The Alex Docherty Column – A Kingdom For A Female Coach In AFLW

It has been some week since the latest instalment of the column.

It started with the news of Alastair Clarkson standing down as Hawthorn coach at the end of the year and it ended with the maligned-by-some appointment of Nick Dal Santo as the coach of St Kilda’s AFLW team.

When it came to thinking about what I wanted to write about this week, I was a bit spoilt for choice. Jeff Kennett can breathe a sigh of relief that I’m not coming after him this week, or he’ll just continue to breathe anyway… it’s not like he going to give a rat’s toss about what I’ve got to say.

However, the appointment of Dal Santo as the Saints’ coach has opened up my eyes that the AFL is plain and simple: A boys’ club.

When Peta Searle made her exit from the Saints late in June, the initial response was shock, then followed by confusion. Why would Peta Searle walk away from a club that she spent the first two seasons building up?

Even before the Saints’ AFLW program started up in 2020, Searle was doing the groundwork with the Saints’ VFLW side – why would you step away from it? Seven years all up she had been with the Saints.

There was talk that she was going to take up the head coaching gig at Geelong after that vacancy had opened up with the stepping down or sacking (pick one at your own peril) of Paul Hood after a lacklustre season.

Even then, why would you be going there to a club that is probably a few steps behind on talent and experience? Especially when you consider that the Saints are a side of a similar ilk?

Despite the poor second half to the year, I truly think that the Saints are a side that possess a lot of promise and have young talent ready burst out and take the AFLW world by force sometime in the near future.

I don’t know what exactly the ins and outs are of the situation, but if you gave me the choice of who I want to coach this side, between Searle and Dal Santo I’d be taking the former in a heartbeat.

Maybe others will choose Dal Santo and it is yet to be seen how he can help elevate this list another level or two within a couple of seasons.

However, what stands out is this issue that there are no female coaches in the AFLW now, and, believe me, it is an issue. Considering that the first AFLW team to win a flag was coached by a woman, it is a sad indictment on where the game is at that we have a large number of women putting their hands up, only to be knocked back by mates of Gillon.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak to Bec Goddard in the past, and she has got a real head for footy on her shoulders. She is completely switched on, she has never really appeared too ruffled or fazed in her two years at the helm of Adelaide and most importantly – the Crows’ players absolutely adored her. No wonder she was heralded as a massive success story.

When the 2017 season started, not many people had given the Crows a chance to do much, considering that the talent was split between South Australia and Northern Territory players, but Goddard was able to find a way to get everyone on the same page, and found a way to beat the Brisbane Lions in season one, who by the way, had not lost a game that year.

She has been coaching Hawthorn in the VFLW this past season and it is expected that once the Hawks enter the AFLW competition that she will be named the inaugural coach, unless Kennett finds a way to completely stiff her the same way he stiffed Clarkson out of what was a fantastic coaching tenure.

I’d argue that Goddard should’ve got the job over Ryan Ferguson at Richmond last season, but look at what the Tigers have done this season: they’ve looked a lot more competent around the ground. It’s not a knock on Ferguson’s coaching ability, but I reckon Goddard could’ve done just as much.

I say it is a boys’ club, because after reading half of Mick Warner’s book: ‘The Boys’ Club’, this situation genuinely stinks of the notion that the top dogs at AFL house are really looking after their own, and Nick Dal Santo – as good a player as he’s been, probably has more clout with blokes like St Kilda’s CEO Matt Finnis than someone like Searle, despite her coaching background.

I promise you all that I am not having a crack at Dal Santo and this is not an attack on him as a person, but the question needs to be asked: what’s Dal Santo’s coaching background? He’s been a part of the club’s Next Generation Academy over the past four years and will continue to do so in the future.

So there could be a bit of cost-cutting in this. It’s been a substantial issue at all clubs the league in the past 18 months, but the AFL has got to find a way and step in to make sure that people like Searle have a genuine chance to coach.

Around the same time as Searle’s departure from the Saints, I sort of pondered the question that was asked by a friend whilst we were out having coffee one morning: Why isn’t there an influx of female coaches coming through to the AFLW?

I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt in the first couple of years, because they need the best possible candidates out there to help fast-track the development of these players, but that is becoming a bit harder to run with that when you see someone like Peta Searle get her opportunity to coach an AFLW side only to be shoved out in favour of a ‘favourite son.’

Again, this is nothing against guys like Dal Santo, Dan Lowther, who is the new Geelong coach after being a part of their VFL men’s program for a while, and Darren Crocker, who took over from Scott Gowans at North Melbourne at the conclusion of the 2020 season, but the organisation is overlooking women who are putting in the hard yards at state level, under-18s level and even as an assistant coach at AFLW level.

