[A note before you begin. The Mighty ’Bras is an edited and revised edition of the memoir first released in 2010 through the good people at Affirm Press. At the time, women’s professional sport in Australia was more of an aspiration than a thriving reality. Consequently, women's sport, unlike men’s sport, was seldom spoken about or celebrated in the media. We've a way to go before parity is attained, but things have changed a lot since then.
Was The Mighty ’Bras responsible for the growing boom in the popularity and visibility of elite women’s sport in this country? Um, who can say. No, really, who? But the book was, I’d venture more confidently, ahead of its time.
My hope, then, is that this edition finds a new and receptive audience. I’d like to think it’ll bring a smile to your face as it celebrates the joys and organised chaos of grassroots sport, while also recognising all the girls and women who play (or want to play) the beautiful game at the base of the football pyramid. Go you good things.
Now, where were we. Ah yes, the excerpt...]
Before the start of last season there’d been considerable discussion among the team about whether we should ask the Football Federation of Victoria – or perhaps even plead with them, on humanitarian grounds – to be placed in a lower division than we’d been in the season before.
We never did ask. Or even plead. In the end we decided that although the thought of voluntarily dropping down from Division 2 North-West to Division 3 North-West was based on an honest self-appraisal of our ability as a team (bearing in mind that in 2007 we won only four games and that for 2008 we’d be missing a couple of our most influential players, Emily and Jane, to travel and pregnancy respectively) such a move was ultimately seen as defeatist. We decided we’d just have to do our best come what may.
Well, we did just that last year, losing all 18 games in the process. But it sounds worse than it was. Really. We may have finished the season with our pants around our ankles, but our heads were held high and it certainly didn’t put anyone off volunteering for another season, me included. In fact, it was central to me returning this year. Between my needs and responsibilities as a father and partner, and my work demands, I was finding it increasingly difficult to unreservedly enjoy my time at training – by this time held twice a week – and games. A part of me was distracted by all the other things I wanted and needed to do. But apart from being so attached to the women in the team, there was no way I was going to call it a day on the back on a 22-match losing streak.
After our travails in 2008, we were, quite deservedly, relegated back to Division 3 – where we had started in 2003. As a result, I’m pretty confident this season won’t be anywhere near as tough as last, and I hope we’ll at least win as many games as we lose. In fact, in the back of my mind I’m wondering if we might even challenge for the championship. I know that sounds ridiculous given the resounding and relentless thrashing of last season but Division 3 won’t be quite as difficult. Besides, Emily has returned from her year overseas. She can score goals in her sleep and makes me look a considerably better coach than I really am. Jane, our speedy wingback, is also back on board (she played a cameo role last season, joining the team just six weeks after the birth of her first daughter, Esme, but she’s now fully fit and raring to go). And we have four new players – former Zebras juniors Amy and Ida, and sunny newcomers Angela and Bridget – offering us young, coordinated legs, something we’ve never had in abundance.
‘You just never know,’ I say brightly to Lee when she asks me to appraise our season’s chances as I gather up my things before leaving the house for our opening match against Bulleen. ‘It could be the year the stars align above us, the year the gods kiss us, the year we ride on angels’ wings. Our anus mirabilis.’
‘Your “arsehole of wonders”? You mean “annus”, don’t you?’
Right you are.
Anyway, by the end of the game, as the shadows stretch across Sumner Park and a cool air begins to creep up from the Merri Creek which flanks the playing field, my optimism has been somewhat tarnished. We try hard and we threaten in patches but for the duration of the game we’re just off the pace. Uniformly young, pugnacious and quick, Bulleen score two unanswered goals in each half. With a bit more luck we might have reduced the margin by a goal or two but I know that if Bulleen is a measure of the other sides in the competition we have our work cut out for us if we’re to finish with a 50-50 win-loss record, let alone challenge for the championship.
Despite the loss, however, we’re all admirably upbeat knowing we’ve done our best and been competitive: a classic ’Bras trait, elevating effort over a result. I tell them as much in the aftermath, as they’re scattered at my feet, downing water, sucking on leftover orange segments, peeling off dirty boots and sweaty socks, and in some cases, cuddling their children who’ve been on the sidelines watching.
‘You played your best today and that’s all I can ask. You should be proud of your effort,’ I say, and everyone seems genuinely happy with this summation. In fact, it generates a few whoops and a bout of clapping. When it comes to the ’Bras, whoops and claps are not just reserved for wins. Many times we’ve clapped and cheered each other on the sidelines after losses with such vigour that confused opponents have had to check the score with the referee. Ah, ref, we won, right? I’ve never seen a team of men do that, at any level.
