A look at two approaches to women’s masters AFL football from two players who made it to the game from very different directions, but similar perspectives.
There are those who wonder about the value of playing sport, or who offer the notion that its overhyped. Take a look at Women’s Masters AFL football and you might form a different view. Sue Emery’s story could be offered up as Exhibit ‘A’ in a case to be made that football is about a lot more than simply football. Amongst the many unlikely tales about late-blooming female footballers who joined the inaugural Women’s Masters AFL competition last year, Emery’s would be hard to beat. Around 10 months ago, as she spoke on stage at her team’s first jumper presentation night, she considered her journey so unlikely that tears welled up from within. Though that happened before any game had even been played, it would be hard to find a more fitting moment from season 2018 that captured the meaning behind this fledgling football competition. You could argue that Women’s Masters AFL is about a lot more than playing a game, though the importance of that activity is paradoxically just what it’s all about.
At ages when most men are giving the game away, the women who made up the first masters competition were bursting with enthusiasm for a game most of them had loved from their youngest days, but who for a multitude of reasons (though primarily because they weren’t allowed) had been denied the chance to play it.
When Sue Emery spoke at the Waverley Warriors presentation night after receiving her prized team jumper the meaning of it rose up and overwhelmed her. Tears flowed.
For others in the room her reaction emphasized the importance of this competition and the real significance of it. At 53 years old, and by her own admission a large woman, Emery had every right to believe the chance to play Australian Rules football had long passed her by.
But when Jill Chalmers started the ball rolling on an idea she’d had to allow older women to play footy, circumstances changed in a lot of ways for a lot of people.
Emery sums up her lack of opportunities to play the game succinctly by saying, “It was never the right time or the right place”. Then she saw a story in ‘The Age’ newspaper about Chalmers organising a new competition for older women, and said to herself, “This is my turn.”
It was a long time coming. Emery grew up in west Gippsland, the daughter of a policeman father and a mother who was a teacher. They were a peripatetic family, moving at different times from Carrum Downs to Pakenham, Bunyip and Drouin. She loved being active and used to kick the footy around in the schoolyard with the boys. But there were no women’s football competitions. In fact at one point she was told by a headmaster girls couldn’t play football because it caused breast cancer! She didn’t get to see much top-level football, but occasionally the family would get to games at Waverley, the closest ground to Gippsland.
So she played netball and supported the local men’s footy teams. Her father taught her to kick a football correctly – a skill which decades later would come to hold her in good stead for the fledgling masters competition. At local games she’d often kick the footy with the boys at the half-time breaks and she could see that she kicked as well as them. But her father told her she couldn’t play. She had no idea that football was being played by women in the city.
She studied physical education at university, but she decided she didn’t want to teach it, so she switched to nursing as a career path. But she always continued with some form of sport – netball, volleyball, softball, hockey, basketball and swimming. And she also coached. “I’ve got a voice at training,” she says. Her son played junior football, so for a time she became a trainer for his team, and for three years she was an assistant coach at Murrumbeena Junior Football Club. At different stages she also played tennis, tried belly dancing, and went to the gym. “I kept active,” says Emery. Then last year she saw that article in ‘The Age’, and decided that finally it was the right time and the right place. The article linked to a website, and that website opened up a new world. The Waverley Warriors start-up team was the closest to her home, so Emery contacted them and was told she was the first person to ring. The ball kept rolling. She went to a ‘come and try’ day at Coburg, but she didn’t tell her family. “I thought they would talk me out of it,” she says.
Her inner voice tried to talk her out of it too. “Too old, too fat!” She wouldn’t listen. She went, and she loved it. Her husband was an umpire who knew Sarah Loh (the only female CEO in football) and she met her early in proceedings. “Not many of us knew each other, but we were all interested in football.” After an early 90-minute training session, Emery says, “My takeaway from it was that I was not very fit, but I had good hand/eye coordination and I was good at kicking. But my technique needed tidying up.” The ball kept rolling, even though its pathway was a little bumpy on occasion. The Warriors picked up Peter ‘Pants’ Nash, an experienced coach (though not with women), and soon Emery found herself at full-forward. “It was pretty obvious,” she says. She could kick well, use her body, and she wasn’t a runner. The season was a great success, with the team winning more games than expected, and though a fair number from that inaugural team have now moved on for various reasons and to other clubs, more women have jumped on board to replace them. Pre-season has been positive so far. “Once you’re back, it’s quite invigorating,” says Emery, “You don’t realise you miss it until you’re back in.” Emery loves the social aspect of the team, but she loves the physical elements of the game just as much. “I’ve got a lot of strength, and it’s not intimidating to me.”
