If footy fate exists, then it was in action at the end of the 2002 VWFL season. The Falcons footy program was in the midst of a rough patch. While an increase in player numbers at the beginning of the season had encouraged the club to enter a second team in Division Two, midway through the 2002 season, the decision was made to withdraw the team from the competition. Then, Division One coach Sal Rees stepped down after two seasons at the helm. The team needed an injection of something fresh, something new. It was already on its way.
After a successful couple of years, the Parkside Magpies were looking for a new home. “We went back-to-back premierships there and then, weirdly enough, it was more, again, just some battles with women’s footy versus men’s footy. And money for the men and not for the women and everything was a tireless battle,” recalled Nicole Graves who was Vice President of Parkside at the time. Kerry Saunders, then head coach of the Magpies, recalled that a change in presidency meant that the Parkside women’s team “weren’t going to have a future.”
Kerry and Nicole had discussed joining another men’s club, but “that wasn’t really working out”. In a story reminiscent of the Ballarat Lions move to the Falcons in 1996, Parkside looked to the women-only Falcons as a shining light after years of playing second fiddle at men’s clubs.
“Some people will say, oh, it was a merger or it was this or that, and no, it wasn’t,” Kerry said. “Parkside…weren’t going to have a future so we sat down with all the players and said, look, this is our best option. Some decided not to go and that was cool.”
Nicole and Kerry approached Falcons president, Sal Rees about joining the club.
“They said what would you think if we came over and played with you guys? And [we’ve] gone, well, absolutely. Some people have said it was a merger. It was never a merger. We were approached and we welcomed them with open arms like we did Ballarat,” Sal said.
For the Falcons, whose on-field success had stalled somewhat after the 1996 premiership—the Division One team had won only four games across the 2001 and 2002 seasons—an influx of players from Parkside “took it to the next level” according to Sal.
Trish Riddell said that Parkside helped the Falcons to solidify the Division Two team the club had started in 2002.
“The conditions were that [Kerry] had to be coach. But we were always looking for a coach and we were always short of players. So for us, it was a no brainer,” Trish said. “We were getting family to fill in, we were that short. Especially because [we] had started the two sides… we were always struggling to fill the second side.”
Alongside Kerry and Nicole, who would coach the Division One and Division Two teams respectively, the Falcons welcomed players like Roi Boutsikakis, Kerryn Stephens, Rebecca Hickmott, Kathy Zacharopoulos and Peta Searle—who would all go on to play significant roles in the story of the Falcons.
However, it was not all smooth sailing. Rebecca Hickmott recalls being “excited about the prospect of playing at a women’s only club”. But Louise Potter, who joined the Falcons in 2001, was wary thanks to some fiery clashes with the Parkside team. “They used to just literally smash us,” Louise recalled. “And it wasn’t pleasant. There [were] a few skirmishes on the field as well, a couple of times, between certain players. And then the news that some of them were coming across, in 2003, wasn’t met with the greatest of enthusiasm by some of us because of that on-field rivalry and some on-field sort of, yeah, little incidents.”
Peta Searle played out her footy career at the Falcons after moving across with Parkside. “Honestly, I had mixed reactions as a player at the club…there were times when I’d go play and not even go into the change rooms afterwards. And that was basically because there [were] just a few girls there that didn’t like the fact that I went across there and they got their knickers in a knot and they made it really, really not very nice.”
Despite the challenges, one memory stands clear for Peta and it points to the reason why she returned to the Falcons as a coach in 2005.
“I remember one particular time, and I [told] the girls this story when I was coaching Darebin, that we want to win, but we want to win in a way that we want to be and in the way that we want to represent ourselves. So, I remember one day, we were getting flogged, I don’t know by how much, probably 100 points or something. And it was by Sunshine back then, and the Sunshine players were carrying on and bitching and moaning and really at each other. And I just remember having a pivotal moment, I just thought, ‘Wow, I’m used to winning, but I will take losing and being flogged and being with a team that supported [me]… if that’s what winning looks like, that’s not what I want anymore. I’d much rather be where I am’.”
Nicole Graves had played for the Falcons in their inaugural season back in 1990, so returning to the club was something of a homecoming. But she remembers that there was pushback from some Parkside players about the move.
“I suppose if we’re gonna do the honest truth, people were like I’m not playing with those bunch of lesbians and I’m like righto, good on you,” she recalled. “Darebin never shied away from the sexuality and what they stood for and what they promote[d] in terms of women’s sport. But back in those days, a lot of women were still in the closet, and they didn’t want to go to a team where people just said, ‘oh you play for them, you’re a lesbian’… it was a different time then. And I’m so proud and pleased that AFLW really started without secrets like that in comparison to what I guess we were dealing with back in those days where we had a serious image issue around that. And that was an issue, whereas these days it’s not even an issue.”
Despite some initial reluctance, it was a pre-season training session before the 2003 season that provided a clue to where Darebin would head. “Before that we were pretty casual about our football and it was more we loved it, we enjoyed it. But the professionalism wasn’t great,” Louise said. “But going to that training and training with players like Kero (Kerryn Stephens), Ro (Rohenna Young), and Kerry Saunders and Bec Hickmott, Zachy (Kathy Zacharopoulos), Peta Searle, you know, it was quite a step up for a lot of us. Which when you’re just in it to play footy, hang around with your mates and drink beers, it was a bit of a different aspect.”
Kerryn Stephens knew that those first couple of years after joining the Falcons were always going to be tricky. But she trusted that that on-field success would come. “Once we got there, I think that’s where the strength of the club started to build… but we went out, we had fun, we played for each other and I think having to win—because obviously it wasn’t going to happen straight away—it kind of just went to the back of our minds and it was more about just going out and having fun as opposed to wanting to dominate and win every game. And it didn’t take us long to turn it around, it was only a couple of years.”
Rocky beginnings aside, the team eventually came together, with the Parkside players helping to ‘transform the club’ and success soon followed. Kerry Saunders coached the Division One team in 2003 and 2004, before Peta Searle took over in 2005.
“We went from being really, really poor on the field, to finals pretty much, very quickly,” Louise said. ‘Not winning finals, but, 2003 [and] 2004 we played finals, which we obviously hadn’t done for a couple of years. And then 2005, we played in a losing Grand Final. So it really turned around getting those [players] in, because they were really experienced players that we got across.”
The welcoming of the Parkside players also coincided with a change to Falcons playing strip. “The first couple of years we had the red and white, the white with the red stripes,” explained Sal. “Then we went for… the red with the white V and then we designed our own jumper in 2003 and introduced blue… because we thought we’d look like we were quicker running with blue, red and white.”
Making the club more marketable was also a part of the redesign. It would be a timely decision, given just three years later, the club’s remarkable run of success would begin.