Ashleigh Riddell’s rise from being overlooked at two AFLW Drafts to rank first in the league for disposals in 2022

Almost a decade after previously playing Australian Rules Football Ashleigh Riddell returned to the sport to play for Fitzroy in the third division of the Victorian Football League Women’s (VFLW) in 2016. Riddell made a significant impact with Fitzroy at 20 years of age to finish runner-up in the division 3 best and fairest award and at the VFLW Presentation night received the Debbie Lee Medal for being the best first year player.

Riddell nominated for the inaugural Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) draft on 12 October 2016 and didn’t get selected which wasn’t a surprise as the majority of players that nominated had significantly more experience playing senior women’s footy and had played in a higher standard league than Riddell in 2016.

In 2017 Riddell joined Diamond Creek and played in the first division of the Victorian Football League Women’s. Playing as a forward and a midfielder Riddell was one of the revelations of the 2017 VFLW season and was rewarded with selection in the 2017 VFLW Team of the Year on the interchange.

For the second year in a row Riddell nominated for the 2017 AFLW draft on 18 October 2017 and there was a much greater likelihood of her being selected than 2016 given her impressive 2017 season for Diamond Creek in the first division of the VFLW, the highest standard Victorian women’s league.

All four Victorian AFLW clubs – Carlton, Collingwood, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs overlooked Riddell at the 2017 draft. Although disappointed at the time Riddell reflected in December 2018 that it may have been a blessing in disguise, telling AFL.com.au “Not getting picked up that year made me realise what footy actually meant to me. I probably had taken it for granted and not appreciated it as much until not getting picked up. I was absolutely fuming and wanted to use that to drive me to get selected, which I eventually did.”1

During 2018 Riddell played VFLW football for the Melbourne Uni Mugars who were AFLW expansion club North Melbourne’s VFL affiliate. Early in the 2018 VFL women’s season Riddell signed as an AFLW player with North Melbourne as a free-agent.

At 22 years of age Riddell made her AFLW debut in North Melbourne’s first ever game in the league on 3 February, 2019 against Carlton at North Hobart Oval. Far from being overawed Riddell was one of the best players on the ground in the Kangaroos 36 point victory, having 16 disposals, kicked a goal and polled two votes in the league best and fairest. Five days after her AFLW debut Riddell suffered a season ending ankle injury in Round 2 against GWS Giants.

Across the 2020 and 2021 AFLW seasons midfielder Riddell played all 17 games for North Melbourne and averaged 21.6 disposals per game. Over this two season period Riddell received club and league recognition for her high standard of performance, being selected in the All-Australian squad of 40 players in both seasons and also finishing third in North Melbourne’s best and fairest in both 2020 and 2021 behind Jasmine Garner and Kangaroos captain Emma Kearney. In 2020 Riddell was selected on the interchange of the All-Australian team and she missed out on selection in the final 22 player team in 2021.

Throughout the 2022 season 159 centimetre tall Riddell took her football to another stratosphere and in the process smashed the record for most disposals in an AFLW game and in a season. In North Melbourne’s final home and away game of 2022 Riddell had 42 disposals against West Coast at Arden Street in Round 10 to surpass the previous record of 35 disposals which was jointly held by herself and Adelaide Crows midfield duo Ebony Marinoff and Anne Hatchard. During the 2022 AFLW season Riddell averaged an incredible 29.3 disposals per game and had at least 27 disposals in a game eight times from 11 games. Riddell led the AFLW with 20.6% more disposals per game in 2022 than the players ranked equal second in the league Marinoff and Hatchard with 24.3 disposals per game each.

Ashleigh Riddell playing for North Melbourne against West Coast at Arden Street in Round 10 on 12 March, 2022

In the 2022 AFLW All-Australian team Riddell was selected in the midfield. AFLW players, coaches and umpires ranked Riddell as one of the best four players in the AFLW during 2022 with the hard-running midfielder finishing second in the AFLW Players MVP award, equal second in the AFL Coaches Association AFLW Champion Player of the Year Award and fourth in the league best and fairest as voted for by the umpires.

Ashleigh Riddell’s remarkable journey from being overlooked at two AFLW Drafts to develop into a two-time All-Australian is covered in more detail below.

Early life and junior sporting career

Ashleigh Riddell was born on 7 March 1996 in Sydney. Due to her dad being the manager of a safety company the Riddell family moved around when Ashleigh was young, living in Sydney and Perth before settling in Eltham which is approximately 24 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. Riddell played junior footy for the Eltham Panthers boys team and also played football for the school team in primary school. One of her school teammates was current Western Bulldogs AFL captain Marcus Bontempelli.

At the age of 11 Riddell stopped playing football and focussed on basketball, Bontempelli’s sister Olivia was one of Ashleigh’s basketball teammates at the Eltham Wildcats. Throughout her basketball career with the Eltham Wildcats Riddell held some leadership positions. As an adult Riddell did some coaching at the Eltham Wildcats including individual and small group (up to four people) training sessions for Eltham Wildcats players from 8-20 years of age.

Playing VFL Women’s

Almost 10 years after she last played football Riddell tried out in 2016 for Fitzroy in the third division of the Victorian Women’s Football League (VWFL). Playing as a forward Riddell kicked 26 goals from 13 games for Fitzroy in the third division. Riddell was also given a taste playing for Fitzroy in the North West division and kicked 10 goals from two games. Riddell finished runner-up in the division 3 best and fairest award behind Gippsland’s Sarah Jolly. At the VWFL Presentation night 20 year old Riddell received the Debbie Lee Medal for being the best first year player.