That we are prepared to settle for an effortful loss in our opening match shows, I think, how open-minded we are. That said, the result is our worst for a season-opening fixture. Remarkably, we’ve registered two wins and three draws from our seven opening matches. That they were mostly false dawns makes them no less pleasurable, even in hindsight.
Although those two season-opening wins (a 5-0 home victory against Deakin University in 2005, and a 5-1 win over neighbours Clifton Hill a year later) were wonderful beginnings on the scoreboard, our most memorable start was, without doubt, our first ever match, against Westvale at Sumner Park in April 2003. Perhaps it’s like never forgetting your first lover – whether they were a childhood sweetheart who happened to have their own car and knowledge of somewhere dark to park it – but there was certainly much to make it stick in the brain.
For one thing, the entire squad was dressed and ready to play a full 45 minutes before kick-off. Never again have we been so punctual. In fact, often we’re still not ready even after the game has commenced. There’s either someone rushing around the field trying to tie their bootlaces while they’re still running, or someone shuffling over to the sideline to lob me a watch, earring or hat they’ve forgotten to take off. Due to the 100 or so minutes between kick-off and the final whistle (ample time to forget your direction in life let alone the contents of a few pockets) I can be in possession of such items for weeks, even months, before they find their way back to their owner.
Once I even rehearsed an apology to Alicia when I realised her earrings were in the pocket of my jeans that had just gone through the wash. Considering I clean my jeans only at the point where they can stand up without assistance this was extraordinarily bad luck on both our parts. Miraculously, however, the earrings were still secured in the wet, crinkled pocket when I stuck a hopeful hand inside. Alicia, whose father is Chinese-Australian, later told me they were once nipple rings worn by her great, great grandmother who had a gig dancing as the second concubine of the Grand Vizier of Canton. Knowing less than I’d like about dancing concubines, and nothing at all about grand viziers of Canton or anywhere else, I’d like to believe she was telling the truth.
That the ’Bras were dressed and ready so early that day only served to heighten the sense of occasion and the collective feeling of disbelief. As I’ve said, when these women first began kicking a ball around the parks of northern Melbourne, this wasn’t a destination anyone had in mind. It would have seemed fanciful. Yet here they all were, sitting in a cold, austere dressing room at Sumner Park awaiting the opening whistle of their first ever game of competitive football. ‘What the hell are we doing here?’ seemed the question on everyone’s lips. ‘What were we thinking?’ No wonder the studs of their boots tapped a staccato on the concrete floor. Some felt ill with nerves, and the rush and gasp of asthma inhalers filled the air.
Being the first time everyone was dressed in their playing strip it was remarked whether the voluminous nature of our one-size-fits-all playing shirts negated any slimming effect afforded by the vertical black-and-white stripes. ‘I can’t help but think it does,’ said Kerry, a CBD florist with a fine eye not only for the beautiful but the absurd. ‘I mean you could slip a real Zebra in here.’ Things were even worse for goalkeeper Deb. Dressed in an enormous, bright-yellow, long-sleeved jersey, she looked like a small planet, or perhaps a meteoroid entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
In the moments before we exited the dressing shed and lined up on the field I gave my first team address. Like most that would follow, it was unrehearsed, light on detail and heavy on rhetoric. Knowing my troops were hardly skilled enough for anything more tactically elaborate than ‘pass the ball for God’s sake’, I decided my main job would be to motivate them to at least get stuck in and not be held back by fear of injury, fear of failure, or fear of anyone laughing at them – which for many was, in fact, the dominant fear.
But I hardly left them beating their chests like pumped-up silverback gorillas when I slipped shamefully into cliché and didn’t even get that right. I was just about to implore everyone to ‘show some balls out there’ when I remembered my audience might struggle with that. Improvising hastily mid-stream I instead asked them to ‘show some … intestinal fortitude’ which though gender neutral lacked the same punch. Any punch, in fact.
‘Intestinal fortitude?!’ Deb queried, ‘Does Alka-Seltzer help with that?’
It wasn’t my desire to have everyone running out on to the pitch laughing but I suppose the tension was at least broken.
When they left me in the shed to take their places on the ground – signalling a crescendo of encouragement from their husbands, partners, children and friends – I felt like a parent at the gate on their child’s first day at school. Please don’t let them be humiliated, I beseeched no one in particular. Please reward them for their bravery in giving this a go. And please, please give us something positive to build on. I stepped out into the darkening afternoon surprised by the butterflies clattering around inside my gut. In that moment, more than any that came before it, I recognised that this meant something to me.
