With so many elements involved in getting a new AFL Women’s Masters football league off the ground the concept faced an uphill battle. But support from many sources helped launch a memorable season.
In early 2018 the odds against the successful launch of an inaugural season of the AFL Women’s Masters competition were long. But as a handful of enthusiasts – led by Jill Chalmers – pushed hard to drive the new league through the summer of 2017/18, more people became attracted to the idea and stepped up. Amongst them was the president of the Waverley Warriors masters team, Angelo Sercia. As a relatively new president (three years in the job) when he heard about the concept for a masters women’s comp at a delegate’s meeting he was immediately attracted to it. “We put our hand up to join,” he says. “My daughter plays football at St. Marys football club so I saw first-hand how popular it was.” He’s also a Collingwood supporter and after he viewed the development of that club’s first women’s team he thought, “This is huge”.
With two daughters, he’s always been interested in women’s sport in general. He says the club didn’t have to do too much to get involved. “We had a ‘come and try’ day and Fiona Butler was one of three or four people to attend at Clayton’s Meade Oval,” says the president. “It pretty much grew out of that story in ‘The Age’ newspaper (written by Carolyn Webb in mid-February 2018),” he says. Soon he also met Sarah Loh and Sue Emery, who would both become players in the inaugural Waverley Warriors women’s masters team.
Sercia says the club was “overwhelmed with the numbers” that turned up. Sercia says they haven’t had to change much at the club, though infrastructure around the new league has been an issue. “Most of the infrastructure doesn’t allow for women,” he says, “It’s been a major concern.” But he does say the women have changed the atmosphere around his club. “It’s a much nicer place to be around.” Sercia notes the true impact of bringing in the women’s team was apparent to him at the start of the inaugural season when the club had a jumper presentation evening. “The women made the night,” he says. “I didn’t fully understand the impact until I saw the tears that flowed that night. I could see how much it meant; it was a game changer. To be given a football jumper – that was massive.”
For the coming season Sercia says three of the club’s seven-member committee are now women. “Their impact is already evident,” he says. “They have a different approach as to how they work. There’s a high degree of commitment involved. They’re a breath of fresh air which we’ve needed for years.” He notes, “Our club motto is ‘We’re on the move’, and the getting the women’s team into our club has been a massive, massive positive.”
Football administrator Sarah Loh has brought a unique perspective to her first year as a player with the Waverley Warriors. She was appointed captain of the new team, but in her day job she’s been involved in football through her role as CEO of South Metro Junior Football League since 2016, and she’s been active in sports-related jobs for a considerable part of her life. Her passion for the game of Australian Rules is especially fierce given her background as an ethnic Chinese Malaysian. When her parents first brought her to Australia as a little girl her far-sighted mother declared that to be part of their new country her three children (Loh is the youngest – she has two older brothers) would have to embrace change. In Melbourne that required “picking a team”. Her mother had travelled to Australia on a scholarship, and studied nursing while she resided at nursing quarters near Melbourne’s Austin Hospital. She started attending Victorian Football League matches and fell in love with the game. Eventually she returned to Malaysia and had three children, but in 1977 she came back to Australia with her husband and young family. Says Loh, “She loved Melbourne, and its culture and sport.”
They bought a second-hand Holden and travelled around the state to learn about their country. Loh is fortunate her mother was a keen sports enthusiast, with a passion for athletics, hockey, and netball. Fortuitously, they also lived about 500 metres from VFL Park in Waverley. And Loh was as enthusiastic (and good) at sports as her mother. For a while she played cricket in the back yard with her brothers. “I was Dennis Lillee,” she says. “I was pretty fast.” In fact, she says she played for Monash Uni as a 13 year old. “My brothers taught me cricket and then football.” When she proved to be adept at football she decided to play at school. She never forgot the response from her school Physical Education teacher. “Sorry, you’re a girl. Over my dead body will girls ever play football in this country.” Presumably that particular teacher is otherwise engaged now.
While she didn’t get to play in the boy’s footy team at school, in 1983, with a new PE teacher, the opportunity arose to play in a one-off round-robin series for girls. She played in the series for a few years and she was a prominent performer. She also went on to play a season with the St.Kilda Sharks women’s team. It was a real-world manifestation of her passion, gained as a youngster, for the St.Kilda football team. She says one day she asked her father to take her to the Saints ground at Moorabbin. “Dad said, ‘Are you sure?’ Because he was thinking about the reaction that Chinese Malaysians might get there. But we went, and stood on the edge of the ground. We were called racist names. But when we won, I had people tossing me in the air. Because of that we were accepted.” She recalls scoring an autograph book with the primary aim of getting Trevor Barker’s signature. “I wanted to meet him after the game. Dad wasn’t allowed in, but the players welcomed me; patted me on the head, and Trevor Barker signed my book. It was just a magic moment. That’s when I knew I’d play for St.Kilda.”
Instead she played tennis for a while, but she got injured, and played “everything but football”. When she played with the St.Kilda Sharks it was a highlight for her, even though she missed the grand final because of injury. For a lot of years afterwards she did not play the game, until in 2018 – at 48 – the chance arose to join a new competition for women’s masters players. She didn’t want to pass it up. “When an article appeared about Jill, I thought ‘This is my time’,” says Loh.
She says 26 out the 30 who turned up for the Waverley Warriors team had never played football before. “There was a ‘come and try’ day at Coburg around February or March and I met my vice-captain Sue Emery, who rocked up and introduced herself. Her husband didn’t know she was there.”. On the jumper presentation night Emery gave an emotional speech about her passion to play. They got master’s coach Peter ‘Pants’ Nash on board and began training, from a beginner’s level. Loh says the Warriors weren’t expected to win a game. “But we won four out of six!” In fact they played in the first official game of the inaugural season and they won it. “The girls didn’t know what to do. We were in shock. Only four girls in the team had played football. I felt like a million bucks. Even though I’d played for the Sharks, this meant more to me because it was the inaugural masters game.” She says she enjoyed helping out with coaching as well. In one game she was crunched but she insisted on going back on the ground. “I play short and sharp. I look like I’m stuffed, but I’ll go again. A bit like Robert Harvey!” she concludes.
There’s a plan for 10 teams to make up the competition next season, which will be quite a jump from the six which participated in 2018. At the time of writing there were still other issues to be sorted for the second year around age groupings and playing times. But Loh says, “The Master’s comp is different. We’re not playing for sheep stations. We train twice a week and play every two weeks.” All in all, she thinks the season was successful. “It’s cheap sport. And it fulfills the dream or desire for young girls to play.” As an AFL multicultural ambassador she’s also got some great ideas, and she’s keen to expand the sport, amongst women, and new immigrants. And she’s also keen to keep on playing. For Loh, life’s not a dress rehearsal and playing in the Women’s Masters competition has fulfilled a lifelong dream – with her work and her sporting passion.
(For more background from participants see Part One of this season summary at www.roberkeeley.com.au)
(All text and images copyright Robert Keeley Photos.)