Riddell nominated for the inaugural Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) Draft which was held on 12 October 2016 in the lead up to eight clubs competing in the first AFLW season which commenced in early-February 2017. At the AFLW draft Riddell was overlooked but over the 2016/2017 summer she was a member of AFL Victoria’s women’s academy for players in contention to be recruited by AFLW clubs.  

Wanting to play in the highest league possible and maximise her chances of progressing to play in the AFLW Riddell joined Diamond Creek in 2017 and played in the first division of the Victorian Women’s Football League (VWFL) alongside several players that played in the inaugural 2017 AFLW season earlier that year including Steph Chiocci, Katie Loynes and Alison Downie. Diamond Creek’s head coach in 2017 was Scott Gowans who was also an AFLW assistant coach with Carlton.

Despite the step-up in standard Riddell adapted brilliantly and after starting the VFLW season playing as a forward progressed to spend time playing in the midfield for Diamond Creek later in the 2017 season.

Diamond Creek had 12 wins and two losses in 2017 to finish second on the VFL Women’s ladder, percentage behind Darebin Falcons. In the Grand Final Diamond Creek lost by seven points to Darebin. Riddell was named in the 2017 VFLW Team of the Year on the interchange to be one of five Diamond Creek players selected in the VFLW Team of the Year, joining Chiocci, Downie, Tanya Hethrington and Chloe Molloy. Five of Riddell’s future North Melbourne teammates were also selected in the Team of the Year – Melbourne Uni pair Emma Kearney and Kaitlyn Ashmore, Eastern Devils ruck Emma King and St Kilda Sharks duo Jasmine Garner and Jenna Bruton.

Riddell was invited to the inaugural NAB AFLW Draft Combine in October 2017. Throughout 2017 Riddell had discussions with most of the four Victorian based AFLW teams however she didn’t get selected at the 2017 AFLW Draft.

In a North Media video published on 16 May 2018 Gowans spoke about the development of Riddell as a footballer, saying “I had Ash Riddell at Diamond Creek last year (2017) and she came from Fitzroy in the amateurs, last year was actually her first full year of footy so amazing to think where she is now. Early on last year we thought she might be more of a defensive forward but once we got to know her it was pretty clear that her running ability and ability to get out of trouble was pretty special and it was a matter of giving her some game-time through the VFL last year. Towards the end of the year she actually became a regular in the midfield that had quite a few stars in it so her improvement from January to September last year was amazing and she ended up making the state team for the VFL and she was actually the only player from that team not drafted.”

Immediately after the 2017 AFLW Draft on 18 October 2017 Riddell faced an uncertain 2018 as not only had she missed out on being drafted to an AFLW team but Diamond Creek didn’t hold a VFLW license for 2018 which meant that Riddell needed to find a new VFLW club to play for.

Joining North Melbourne and debut AFLW season in 2019

On Credit to the Girls – Ashleigh Riddell interview in January 2022 Sarah Black asked “For people who don’t know your back story Ash you were overlooked in two drafts before being picked up by the Roos ahead of their inaugural season. Can you tell us a bit about your journey, how did you end up at North Melbourne?” Riddell responded “I was really fortunate to have a really good relationship with Scottie Gowans, he helped me a lot through my football. Obviously first year (2016 AFLW Draft) I missed out on being selected but probably in my mind didn’t really deserve to get picked up at that point, I wasn’t really ready to come into AFLW and I don’t think I would have made as great of an impact if I came in at that time. Obviously missing out the second year (2017 AFLW Draft) was probably the hardest because I was invited to the draft and I was the only one in the room not selected. It was probably a bit of a challenging time after that. I caught up with Scott Gowans the day after and he actually found out that day that he got the North Melbourne (AFLW head coach) gig because he was at Carlton prior to that. I was really fortunate to have a good chat with him and could see the light after talking to him and with a possibility if I knuckled down and worked hard I could be selected as a free-agent with North. I was a little bit daunted about going through that draft process again. With that sort of backing and his faith in me I was really fortunate to know quite early on that North were going to select me.”

The AFLW expanded from eight clubs in 2018 to 10 clubs in 2019 with North Melbourne and Geelong both joining the league. North Melbourne’s VFLW affiliate club was the Melbourne Uni Mugars. At 22 years of age Riddell was appointed Melbourne Uni’s VFLW captain for the 2018 season. In an article published on nmfc.com.au in December 2018 Riddell commented on being appointed Melbourne Uni’s captain “It was full-on, I was surprised when Scott told me. I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m new to the club, everyone’s going to hate me.’” she said with a laugh. “I’ve always been in leadership roles with basketball, but not so much footy. Learning how to communicate with others was really important, and I had to have a better understanding of the game to do that, too. I learnt a lot.”2

In May 2018 Scott Gowans made an announcement to the Melbourne Uni playing group regarding Riddell, saying “She has managed to get herself really fit and I am really, really proud to announce that one of the Mugars is now going to be a North Melbourne player and that’s Ash Riddell.”

In a North Media video published in May 2018 Gowans commented on Riddell “The potential as far as (being) self-driven and determination was always there so it was a matter of changing the structure and teaching her actually how to play the game from a team perspective. We did a lot of work but again she has got the growth mindset to take that on board and a lot of the specialist training stuff she does by herself and that’s what I like about Ashleigh, she is just so determined to make it. She will be midfield and she has got the ability to go forward, she kicked three goals the other week in a game.”   

The profile for Riddell in AFLW Prospectus 2019 commented on her 2018 VFLW season with Melbourne Uni “She finished the season as the ninth-best midfielder in the competition, averaging 145 Champion Data ranking points per game. Riddell’s game was very well rounded, rating elite for disposals, contested possessions and clearances. Of all the midfielders who played 10 or more games she was the only midfielder who also rated elite for rebound 50’s and inside 50’s.”3

During the 2018 VFLW season Riddell played 13 games for Melbourne Uni and averaged 14.9 kicks, 6.4 handballs, 11.2 contested possessions, 4.7 clearances and 5.9 tackles per game. Riddell was named at half-back in the 2018 VFLW Team of the Year.

