AFLW 2021: St Kilda v Western Bulldogs Round 1 clash

Typically, when Alice Burke runs out on to a football field, she looks up into the stands and scans the crowd until she finds her dad, St Kilda legend Nathan.

When she sees him, he’ll either give her a thumbs up, or a thumbs down – a code and special sign language between them, as he gives her fatherly footy advice.

But when the 18-year-old defender runs out onto Moorabbin Oval on Friday night to make her AFLW debut for St Kilda wearing her father’s famous No.3 on her back, she’s not sure whether he’ll be able to give her his traditional signal despite it being one of her most exciting games to date.

Nathan will be busy in the pre-game warm-up as the head coach of the Western Bulldogs – the team Alice will be making her debut against.

Nathan Burke with daughter Alice, when she was a 16-year-old AFLW prospect. Picture: Josie HaydenSource:News Corp Australia

Father and daughter the day before her AFLW debut. Picture: David GeraghtySource:News Corp Australia

“It’s not your usual situation,” Alice admits.

“We were talking about it a bit (Wednesday) night and he was saying it’s a bit sad he won’t be able to properly enjoy my first game, but we’ll make it work.

“Either way, he’ll be happy to see me out there.”

She pauses briefly, then adds with a laugh: “Although he probably won’t want me doing too well”.

In November last year, Alice – Nathan’s youngest of three daughters – became the Saints’ first-ever father-daughter pick, after playing two seasons of NAB League footy with the Sandringham Dragons. She was “elated” to find out on Wednesday night that she would make her elite debut in Round 1.

Nathan, a four-time All-Australian and 323-game legend of St Kilda, retired after 17 seasons, having debuted in 1987. He wore the No.3 guernsey from 1992 until his final game in a Round 19 clash against Richmond on August 9, 2003.

Nathan Burke played for the Saints, but now coaches the Western Bulldogs. Picture: AAPSource:AAP

Nathan, who was appointed Bulldogs coach in September, 2019, is not taking it as a coincidence that the Doggies and Saints are drawn to face each other in Round 1 again (they did so in Round 1, 2020, with the Doggies coming out 25-point winners, in front of 8000-odd people).

And he’s more than happy to be a part of a building a special rivalry between the clubs.

“If it’s something that people look forward to coming along and seeing, then that will be great for the game,” he says.

But Nathan’s wife/Alice’s mother, Fiona, admits she often finds herself “caught in the middle”.

AFLW: There has been a raft of fixture changes, less than a week before the AFLW season is scheduled to get underway….

AFLW: There has been a raft of fixture changes, less than a week before the AFLW season is scheduled to get underway.

“It makes it a little bit tricky around the house because Alice is telling me things and then she’ll say: ‘Don’t tell dad’,” she says.

“And I haven’t said anything to Nathan … you’ve just got to keep your mouth shut.”

When Alice was presented with her No. 3 jumper at an official St Kilda function a week ago, Nathan was wary about going and putting the Saints in an awkward position, but Alice really wanted him there.

Fiona says of that presentation: “Peta was very good about it, actually, she was doing a speech and was talking about the first game and she looked over at Nathan and made a couple of funny comments.”

The Burke family in 2003: Nathan with wife Fiona and daughters Ruby, 4, Molly, 3, and Alice, 9 months.Source:News Limited

Nathan is proud of his daughter forging her way in football while wearing the No. 3.

“The Saints gave her a choice (about playing number) and I didn’t put any pressure on her,” Nathan says.

“There were pluses and minuses for both, that she could forge her own number, or she could carry it on. She thought about it and in the end said she’d like to wear it.

“And that’s lovely, it’s a great tradition for the Saints.”

Alice Burke with daughter Alice and wife Fiona. Picture: David GeraghtySource:News Corp Australia

Alice says she’ll wear her father’s No. 3 with pride.

“On one side, it’s a reminder of the player he was, his hardworking, selfless, ruthless game and that’s what I want to try and follow, but then again, I want to add my own things to it and make it my own too.

“I want to do the number proud.”

Nathan says banter around the Burke household has stepped up in recent weeks.

“(The Saints) got their new shirts the other day and Alice comes home and says: ‘Look at this! Our shirts are better than yours!’,” he says.

“But my standard question to her every night is: ‘How was training? Did you have fun?’ To which she says: ‘Yeah, I loved it’. And that’s all I need to know.”

Burke was among the game’s best in-and-under players.Source:News Limited

Alice is a late convert to football, having grown up as a talented soccer player making national youth representative teams and being named a train-on with Melbourne Victory, until she filled in for a friend’s footy team and never looked back. It was helped that she could see an elite pathway through the AFLW.

Fiona says: “Even though Alice probably could have tried to pursue (soccer at Australian level), she didn’t care. She was absolutely sold on making something out on making some out of AFL.”

Both Nathan and Fiona recall Alice as their daredevil toddler and neither is surprised she’s shown such a talent with the oval ball.

“We had a concern about Alice that she didn’t have a pain limiter,” Nathan says.

“She would fall off the back of the couch and then pop straight back up again.

“I have visions of my other two (Ruby, now 22 and Molly, 20) having a bit of an argument standing next to each other and then Alice would come flying down the corridor and jump and tackle the two of them to the ground and then she’d say: ‘Cut it out’ and she was only four or five.”

The No.3 is back for Saints fans. Picture: AAPSource:AAP

Fiona agrees: “She would purposefully throw herself at things, we’ve got a video of her jumping off a couch – and we let her do these things, which is crazy – but jumping onto a padded settee, when she’s two, leaping in the air and then she’d bounce off it … she’d do it again and again.

“I look back on some of the things and think: ‘How did we actually let her do those things?’. But that’s who she was.”

That fearless aspect of Alice’s personality as a child never really left her and Fiona says her daughter’s tenacity on the oval reminds her of the way her husband played.

Fiona admits she’ll be tense watching her husband coach one team, while her daughter debuts for the other.

“I’ll be nervous because I want her to do well and I want the Saints to win for her, but Nathan’s put so much into the Bulldogs and it’s not just a job for him, he’s found his passion through the women and I see how emotionally invested he is and not just into the team winning, but into these women and helping them on and off the field.

“I’m emotionally torn … I’ll just have to let everything fall as it will.”

• St Kilda v Western Bulldogs, Friday, January 29, Moorabbin Oval, 6.40pm

Originally published asFooty family’s rivalry: Who will win battle of Burkes?

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