Such has been the growth of women’s football in recent years, nearly one in three grassroots footballers are now female. But the players have found that this comes at a cost. Matthew Donald reports.
Haylea Cooney is thriving on the opportunity to forge her own football career.
Having spent most the last decade assuming the role of spectator as her husband Adam forged his career at AFL level with stints at both the Western Bulldogs and Essendon, Cooney is now co-captain of the Spotswood women’s side.
“It’s my time to shine,” Cooney said.
“To be able to play now is just so exciting. I played modified football in high school. I absolutely loved it, but unfortunately my local football club didn’t have a women’s side.
“I think up until the under 10’s, girls weren’t allowed to play in the boy’s competition either, so there were no avenues for me to play football when I was 18, 19 (years old) unless I travelled.
“There was nowhere local for me. I think West Adelaide might’ve had a women’s side but that was a long way away from my house.”
However, the rise of women’s football over the last few years has allowed women like Cooney to be able to do what she loves.
“Last year, one of my friends told me that her local team (Caroline Springs Lakers) were putting a women’s team together. I was 34 at the time and I thought ‘I’ll have a go at training and see how I go’.
“I tried it. I loved it. Then they had a scratch match and I thought ‘I’ll have a go at that, too’, and I loved that as well. At the end of the last quarter, I wanted to keep on running and playing. I wanted the game to go for 10 quarters!”
Cooney’s return to playing football is symbolic of a growing trend across Australia, with participation levels for women in football reaching heights never seen before.
According to the AFL’s Annual Report for 2017, women currently represent 30 per cent of all grassroots participation, with 1690 new female teams being established in 2017 alone – a 76 per cent increase on 2016.
The exact number of female participants in 2017 according to the report was 463,364, which was up from 380,041 in 2016 and 318,880 in 2015.
But that increase has come at a cost.
Despite the success that women’s football has had in recent years, it has not all been smooth sailing, with several issues preventing it from being as successful as men’s football.
“I think that there is a stigma attached to women’s football at the moment,” Cooney said.
“It makes me wild when I see the bad media about the women playing. I think a footy club is a blokey world, even at this club, it’s a very men-orientated club.
“The senior men are treated like gods here and I think it will take a few years because – as much as I love this club – I don’t think we’re being taken too seriously yet.
“I think we have to prove ourselves, which is pretty unfortunate. It’s getting better, but I don’t think we are taken too seriously right now.”
Meanwhile, co-captain of the St Kevin’s Old Boys Saints team, Ali Hynes, 21, who is just starting out in her football career, also believes that it will be difficult to suddenly change the stigma.
“I think that there is an element of gender there,” Hynes said.
“There definitely wasn’t an opportunity (to play when I was young). I’d go down to my brother’s Auskick, but I never thought about joining in. Because there wasn’t an opportunity it never really appealed to me.
“Had I known about the sport and been able to actually engage with it from a young age it’s definitely something I would’ve loved to do but it just wasn’t something I thought about.”
Sophie Straford, the other co-captain of the Saints football team, was also aware of the limitations on her football aspirations from a young age.
“I knew that I could play Auskick, but from that young age, it was in my mind that this was a boy’s sport and I was a girl, so I disassociated the two of them,” Straford said.
“When someone mentioned that there was a women’s team here, it didn’t grab my attention straight away, but once I came down to the first training session and I saw how everyone interacted with each other, that got me on board.”
However, becoming an established part of what has long been a men’s game is not the only challenge that women’s football currently faces.
Injuries have also proven to be a major factor in affecting the development of not only individual players, but women’s football in general.
While injuries have always been commonplace in just about every competitive sport, studies have shown women are around five times more likely to suffer a tear to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) than men playing the same sports, due to the difference in the biomechanics of the leg.
Medical practitioners believe this is because women’s knees tend to be more flexible than men’s, which can lead to more strain being put on the surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments.
Additionally, women’s hips, buttocks and upper leg muscles are not as strong as men’s, meaning that when landing or changing direction, more force is being exerted on the knee instead of being absorbed by surrounding muscles.
Such an injury is often regarded as one of the most serious that an athlete can sustain; the amount of time and effort needed to fully recover from an ACL rupture means that it has regularly kept footballers on the sidelines for up to 12 months.
The AFL earlier this year cooperated with La Trobe University on an ACL injury prevention program, after the beginning of the 2018 AFLW season, when four separate ACL injuries occurred within the first two weeks.
Spotswood co-captain Haylea Cooney, however, isn’t convinced that the correlation is as obvious as it may seem.
“I don’t know if it is because the grounds are harder because it’s summer (during the AFLW season). I know they take good care of the grounds,” Cooney said.
“When we’ve been training over the summer we’ve been wearing sneakers because we don’t want to get injured, and now we’ve just started wearing footy boots.
“So, I’m not too sure about the injuries, because they’re tough.”
St Kevin’s Ali Hynes believes that the lack of women being taught about technique is the main factor in the significant number of injuries.
“We haven’t been taught to tackle properly, so that’s probably one challenge that we face that the boys don’t necessarily have to face because they’ve had that upbringing from a really young age,” Hynes said.
Saints co-captain Sophie Straford agrees that being taught proper techniques could prevent serious injuries in the long run.
“Being taught how to be tackled properly is one thing that we’ve never really focused on but would help a lot with preventing injuries,” Straford said.
But with the new season just around the corner, the focus will swiftly turn to the happenings on-field, and Cooney has a very straightforward goal in mind.
“My goal is to kick a goal,” Cooney said.
“Being a defender this year, I think my coach is going to have to put me in the forward line at least once this year.”