DANIEL Harford's fist hangs in the air, ready to be bumped by anyone willing.
Josh Hare, Carlton's AFLW recruiting officer, has barely finished reading out the name of Annie Lee, the club's newest player, but the celebrations are already in motion around him. The excitement is palpable. "That's amazing," Brett Munro, the GM of women's football at the Blues, whispers under his breath. "Wow," Tara Bonello, the club's women's football operations manager, repeats to herself.
YOUR CLUB'S AFLW DRAFT Surprises, sliders among 59 draftees
Just five minutes earlier, this hadn't seemed possible for Carlton. With surprises littered throughout the early stages of Tuesday night's NAB AFLW Draft, the Blues had momentarily thought it was all going pear-shaped. Lee's name had been the one Carlton recruiters had been hoping to call for months. But the fear of someone else doing it before them was suddenly looming larger than ever. When St Kilda picked Ella Friend with the second Victorian selection of the night, the air was almost sucked from the room. "That might cost us Annie," Hare said, the line left hanging by those around him.
Womens.afl was granted exclusive access to Carlton's draft bunker as the anxiety grew at Ikon Park. Five picks until the club's first selection. Four. Three. Two. One. "Don't do it," Munro says to himself as Geelong prepares to read out the final pick before Carlton's. But he need not worry. It's Gabbi Featherston's name they call, not Lee's. Just like that, the moment is worth the wait.
Hare turns to Harford. He finally gets his fist-bump. "This is the best it could have gone."
Earlier in the evening, Munro stands next to a whiteboard in Carlton's brand-new boardroom at the club's redeveloped Ikon Park headquarters. He's ready to scribble down the names of the Victorian picks as they're chosen. Hare, the man in charge of proceedings on Tuesday night, repeats the Blues' draft rankings to himself.
The four-person recruiting team, which also features Bonello and coach Harford, have made their predictions for the draft's early selections. They're sure Geelong will take Georgie Prespakis first. That much, at the very least, is clear. "We did our best," Munro laughs when he's asked whether the Blues tried to pair her with her older sister, two-time club best and fairest winner and 2020 AFLW best and fairest Madison.
Once Prespakis indeed heads to the Cats, the action starts in earnest. "Here we go … showtime," Hare says. All of the external noise suggests St Kilda and Richmond, with the next picks, will go with a combination of Tess Craven and Amanda Ling. As for who the Cats will take with the fourth and fifth selections among the Victorian crop, it's anyone's guess. Carlton is up next with the sixth and seventh picks.
Geelong, in reality, shapes the draft. Carlton has a number of different contingency plans for its back-to-back picks immediately afterwards, depending on what the Cats do. "We've got four different scenarios for how it could unfold. With that pick No.6, we've got three different girls for that spot. With Geelong having three of the picks ahead of us, they're going to be the determining factor on who gets through to us," Munro says.
What the Cats decide will be crucial for the Blues. With Prespakis wiped from their draft board early in the night, they have a clear list of three players in mind for their two first-round selections. Lee is at the top of the pecking order, but as a Geelong local there is a genuine and legitimate concern she heads to GMHBA Stadium before they get the chance to choose. Keeley Sherar and Zali Friswell, respectively, are next in their rankings.
If their pre-draft predictions go to plan, they think Friend could land at Geelong. It would mean the Cats only have one more pick to steal someone from Carlton's three-person shortlist. But once she is claimed by St Kilda, the night's first surprise, the unease around the Blues' table multiplies. "That is what we have been umm-ing and ahh-ing over for months," Hare says.
The tension only builds from there. After Richmond selects Stella Reid, Geelong is up again for the second of its three picks before Carlton's. The Cats take Friswell, another selection the Blues didn't see coming. The grim looks on the faces of Hare and Munro as they glance at each other from across the room is clear to see, even despite the protective masks worn by all present. One of the three on their shortlist is gone. Hare laments that he was "99.9 per cent sure" Friswell would be available when Carlton started on the clock. "That's why you leave the 0.1 per cent," Munro responds.
All of a sudden, there is a very real threat that Geelong takes Lee – the local prospect – with its next selection. Should that hypothetical eventuate, Carlton would be left with only one of its three-person shortlist on the board with two picks up its sleeve. "That's no good for us if that happens, that is honestly our worst-case scenario," Hare says.
Harford cools the mood. "OK, where are we at?" he asks calmly, before flexing and telling Hare to make sure his "cannons are in the shot" when he makes the selection. Everyone waits nervously. The Cats, after what seems an eternity, opt for Featherston.
With just one pick, Carlton's disaster has turned into a dream. Having spent the minutes leading up to their selection stressing that two of the three on their shortlist would be unavailable, the Blues suddenly don't have just one, but both of the top-two on their draft board ready to be recruited.
Lee's name is almost shouted down the line by an excited Hare. Once the pick is confirmed by League officials, Sherar's name is screamed just as quickly and as loudly. "That's a good get … a good get," Munro says as the latter selection is processed at AFL House. "We've just got the first and second players on our board with the sixth and seventh picks," Hare adds, almost in disbelief at the prospect.
