NINE flags in 11 years. That was the Darebin Falcons' dominance of the Victorian Women's Football League before the nationwide AFLW competition was born in 2017. But as both competitions evolved and other grassroots sides morphed into AFL-affiliated clubs, the Falcons were determined to stand alone. Today the giant of Victorian women's footy sees itself as an underdog.
Photographer Michael Willson and writer Sarah Black joined a Falcons training session at Bill Lawry Oval, in Melbourne's inner north.
Fifteen of the Falcon's 2016 premiership squad of 27 went on to be drafted to an AFLW side. Among the draftees were superstars Daisy Pearce, Katie Brennan, Melissa Hickey and Darcy Vescio. "I started playing footy in 2016, and that group of elite players taught me how to kick," says 2019 All Australian ruck Lauren Pearce (pictured above). "I came back last season [instead of playing for Melbourne's affiliate Casey] because it was somewhere I was comfortable. I'm hearing different voices. The mindset is different. I found I performed better, and took that confidence into this year's AFLW."
Today, Lauren Pearce, Elise O'Dea, Lauren Arnell and Jamie Stanton are the only Falcons also playing in the AFLW.
Founded in 1990, Darebin is not just one football side. The club fields junior teams in every age group, a Masters side mostly made up of original Falcons, three senior sides, and teams in junior soccer, cricket and even eight-ball pool. All teams are female. All VFLW line coaches are ex-players.
When the AFLW launched and the Victorian league restructured to become the VFLW, Darebin faced an unclear future. "We were told in no uncertain terms that we wouldn't exist unless we joined up with a men's AFL team," says club president Sarah Brady. "We made a conscious decision that we wouldn't do that. The amount of effort [put] into protecting women being able to play, and how much they fought just to get grounds, means the actual name of the club is very important."
"We knew we needed funding and pitched to the Darebin council if they didn't support this, they wouldn't have a VFLW team in this area. The council has continued to back us, and we don't see it changing. We've had some massive learnings on doing things cost-effectively. We are definitely on par with other clubs in coaching payments, we invest in our strength and conditioning and we make sure we have an employee to do all the admin. We get volunteers from unis to do stats."
The rest of the competition saw Darebin as the Goliath of women's football. Whereas I always thought we were the David
Skipper Steph Simpson (above) is in her 11th season at the Falcons. "I met Daisy and Aasta (O'Connor) at a charity footy night in Warrandyte. The next week I met Daisy at Eltham station, she drove me to training and I haven't looked back. I came here at an age where I was trying to find out who I was, then I found a group of people with similar values, who all loved their footy. We're all from different walks of life, but we all come together and it's like a family."
"The club is pretty spectacular," says Brady. "The whole board is female. There are so many female coaches … The fees are so low because for families and girls, the fewer barriers they have, the higher chance they have of participating … To be able to come to a club where the players have the whole field to train, they don't have to compete with the boys and they can see girls like Lauren Pearce, Elise O'Dea and Loz Arnell running around and wearing the same guernsey they wear, is pretty empowering for them."
Julia Chiera (above) has been at the club since 2010. "I think I walked in a bit cocky, like I'd be really good at footy, but there's Daisy, Aasta, Loz Arnell and Jane Lange, so it was a good learning curve and supportive environment. I played seniors for a few years, I was on the committee, secretary and president. The year after I had my son I coached div two, the first time we had a third team. I was defensive VFLW coach last year, and I'm now the mids coach."
The club's still here is because it has such a strong history and a great group of women behind it. We often say 'not in our lifetime' will we disappear from the VFLW.
The Falcons managed to hang onto most of their players in 2017, winning the premiership again to extend their golden run to 10 flags in 12 seasons. But the turnover soon began. They finished fifth in 2018 and 11th in 2019.
"We've come from having a real core group of experienced players who have great game sense, know how to intuitively live that elite lifestyle, and they've now dissipated into the AFLW world or retired," says Chiera. "We have to teach how to consistently train at a high level to a whole new group. We'll be doing it for a few years as we put games and time into new players."
"In the 2010s, I think the rest of the competition saw Darebin as the Goliath of women's football. Whereas I always thought we were the David," says Chiera. "We had no money, we were scrappy and strategic, worked hard and made smart decisions. We would play games and people would love it when we lost. I totally get that. Now we're really the David. In the big bad world we're in now, where a lot of heart has gone out of our cultural institution, we're someone people can get behind."
Says Brady: "I think the reason the club's still here is because it has such a strong history and a great group of women behind it. We often say 'not in our lifetime' will we disappear from the VFLW. We're grateful to the culture that was built, because it means girls now fight to come back and play here, when it would be much easier to stay at an AFLW club. It would be pretty sad if that ended, so: 'not in our lifetime'."