We walk to the centre of the ground, my cameraman Jake and I. It’s overcast, rain looks likely, though the stubbornness – or perhaps naivety – of my inner Sydney city weather instinct tells me it’ll hold off. Two young footballers walk behind us. I can hear them comparing notes on how long the drive took them to get here this morning. I figure that’ll make a good question later, so I make a mental note. I should’ve brought a pen and paper and my iPhone screen is cracked. I'm new to this, ok?
I was asked to write six pieces on the QBE Sydney Swans Academy. Each piece would be accompanied by a video created by Jake Carroll, son of Swans legend Dennis. The first four were over and done quickly – have you read them? Come on, go read them, they’re good, I swear. I’m sure we can link to them somehow here, or here, or maybe down lower in the article… but that’s beyond my skill set. I'm sure someone can make it work.
Anyway, over summer, we took a hiatus. Football tends to lose a bit of traction when Christmas trees and cricket bats come out. But when training started up again, I knew I needed to find two more pieces for the series. So, I text Chris Smith, who I figured has been in charge for over ten years now – or at least, that’s how long ago it was that he pulled me into his office at the footy club and gave me a running program and said, “Do this and come back and let's see if you’re any good.” He still wears tracksuits pants and visors on the training track, and the kids still listen when he speaks. I reckon a quarter of the Swans locker room has a Chris Smith origin story like mine.
I asked Smithy what was coming up with the Academy and his immediate response was that the 17’s and 19’s girls were preparing for their upcoming games against the Giants on Sunday at Tom Wills Oval. It will be history in the making. This is the first time they've had this age group for the girls academy and it is another crucial step to their larger plans. Whenever I’ve talked to Smithy before about the girl's academy, it’s clear to me that it’s not just for show, there’s a real buy-in from everyone involved. They want facilities. They want resources. They want coaches. They want footys in the girl's hands. They want this to be a launching pad for the Sydney Swans own AFLW team.
So that’s why, standing beside me, and Jake, in the middle of the Lakeside, or Tramway, whatever it is now called – it's the one opposite the SCG – are two girls wearing footy boots, nervous, yet excited before their first interview. Their names are London and Kate.
“Alright, who's first,” I ask.
They look at each other.
“Don’t be shy, you’ll both be great,” that sounds like something a journalist would say. I really am new to this interviewing stuff.
London steps forward.
Jake hands her a microphone pack and I explain the drill to her: she can take her time answering, she can start her answers again, and when she talks she should look at me, not the camera. Ultimately, she’s in charge, but the one thing is that Jake will cut all of my questions out of the video so she needs to use the question in the answer – so you all watching at home, or on the bus, or wherever you watch your videos from, know what's going on. "It's kind of like answering essay questions at school," I tell her. When I say that last part, she laughs, like she’s heard her teachers say it a hundred times before. Jake adjusts the camera and makes sure he’s got the shot, then we start.
“Alright London,” I ask, “so, when did you first start playing footy?”
Without hesitation, she starts her response.
“I started playing football when I was 12 and I only started because I was at my cousin’s rugby game and my parents said I should start a team sport so we decided to do AFL and I played my first game the next day”
I nod, impressed by her answer, and how she nailed the instructions.
“That’s a great story.”
It’s a perfect narrative for the changing balance of the Sydney junior sporting landscape, but I’m more-so happy because when you interview teenagers – or footy players – it’s nice to get someone who says more than one or two words.
My next question: “So how have the Swans Academy helped your footy?”
Again, she dives straight in.
“The Swans have been really great with nurturing my skills, and they’ve always been great with training, and it’s good to meet all the girls in the region and practice our footy and just have fun.”
Another homerun answer, so good in fact that she answered my next question before I even asked. I tell her that and she laughs.
“So, London, what are you most looking forward to this year with your footy?”
“This year,” she says, “I’m looking forward to versing the Giants down in Canberra in Sydney, that’ll be really exciting just to have a crack at footy again.”
