ON SATURDAY evening, Melbourne captain Daisy Pearce will play her 50th AFLW match, but her importance to women's footy started some 200 games before her first official outing in red and blue.

While she's been in the spotlight for the past seven years - both as the poster girl for the AFLW competition and blazing a new trail as an AFL commentator - Pearce is also part of a cohort of female footballers whose hard work and persistence laid the foundation for the semi-professional competition we have today.

A kid from Bright who loved playing footy and analysing AFL games with her dad, Pearce moved to Melbourne as a 16-year-old, joining the Darebin Falcons, a women-only footy club in what was then the Victorian Women's Football League. 

Daisy Pearce (centre) and fellow AFL Women's Championship players pose for a photo at Subiaco Oval on June 2, 2009. Picture: AFL Photos

In the pre-AFLW era, the Falcons were one of the country's strongest female footy strongholds, with Pearce's fellow AFLW stars Darcy Vescio, Melissa Hickey, Karen Paxman and Elise O’Dea all also hailing from the Falcons.

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In 12 years with the Falcons, Pearce played in 10 premierships from nearly 200 games. She won the Lambert Medal, the league's best and fairest award, six times before the competition reformed as the VFLW, where she went on to win the then-unnamed competition best and fairest medal once more. 

That medal is now named after Pearce, alongside pioneer Helen Lambert, as evidence of her impact on that league. 

(L-R): Shaun Higgins, Aasta O'Connor, Daisy Pearce and Jack Grimes walk onto the MCG during the 2013 AFL Women's Round Launch on June 24, 2013. Picture: AFL Photos

"I feel like she has actually been a really significant factor in getting the competition, the VFL(W) competition and the VWFL competition at a level that the AFL was ready to consider that you know, maybe we'll have a professional league," current Melbourne assistant coach Jane Lange told womens.afl

Lange, who both played and coached at Darebin, is another key figure who made the move from the Falcons to the Demons on the advent of the AFLW. 

"I think her skillset as a player individually, but her drive to push Darebin and challenge our team and our club to be the best that we possibly could was a really significant factor I think in pushing the quality of the league in that time." 

Daisy Pearce in action for Darebin during the VFLW Grand Final against Melbourne University on September 18, 2016. Picture: AFL Photos

Always wanting the best out of herself and those around her has been the key to Pearce's success and growth. The transition from state league footy to the AFLW wasn't a shock because her standards were already so high, with a drive and persistence to always be better both physically and mentally. 

"I would say that she's a genius, the way she sees the game," AFLW leading goalkicker Darcy Vescio said. 

"She used to watch the game like that with her dad, like she'd never just watch the game, it would always be talking about strategy." 

Daisy Pearce in action during an exhibition match between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs on June 30, 2013. Picture: AFL Photos

Chatting strategy at every opportunity is something that hasn't left Pearce. There are stories about her and another Darebin alum at an end-of-season function huddled over a table using condiment shakers and the like to plan out a midfield set-up amongst the noise swirling around. 

When asked if the story was true, and who that other person might have been, Lange somewhat sheepishly confessed her involvement. 

"Yes, no, that is, that's true," admitted Lange. 

"I kind of recall the function and probably it being a bit chaotic around us, we were sitting there and had ourselves entranced by saltshakers, and I think napkins and whatever else."  

A pregnant Daisy Pearce coaches a teammate during a Melbourne training session on November 15, 2018. Picture: AFL Photos

While that was the most common story told, it wasn't the only time people had witnessed something similar. 

"I've seen that multiple times, like at restaurants and stuff, salt and pepper shakers being used as midfield setups," laughed Vescio. 

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Now Pearce shares that knowledge with a national audience on a weekly basis during the men's season as an expert commentator on the TV broadcast, and when retiring from the AFLW will step straight into a coaching role with Geelong's men's team. 

Daisy Pearce (left) poses with fellow AFLW team captains at the AFLW launch on February 1, 2017. Picture: AFL Photos

But it's not all serious all the time, as former teammate at both the Falcons and the Demons Mel Hickey explains. 

"She's always been this combination of super cheeky and really competitive," Hickey said of Pearce.

Hickey then goes on to chuckle as she recalls a silly locker room performance of the song 'Valerie' by Pearce after a win at Casey Fields in an early AFLW season. 

"I don't think she necessarily lets it out a lot, but her teammates would see that side of her," Hickey said. 

Daisy Pearce signs a baby after a Melbourne win in the preliminary final against Brisbane on April 2, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

That side of her, that the public might not know very well, is layered in humour and an ability to make teammates feel comfortable and welcomed. 

"She's got a wicked sense of humour. She's always making me laugh," Melbourne vice-captain Kate Hore said of Pearce.  

"Which probably is surprising because I guess you see her as this leader and you see her on the TV, and she just analyses the game so well, so you probably think she is a bit of a serious type, but cheeky is definitely how I would describe her." 

Being a student of the game, with the skills to match, has seen the star play across all lines. Starting her AFLW career as a walk up start in a formidable midfield alongside Paxman and O'Dea, she missed the 2019 season while pregnant with twins Sylvie and Roy, although was never too far from the club, assisting the coaching panel. 

Daisy Pearce carries twins Sylvie and Roy after a game during round one, 2020. Picture: AFL Photos

Returning in 2020, she was the first AFLW player to come back to the competition after a season out to give birth. That return came with a positional change, moved to half back thanks to her elite ability to read the play ahead of her and set up her team from defence. Then, midway through the 2021 season she was swung forward where she was able to impact the scoreboard and mentor young forward recruits. 

Being the captain of the Demons for her 50 games isn't because of that on-field ability, however, instead it's because of the impact she has on her teammates, which has been unparalleled. 

For some, like Hickey who played in seven of Pearce's 10 Darebin premierships and was ultimately signed to Melbourne as a marquee player alongside the star, all it took was a look. 

"In the rooms before you run out, you could look into her eyes and she kind of just gives that little knowing nod or little smile or even like a stern kind of look and you just know. She's just the player that lifts you up. She's going to make you better and everything's going to be okay," Hickey said. 

To Hore, Pearce has demonstrated how to be a leader. 

"She's a natural born leader. She's just someone that always knows the right thing to say. She's got a really good balance of knowing when someone needs a bit of a rocket or just a hug, and I think I've just observed the way she's gone about it," she said.

"She's someone that I'm always kind of bouncing ideas off of. I definitely look up to her for leadership qualities." 

An injured Daisy Pearce joins her Melbourne teammates to sing the team song after a win during round nine, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

And for Vescio, it's the way Pearce treats people off the field that has been most important. 

"I think she's got a pretty unique ability to make you feel really valued. Whoever you are, wherever you're from, when you're having a conversation with her or playing with her, I think she makes you feel like what you've got to say really matters," Vescio said.

"The role you can play in the team means something bigger than you. And I think everyone walks taller when she's when she's there."