Dani Marshall joined Essendon's VFLW side in 2022. (Photo: Essendon VFLW/Twitter)

Former AFLW Bulldog and American Dani Marshall's move to defence for Essendon's VFLW side is proving to be an astute one, and has helped her to fill in the gaps in her game.

Dani Marshall was unceremoniously delisted from the Western Bulldogs at the end of the 2021 season after 11 AFLW games.

She made waves in 2019 as the first American to be signed by an AFLW club. Marshall helped to put the USAFL on the map, having previously played for the Arizona Hawks before trying her luck in the VFLW.

In her first VFLW season, she turned heads by kicking nine goals in eight games. But unbeknownst to most, she wasn’t playing in her preferred position.

Searching for a lifeline, Marshall found herself at the Hangar, where she earned a list spot with Essendon for the 2022 season.

And after three games, she’s settled in as a key defender in a backline that’s only given up six goals after three rounds.

Speaking to The Inner Sanctum, she detailed how an open and honest conversation with coach Brendan Major opened up a new door in her Aussie rules career.

“That conversation was my first real sit down with him at the club. I wanted him to get to know me on the field, and physically show that I’m going to show up to training and do the work,” she said.

“It was a month or two into pre-season, and I wanted to know what they think, where do I stand. I didn’t even know if I had a contract for the team yet.

“He assured me ‘if you want a contract, we’ll offer you a contract. We see you as someone that will be in our forward line and rotating into the ruck.

“I said, ‘if that’s what you think you need, that’s great. I think I can have a bigger impact in the backline. Transferring skills from soccer, how I can read the game, how I can distribute the ball, my organisation of the backline, I think I can be more help in the back’.”

Rotating through the ruck was a sticking point, a role that Marshall often took up at the Bulldogs out of necessity, and often to the ire of fans.

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Her development seemed to stagnate as she took on the ruck/forward role, failing to kick a goal throughout her five games in the 2021 season.

The pressures of the AFLW environment got to her, as someone who had only played Aussie rules at a semi-professional level as an international recruit.

Coming to Essendon, she feels, has gotten that development back on track.

“Brendan Major, having been in America and seeing that difference [in footy], knows how big those gaps are. He’s really good at helping you see those and giving you achievable targets,” Marshall explained.

“A lot of coaches won’t really know how to give you an actual measurable improvement step. All the girls that I’ve talked to would say the same thing… very achievable ‘hows’.

“We had talks at the Bulldogs, and every time they asked me where I saw myself I said [in the backline]. I’m part of the team, and though I see myself back there, it doesn’t mean I get to be back there.

“It was frustrating. I didn’t feel like I necessarily got the best run of it I could have. The Bulldogs can’t just be concerned for me as an individual, they have to look out for what’s best for the team.

“The forward line, for someone who hasn’t played footy before, is harder. It’s harder to face away from your goals, leading patterns, being patient, waiting for things to develop isn’t really something someone in their first season in that level is going to excel at.

“As far as confidence levels go, when you’re playing third tall to Bonnie Toogood and Izzy Huntington, of course you’re like ‘no one’s going to kick me the ball’.”

The path back to the top level

2022 and beyond looms as a pivotal time for the next tier of women’s footballers.

With the entry of four new teams, 120 new list spots become available. And with two sides joining from Victoria in Essendon and Hawthorn, the talent pool across the NAB League and VFLW is fighting tooth and nail for their senior opportunity.

Some, like inaugural Hawthorn signing Bridget Deed, already have the assurance that they will be an AFLW player next season.

The Eastern Ranges captain was already on track to be very high in the Victorian draft pool, after an outstanding start to the NAB League Girls season.

But others, like Marshall, are on the older end of the talent spectrum, fighting for one more chance before their top level career fizzles out.

Similarly former Lion Jordan Zanchetta is proving her case with the Bombers week by week, Mia-Rae Clifford up forward, and reigning league best and fairest Georgia Nanscawen through the middle.

It’s been a thorough process at Essendon, with inaugural recruiting manager Harmit Singh and his team giving no guarantees to anyone in the VFLW side.

Singh (front left) also acts as Essendon’s NGA coach. (Photo: AFL Victoria)

While Marshall admits she was of course attracted to the opportunity that Essendon may bring in the coming seasons, the club is much more to her than just a pathway.

“Obviously it would have been silly of me to not have [AFLW] in the back of my mind,” Marshall said.

“If we’re going straight up, I targeted Essendon as a club to go to because I knew they had a team coming in and I knew they had 30 spots they needed to fill.

“However, my goal is to get back in the AFLW. I’ve loved it at Essendon, I’d love it to be Essendon, but I just want to play footy at the highest level I can. Right now, I’m focused on my development… having the best VFLW season I can so it gives me a chance.

“There’s definitely no guarantees, and that’s something I appreciated about Essendon. They were very, very straight up.

“I respect that. I don’t want to go somewhere that’s like ‘you’ve got AFLW experience… come on down’. Everyone has to put in the same work… how well do you mesh with the team, how well do you create culture.

“There is going to be a massive change up [going into the AFLW], so it’s how well you can deal with that.”

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