The VU Western Spurs’ come-from-behind one-point victory over the Eastern Devils in Round 8 of Swisse Wellness VFL Women’s marked another milestone on their long, hard climb back from the brink of collapse to competing in finals.
As Callum O’Connor writes, the Spurs hadn’t beaten the Devils since 2014. Just four players from that match were in the side three weeks ago including 27-year old Ash Guest, who has seen the best of times and the worst of times in her nine seasons with the Spurs.
Back in the days when they were known as the St Albans Spurs, Guest’s side was a force to be reckoned with. A mass player exodus at the end of the 2012 season saw them spiral down the ladder and come close to collapse.
“I don’t think we won a game for two seasons,” Guest recalled.
“It was pretty rough, and one particular game against Diamond Creek it was 160 to zip. I walked off the ground and I cried. It was really tough. That game stuck with me because we were demoralised.”
The Spurs relocated to Victoria University and were rebranded as the VU Western Spurs last season. With legendary former player and women’s football pioneer Debbie Lee at the helm, the Spurs were bolstered by the addition of assistant coaches Sam Smits, Coburg’s Ben Sortino and Western Bulldogs player Jordan Roughead.
The Spurs’ script writers did their job in Round 14 when the Spurs defeated Diamond Creek by five goals. According to Guest, that upset victory over the reigning runners-up was the turning point after seasons of despair and uncertainty.
“It was the point where we were like: ‘Yep, we’re gonna be OK’,” Guest said.
The Spurs recruited prolifically before the 2017 season. Six AFL Women’s players joined their 40-player squad, and from their 46-point win over Cranbourne in Round 1, it became clear that Lee’s charges had moved on from the consolidatory, steady-as-she-goes style of yesteryear. They are now playing a high-risk, high-reward game and – most importantly – are good enough to implement it.
By Round 8, the Spurs were sitting pretty with five wins, having accounted for the three sides who had finished below them in 2016 as well as VFL Women’s newcomers the Box Hill Hawks. However, they had been caught short by heavyweights Melbourne Uni and Diamond Creek and their clash with the Devils was a must-win if they were to prove they were still on an upward trajectory.
The Spurs trailed the 2016 finalists by four goals at half time before a sterling comeback saw them snatch victory by the narrowest of margins.
“When we beat the Eastern Devils, that was the next point,” Guest grinned. “When the siren went, it was just relief and joy. For me, that was probably my favourite game of footy I’ve been involved in.
“It’s been more about belief. This year we’ve got a really capable team but if you took away the older players, the average games played would be 10.”
In another beautiful twist in the narrative of their rise, the players who kicked the final two scores of the game were AFLW recruits. Sarah Jolly’s goal with two minutes remaining levelled the scores before Aleisha Newman’s behind pushed them into the lead.
24-year old Jolly was part of the wave of AFLW players who arrived at the Spurs during pre-season alongside Melbourne teammates Newman and Harriet Cordner, Bulldogs Ellyse Gamble and Angelica Gogos, and Magpie Tara Morgan. Free of the scars of the dark days, these players have been an integral part of making rival clubs sit up and take notice of the Spurs.
“In the first couple of trainings, it didn’t matter if you were coming back from AFL or coming up from the Youth Girls, everyone was treated equally,” Jolly said.
“Deb’s taken some good little tips that she’s learnt from Melbourne and brought it over to the Spurs and she’s brought that professionalism. The transition from AFL to here hasn’t been that big a jump, especially in the way we do the review and preview, and even in the strength and conditioning.
“Obviously Debbo does touch on where they’ve been and where we want to go, so it’s good to know that we’re a part of the growth and the new Spurs’ future.”
The VU Western Spurs are now sitting in third position. Their run home is precarious, with clashes against the Darebin Falcons, Melbourne Uni, Geelong and particularly the St Kilda Sharks set to test their top-four credentials.
However, as Guest and Jolly know, you have to beat the best to be the best.
“I want them to be really nervous about playing us,” Guest said.