Brisbane Lions complete AFLW fairytale

After a 2020 season that left footy fans deflated without an end to the story they’d been following so passionately, the final page of the 2021 chapter has been turned, with a most exhilarating finish. Twice heartbroken on the biggest stage by an agonising six points, Brisbane Lions are the 2021 AFLW Premiers.

We talk about fairytales a lot in footy – about Cinderella stories and underdog stories, but also the horror stories and the nightmares. They all play an in important role. The story is what brings us in, what connects us, what keeps us wanting to turn the page.

Having that taken away last year was devastating. Having the book handed back to us in 2021, and to fill the pages with the season we’ve had, with the league and teams battling a pandemic to get the season on the park and a grand final that delivered the drama, devastation and delight it did, is a story worth cherishing.

Brisbane’s AFLW story is one fans have followed and empathised with since they lost their first grand final in 2017. One of the foundation teams in the AFLW competition, the Lions, after losing two grand finals, then felt the full effects of expansion in 2019 with the introduction of North Melbourne and Geelong. The club lost Kaitlyn Ashmore, Tahlia Randall, Jamie Stanton and Brittany Gibson, finishing second-last in Conference B.

2020 saw more departures. Sabrina Frederick went to Richmond, Kate McCarthy went to St Kilda, and they lost eight players to the Gold Coast Suns. Only seven women from that 2017 grand final team took the field in the 2021 edition. But under the leadership of seasoned coach, and this year’s AFL Coaches Association AFLW Senior Coach of the Year, Craig Starcevich, Brisbane rebuilt.

The Lions looked to be bouncing back last year, making the fast-tracked finals in 2020 before losing to Carlton by 29 points prior to COVID-19 stopping the finals series in its tracks with no overall winner.

Brisbane’s AFLW story has felt lacking for the last few years, not lacklustre, as for everything they’ve given the competition, for how much Queensland in particular has given to women’s football, that elusive premiership to reward to the work has been a missing piece. And now that premiership is a defining moment in the Lions’ history courtesy of a game that had everything.

Courtney Hodder’s first goal of the game for Brisbane was spine-tingling, then to follow it up with another highly skilled soccer off the ground was electric. Hodder had just one touch in last week’s preliminary final.

Stevie-Lee Thompson tying the scores with just over a minute left in the opening term added to the drama after we were treated to a high-intensity battle throughout the opening half.

Then the devastation. Both captains, Brisbane’s Emma Zielke and stand-in captain for Adelaide, Angela Foley, went down in the third quarter within five minutes of each other. The nightmare twists we don’t’ see coming, leaving us reeling.

Then joy. Retiring Lion and AFLW stalwart Lauren Arnell kicking a goal in a winning grand final, her final game, was the stuff of legend.

There are also the stories that echo throughout the footy world as a direct impact of the AFLW competition.

It was admirable to see the AFL alter the men’s fixture to allow the AFLW grand final to have its moment. But as a sport-hungry nation in post-COVID recovery, there’s so much sport on offer now to make-up for a year lost. As Kirby Fenwick wrote, this weekend there were many community clubs returning to the grounds they were kept out of for so long, “pulling on the boots, standing on the sidelines or in the canteen, perhaps surreptitiously watching the [AFLW Grand Final] between serving orders of hot chips, instead of heading to the game or watching at home.”

For those at the iconic Brunswick Street Oval today, the quick looks at phones and shouting of scores was part of the community footy buzz. Fitzroy Football Club, now competing in the Victorian Amateur Football Association, still maintain a strong connection with the Brisbane Lions post the merger with the Bears in 1996. As the Fitzroy senior women’s team battled it out, club directors and volunteers shared their screens to keep track of the Lions, proud of what they have achieved and of the example they’re setting for women playing footy all around the country.

And every story has a hero. It’s hard to choose just one when we are spoilt for them in AFLW but perhaps the most enduring act of heroism in this story came from someone who couldn’t take the field. Chelsea Randall’s advocacy for concussion protocols while she was forced to watch from the sidelines was nothing short of heroic.

These are the stories that make the AFLW so special. They are the stories of the athletes, the fans, the community who all are part of the narrative of this competition.

There will of course be devastated Adelaide fans. There will be devastated Melbourne and Fremantle and Collingwood and North Melbourne fans. But AFLW is different to what we see in AFLM. Fans have teams, but they have their stories. The stories of how they came to be fans of AFLW. If they have a team, or chose a new one, or followed their favourite players or have multiple favourite players across multiple teams. If they came to AFLW because they didn’t feel welcome at AFLM. If the AFLW makes them feel like they belong. It’s all part of their story and for most AFLW fans, we’re cheering for the story.

And the story of 2021 is the stuff of legend. Brisbane’s story.