Aileen Gilroy woke up on Sunday morning fresh from celebrating North Melbourne’s preliminary semi-final win over Collingwood and planning for the final four. That night she went to bed with a flight booked home.
Just as plans for a recovery session were put in place, news broke on Sunday that the AFL season was postponed. The Covid-19 pandemic meant women’s programme was cancelled with no winner to be named in 2020.
"To say this is the most serious threat to our game in 100 years is an understatement. It is unprecedented in its impact," said AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan.
“We got a message into our group at 4pm,” Gilroy says. “I got a call soon after, ‘when do you want to go home?’ A flight was booked for Monday. I packed my bag, had my exit meeting in the morning and headed to the airport.”
The Mayo women spent the season living alongside fellow Irish AFLW players Aisling McCarthy, Joanne Doonan, and Mairead Seoighe. All three left the country last week. Gilroy elected to stay. Her team were favourites for the Premiership and she was certain to play a part.
Yet it was by no means an easy decision. Housemates she hardly knew before travelling to Australia became “like sisters”.
Gilroy put in a superb showing during Saturday’s contest but it means nought now. She leaves with no anger, only sadness.
“You can’t be angry. Look at North, 70% of people there won’t have a job tomorrow. The world is in a bad place right. The man thing is to get home safe.”
Jason Hill, co-founder of the Crosscoders International programme that brought 12 Irish players to the AFLW this year, says most of the Irish contingent will no choice but to head home due to their visa stipulations. He is in the midst of organising flights for the majority of them.
“Pretty much everyone has to get home because their visas will expire and they won’t be able to work. If they did pick up casual work, they would potentially be breaking visa regulations.
“The Fremantle girls (Aine Tighe of Leitrim and Kate Flood of Louth) came out on their own visas rather than the sporting visas. They have less limitations when it comes to work so they could still work during this period. They will stay.
“Grace Kelly is having surgery on her knee today. We are worried there won’t be any flights by the time she can actually fly. It is meant to be two or three weeks so she might have to stay here as well.”
Now the sport faces a fight to survive. For Hill, he expects that will spread across the entire organisation rather than select programmes.
“The industry is going to take a fairly hard long look at itself. The expectation is that it will feel a lot like the NFL’s black Monday. A lot of people will lose their jobs. A lot of people will take pay cuts.
“There is talk of the soft cap in the men’s league being reduced from $10 million down to six. That is basically all the money used to run the club outside of player’s salaries.
“I am not worried for the women’s future because I feel the industry as a whole takes the hit. It won’t be ‘you are the last in, so the first out’. That would be too much of a political and PR nightmare. We expect there will be financial reductions in the women’s programme, maybe headcount reductions.”
Sunday was a dark juncture for the AFL. The coming days are set to be worse.