North Melbourne didn’t have the list structure of a typical AFLW expansion club, having recruited aggressively during free agency to sign 15 players with AFLW experience including 2018 AFLW league best and fairest winner Emma Kearney and Jenna Bruton from the Western Bulldogs, Jasmine Garner, Jessica Duffin and Emma King from Collingwood along with Kaitlyn Ashmore and Tahlia Randall from Brisbane.

Geelong had six selections in the 2018 AFLW draft before fellow expansion club had their first pick, selecting forward Daisy Bateman with pick 25 and finished their draft by using their fifth pick to select defender Nicole Bresnehan with pick 61.

At 22 years of age Riddell made her AFLW debut with North Melbourne in Round 1, 2019 on Sunday 3 February against Carlton at North Hobart Oval. On debut Riddell had 12 kicks, four handballs, 10 contested possessions, took three marks, laid four tackles and kicked a goal in North Melbourne’s 36 point victory. Riddell made a significant impact on debut to be named in the Kangaroos best players, polled two votes in the league best and fairest and polled seven votes in the AFL Coaches Association AFLW Champion Player of the Year Award – ranked second for the game behind teammate Jasmine Garner who polled nine votes.

Riddell told Fox Footy the “Lead-up to Round 1 was overwhelming emotions, receiving the call that I would have the opportunity to play with the Round 1 side and I was just absolutely ecstatic, a combination of excitement, nervousness, everything that you could imagine went into that game and obviously as a group we played really well and coming away from that I was just so excited for the rest of the season and looking forward to what the group could offer.”

Five days after making her AFLW debut Riddell suffered a season ending syndesmosis injury in a Round 2 Friday night game against the GWS Giants at Drummoyne Oval on 8 February. During the third quarter when Riddell was running inside North Melbourne’s forward 50 towards goal and when the ball was more than 40 metres away she was bumped by GWS Giants defender Nicola Barr which resulted in Riddell falling to ground and seriously injuring her ankle. Riddell was in tears as she was helped off the ground by North Melbourne trainers and took no further part in the game. Riddell finished the game with eight kicks, two handballs and five tackles. Barr was sent straight to the tribunal and received a one match suspension for the incident.

Due to her ankle injury Riddell missed the remainder of the 2019 season. On the injury Riddell told Fox Footy “I came off, the medical team tested me and I just didn’t feel right. Missing out on the majority of 2019, I guess as a group too we feel a little bit unfulfilled because we obviously played really well for the most part of the season, just missing out on finals.” The top two teams from each conference progressed to the finals. In the final round of 2019 North Melbourne played a virtual elimination final in an away game against Fremantle at Fremantle Oval with the winner to make the finals and the losing team to miss out. Fremantle won the Round 7 game by 27 points and North Melbourne finished third in conference B with five wins and a percentage of 123.1%, one game and percentage behind Fremantle who finished second with six wins and a percentage of 141.2%.

Reflecting on her debut AFLW season Riddell told Fox Footy in February 2020 “I was super nervous coming into pre-season, I had absolutely no idea what to expect and obviously North had signed 15 AFLW players so signed some pretty good talent. Coming in I just tried to make as many friends as possible, learn as much as I could from especially those leaders and those that had experienced it a couple of years prior and I think that held me in good stead throughout the pre-season.”

After recovering from her ankle injury Riddell played eight VFLW games for Melbourne Uni in 2019 and averaged 28 disposals, 14 contested possessions and seven tackles per game. Riddell was selected in the forward pocket of the 2019 VFLW Team of The Year – her third consecutive TOTY selection. In the 2019 VFLW league best and fairest – the Lambert-Pearce medal Riddell polled 12 votes to finish fourth overall and be Melbourne Uni’s top vote-getter. Darebin Falcons ruck Lauren Pearce won the 2019 Lambert-Pearce medal with 18 votes with Richmond midfielder Monique Conti second on 16 votes.

Breakthrough 2020 AFLW season rewarded with selection in the All-Australian team

At the end of the 2019 season Riddell had playeda total of just two AFLW games and few would have predicted the heights that she would reach during the 2020 season.

Riddell was very consistent playing in North Melbourne’s midfield throughout the 2020 AFLW season, having at least 18 disposals and polled Coaches votes in all six home and away games. In a 56 point Round 3 victory against Richmond at Ikon Park Riddell had a game-high 17 kicks, four handballs, took three marks and polled the maximum 10 votes in the AFL Coaches Association AFLW Champion Player of the Year Award.

Against Gold Coast in Round 4 Riddell had 16 kicks, five handballs, two marks in a 13 point victory at Arden Street and polled one vote in the league best and fairest, her solitary vote for the season.

In each of North Melbourne’s last five games of 2020 Riddell had at least 21 disposals including a new career-best 24 disposals comprised of 20 kicks and four handballs in a 42 point Round 5 victory against Adelaide at North Hobart Oval.

As a result of the coronavirus and the impact it was having on society including restrictions on inter-state travel the last two rounds of the 2020 AFLW home and away season were abandoned, shortening the home and away season from eight rounds to six rounds. The finals structure was modified which increased the number of teams qualifying for finals in each conference from three to four.

North Melbourne lost their opening game of the season to Melbourne by two points away at Casey Fields and then recorded five consecutive wins to finish the 2020 home and away season on top of Conference A with five wins, one loss and a percentage of 227.2%, one win and percentage ahead of the second placed team in Conference A, GWS Giants.

