Father figures: How Stinear and Starcevich weathered the storm

SUNDAY 5 February, 2017.

It's round one of the inaugural NAB AFLW season, and two fresh coaches are getting their first taste of national senior women's football in a match between Melbourne and Brisbane.

All around Mick Stinear and Craig Starcevich, it's chaos.

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Not content with providing the usual howling gale at Casey Fields, the weather gods have decided to throw a summer thunderstorm into the mix.

An early half-time is taken due to safety concerns, with the remainder of the second quarter and the third term played back-to-back.

A ruck contest during a heavy storm in the Melbourne v Brisbane game in 2017. Picture: AFL Photos

"I felt like we were prepared and ready to go, but we didn't anticipate the unique conditions that we all faced today. Credit to Brisbane for putting in a four-quarter effort," Stinear said post-match, in his typically understated fashion.

From those heady early days of the competition (Brisbane won that day by 15 on its way to a Grand Final loss, Melbourne finished third and missed the season decider by just 16 per cent), only Stinear and Starcevich remain of the AFLW's eight inaugural coaches.

Tim Schmidt lasted just one season at GWS, Bec Goddard, Michelle Cowan and Damien Keeping finished up at the end of 2018 (Goddard is now at Hawthorn and Cowan the head of women's footy at West Coast), while Wayne Siekman and Paul Groves parted ways with Collingwood and Western Bulldogs respectively in 2019.

Brisbane coach Craig Starcevich during the inaugural AFLW season. Picture: AFL Photos

Not content with outlasting the inaugural six, Stinear and Starcevich have held firm while Trent Cooper (Fremantle), Paul Hood (Geelong), David Lake (Gold Coast), Alan McConnell (GWS), Scott Gowans (North Melbourne stint), Tommy Hunter (Richmond), Peta Searle (St Kilda), Luke Dwyer and Daniel Pratt (both West Coast) have also been and gone.

In addition to their longevity, Stinear and Starcevich are masters of their craft and have taken out the past three AFLCA coach of the season awards between them.

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Decent lists help tremendously, but both have had to play key roles in building strong cultures that have withstood the talent raids of expansion teams.

So what sets them apart?

Physically, the two could not be more different; the burly West Australian in Starcevich at 193cm, a premiership player at Collingwood with 144 V/AFL games under his belt, and the smaller Victorian Stinear at 179cm, who made Carlton's rookie list in 2003 but couldn't quite crack a senior game.

Melbourne coach Mick Stinear during the inaugural AFLW season. Picture: AFL Photos

But for both Brisbane and Melbourne players, it's the emotional depth of both men that stands out.

"I see him as a father figure, that's the best way to describe 'Starce'," hard-nosed inaugural Brisbane defender Shannon Campbell says.

"He can be hard when he needs to be, but he's also really loving and nurturing for those people that need that.

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"He's really good with his feedback, he's really good with being approachable. I think that's what you need as a coach, especially in the women's program, so it's been really beneficial for a lot of people in our program."

Campbell's point about coaching men as opposed to leading a team of women also rings true for Stinear's players.

"It's the relationship thing," Melbourne's All-Australian forward Kate Hore says.

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"As women, we probably have a little more of an emotional side that comes out, and the way he can develop relationships and knows how to get the best out of his players, it's a real strength of his.

"The way he teaches us, he has a really nice manner. He's watched a lot of women's footy, he's a really experienced coach and he knows the different elements of the men's and women's games. He's obviously coached in the men's game a little bit, but he's got a really good eye for it."

Starcevich took a long and winding road to the AFLW.

After his retirement from V/AFL footy in 1995, he took a role in Brisbane's strength and conditioning program during a period that included the Lions' premiership three-peat in the early 2000s, with the last of those three flags coming in the year current Brisbane small forward Mikayla Pauga was born.

Craig Starcevich during his playing days at Collingwood. Picture: AFL Photos

From there, he had a few years in high performance at St Kilda and A-League club Brisbane Roar and also worked for AFL Queensland in various roles around the state, most critically as high-performance manager for female football in the lead-in to AFLW.

He spotted this season's AFLW leading goalkicker Jesse Wardlaw – then a raw netballer playing a bit of footy on the side – lining up for a regional side, and invited her to train alongside the (already selected) state under-18 team to help further her development.

"He's a great guy ... he's been my coach from the start, we know each other on a personal level and he's able to get to know us off the field and on the field as players," Wardlaw said.

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"He's a lovely guy, he's real down to earth. He kind of looks like a scary man, but then when you talk to him, he's real soft and gentle."

There are videos of players rushing to receive a bear hug from Starcevich after particularly stirring or vital wins.

He's a strong orator who keeps his messages calm, simple and reassuring, instilling confidence in his players with straightforward and encouraging language.

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He also doesn't mind a pre-match boogie to a bit of ABBA, and one particularly entertaining video captured now-vice captain Nat Grider pranking her coach with an apparent pre-match ankle injury that required the very dramatic use of crutches.

But that's not to say he doesn't have a sterner side.

