In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Victorian Women’s Football League, The Inner Sanctum speaks to the people who made women’s football into what it is today.
There are not many names more synonymous with women’s football than Debbie Lee.
Her list of accolades is longer than most player’s careers.
Playing 302 games in the VWFL, she’s a five time Helen Lambert Medallist (the VWFL best and fairest), a six time All-Australian, has represented Victoria 16 times, captaining the squad six times, has won three premierships and two Lisa Hardeman Medals as the best on ground in the grand final.
This is not to mention captaining the VU Western Spurs (previously Sunshine YCW and St. Albans) from their inception to 2004 and winning seven club best and fairests.
She would finish her career on 302 games, hanging up the boots at the end of 2014 as one of very few women to hit the 300-game milestone.
Lee would also act as president of the competition between 2004 and 2012, while still playing and acting on the board of the Spurs.
As the VWFL reaches its 40th anniversary in 2021, The Inner Sanctum caught up with Lee to reflect on the growth of women’s football and her monumental career.
Her remarkable football story starts humbly in 1991, discovering the East Brunswick Scorpions with a mate in tow.
“When I first went down, I was 17 and I had a friend who was 15, we’d been playing footy with our brothers, so we thought ‘yeah we’ve got this’,” Lee told The Inner Sanctum.
“We went down to the Scorpions not knowing that it was one of the strongest teams in the league.
“We were surprised, pleasantly surprised, of the skill level. These girls were hitting targets, we were really surprised in terms of what their output was.”
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Still a teenager but an incredibly passionate sportswoman, Lee was fresh off a stint with the Coburg Cougars in the WNBL.
Despite her promising basketball career, footy drew her in immediately.
Being so young, playing among such senior figures, some of which who had playing since the start of the competition in 1981, was intimidating.
“There was a fair [bit of] an age gap,” Lee said.
“We were 17 and these women were mid-to-late 20s. There was a number of people who took us under their wing, mainly Stacey Bourke, she actually taught me to drive!
“She took me through a couple of lessons when I was coming through.”
Adjusting to playing Aussie rules at the highest level proved to be no challenge at all for Lee.
She would play in a grand final in her first year, the Scorpions taking on bitter rivals the Ballarat Lions and coming away with the trophy.
Lee was so impressive that she was awarded best on ground for the day.
“The Scorps and the Lions had continual battles throughout the season and you just never knew who was going to win the game,” she said.
“It was always a hard fought game, and funnily enough most of the state team was selected from those two teams.
“Probably didn’t understand what winning a premiership meant [at the time], I just thought ‘oh this is easy… my first year and I win a premiership’.
“Then I learnt pretty quickly when I moved into the Spurs that they’re very hard to actually get. [It was] a lack of appreciation, to be honest.”
It took up until the day of the grand final for Lee to invite anyone to watch her play football.
She kept it a close-knit secret, wary of what the reaction would be if she told others that she played Aussie rules as a woman.
“When I was 17, I was in year 12, and I didn’t tell anyone I played footy,” Lee explained.
“Eventually, when we did play the grand final, I did let my mates know to come along. They were quite open to it.
“It was probably an inhibition within myself, more so than my friends or the greater community. You just didn’t see it, nor did you get the support once you were trying to support the sport as well.
“The commentary and photos as well, I’ve got pictures of them, it’s all about girls taking a tackle and pulling someone’s hair. They’re not positive articles about women playing football. Derogative, quite derogative.”
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The Scorpions were no longer after the 1992 season, folding and leaving a big group of players without a home.
Lee decided that she would take matters into her own hands, and created her own club after the one she began her career at no longer existed.
After a long search, Lee and a group of other players landed at Sunshine YCW, creating the Spurs.
While the club now has a long, storied and successful history, getting to that point was a journey filled with adversity and prejudice.
“Being a female playing footy wasn’t a cool thing to do,” Lee said.
“People didn’t understand it, people didn’t understand why you wanted to do it. The sport itself didn’t have any representation of females, whether that was from an umpiring perspective, trainers, staff, administration, it was rare to see a female involved in footy.
“In the local clubs, the positional roles were canteen and not even trainers, at that point. We were up against it, we didn’t feel welcomed.
“Whilst the club supported us, [there was] minimal support I would say in the necessities to get out on the park, we were probably a club within a club.
“What did it do was bring our community together.
“It brought a group of people who had a common interest, and that was that we love footy. We knew we’re not really wanted or supported but what it did was in your own club, and within other clubs, was that it created this real respect and alignment.
“Albion was another club that was down the road, and [we would] train together. Often we’d go after training and meet up socially with other clubs, because it was a platform where we thought ‘we’ve got to support our own’.
“Outwardly, we were not really considered sport.”
Lee was the inaugural captain of the Spurs at just 19-years-old, eventually leading the club from place to place across Melbourne.
The 2000 season would see the club relocate to St. Albans, before once again moving in 2015 to Footscray and becoming the VU Western Spurs, where they still reside to this day.
While Lee is undoubtedly the greatest Spur of all time, there’s one other name which comes close.
Shannon McFerran won five Lambert Medals, one of the greatest players the VWFL ever saw.
Lee couldn’t speak higher of her teammate.
“She was very talented, she was very lean, but she had the ability to run and use her engine,” she said.
“She was skilful, but also could read the play. She had a good understanding of the game itself, so that helps.
“We met, and she became a part of our team, when we were in Sunshine and then we moved to St. Albans. She had a strong family connection there.
“Obviously, she went through some heartache as well. She had a brain tumour and had to recover from that, and ended up getting back on the park.
“I think that’s a testament to the person and character that she is.”
Looking back on the great players of the VWFL, one can only wonder what these women would have been able to do in the sport had they been offered the same pathways and support that current day AFLW players have.
“I think herself and others would have excelled,” Lee said.
“If it [the AFLW] was [started] a few years earlier, they certainly would have been up to the task, there’s no doubt.
“Even I go back to my early 90s days, there would be athletes there who, if they had the opportunities, would be able to mix it with the current day and modern day players.”
Continued in part two.
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