Jo Butland loves nothing more than to hear the words ‘Thanks Jo’ from any of the countless young girls who have followed a pathway that the Cairns-based women’s football icon has blazed in Queensland. It makes it all worthwhile, she said.
“Sometimes I’ll sit there watching and think to myself ‘I coached her … and I coached her … and I coached her. That’s what’s I’m most proud of. To have been able to play a part in the growth of women’s football in Queensland, to see where it’s come from to where it is now and know that’s only going to get bigger and better.”
That is Jo Butland, who climbed the mountain in not just one sport but two. She played for the Australian Matildas in soccer, and after some treasured memories and experiences, she switched sports to become a wonderful example of the life-changing impact the AFL has had on so many across the country.
From Mossman, north of Cairns, she played basketball as a junior because she was tall. Her twin brother Craig played soccer. One day, her brother’s soccer club introduced a girls’ team she thought ‘why not?’. She was a goalkeeper and was soon on scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport and playing with the Canberra Eclipse in the Women’s National League. Next step was the national team, the Matildas. She debuted for Australia against Italy in Sydney in front of her Mum and Dad – cap #105 – and later played twice against Portugal and Sweden in Portugal, and against North Korea in North Korea. She also sat on the bench as the back-up ‘keeper “20 odd times”.
It was “an extraordinary experience” but she learned quickly it didn’t pay the bills. So, a qualified teacher, she took a job in Cairns. And when one day her sister-in-law suggested she try football she did just that. The rest, as they say, is history.
In an extraordinary career with the North Cairns Tigers from 2003 she played in 10 premierships – the last seven as playing coach – and was three times best afield in the grand final. Four times she won the League Best and Fairest Medal, which was later named in her honour, represented Queensland from 2005-13 and was captain from 2006-11. She won All-Australian selection in in 2005-06-07-11– captain in 2007. She was AFL Cairns Coach of the Year in 2001 and 2015, and also coached the Queensland side at the Cairns-based Gold Coast SUNS Academy, and Papua Guinea in the International Cup in 2011.
She retired as a player in 2016 but returned for a short season post-COVID in 2020 and put an emphatic exclamation mark on her career, playing her 200th game in the grand final. “I couldn’t walk for the next week, but it was nice way to wrap it up – even though we got flogged,” she said.
Vice-President and later President of the Cairns Women’s Australian Football League along the way, she’s done anything and everything to foster the game in North Queensland, and in 2022 coached the Queensland Under-15 Schoolgirls side that won the national title for the first time.
Living in Cairns, these days she spreads her knowledge and experience across other sports. Assistant Manager of the School Sports Office for the region of Peninsula, she works out of an office in the same building as AFL Cairns and coordinates more than 1,000 schoolboys and girls across 21 different sports, sending 54 teams to State championships.
Ever think of moving to the city? “No – it’s a lifestyle thing for me. I love it here. The product is amazing, and the AFL does it better than anyone. I want to do for kids today what people did to help me when I was kid. I was so fortunate to have good people around me when I was starting out, and I want to be that good person to kids now,” Jo said. She loves Cairns football, and football loves her.