AFLW player Erin Phillips.
Inspired and inspiring: Erin Phillips has been a trailblazer for women's Australian rules. Image by Matt Turner/AAP PHOTOS
  • Australian rules football

AFLW pioneers continue to kick goals as sport surges

Joanna Guelas December 3, 2023

Women’s Australian rules has come a long way from when Debbie Lee learned her craft on the streets of Melbourne’s north.

As a seven-year-old, Lee played with her older brothers on the concrete before hiding in the bushes whenever a car drove past because “the community said girls don’t play football”.

The first wave of female footballers rolled onto the field wearing sticky-tape numbers, bicycle pants and T-shirts, with barely anyone watching on.

Thirty years on, fans will pack Ikon Park to the brim on Sunday to roar on North Melbourne and the Brisbane Lions in the eighth AFLW grand final.

“I’ve been on this journey for almost 32 years. Footy was in my DNA first and foremost,” Lee told AAP.

“For a long time, we had to fight for our place. We had to fight for our voice and our opportunity to play.

“I could see what this game was giving to women, we’re talking 1991 – a sense of belonging, sense of oneself.”

The first woman to be inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame, Lee helped lay the foundations for the women’s elite football league.

Working at the Melbourne Football Club, and later at the Western Bulldogs, she organised an exhibition series between the two clubs, with teams made up of female footballers from around the nation.

“That was really the catalyst of the AFLW, because we were able to show the decision-makers how these women could play,” Lee said.

“It has been a long journey but I didn’t want anyone else to feel like that little seven-year-old hiding in the bushes.”

AFLW stars Ashleigh Brazill, Emily Bates, Ally Anderson, Chloe Dalton.
 Ashleigh Brazill, Emily Bates, Ally Anderson and Chloe Dalton with their AFLW predecessors’ boots. Image by HANDOUT/SUPPLIED 

Recently retired AFLW legend Erin Phillips was another trailblazer, but the former Adelaide and Port Adelaide captain almost missed the boat.

At 30 going on 31, she was a basketball star playing for the Dallas Wings in the WNBA and fresh from a Rio 2016 Olympic campaign with the Opals when the fledgling women’s league was announced.

“The thought of playing football as an athlete never crossed my mind until the whispers started that there could potentially be league,” Phillips told AAP.

“I grew up loving the game and played as a young junior, right up until the age of 13.

“We weren’t allowed to continue on playing with the boys, so we had to find another sport.

“It’s incredible just how life worked out. You never thought you’d get an opportunity, but here I am.”

With 61 top-level games under her belt, Phillips left the sport in November as the league’s most-decorated athlete, her honours including three premierships, two league best and fairests, three All-Australians and two grand final best-on-ground nods.

Part of the Johnnie Walker’s ‘Keep Walking Boldly’ campaign to celebrate the giant strides taken by women’s sport, Lee is among 20 football pioneers who gifted a pair of their old boots to AFLW players – including Phillips.

It is hoped each pair of boots will be passed on again as a symbol to keep moving the game forward.

“It gives me goosebumps to think about how many people’s lives we’ve impacted or inspired,” Phillips said.

“Just knowing that for those young girls, there is a pathway, there’s a competition for them.

“Leaving a legacy and being able to influence the next generation is something I’m really trying to do.

“Hopefully, I can continue until I’m well past being a player.”