I was always destined to play football. Whether that be because the first word I spoke was “Pies” or because I perfected a banana kick from the boundary line, whilst other kids in my Vickick group were still learning the basics of a drop punt. Football is in my veins as it always has been, and I have my dad to thank for that. The time spent kicking the footy with him back and forth in the backyard and going to Vickick every Saturday morning as a kid are the fondest memories of my childhood.
As a girl, I faced challenges growing up with the game I loved. After the age of 12, I couldn’t play football with the boys, as they became stronger and tougher. The competition did not cater for females to partake in, and subsequently that was the end of football back then as I knew it. I was forced to give away the game I loved, purely because there was back no other avenue to go down.
Perhaps what was even more heartbreaking for my dad to tell me I could no longer play football, was shattering my dreams of one day being drafted into the AFL. He still tells me to this day, that evening he broke down in tears to my mother, wishing that he never got me into Vickick, because of the disappointment in my eyes, that I wouldn’t be able to continue on like the boys.
Whilst my friends from Vickick continued on to local football clubs, I sat and watched them, the closest I could get onto the field was kicking the ball at half time. They were able to excel through junior competitions to representative sides, to playing for their state, and now I even have several friends who have gone on to be drafted to AFL sides. That was the dream I knew for me, could never come true.
It wouldn’t be until six years later that I was able to play competitive football again; this time in a female competition. Whilst my friends were successfully being drafted in November of 2006, or making their way to VFL sides, a friend of mine invited me down to a training session for a women’s football team; the Darebin Falcons. Although I was very energetic, nervous, a bit arrogant but just incredibly happy to be playing football again, our then coach, and Australia’s most successful women’s footballer, Peta Searle, must have had a giggle when one of the best players at the club, Sarah Hammond reminded me I had a while to go before I could be a bit cocky, as she put me flat on my backside in one of my first drills – that bruise would stay with me for over a week, and the hit a lifetime.
I remember fondly a moment I shared with recently number one draft pick for the upcoming Melbourne vs. Western Bulldogs women’s match, Daisy Pearce. We were the same age and I marvelled in her ability to use both sides of her body so effortlessly, her ability to read the play so well, her pace, endurance, evasiveness, her leadership – I felt compelled to follow her everywhere at training, but keeping up with her was a different story altogether.
The Falcons were up and about in the summer of 2006. They were fresh off the back of their drought breaking premiership, a team whose best 22 stemmed out to the best 30. Players in the reserves side would’ve been walk up starters at any other club, but the loyalty and culture instilled at the Falcons was unlike any other sporting club I had been apart of. As friends who were now professional AFL footballers were telling me about their new life’s at AFL clubs, I was incredibly intrigued and jealous, but knew what I was embarking on was going to be something special. I didn’t know it then, but I quickly was made aware that the Falcons were the biggest female club in the country, full of some of the most converted and feared players to have graced women’s football. I had stepped into what was about to be a dynasty.
In my first season of 2007, I played in the reserves and quickly found myself in the best 22, then the best 18, to a focal part of the side. I started as a midfielder, but up forward is where I later became more accustomed to. I had an unbelievable season in 2007, far from what I thought I would ever have expected. The Falcons went on to win every game that year, we won the flag and I was fortunate enough to come runner up that season in the best and fairest votes, and more incredibly so – polling well in the league reserves best and fairest.
To cap it off, that year I successfully made the state squad, and competed at the National Championships that year in Canberra. My Dad was a fantastic player in his younger years, also representing Victoria,and being able to do what he did brought him to tears the night I was presented with the same number he wore as a younger man – 14. I was proud to call myself a “Big V” player, and my Dad proudly kept a photo of me in my jumper in his wallet ever since.
In that team were girls who’ve now successfully been drafted to Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs. Pearce, Karren Paxman, Penny Cula-Reid, Amy Catterall and Steph Chiocci were among my team mates in that 2007 Victorian team.
Like any young footballer, when you taste success, you just assume that it’ll continue. 2008 was a tough season, I was in between playing for the senior side and the reserves, but dropped back to the reserves as the finals drew closer. We were undoubted favourites in 2008 and perhaps my performance in the grand final reflected in a way how good my season was. I had played on-ball for the entire season, I was a bit flashy, a bit arrogant, a bit of a yapper and a bit annoying really.
As East Burwood fronted up to the Grand Final, I had someone shadow me immediately at the first bounce and I had no idea what was going on. It wasn’t until after the first bounce, that I realized that they had sent a tagger to me. I had never been tagged before – and much to my disappointment, I couldn’t break it.
As the half time siren went, I’d barely been able to get my hands on the ball. I stormed into the change rooms filthy, frustrated and in tears. I kicked three goals in the third quarter as I broke away from the tag momentarily, but eventually I had two girls go shoulder to shoulder with me in the final term, and my influence on that final stanza was about as good as me sitting on the bench.
We lost that day, and for quite a while I felt to blame for that. The seniors however, that I played with throughout the year, went on to dismantle Melbourne Uni, our arch rivals, for a third time. I was stoked to see them cap off three in a row, but couldn’t help but feel a little jealous about missing out.
2009 was a different year altogether. After a few heart-to-hearts with Peta Searle in the off-season, she challenged me to work harder, and had her eye set on me being a seniors player with a twist. It spurred me on, and my pre-season of 2009 was the best I had had yet. Little did I know, 2009 was about to become a season of pleasure and pain.
