IN less than two years, Alana McNabb has gone from female football supporter and volunteer trainer to premiership player and victorious Vic Country representative.
The 21-year-old physiotherapy student had never played the game when she arrived at Bendigo Thunder in 2012 and offered her skills to help with strapping and other off-field duties.
“I went to most of the away games on the team bus and was a supporter, really,” she says of her first season at the club.
“Then last year a few of the girls asked me why didn’t I play, so I bought some boots, went to training, and here I am.”
Though still a relative rookie in just her second year, McNabb has rapidly gathered an impressive collection of football honours.
She was part of the dominant Thunder team that went through last season undefeated to claim the Victorian Women’s Football League north-west conference grand final, kicking the opening goal for her side in the decider.
And she earned selection in this year’s open-age Victoria Country squad that defeated Vic Metro in their annual challenge match for the first time since 2003.
It was her first time in a state sporting team and McNabb was happy with her performance in a defensive role as a stopper throughout the match.
“I’m very surprised by how quickly it’s all happened,” she says of her rise. “Just putting on that jersey was a pretty good feeling...
“I tried out for the VWFL Women’s Academy in January and I’ve gone along to every single thing I could try out for since because I just want to get better.
“I didn’t get in (to the academy) but I had three or four training sessions with them and that was incredible – the coaches are really good and even trying out you can learn so much and see the skill level you need to get to, to be competitive in Melbourne.”
Among the coaches who made a big impression on her was women’s football legend and new St Kilda assistant coach Peta Searle, the first female appointed to such a role at an AFL club.
“She is so good,” McNabb says. “She doesn’t yell, but she somehow demands your respect and you automatically give it to her. She was always on us to be focused and attentive in everything we do.”
The small utility also nominated for the 2014 AFL Women’s Draft conducted by Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs, though neither club added her to their playing list for a women’s exhibition game.
Still, she has come a long way in a short time and her experiences alongside elite female footballers and coaches has taught her what she needs to do to step up to the next level.
“I need to improve my tackling and the way I go about getting the ball. I used to just be able to run to it, pick it up and run away with it, but I have learnt it is way more technical than that.
“Even just around the stoppages, knowing where to stand and where to block, those are the main things I have learnt from going down to Melbourne.”
Playing for Thunder in the VWFL premier division has also been beneficial, despite the local girls struggling to register a score in several huge drubbings.
“Last year we didn’t have many competitive games, so it was hard to get your skill level up under pressure,” she says. “That has improved 10-fold this year.
“We always knew it was going to be tough but I take the attitude that we can develop our game individually and as a team and improve so much more by playing against these stronger teams.
“The scoreboard is irrelevant because these girls have got so much more experience than us and we need to learn from them to help us get better. Losing is disappointing, yes, but I feel I have improved so much.”
Growing up in Warragul, McNabb was a keen football follower who enjoyed watching older brother Justin play as a kid, but secretly wished she could pull on a jumper and join in.
“I was never allowed to – Mum was a little bit protective, which is understandable. I used to muck around kicking with the boys at high school, too, but our school didn’t let girls play in the footy team either.”
So while Justin developed into a strong player who lined up for East Perth in the WAFL reserves, his sister spent her teenage years on the basketball court.
She was a tenacious point guard and went on to play for Latrobe Energy in the Victorian Junior Basketball League before moving to Bendigo at 18 for uni.
McNabb refereed basketball matches in her adopted home city but her plans to shoot hoops here fell through and she spent about two years on the sidelines before football beckoned.
Last year, a few of the girls asked me why didn't I play, so I bought some boots, went to training and here I am.
She has never been far away from the action though – working or volunteering for several high-profile sporting clubs, using her physiotherapy knowledge and gaining invaluable experience.
These include the Bendigo Spirit and Bendigo Braves basketball squads, Marong Football Club and more recently the new FC Bendigo soccer team.
She is presently spending five weeks in Ballarat on work placement as part of her physiotherapy course at La Trobe, where she’s in her final year.
With her professional interest in health sciences and her passion for football, McNabb is taking a keen interest in a research project investigating the toll of the sport on women’s bodies.
Lightly built herself, she admits she probably won’t be able to play long term, but until now there has been little data collected specific to female footballers.
The AFL-funded study is being conducted by the Australian Centre for Research into Injury in Sport and its Prevention at Ballarat’s Federation University Australia.
“They really don’t know how the impact differs from men, as we are built differently,” she says, adding she suffered a concussion in just her second ever game but no major injuries since.
“I really don’t think football is a long-term sport for many women because it is so tough on our bodies.
“Some girls can play on if they have the right body shape but I think for me it will be five or 10 years and that will be it.”
That news is likely to please at least some of McNabb’s close family members, like mum Cheryle Schwartz who has slowly come to terms with her daughter’s latest choice of sport.
“My gran is probably the worst – she came to the Vic Country match and it was the first game of mine she’d watched. I think she was quite horrified, though she will always support me in whatever I do.
“I think she still has the attitude that women shouldn’t play football, but mum is fine with it now.
"Dad (Louie McNabb) is also a keen supporter and he attends as many Thunder games as he can."
McNabb is full of praise for the Bendigo club and encourages more local women to come and give football a go, no matter their ability.
“You are not obliged to play,” she says. “We are very friendly and welcoming, we like to get together and socialise, and we’re trying to focus on up-skilling all of our new players.
“When I first came to Thunder, I didn’t know I was going to end up playing. But it happened - and it’s been wonderful.”