The footy, that oddly shaped leathery thing, lives blissfully unaware. Red or yellow, it does not matter, for when it flies through the air, or bounces along the deck, the sherrin moves indiscriminate; unknowing; idyllically democratic in the purest sense.
The footy; it’s a blank canvas for everyone who dreams and anyone who dares.
Or at least, that’s how it should be.
Unfortunately, while the footy cares not for who kicks, the game in which it is used has for a long time been viewed as an arena for men; an unrightfully, exclusive boys’ club if you will. As people have gone to watch the footy over the years, what they have seen has been predominately men kicking, men tackling, and men throwing the magnets from the whiteboard amid quarter-time sprays.
For the girls who dared to hold the footballing dream, there was little to aim for. No pathway, no future, no end goal. So, while the footy was indiscriminate, only the boys could be professional, play on grand final day, and be seen as footy players.
But that was then, and this is now. We live today in a new sporting age where barriers to participation and professionalism are being broken down each and every day. In this new age, there is no denying the girls who stand banging at the door of the boys’ club with their boots in hand, saying “Hey, it’s our turn to have a kick.”
The message is loud and clear. Two years in a row now I found myself sitting in the pouring rain at Drummoyne oval—poncho and all—to watch a game of AFLW. In monsoonal conditions, I was been impressed by not only the game on the field but by the wide-eyed girls kicking on whatever score of bitumen they could find during the quarter time breaks.
Rain, hail, or shine, the girls just want to kick. the growth of women’s footy has been staggering. On field, there have been constant improvements to nearly every major statistical category year after year and as the skill level baseline becomes set, the finer points of the strategical play will start to receive more attention, and the league will improve once more. It’s fascinating to think what women's footy will look like in another ten years when more young stars, who have had their footballing dreams ignited from a young age, take to the field.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves—progress won’t continue on its own. Much work must be done to prepare the dreamers for the field where they can then inspire more just like themselves. Once kickstarted, the perpetual motion machine which creates footballers will have its way, however, the initial push requires a large amount of effort from all tiers of the footballing community. Here inly the purpose of the QBE Sydney Swans Youth Academy.
Since 2018, the QBE Swans Youth Girls Academy has been putting the footy in girls’ hands in more ways than one. Not only is it fostering the next generation of AFLW on-field stars, but it’s allowing women like Kathryn Hull to shape the future of women’s footy.
Kathryn is a footy head. I do not throw this compliment around easily, I reserve it for those who see footy as a desert island necessity, for those who need a steady diet of football nutrients to persevere.
When Kathryn talks about football, there’s a beaming smile on her face. “My earliest memory of Aussie rules was the hype in the build-up for the Swans 1996 final campaign,” she says.
“It was the Tony Lockett and Paul Kelly era. Footy wasn’t huge in New South Wales back then, but it was exciting to see a local team defying the odds. Footy wasn’t big in my household, but I think something definitely sparked from there.”
“I was desperate to play, but there weren’t many opportunities, so the spark slowly faded I guess. Then after the grand final in 2005 I couldn’t sit back anymore, so I put my name down at Uni for a team at Uni games shortly after then I kept my eye out for a local team. I ended up playing my first season in 2007 at St George in their inaugural Women's team. The Women's program moved across to Southern Power AFC in 2010 and I have been playing there since.”
Kathryn was a keen netballer during her schooling years. She says that her time in goal defence has held her in good stead as she picked up the defensive run of the half backline. Like many young girls, she was always on the look for a stone to sharpen her competitive edge and athletic prowess upon. She’s the type of person who will give anything a try, so much so that it would be easier to list the sports that aren’t on her resume. But once she started kicking the footy around, there was no looking back.
“I loved training twice a week and the challenge and the physicality from that. I enjoyed pre-seasons and the sessions on the dunes. I couldn't get enough of the culture and camaraderie that a footy club could offer and learning more about the sport, the skills and the training required for it.”
See what I mean? Kathryn enjoyed the dunes. She’s a footy head. Only real footy heads enjoy the dunes…
Kathryn’s had a front-row seat to the development of footy in NSW over the past 15 years and she’s almost in disbelief when she sees the skill levels of the girls today compared to those on display by the handful of girls at her first few sessions for St George.
Having seen the game evolve, Kathryn now relishes the opportunity to foster the enthusiastic excess of young talent in the Swans Youth Girls Academy. Like all coaches, she wants the best for her players, the smile on her face widens at the mention of girls she’s coached one day potentially wearing the red and white and she is bent on doing her part to get them there.
“This year specifically I helped a couple of the Academy girls try to look for ways to challenge themselves in club footy by giving them specific targets in games, or by putting different pressures on themselves,” she says.
“Part of my role is getting them to understand that as Academy footballers, their role isn't just to be the best, but it's to lead their clubmates at training and on game day, and to actually create great football. Being able to help others play better footy is also a skill and getting the players to understand this really develops their attitude, maturity and football. It’s something we really value.”
While opportunities for women in football have been few and far between in the past, I feel that the exclusivity of the boys’ club is being taken down. With the attitude, experience, and passion of people like Kathryn Hill being utilised in systems like the Swans Academy, this is going to happen much faster than it would otherwise.
Footy is something that everyone can enjoy. Between the arcs, and the white lines, and the whistles that are blown, many life lessons are learned. Success, failure, teamwork, resolve, gracefulness, and respect. The football field is a teacher for all and there should be no barriers to participation or limits on how far someone can take their love of the game.
Footy is for those who dare and those who dream.
The message is clear. Let the girls play.