01 March 2016 - Anthony O’Brien 

Footy-mad accountant Elise O’Dea is on the cusp of a lifelong dream to play professionally.

Having been drafted and delisted by the Western Bulldogs, one of the AFL’s biggest clubs, Elise O’Dea, who is employed at Agostinelli Perlen Chartered Accountants, is currently slogging it out with the Women’s Football Academy. 

The academy is preparing the best 100 female players in Victoria for the inaugural Women’s AFL League, due to commence in 2017.

Born and bred in Canberra, O’Dea, who is also completing the final stages of the Chartered Accountants Program, has worshipped Australian Rules for as long as she can remember. The 24-year-old started kicking a ball formally when she joined the Belconnen Magpies club in the ACT women’s AFL competition in 2006. The teenage prodigy represented the ACT at the national championships in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2011. In her final year with the ACT, she was named All Australian Player and the Best and Fairest player at the 2011 national carnival. She was also named as the Belconnen Magpies Best and Fairest player between 2009 and 2012.

At the end of 2012, O’Dea moved south to Melbourne to chase her AFL dreams. She currently plays with the Darebin Falcons in the Victorian Women’s Football League, the code’s highest level in the state, and for the Melbourne Demons. The Falcons have scored a trifecta of competition wins in 2013–2015, with star player O’Dea selected to represent Victoria at the 2013 National Championships. 

Notwithstanding her sporting record, O’Dea is yet to earn a cent from her AFL pursuits. This is set to change, with the AFL signing a television rights deal for A$2.508b for six years. 

“At the moment we are doing everything we can to develop the women’s game,” says O’Dea. 

“Once we have a product worth watching, we can start earning some money.” 

The Melbourne Demon is doing her bit with stints on the highly popular AFL 360 show on Fox Sports. 

“Whatever exposure you can get, you take it,” she says.

Role models

David Neitz, the retired AFL star, was a major inspiration for O’Dea. The strongly built centre half-back who became a full forward was the longest-serving captain in the history of the Melbourne Football Club and the first Demon to clock up 300 games. 

“He was the Melbourne captain when I was growing up,” recalls O’Dea, a midfielder, who occasionally plays in the forward line. 

“David led by example and was courageous and strong.”

As a junior, O’Dea met her idol at a fan event after a Demons game. 

“Melbourne got absolutely pumped and we were devastated,” says O’Dea. 

“We went to a supporter’s event after the game and there were four or five players and we couldn’t get to any of them.” 

The dejected youngster was leaving the function, when she spied Neitz outside. 

“I ran up to him and jumped on him, and rather than pushing me away, he picked me up and I have never forgotten it.”

Even with Canberra being a stronghold for league (Canberra Raiders) and rugby (ACT Brumbies), O’Dea gravitated to AFL, because “it was the only thing on in the house.” The rugby codes hold sway along the eastern seaboard, except for Victoria, while Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia are AFL bastions. 

“Mum and Dad were AFL fans and we just didn’t watch the rugby codes.”

O’Dea’s mother, Judy Henson, who works in a senior role at the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), is a major role model, along with her father, Justin O’Dea, a former programmer at the same government agency. 

“Mum has always worked really hard. I’ve never seen her take a sick day. She’s my rock and is always there for me,” says O’Dea.

Her father, who has retired from the ABS, inspires her in different ways. 

“He’s intelligent, passionate and uncompromising.

“I have a very supportive family. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says O’Dea.

Her parents moved to Melbourne in 2014, and O’Dea is back living with them.

“They will help me get through the CA Program, work and footy as well.”

O’Dea says that she also has a great mentor and manager, Terence Haw, at Agostinelli Perlen supporting her as she works through the CA Program.

“Terence has taken me under his wing. He’s developing me as a professional. I’m so lucky that I have hooked up with people who have seen something in me,” she says. 

O’Dea likens Haw to premiership-winning coach, Paul Roos, the current Melbourne Demons senior coach. 

