While there is evidence of women playing organised football in NSW as early as 1909, on 24 September 1921 the first official publicised women's football match in Australia was played at the Gabba between the North Brisbane Reds and the South Brisbane Blues.
A crowd of 10,000 gathered on that spring afternoon to see the Reds win 2-0 in a Brisbane 'derby'.
While women were barred from playing football in 1922 in line with what happened in England, the women’s game still survived in Australia with ‘rebel’ games played around the country.
This means next Friday (25 September) marks the start of the 100th year of women’s football in Australia, which will culminate in the centenary birthday next year on 24 September 2021.
FFA Hall of Famer Pat O’Connor, who is considered the Godmother of women’s football in NSW, admits she is proud to be part of such a steeped, if unrecognised, history.
“It just shows you, we think of women’s football as something new but it isn’t,” said O’Connor, who now lives in Perth but started the NSW Metropolitan Ladies Soccer Association (MLSA) with husband Joe in 1967. “It’s absolutely brilliant it has been around for so long and I am so honoured to be a part of it.”
O’Connor famously played for Prague, St George, NSW and the 1975 Australian XI all while being coached by the equally dedicated Joe.
As well as starting the NSW MLSA, the O’Connor’s also started the Australian National Championships in 1974 with Western Australian Oscar Mate. O’Connor led NSW to the inaugural title.
This was followed by a trip to Hong Kong in 1975 for nine members of the triumphant NSW team, plus seven others, for the inaugural Asian Cup. The team was dubbed the ‘Australian XI’, although they have never actually received official recognition.
“I’m glad we got the MLSA and the National Championships going, we did it properly, we feel good about it that we were pioneers,” beams O’Connor.
“We originally had four teams in the MLSA. Many said that it wasn’t enough but we persisted because it was a starting point.
“The Nationals were so much fun to organise. Oscar was a wonderful man and got in contact with me about organising it.
“We had a lot of work to do including hiring fields, managing the competition and organising the interstate teams to billet with players from the NSW team.
“We had a cracking time and we all got along, it didn’t matter which team we played for.
“And the trip to Hong Kong, that was something else, it was very special.”
O’Connor admits it was a fun period in her life growing the women’s game, and although there were plenty of challenges along the way, she insists her and her team mates thrived on it.
She fondly says she is proud ‘our girls’ - as Joe and her call them - helped get the ball rolling in a serious way.
“I hope the girls playing now understand how hard it was for us back then, we worked hard, trained hard and fought hard for everything.
“Trying to get recognition was tough but we stuck at it and we took it seriously, and eventually people started acknowledging this.
“The men started taking us seriously when they saw we were in it for the long haul.
“A lot of girls, like me, had never kicked a ball before. These days they are starting off in school at the age of six or seven. The majority when we started, didn’t know how to play. We started from the beginning and all credit to the majority of the ladies who learned fast.
“We were a big family, we trained officially twice a week, but we often practiced every night. We would have football tennis in the backyard, anything to kick a ball, then we would have a meal together.”
O’Connor fondly reminisces about the very beginning at Prague, where the ladies were reduced to playing games at halftime of the men’s games. She admits it wasn’t ideal but it was a start.
“When we first played at Prague, we used to play at halftime of the men’s matches. Obviously these games weren’t that long but we had to take what we could. The fans thought it would be a good laugh but after a match or two the crowd got into it and supported us.”
O’Connor has plenty of stories to tell about these experiences but one stands out.
“I remember one time, when we played at halftime of a Prague game, the men’s game wasn’t that good and the fans were yelling ‘bring back the women’,” laughs O’Connor. “That is how it all started.”
Despite retiring from playing and coaching a number of years ago, O’Connor still has the passion in her voice when talking about the world game. She admits she is proud to see so many Australian ladies succeed overseas.
“I love Hayley Raso and how she plays. Also love seeing Sam Kerr play for my club Chelsea. I am so proud to see how far the women’s game has come where we can now watch them on TV from anywhere in the world.
“These girls are wonderful and are representing us with pride.”
The 100th season of women’s football has plenty of uncertainty attached to it due to the current COVID19 pandemic. With the W-League and the Matildas 2021 Tokyo Olympics campaign both in doubt, O’Connor has her fingers crossed.
“I hope it all goes ahead and we can beat this pandemic. We have a lot to celebrate next year.”