Due to COVID-19 crowds were unable to attend any of the four semi finals. In North Melbourne’s first ever AFLW final against Collingwood at Victoria Park on Saturday 21 March North Melbourne trailed by 10 points at half time. North Melbourne kicked the only two goals of the third quarter and outscored Collingwood three goals to one in the second half to win a thrilling semi final by two points. In the semi final victory Riddell had a team-high 18 kicks, four handballs, took an equal team-high five marks, and laid an equal game-high six tackles to be one of the Kangaroos best players.

With the number of COVID cases escalating and the Australian Government announcing that restrictions would be placed on travel AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan announced on Sunday 22 March, 2020 “Today’s AFLW semi-final between Carlton and Brisbane Lions will be the last NAB AFL Women’s match to be played with the 2020 season ending today. Given the twin conference structure and that the finals series was not completed, the AFL Commission has determined no premiership will be awarded for this season, following a recommendation from the AFL Executive.”4

North Melbourne had gone from the high of winning their first ever AFLW final on Saturday 21 March to finding out the following day that their season had come to a sudden halt. The two AFLW preliminary finals that were unable to be played on the weekend of 28 and 29 March were Fremantle vs Melbourne and North Melbourne vs Carlton.

It had been a long wait for Riddell to play a full AFLW season, having been overlooked for the first and second seasons in 2017 and 2018 and then suffering a season ending ankle injury in her second game of the 2019 season. Riddell well and truly made the most of her opportunities at AFLW level with North Melbourne in 2020, playing all seven games and averaging 16.0 kicks, 5.3 handballs, 3.3 marks, 4.6 tackles, 358.8 metres gained, 9.9 contested possessions, 4.3 clearances, 4.1 score involvements, and 3.9 inside 50’s. Riddell led the AFLW for kicks per game, ranked third for metres gained, fourth for score involvements, fifth for disposals, equal eighth for clearances and 14th for contested possessions.

Ashleigh Riddell playing a practice game for North Melbourne against Carlton at Ikon Park on 25 January 2020

Riddell’s breakout 2020 season was rewarded with selection on the interchange of the 21 player AFLW All-Australian team, joining two Kangaroos teammates, Emma Kearney who was named vice-captain and selected on a wing along with Jasmine Garner who was selected at half forward. North Melbourne’s three AFLW All-Australians all finished in the top eight of the AFL Coaches Association AFLW Champion Player of the Year Award, Garner won the award with 47 votes, Kangaroos captain Kearney was seventh on 34 votes followed by Riddell in eighth place on 31 votes.  

Due to restrictions in place North Melbourne’s 2020 AFLW best and fairest was held virtually on Zoom. Riddell polled 107 votes to finish third behind Garner (112) and captain Kearney (111). Only 11 votes separated the top four players with Jenna Bruton finishing fourth on 101 votes. North Melbourne’s three nominees for the AFLW Most Valuable Player Award were Garner, Bruton and Kearney. Garner won the 2020 AFLW Most Valuable Player award with 413 votes to finish ahead of 2020 league best and fairest winner Maddison Prespakis on 227 votes.  

Due to the financial impact of COVID-19 many organisations in the football industry including clubs had to cut back staff and streamline their operations. This contributed to North Melbourne not renewing the contract of AFLW head coach Gowans despite the Kangaroos winning 11 of the 14 games he was the head coach for. Darren Crocker who was a Pro scout for North Melbourne’s men’s team and had senior coaching experience was appointed on 4 June 2020 as Gowans successor to be the Kangaroos AFLW head coach. During his extensive time as an assistant coach of North Melbourne’s men’s team Crocker had been the caretaker head coach for 15 games.

After his contract as AFLW coach was not renewed by North Melbourne Gowans commented “I had no idea at all. Yeah, it was a shock. (It was) based on economic reasons, which was disappointing but completely understandable from the perspective that there’s a lot of people losing their jobs not just in the AFLW but the AFL, VFL and VFLW as well. I think part of it is that when you reflect about it, it makes sense that you amalgamate the roles somehow in these times. My role was the obvious one, particularly with Darren Crocker sitting in the wings who’s a pretty decent coach so I’m probably unlucky in that respect.”5

Riddell has second consecutive third placed finish in North Melbourne’s 2021 best and fairest

Emma Kearney was unanimously voted as North Melbourne’s captain for the 2021 season, continuing in the role for the third consecutive season. Riddell was voted into North Melbourne’s leadership group for the first time, joining 2020 leadership group members Jasmine Garner and Emma King in the four-player group for 2021. Kearney commented on Riddell “Ash has been super impressive since she’s been at the club, she’s an incredibly hard worker on the track and a bubbly personality. It’s not just her football ability that has got her into this position, it’s her ability to work and get everything out of her football, which has been really impressive.”6

On her elevation into the Kangaroos leadership group Riddell commented “I really value the fact my peers voted me in [the Leadership Group], it’s really humbling, it’s as humbling as it is exciting. I’m really excited for the opportunity to learn from Kearney, ‘Kingy’ and Jasmine who have been in it a couple of years prior, so it’s an exciting time ahead. I think I’m a lead-by-example type of person and hopefully my actions speak louder than words and people can sort of follow me in that way.”7

Against Geelong in Round 1, 2021 at GMHBA Stadium Riddell had 12 kicks, eight handballs and took five marks in a 62 point victory to poll two votes in the league best and fairest. The following week in her 11th AFLW game Riddell polled the maximum three votes in an AFLW game for the first time in her career in the 26 point victory against St Kilda at Arden Street. Riddell had an equal team-high 13 kicks, six handballs, took four marks, laid five tackles and kicked one goal.  