Two picks, two childhood Bluebaggers.— Carlton Women's (@carltonfc_w) July 27, 2021
Here's a look at Keeley Sherar in action. ?????#AFLWDraft
Harford whips out his phone and punches in Lee's number. "She's like Brad Sheppard, that's who she plays like," Hare says of the intercept defender as the phone rings. A lifelong Carlton fan, a giant Patrick Cripps banner hangs over Lee's shoulder as she answers the FaceTime call with her new coach. Her dad runs to his room and comes back to proudly show off his signed Ken Hunter jumper.
Sherar, also a diehard Blues fan, is next to be called. The club believes she can play as an inside or an outside midfielder, one with pace to burn. "We're way faster than what we were yesterday," is how Hare describes her selection. Tears are streaming as she reveals her hero Cripps has already sent her text. "That is raw emotion. How good is that?" Munro smiles.
Harford exhales. Two picks down. Two to go.
Downstairs, amid all of the commotion, Mimi Hill works the stationary bike. She's the only one in the gym. Currently rehabbing an ACL injury sustained midway through her first season at the club, the No.12 selection from last year's NAB AFLW Draft then completes skill work by herself before finishing another gruelling session.
Seemingly oblivious to all of the excitement going on above her, Hill doesn't realise the role she's about to play in Carlton's draft night. The first round is over, and the Blues have set about figuring out what to do next. There's a quick debrief of what just happened, but then it's go-time once again.
There is debate over whether to draft for the future, or target the now. Expansion, the inevitable loss of senior players ahead of the 2023 season, and the certain loss of early picks in the future to accommodate for the new clubs all come into the equation. "We might not get access to high picks for a little while. We've got to get good talent into the place and sure up some areas," Munro says.
Bonello gets replays of old draft interviews up on her laptop. It's a chat with Brooke Vickers that they're watching again. "Mimi absolutely loves her," Munro says. The pair are former Oakleigh Chargers teammates. They trust Hill's judgement, with the youngster's leadership already highly rated among the club's top brass. Harford leaves the room, phone in hand, but returns soon after. If there were any doubts on his end, a quick chat with her NAB League coach Jason Davenport has left him convinced. She's the one.
Imogen Milford, a 21-year-old forward who played VFLW football with Casey this season, is also high on the shortlist of second-round options. But where the mature-aged prospect might be considered a left-field target, there is a concern that Vickers won't make it beyond the Western Bulldogs, who have picks sandwiched in between Carlton's next two. The decision is subsequently made to take Vickers first at pick No.14, then Milford at pick No.16. "Are we happy?" Hare asks. "Yes," is the confident response from Munro.
North Melbourne starts the second-round by selecting Tara Slender. The Western Bulldogs opt for Ling next. It leaves Carlton with a clear shot at Vickers. Harford punches the air, before he's struck by a realisation. The Blues have added Brooke Vickers to Brooke Vernon and Brooke Walker. "There are going to be magnets everywhere," he laughs.
Milford is next. Virtually as soon as her name is called, Carlton's official Twitter account posts a highlights package to their social media followers. Hare, phone in hand, is almost the first to see it. "She's ridiculous," he says, watching a miraculous goal she kicked against Collingwood earlier this season.
What can you expect to see from Imogen Milford?— Carlton Women's (@carltonfc_w) July 27, 2021
Snags, snags and more snags. pic.twitter.com/yIOvtBbURS
The club passes on its final selection later in the draft. It has South Australian tall Jess Good, a 26-year-old former basketballer who has impressed in the ruck at SANFLW level with Sturt this season, in its sights during the interstate free agency period later in the week.
The night is nearly done, but the preparations for the 2021/22 season are only just beginning. Carlton's strong hand in the draft came about having lost four experienced players – Katie Loynes, Chloe Dalton, Tayla Harris and Jess Hosking – during May's trade period. But that doesn't dampen the Blues' ambitions for the campaign ahead. Instead, nights like Tuesday have only strengthened their belief that they can contend for a maiden AFLW premiership next season.
"We've got eight All-Australians left on our list, which I think is still the most of any team in the competition. We had seven that were ours and then we've brought in Jess Dal Pos, who is a really good acquisition. She's versatile, she's experienced, she's got leadership and she adds a lot. If you include tonight's two top-10 picks, that will make it six top-10 picks on top of that as well. So, we've got enough talent. We absolutely believe that," Munro says.
"Last year was a season of missed opportunities. We lost three games by under a goal, but that's not unlucky. That's a failing of ours. We made errors and we repeated errors at the wrong time in games and it cost us. We've got a lot of work to do, but we believe really strongly that we can contend."
Zoom calls are organised with Carlton's newest players and their families for later in the night, while plans are drawn up for all four to tour the club's facilities together in the coming days.
Just like that, the focus quickly turns to the season ahead. But for now, as Munro brings a couple of celebratory drinks into the Blues' boardroom, it's time to enjoy the moment. "I feel great," he says. "How good was that?"