Tanya Hetherington addressed the Under 23 All-Stars team in their match against the AFL Academy Girls at Marvel Stadium on June 18, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

TANYA Hetherington has always loved footy.

Following her umpire father to local grounds every weekend and riding the highs and lows of Collingwood's fortunes was her introduction to the game. But finding her own place in footy, especially a full-time job in the industry she loves so dearly, never seemed to be a realistic life goal.

So now, a full-time assistant coaching role in Sydney's AFLW program is a literal dream come true for Hetherington. It is a position that is the result of hard work, persistence, and a willingness to leap at opportunities when they presented themselves.

A girl's place

Growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s, there were limited opportunities for girls to play footy. It is a story that has been told countless times before. Girls forced to other sports, footy clubs resistant to girls and women's teams. Essentially being shut out of the game.

Tanya Hetherington playing footy at her home as a young child. Picture: Supplied

Hetherington's story is no different. Looking forward to playing school footy once a year because that was the only chance girls had, with the feeling replicated once at university, playing in the annual Uni Games.

"When I graduated from uni, 10 of us decided to join a local team, the Surrey Park Panthers, and played for a year in 2007," Hetherington told AFL.com.au.

"At the end of the year, the committee at the time had decided they no longer wanted a girls' team … they got rid of us."

Enter Debbie Lee, then the Victorian Women's Football League (VWFL) president, who found new clubs for the women left in the lurch.

"I'll never forget because one of my good friends Laura Ernst rang and said, 'I've got good and bad news … good news is we've got a team, bad news is it's in Diamond Creek'," Hetherington laughed.

Women's footy trailblazer Debbie Lee. Picture: AFL Photos

Ernst was at the time Laura Attard, who would go on to be an inaugural member of Carlton's AFLW program a decade later.

"Ten of us went to Dimond Creek and the rest is history. That was 2008 and I was there until 2017. Best memories of my life," Hetherington said.

Sliding doors

Hetherington always knew she wanted a career in sport, but what exact role that might be was yet to be determined. She earned a degree in Sport Coaching and Administration, led by tutor David Parkin, but there was little visibility of women in coaching positions.

Some small coaching roles in netball and footy emerged here and there while Hetherington continued to play at Diamond Creek, but nothing serious or long term. And then, on one of the biggest days in the formative years of the AFLW, a sliding doors moment presented itself.

"In the 2015 prelim I did my ACL," Hetherington said.

"I'll never forget this. The morning of the prelim, it's a Saturday morning, this article comes out and it says that the AFL had announced 100 girls were going to be selected for this Victorian Academy in the hope of getting to the draft."

That draft was the first official AFLW draft, selecting the inaugural players for the 2017 NAB AFLW season. And Hetherington had just ruptured her ACL at 30 years of age.

Tanya Hetherington during Greater Western Sydney's training session at WestConnex Centre in 2019. Picture: AFL Photos

Nevertheless, Hetherington was selected for the Academy, joining a small group of players specifically added to a rehabilitation program, including Christina Bernardi, who went on to be signed to Collingwood, and Western Bulldogs premiership player Tiarna Ernst.

While rehabbing, it was Academy coach Graham Burgen who suggested Hetherington coach Diamond Creek through the 2016 season, and although it was for just one year, it was a decision that set her on the right path.

Taking chances

By 2017, now-Sydney AFLW coach Scott Gowans was in place to lead Diamond Creek, and Hetherington was back out on the field, but setbacks in her rehab meant she had missed out on being drafted.

"You're not in any high-performance type of club, you know, it's a community club. So, I just had to see my own physio, just sort myself out basically … it proved quite difficult," Hetherington said.

"I just simply wasn't ready to be drafted when the first draft came around which was just a shame."

But not being drafted meant an opportunity to re-establish herself as a player under Gowans, ultimately named in the Team of the Year, and landing on the radar of then-Victorian recruiter for Greater Western Sydney, Chyloe Kurdas.

"I was driving to work at Monash Uni, and I got this call from Chyloe Kurdas at 7am… she's like 'how would you feel about coming to some GWS Giants tryouts?'" Hetherington recalled.

"I had a full-time job, and the first thing I did was go into my boss' office. I was like 'is it okay if I go to this?'… he was like 'Tanya, this is great, don't worry about work'."

