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Peta Searle gives up coaching dream

Family first: Peta Searle with her children Tess and Jackson.

Family first: Peta Searle with her children Tess and Jackson. Photo: Simon Schluter

Seven years ago, a high school teacher walked away from her job and applied for a pension. A single mother of two, Peta Searle was on a calculated but uncharted mission. She wanted to be a full-time football coach and figured she would never know if she could if she didn’t try. Having a genuine shot meant going all in.

Five years later, Searle became an assistant coach in the Victorian Football League. For a woman, this was unprecedented. But Gary Ayres - the ex-AFL coach and Hawthorn hero who in 2012 employed this pioneer at what was then the VFL’s reigning premiership club - considered it a no-brainer.

Ayres and Searle met while completing their level-three coaching accreditation. Seeing football acumen first and a female second, he could not have been more impressed by the head coach of Victorian Women’s Football League club Darebin, who had led the club to five consecutive premierships. In her playing days, Ayres learnt, Searle had also won five premierships and picked up three All Australian guernseys.

At Port Melbourne, Ayres assigned Searle the responsibility of coaching his back line. The club fell just one step short of winning back-to-back flags in 2012, but by season’s end still boasted the competition’s best defence.

In 2013, the stars seemed to be aligning for Searle, whose ultimate ambition - an aim strongly encouraged by Ayres - was to break into the exclusively male coaching ranks of the AFL. She was also appointed coach of the Western Bulldogs for the first clash of AFL clubs played by women - a historic curtain-raiser contested on the MCG last July that convinced league commission chief Mike Fitzpatrick there was much more to females playing footy than he had thought.

More significantly, Melbourne Football Club extended an invaluable, even if short-term, invitation to step inside. Over a period of three months last year, Searle relished the insight and left feeling convinced she could cut it on an AFL coaching panel. When her stint with the Demons ended, veteran coach Neil Craig encouraged Searle to gain similar experience at another AFL club. She tried, but without success. Then, a matter of months later, Searle found herself resigning from her VFL post with a heavy heart.

Unable to justify signing another coaching contract worth $5000 - not to mention another year of asking her mother to babysit so she could attend footy training, games and edit footage (often while juggling household duties) - Searle has resumed school teaching. It is nowhere near as satisfying, but instructing physical education at a secondary college in Brighton is unquestionably more secure.

Searle can’t disguise her disappointment at the turn of events but says she has read the play. While there has been plenty of talk in AFL circles of late about the proactive promotion of women, the experience of this coach, who was banging down every door she could, proves how words can be cheap.

“It’s just not viable for me to continue,” she said. “I just thought that maybe with a few more years in the system something could have happened - that I could have provided for my family and do what I really want to do. But the fact is that just didn’t quite evolve, and that’s disappointing.”

Keeping half an eye on her adventurous four-year-old son, Jackson, as she tells her unique sporting story in a cafe full of mums and prams, Searle did not want to appear a whinger. This comment says much about footy culture, but she should not worry because the truth is she is far from it.

Those less concerned about rocking boats in AFL land say Searle’s tale is plainly unjust.

“I think this is an awful shame,” said Ayres, who at every turn has championed Searle and what she represents in the bigger picture. “I believe she could knock over, without any problem whatsoever, a development coaching role within any AFL club. But she’s been trying to knock the door down for a long, long time.”

Without a second’s hesitation, Ayres said there were many times when Searle cut through with young footballers in a manner he could not. “Yes, definitely. Through her approach, her communication and her manner.”

The former head coach of Geelong and Adelaide said he would recruit, or recommend, Searle to any club at any level of competition in the game.

At the AFL’s most recent annual national coaching conference in January, former St Kilda coach Stan Alves was blown away by Searle’s presentation on defence. “If she wasn’t the best, she was equal best to anyone who presented at the conference,” Alves said.

“I felt as if I was a player being coached. I came away from the whole thing thinking, ‘This girl can go the next step. She can be the groundbreaker.’ ”

When the pair crossed paths at Adelaide airport on the way home, Alves made a point of relaying his impressions. Searle explained to him then the factors that had led her to abandon her VFL job.

“I was gutted for her,” Alves said.“I just feel these circumstances have not only stopped a really talented person from strutting their stuff, but that this is also a loss to the game.”

Searle understands fully why the barriers exist. Who, she asked, can blame AFL clubs for prioritising the recruitment of recently retired stars to their coaching departments over comparatively unknown - even if in some respects better-qualified - quantities like her? She does not.

It is for this reason that Ayres and Searle said the AFL should lead a movement to diversify football departments. If the league paid the competition’s poorer clubs to cover an additional resource to their coaching ranks - so long as that resource was female - a dual purpose could be served. The same principle, Searle and Ayres said, could be applied to encourage aspiring indigenous AFL coaches.

In the absence of such obvious incentive, Searle feels coaches such as herself will continue to be overlooked. Not on the basis of what they can offer, but on what they can’t and never will.

“So that’s not having played at AFL level, not having been in an AFL system from the age of 17 until the end of my playing days,” she said.

“What I would add is a different perspective in terms of dealing with, and managing, people. And these days, clubs go to great lengths and pay lots of money to try to get a 5 per cent edge. Well, that could be a 5 per cent edge right there.”

Despite stepping off a ladder that took her tantalisingly close to realising a professional dream she thought - and was consistently told - was within grasp, Searle is still getting paid to coach footy, albeit in an amateur setting. At St Kevin’s Old Boys Football Club Searle is one of the senior assistant coaches to ex-Hawk and Carlton player Daniel Harford in the Victorian Amateur Football Association.

Amid her many references to pragmatism - the two children she adores and is committed to rearing well, plus the bills she has to pay - Searle confessed to “grieving” for her old footy job, and an ambition she can’t bring herself to declare entirely extinguished.

Grappling with a sense of professional emptiness, she said she has not watched or engaged with footy this season as much as she would have normally. There was one line, however, that jumped out at her when Andrew Demetriou recently announced his resignation as AFL chief executive. The outgoing boss commented on the great strides women had made in the game, but in the same breath noted the biggest steps - those involving women taking the positions of most influence - had either happened too slowly or not at all.

Asked what she would say to AFL powerbrokers based on her own experience, Searle required no think time: “I’d say if you want to make a statement, make a big statement. And a big statement is made through actions. Everyone knows there are a lot of females already in AFL administration, but why not create something that hasn’t been done before? Clearly, one of those things is to put a female coach in an AFL club.”

1 comment

  • Sad that Peta has not fulfilled her dreams. Must have been certain practical considerations to be made though. Good luck and perhaps women's sport might be the go.

    Commenter
    Barry
    Date and time
    April 27, 2014, 6:52PM
    Comments are now closed

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