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The First Win

RMIT’s first win was a long time coming.

With so few of the players starting the season with football experience, the skill level, game smarts and self-belief had grown at similar rates from player to player. Fittingly, the day in which the Redbacks tasted victory was marked by not just one triumph, but two.

RMIT hosted North Brunswick AFC on a perfect Round 7 autumn Saturday, the last one in May. For the first time in seven matches, both teams have a full 22-player squad. Gezim takes the players through their warm-ups; in conjunction with the AFL’s Dreamtime Round, the Redbacks are sporting Indigenous-styled t-shirts designed by RMIT students.

Alannah Robinson-Hore skids through RMIT’s first inside three minutes and the confidence of Gezim’s team is now tangible. The trend has been set.

A bomb into the hot spot spills to three waiting RMIT forwards; a handball outside the congestion finds Mia Deverell in space and the oldest player on the Redbacks’ list coolly snaps her first goal.
The floodgates burst in the second quarter as RMIT’s midfielders cut to the chase by taking centre clearances through the most direct route to goal.

The midfielders are running in numbers and kicking to forwards who are working to make space. Working defensively, the midfield and half-back line structures with discipline to repel the Bulls’ forays. The communication and vocal support between the players are at the best they have been. Playing her debut match of Australian Rules, Michelle Todorov masters alchemy on the first experiment as she kicks two goals on the run.

The margin blows out to over five goals with a clinical passage that old-time radio callers would declare “Cham! Pagne! Foot! Ball!”: Lauren Ginsell wins the hit out and debutant rover Bec McConnell puts the ball to half-forward. Julz Nannetti wrests the ball and with overlap midfielders and storming forwards coming past her, delivers to Lucy Allibon who, protected by shepherding teammates, arches her back and sprints in to slam through a high, glorious goal.

This team started the season with one footballer and 15 newbies in an undermanned belting at the hands of Caulfield. One goal was kicked in the first six matches. In forty minutes of play, they have outplayed and outworked an opponent in a complete vindication of not only the players but Gezim.

The half time mood is calm. The players finally have a lead to defend and a match to win.

“Fantastic,” says Gezim, his ever-positive self. “We’re playing really, really good footy out there.”

The match is as good as won at half time. However, a freak accident hollows the Redbacks’ maiden win. Bulls’ player Molly Murphy is brought down in a tackle and lands head-first on the Plenty Road wing.

At first, she does not move. By the time Olivia Ellis has run out to her with medical kit in hand, Molly is conscious but cannot say what month it is.

With both sides watching on in numb shock, an ambulance is called. Under VAFA regulations, a match that has lost this much game time but has completed a half of play can be called to an early halt with the leading team granted the win. In a way that none of them wanted or could ever envision, the Redbacks are victors.

After forming a guard of honour as the ambulance takes the now-fully conscious Molly off the ground, Gezim’s team dawdles into the rooms. A a player’s father sympathetically comments, they look flatter than in their previous defeats. These 22 players are so fresh to football that they can’t put aside the serious injury of an opposition player as simply part and parcel of the game. Out of respect to the devastated North Brunswick team, they do not sing the song.

Sally Tanner, Chris O’Connor and Scott Chisholm watch the silent procession from a distance and twist their heads ruefully. This win is eight months in the making.

“No good,” exhales Chris. “They would have won.”

Of course, it is not the win that the reserves have been robbed of. Just the elation of what they have achieved.

“Well done on today’s effort. Fantastic win,” sighs Gezim heavily to his victorious but melancholy players.

“Player welfare is the most important thing for their side and our side,” he continues. Gezim’s coaching at RMIT has been all about teaching. He deserves to be congratulating his team on months of hard work. Now he must remind them that football is, after all, just a game. There is a higher calling.

“In terms of what we did as a group – sportsmanship first and foremost. Showing your camaraderie, your leadership, your emotions – football can be an emotional game.”

There is an uneasy mood – could the senior players also be wrong-footed and lose their focus?

Fittingly, it is April Goldring who steps up to settle and reignite her gathered side.

“Today is all about the atmosphere that’ve created at the Academy,” says the Redbacks’ captain, to whom the overlap between football and Indigenous culture is unity and commitment. “All that I ask is that you protect the land, that you protect each other.”

