The Trailblazers: When Women's football first graced Olympic Park

On the cusp of the greatest Women’s sporting event Australia and New Zealand is likely to host this century, Tony Persoglia looks back on a match which played a pivotal role in the formation of organised Women’s football in Victoria.

Today marks 50 years since a group of pioneers, mostly teenagers and early twenty-somethings, set foot on the hallowed turf of Olympic Park in front of an unsuspecting crowd. Whoever concocted the idea of a ‘Ladies’ fixture to act as a curtain raiser to the Victoria-Cruzeiro match played on July 1 1973, it is questionable whether they realised the impact it would have on the formation of the Victorian Women’s Soccer Association (VWSA) later that year. The match, played by Doveton Ladies and Bayswater Ladies was a curio for many of the attendees, but it lives long in the memory for those that competed, each of whom reflect fondly on an event which stands proudly in the pantheon of Victorian Women’s club football.

The struggle that Women’s soccer faced in the lead-up to 1973 is well documented in Football Victoria’s own archives. The Victorian Amateur British Football Association had ostensibly banned girls from playing soccer in 1960, responding to unfounded concerns from the establishment. The success and publicity enjoyed by the few girls who were playing at the time, showing up the boys at their own game, was more likely their reasoning. The ban, with the full backing of the sport’s governing body appeared to set the game back indefinitely. Although teams were encouraged to form, and did so over the next decade, they just as quickly disbanded, with the absence of competitive opposition a genuine barrier to any form of continuity.

Soccer News 1960
In the space of a month, the VASFA went from celebrating girls playing soccer to banning them from participating in boys’ teams. The decision would stop the Women's game in its tracks for well over a decade.

It wasn’t until the next wave of migration from the United Kingdom, the ten-pound tourists that arrived in Australia via the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme, that Women’s soccer gathered momentum. By 1970, teams were forming in pockets of Melbourne, mostly in the south-east and were playing regular friendly matches against each other. Training grounds were difficult to find - teams would often practice in car parks or boggy open fields - and securing venues for any form of competition was virtually impossible. One woman who cut through the red tape associated with Women gaining access was Lynette McKernan.

Though diminutive in stature, McKernan was a powerhouse of drive and conviction. Her sons were already playing at Doveton Soccer Club before it became apparent that her daughters Julie and Lynette (Lyn) shared the same appetite for the game. She soon formed a ‘Ladies’ team, drafting up a constitution and recruiting interested players via the club and local networks. By 1972, Doveton Ladies were playing regular matches, and McKernan organised a Gala Day in October which brought together five other teams from the region: Frankston Pines, Waverley, General Electric, Repco and Bosch. Doveton would ultimately win the trophy cast in McKernan’s honour.

Doveton 1972 Gala Day
An early Doveton Ladies team photo, with Lynette McKernan on the far right, coupled with Julie McKernan clasping the trophy donated by her mother in 1972, and won by Doveton.

While the Victorian Soccer Federation (VSF) were taking notice, the prospect of a curtain-raiser involving Ladies teams to a Victorian representative match seemed a far-fetched idea. By 1973 though, Victoria’s representative calendar had shrunk, and the heady crowd-drawing days of the previous decade were a thing of the past. Only two matches drew attendances of 15,000 or more in 1971 and 1972, and even the arrival of Pele with the touring Santos in February of 1973 barely witnessed 20,000 through the gates. With the Brazilian club champions Cruzeiro locked in for July, a Ladies match may have been seen as something of a free hit for the VSF at the time.  

Just how the teams were selected remains unclear, though Doveton and Bayswater were now well established and given their associated clubs were members of the VSF, familiar to the soccer die-hards who were encouraged to attend in numbers. Bayswater, formed in 1951, had just been promoted to the Men’s fourth tier and were establishing themselves as a cornerstone of the growing South-East. By comparison, Doveton had only been in existence for half-a-dozen years but were enjoying a fantastic start to their Fourth Division campaign. How much support each club offered to Women’s soccer at the time is uncertain, the mere fact they could boast Ladies teams at the turn of the decade suggested they had an appetite to challenge the norm.

Bayswater Ladies 1972
The Bayswater Ladies team circa 1972, with future Victorian representative Ruza Dunning kneeling on the far left. Source: Knox City FC, An Updated History.

At 21, Ruza Dunning, nee Zaharin, was captain of the Bayswater team throughout 1972, but she didn’t feature in the Olympic Park fixtures, “I was on suspension for nine months.” In actual fact, Dunning was seven months pregnant and missed the match, as did Barbara Hattie who also had a child in waiting. Dunning, along with the late Margaret Roy of Doveton, were the only players that would graduate to representative honours. Roy featured in ten National Championships over a 15-year career. Dunning was part of the inaugural Victorian squad which travelled to Sydney in 1974, her sole representative honour, and played for a handful of seasons before calling an end to her career in her late 20s.