Do we need to overthrow guys like Trent Cooper, Craig Starcevich or Nathan Burke and have 14 females coach 14 AFLW clubs? – I don’t think so. They’ve proven that the clubs themselves have gone out and looked for the best person for the job and they have put huge runs on the board for women’s footy both before and during their appointments.

We’ve seen Starcevich coach Brisbane to two Grand Finals in his first two years, have his team gutted due to expansion and then build the side back up to a premiership this year. He is invested in the women’s game. Cooper has managed to turn a Fremantle side that had been poor in its first two years into a force to be reckoned with, and Burke has shown in his two years that the Bulldogs are well on their way back to becoming a force, themselves.

But, this is an urgent message from a lot of AFLW fans across the nation: Really consider some of the female coaches coming through, and I feel like the more this conversation comes about, the more we’ll find someone like Penny Cula-Reid, who coached Williamstown in the VFLW this year, find herself a head coaching position in the AFLW soon.

What she’s been able to do with a Seagulls’ team that has got significant youth and not a lot of AFLW talent on their books all year has been terrific. She has them focusing on a contested-style game plan that relies a lot on tackling pressure.

Whilst on the VFLW, Collingwood’s coach, Chloe McMillian has a chance this weekend to make it a perfect season for the Pies this weekend in the Grand Final as they look to close out the year without a loss to their name.

It wasn’t like two years ago, where the Pies brought in a host of senior AFLW players, this year has been more centered around helping the younger players continue to hone their craft against bigger bodies and potentially help players find a spot in the AFLW system for the new season – and they did that with Jasmine Ferguson and Imogen Barnett.

Succession plans do get a bad wrap in AFL but imagine how good it would be for a passing of the torch scenario at the Pies, where Steve Symonds – let’s assume he’s got the Pies a flag or two in the next three to four years, and hands the reigns over to Chloe McMillan and tells her that it is now her team.

Maybe we’re a few years away from that, considering that she is in her first year as head coach of the Pies, but I have no question McMillan can be a very good coach at AFLW level having seen what she can do and has done for the Pies this year. She has managed to get so much out of her players, and it is a very different team to the 2019 VFLW premiership team and the fact that the side hasn’t lost a game this year is just the cherry on top.

Even at the Saints, they’ve got a VFLW coach in Dale Robinson who preaches a game style that can hold up at AFLW level – the way that she had the Saints playing a great blend of possession footy and the licence to go when it is their time – why can’t she be an AFLW coach?

Maybe the answer lies in more experience in the job, but whilst the league is still continuing to grow and expand in terms of both skill-level and experience, why wouldn’t you have women lead the coaching program and have male assistants act as mentors to them to help find their feet at the level?

Even looking at some of the players both past and present, I know Mel Hickey has been doing some good things with both the Geelong Falcons as an assistant coach and as head coach of Vic Country’s girls in the Under-18 Championships. I know there’s some kind of Hollywood tale waiting to happen a few years down the track when she takes the reigns of Geelong’s AFLW team and leads them to a Finals campaign that has them battling fellow AFLW heavyweights.

I know that Alicia Eva has done a lot of work as a coach when she’s not playing at the Giants. She is a development coach for the Giants’ VFL men’s side and, alongside Tarkyn Lockyer, has also coached the boys’ AFL Academy side as well. She may have a few years left in her playing days, but the Giants’ captain would be an ideal successor to Alan McConnell.

Even the recently retired Sam Virgo has moved quickly from playing to coaching and was to be named as the head coach of Queensland’s under-17 boys at July’s NAB Championships, before Covid put everything on indefinite hold.

Looking into the AFLW circles already, I’d love to see someone like Melbourne assistant Jane Lange, who had been head coach of a champion Darebin side and coached them to two VFLW premierships in 2016 and 2017, get a shot. She would be someone who would be perfect to coach any AFLW side.

If she can take a team that had players like Daisy Pearce, Darcy Vescio, Karen Paxman, and Katie Brennan among others and turn them into a champion team, then I have no doubt that she can cut the mustard at AFLW level.

Perhaps it is that we are still a few years off seeing a few of these names really settle down into the AFLW coaching circles. A statement by the league said that only six per cent of all accredited coaches in the country are women, which totals up to just over 1500 female coaches, so there needs to be something done about this.

But why not set the example up at the top? Set an example that will encourage female footballers to take up coaching and give them a chance to lead the sport and their team?

We’ve seen what Bec Goddard did with the Crows in year one and those that have watched women’s football at state level like me do know that there are women out there who are able to do the job and do it well.

All they need is a chance, and it starts with the head honchos up at AFL House – just give them a god damn opportunity!!