Peta Searle. Photo: Simon Schluter
Making history as a woman in football, Peta Searle has been recruited by St Kilda as a development coach.
It is the highest a female has climbed in AFL coaching ranks and comes after Searle, the trailblazer who was the first woman appointed to a VFL assistant coaching job, walked away from the post at second-tier level this season feeling disillusioned by the lack of opportunities to progress.
“I’ve been lost for words. Probably a little bit overwhelmed,” Searle told Fairfax Media, confirming her breakthrough with the Saints.
“I think it’s a bit like when you’re coaching or playing and you win a grand final - you feel a big sense of relief.
“For this situation to have turned around - it’s happening and it’s real – I’ve gone from being grumpy Pete to you can’t wipe the smile off my face.”
After a second interview with St Kilda last week, where she presented to a panel of coaches and club CEO Matt Finnis, Searle received a phone call from senior coach, Alan Richardson.
“I was driving, I pulled over and we had a conversation,” she said.
“He told me he was ringing to say that he really wanted me at the club, for a range of reasons that he reeled off. But you probably couldn’t quote me on the ones he gave me then because I was a bit excited.
“I said to Alan: ‘I’m actually lost for words for once.”
Recalling that her first interview with the Saints “probably didn’t go that well”, she said she was much more comfortable once she could “just present on footy” in a second meeting.
“Conversations were going and forth, then, about how I’d handle certain situations, about my knowledge, about how I’d coach a particular thing,” she said.
“Once we got to the real nuts and bolts of it all in terms of football, I felt that it went really well. And I felt there was a real connection, which is really important.”
Searle said she had also had preliminary discussions about another potential AFL home.
St Kilda will announce the groundbreaking appointment on Monday.
Searle will join the Saints mid-season and report to Simon McPhee, head of development at St Kilda. She has been offered an 18-month contract.
Since leaving her position in the VFL at Port Melbourne, where she worked alongside her greatest champion, Gary Ayres, as one of his assistants, Searle had reluctantly returned to primary school teaching.
Before then, the single mother of two had made ends meet by living on the pension and her $5000 wage from football coaching, but after seven years felt it was unsustainable to keep following her football dream of joining AFL ranks.
When she told Fairfax Media her story in April, Searle said she was “grieving” a professional ambition in football that she admitted felt extinguished.
“It’s just not viable for me to continue,” she said.
“I just thought that maybe with a few more years in the system something could have happened - that I could have provided for my family and do what I really want to do. But the fact is that just didn’t quite evolve, and that’s disappointing.”
The story caused the AFL to take up her case and help connect Searle with league clubs.
“Back then I was not in a great phase, in terms of having to transition and having to give up on what I’d worked hard for,” Searle recalled on Monday.
“I’m excited not just personally, but for the people who have helped make this happen. It’s been a long journey for a lot of people, and so I’m very happy for them as well.”