Writer’s note: It’s difficult to review a season such as we’ve had in few words, so apologies in advance for the length. Get comfortable.
As the exhilaration of the weekend’s events begins to settle, the magnitude of what this group have achieved this past year may not have dawned on them yet. In fact it may take years for them to realise the impact they have had on Old Camberwell Grammarians AFC – as a football club, community and home to many – and the generations of women to come who will take up their legacy. It is a legacy that will live with the club forever and should not be underestimated.
I commented to several people after Saturday’s game that in 50 years’ time a photo of 40 or so young women (and a few men) will hang in the clubrooms at Gordon Barnard Oval alongside a premiership cup and flag. Those present might not recognise the faces or know the names, but it will be genuinely celebrated and remembered as one of the most significant events in the club’s history. You can only be an inaugural women’s team and premiers once. Thanks to each of them, it’s now impossible to think of Old Camberwell without a women’s team at the heart of our club.
The fact that this team did not even exist 12 months ago, let alone the idea that it might at all, is a surreal thought. There are many thanks to be made to various people for why it does now, a lot of whom I’ll acknowledge later, but it’s only fitting to first recognise our ex-president Andrew Tsindos who was the brainchild, current president Adam Kyriacouand our super coach Ken Schwab for making this a reality. Their passion, commitment and vision have guided this team and its development. Without them it may not have happened at all.
Looking back to where it all began in late 2016, five girls turned up to the initial introductory meeting at the clubrooms, and not long after a small group of a 17 girls gathered at GBO for their first training session. They came from a range of schools and backgrounds. Some new each other, others did not. Without being there myself, I am confident they would have approached that first night with the same sense of enthusiasm, fun, comradery, determination and willingness to learn that has become characteristic of this team. A mix of abilities and expectations for what was to come were probably floating around, but the initial foundations had been laid.
Pre-season was different to what the average male footballer would experience. No gut busting sprints or gruelling runs, just the basics of the game. They literally started from scratch. While I was still training and considering playing myself, I was interested to look across at times and observe how they were going under the guidance of Alex Mackenzieand Schwaby. Kicks flying here and there, handballs missing targets, dropped marks. But also the occasional pinpoint pass and clean hands. Lots of chatter and encouragement, consistent numbers at training, but not huge. A sign of things to come.
Fast forward to a week or so before the first practice game and Schwaby had officially been appointed as coach. I had opted not to play due to a back injury and be Schwaby’sassistant instead. We were both excited and unsure about what the season had in store for us, but knew we had a great group to work with.
Our first practice games were at a round robin tournament at Marcellin College in Bulleen. Ironically, our first game was against Marcellin who had one team on the field and a whole other team on the bench – they would go on to win this year’s Premier Division. We had 16 or so from memory. Suffice to say we lost that first game, but followed it up by recording our first win in even more ironic circumstances against Old Carey. The following week our pre-season wrapped up with the VAFA Women’s Lightning Premiership at Elsternwick. Again we had about 16 give or take, but showed plenty of promise recording a great win against Oakleigh in our final game.
Given we were only just able to field teams for the practice games we were a bit unsure if we would have enough players committed to play throughout the year. Fortunately, and unexpectedly, in the few weeks between the Lightning Premiership and about Round 2 or 3 we had close to ten new players join – the likes of Sturrock, Harper, Hart, Sloane, King, Richards, Stoyle and a second Bangs all fitted in seamlessly on and off the field. Selection was tough from then on.
Based on the pre-season, we thought if we could be competitive and win a few games then it would be a successful year. The only aim Schwaby and I discussed, and agreed on, was that we needed to create an environment and team culture that everyone enjoyed and felt a part of. If by season’s end all, or most of, the girls wanted to play again in 2018 then we would have done our job.
Prior to Round 1 the team appointed S. Defina to be our inaugural captain, supported by M. Wilson, Anderson and Nolan who led the team with distinction all year. Then it was upon us, the first of three grading games. Up against Old Geelong at Como Park we got flogged by 80-plus points, but in the final minutes of the game who else but E. Definabecame the first woman to kick a goal for the club in a competition game. That initial loss turned out to be a rarity. We returned to GBO the following week for our first home game and turned that around to record our own 80-point win against Canterbury, uncovering some genuine stars. We backed up a week later on the top oval with a commanding win over Hawthorn who ended up winning the Development Division 4 flag.
Placed in Development Division 2 with our two previous wins still counting, we maintained our winning form in the season proper with a huge win against Yarra Grammarians under lights. With three wins on the trot an early season top of the table clash against Collegians established our season-long rivalry. After defeating Collegians in a tough game, it was probably then that we first thought we had a team that could seriously play and challenge for the flag.
This was confirmed a week later when we took on Ivanhoe in what turned out to be our most hard fought win. They were unfancied at the time and beat us physically early on. It wasn’t until C. Wilson ran straight from the bench and floored her opponent that the intensity lifted. It was a season defining moment. We clawed the lead back and held on in a heart stopper. I also recall reflecting on that game and the attitude of the team when we were down. The encouragement and incessant cheers from the bench were so loud, while Ivanhoe’s players began to abuse each other. I felt this really showed the calibre of our players, the respect they had for each other and the bond they were forming.
