From the very beginning of the round ball game at the Falcons, fortunes had wavered. The Club went from fielding three senior women’s teams to one. As the core of the playing group grew older, the sustainability of the program was a concern. How to attract young players and how to grow soccer at the Falcons? These were the questions facing the club throughout the 2000s. But it wouldn’t be until 2010 that plans to develop a junior pathway began in earnest.
Jasmine Hirst first arrived at the Falcons in 2006. She played a season of soccer, before taking some time off to have her second child in 2007, returning to the club in 2008.
“My girls had been coming down to watch [me play]. They were sort of showing some interest in playing and so I looked around the local area to see if there was another club that had a junior program that they might like to join. And then in the end, there really wasn’t anything,” Jasmine, who is now the junior soccer administrator of the club, explained.
Around the same time, the club had fielded enquiries from some parents looking for a junior soccer program for their daughters. It was the perfect confluence of circumstances. The senior program needed a strategy to bring new and younger players into the club. Jasmine was looking for a junior program for her own children and she wasn’t the only one—at the club or outside it.
“We thought, oh well, maybe there’s a little bit of a market for it. So me and Ange Mackie, who is another mother on the Darebin Falcons senior team… we decided that we’d just start something and see what happened,” Jasmine said.
The Falcons started with a series of ‘come and try’ days in 2010. They had ten girls show up to the first one. It was all the encouragement the club needed to continue work on building a pathway. They continued to push the burgeoning program: advertising in primary school newsletters, running clinics at local schools and sticking up flyers.
“They did a lot of work, they really did the right thing,” Maggie Koumi said. “They approached schools, they just did a lot of promotion. And just did it so well… I admire them so much for doing that.”
“When things really started to improve, and when we saw a future for soccer in the club was when the juniors started,” Sally Wallis, who was soccer administrator until 2011, said. “The response we got was amazing. It was then that we could see that soccer would probably survive at the Falcons.”
In 2011, the Falcons officially launched their junior soccer program. They began with Sunday morning clinics for 4-9 year-olds.
“We thought that was going to be the best place for us to start, even though what we really wanted to do was start with under 14s and 16s and have those players move into our senior team as well,” explained Jasmine. “So started with the 4-9 year olds and once we sort of had a core group, there was a lot of word of mouth that then happened and those girls brought their friends along, and by the end of the first year, we ended up with 30 players in our Mini Roos Clinic.”
The following year, the Falcons fielded one U11s team. Interest in this team was so strong that by the end of the year, there were 23 registered players—far more than a 9-a-side soccer team requires. By the end of the 2012 season, the club had 67 junior players registered in the program across the U11s team and the clinics. It was just the beginning.
“We just all of a sudden had this explosion and had six teams,” Jasmine said of the 2013 season, which she describes as the club’s ‘breakout season’. “It just sort of kept going at a bit of an exponential rate.”
In 2013, the Falcons fielded two U9 teams, two U11 teams, an U12 team and an U16 team and finished the season with a total of 127 registered players. The player numbers and the number of teams continued to grow steadily—161 registered players in 2014 grew to 448 players across 25 teams in 2019.
In 2017, the junior program had to cut off registrations and find additional grounds to meet the demands but it also marked the beginning of the much needed upgrade of the soccer facilities. When the move to AH Capp was first floated in 2004, the original plan was to build a facility between the football and soccer fields. This didn’t pan out and the soccer teams were left with tired facilities with which to store their gear during the season.
“One of the things that we were fighting for for a very long time was a proper sort of clubrooms building for the soccer ground,” Jasmine said. “We’ve had this building which we share with the Preston Druids which was kind of like a shell of a building with no internal walls. So no change rooms, some very dirty and dubious showers and toilets. No sort of proper canteen.”
But in 2017, things were looking up.
“The state government brought out their female friendly facilities fund and so the council was able to apply for some money from that to upgrade the building,” explained Jasmine. “And put in some actual change rooms, not just female friendly change rooms, actual change rooms. So that was fantastic.”
The club signed off on a million dollar upgrade of the Robinson Reserve Pavillion, which included four new changerooms, a medical room, referees room, social room, inside toilets, a canteen servery and a new kitchen as well as storage.
Work on the upgrade began in late 2017, but stalled in June 2018 when the builder went into liquidation. The soccer teams were forced to find alternative venues for training. Despite the hiccup, the upgrade was finished in mid-2019 and the soccer teams were able to move in July of 2019.
“It’s such an amazing facility. And I think the girls, some of them can’t quite believe it that we have this. I mean, I know I can’t believe it,” Jasmine said. “We have this great setup where we can actually run a proper canteen and that sort of thing. And it’s really important that girls see those kinds of visible physical buildings that are built for them and around their activities so that they know that they’re valued.”
In 2019, along with the new facilities, the pathway that was envisioned in 2010 finally delivered what it had long promised with the first Falcon juniors stepping into the senior team. That year’s annual report called it a ‘milestone year’.
“When we began the junior soccer program back in 2011, we only dared to dream that one day the 4-9-year-olds in our first clinic would one day play for our senior Falcons team. In 2019 this became a reality and our first complete team of players who had progressed through our junior program, went up from Under 16s to compete at the senior level.This significant event means that we now have a complete and travelled pathway from juniors up through to seniors.”
Of the U16s team who moved into the senior program, three had played in the original Mini Roos clinic in 2011.
“I think we sort of started off wanting somewhere for our kids to play, and then also had hoped that eventually those players would go into our senior team to refresh the ranks there,” Jasmine said. “But the things that have been really fantastic to see that have developed over the last couple of years, is the older junior players getting involved in other off-field roles, like refereeing and coaching.
“I think that’s something that’s so important, that we have those girls in roles where they’re now role models for the younger kids, and those younger kids will see that that’s something that’s open to them that they can then go on and do as well, and stay in the sport, even if they don’t continue to play.”
There are many volunteers who started and keep the junior soccer program running and thriving at the Falcons.
“There are a lot of key people who’ve helped get the program to this point,” Jasmine said. “There are certainly people that it would not have happened without. Ange Mackie in the beginning, helping to kind of get the coaching of the Mini Roos Clinic going and getting that up and running. And Sal Wallis as well. She was soccer administrator at the time and was very supportive and instrumental in that happening. Then, throughout the last 10 years, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything without Maria Caruso, who is just a wonder!”
Of course, little would have happened without Jasmine herself.
“She certainly had the vision and she certainly had the gusto,” Brenda said. “To create the momentum to keep going with that and just kind of navigate that space. Yes, she did a great job, and she still does a tireless job now. It certainly wouldn’t be where it is without her.”
For Jasmine, what sets the junior program apart is that the girls are at the heart of everything the club does.
“They aren’t second best, they aren’t fighting for space with boys teams that may be seen as more important. There’s no unconscious bias with regard to their gender here. They really are treated all individually and all looked upon not just as something token, or they’re there because we need funding from certain governments that require you to tick a box and say, you’ve got a women’s team. Really, we’re all about girls. And I think that’s something that’s very different here from other clubs.”