Michelle Cowan need only look into the backyard of her Perth home and watch her kids kick the Sherrin to be reminded of the significance of the new national AFL women’s competition.
The 33-year-old coaching pioneer, who guided Melbourne’s women’s team in its three exhibition matches, reached another lofty height in her incredible career earlier this year when she took up a player development and welfare coaching role with the Melbourne Football Club. With two children under seven and husband Chris firmly entrenched in a senior position in mining procurement, Cowan commuted fortnightly from WA to Victoria.
In June, when Fremantle was awarded one of eight licences to compete in the new women's league, the WA outfit was quick to pounce on one of the most talented young coaches in the country. And the Dockers got their woman, with Cowan returning home to take the reins of the inaugural side.
“Commuting was tough but I also tried to remind myself of the message I’m trying to send my kids, and certainly my little daughter, that she can do whatever she wants and just follow your dream,’’ Cowan told Zela.
“My dream’s always been to coach in the AFL and that’s how my opportunity came about so I tried to remind myself about why I was doing what I was doing, but now to be home and have a balance of family and career I can have them both at the same time.”
And it appears at the ripe old age of five, Milly is following in mum's footsteps.
“She wants to be a coach, she carries her doll in one hand and her whistle in the other,’’ Cowan laughs.
“She picks the footy up, goes to the park and has a kick with her brother. Albie (7) absolutely loves the game, both are passionate but Milly is more passionate about coaching at this stage.”
Cowan, too, caught the coaching bug early.
“It was in high school where I was in Year 9 and I’d coach the Year 8’s for a little bit of pocket money, I’d get $15 and I did that all the way through school. That was my first ever job and I reckon that’s where I got a real passion and love for helping teach people the game,’’ she said.
“When you have success after doing that it’s a pretty incredible feeling and I guess from there I just wanted to make a career out of that feeling and I’m lucky enough to have done that.
“What do I love about coaching? It’s the feeling you get when you get a whole group of individuals together to achieve that common goal and that ultimate goal is a really rewarding feeling. To see the development of young players as you coach them through and see their ability reach new heights and have success themselves is really satisfying.”
In 2004 at age 21, Cowan became the first woman to coach Australian football at state level. She’d continue to progress through the state ranks and reach the helm of WA's youth and women’s teams.
Her big break came in 2012 when she joined WAFL men’s team South Fremantle as an assistant coach to former Dockers champion Paul Hasleby, who played 208 AFL games for the club between 2000 and 2010.
The pair knew each other as teenagers then re-connected years later when Cowan got in touch to chat coaching over coffee.
Hasleby said, “it was a pretty easy decision,” to add Cowan to his coaching panel.
“First meeting I was just blown away by Mish's knowledge of our sport, her passion and you could just sense pretty early on whatever she turns her hand to she achieves. She’s just a winner in life,’’ he said.
“She’s represented WA in four or five sports, what she goes after she gets and it’s been great to watch the development of women’s football from the sidelines and Mish has had a big part in that.
“Early days at South Fremantle had its challenges at the time but I knew deep down Mish had the work ethic to really learn about game style and modern day footy and she certainly implemented that. Her ability to communicate in a motivational way to the players is a great strength of hers given her speaking acumen.”
When the Dockers recently called Hasleby chasing a reference for Cowan he told them straight.
“I said if you guys don’t put her in charge you’re crazy,’’ he said.
“When I watched Melbourne and the WA side she coached there’s a real style to the way they play, so it’s a real credit to her being able to implement that in female football. I think she’ll be very successful at the Dockers and hopefully win the first Fremantle premiership.”
Fremantle appointed Cowan on July 11 and she hasn’t been able to wipe the grin off her face since.
“It’s exciting to be the first ever Fremantle coach in the first national women’s league. The last couple of weeks have been such a whirlwind but the fact we all get to be on this journey full time now is exciting,’’ she said.
“It has come around a lot sooner than I expected. Initially a national women’s league was forecast for 2020 and we’d build up the talent around the country but all of a sudden more and more girls are picking up a footy as their chosen sport, participation and numbers skyrocketed and we’d be silly not to have bought the start date forward.
"That came through (AFL chief executive officer) Gillon McLachlan’s leadership in saying 2017 is when it’s going to happen and being really bullish, but showing fantastic leadership, in getting it up and running and making it happen.
“With over 350,000 girls playing the game they now have that complete pathway which is great and when you look at the history women having been playing Aussie Rules for over 100 years, so it’s about time.
“I think people are ready for it, they’ve had a bit of a taste of it through those exhibition games and now we get a national competition out of it. We’ll see a lot of support for it, but I think it will surprise a lot of people and get widespread support.”
Cowan started work at Fremantle Oval on July 18 and has hit the ground running.
The Dockers earlier this month announced elite midfielders Kara Donnellan and Kiara Bowers as their two marquee players.
“We’re straight into player recruitment, looking at our talent ID we’ll be conducting and the team we’re going to build around us as well. The club’s certainly done a lot of ground work in regards to where they’re at but there’s a lot of hard work to be done and I guess building a whole new team, integration at the club and what that’s going to look like and getting that into process,’’ Cowan said.
“Our priority right now is our playing list, there’s seven other teams that probably want some of our players and we certainly know they are making contact and offering them all kinds of things, and some of the bigger clubs as well, whether that be great careers over in QLD or Melbourne. We’re trying to just meet with those players, ascertain where they’re at and thinking of playing their football and hopefully we can keep them here in Western Australia and playing for the Fremantle Dockers, that’s really our priority at the moment.”
Cowan and the Dockers are now beginning to assemble their maiden squad with an open mind.
On August 13 the club hosted a talent ID day at Emmanuel College where they put prospective Dockers through their paces. Victoria recently held its own event, with much success, and formed a shortlist of potential players from more than 200 participants.
“We’ve certainly got some depth in our state program, the girls that play state open women’s football then the others who play 23’s and under-18’s. If a player is 18 as of January 1 they can play in our team, so we’ll look at all avenues,’’ Cowan said.
“We’ll also look at some different sports - whether that be Athletics WA, Gaelic football, netball and basketball – there’s a whole range of other sports to consider and those athletes get the chance to try out at our talent ID day.
“We’ll make sure all girls in WA who think they’re up to the level get their opportunity to put their best foot forward. It will involve a lot of draft combine testing then we’ll get them out on the ground, because their football ability is obviously important, but we know that we can coach that as well.
“I’ve certainly been in contact with a number of girls but I’m really happy with our talent pool here in Western Australia and I’d be really proud to have a team of Western Australians who can run out there on the MCG and represent the Fremantle Dockers. At the moment our focus is primarily on WA-based athletes.”
Pre-season starts mid-November and Cowan says that’s where important foundations will be laid for next season and beyond.
“We’ll plan and prepare and have a really good focus on their development and education of the game and how we want to play. We'll hopefully do that really well for three months then all that preparation goes into performance,’’ she said.
“We’ll look at having a really solid pre-season and getting the team really united in the way that we want to play and then Round 1 kicks off in February.”
And while Cowan has a mountain of work ahead of her before that eagerly-anticipated first bounce she is now living and breathing an everyday reality she always dreamed of.
“I have a massive smile on my face. I’m really excited about the opportunity, I’m grateful for it and looking forward to what this does for the sport, and women's sport in general, because it’s really going to change the landscape of AFL across the country,’’ she said.
“I think we’re really starting to see women’s sport take hold in Australia, evolve and change over the last few years and more so in the last 12 months with the WBBL, the Matildas and now the AFL as well.
"It’s an exciting time and I’m just really happy that I get to be a part of it.”