Female football has come a long way in the past five years, a fact no one understands better than Denise Bridges, because she has been around for pretty much all of it.
Bridges has a daughter who started playing football when she was ten, following the first ever SMJFL Chick Kick day.
“My daughter was really keen to play footy but we didn’t really want her to play boys footy,” said Bridges.
“Then the first Chick Kick day came up and we thought she could go to that and that’s how it first started.”
Following that day of football, her daughter Grace began playing in the newly formed SMJFL girls’ football competition and Bridges began to get involved herself. She has since been a team manager, held committee roles and most recently has taken to mentoring the younger female umpires.
Aside from being blown away and passionate about the talent on display when the girls cross that white line after lacing up their boots, Bridges is also involved with the growth and development of umpires.
As a mother of three umpires she is aware of the challenges faced by female umpires, and does her bit to help equip them with the mental tools to potentially reach the elite level of umpiring.
“What I find with the umpires is that a lot of the girls lack confidence, they just need someone down there to give them a bit of mentoring and confidence, so what’s what I do now,” she said.
“Now we see these girls coming into the AFL… I think it’s well on the way to making a really good pathway for some of these girls who want to move through the ranks in umpiring.”
While she loves her officiating, does Grace prefer umpiring or playing?
“Oh, playing wins every time.”
Grace probably falls into the age group of young girls fortunate enough to grow with the league. What was initially only one competition has grown to four separate competitions across three different age groups. There is a clear pathway for young girls from U11’s through to U13’s and finally the U16 Youth Girls competition.
She still remembers the first game Grace played and how excited she was to see her achieve something she had wanted to do. In fact, she even remembers that she didn’t have to wait long to see her kick her first goal – about ten minutes into the first quarter of her debut game.
In 2014 the SMJFL formed their first ever Youth Girls Interleague Squad and Grace found herself named as the youngest member on the team at 13 years old. In the team’s second round match against the YJFL, Grace sparked one of the highlights with the team’s only goal for the game in the final term.
As the youngest player in the team Grace has several years to develop on the interleague stage and she has set her sights to one day snare the squad captaincy. While the team didn’t have a successful carnival if you simply glance at the scoreboard and results, watching them play and seeing their enthusiasm and effort on display showed just how far female football in the region has come in a few short years.
“I’ve seen it come from pretty much nothing — I’ve seen it from its inception,” said Bridges.
“Through people’s really hard work to get this competition up and running [into] a competitions that’s now got heaps of teams and lots of girls that are really interested in playing footy.”