Ashleigh Riddell playing for North Melbourne against St Kilda in Round 2, 2021 at Arden Street on 7 February 2021

At Punt Road Oval against Richmond in Round 6 Riddell set a new career-high of 25 disposals comprised of 16 kicks and nine handballs to set game-highs in all three categories. In the 35 point North Melbourne victory Riddell also took four marks, laid five tackles, polled two league best and fairest votes and seven coaches votes.

During four of North Melbourne’s last five games of the home and away season Riddell polled coaches votes, concluding with a maximum 10 votes in Round 9 against Fremantle at Arden Street. In the one point victory Riddell set a new personal best with 33 disposals comprised of 21 kicks and 12 handballs to set game-highs in all three categories, laid three tackles and received the maximum three votes in the league best and fairest.

North Melbourne coached by Darren Crocker finished the 2021 home and away season in sixth position with six wins and three losses, percentage behind fifth placed Fremantle. The top four teams all had seven wins and two losses to be separated by percentage only. Adelaide and Brisbane finished first and second respectively to host preliminary finals whilst Collingwood and Melbourne finished third and fourth respectively to host qualifying finals.

For the second year in a row North Melbourne and Collingwood played a thrilling final at Victoria Park however the result was reversed in 2021. North Melbourne led their 2021 qualifying final by 14 points at three quarter time but conceded the only three goals of the last quarter to be defeated by six points. Riddell was one of North Melbourne’s best players with a game-high 15 kicks, seven handballs, took three marks, laid three tackles and kicked a goal.

Riddell finished equal 17th in the 2021 AFL Coaches Association AFLW Champion Player of the Year Award with 28 votes and was again the third ranked Kangaroo behind Garner – third on 57 votes and Kearney – equal 13th on 38 votes. Riddell was one of four Kangaroos along with Garner, Kearney and defender Tahlia Randall selected in the All-Australian squad of 40 players. Riddell missed out on selection in the final 21 player 2021 AFLW All-Australian team, Garner was selected at half-forward and Kearney was named on the interchange.

Whilst the coaches and All-Australian selection panel thought Riddell’s 2021 season was inferior to her 2020 season the umpires rated her 2021 season significantly better than her 2020 season. After polling only one vote in the 2020 league best and fairest Riddell polled 10 votes in the 2021 league best and fairest to finish 10th overall and top the vote-count for the Kangaroos ahead of Garner (9 votes) and Bruton (8). North Melbourne’s three nominees for the AFLW MVP Award were Garner, Kearney and Bruton.

Ashleigh Riddell playing for North Melbourne against St Kilda in Round 2, 2021 at Arden Street on 7 February 2021

In 2021 Riddell played all 10 games for North Melbourne and averaged 14.1 kicks, 7.7 handballs, 3.2 marks, 4.5 tackles, 331.0 metres gained, 9.8 contested possessions, 4.2 clearances, 3.2 score involvements, and 3.6 inside 50’s per game. Riddell ranked equal fifth in the AFLW for inside 50’s, seventh for kicks and metres gained, eighth for disposals and clearances, and 15th for contested possessions.

In North Melbourne’s 2021 AFLW best and fairest Riddell finished strongly to be North Melbourne’s top vote-getter in their last two games of the season, polling 18 votes in Round 9 followed by 14 points in the qualifying final. Riddell polled 129 votes in North Melbourne’s best and fairest to finish third for the second year in a row behind Garner (146 votes) and Kearney (138).

Riddell finishes second in the 2022 AFLW Most Valuable Player Award

An article published on nmfc.com.au on 16 June 2021 announced that “The North Melbourne Tasmanian Kangaroos will look to take another leap forward next season, after retaining 24 of their 30 players from their 2021 AFLW list.

Headlining the signings are All-Australian squad members Emma King and Ash Riddell, with the duo locking in extensions until at least the end of 2023, as well as star midfielder Jenna Bruton”8

During 2022 Riddell and Garner were part of a six player North Melbourne leadership group with Kearney as captain and Emma King as vice-captain. The two new additions to the Kangaroos leadership group were Nicole Bresnehan and Danielle Hardiman.  

The sixth AFLW season was originally scheduled to commence in early December 2021 however due to the number of COVID-19 cases in Australia increasing during spring the start of the season got pushed back to early January 2022. The number of COVID-19 cases was at a lower level at the start of December however in late December 2021 the number of COVID-19 cases in most states around Australia escalated rapidly which increased the likelihood of players being forced to miss games due to the health and safety protocols in place. During an interview with North Media on 6 January Riddell commented “We obviously had a lovely break over Christmas but across the country everything has gone a bit chaotic, a bit crazy. I guess for us as a group it has been a challenging week but sort of embracing that this is going to be the new norm and treating it like it is going to happen regularly (players missing games due to the health and safety protocols) and we are going to at the end of the day use our full squad like most other clubs this year and making sure that everyone is prepared so when their time comes they’re absolutely ready and raring to go under whatever circumstances it may be.”

In relation to the Kangaroos pre-season Riddell told North Media “We have prepared for so long and obviously with the season being pushed back it seems like our pre-season has just gone forever. I can’t wait to run out amongst the girls on Saturday at Arden Street, especially being a home game, I think we are all pretty excited.”

Riddell told North Media “It has probably driven me, missing out on the first couple of drafts in AFLW, I didn’t want to let this opportunity slip once I got drafted to North Melbourne so I guess that has been the main motivator for me to get out do extras and really try and get the other girls out there, especially the younger players to buy into that because you don’t know how long this AFL journey is going to last. It could slip from your fingers pretty quickly, so just making sure I make the most of my opportunities is my main mindset going into the season.”  

