BENDIGO Thunder defensive midfielder Tish Stewart is the face behind the club’s on-field football guernsey featuring council colours and an iconic poppet head.
The fourth-year player and former graphic design student created the stylish jumper when Thunder joined the Victorian Women’s Football League in 2011.
Two premierships and almost 50 games later, Stewart still gets strong personal satisfaction from running out alongside team-mates all wearing her artistry every week.
“I take a lot of pride out of it and it gives me a real feeling of sentimentality, having been part of that design process at the start,” the 25-year-old says.
Her female football pathway began in Colbinabbin, where the youngest of Frank and Maree Stewart’s seven children would spend hours outside on the family’s sheep and wheat farm kicking a ball around to herself.
“I did Auskick for a year when I was about 10,” she recalls. “Initially, it was just to get the free footy and footy cards but I really fell in love with the game.
“But there wasn’t anywhere for me to go after that so I had to play netball instead, though I ended up really enjoying it. I guess I could have played with the boys until I was 14, but it was just the done thing at the time to play netball.”
Stewart won a C-grade premiership playing mid-court for Colbo in the Heathcote association in her teens, and later captained the club to a B-grade title.
But a decade after her first foray into football, it reappeared on her sporting radar.
“In 2010, when I was studying at La Trobe, we formed a team to play AFL at the Southern University Games,” she says, adding the experience introduced her to some of the people working to form a senior women’s side in Bendigo at the time.
“They heard on the grapevine that I was doing graphic design and approached me about designing the jumper and playing the following year.
“The committee wanted the Bendigo council colours incorporated into it, and the council swirls as well. Another idea was to just have a poppet head, so we managed to come up with a design that includes both and I think it’s come up pretty well.”
The chance to pull on her footy boots was even more exciting.
“I’d been waiting to play football again for more than 10 years, so it was huge,” Stewart says.
“The Southern Uni Games were great, but that was only a week of competition and this was the real deal. I’ve always loved team sports but football is something else.
“I love the skill involved - learning how to kick a football for starters is a challenge in itself. I love the concept of the game, and the physicality is good fun because you can knock someone about and everyone has a laugh together at the end of the game.”
Stewart is delighted that through Thunder, Bendigo’s youth girls football league, and a new primary-age come-and-try program, local females of all ages can share her passion.
“I’m really excited that girls have these opportunities now - there’s no stop-start, you can just go straight through. And now it isn’t something different to be playing football as a girl.
“When I first started with Thunder, I felt like it was really different and people might judge me for that. But now it is totally accepted for teenage girls to play football and no one takes a second look - and I love that.”
Stewart was a member of Thunder’s premiership teams in 2012 and 2013 and is a past winner of the club Coach’s Award trophy.
The versatile player with a long, accurate kick and strong overhead marks wears number 11, in honour of her late former partner, who carried the same number on the soccer pitch.
She is well known around the club for her team spirit - and her wild mop of curly hair!
“One day in my first year, it was very windy and wet and I had my hair straightened. We got back from the warm-up and I literally looked like a clown because it was all over the place.
“From that day on, I’ve had the nickname of Wig and that’s all anyone calls me,” she laughs.
“New players come to the club and probably wonder why.. I have a photo I can show so they know.”
Stewart grew up barracking for Geelong but spent her winter weekends watching Colbinabbin. Her dad was club secretary for more than 20 years and her older siblings - Kate, Ange, Rose, Emma, Gen and Brendan - all played netball or footy there as well.
Now it is totally acceptable for teenage girls to play football and no one takes a second look - and I love that.
She says football-netball clubs are vital to country communities.
“It really holds Colbo together. It’s such a tight-knit community and it brings new people to the town - and if you bring people to the club, they become loyal to it.
“I love going back and watching the football and netball there and I miss not being able to play netball now because of football. But I gave up one love for another.”
Her parents are extremely supportive of her sporting career and come to watch Thunder’s home games when they can, as do her Bendigo-based sisters and several young nephews who are themselves just starting out in junior football ranks.
She is due to play her 50th match in round one of 2015.
“I have been pretty lucky and only missed one game here and there through injury.
“I was going to miss a game for my brother’s wedding in 2012. But I ended up playing, then getting ready in the change-rooms and rushing off for the service.
“The wedding was in Moonee Ponds and our match was in Altona so I didn’t have too far to go and made it in plenty of time. My brother would have understood if I couldn’t, though.”
Stewart says despite Thunder struggling after being elevated to the VWFL premier division this season, the decision to promote them was the correct one.
“It’s been good for the girls around the club to develop and, personally, I have enjoyed the challenge of playing against the best girls in the country,” she says.
“The morale is great and hasn’t dropped off and we always have a good laugh afterwards.
“Maybe because the expectations aren’t so high, everyone is really enjoying it. It might be good to have a year like this, where we are not totally focused on winning a grand final.”
Stewart says she is playing much better football, having adopted a more relaxed approach instead of constantly putting pressure on herself. She also loves the chance to line up against some of the best female players in the country.
Her goal is to see out her football career at Thunder and do her best for her team week in, week out, for as long as she can.
“I’d like to play for another 10 years if my body holds up, because I don’t see my passion for the game dying any time soon.
“It really excites me to see women’s football growing so rapidly, and more people having that shared passion.
“I used to kick the football around to myself in the front yard for hours on end until my feet went numb, so it’s great that other girls now have that opportunity.”