Tanya Hetherington during Greater Western Sydney's 2022 team photo day at Giants HQ. Picture: AFL Photos

An impressive showing at the tryouts led to a meeting with new Giants coach Alan McConnell that September.

"Alan is very good at asking questions, you always feel like you're under interrogation," Hetherington laughed.

But the nerves were unnecessary because there was something Hetherington had over others who tried out. Not only was she a handy player, but her coaching experience was exactly what the Giants were after.

"He told me 'I'm going to pick you because you've coached'," she said.

"Because I had that year coaching."

Tanya Hetherington shares a laugh during Greater Western Sydney's 2022 team photo day at Giants HQ. Picture: AFL Photos

From there it was simply a case of nominating for NSW in the draft, and organising her life, partner, and work, to allow the move for six months of the year.

"Everything, even now at the Swans, I attribute all of this back to that moment where I got drafted by the Giants," Hetherington said.

A simple message

Hetherington played 46 games across six seasons at the Giants, establishing herself as one of the best ball users in the competition. Upon announcing her retirement in 2022, she was immediately a woman in demand.

A message from Jess Smith, the AFL's national female talent manager, literally as Hetherington was being chaired from the ground in her final game, made the next step in her career easy.

"Jess slid into my DMs as I was being chaired off," Hetherington chuckled.

"It was like 'Hey Tanya, congrats on your career. I've just seen you've retired, are you interested in coaching?'"

Smith confirmed the timing of it all, noting she was sat on her couch watching Alicia Eva and Alyce Parker carry Hetherington from the ground when the idea popped into her head.

Tanya Hetherington is chaired off following her final AFLW match in 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

That message led to a role within the AFL's talent pathways program, working closely with her childhood hero Tarkyn Lockyer.

"It was just the best decision I could make… it was too good to turn down," Hetherington said.

But it didn't last long. Not because the role didn't suit the recently retired defender, but because another chance encounter led to an even greater opportunity.

Georgie Cleaver (left) and Tanya Hetherington chat during the AFLW Academy's training session at The Hangar on January 20, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Siding with the enemy

After playing her whole AFLW career with the Giants, bumping into Gowans at an airport pick-up opened a door across town at the Swans.

"He's like 'congrats on your career, what are you going to do next?'" Hetherington said.

After admitting that she was weighing up some coaching roles – including the one at the AFL – Gowans' interest was piqued.

"He said 'We're actually advertising for a role if you're interested. I think you should apply'."

A little encouragement from Parker and Sydney VFL coach Damien Truslove later, and Hetherington was meeting with Gowans and the club's general manager of AFLW, Kate Mahony.

"It went really well… I left that going 'You know what? At worst I've made a really good impression'," Hetherington said.

While the role – senior assistant coach within Sydney's AFLW program – ultimately went to Nick Davis, the Swans approached Hetherington with another offer. But, having already taken the position with Lockyer at the AFL and resettled with her partner in Melbourne, the timing was off, so Hetherington and the Swans decided to remain in touch.

Tanya Hetherington (left) and Anthony Rocca are seen during an AFLW Academy training session at The Hangar on January 20, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Five months later Mahony called again with another offer.

"They revised the offer in hope I'd change my mind, and I spoke to my partner and spoke to Jess Smith. My partner was like 'Tan, you have to take this' … I'm very grateful to Kate and Scott, they didn't pressure me. I think that helped because they knew I really wanted to take it, but it just wasn't the right time at first," Hetherington said.

"But the passion for the 'W' never left me, I really wanted to be involved."

In less than a week Hetherington had relocated to Sydney to take up a full-time job as the AFLW program's forward line coach.

Her involvement was one part of Sydney's resurgence from winless in 2022 to finals in 2023, taking charge of a forward group that average four more goals per game than it did the season prior.

That impact can be traced all the way back to her time watching Dad umpire every weekend, her experience being cast out by Surrey Park, her unfortunate ACL injury in 2015. It was the path that led to her coaching, back to playing, and back to coaching again.

The culmination of those small opportunities taken; a decision to coach while rehabbing, a DM from a friend, a chance encounter at an airport.

All roads for Hetherington led to coaching.