It was formed in the days when organized women’s football did not exist. Now one of Australia’s most historic and storied clubs is on the verge of returning to the NPLW.
ANU Women’s was founded in 1978. The Canberra based club was formed by staff at the Australian National University to create a space for women to play football in an era when that was still largely unprecedented, among them was Women’s football legend Heather Reid.
Almost 10 years since their last promotion, the club is enjoying a strong season that has them comfortably on top of the league with just under half the games left to play.
Although there is plenty of football left to play, plus the prospect of finals, the club is putting the pieces in place for the step up to the premier league.
“We’ve been eyeing NPL for a couple of years now,” club President Laura Sant’ana told Kick360.
“We have had really strong division-one teams for many years.
“We are really well prepared, but obviously there is a lot of work that goes into moving that step above.
“The way we see it, is that all this work is all about good practices, about governance, about finances, about structure, technical development of players.
“None of that goes to waste if by some chance we don’t make the NPL. We’re embracing the tasks.”
Sant’ana has been a part of the club for seven years, six of them have been as part of the administration. After moving to Australia from Brazil, she credits the club with helping her reconnect with her love of the game.
There is no requirement that members be students or faculty at ANU and the club is one of the largest in the region. It boasts two teams in every division in Capital Football.
“I think it’s the culture,” says Sant’ana
“We have a great culture in the club. One of the things we are very proud of is that it is led by women for women since we started in 1978.
“We were one of the first women’s football clubs in Australia. It’s been very important for us to build that culture where we have an environment where players feel safe and supported to learn those skills…. Particularly have fun and make friends.
“It is a positive culture and I think that’s what brings so many people to our club each year.
“From minute one it has always been such a great experience for me.”
Those great experiences have been shared by thousands of players and members over almost 45 years. The club’s origins lie in a group of women who worked at the university.
Heather Reid recalls one of her colleagues playing in a social lunchtime competition. From there, they formed a team, then a club that grew into a women’s league.
“In those days there wasn’t a lot of other sports to play,” says Reid.
“They were predominantly softballers that wanted to keep doing something in the winter.
In its formative years, the clubs very existence was met with resistance. Reid recalls the players being seen as a threat. They needed fields, referees and resources that some in men’s football were not eager to share. A core groups of male referees were relied upon and Reid remains thankful for their help.
“We’re talking in the late 70’s where women playing football was a novelty.
“There was very much a stigma attached to it. It was a place where women could feel safe, meet likeminded women.
“We would go to the pub and eat hot chips and break down the game. There was always hours of great analysis and great fun
“The real challenges were from those who were resistant to the women’s game.
“What we wanted was to enjoy the game the way the men did.
“There was a lot of things happening for women and women’s rights (in the 1970’s).
“Feminists that were involved in that could see that a separate club was the best way to progress at that time.”
Reid is pleased about the clubs’ ambitions to return to the NPLW.
“It will help strength the quality of the NPL and it will hopefully build better quality players and build a bridge between the NPL and W-League level.
“The more teams you’ve got playing in the NPL, the more competitive it becomes and the more enjoyable the games become and the better the pathways are.
“Laura and her team with the ambition to return to the NPL should be congratulated, with its history it needs to be back in the premier league.
“I think it’s only good for them.”
“It’s about bringing people on the journey with us”
ANU Women’s has two sides in Division one. both lead the table. ANU1 is in first place after scoring 37 goals and conceding just 11. After nine games they remain undefeated.
On field, they are virtually unchallenged. As the possibility of moving up a division grows closer, the work is underway off field.
“The challenge is that the amount of work that having a team at that level is going to bring to the club.
“We are talking about attracting and retention of coaches and support staff that we might need.
“All of that has a cost…but It’s about bringing those people on the journey with us.
“That’s going to be the challenge. It’s not just about stepping up to that division, its most importantly providing a good service and providing that service to any league players without leaving our other teams behind.
We want to make sure that the whole club feels like they have a lift and it’s not just 20 players that have been lifted.
“It is a whole club and that’s how we want all our members to feel.
“Participant support is so important for a club as big as ours and having a team that is up to that challenge.
“It almost feels like we have to do it because it is the right thing to do.
“We would be missing out if we don’t move forward.”
One of the changes that the club needs to make is the move to a specific home ground. Football in the ACT at most levels is played at “Cluster Venues” where multiple fixtures are played across one or two venues.
The result of this is that most community women’s teams will never play a home game. While men’s clubs can generate revenue through ground sponsorship and canteens, it is a opportunity not granted to clubs like ANU Women’s.
Sant’ana says that in her opinion, the growth of women’s football has meant that this system is no longer in the best interests of the game.
“There is absolutely no reason why men and women should have two different systems,” she says.
“We have the same fields and play under the same rules. It doesn’t make sense not being able to have home games at our selected home fields.
“Opening your canteen and selling merchandise and having your supporters come in and being on the side, we don’t really get that experience in women’s football in Canberra.”
Moving up to the premier division will mean that ANU Women’s will be able to play true home games. Finding a venue is one of the boxes that must be ticked upon promotion, but the club has been planning for this hopefully eventuality.
“We do have great fields at Australia National University, and we’re hoping to use that as our home ground.
“I think one of the upside o the NPLS for us is, I’m really looking forward to having those home games and having supporters from ANU but also from the community to come in and watch out games and root for us, which is something we don’t experience.
“It builds on that community pride.
“To have the opportunity to play home games, you know that every second week you’re going to be on your own field and using your dressing room.”
Focusing on improvement
Planning for a prosperous future does not mean that the club are taking anything for granted. There is plenty of football left to play. Even so, there is an enthusiastic feeling around the club at all levels.
“I think everyone is very excited about it,” says Sant’ana.
“But everyone is also trying to be a bit cool, focus on the season and really build on what we have achieved so far.”
With under half the season remaining, head coach Rob Illingsworth is staying focussed but enjoying the season, along with the players.
“Obviously we’re confident given our current position,” he says.
“But we have to play the same teams several time and they will be better prepared every time we play them.
“The squad feel good about the prospect of moving up.
“It’s been a project a couple of years in the making. It’s a relief and exciting to know that it’s now currently within reach.
“It ‘s a huge credit to the progress the squad has made over the last few seasons.
The type of results that ANU Women’s have been achieving are enviable and Illingworth says it is down to a strong squad. He says that the depth at ANU Women’s is their greatest strength.
Although there is a big prize at the end of the season, they are a long way from celebrating.
“We’re just focussing on improving so that we play our best football at the end of the season, not the beginning.
“In this division, we’ll always have tough fixtures and things outside our control.
“If we focus on the things we can control, it leaves us in the best place to continue improving next year.”
It is a big picture outlook that club president Sant’ana shares.
“We know that the chance is there,” she says.
“Despite of how the season may end, win or lose, I believe the players in this squad will cherish the memories they made this year and the great season they had.”
To keep up with ANU Women’s, follow their results at ANU Women’s Football Club | Facebook
More information about the early years of women’s football in Australia can be found in Heather Reid and Marion Stell’s book Women In Boots.