20 year-old Deakin student Hayley Wildes has taken the AFL Women’s League by storm in its debut season, proudly wearing the #17 jumper for the Western Bulldogs.
The Western Bulldogs, who came away with the AFL male premiership last year, drafted Wildes late last year making all of her football dreams come true.
Discovering her love for the sport at a grass roots level playing at country clubs as a child, love for footy was always something Wildes has had within her.
“I started out at AusKick when I was about 6, but I’d been playing in the backyard for as long as I can remember – footy has just always been a part of my life,” Wildes said.
Wildes has always found a place to showcase her talent. From outgrowing Auskick and playing at her beloved local football club, Lang Lang FNC, and now playing in the Cranbourne Women’s team, Wildes can’t remember a time where footy wasn’t a part of her life.
Country footy has had such a huge impact on the development of the football careers of so many AFLW players. Wildes has recognised some of her success comes from her introduction and beginning at her local club.
“I can’t imagine my life without country footy. Just getting that start at Lang Lang – the way they welcomed me into the club, when I was the only girl in the team, meant everything to me. I have no doubt that without Lang Lang Football Club I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she said.
With undeniable talent, Wildes had always hoped that she could play football at such a high level. “It’s something that I’ve dreamed of my whole life and for it to actually come to fruition was just incredible. From the day of the draft, until the season finished it was all such a whirlwind, but every step along the way was just an amazing experience,” Wildes said.
THE HISTORICAL DRAFT
History was made when the women were drafted for the first AFL recognised women’s league and Australian’s flocked in their thousands to show their support.
As a passionate, driven and talented young player, Wildes was drafted to the Western Bulldogs in late 2016.
A huge crowd showed for the first game of the season in a turnout that was incredible with more than 22,000 fans descending on Ikon Park for the game between Carlton and Collingwood.
Wildes and her beloved Bulldog teammates played their first game of the season on February 4th at the Victoria University’s Whitten Oval against the Fremantle Dockers. Over 10,000 people showed to support the game and the women.
In a recap for the Western Bulldogs, Wildes recognised the magnitude of what she was involved in when she arrived for that first game of the season at their home ground.
“Arriving at Victoria University’s Whitten Oval a couple of hours before game time and seeing hundreds, maybe thousands of fans, already lining up had me thinking ‘tonight was going to be extra special’,” she said.
As she prepared for the most important and historic game of her football career on the 4th of February, 2017, Hayley donned the red, white and blue footy jumper and her game face was on.
Although Fremantle were set to be one of the most highly competitive teams in the league, the Bulldogs fought hard in the Kennel and went away with a 32 point win.
As the season continued, Wildes and her beloved Doggies played with determination but it wasn’t the season they had all hoped for, finishing sixth on the ladder.
“As a team we struggled and I was personally not happy with my season either. I often found myself struggling to get into games which I’ve never really dealt with before at lower levels. But I really enjoyed the challenge of that and I think I began to find my feet towards the end of the season. I think there are a heap of areas of improvement for me and I’ll be focusing on getting fitter for next season” she said.
WILDES ROLE IN FEMALE SPORTING HISTORY
After playing in the big league in front of crowds of tens of thousands of people, the importance of the woman’s league was ingrained in Wildes’ mind.
Wildes and her teammates, as well as the players from the other seven teams were all ecstatic to be playmakers in women’s sporting history within Australia.
As they tied their boot laces and put on their footy jumpers each round, the women knew they were making a change for all girls and women throughout the nation while playing a sport they all loved.
The support for the league and competition was monumental and indisputable from the beginning of the debut season last year.
The players across all teams were so happy and overwhelmed with the welcome to AFL they received from our footy loving nation.
The crowds flocked not just to show their support for the game of football, but to show their support for equality in sport and empowerment of talented sports women. The support was shared on social media by public figures and everyday Aussies everywhere.
Wildes, along with the other players of the eight AFLW teams are all partners in a historic sporting equality movement, and they couldn’t be any more proud.
With so many stadium crowds overfilling and some people even being turned away, it is undeniable that the Australian public collectively banded together to show their support to the women on the field.
After stepping on the field round after round, Wildes has recognised that the best thing about being involved in the highly talented league isn’t necessarily all about the feeling of playing, it’s about showcasing the talented women in the sport to the Australian public.
“The best thing about playing in the AFLW league is having the chance to showcase women’s footy to the Australian public. Knowing that most people had never watched a game of women’s football, to have to opportunity to be the first players to ever play in the AFLW, it was great to be able to show the public what it’s all about” Wildes said.
FEMALE FOOTBALL’S FUTURE
With the first season of the AFL Women’s league being such a huge success, suggestions have been made that many improvements can take place to ensure the support for the league remains present and strong.
There has been debate as to whether the second season will come with tickets to the game being sold and the woman making a higher profit from holding a place on the team.
The league itself will continue to be shaped in the coming seasons and the players will continue to make milestones during their AFLW careers.
Wildes has recognised that the debut season of Women’s AFL is important in so many ways, for the women playing and all other girls and women nationwide.
She has shared her belief that this league and the debut season is a monumental inspiration for all girls who have ever dreamed of playing AFL and it is a symbol that now there dreams can become a reality, just like it did for her.
“We are running out there not just for ourselves or the club that we are representing, but for all the young girls out there, and women too, who love footy but have been told it’s not for them and to stick to the sidelines” Wildes said.
Wildes and her teammates begin training in November for their second season and she is hoping they can come away on top of the ladder. For more information on the Western Bulldogs Women’s team, click here.