“I’ve met Paul a few times. He’s so down to earth and doesn’t overcomplicate things. Terence is a bit like that. He is like the Paul Roos of accounting.”

A passion for accounting

At the end of Year 12, O’Dea’s parents, aware that their daughter was totally obsessed with chasing a Sherrin, tried to guide her towards a backup plan. Wise advice, given that there was no pathway into a professional AFL career six or seven years ago for women.

“Footy was all I thought about when I was growing up,” says O’Dea. 

“I just wanted to have a job that let me play footy.” 

However, the practical O’Dea sought the advice of a few older cousins, who counselled that accounting would provide a stable career. 

“As I was good at maths, I went to ANU [Australian National University] and did an accounting degree.”

As inevitable as Hawthorn taking the AFL premiership, O’Dea succumbed to the typical malaise that comes when experiencing university life for the first time. O’Dea admits to acting out of character and being a bit lazy; and, to her horror, she almost failed Accounting 101. Thankfully, she was close enough to a pass mark, so the lecturer allowed her to sit a sub-exam. Undaunted, she put her head down, studied hard, and passed the exam with flying colours. 

“I had two weeks to study and I learnt the textbook back to front,” she remembers.

“The lecturer called me later and told me that I got the best result of any student who sat the sub and that accounting was for me. I determined then that I wouldn’t let anyone down again.”

Combining accounting and footy

O’Dea says she never thinks much about the physicality of her chosen sport and the potential impact it might have on her career. 

“At the moment I have no concerns, and accounting and footy each represent an escape from the other. As long as I don’t have too many bruises on my face when I’m meeting a client, then it’s all right.”

There are parallels between processing a spreadsheet and figuring out a footy team sheet. “As an accountant, we work in a team environment, although you don’t need the same level of fitness,” chuckles O’Dea. 

“With accounting I can go into my own little world and process away, and not think about footy – although when I leave the office, it’s all about footy.” 

In winter, O’Dea’s football takes up between 20 and 25 hours of her busy week. 

“In the footy season, your whole Sunday is gone, as we support the youth girls team and the reserves, as well as helping in the canteen and setting up the fields.” 

O’Dea also trains with the Darebin Falcons twice a week, and there are Victorian and academy commitments to meet. 

“It’s almost every day in winter. I leave work at 6pm and head to training until 9pm twice a week.” 

There are also additional gym and conditioning sessions, which include running, swimming and cycling for the dedicated O’Dea.

Combining a blossoming sporting career with a high-pressure accounting job and CA studies is a balancing act that only works if O’Dea is careful with her time. 

“My boss Henry always says if you want something done, give it to a busy person. I know, for example, that I can’t take the whole weekend to study for my CA. So I make sure that I study for an hour or two every day,” says O’Dea.

Thankfully John Agostinelli and Henry Perlen at Agostinelli Perlen Chartered Accountants are big AFL supporters, although they are not fans of the Melbourne Demons. 

“Henry supports Richmond and John follows Carlton,” says O’Dea. 

“They respect that I’m playing footy at the highest level. Henry likes this because he thinks it helps me understand that when I do the CA Program, it’s the highest level in the profession.

“Henry and John are constantly pushing and challenging me to be the best in my profession. That said, if something comes up with footy, they’re supportive if I need to take some time out.”

Enjoying every element of a busy life is also critical to O’Dea. 

“If you don’t enjoy, and it’s not fun, you’ll become miserable. I never thought I’d like studying again. But I like the idea of getting better at my job. Having a higher level of knowledge is why clients need our help,” she says.

Looking to the future

As a 24 year old, the next four to five years will be important for O’Dea as she advances her AFL career prospects. 

“That said, women can stay at the top of the game for longer as it’s not as fast as the men’s game,” says O’Dea. 

“As you lose some speed, you can make up for it with strength and skill in our game. However, as our game gets faster, quicker and the girls get better physiques, an athlete won’t be able to last as long. But for now you can have a nice long career in footy.”


Source: Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand 



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