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AFLW: Sweet relief

North Melbourne recruit Ash Riddell was, in her own words, fuming.

She had made a rapid rise from Fitzroy in the third division of the now-defunct Victorian Women's Football League to premier division side Diamond Creek in the space of a year.

Invited to the first NAB AFLW Draft Combine at the conclusion of that season in 2017, she had spoken to most Victorian-based AFLW clubs, and while realistic about her draft prospects as a relatively inexperienced player, held big hopes she would be on an AFLW list in 2018.

But the hard-running midfielder was passed over, and with Diamond Creek not holding a VFLW licence for 2018, Riddell was left without a VFLW team, let alone an AFLW contract.

"Not getting picked up that year made me realise what footy actually meant to me," Riddell told AFL.com.au.

"I probably had taken it for granted and not appreciated it as much until not getting picked up.

"I was absolutely fuming and wanted to use that to drive me to get selected, which I eventually did."

Riddell had played junior footy in Melbourne's north-east for the Eltham Panthers – and in the primary schoolyard with now-Western Bulldogs star Marcus Bontempelli – crossing to basketball once she could no longer play alongside the boys.

A return to footy with Fitzroy saw her win the VWFL best first-year player award. She was also selected for AFL Victoria's women's academy, which ran over the summer of 2016-17 for players considered on the cusp of AFLW selection.

It was there then-Diamond Creek coach Scott Gowans identified Riddell's potential and invited her to join the top-division club.

"Fitzroy brought my competitive edge back and then I wanted to take footy a bit more seriously, learn, get involved with the girls and really challenge myself," Riddell said.

"So that jump to Diamond Creek was awesome because I was surrounded by 20 other AFLW girls (including Steph Chiocci, Emma Grant, Kirsty Lamb and Alison Downie) who taught me so much.

"That really helped develop my career … so I really enjoyed it."

Gowans learned he had won the North Melbourne AFLW/Melbourne University VFLW head coaching jobs the day after Riddell was overlooked at the draft. Over coffee soon after, he encouraged Riddell to cross to Melbourne University.

"There were no promises (of an AFLW contract). I knew I had to work really hard to make something happen," she said.

Riddell, at just 22, was named captain of a young Melbourne University side for the 2018 VFLW season.

"It was full-on, I was surprised when Scott told me. I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm new to the club, everyone's going to hate me,'," she said with a laugh.

"I've always been in leadership roles with basketball, but not so much footy. Learning how to communicate with others was really important, and I had to have a better understanding of the game to do that, too. I learnt a lot."

Riddell also had to learn to be patient.

"In early February, [Kangaroos list manager Rhys Harwood] had called me and said, 'You have to keep your mouth shut, but we're going to give you a spot on the AFLW list (as an open-age signing).'

"I believed it but until something was signed, I didn't really believe it. I just wanted to put pen to paper.

"I kept my mouth shut, but it was so hard not to say anything to anyone and I was worried about getting injured and potentially ruining it.

"So, when it all came out (in May), it was a relief."

Off-field, the qualified osteopath is juggling three casual jobs (two personal training gigs and another role in a bank) while she searches for a full-time job in her field.

Riddell is loving the fast-paced nature of AFLW training alongside eight teammates who played for Melbourne University this year.

"I enjoy being in the contest, near and around the ball. I'm not exactly the fastest person, but I've got a good endurance base,” she said.

"I'm never going to outrun anyone in the sprints, so I enjoy trying to use my endurance to beat opposition."

 

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs