Football’s women, a correspondent wrote in The Age in the 1970s, “are mere appendages to the game, extras in an all-male saga, tolerated but not taken seriously”. For so long, that’s how it was in football. Women washed our socks. They drove us to training. Leigh Matthews did psychological profiles of his Brisbane players’ wives and girlfriends “to assist their playing partners to be better footballers”.
When a young Darebin Falcons player was taken as the No 1 pick in the inaugural national women’s draft, things were changing. It was six months after Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech. In the next few years, a woman would pilot a Melbourne Cup winner at 100-1, and nearly 25,000 people would cram into Princes Park for the first AFLW game.
Daisy Pearce hates being called a pioneer. To her, the real heroes of women’s football are the people who paved the way for her generation to play professionally. They’re women like Debbie Lee – women who weren’t on TV, women who endured the worst of the ignorance, the exclusion and the sexism. When Pearce was 16 and playing her first game of women’s football, Lee whacked her. When Lee was the first woman inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame nearly 20 years later, Pearce paid tribute to her footballing idol. “Debbie made the game accessible for half the population,” she said.
As a footballer, Pearce has been an All-Australian captain and won 10 premierships at the VFLW level. She has excelled on parched grounds in the middle of summer and on tempestuous days out at Casey Fields. She’s a smart, consistent footballer who plays a lot taller than her 170cm. These days, she essentially plays as a second coach. It’s tempting to lament that we never saw the best of her. But she insists that she is playing as well as ever, and that the tide has simply risen around her. Despite what such luminaries as Steve Price would have you believe, women’s football has never had more depth, and never been more competitive.
An introverted woman, Pearce would prefer to let her football to the talking. But when needed, she has stood up against the dickheads and the dinosaurs. As a midwife, she saw women at their most vulnerable and their most powerful. She says her leadership skills, her ability to handle pressure and to have tough conversations were all honed in maternity wards.
She is also one of the most respected commentators, columnists and voices in football. I learnt more about the modern game in one of her columns in The Age than I did from 10 years of Wayne Carey’s observations. As a TV commentator, she has what Bunk Moreland from The Wire called “soft eyes”. She looks for things others don’t. She sees patterns others miss, or don’t understand, or jabber over. On radio, she gets to the nub of football’s more complex and divisive issues. Her comments regarding Taylor Walker’s slur, the Hawthorn racism review and Rex Hunt’s belch about female commentators were especially nuanced and welcome.
Last week Pearce spoke at length to The Age’s Marnie Vinall. She spoke about midwifery, about trolls, about twins and about premierships. She has never won an AFLW flag. “I want one!” she said. She deserves one. But her legacy in the sport is already secure without one.
She lives at the foot of Mt Buffalo, a four-hour drive from Melbourne, and a world away from Ipswich, where Sunday’s grand final will be played. It will be oppressively hot, conditions she hates playing in. They may as well be playing in Qatar. But whether she wins or loses on Sunday, whether she retires or goes on for another year, she’ll be remembered as the face of this generation of women’s football, a generation that bridged the amateur and the professional eras.
Nearly three quarters of a million girls and women now play Australian rules football. Daisy Pearce, one suspects, would be key figure for nearly all of them. Perhaps more than anyone, she has shown that women are no longer considered mere appendages, that they’re no longer viewed as extras, that that they can kick, commentate, comment and coach. She has reminded men that this game they were brought up to assume was theirs is now open to the other 50.2% of the population, and that it’s all the richer for it.