Starcevich's post-match press conference after the preliminary final loss to Melbourne earlier this year, where he unexpectedly unloaded on expansion clubs that were circling his star players, was particularly memorable. And like most senior coaches, he's prone to the occasional explicit outburst in the box.

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But the emotion is driven by care and a deep protectiveness for his players and the Lions' women's program.

"We've had a fair bit of turnover once those first expansion teams came through, but Craig's been unreal with making sure we build a culture that everyone wants to be part of," Campbell says.

"Everyone feels welcomed, everyone has their say when they need to.

"We've built a really solid base (that) we've been able to build on year on year, and we've been able to bring in a lot of really good players and staff that have helped with that culture and building on that. Four Grand Finals in seven years is pretty unreal."

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Starcevich and head of women's football Breeanna Brock rebuilt the Lions program after the expansion turnover of 2019, digging into the powerful QAFLW state league to find players such as All-Australian forward Greta Bodey, spearhead Dakota Davidson and premier tagger Cathy Svarc, with dual citizen Orla O'Dwyer also recruited from Ireland.

Just when you think he might want a bit of a break from football, Starcevich remarkably coaches Switzerland (yes, the country) in the women's off-season, with his wife based there due to her work.

"He's such an incredible human being and such a great coach," AFLW best and fairest Ally Anderson says. "We're so lucky to have the stability with him over the last seven years and we've really been able to develop as a team under his guidance.

"He's always asking how you are and is interested in your life outside of footy as well. It's not all footy for him.

"I went and visited him in Basel in Switzerland (during the off-season), he always has an open home and is an open person too."

Craig Starcevich does a shoey at the W Awards in March, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Meanwhile, Stinear's dedication to Melbourne's program is such that he drives from his home on Victoria's Surf Coast (a 90-minute drive to the city on a good day) to get to work.

And when the Demons were training in Casey (on the other side of the bay) due to ground work at Gosch's Paddock, Stinear was known to switch his car for a mini-bus to take a load of players down the often stagnant Monash Freeway.

When speaking to Melbourne players about the at-times softly spoken Stinear, there's one word that comes up time and time again – relationships.

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"He's an incredible coach, I'm not just saying that. I feel like I can say that on behalf of the whole team. Everyone thinks that," Demons All-Australian midfielder Liv Purcell says.

"I think the thing I like about him the most is he's a little bit different than your standard football coach. He's still really hard and wants to get the best out of us, but I think the best thing I like about him is how creative and open-minded he is.

"He's willing to try different things to get the best out of you as a footballer, but he wants to get the best out of us as people, too. I think that's the thing I take away from him the most, how he wants us to continue to evolve us as people. Hopefully that goes out onto the field and we play like that as well."

In contrast to Starcevich, Stinear hadn't had much experience in women's or youth girls' footy prior to his appointment at the Dees, having come from the helm of NAB League boys side Oakleigh Chargers.

He's remarkably calm under pressure and famously delivered his own son Jack at a bus shelter on the Great Ocean Road, having been forced to pull over on the way to the hospital.

Skipping Melbourne's game in Perth that week remains the only one Stinear has missed in seven seasons, with Starcevich having also only missed one game during his tenure due to illness.

Darcy Moore (left) and Mick Stinear celebrate Oakleigh's TAC Cup win in 2014. Picture: AFL Photos

Just as the Lions players rush to Starcevich, the admiration the Demons have for Stinear was on show when his most recent contract extension (until the end of 2024) was announced to the players last month, with the coach lifted into the air into a quasi-crowd surf by the excited group.

Tactically, Stinear is an excellent coach who is not afraid to flick a switch in a match or try a player in a new position.

Tayla Harris has played much more ruck time this season and the persistence with the previously overlooked Maeve Chaplin has paid off in defence.

Most impressively, the Demons have transformed their inside midfield trio from the old Darebin core of Daisy Pearce, Karen Paxman and Elise O'Dea to a new generation of Purcell, Tyla Hanks and Eliza West over the past seven seasons, without finishing lower than fourth in the process.

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"What makes Mick a good coach? You could reel off a list as long as your arm," inaugural Dee Lily Mithen says.

"First of all, as a coach his technical work and the joy and buzz you see him get from when players pick something up, or get better. His main aim is to make sure we're the best players we can be.

"His commitment to doing that, the extra hours and sessions, is so ridiculous. He put so much time and effort into making us the best players possible, and that's how we've been able to challenge for a premiership in every season."

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Stinear also doesn't take himself too seriously and is willing to be the butt of a gag to relieve a bit of tension or to spark the imagination of players.

He's also not afraid to show his creativity or sense of fun, either, and knows his players inside and out. When he approaches the club's media team to alert them of a debutante, he's already thought of the best way to break the news to the player, and loves to play a key role in constructing an elaborate ruse.

When the final siren sounds on Sunday afternoon, either Stinear will have won his first flag, or Starcevich his second.

Regardless, there's no doubting the care and commitment both men have for the still-fledgling competition, nor their belief that it is their responsibility to help grow the game at a national level.

Using the women's program as a "stepping stone" to a more publicly prominent role in a men's side is not an option for these two.

They are all in.