Peta turned me into a rebounding defender, something I thought I’d never do. Then, throughout the season, I found myself tossed all over the park, and quickly realized I had become an asset; a utility. “We lack a good enough utility who can go back, who can go forward, and who can push onto a wing, you’re that player, Paige,” Peta said to me.
Here I was getting frustrated that I never excelled in any position in the ones because I never got to spend successive weeks in one position, honing that skill set. In hindsight, the beauty was that I never knew where I was going to play, which always meant each week was a challenge, given the differing roles I’d be assigned to.
We finished the year on top of the ladder, another premiership was in our sights. The twos were hit with injuries, and on the eve of the preliminary final, the reserves coach asked me if I could double up, playing both reserves and seniors. I wasn’t overly keen on the idea, wanting all my energy to be focused in one game for the seniors. I did however agree, feeling as though the player I had became, was because of my journey in the reserves, how could I possibly let my mates down?
What I thought would be a fairytale, playing in a seniors Premiership, ended up coming crashing down, as did I – while taking the mark of my life, on my way back down, my leg was caught in the pack and my weight shifted to my other leg as I landed awkwardly, snapping my ankle clean.
As my ankle hung at a right angle, I was in shock. I tried to stand back up to take my kick for goal, and when I realized it wasn’t just a rolled ankle, the yells and screams from the other girls on field told the story. I put my arm up in the air in pain, calling for help. I had never been stretchered off before, but the journey from half forward to the change room was arguably the longest few moments of my life.
As I chewed on my mouth guard wincing in pain, waiting for the ambulance to come, Peta couldn’t hide her disappointment, her regret; she was shattered. The girls in the room were emotional and upset for me. My parents were in disbelief, and as the reality set in, the emotion in the room was evident.
As the ambulance arrived, and quickly assessed me, they uttered quickly “Paige, you’ve dislocated and severely broken your ankle. You’re going into surgery right away”. The girls got around me before they ran out, the twos players had just made the grand final, but ran off the ground to see me off into the ambulance.
Instead of feeling sad and sorry for myself, I went into surgery that night. Peta came to me during the week, asking me to be her assistant coach for the Grand Final. I took up the role the week later, juggling crutches and a whiteboard, throwing around magnets in different positions, coming up with strategies and taking note of opposition players. I still felt a part of it.
Both the reserves and seniors won the premiership, and as the siren went, there was a feeling of relief, but disappointment. It had been a long season, but celebrating on the siren with the girls, who kept me every bit included was a memory, I’ll never forget.
As the post-match celebrations took place, the girls were called up one by one to receive their medals from Susan Alberti. I cheered all the girls on as they received their medallions, until number 12, “Paige Cardona”, was called. I was helped up onto the Dias, crutches in tow, in disbelief, in my falcons jumper, a cast around my ankle and teary-eyed. I did get that elusive premiership that evaded me for so many years, I could finally call myself a seniors premiership player, albeit via a different route.
I attempted a comeback in 2010, but I couldn’t kick a ball without severe pain in my ankle, and regrettably gave football away only two or three games into the season, and just as quickly as football was taken off me as a young girl at 12. It was taken off me again 10 years later, this time through injury.
I gave up on playing football, and turned my attention to journalism, reporting my true love for statistics through SuperCoach. Although I had been out of the game for almost three years, this year I have returned to playing reserves football for the Falcons, still with plenty of familiar faces around, yet many whom have moved on.
Both the seniors and reserves Falcons teams sit well clear on their respective ladders, and we are only a few weeks away from finals. Of the current crop of Falcons, Daisy Pearce, Aasta O’Connor, Karen Paxman, Mel Hickey, Lauren Arnell, Elsie O’Dea, Rebecca Privitelli, Katie Brennan, Jess Dal Pos and Natalie Wood make up 20% of the 50 draftees playing this week in the Melbourne vs. Western Bulldogs first ever Womens AFL match, underlining just how much of a powerhouse and a successful breeding ground for female talent Darebin are.
It’s been a long road back from injury, from having a 10 centimetre plate and eight screws inserted in my leg in 2009, finally having them out in 2012 and returning to the club I have had so much success with. Should we make and successfully take home the cup in 2013, it would be enough for me to hang my hat on, and truly would be my fairytale finish. It’s not very often you get second chances, and this could be my redemption.
Looking back, how I measured success then and now are two different things. I thought to be successful as a kid, you had to be drafted to an AFL side. Now, after several premierships under my belt, becoming a state player, notching up over 100 games, with some individual honours here and there, my friends who now are still on AFL lists believe me to be more successful than they are. They even ask me now what it feels like to play in and win a premiership – and these guys are AFL listed players. I still, as the fan I am, ask them for inside scoops and send them to get autographs for me.
Playing women’s football has helped me carve out a life I once thought was never possible, and as the years have gone on, it’s encouraging to see so many competitions developed for girls who are now too old for Auskick, and have a league of their own to transfer and continue to develop into.
I’m proud to be a female footballer, even prouder to call myself a Falcon, and proud of the AFL and its efforts to date, and it’s ambitions to one day establish nation wide league, something sadly I will be too old to partake in. I will, however, be making every effort possible to continue to be an advocate of women’s football for girls of all ages and abilities, right across the nation.
Football for me has been the one constant in my life. People come and go, relationships and landscapes change, but the one most reliable thing for me is football. It’s always been there and always will be, and although I may never make a living of it, it’s something nobody ever, can take away from me. The love of Australian rules football.