight-round season.
“An AFLW season is short, but the emotions are high, and they can also be really low. And that’s what I really saw was, from day-to-day they’ll feel really strongly if they’ve lost or they’ve won, but then they just have to move on quickly and get on to the next thing. And there’s no time to dwell on anything, because they train all year, then they have that preseason period. So they’ve got all this stuff, just ready to be let go in that season. So there were moments where emotions could have run away with them, but they didn’t. And it was incredible to watch, and it gave me my own kind of strength.”
To say 2020 was a football year like no other for the Giants is an understatement. They made it to the semi-finals for the first time and, according to Hibberd, played “some of the best football” she’d ever seen them play. But this was also the first season the team played without former captain and spiritual leader Amanda Farrugia.
“I’ve watched from the outside with Amanda being the captain for many years. And she was always a very strong presence because she was the face of women’s footy in New South Wales because she’s from there. She was a great leader, and that was the face you saw all the time. And then that was taken away.
“Looking from the inside, it seemed to me that things didn’t skip a beat. They certainly missed [Farrugia], but I think that she’d left a legacy that really gave the rest of the girls direction. Alicia Eva is an incredible leader, and was the ready-made replacement for her. But at the same time, I think they all learned so much from Fridge [Farrugia] while she was there, and that they were sort of ready to go their own way. Maybe that’s part of why Fridge retired when she did. They had what they needed.”
One key theme Never Surrender addresses is the unstable system that the AFLW stands on. It’s a tough reality that the AFLW is not treated as a fully professional competition, and these players usually have jobs to sustain themselves.
“I tried to draw that out in the book, because the amount of work they put in, it’s essentially unpaid. And yet they have to deal with people criticising the standard of their football constantly. The most important thing is to be building a sustainable model where people aren’t giving up their lives or putting them on hold for five or ten years to play the sport.
“You can’t sustain this kind of competition for very long, because it’s starting to have effects on people’s mental and physical well-being. You can’t expect somebody to be an elite sportsperson and only do it part-time, that’s not how it works.”
If you visit the Never Surrender website, it showcases some magnificent quotes Hibberd collected from her time with the club, one from GWS coach Alan McConnell is:
‘This isn’t about winning, this is about showing people that we’re not who they think we are’.
Hibberd explains the significance of this.
“Football in New South Wales is not that big, unlike in Victoria. Especially women’s footy. They’re kind of isolated from the rest of the competition in some ways. They’ve called themselves the misfits in the past. And I think the last season was about saying, ‘No, that’s not who we are. We’re a football team, we are players, we know what we’re doing. And we can play football’. And there was definitely a sense of something to prove. I think that’s what Alan was talking about. It’s about showing people who they are, as a team, and what their identity is.”
Never Surrender covers many of the nuances that AFLW football has. From navigating the semi-professional nature of the competition, building a new team and club culture, proving themselves to the broader footy masses, playing good football and overcoming severe tragedy, this powerful fly on the wall tale will appeal to any footy fan.
“They’ve gone through a lot of difficulties in the last six months, and I think that will have galvanised them in some ways. They are a bunch of survivors and they’ll continue to just keep going, which is why I picked ‘Never Surrender’ as the title. Even though it’s from the club song, it summed up to me who these women were.”