MILLER: Next-gen footballers a reminder of how far we've come

THE RECENT AFL elimination final between Fremantle and the Western Bulldogs at Optus Stadium was an occasion to savour in more ways than one. Not only did my Dockers teammates and I witness a remarkable fightback by our men’s team, but as we watched the AFL Auskick games at half-time it really hit home just how far women’s football has come.

I have always admired how much fun the Auskickers have, and I chatted with my teammates about how great it was to see so many girls out there. In fact, it sparked a vague memory of doing something similar as a kid myself – a memory of an experience that probably destined me to chase the dream of AFLW when it became available.

I never played football growing up – it was always netball, soccer, Little Athletics and surf lifesaving that took all my time and attention - and that of my parents - on weekends and after school.

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When I was eight or nine, I had the amazing opportunity to play netball in a pocket of the old Subiaco Oval at half-time of a West Coast game. My mum held one of the goalposts and another parent umpired, while we all ran around excitedly thinking everyone there was watching us play.

Back in 2005-06 you’d be lucky to find a girl playing Auskick at half-time of an AFL game, so I assume having the netballers play was a way to get girls involved in the sport and atmosphere of football. By then, the connection between the two sports was well established, given there were already many “football-netball” clubs and leagues.

Adelaide's Chelsea Randall celebrates with an Auskicker after receiving her premiership medal after winning the 2022 AFLW Grand Final on April 9, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Being from the northern suburbs of Perth, we were an Eagles-supporting family, and my netball appearance at “Subi” coincided with a time when football began to become much more interesting to me. They are years I remember fondly as West Coast made consecutive Grand Finals and won the 2006 premiership. My brother Ben idolised Ben Cousins and Chris Judd at the time and, as little sisters do, I also jumped on that bandwagon.

When the AFLW was launched in 2017, all the players had either just started playing football in the seasons immediately prior (as I had), or played as a junior but took a considerable time off due to the lack of pathways for women, or came from completely different sports to try their hand at football.

Although my netball experience on Subi Oval may have ignited a fire deep within me when I was young, we now have a new era of women being drafted into the AFLW after playing football throughout their childhoods, from the age of five or six through to the elite level.

Ange Stannett chats with an Auskicker during AFLW Captains' Day on August 17, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

One member of this new generation is my teammate Sarah Verrier, who started Auskick at five and played juniors with the boys before joining Peel Thunder in the youth girls’ competition at 12. At 18, Verrier won a WAFLW premiership with Peel in 2020 and was then Fremantle’s top draft pick, at No.14 overall.

Verrier, in my opinion, is our most skilful player with her elite foot skills, game sense and decision-making, all of which were developed over many successive years of playing the game.

Another notable young player with a similar experience is Brisbane midfielder Belle Dawes, who has been a consistent performer over the past three seasons in a very good Lions outfit and is enjoying a breakout year featuring a career-best performance (24 disposals and seven tackles) against Richmond in round five.

Isabel Dawes chases the footy during round four, season seven, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Like Verrier, she is athletic, tough and very skilful, and I expect we will continue to see her rise for many years to come.

Players like Verrier and Dawes will inevitably be among the future stars of the AFLW and will take the game and its skill level beyond anything I could hope to produce myself. This is a truly exciting prospect for AFLW clubs, fans, sponsors and supporters.

It genuinely makes my heart happy to know that the young girls and boys who are lucky enough to get the ultimate experience of playing footy at half-time of AFL and AFLW games all now have the opportunity to one day play on the big stage themselves.