Growing up my mum never watched me play football. Not by choice.
She was in charge of a small French bakery and worked weekends. It would have been a thrill to see both Mum and Dad in the crowd cheering me on the sidelines, but the money my mum earned helped pay for things like registration fees, new football boots, mouth guards, team jumpers, and I was lucky enough to travel on football camps.
With Mother’s Day approaching this weekend, it got me thinking about the term ‘football mum’ and what it means.
Is a football mum the one screaming on the boundary at games? Is it the one that cuts oranges for the three-quarter-time huddle? Does a football mum host team barbecues, volunteer 25 hours a week or raise money for raffles? What about the mum that works during peak football periods?
The answer is that a football mum is all of those things. And we owe them all of our gratitude.
My mum arrived in Australia when she was 12 years old. She was the middle child of three girls. She was born in Bitola, Macedonia, a farming village two hours south of the Skopje capital.
Her family grew fruit, vegetables and sold tobacco at the local market. Her dad, Kosta, decided to relocate his family to Sydney for fear of being enlisted in the national army.
When Mum was in her late teens he married her off to a Macedonian man who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. After having the courage to leave her first marriage, my mum met my dad and they settled in Melbourne to raise a family.
Dad introduced Mum to football and the Demons. She knew soccer. But footy was foreign. She embraced the freedoms of the game. At the MCG with my dad she would watch Robbie Flower, Jim Stynes and Rod Grinter.
She would yell and scream and be true to herself and wore her heart on her sleeve. When Melbourne made the 2000 grand final, her Demons took on my Bombers.
She called me from the Bentleigh Club after the Demons kicked the first goal and cheekily asked, “What do you think about that sonny boy!”
At halftime, with the Bombers up by 41 points, I tried to return the call but her phone was switched off. She knows the game well enough by now and when to stay silent.
My earliest memory of football was the 1985 grand final watching Essendon go back to back. When I was old enough I joined a football club and my weekends were occupied with one – sometimes two – games of football. Mum took me to training, Dad watched the games.
Mum worked on her feet all weekend and Dad worked long hours in the city during the week. Even though my mum’s presence wasn’t felt at games I learnt a lot of other things from her that helped my football journey. Things like a solid work ethic, dedication and commitment. Being a team player. And the value of deep personal connections.
Over the past few weeks I’ve spoken to mums who have raised AFL players. Most of them have been in the driver’s seat with their son, riding shotgun and being role models, influencers, mentors as they navigate through their AFL journey.
They’ve juggled life, work and motherhood. Some are coaches. Others are volunteers. What I found when speaking to the AFL mums was that being a good person, having respect, and knowing where you’ve come from trumps things like athleticism, playing at the highest level and Brownlow medals.
Not every Australian kid makes the AFL but most, if not all, have dreams to be the next Lance Franklin, Patrick Dangerfield, or Patrick Cripps. Without that lifeline from mums those dreams – and variations of those dreams – don’t pan out.
When I wasn’t playing club football, I was kicking the football in the backyard with Dad or going to the MCG. Even in those moments, Mum was part of it, either driving us to the station, cooking dinner or coming to watch the football with us.
With Mother’s Day coming up this weekend, I say thanks Mum for all of it. Thanks for urging me to go to training in the pouring rain because my teammates were counting on me. Thanks for encouraging me to have a go. Thanks for consoling me when my team lost. Thanks for showing me how to stick up for myself. Thanks for picking up my friends when they needed help. I have inherited these traits from you.
Undeterred by the difficulties my mum had growing up and in spite of having to move country and learn a whole new culture and forget what she knew, the thing I admire most about my mum is that she had the guts to forge her own path.
She made a career out of managing a suburban French bakery and was incredibly successful at it. And during her core working years she showed incredible drive, persistence and humility. This was a true gift.
Although football wasn’t her main priority, seeing Mum do all these things seeped into how I played football. And larger than that, it meant that I too could make anything out of my life.