Of that night last year when she received her first team jumper, Emery says “I had been appointed Vice Captain, and I wasn’t expecting it. It didn’t even cross my mind. It was a big surprise. Sarah (who had been named as Captain) and ‘Pants’ had kept it quiet. I’d always loved footy, and now it was the right place and the right time. Finally, in my fifties I’d been given a chance. I was quite emotional. I guess I’m a big sook!”
Last year there were six teams in the inaugural Women’s Masters competition. This year there will be 10. The competition is growing in every way and Emery wants to improve as well. She says, “I want to improve my fitness a bit, but I just want to have fun. At the end of the day it’s about enjoying what we’re doing.” And what about the family whom she didn’t inform? “They’re hopeless. They don’t watch,” says Emery. But her husband, she says, is very proud of what she’s achieved. “It’s definitely been a positive experience.”
Cricket, soccer, hockey, squash, tennis, and of course, Australian Rules football. From an early age organised physical activity in all its forms played a major role in Emily Beventyre’s life. Which was unusual given neither of her parents, nor her brother and three sisters, had any particular interest in it. Young Emily, nonetheless, would watch sport on TV and insert herself into any variation of it whenever she could. But in her junior days playing organised women’s football wasn’t on the menu. Growing up in Kyneton in central northern Victoria senior football was a men’s-only affair. Her improbable pathway to regularly playing the game has taken several twists and turns. Like all her teammates in AFL Women’s Masters football her story highlights a tale of the unexpected. These stories are worth hearing about because they are variations on the perennial sporting themes of endurance and persistence. In short, sport finds a way.
“I was always kicking a footy around,” says Beventyre. At Kyneton Secondary School kicking the footy was just something she did to interrupt the interminable boredom of sitting in classrooms. School work wasn’t the high point on her weekly ‘to do’ list. Beventyre describes herself as a “sporty person”. She reached competitive levels in both soccer and cricket. As with many country families, her mum supported her logistically. Together they drove from venue to venue around the state as various fixtures required. But there was another hurdle to football, and it required a bigger change. Football was a ‘Sunday’ activity and her family commitment to the Mormon religion excluded Sundays from anything other than adherence to the faith. When she reached early adulthood Beventyre diverged from her family’s commitment to that faith, and committed to her own path. Football on Sundays became an option, and even more, a priority.
Through friends she connected with the St. Albans Spurs (now known as the VU – Victoria University – Western Spurs) team and for the next five years or so she took part in football regularly. She also continued with cricket where she was an all-rounder, handy with bat and ball. Her last couple of years were in the reserves. Meantime, school took on a different perspective. She went back as a 20 year old and after graduating she found work as a receptionist at Football Federation Victoria (the premier state world football organisation). She stayed there for around five years (mainly working in fixturing) before moving to the state hockey organisation for another two and a half years (where she says she had a go at “everything”). That led to a job at Football Operations in the South Metro Junior Football League, where she is now the General Manager.
Around 12 months ago she was still playing football at the Oakleigh District Southern Football Netball League when she was approached by co-worker Sarah Loh (CEO of the Southern Metro Junior League) to take part in the new women’s masters competition. She says, “When Sarah asked me, I was happy to have another kick.” She says at this stage of her life (she’s now 34) she’s not committed to attending training nights, but she was happy to play if openings were available. She didn’t play every game through the inaugural season, but as one of a handful of experienced players in the new Waverley Warriors team she had an impact when she did.
“I am one of the slowest, but I’m experienced and I can read the play,” she says. She thinks the Waverley Warriors have “jelled pretty well”. “Everyone is very friendly,” she says. “They just love it. You can tell.”
She finds the development of Women’s Masters football “amazing”. “Football is not just for men and boys any more, women and girls can participate as well.” She repeats the now-established mantra that “You can’t be what you can’t see”. She says older women are seeing AFLW on TV and in the media and now understand that they can participate as well. Because Beventyre is involved in grass-roots competition through her work she appreciates the impact of AFLW on all levels of the sport. “In 2015 we had 23 girls teams in our league, but in 2018 we had 107 teams. It would be right to say that just about every club had a women’s team.” Whilst men’s teams numbers have expanded as well, it’s at a much lower rate. “There’s been a cultural shift,” says Beventyre. “Football was always a right of passage for many boys, but girls have really wanted to play. They have the option now.”
Beventyre plans to play with the Waverley Warriors this season as well “when I can help out and get a kick.” The attitudinal shift towards women’s football has filtered down through the community in sometimes unexpected ways. Says Beventyre, “I was talking to my sister the other day, and she told me how annoying I used to be about sport. She had a hatred of it. But now, as she’s got older, she understands it more, and she’s developed a real appreciation of it.”