As things started heating up in the AFLW and wider sporting world, North Melbourne’s gun midfielder Ash Riddell took time out of her busy schedule to share her thoughts on her season, club and her journey before she hit the big time.
One of the best performers in the Kangaroos’ cavalcade of stars, Riddell’s efforts in her first full season have drawn praise from far and wide – and it’s not hard to see why. After amassing a total of 153 possessions at an average of a shade under 20 per game alongside 21 marks and 35 tackles, without her the North Melbourne engine room would not have hummed along at anywhere near the efficiency it has in 2020.
However, the dual spectres of having missed three quarters of last season to injury and uncertainty surrounding the future gives sharp focus to her perspective on her own year.
“I think really simply it’s just playing. I obviously only played two games last season and just having the opportunity to string multiple games together, I guess helps with the learning process and grasping more of an understanding of the game.
“Playing multiple games in a row, getting that continuity into my football has been the most exciting thing so far personally.”
Over the course of the season proper, North Melbourne sat at around a similar position on the win-loss table as they did in their inaugural year. Nevertheless, the overwhelming sentiment from outside the club has been that the Roos were a step or two above where they were in 2019.
Uniquely qualified by circumstance and as part of the squad who has driven that perception shift, Ash explained her thoughts on this growth of a football team.
“We’ve come a long way since last year. Our cohesiveness as a team with an extra year under our belt; that’s certainly helped a lot. Getting girls playing together over the VFLW season as well.
“As a club, we’ve been really good at focusing on us and what we can do, rather than putting too much focus on the opposition – obviously we do do a little bit of that – but it’s really important that we focus on what we want to get right in each game.
“We certainly feel like we’re playing better footy... but there’s still a long way to go in terms of different areas of our game that we still need to work on to be able to be contending for a flag. Last year we were really disappointed to miss finals, even though we only lost two games, we really felt that we could have done a bit better – I think that’s been the extra motivation for this season.”
While the skills of the 24-year-old ball-winner are plain to see, Riddell still considers herself very much a student of the game, with everyone from her VFLW and AFLW coach Scott Gowans, to veteran leaders and teenage draftees rich sources of learning.
“A lot of [first year players] have had more training from a younger age than we’ve had. Their skills are a step above. Especially using the opposite foot, little things like that, they can grasp a lot quicker than some of the older folks.
“We’ve still got a lot to learn... and that’s great; we can learn just as much off the younger girls as they can off of us.
“I know for me, being in sort of that mid-range, I learn just as much off of the younger players as I do off the Emma Kearneys and Kaitlyn Ashmores who have been around a little bit longer. It’s great to try to bond with both age groups.”
Another player in the age mid-range is Jas Garner. The praise for her game has been widespread as she tore apart oppositions on the regular, recently justified by wins in both the coaches’ association and AFLW website’s player of the year. Understandably, Riddell was quick to join in the chorus.
“Jazzy Garner is an absolute superstar.
“She has put in a mountain of work in the VFLW getting midfield fit... she was always fit, but her tank is amazing.
“Just all class in the midfield and we love playing alongside her, especially when she’s kicking goals. She’s an all-round superstar and a great person too.”
To finish up, we spoke of how she got to this point in her footy career. Playing finals for the Shinboners is just the latest step in a path across three clubs.
“Fitzroy was first – I used to play footy when I was younger and they were my first reintroduction back into footy, nine years later.
“I sort of went in with my mind set on just having fun, meeting new people... but what I got out of it was just so much more. I got a competitiveness back for footy, which was awesome.
“I met such great people – you can see how much goes into grassroots football, countless volunteers who put in so much effort that often goes unnoticed... they are really the driving force. I wouldn’t have been able to rediscover my love of footy if I didn’t go to Fitzroy, I’m certainly very thankful for that.
“Moving to Melbourne Uni, playing VFL was a bit of a step up, [but] I found it the same again, such a welcoming environment with a rich history with women’s football.
“That was... where I was able to really hone my craft, Scott gave me particular things [to do] when I didn’t get drafted, what I needed to work on to perhaps get another opportunity; Melbourne Uni gave me that avenue.”
Now that avenue has become a road, one that led to Princes Park for an astounding clash with Collingwood before pandemic mitigating measures brought the down curtains around 2020. Hopefully the next stage is a shot at the ultimate prize – in 2021 or beyond. A would-be feather in the cap of Ash Riddell to be sure, but ultimately just one more step up.