Those are the games Chris Smith was telling me about. Happening on the Sunday The 17's and 19's girls will be playing in series and championships like the boys do each year, testing themselves against the best opposition possible and improving themselves as a result.
Now to the question i really want to ask: “Do you watch the AFLW, and is it your dream to one day play at that level?"
“Yeah hopefully that would be nice,” she says, grinning ear to ear. Her tone and demeanour shift in this response. It wasn't thoughtless, it was effortless. Like I shouldn't've expected any other response.
But then Jake chimes in, he knows the go, “I’ll just get you to say that one again. With the question in the answer this time.”
I repeat the question and her eyes light up again and she dives in again. I see what's happening. When the AFLW is mentioned, it’s like she can’t think about anything else.
On our third try, I rejig the question: “So do you watch the AFLW? And if so, how does it make you feel seeing women like Tayla Harris do their thing?" Then we get the answer, question and all.
“I love watching the AFLW, it’s really inspiring to see the girls out there just kicking goals and everything."
Practice makes perfect. An impressive effort for a first-time interviewee.
“Great,” I say. “Nailed it.”
But then I remember my mental note from before.
“Wait! Wait! One more question London! You had a fair drive this morning didn’t you? Could you talk me through that?”
“Yeah, I came from Newcastle his morning. So I woke up at 5:30, went and picked up one of my mates, got here early, and then started kicking a footy.”
London takes the microphone pack off and hands it to Kate who has been watching from the side this whole time. She clips it to the back of her shorts and I can see her looking at her teammates who have converged in the middle of the ground.
“We’ll be done very soon,” I say. “You’ll only miss the first few minutes of the warmup, those things are too long anyway.”
Kate stands in front of the camera and I remind her of the interview rules: look at me, we can start answers again, repeat the question in the answer. I can tell she’s been rehearsing the answers this whole time. We begin.
On her introduction to footy:
“I started playing football when I was 12 years old. I started playing in school. I originally come from England, so my schoolteacher introduced it to me, and yeah, it just went from there, continued playing ever since.”
On the importance of the academy:
“It’s been very important. Just different training from club training. It brings all the girls together and is just a better experience overall.”
On what she’s looking forward to this year:
“This year I’m definitely looking forward to the games, just having that experience of playing with other experienced girls, it’s should be good.”
This is too easy for her – these girls are fast learners – so I throw out a question that I didn’t ask London. Not really a curveball, but just something to keep her on her toes. To continue the high school link, rote learning only gets you so far.
“So, Kate…” I start, without knowing where the question will lead. As I do, I look behind her and see the stands of the Sydney Cricket Ground and follow the light towers which soar high into the sky with my eyes.
“How’s it feel to train out the front of the SCG?”
Like all great footy players, she takes it in stride.
“It just feels you’re almost there. I’m training on the same ground I could be in 5 years, with the AFLW.”
The perfect lead into my final question, about AFLW once more, and the prospect of maybe playing in it one day.
She’s been practising her answer, I know she has, but still, she stumbles over. Like a player who doesn’t slow down when they kick. It’s not a bad thing, it shows an eagerness, a drive. It’s better to have than not.
After her answer, Jake says that we’ll have another crack at it. I rejig the question again.
“I watch the AFLW a lot,” says Kate, “I love watching the girls have a go doing what they love.”
Jake and I look at each other and both say, “Perfect.”
We get one more shot of each girl to finish. The typical shot you see projected onto the screen before games at the SCG when they introduce the team. Ball in hand, looking at the camera. Like true professionals, they get it in one take and we finish, just as their teammates start the warmup. I thank them for their time, tell them how natural they were and how hopefully it’ll be the first of many interviews for them. I’m not sure they were listening though, because they just wanted to run off and have a kick. We don't play footy to do interviews, you play footy to ... well... play footy.
“Hey, can we take this footy?” they ask as they run off.
“Sure, it’s more use to you than me!” I respond.