In Sarah Black’s top 30 player rankings on womens.afl in the lead up to the 2022 AFLW season Riddell was ranked 14th, an improvement of three places after being ranked 17th at the start of 2021. In the 2022 rankings Black wrote about Riddell “Slides under the radar as the third midfielder at North Melbourne behind Jas Garner and Emma Kearney, but Riddell’s consistency is outstanding. A small but agile player, Riddell has excellent speed away from the contest and continually pops up around stoppages, where her elusiveness comes to the fore.”9 Black ranked Kearney at 11 and Garner at 3 on her 2022 list. North Melbourne changed their midfield set-up in 2022, moving Kearney from the midfield to defense.

In the Sarah Black’s Top 30: No 14 Ash Riddell video North Melbourne teammate Daisy Bateman commented “I came into the competition at the same time as Ash, she was picked up in the off-season as a mature-age pick and she was so AFL ready its not funny. I admire the way she goes about things, I don’t think there is anyone in our team that goes about their business any better than her to be honest. She works very hard, doesn’t take a day off and I think you can see that that translates on the field. She’s very versatile can play everywhere and anywhere that you need her and you know that she is also going to give it a 100%, so yeah there is not a lot of players that I rate higher than Ash Riddell.”

The COVID health and safety protocols had an immediate impact on North Melbourne with club captain Kearney forced to miss the opening round after testing positive to COVID-19 which resulted in Emma King captaining the Kangaroos in that game. In round 1, 2022 against Geelong at Arden Street on 8 January Riddell had a game-high 20 kicks, a team-high 15 handballs and laid a team-high six tackles in the eight point victory. Riddell’s 35 disposals equalled the record for most disposals in an AFLW game held jointly by Adelaide Crows midfield duo Ebony Marinoff and Anne Hatchard. For her phenomenal performance against Geelong Riddell polled the maximum three votes in the league best and fairest and was also judged best afield by the coaches, polling 10 votes in the AFL Coaches Association AFLW Champion Player of the Year Award.

With 22 contested possessions against Geelong Riddell set a new league record for the most contested possessions in a game. Days after North Melbourne’s Round 1 victory Riddell told Credit to the Girls podcastI am not really known for my contested ability, I prefer to get the ball on the outside a little bit more so I will take that contested possession wise, but yeah certainly didn’t feel like that on the field whatsoever.” In both 2020 and 2021 Riddell ranked in the top 15 of the AFLW for contested possessions per game which indicates that Riddell is more adept in this area of the game than she is giving herself credit for.

Against GWS Giants at Arden Street in Round 3 Riddell had a game-high 15 kicks, eight handballs, took two marks and laid five tackles in a 27 point victory to poll 10 coaches votes and three votes in the league best and fairest.

At Ikon Park against Carlton in Round 4 Riddell had a game-high 30 disposals, comprised of a game-high 22 kicks – nine more than the second player for the game teammate Aileen Gilroy, and eight handballs, took five marks, had 549 metres gained and four clearances in the 30 point victory. Teammate Mia King polled the maximum votes in both the league best and fairest and coaches award, Riddell was ranked the second best player on the ground, polling two votes in the league best and fairest and received seven votes from the coaches.

From her AFLW debut in Round 1 2019 to Round 3 2022 Riddell had at least 30 disposals in a game three times in 22 games which equates to 13.6% of her games. From Round 4, 2022 until the end of the season Riddell having 30 disposals in a game became the standard rather than the exception, achieving this feat five times in eight games at a strike rate of 62.5% of games.    

North Melbourne won six of their first seven games of 2022 with the only loss being to Adelaide in a Round 2 away game by 13 points. For the first time in 2022 and second time in their AFLW history the Kangaroos suffered back to back losses in Rounds 8 and Round 9, losing to Melbourne by 10 points in Round 8 at Casey Field and were defeated by Brisbane at Whitten Oval by 36 points in Round 9. Against Melbourne Riddell had a game-high 30 disposals comprised of 12 kicks and a game-high 18 handballs – six more than the second ranked players in the game to set a new career-high in this category, surpassing her previous best of 15 handballs twice earlier in 2022 – Round 1 against Geelong and Round 7 against Collingwood. Riddell also laid seven tackles, polled nine coaches votes – ranked equal first with Melbourne midfielder Karen Paxman and received one vote in the league best and fairest. The game against Melbourne was Riddell’s third consecutive game with exactly 30 disposals, following Round 6 against Richmond and Round 7 against Collingwood.

In the final round of the 2022 AFLW home and away season against West Coast at Arden Street Riddell had 42 disposals to set a new AFLW record for most disposals in a game, surpassing the previous record of 35 disposals which was held by herself and Adelaide Crows midfielders Ebony Marinoff and Anne Hatchard. In her record breaking game Riddell had 21 kicks and 21 handballs to set game-highs in both categories and a new career-high for handballs in a game, exceeding her previous best of 18 handballs, two rounds earlier against Melbourne. Riddell also took seven marks, had nine clearances, 15 contested possessions, five inside 50’s, seven score involvements and a game-high 480 metres gained – 170 metres gained more than the second ranked played for the game in the 39 point win. After setting a new record of 22 contested possessions in Round 1 Riddell ended the 2022 home and away season by having 28 uncontested possessions to set a new AFLW record for most uncontested possessions in a game. For the third time of 2022 the coaches and umpires awarded Riddell maximum votes, receiving 10 coaches votes and polling three votes in the league best and fairest in Round 10.