April is allowed a run in the forward line and feasts on the Bulls; she kicks three goals through judgment and low-to-the-ground strength in the first half. Izzy Symes, looking every bit the natural forward in just her third game, slots a goal on the run. By half time, RMIT is five goals clear and it is apparent to all at Bundoora Oval that the Seniors’ first win is not going to be a thriller.

For Mitch Lower, nothing changes. Today, he will be a winning coach. Next week, it will start all over and his players cannot afford to play half a match.

“We’re moving the ball quickly off half-back – credit to Chels for running with the flight of the ball,” he nods to Chelsi Old, and the applause rings hard. “That goal that ended up from that, that’s all Chelsi’s. So get around Chelsi as much as you get around April for that.

“Olivia, same thing – tackling pressure in the forward line. I can tell you all day!” he calls as that enthusiastic clapping breaks out again for Olivia Giaccotto, “tackle pressure in the forward 50 creates goals. Not just for yourself but your teammates too.”

The reserves players who stayed to watch or volunteer for match day roles are mingled in with the seniors. Gezim Zeneli is holding the team board, Matt Newbold and Riley Box next to him with the water bottle tray. Behind them, Harry Stemp and Olivia Ellis listen to Mitch. Parents cram in front of the lockers. The five members of the executive committee are in a group at the clubroom door. Their expressions are impassive. This day is months in the making. They’ve pictured it many times.

“Half back line! Attacking the footy brilliantly,” Mitch continues. “T-Rose, Em, you’re reading the ball in flight and going with the footy quick. That’s our set-up for the second half. When we do that, we switch the ball and we get really open.

“The second half of this game,” he says, suddenly adopting a grave tone that makes the packed change room sit just that little bit more still, “is going to define the rest of our season. If we put our hands in our pockets, we think it’s over, we don’t want to take that for the rest of the season. We go on from here. We play better. We start to get some continuity to our football.

“THAT’S what it’s about in the second half. We keep playing hard and play right until the final siren.”

Was Mitch actually worried that his team would stray from the game plan after half time? If so, his fears are shortly allayed. The Redbacks have a taste for good footy now.

Racking up ball on the wing, Jasmine Host weighs a perfect kick into the open forward line where Olivia Giaccotto is one out and can use her pace. Olivia sweeps across the field, gathers and – in a moment that brings the home crowd to delight and signals party time for the Redbacks – slices past her opponent without deviating or fending off and goals from the square.

The RMIT coach’s box is alight. For Mitch, Olivia’s goal is the final proof: his players are now footballers. They are skilful. They work together. They believe in themselves and each other. And they are good to watch – he looks around with a small grin at the crowd’s reaction.

“She’s just ended that girl’s career,” cackles Callum O’Connor. That’s not how it sounds in his tweet, of course…

The margin blows out to 10 goals and still the Redbacks keep rolling. Kylie de Bruyn charges out and takes a ripping overhead mark. Olivia Giaccotto’s father Ettore, who has been perhaps the most passionate Redbacks’ supporter from the start, can’t contain his excitement and says it all.

“Her and Olivia started together,” he exclaims. “And now look at them!”

The icing on the cake is Thomay Nicolaou’s second goal. Having been left one-out deep in the forward line – “the Dusty role”, quips Matt Newbold – the vice-captain swoops onto a spillage in the left pocket and snaps a glorious goal against the boundary.

The Redbacks are 70 points clear when the final siren sounds two minutes later. The coaches quietly shake hands to the applause of the executive committee. The players swarm from all lines, forwards, midfielders, defenders and those on the interchange

The singing of the song in the clubrooms is something to behold. To the tune of Richmond’s immortal anthem – just sub ‘tiger’ for ‘spider’ and you’re pretty much there – all players, coaches and match day staff join in a massive circle, stomping on the beat and hollering.

With the relief and joy so loud in the change rooms, Mitch has to holler to make himself heard.

“I’m pretty sure the rest of the league will look at that and say, ‘Shit! That’s probably not what we expected, that we would win by that much,” he exclaims.

“I was really, really impressed by the way you girls went about it. So well done, congratulations and let’s keep the momentum going.”

And with the hoopla starting all over again, Mitch tacks on the same message with which he concludes all of his post-match addresses.

“Recovery starts now!”

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