The Darebin Falcons battled on field in 2021. (Picture: Darebin Falcons)

One of the only true standalone teams left in the VFLW, 2022 is set to be a season of unique challenges for wooden spooners Darebin. New coach Kate Tyndall isn't shying away from rising to them.

It was announced in mid-August that the AFLW competition would be expanding to include 18 teams in the 2022-23 season.

Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney will all be looking to make their mark on a competition soon to be considered “complete.”

While it’s an exciting time to be involved in women’s football, the announcement comes with a trickle down effect to the state level competitions.

The VFL Women’s has undergone large scale changes in the past five years since the introduction of the national women’s league. What was once the VWFL, founded off the back of hard work of volunteers and trailblazing women, is now officially held and run by AFL Victoria.

It’s become a competition that provides a pathway and fosters growth to the elite level for Victorian women and girls. Just this draft alone saw 15 players who’d played at least one VFLW game join the list of an AFLW club, including an additional four who were either pre or post-listed at Geelong and the Gold Coast Suns.

With historied clubs including the Eastern Devils, Diamond Creek, Western Spurs, Knox, Seaford, Cranbourne, and Melbourne Uni losing their licenses in favour of AFL-backed clubs, one final bastion remains standing.

The Darebin Falcons are the last true standalone club left alongside the Williamstown Seagulls, though the Gulls had previously formed affiliations with the Adelaide Crows and GWS Giants AFLW sides.

Unfortunately, the on-field results reflect this dilemma.

Essendon and Hawthorn had previously been standalone, with a few AFLW players returning after their seasons at the elite level finished up, but are now soon to be backed by full counterparts.

Essendon made finals for the first time this VFLW season, being knocked out in the preliminary final by Geelong. Hawthorn, meanwhile, has secured the services of AFLW premiership coach Bec Goddard as its inaugural AFLW coach and farewelled a strong crop of draftees in the 2019 AFLW Draft.

Hawthorn’s all female VFLW coaching panel, led by now inaugural AFLW coach Bec Goddard (third from R). (Photo: Hawthorn FC)

After winning five flags straight from 2013 to 2017 before barely missing finals in 2018, the Falcons have begun to struggle. What followed was a drop to 11th, and then to last as the competition continued to strengthen around them.

Founded in 1990, the Falcons now operate across various levels of women’s Aussie rules and other sports including soccer, cricket, and eight ball pool.

However, the concern is becoming apparent that like their contemporaries before them in an ever-evolving women’s footy landscape, staying alive at VFLW level might become harder and harder for the Darebin Falcons.

The Inner Sanctum spoke to new senior coach and former AFLW Bulldog Kate Tyndall about how she sees the position of the club coming into her tenure at the helm.

“This year was a difficult one because our squad is completely new – either new to footy or new to the Falcons,” Tyndall said.

“First and foremost, had you had said to the Darebin Falcons eight years ago, 10 years ago, that you’re going to find yourselves in a situation where you’re competing against AFL-aligned clubs, I think we would have rejoiced and said ‘what? Women’s footy can get to that point? This is fantastic.’

“Moving forward to today and our current challenges: two of our biggest challenges are at the Falcons are our facilities and competing against AFL-aligned clubs who potentially have high performance centres and elite facilities. With that comes the challenges of recruiting talent and keeping talent within your club.

“A lot of players have – and we celebrate this – have moved onto AFLW, which has also meant that they’re not playing VFLW with the Darebin Falcons.

“Personally, moving forward, I think the Falcons [don’t] want to be like the AFL-aligned clubs. We have a unique opportunity to carve out our own niche environment and what kind of club we want to be.

“Whether that’s at the VFLW level or wherever, I think we will continue to strive to provide an environment for girls to be their best and do that in our unique way.”

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Georgia Hammond was the last player drafted from the Darebin Falcons, joining North Melbourne for a season in the 2020 AFLW Draft. (Photo: North Melbourne FC)

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Tyndall embraces the challenge of being a standalone team as one that will keep pushing and growing the club.

She’s already been involved with the club as both a player and assistant coach in the years prior to her senior coaching appointment, already intimately familiar with the goings on at Falcons HQ.

It’s given her the scope and context she needs to help move the club towards its next step in an environment which is becoming more focused on the future of the sport at the elite level.

