Eloise Gardner is just one of many women that can now dream of representing Essendon in the AFLW. (Photo: Eloise Gardner/Twitter)

It wasn't too many years ago that Essendon's Eloise Gardner was sitting by herself on the bus to school cricket games, playing on the boy's team. Now, she could soon be an Essendon AFLW player.

“I was the only girl in my first soccer team, only girl in the Auskick group the one year that I played Auskick,” Essendon VFLW defender Eloise Gardner told The Inner Sanctum.

“I was the first girl in the school cricket team. I didn’t feel like [I] was ever [told] ‘no you can’t,’ but it was just something nobody did.”

Gardner, like many women trying to fulfil their sporting dreams, faced boundaries from a young age.

If it wasn’t for her mum giving her primary school teachers a grill about not being able to play with the boys, she may have never even been on the cricket team in the first place!

She grew up idolising the likes of Australian greats Lauren Jackson and Ellyse Perry, drawn to their game-winning and inspirational qualities.

Perry in particular showed Gardner just how powerful women in sport could be, watching her represent Australia in both cricket and soccer at the national level.

“I grew up playing pretty much every sport. Basketball, cricket and soccer were kind of my main three growing up,” Gardner said.

“I remember watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and seeing the Opals and Lauren Jackson play. I remember at that point, as a 10 year old, I was like ‘I’m going to play for the Opals.’

“I think because I could see that there were women’s teams within those sports, it felt like they were kind of the options. I always said that I was going to pursue one of those.”

Beneath all of that, however, was a desperate desire to play the game she loved more than any of those: Aussie rules football.

When Gardner then saw the announcement just 10 days ago that her beloved Bombers would be entering the AFL Women’s competition at the end of 2022, it all came full circle.

The emotions came thick and fast. Memories of her grandfather Ken Parker, her Essendon idol, adorned Gardner’s social media proudly and profoundly.

Barely a week on, and it still doesn’t quite feel real yet.

“It’s hard to describe. Something that I often think about is that little girl that wanted to play footy and never thought that it would be possible,” Gardner said.

“If you told me at 10 years old that I’d be playing footy for Essendon even at VFLW level, I probably would have said of course I will be! As you get a little bit older, you start to realise it’s probably not going to happen in the way you thought it would.

“It sort of set in that actually, it’s not possible, girls don’t play footy. You start to question it.

“I remember asking mum at one point, ‘why is there no girls competition?’ All she could say was ‘I don’t know, there just isn’t.’

“I could never wrap my head around that answer. For this to happen now, it just means so much to that little girl that just dreamt of playing for the Bombers.”

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Gardner’s relationship with footy was up and down throughout her childhood. As she spoke on, her time was split between the other sports she was allowed to play.

The obstacles in place preventing young girls from pursuing footy, and sport in general, were sometimes hard to see on the surface.

“I used to play markers up and stuff at school with the boys. It just sort of wasn’t the thing that most [girls] did,” Gardner said.

“They weren’t necessarily exclusionary, but I sat on the bus on my own to and from games. It was just kind of, you were the odd one out for being there.”

Visibility is another motivator for Gardner, something that she would like to be able to add as an AFLW player.

While she was able to look up to Jackson and Perry growing up, she says there are still so many more female role models that can, and should, be able to be seen by young girls.

“As a kid, there weren’t girls playing footy,” Gardner said.

“If I can be that person that inspires someone to take up the game and somebody that they can look towards, 100 per cent. I think that’s what it’s all about.

“As a kid, it was few and far between female role models. Not that there weren’t those people out there, you just didn’t really know about them or see them.

“If I can be that for the next little girls playing, absolutely [I will].”

Gunning to represent the Bombers

With the license now granted, facilities built, and a successful state level program established, the next challenge for Essendon will be building a list to compete with the best.

After reaching a preliminary final in their third season, the Bombers have developed a strong pool of talent. This has grown both through pathways through the Calder Cannons and Bendigo Pioneers, as well as the club’s own investment in its players.

Similar to teams like Richmond and St Kilda before them, Essendon will have the luxury of looking to its VFLW program to help form the beginnings of a premiership list.

After a successful 2021, 2022 lies as a promised land of opportunity for those who want to take the step up.

“There’s obviously no promises… it’s not set whether any of us girls in the VFLW will get to be a part of [the AFLW team],” Gardner said, well and truly keeping the lid on.

“I think the majority of our squad is keen to be a part of it, and it’s going to be something we’re going to work towards.

“Hopefully we can get some of us on that AFLW list, but there’s no certainties there. I’ll definitely be working towards it.”

Essendon will be looking to go one step further than the VFLW Preliminary Final in 2022. (Photo: Celie Hay/Essendon FC)

Gardner credits a major part of that success and strong culture to inaugural senior coach Brendan Major.

“I have no idea whether or not he wants [the AFLW coaching job] or whether or not the club will sign him, we don’t know yet,” she said.

“[But] I would love for him to be there at that level, I think he definitely deserves it.

“He’s built the Essendon program over the past three or four years from… the girls only [winning] one game in their first season to making finals this year.

“It’s a massive effort… he and Essendon have set it all up so well and been very selective with who we bring on board, and making sure the people we have within the group are going to buy into what we want to strive for at Essendon.”

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