Women's football in London
A few week ago I was lucky enough to stumble across a group of women playing Australian Rules football on Hackney Marshes, London. It prompted me to speak with Marianna Graham, from the South East London Giants, Adele McCormack, from the West London Wildcats and Lisa Wilson, from the Wimbledon Hawks and Head of Women’s Development for AFL Europe, about the phenomenal rise of women's Australian rules football in London.
Women's football in London
While men have played Australian Rules in London for some time, women's participation is more recent, and owes its origins to some passionate and entrepreneurial women, Lisa Wilson and Marianna Graham, who organised the first teams back in 2015. Since then the number of teams has skyrocketed. Players can now enjoy the benefits of two divisions, Premiere and Conference, and choose from several clubs including the Wimbledon Hawks, North London Lions, Putney Magpies, South-East London Giants, Wandsworth Demons or West London Wildcats.
Starting a women's league
Marianna says, "I became involved in the football scene towards the end of 2013. I was looking for a local club to support and found that the South-East London Giants had started playing not far from where I lived. I went over to watch them, introduced myself and then became a member of their committee for the 2014 season. At the end of the season, a women's game was organised at the grand final. I asked why can't the women always play, and that's what sparked the formal setup of the Women's League in London."
A thriving sport
Women's Australian rules football is growing at an astonishing pace. Given that the UK traditionally plays soccer (also called football) or rugby, I was keen to know how easy it was to set up the sport. Marianna explained, "In the first season I went through, I would put posts up on various forums within the community. The advancement of Facebook and Twitter have helped enormously to expose the game to people that would never have seen the sport otherwise."
Expanding the sport has not always been easy and some attitudes needed challenging. "Initially it was really hard to crack that barrier," explains Marianna. "You would get resistance because of the belief that boys played footy and girls played netball. As the game has grown in Australia, attitudes have changed and people have seen how having a women's team can affect a club positively and you'll find that all clubs are 100% behind the growth of the women's league." Lisa is confident about the sport's growth, "With plenty of teams outside of London, there is a foundation for the women’s teams to build on and for the sport to grow country wide, strengthening the sport as a whole."
Building the sport can be a challenge given that many Australian women are here on short-term visas and, during their stays, European travel is a high priority. I asked Adele if it was difficult to build a team when Australian players are constantly arriving, leaving or travelling. "The uniqueness of the game draws women who are keen to see what the sport is about," she assured me. "Taster sessions have opened up the game to lots of new people. Once women have a ball in their hands, you can see their hand and eye coordination dramatically improve, and they love it."
The game draws an international following and I asked Lisa, who is British, to explain its popularity. "Australian Football has been played by a small number of British women for a few years now however the rise of the London League has seen a huge growth in the number of Brits picking up the sport. So much so that the Great Britain Swans were formed last year and will be competing in the 2017 International Cup in August in Melbourne against teams such as the USA, Canada, Fiji and PNG," she told me. "Many of the Brits that play have spent some time in Australia where they either tried or watched the sport however many have been dragged along by friends or got addicted to it from their first touches on the ball. It's such a fast and exciting game."
A game for everyone
An inclusive atmosphere offers everyone the chance to learn new skills and discover new friends. "It doesn't matter how good you are, everyone gets a go," says Marianna. Adele agrees, 'We are conscious of the way we advertise. We make sure we are welcoming of all skill levels." The game is also being taken up by younger people. Lisa says, "As well as the eight clubs in London, for the last 18 months there has been a single Auskick Club, the Clapham Cubs, which sees around 15-20 kids aged 5-15 enjoy this fantastic sport each week. Over the next couple of years there are hopes that the Junior Australian Football can grow as quickly, as the women’s has, so there will be opportunities for all ages to play all across London."
The clubs and teams offer support to Australian women in London. “It gives you instant family," explains Adele. "With training twice a week, you are never alone and we make such strong friendships. It's a kind of family where you can talk jobs, travel, partners and housing. It's taken over my life but I wouldn't trade it for the world."
London for visitors
Finally, I asked Adele and Marianna about London and their favourite places to visit. "There are too many places to pick. I always like standing over Waterloo Bridge looking out on Parliament House in one direction and St Paul's and the city in the other direction. London is an amazing city, you never get bored of seeing all these amazing historical sites," commented Marianna. "I love the airport," laughed Adele, "because it takes you to Europe."
Fr anyone inserted in playing Australian rules football, there are plenty of ways to contact your local club:
AFL London Women's League on Facebook