“For us right now, it’s how do we create a program where girls want to come and be better on and off the field,” Tyndall said.

“It might look slightly different to a VFLW program which is aligned with an AFL club, but that doesn’t mean it’s a lesser program.

“We’ve got to look to clubs like Port Melbourne’s VFL team. They’ve proved that you can still be successful being a standalone club.

“I’m not shying away from the fact that it’s a huge challenge for Darebin. It creates an opportunity for us to double down on what we’re about and how we can be unique. We’re not shying away from it – it is a real challenge for us, financially.”

Drawing on that rich history of success, Tyndall sees how the club has grown, changed and adapted to the past.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Falcons were one of the industry leaders in various aspect of women’s footy.

“I feel like the club have always been trying to – whether they’re at the top of the ladder or not – continuing to find ways to be better,” she said.

“An example of that is we were one of the first clubs in the VWFL to appoint a strength and conditioning coach in Tennille Hay. That was a big deal for the club at the time, because it was money that they hadn’t previously allocated.

“There was a lot of debate about whether that was something that was deemed necessary. You fast forward to now and you couldn’t imagine a club not having a strength and conditioning coach, in fact it’s a requirement.

“If I think back to my experience over the last 10 years with Darebin, they’ve never rested on their laurels. They’ve always continued to think about they can continue to push the boundaries to be better.

“The club will be open to thinking about it’s current challenges. I don’t think people are afraid [of the future].”

Falcons familiarity

For her first senior coaching role, there’s nowhere else it could have been for Tyndall but the Falcons.

It’s the club she’s known and loved for the past 10 years, and the club that helped prepare for the step up into the big time in the AFLW.

Appreciating the history of the club, she describes, is one of the biggest advantages a new coach could have at such a storied football club like Darebin.

“It helps knowing the club, knowing the people that are involved,” Tyndall said.

“It probably helps me in that I’ve already got some existing relationships. That probably saves a little bit of time in terms of establishing. If you were to walk into a new club, it takes time to develop positive working relationships.

“I know some of the history and where we’ve come from and what we want to stand for as a club and what we want to be able to do in the community.”

While the club is still conducting rigorous interview processes to decide what the coaching panel will look like in 2022, Tyndall is hopeful that some of her colleagues will return to their prior roles.

“We’re in the process of working through [appointing assistants] at the moment.

“There’s a couple of job applications being advertised. There definitely will be some people that come back on board.

“I know Todd Kenny will be in the strength and conditioning role again, and I’m hoping that some of the assistant coaches will put their hand up again.

“I’ll be a part of a panel, so I’ll certainly be able to contribute my thoughts on that.

“As with most things at Darebin, it’s a team environment, so it’s not down to one person’s decision but really making sure there’s that collaboration and that input from the relevant people so that we can make sure we’ve made the right decision.”

Darebin Falcons Announce 2019 VFLW Assistant Coaching Panel - Darebin  Women's Sports Club
Tyndall (far right) with the 2019 Falcons coaching panel. (Photo: Darebin Falcons)

With Tyndall and North Melbourne’s Steph Binder appointed into the top jobs, the VFLW now boasts six women and six men in head coaching roles.

This is in stark comparison to the AFLW, where with Peta Searle’s departure from St Kilda, now is without a single female head coach.

Tyndall is both ecstatic to see numbers rising, but also sees the change that can still be implemented.

“It’s exciting, isn’t it. We’re heading in the right direction,” she said.

“I think there’s two parts to it. First of all, clubs giving women opportunities, and as I said, Darebin have put a lot of faith in me.

“I haven’t actually been a senior coach before, but they’ve put a lot of faith in my capabilities as a leader and my experience within football to do that. [It’s] the club being willing to provide those sort of opportunities, but also for women to put their hands up.

“In order to grow you do have to put yourself out there and potentially do something that you might not have been able to fully demonstrate before, but rather look at your full capabilities and work through there.

“It’s a combination of both people believing in women and helping them develop, but also us as coaches saying ‘I do have the strength and skills to do it.’

“It’s exciting times, and even having Debbie Lee inducted into the Hall of Fame, that again will give women and girls that there are roles out there for us.

“We’ve got continue to put ourselves out there and put our hand up and keeping working on our craft.”

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