Sport AFL Can Peta Searle fly in footy’s brave new world?

Can Peta Searle fly in footy’s brave new world?

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It’s 2017 and Melbourne are playing in their first finals campaign for more than a decade.

The Demons are trailing the Suns by four goals at three-quarter time in their elimination final as head coach Peta Searle strides on to the ground to deliver her final address.

What would Allan Jeans have made of the AFL’s first female assistant coach? Photo: Getty

She puts an arm round Jack Watts (who’s been towelled up by Trent McKenzie), offers a few quiet words of encouragement before addressing the group as a whole.

• Searle becomes the AFL’s first lady 
• 300 games, so why don’t you know this name

When a colleague put this scenario to me on Tuesday, my first reaction was to scoff: couldn’t happen, wouldn’t happen, ever, case closed – there will never be a female senior coach in the AFL.

But as I examined this response, based purely on the image grating with my own perception of what was normal, what was football, I wondered why not?

It was announced on Monday that Searle, former head coach with Darebin in the VWFL and an assistant with Port Melbourne in the VFL, had been offered a role as an assistant coach with St Kilda.

Her appointment was a red-letter day in Australian sport, a moment of monumental significance.

Searle is a development coach with the Saints, a position on the lowest rung of the AFL coaching hierarchy, and it is often the first port for former players who are interested in entering the coaching ranks.

Perhaps the biggest trailblazer for Searle is not a woman.

Western Bulldogs coach Brendan McCartney, a man universally respected, was appointed to the job ahead of the 2012 season, but he faced a tough battle for acceptance.

McCartney never played footy at the highest level, and the limited thinking surrounding his appointment was based on the premise that, late in a game with his players fading, when the coach asked them for something more they would know he had never been there or done that.

The theory was that there would be a lack of respect because of what McCartney didn’t achieve as a player. Thankfully he has begun to carve out a reputation as a coach that means his lack of top-level footy has been forgotten.

Searle’s XX chromosomes may have meant she could never play football at the highest level, but if she can prove herself in time to be just as good an educator, manager, motivator and strategist – perhaps better – than her male counterparts, then why should she not be rewarded with promotion?

She’s certainly got the jump on Mick Malthouse when it comes to dealing with the footy media.

Hope Powell, coach of the England women’s team, has been mentioned as a potential coach of a men’s side. Photo: Getty

After admitting she felt uncomfortable under the glare on Monday, Searle acknowledged “it’s got to be done” and handled the fray with good grace. Mick’s been in the coaching racket 30 years and still hasn’t worked that one out.

So could Searle ever land a senior coaching role? She said at her unveiling press conference that she wasn’t sure, but also showed she does not lack ambition.

“I think there’s no limitations on what can and can’t be achieved,” she said.

“Is the AFL ready for it? Are the playing group ready for it?

“I think the playing group are ready for it but … 18 jobs, there’s a lot of good coaches out there, so I’m just happy to be where I am and really looking forward to getting to work.”

American sports, in recent times leading the way in the acceptance of gay athletes, are seriously lagging when it comes to the appointment of women in coaching roles, while the English Premier League is also a female-free zone.

In this instance, Australian Rules football has made a momentous decision that could have global repercussions.

This month’s Vanity Fair presented a list of the world’s most powerful women, featuring names like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, film producer and director Kathryn Bigelow and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde.

Peta Searle may not be threatening that list any time soon, but my guess is that she’s feeling pretty powerful today.

Watching how high she can climb will be an exhilarating ride.

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