When it was confirmed Werribee would field a women’s side to take on Geelong’s VFL team in a historic Easter Sunday exhibition match, there was never any doubt Hayley Gossow would earn a place among the coaching staff.
Aside from her experience coaching at the highest level through her position as a development coach with Collingwood during the inaugural AFL Women’s season, the Hoppers Crossing local had also been the driving force behind the push to field a Werribee team in the first place.
“There weren’t a lot of pathways for girls coming up in the western suburbs, so I got in contact with the CEO, Mark [Penaluna], to ask what their plans were for a women’s VFL team here,” recalls Gossow, who has been awarded an assistant role under former Northern Knights head coach Andrew Shakespeare.
“He said they were thinking about trying to get one up, so I’ve just been in contact with him and trying to work on what we can do with the local footy that’s here now to build towards a VFL side.”
As well as the role with the Magpies, Gossow’s extensive football experience includes playing time at local clubs Wyndham Vale and Manor Lakes and the senior coaching role with Bacchus Marsh. Not surprisingly, the Collingwood environment was markedly different from anything she had experienced before and opened her eyes to a world of possibilities.
“We were lucky enough to use Collingwood’s facilities, and the amount of support staff – all the physios, the trainers, a strength-and-conditioning coach – a lot of the girls had never had that before,” she explains.
“[The difference] is probably more to do with the off-field than the on-field – just getting you match fit.
“Girls were coming in and could play at a fitness level that wasn’t really at AFL standard and still get three votes a game, but now you get exposed in that sort of area, so having all that stuff outside of the actual football was pretty important.”
Through the restructure of women’s football across Victoria, the creation of the TAC Cup Girls competition, and the expansion of the VFL Women’s, pathways towards that elite female environment are now starting to take shape. But with the bulk of developments taking place on the other side of Melbourne, Gossow believes there needs to be a push for more opportunities in her own community.
“The eastern and the northern leagues have quite a number of teams already, and most of the VFL teams are out there,” she says.
“So in this area, in the western suburbs, it’s so important to get that up and running as well so that half of Melbourne’s female footballers don’t miss out.”
A permanent Werribee presence in the VFL Women’s would be a dream outcome for Gossow, and while she acknowledges the need for evidence of strong interest in women’s football across the Wyndham region before a firm commitment is made, she also believes the presence of a team would have huge potential to drive that interest.
“You know the saying: ‘if you build it, they will come,’” she says.
“The more you advertise and promote that this is what we want to do, the more girls will sit up and take notice and go, ‘Well, maybe I’ll give it a go at my local club.’
“Then they’ll find out that they like that, and they might get really good. Then they go, ‘Well, maybe I’ll try the next level.’ It just builds from there.”
The initial signs are encouraging. Even through the early stages of the Werribee women’s experiment, Gossow has been impressed by the local contingent.
Through the efforts of AFL Victoria female talent manager Darren Flanigan, the team has largely been assembled from the AFL Victoria South East Female Academy, but there are a number of players on the list from the Wyndham area who have caught Gossow’s eye.
“We’ve got Sabrin [Nyawela],” she says. “She’s coaching with the Western Jets Youth Academy at the moment, so she’s got a bit of knowledge coming from the coaching side of things as well.
“We’ve also got Cara [Dunshea] from Manor Lakes, who played in the premiership last year, so it’s good to have these two local influences who will hopefully draw the big crowds – friends, family, all that sort of thing – come game day.”
Werribee’s women’s team will line up against Geelong on April 16 at Spring Creek Reserve. The match will kick off at 5pm and follow the men's match at 2pm.
IMAGE: Hayley Gossow with Werribee CEO Mark Penaluna