Jasmine Garner handballing to Ashleigh Riddell for one of her record breaking 28 uncontested possessions against West Coast at Arden Street in Round 10 on 12 March, 2022

Following her 42 disposal game against West Coast Riddell told theage.com.au “I’ve become a lot more relaxed over the course of the four seasons and realised footy is just a game and there’s a lot of other things going on in the world. It’s actually quite strange; I’ve been working a lot more this season (as a teacher), and I’m normally quite an analyser, but I haven’t had enough time this season to go back and watch every game like I have in previous years. It’s funny because I think it might be about just taking the pressure off myself, just going with the flow and enjoying my footy a little bit more, rather than constantly critiquing and analysing my game – being more time poor this year has been a blessing in disguise.”10

Ashleigh Riddell playing against West Coast at Arden Street in Round 10 on 12 March, 2022

After the Kangaroos victory against West Coast in Round 10 North Melbourne head coach Darren Crocker commented on Riddell and the Kangaroos midfield in the post-game press conference “Ash has got a great ability to be able to find the footy, she works so hard in game, she sets her work-rate in game up during the week, she is an elite preparer and (that) goes all the way back to the start of pre-season. I have said it before, she had a great pre-season that set herself up for a really strong year and her year has continued on. Right from Round 1 to the last round she has been really, really important to us. We like to think that the depth of our midfield allows someone to get off the leash each week, there was a period there where Jas Garner was getting of the leash for a number of weeks. The growth of Mia King, Ellie Gavalas, then you throw Jenna Bruton into the mix as well, I think the combination allows for a bit of depth through there.”

Crocker was also asked ‘There is talk of next season starting in August, you have got finals, what are thoughts on potentially a four month turn-around until the next season?’ Crocker responded “The four month turn around is probably not ideal but I think the timing of the season is far better than what we have actually had to endure this year. I must admit I have felt for the players, and that’s across the whole competition having to play in sometimes 35 degree heat as part-time athletes, that is a big ask on anyone. I think the actual timing of the season had to change, something had to give so I am glad that that has occurred, it is just going to be a very quick turn-around to another season within a year.”  

For the third AFLW season in a row North Melbourne made the finals, finishing fourth in 2022 with a record of seven wins, three losses and a percentage of 139.0% to finish just ahead of fifth placed Fremantle who had a percentage of 134.9%.

North Melbourne hosted Fremantle in a qualifying final at Arden Street on Saturday 19 March and led by four points at the first change. After quarter time Fremantle kicked 10 goals to three to defeat the Kangaroos by 38 points. Riddell had a game-high 23 disposals, 12 kicks, 11 handballs and took three marks to be one of North Melbourne’s best players.

In 2022 Riddell played all 11 games for North Melbourne and averaged 17.4 kicks, 11.9 handballs, 3.7 marks, 3.9 tackles, 362.4 metres gained, 12.4 contested possessions, 5.1 clearances, 3.7 score involvements, and 3.6 inside 50’s per game. Riddell led the AFLW in 2022 for disposals and kicks per game, ranked third for metres gained and contested possessions, fourth for clearances, equal ninth for inside 50’s and 12th for score involvements.  

Riddell has played 30 AFLW games, ranked ninth on North Melbourne’s all-time list, Jasmine Garner and Tahlia Randall rank equal first in this category with 35 games. The other players that have played more games for the Kangaroos than 26 year old Riddell are Daisy Bateman, Bruton, Kearney and Emma King all on 34 games followed by Kaitlyn Ashmore on 33 games and Sophie Abbatangelo on 32 games.

At the 2022 league best and fairest Riddell polled 17 votes comprised of three 3’s, two 2’s and four 1’s to finish fourth overall, four votes behind the winner, Brisbane midfielder Emily Bates on 21 votes, followed by Anne Hatchard in second place on 20 votes and Ebony Marinoff in third place on 18 votes. Riddell was extremely consistent throughout 2021, polling votes in nine of her 10 home and away games. From 2019 to 2021 Riddell polled a total of 13 league best and fairest votes from 17 home and away games at an average of 0.76 votes per game. Riddell’s tally of 17 votes in 2022 surpassed her previous career tally of 13 league best and fairest votes and equated to 1.7 votes per game, a 223.7% increase on her average from 2019 to 2021.

During the 2022 home and away season Riddell polled at least five votes in the AFL Coaches Association AFLW Champion Player of the Year Award in nine of her 10 games to rank in the top four players in each of these nine games. Riddell amassed a total of 68 votes to finish equal second with Anne Hatchard, six votes behind Emily Bates. Riddell polled the maximum 10 votes in a game three times, Round 1 against Geelong, Round 3 against GWS and Round 10 vs West Coast which were also the three games that the umpires adjudged her best afield. Garner finished equal 10th in the AFL MVP on 42 votes and Kearney finished equal 19th with 28 votes.

Riddell was selected in the midfield of the 2022 AFLW All-Australian team and just like in 2020 was joined by North Melbourne teammates Kearney and Garner. Kearney was selected in defense and named the captain and Garner was named on the interchange.

The three players nominated by the North Melbourne playing group as the club’s nominees for the Most Valuable Player Award were Riddell, Kearney and Garner, it was the first time that Riddell had been nominated. In the second stage of the voting process players can’t vote for their club teammates. In the 2022 AFLW Most Valuable Player Award Riddell finished second with 256 votes, 30 votes behind Emily Bates with Richmond midfielder Monique Conti third on 164 votes.

North Melbourne’s 2022 best and fairest will be held on Friday 27th May at Prince Deck, Prince Hotel St Kilda. After finishing third in both 2020 and 2021 behind Garner and Kearney Riddell is the favourite to win her first Kangaroos best and fairest.  

Four more clubs – Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney will join the AFLW for the league’s seventh season which will increase the number of clubs from 14 to 18, the same number as the AFL. It is expected that the next AFLW season will start in late-August 2022.

