Women’s footy veteran re-finds her love for the game

NORTH Melbourne forward Emily Paterno is a stalwart of women’s footy who has seen a lot of change in her time in the game.

Coming up on her 200th game, which she is due to play next season, she has seen women’s footy gone from a very local, very unknown entity to what we have today. Her footy career began as a kid in Melbourne’s western suburbs, back when the rules were very different for girls playing footy.

“I started playing footy back when I was around 10 years old, with the boys down at Hillside footy club,” Paterno said. “I was the only girl at the time. I played for a couple of years there and then moved to Keilor for the remainder of the time until I was no longer allowed to play with the boys [14 years old]. “It was at that time that a friend of mine introduced me to the St Albans Spurs, where I played in their Youth Girls program. At 17 I moved into their Senior side, which was then playing in the old VWFL. “That is where my VWFL/VFLW career started.”

She also played in representative footy teams right through her teenage years, alongside some of the players who are now stars of the AFLW competition. That list of players she played with in her representative footy days includes the likes of Jasmine Garner, Rebecca Privitelli, Bianca Jakobsson, Sarah Perkins, Alicia Eva, Nicola Stevens and Jessica Dal Pos. She fondly remembers her time playing in those representative teams.

“My rep footy days were definitely some of my fondest childhood memories,” Paterno said. “This was the very very early days of an elite pathway for girls/women’s footy, and the first time a lot of us got to experience a high performance environment and the occasional access to professional facilities.

“The friendships I formed throughout those years are still my strongest standing to this day. “I’d say about 60 per cent of the girls I grew up playing rep footy with are now in the AFLW program. “Some of my closest friends are now some of the AFLW stars you see running around on your tv screens, and to have been able to witness the foundation years of that journey for them has always been something special. “I could not be more proud of them!”

The next stage of Paterno’s footy journey saw her join Williamstown in the VFLW in 2018, before moving across to Richmond’s VFLW side the following year. She was also due to play with Richmond in 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic came along.

“I knew the coach at Williamstown [women’s footy stalwart Amy Catterall] pretty well as I’d played football with her previously, and I had a whole bunch of old friends as teammates,” Paterno said. “This was probably one of the most fun years I’d had playing football, however my move to Richmond came from a place of wanting to get out of my comfort zone, move into a new environment where I had to prove myself all over again, and ultimately see if I could further develop myself as a footballer.”

Paterno spoke very fondly of her time at both clubs.

“My experiences at both clubs were great,” she said. “Both clubs had quite a different feel to them, and they both had qualities of their own that I enjoyed. Williamstown was a strong stand alone club with a rich history, that still had the comfortable feel of a community football environment, and I always loved that. “Richmond was an incredibly professional environment, with state of the art facilities.

“You’d walk down the hallways to get to the gym, and be rubbing shoulders with some of the AFL’s biggest stars. “I had plenty of pinch me moments while playing there, and I think that’s where I first hand got to witness the evolution of the AFLW competition and the commitment required to play at that level.”

Then 2021 came along, and by this stage things had changed a bit for Paterno, so much so that she needed to step away from VFLW level football for a year.

“I took a step away from VFLW footy last year because it was my first year as a qualified tradesperson [a cable jointer], and I wanted to be able to focus on getting myself settled into my career and take all of the opportunities that were presented to me,” Paterno said. “I’m fortunate enough to absolutely love my job, and the company that I work for. I’d struggled over the last few years to balance my work commitments and the increasing demands of VFLW football, and I didn’t like playing at a high level, without being able to properly commit to it, as I like to hold my performance to a high standard both at work and at footy.

“Playing local footy, and being able to come full circle and represent my first ever junior club again, really reignited that childhood flame that I had for football. My local team mates are a bunch of champions, and to be able to immerse myself in that environment for a whole season was exactly what I needed at the time. “I’m now lucky enough to be in a position where I can commit to my football in the way I feel necessary at VFLW level.”

After finding that spark to return to the VFLW, an opportunity came a knocking at North Melbourne.

“There wasn’t too much of a process involved. A couple of my best mates play in their AFLW program, and I’d had a pretty good year at local level,” Paterno said. “The idea was floated one weekend of potentially making a return to VFLW footy, and that following Monday I’d received a message from North’s VFLW manager Kristi Jenkins, and that Wednesday I was down at pre season training getting a feel for the club, while they got a feel for me. It was a pretty instant decision for me, the culture at the club is incredible, and apart from my close connection to my local team weighing on my decision, I knew I wanted to go around again in the VFLW.”

She speaks very fondly of her time at the Kangaroos thus far, and in particular speaks the world of head coach Steph Binder.

“My time at North has been nothing short of incredible,” Paterno said. “My teammates are some of the greatest women I have met, the collective culture and atmosphere is something special, and the coaching and support staff are all second to none. Our head coach Steph Binder is one of the most brilliant coaches I’ve played under, and I’m so excited for what her future looks like in this space. “The environment all of these people have created is one that any footballer would be lucky to be a part of.”

She was also voted into the leadership group at the Kangaroos this season, an honour she was humbled by.

“Being voted into the leadership group in my first season at North was a real honour, and very humbling,” Paterno said. “I’d only just met these girls before they’d made their decisions, so to be able to have that impression on them was something I’m very proud of. “I’ve been lucky enough to have had a bit of leadership experience throughout my career, whether that be rep footy, at previous VFLW clubs, and as recently as captaining my local side last year.

“I find that the extra responsibility helps to hold me accountable, and the want to lead by example can only help me to play better footy for my team mates. “To be involved in leadership responsibilities is something I take very seriously, and to be able to help and support my teammates to be better footballers either on the field or better people off the field is why I do it. “They give me just as much as I give to them.”

In terms of future football career plans, although she is open to getting drafted, she does not want to put too much pressure on trying to be drafted and is just trying to enjoy her footy.

“My plan at the moment is to just keep playing the best football I can, and to take whatever opportunities that might be presented to me as a result of that,” Paterno said.

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