Tracey Ashley’s veteran player status has given her a unique insight into the development of the inaugural season of the AFL Women’s Masters competition.
The sports pages, TV and social media are layered every day with the exploits of competitors at the top of their craft, telling stories about how they got there – the hard work, sacrifice, and sometimes the triumphs. But there are other stories out there. Tracey Ashley’s is one. The 201-game veteran of the Australian Rules code loves the physical contest of football, but she’s been through the mill because of it. Today, women’s football in every code is becoming the flavour of the month. Until recently, however, Tracey Ashley thought her game was all behind her. Across the passage of two hundred plus contests for several clubs she had slowly but inevitably worn out her body. Like a reliable old vehicle which had finally blown too many gaskets, Ashley’s body had gone beyond regular servicing.
For anyone who thinks women’s footy is “Mickey Mouse”, check this out. Ashley’s career is a thumb-nail sketch of the crunch and grind of suburban football. Broken bones, torn tendons, a buggered hip, stress fractures. Too much surgery. Two years ago, at 35 years of age, Ashley retired from a long career sprinkled with victories and disappointments – though not enough to dim her enthusiasm for the whole idea. Battered and banged up, she still loved playing.
"The game gets compared to men’s football when it shouldn’t. There are more pathways now."
Then circumstances changed. A woman called Jill Chalmers started a competition for older female players – the Women’s AFL Masters’ comp – and suddenly Ashley’s flickering enthusiasm for the game had somewhere left to go. Maybe not as hard or as often as before, but still with a competitive bite. She signed up for the Waverley Warriors, coached by Peter “Pants” Nash, and she’s loved it.
Training is on Wednesday nights, games played on Saturday arvos every second week. Lots of room for a civilized recovery. There are plenty of first-timers on the list, but a sprinkling of more experienced players and veterans leavens the beginners. Whatever the level of experience, the enthusiasm is up there. For the veteran Ashley it’s been one last chance to continue her sporting passion.
A couple of seasons ago, when she discovered the AFLW was starting, she was invited to try out for the Hawthorn squad, and says she acquitted herself pretty well. She’s not big, but speed has always been her strong suit. She says her ‘beep’ test was where she excelled. “I beat every single person,” says the zippy mid-fielder.
But events, and injuries, intervened. “My body was not OK,” she recalls. “I was pretty ruined at that level.” With some friends getting through to the AFLW Ashley still had her own hankering to play, and she then discovered online the AFL women’s masters’ competition. She turned up, went for a run, and knew the bug to play was still there. “Most of those women in the Masters haven’t played before, but if you keep a core group together you should get better,” says the veteran.
It’s no accident that Ashley plays the indigenous code. Her great uncle was the 1950 Essendon VFL premiership player Alan Dale, so Australian Rules football is in her family’s DNA. Dale played in the same famous Essendon post-war teams as the great VFL footballer John Coleman and the legendary Dick Reynolds. Her four brothers also played Australian Rules football and she’d run around the back yard in contests with them. But despite some school competition in the early nineties the lack of a regular senior competition meant Ashley took up basketball for a period of time. When she discovered regular women’s football she quickly came back to football, joining the Melbourne University team. She recalls one passage of play in her early days where her speed proved decisive. Her team was down by three points in the last quarter when she won the ball in the back half and after running down the ground she unloaded from 40 metres out to kick the goal that put her team in front. The team went on to win and she remembers, “I was popular in the pub that night. It was such a pivotal moment. It was very special.”
She soon made friends in the reserve team and became so enamoured of them she told the selectors not to bother picking her in the seniors. It was all about her friends. She says, in retrospect, “It was unwise, I guess.” In 2004 the selectors imposed upon her to move up a level. “They wanted us to progress.” The seniors had just won a premiership, but there were some changes in the team. “Lots of weeks I played two games,” says Ashley. They lost both grand finals (reserves and seniors) in the 2004 season, but turned the tables to win in 2005. “I broke my leg early in the season and it took 11 weeks to get back. But I got back to the reserves and we won the grand final. I was quite proud I got back in time.”
She played regular senior football in 2006, but 2007 was her last year at the Melbourne University team. She moved to the Eastern Devils, where she had friends playing, and stayed with them through the 2008 and 2009 seasons. “It was really good,” she recalls.
When the team moved to Kew it became too difficult to get to training and she went to Diamond Creek for the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Then a friend wanted her to move with her back to Melbourne Uni and she did so, but she soon realised it was a mistake. “I made a bad decision,” she says now, “But I learned a valuable lesson. I should have stayed where I was.” By 2013 she was back at Diamond Creek, where at 32 years of age, she was a reserve for the seniors when they lost the grand final. She then went back to East Burwood and the Devils because it was closer to where she was living.
She played every game in 2014, but she injured a quad muscle in 2015 and then badly hurt her thumb, which required more surgery. A body can only take so much. She couldn’t extend her thumb, so in 2016 she reluctantly decided to retire. She played her 200th game in the reserves against St.Kilda with a strapped hand, but it didn’t really help. She knew it was time to finish up with regular football.
When the Masters competition got up, though, the flame re-ignited. She knew she could handle playing every second week. The standard is not as high as the regular senior women’s competition, but Ashley is certain it will get better. “Expectations can’t be too high. The ladies have to learn, and I’ve been helping a bit with a coaching role.”
She says the Warriors group, mainly comprised of those new to the game, love being part of a team. “Some are more serious than others, but everybody wants to work together.”
Ashley says women’s football has been growing steadily for a while. “And now it’s professional it’s going to get better. Most girls haven’t been playing since they were five or six. The elite paths weren’t available. The game gets compared to men’s football when it shouldn’t. There are more pathways now. In 10 years imagine the standard. I can’t wait to see the future of it.” This veteran’s love of the game has been as intense as that of any player in the relatively new AFLW. The headline acts naturally attract the attention, but there’s always another story worth noting.
There are many positives to be taken from a team game like football, but there are some downsides as well. Just before the final game of the inaugural AFL Women’s Masters season, Tracey Ashley fronted her team in the rooms to tell them she was retiring, this time for good. In an emotional address whilst urging them to go out with a strong finish, Ashley told them it was hard decision. But the injuries which had interrupted her long career had finally accumulated to a point where she couldn’t carry on. Despite her injuries, retiring wasn’t easy.
After her final match, she said, “I really love footy, but my body is not up to it.” She'd circled around the decision for a couple of weeks before settling upon it. She had injured her neck earlier in the season a couple of times, and the arthritis in her foot had steadily deteriorated. She talked to her partner, her parents, and her osteopath about the issues before she made her final determination. “Everyone agreed it was the right decision. The mind wants to go on, but the body doesn’t,” she said.
She was pleased she had put in a big effort for her final game against Coburg, a team which had beaten them earlier in the season. She was frustrated by some of the umpires’ decisions, but she was pleased with how she – and her team – performed overall. “The team played its best football for the year. The whole team really wanted to win. We’d got close to beating Coburg a couple of times,” said Ashley. Though injuries eventually overcame her desire to play, she still thinks “the game is played 90 percent about the shoulders.” A strong mental approach pushed the Waverley Warriors to victory in their final game and there’s no doubt part of that can be put down to the on and off-field inspiration of Ashley.
She added five games to her overall 200 games total by playing the AFL Women’s Masters competition. Ashley said that after speaking with the Waverley Warriors coach Peter “Pants” Nash she is considering getting involved in coaching. “I see a role for myself helping with fitness for the team, and helping on the bench. I’m looking forward to it,” said the veteran.
All images and words by Robert Keeley, who followed the Waverley Warriors women's masters team during its inaugural 2018 season.