Former North Melbourne coach Scott Gowans has been appointed as the inaugural head coach of Sydney’s AFLW team. On 31 March 2022 womens.afl reported that Sydney have put an offer to Riddell and said Gowans is “understood to be a key factor in Sydney’s pursuit of her signature ahead of next season.”10

Riddell signed a contract extension with North Melbourne in mid-2021 for two seasons so still has one season left on her deal with the Kangaroos. Each expansion club can sign up to a maximum of 14 AFLW listed players, however given that Riddell is contracted for next season you would expect that Sydney would have to negotiate a trade with North Melbourne if Riddell wants to join the harbour city club. The article published on 31 March 2022 by womens.afl mentioned that Sydney had made an offer to Riddell but didn’t mention how receptive Riddell was to the offer or what mechanism Sydney would use to add Riddell to their list if she wanted to join the Swans.   

Epilogue

After getting overlooked at the first two AFLW drafts in October 2016 and October 2017 Riddell impressed in the VFLW with North Melbourne’s VFL affiliated club Melbourne Uni Mugars and joined AFLW club North Melbourne as a free-agent in May 2018.  

Reflecting on her journey with North Melbourne Riddell told Credit to the Girls podcast in January 2022 “I have been blessed with coming into a team where there was already a pretty established midfield so I saw that as an opportunity to try and go on Emma Kearney and I try and go on Jazzy Garner and Jenna Bruton and so forth and get the best out of my footy. I felt like it was better to come into a team where I was probably the fifth or sixth best midfielder coming in and to try and challenge myself and get the most out of it rather than go to a club with a less established midfield and you might get easy games and so forth with that. I saw it as a challenge to learn off some of the best in the game.”

On AFLW debut for North Melbourne in Round 1, 2019 Riddell starred with 16 disposals to earn two league best and fairest votes. However Riddell’s debut AFLW season was to be a bitter-sweet experience with a syndesmosis ankle injury in Round 2 against GWS Giants ending her season.

When Riddell was finally able to get a consistent run at playing at AFLW level in 2020 she proved that the wait was well and truly worthwhile, amazingly earning AFLW All-Australian selection in 2020 despite entering the season with just two games AFLW experience.  

During 2021 Riddell wes voted into North Melbourne’s leadership group and maintained a high standard to record her second consecutive third placed finish in North Melbourne’s best and fairest behind Garner and Kearney.

In a record breaking 2022 season Riddell emerged as the premier ball-winner in the AFLW, breaking several disposal records and was recognised with her second All-Australian selection and a top four finish in the league best and fairest, Most Valuable Player Award and the AFL Coaches Association AFLW Champion Player of the Year Award.

Ashleigh Riddell about to have one of her record breaking 42 disposals for North Melbourne against West Coast at Arden Street in Round 10 on 12 March, 2022

It is a remarkable rise by Ashleigh Riddell after being overlooked at two AFLW drafts to make a significant impact at AFLW level with her hard-running, work-rate, preparation and ball-winning ability for North Melbourne to develop into a two-time AFLW All-Australian and rank first in the league for disposals.

Article and photographs by Dean Andrews

Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777

References

1 https://www.nmfc.com.au/news/278985/aflw-sweet-relief

2 https://www.nmfc.com.au/news/278985/aflw-sweet-relief

3 Champion Data, AFLW Prospectus – the essential number-cruncher for season 2019, 2nd Edition, page 117

4  https://womens.afl/news/49993/no-premiership-in-2020-aflw-season-ends-immediately

5 https://www.foxsports.com.au/afl/afl-2020-scott-gowans-north-melbourne-aflw-scott-gowans-aflw-coach-aflw-cuts/news-story/12714698969bb84f2b22725f3d7da471

6 https://www.nmfc.com.au/news/849307/aflw-leadership-group-finalised

7 https://www.nmfc.com.au/news/849307/aflw-leadership-group-finalised

8 https://www.nmfc.com.au/news/959490/aflw-roos-eye-the-future

9 https://www.womens.afl/news/78307/sarah-black-s-top-30-aflw-players-5-1

10 https://www.theage.com.au/sport/afl/riddell-me-that-less-is-more-for-record-breaking-kangaroo-20220317-p5a5k8.html

11 https://www.womens.afl/news/91831/

Milestones and Misses

Milestones and Misses publishes articles to celebrate the achievements of sportspeople, mainly in the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) and Australian Rules Football (AFL and AFLW). In sport as with life in general it is common that milestones are only achieved after overcoming adversity, so whilst the articles on the Milestones and Misses website celebrate sportspeople achieving milestones they also cover the misses along the journey such as a player having minimal game-time or spending a prolonged period on the sidelines due to injury. The aim of the articles is to enable readers to gain a greater appreciation of the journey sportspeople have had during their career.

A link to Milestones and Misses homepage and AFLW category are below:

https://milestonesandmisses.com/

https://milestonesandmisses.com/category/aflw/

The Milestones and Misses website was set up in December 2015. From 2020 onwards articles have been published on the following sportspeople:

AFLW

Ashleigh Riddell

Hayley Miller

Darcy Vescio

Tessa Lavey

Georgia Patrikios

Alyce Parker

Tyla Hanks

Tyanna Smith

Tarni White

Caitlin Greiser

AFL

Sam Walsh

Jack Steele

Luke Jackson

Harry McKay

Seb Ross

Nicky Winmar

Jayden Short

Clayton Oliver

Lenny Hayes

Tim Membrey

Rowan Marshall

WNBL

Jade Melbourne

Maddison Rocci

Cayla George

Kelly Wilson

Steph Talbot

Bec Cole

Aimie Rocci

Abby Bishop

Lindsay Allen

Tessa Lavey

Ezi Magbegor

Zitina Aokuso

Leilani Mitchell

Maddie Garrick

Sara Blicavs

NBL

Nathan Sobey

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