Dunning and the Zaharin family were synonymous with the Bayswater club at the time, typical of the strong emphasis on familial relationships in the growth of the Women's game, “we had three players from the Soden family, three from the Schacklefords and two more from my family. I think most of us were expats too.” Lorraine Watson (Lee), the youngest player for Doveton that day, reinforces the notion, "most of the girls knew each other, your family was involved with the soccer club, it was either the girlfriends of the players, or someone’s daughter, that was essentially how the team was formed."

News Promotions for the Doveton v Bayswater match in 1973
News articles and advertisements promoting the Doveton v Bayswater match on July 1 1973, as featured in 'Allsport Weekly' and 'The Sun News Pictorial'.

Bayswater were coached by Eric Holbrook, who started the Ladies team upon hearing of Doveton's formation in 1971, and were considered favourites in the encounter given the older age demographic represented in the team. “We were mostly in our late teens, early 20s”, suggested Dunning. Whatever Doveton may have lacked in experience or maturity, they made up for in tenacity, perhaps a legacy from the team's matriarch. Lee Watson started playing the game at 13 and was barely 14 when she walked out to a packed Olympic Park. Her sister Eleanor Watson (Elle) was on the cusp of her 16th birthday, and they were illustrative of a youthful Doveton outfit. As Dunning recalls, "Doveton were such physical players and there was a friendly rivalry between the two teams.”

Doveton 1973
The Doveton team photo on the day of the match: Back Row: Maria Warren, Margaret Roy, Kerry Gilders, Cathy Derby, Marlene Reiss, Sue Clark; Front Row: Jackie Cavanagh, Josie Hili, Paula Dallard, Caroline Jennings, Lorraine Watson, Eleanor Watson. Photo credit: Sue Clark.

Another family's involvement in the match was jeopardised at the eleventh hour, in a series of events which illustrated the doggedness of Lynette McKernan, particularly when it came to the welfare of her daughters. Whether the Doveton Soccer Club sensed that a significant amount of exposure would come with the Olympic Park clash or it felt the team needed a more experienced coach at the helm, it moved McKernan on in the lead-up to the match, appointing Mal Sparrow in her place.

Julie and Lyn were crestfallen and quickly found themselves on the outer, but their mother was quick to act. Hearing that Bayswater may have been short on numbers due to pregnancy, she contacted Holbrook with a simple request: could her daughters kit up for Bayswater on the day of the match? Without a transfer system or a governing body to preside over the participants in each team, the McKernan sisters would indeed line-up for the ‘opposition’ in a match which proved memorable for all that participated. That included match official, Rosa Vloedmans, who was already making waves as Victoria’s first female accredited referee and would officiate the match over two 25-minute halves. 

Doveton v Bayswater match photos
The photographs may be grainy, but the emotion after a goal is scored in front of packed grandstand is on full display.

While some of the crowd may have seen the encounter as a mere kick and giggle, the players embraced the opportunity to impress. “We weren’t taken very seriously back then, but all the players took it very seriously”, says Dunning, who despite her own frustration of not participating, was there to support her family, “I was very disappointed for having to sit in the stands, but my sister played, and my mother was the team manager.”

For Lee and Elle Watson, the sheer volume of spectators that attended a Women’s soccer match on that day still evokes vivid memories some 50 years later. “I remember arriving at Olympic Park and being blown away by the massive crowd”, suggests Lee, “we couldn’t believe it, we just thought we were going to wake up any minute”, adds Elle. The day was particularly special for Elle, as she scored Doveton’s equalising goal after Betty Brien had opened proceedings for Bayswater, “I think I died… I just thought, ‘did I just do that?’”

The match was covered in several newspapers and in detail by the late George Yelland for Allsport Weekly, who was committed to acknowledging every player that took the pitch, almost as if he understood the significance of what he had just witnessed. In his match report, Yelland alluded to a closely fought contest, and made particular mention of Julie and Lyn McKernan, who “played well against their old club.”

Allsport Weekly covers Doveton v Bayswater 1973
Via the efforts of George Yelland, the coverage from Allsport Weekly of the Doveton v Bayswater match was as good as any news publication of the time.

Lyn Wright, nee McKernan, moved to Dandenong City in early 1974 and played in a couple of Yooralla charity events, but didn’t graduate to the inaugural VWSA season. Wright now lives in the Gippsland region with her husband Peter and has fond memories of a time when the game was just a game, and the Women and Girls involved didn’t understand the enormity of what they were doing. Upon reflection, it hits home at what trailblazers they all were, “the match was hugely important in establishing women’s football in Victoria. It was the first major step towards achieving recognition for all women involved in the sport.” Within months of the Olympic Park match, more teams were formed and the first meetings were held to discuss the notion of forming a league and organising regular competition. Come December, the inaugural general meeting of the Victorian Women's Soccer Association was held, and the Women's game would have its formal beginnings in 1974.

The rest, is history.

 

Special thanks to Ruza Dunning, Eleanor Watson, Lee Watson, Lyn Wright, Sue Clark, Mark Boric, Shaun Jones and Bruce Darnell for their assistance in offering first-hand accounts and verifying information, as well as providing photographs and news clippings.