Making their way onto the ground, Westvale looked as tough as spanners and not a single player seemed older than 18, with some possibly as young as 14 or 15. Further distinguishing them from us was the fact that they wore more makeup than a revue of drag queens. Rather than take away from their air of toughness it only seemed to accentuate it. In the brief moment before the opening whistle the ’Bras certainly remarked on it, which I suppose was not surprising since at least half of that year’s side wouldn’t wear makeup to their own funeral, even if it was an open casket affair. The ’Bras and Westvale were from different sides of the city but it may as well have been different sides of the world.
Soon after the match started, I was comforted by watching the early exchanges of play. We were not noticeably outclassed, nor did Westvale appear to have a particularly flashy player who might win the game on her own with a streak of brilliance. As was to be expected of a team of novices, we had poor ball control, were prone to making positional errors, and tended to rush around at times like children whacked out on sugar. But Westvale weren’t all that better. Thus, the game was winnable. The possibility made my heart beat a little faster.
It was shortly after this realisation that Jo received the ball with a bit of time to spare just inside Westvale’s 18-yard box. If I were to be picky, she struck the ball poorly (instead of side-footing it or striking it with the laces of her boot as instructed, she stuck her toe into the ball like she was kicking a feral cat away from a baby) but I wasn’t about to quibble when the ball shot under the falling body of Westvale’s keeper and into the net. Prior to the game I’d held silent fears we could go the entire season without scoring a single goal and here we were 1-0 up after 20 minutes in our opening fixture. Jo was mobbed by joyous team-mates. Jubilation reigned.
Then the sky caved in. All afternoon black-bellied clouds had been assembling ominously, like charity chuggers on a street corner, and it looked certain we would cop it at some point. But no one quite expected the deluge we got. Soon after Jo’s goal it began raining so hard I couldn’t see the other side of the ground. Within seconds, as I retreated vainly into the 50 centimetre-deep corrugated-iron substitute’s shelter along the eastern sideline, every player on the field was drenched. The faces of the Westvale women ran like Alice Cooper’s, the ’Bras laughed at the intensity of the rain because you could do little else, and the referee, Marian’s partner, Tony, filling in because the official referee never turned up, surely began to lament his decision to help out.
Early in the second half the rain had eased to a monsoon and we were soon 2-0 up. Enterprising work by Liz and Brita, our galloping right-winger, had set up Annie to the right of the goal. From an acute angle, Annie hit the ball sweetly and it sailed across the face of the goal, just creeping inside the opposite upright. Laconically, as is her style, she threw her arms into the air and accepted the wet, clinging embrace of her team-mates.
To give credit to Westvale, the second goal seemed to spur them on rather than take the wind from their collective sail. Warming to the challenge, their big blonde midfielder began to bark out orders and, entertainingly, threats.
‘I’ll take you for a ride in my fucking car,’ she screamed at a mistake-ridden team-mate with such venom you just knew she wasn’t talking about a gentle drive through the vineyard-stitched hills of the Yarra Valley.
From that point we were under constant attack. On numerous occasions only a lick of paint, or the interception of Deb’s gloves, saved us from conceding a goal. However, with about 20 minutes remaining, the inevitable happened when a low-driven shot flew through a sea of legs and into the net. Deb didn’t even see it coming. With one goal retrieved, Westvale redoubled their efforts and as we tired and our old legs got heavier and heavier we could hardly clear the ball from our own penalty area. We needed a bazooka and only had popguns. Time ticked on and the tension built. I could see the Brunswick Zebras’ then club president, John Lewis, pacing under the awning of the clubhouse up on the hill. It felt to me like we had our fingers in the dyke and it was only a matter of time before the wall splintered and we were inundated. My gut was knotted as I prayed for Tony to blow the whistle and end the game before it was too late. For all I knew this could be our best chance of a win all season and I wanted it badly.
Such things are inexact owing to the nature of a referee making up for lost time but time had already expired on my watch when, with the last kick of the game, a Westvale player looped the ball inelegantly up and over a number of players and into the far corner of our goal. Bound more than most by the laws of gravity, Deb could only watch it sail over her head. Westvale celebrated like they’d just been informed of an obscene lottery win and we dropped our heads, everyone learning in an instant how cruel sport can be, how little it cares for sentiment.
But the gloom didn’t last long once our fullback Gemma, who’d been on the bench with me at the time, did the mathematics and began a ’Bras’ trend of finding the silver lining amid the clouds.
‘Hang on,’ she said, addressing her half-drowned team-mates as they squelched off the field. ‘They scored two. But so did we. We didn’t lose! That’s worth a drink!’
So it proved at the Empress of India shortly afterwards.
We were away. Wet, unbeaten, and unashamedly chuffed.