When North Melbourne Football Club were denied a licence to enter the inaugural AFLW season the club was disappointed.
Having been a pioneering club for women’s football through their long-standing connection with the Melbourne University Women’s Football Club (MUWFC), North Melbourne thought they were well-equipped to field an AFLW team.
Their partnership with MUWFC, which dates back to 2010, sought to establish a genuine and meaningful connection to women’s football through supporting the game’s development.
Although it wasn’t to be for the 2017 season, North Melbourne Football Operations Manager Laura Kane described the missed opportunity as a “blessing in disguise.”
The additional two years allowed the club to regroup and work through their ideas about what would make the North Melbourne Tasmanian Kangaroos a successful team on and off the field.
When the club began integrating their AFLW team into everyday life, Kane said no obvious cultural shift was required because the club already had a connection to women’s football.
“The integration wasn’t about women being in the club and playing football,” Kane told AFLPlayers.com.au, ahead of North Melbourne’s first AFLW season.
“It was about understanding what the life of an AFLW player is like and how that was going to work in and around the club.”
Kane’s involvement with MUWFC existed long before her role as President. Having been involved with the club through her childhood, she was then thrown in the deep end when the women’s club merged with the two men’s clubs, which allowed her to experience what is required to develop a strong culture.
“Those learnings were incredibly important and helpful for me when we ended up getting a licence because I had already experienced what it was like to merge clubs with a long and successful history,” Kane explained.
The Arden Street redevelopment was a direct response to the club working towards creating an environment where the women felt equal to the men’s team.
For draftee Nicole Bresnehan, a member of North Melbourne’s Tasmanian cohort, seeing the redevelopment first-hand was a standout moment that made her feel immediately welcomed into the club.
“We were quite taken aback with the amount of effort and work that had gone in over the break to have everything ready. It made us feel really quite at home,” she told AFLPlayers.com.au.
Former Collingwood marquee player Emma King felt the impact of North Melbourne’s culture the moment she walked through the doors.
The communication and integration between the football department and administration staff was obvious, King said, and something she had never experienced before.
“When you walk in the doors you don’t feel out of place. It is a big family and community feel,” she told AFLPlayers.com.au ahead of Round 1.
North Melbourne’s philosophy was not about fitting the women into the current club environment, but about moulding it to become a suitable club for everyone.
They created full-time AFLW roles for coach Scott Gowans, AFLW football operations manager Matt Bolitho and AFLW High Performance manager Alex Veitch, enabling the women’s team to have the best resources in place ahead of the season.
Part of creating a sustainable club culture was forming the leadership group pre-training to ensure the players felt they had a voice before starting the short pre-season.
The leadership group is made up of four players with previous AFLW experience, including King, who was part of Collingwood’s leadership group during her two seasons there.
King said forming the leadership group before pre-season began was pivotal in making up for lost time and allowing the women to forge their own path with North Melbourne.
“We’ve got two years of playing together that we have to catch up on compared to other clubs like Collingwood who have kept the majority of their lists,” she said.
“We’re starting from scratch here at North Melbourne so we can create whatever we want to create. We don’t want to be wasting any time.”
Kane spent the better part of the year and a half when North Melbourne were campaigning for an AFLW licence educating staff and the male playing group on the differences between men and women’s football, eventually forming a Player Integration Committee to drive change from within the men’s space.
Members of North Melbourne’s AFL team were part of the committee and sat in on list management meetings offering their thoughts as part of an informal education process around merging teams.
The Player Integration Committee became a space for the AFL team to champion the women’s game but also share what it meant over coffee to be a player pulling on the North Melbourne jumper.
AFL captain Jack Ziebell and Jamie Macmillan have spent time working with the AFLW leadership group on club values and how the women can implement those values into their own team.
“They gave us some insights into the men’s program and how we can bring that into our program and gain some success on and off the field,” King said.
“It resides in both teams that we want to keep that ‘Shinboner spirit’ which is filtering through to the playing group.
“We’re starting from scratch so if we can buy in early that is going to help us on and off the field and into the future.”
With a third of their list located throughout Tasmania, the split squad has created a number of challenges, but a blueprint from Adelaide’s first season in the competition where they won the premiership under the same circumstances has provided inspiration for the playing group.
Bresnehan credits the club’s communication for ensuring the seven players located in Tasmania have not felt the ocean between them and the rest of the playing group.
“We’ve never gone longer than a week without having someone come to us or going over to Melbourne,” Bresnehan said.
“It’s been absolutely phenomenal and you can tell the club thought through it all really well before we were established.”
Despite a split squad presenting unique challenges, North Melbourne have been conscious of ensuring all the women have access to quality video conferencing software enabling them to engage in team meetings.
Bresnehan attends her own training sessions during the week, fulfilling the club program but meets with the Tasmanian squad every Saturday in Launceston.
The 21-year-old is based in the greater Hobart area, which is a 400km round-trip each weekend.
Although the travelling can sometimes take its toll, she understands it’s part of fulfilling her AFLW dream.
“It can sometimes be difficult, but at the same time we haven’t had to relocate our whole lives over to Melbourne so in a way it is easier than having to quit university or your job,” she explained.
To limit the impact of a split squad, the North Melbourne leadership group made the decision for a member of the five-woman squad to travel to Tasmania every weekend.
Kane said the reasoning behind the team decision was to assist the Tasmanian women in their skill development by having someone senior who has played AFLW before.
“We’re mindful of the fact that most of the Tassie girls are brand new to the game and so having those girls there can help them with that,” she said.
Bresnehan said the club was instrumental in listening to the needs and wants from the women located in Tasmania and ensured they always felt in the loop.
“We always feel really included,” she said.
“They’ve given us the best opportunity we can get whilst still living in Tasmania.”
Additionally, every second week the Tasmanian cohort fly to Melbourne to attend training and team sessions as a whole squad.
“We’re trying to create as many opportunities as we can for them to all come together and not be complacent with how difficult it is but also know that we have seen it work at the top-end,” Kane said.