Another strong win against Old Carey was followed by a stinging 3-point loss to Oakleigh. Probably our low point for the year, but also pivotal to the rest of the season. The marginal loss came with an undermanned team showing the depth of the squad. Outstanding defensive efforts from Mirabella and Donkin in the absence of our key defenders, S. Defina and M. Wilson, was particularly impressive. The game also highlighted that we needed to be more physical. The loss hurt and we didn’t want to experience it again.
History will show that we didn’t. From that point on we won eight games straight to claim the flag. We put the loss behind us and flogged UHS-VU in a top of the table clash to regain top spot. Then went on and did the same to four teams in succession – St Bede’s, Ivanhoe, Old Carey and Yarra Grammarians. The juggernaut was gaining momentum and still we had players wanting to get on board. In the second half of the season we gave debuts to Franklin, Hillman, Hamilton, Ham and Collins. Again, the ability for the team to welcome new faces and see them become a part of the group so quickly is not something I have experienced with any other team. Unfortunately, we also said goodbye to the physical presence provided by Booth and speed of Kertes who went abroad.
Halfway through the season, Green and the Defina twins became the club’s first women Big V representatives. All three made the final squad, but unfortunately (and somewhat mistakenly it could be argued) missed out on being selected in the final 24. There were few other clubs that achieved this and hopefully in years to come we will have many more represent the Big V.
Our final home and away game was a precursor to the first semi-final and a test of how we would perform in the finals. Collegians were up for it and it took a serious effort to get over the line. The following week was not much different. By this stage we knew the flag was ours to lose. Beating Collegians and getting direct passage to the grand final was key. The most nerve-wracking finish all season came down to a goal-saving smother from Anjou in the dying seconds, allowing us to avoid a preliminary final.
Making the grand final was the minimum this team deserved. The week leading in was a mix of emotions and activity. We kicked it off with a training session at Trevor Barker Oval on the Saturday before. Over 20 girls made the effort to get there demonstrating they wanted to finish the job. The Monday night delivered our first women’s competition B&F and goal kicking award to Green and E. Defina respectively, while Tuesday and Thursday training were sharp with a buzz of excitement. Saturday came and there is no need to repeat the rest of it.
This year has been successful on the field, but it’s perhaps off it that the team has made their biggest impact. They have contributed enormous energy and enthusiasm to organising and being part of the social life of the club. The off-field shenanigans – player events, crap trap Thursdays, Super Saturdays – have been first rate with the girls often showing the guys how it’s done.
I was initially unsure how a group of women would fit into an environment dominated by men almost since its establishment. The attitude and level of interaction from both sides was always going to need an adjustment. Hindsight has shown this was never something to worry about. This year has gone a long way to building a better atmosphere and making GBO a place people want to spend time at. It has never been better in the 12 years I’ve been associated with Old Camberwell. Everyone I have spoken to has attributed this to the girls. In this instance a huge acknowledgment goes to Kath, Alex, Bec and Jo for their involvement on the committee, and Jules on game days. They have all put in considerable time and effort.
As much as the girls have embraced being a part of the club, so too have their parents, siblings and extended networks. The team and coaching staff have had continual support all year. A team where every single off-field job is filled week in week out has been a rarity in my time at Old Camberwell. We have been lucky to not have this problem, for which we can eternally thank Tim Wilson who has carried out his team manager duties to perfection. He has the entire admiration and respect of the playing group, as well as Schwaby and I.
Added to this are the goal umpiring and interchange feats of Michael Hook and Mitch Anjou. They have never hesitated to put their hands up for these roles. Our runner Stefan Anjou and sometimes controversial umpire Dave Anjou have similarly been there without fail. Stefan, in particular, has been a key member of the game day squad, and again has the respect of the whole playing group. In general, the Wilson, Anjou and Hook familieshave been enormous support.
Mid-season, Jay Tapscott came along and began to help out with training and on game days. His patience and drive has been crucial to many of the girls improving their individual skills. The whole team and our performance has benefited greatly from having him around.
The team has stayed hydrated largely thanks to Jackson Eade who really took to being there every week without any expectation or having to be asked. He’s already signed up for next year. Emilia Fuller and Jade Bingley who are both players, but for various reasons have had interrupted seasons, and while not always getting on the field we never needed to ask them twice to help out running the boundary, water or filling other roles. Jordan and his team of trainers who have kept us on the field as players started to pick up injuries throughout the season. And as always, Tim Cottrell and Warren Earle (aka Wearly) for ensuring we were kitted out and fed/hydrated post-match or training.
I’m sure I have missed individuals, apologies if so. There are many who helped out at various points in the year. Thanks to all.
To tie it all up (thanks for sticking with me), I would (selfishly) like to say a very big personal thanks to the team, Schwaby and Adam. Some know that I returned to Melbourne late last year after a few years abroad. As always there is a transition period with these things and I looked to Old Camberwell as a place that was familiar. However, while I was still considering playing in early January I wasn’t so sure it was that place anymore. So when I opted not to play and said I would help out, I had very little sense of what that would mean. The excitement of being involved with something new, a new challenge and community was what triggered my interest.
Eight months down the track I can well and truly say that this team has had a profound impact on me, just as it has this club. The fun and enjoyment you have fostered, along with the improvement and success you have achieved, and the respect and friendship you show towards each other, and to me, has been a most fulfilling experience to be a part of. For me, you have made Old Camberwell that familiar place again and for that I’m very grateful.
Let this be the beginning of some thing special. Stick together. Cheers to the women and premiers of 2017. Onwards to victory!
Women’s Assistant Coach