Adelaide Crows chase back-to-back glory of a different kind

In 1997, Adelaide won the first of back-to-back AFL premierships. Twenty years on, there is the hope of a back-to-back success of a different kind - that of the men lifting the cup in the same year that the Crows women won the inaugural AFLW title.

Leading into Thursday night's qualifying final between the minor premier Crows and Greater Western Sydney at Adelaide Oval, much will be said about the two decades between flags, and about the home side's decidedly underwhelming finals record - eight wins, 14 losses, no grand finals - ever since. But for perspective on reaching the ultimate goal after years of striving for a chance to do so, the team led by Taylor Walker need look no further than towards the women's combination that won so thrillingly in Brisbane in March.

In the months since then, the Crows' AFLW coach Bec Goddard has spent most of her time back at work for the Australian Federal Police, but also reflecting on how her unfancied team - expected to finish second to bottom before the competition began - came to raise the cup. There was a level of satisfaction to the victory that went far beyond winning the last game. The women's game had taken a chance to get onto the national stage that many of its players and coaches had been waiting for far longer than the 20 years since the Crows last ran a premiership lap of the MCG.

"It was pretty unbelievable what we achieved," Goddard told ESPN. "It was more than just seven games and a Grand Final, it was really a whole lifetime of work personally, being involved with footy and some of the roadblocks you came across to now finally have this amazing competition where you've got the best of the best playing against each other, it's on TV and people are talking about it and want to come to the games. That was quite unbelievable to see.

"In terms of what it means to the club, I know how proud the Board are and how important it was to [chief executive Andrew Fagan] to have a women's team at the Crows. We don't really crossover with the guys at all. The guys are there during the day doing their training and the girls are there at night, but I do appreciate as a football lover that the boys are in a terrific position after we've been successful and that's probably something that's quite rare. You can't predict the future but you don't really know how often it's going to happen when you've got both the guys and the girls teams having such successful seasons at the same time."

One of the quirks of the inaugural AFLW competition was that in terms of its number of teams (eight) and number of weeks (eight) it more strongly resembled a finals series than a regular season. Certainly for Goddard there was a sense of adrenaline and building momentum as it went on. Pressure, too, as the footy-obsessed population of South Australia grew entranced with what was happening.

"I can certainly speak on the pressure that I felt as each week went by," Goddard said. "To start with I looked at how we would measure our success in our first season and that would be the culture we created for the women's side, and as each week went by and we won another game, the pressure certainly started to build. That wasn't internally at the football club, it was the people of Adelaide, how much they love footy and how much they were enjoying what they were seeing and wanted us to succeed."

In some ways Goddard had succeeded as soon as the Crows had won a single match, having been granted entry to the competition at least in part because their bid was based upon representing not just one state, but also the Northern Territory. By splitting the player groups, the team covered a broader geographic area, but also created an obstacle to closeness among the players. This was where Goddard's previous experience coaching the disparate talents of the NSW/ACT team came in handy.

"Even when I interviewed for the position as head coach, I spoke strongly about my coaching philosophy and my background of bringing people together," she said. "My background had been coaching the NSW/ACT side, so girls were coming from Sydney and Canberra to try to be successful at the highest level they could. So we'd drive down the highway and meet in Gundagai for training, so I sort of had a little bit of background - obviously a big difference between Darwin and Adelaide, but my background was certainly a lot about bringing people together and having cultural success.

"I don't think there's one single thing I look at and go 'that was the reason', but when I talk now about reflecting on the season I look at the diversity of our playing list. They could all play football of course, but I did a lot of research abut the types of players and people the girls were so we could have a very good balance and not getting the same types of people on the list. That was very important to me because I felt that therefore would make the team work, the balance of who did what and who contributed to a long-distance relationship [between Darwin and Adelaide] to make it work."

In a competition where so much was happening for the first time, Goddard has one reflection that will lead to a different plan for her in 2018 - namely that she will request a bigger chunk of leave from the AFP in order to commit herself more fully to preparing for the season. Juggling shift work for the joint AFP and SAPOL anti-child exploitation team - "our job is to keep kids safe online, which often involves the darker parts of the internet" - was a lot to ask in pre-season mode. Too much in hindsight.

"Season one I didn't take leave until round one, so I did all pre-season working shift work," she said. "All of the girls were in the same position, they would go to their day jobs during the day and come into training at night. So we were all sort of in it together. I felt as the leader and the one running that program that I'm looking to take more leave next year so I don't have to work two jobs.

"I found it quite difficult to manage my time, and I don't think even for your mental health that's a particularly good thing to do. So I'll look to change that in season two. but that's the nature of the comp, the AFL's finding its way and what it looks like and hopefully in another few seasons some of the athletes will be full-time, and therefore more of the staff and coaches will be full-time as well."

Such concerns were forgotten as the competition reached its pointy end, with a closing win over Collingwood pitting the Crows against the Brisbane Lions in the decider on the Gold Coast. In this crucible Goddard pointed out a few salient memories, all of relevance to the next four weeks of the upcoming finals series. First, the co-captain Erin Phillips wasted little time telling the team that there was little point being satisfied with getting to the grand final. You're in it, so it's time to win it. Then there was the effort to, for the most part, maintain routines.

"As soon as we beat Collingwood in round seven, in the change rooms immediately after the game I recall Erin speaking to the group about what next week would mean," Goddard said. "We weren't content to have just come that far.

"Everything we did that week was the same as the previous week in terms of our preparation, our meetings, we travelled a couple of days earlier, but that was so the girls could be off their legs, spend a bit of time and enjoy Grand Final week with each other, but the actual game we prepared identically. We won all of our away games, the Darwin [loss] was a home game, but we counted ourselves pretty successful on the road for all our away games, and that was a really positive vibe leading into the week."

Yet the importance of agility and tactical flexibility were also writ large across Goddard's approach. Having setup defensively in quite consistent manner across the competition, she deduced that the system employed against the Lions in a three-point loss during round five had to be changed. Different drills and instructions were something of a gamble at what was still a formative time for the team, but a focus on the opposition's strengths left Goddard and her assistants feeling much more in control of proceedings than the final, narrow margin of six points might otherwise indicate.

"You look back at your coaching performance as well as the team's performance and work out what you could or couldn't have done better," she said. "That's a really important thing to do as coach, you've got to get better each week - the team's not just going to follow a parked car. So I certainly reviewed how we prepared and planned, but we did change things for that game defence-wise.

"We didn't go into the game playing the same style of defence against Brisbane as we did in round five, because I felt we weren't going to win the game if we did that. Because of the defensive style we were playing, while the game was close I felt that we were in control of what we were doing. If you look at the scoring shots [4.11 to 4.5] we had more but we couldn't put them away because of the pressure they were putting on us as well, and that's what happens in grand finals."

The other adaptation for both sides was that quarters were played to 15 minutes plus time-on "after all scores, when the ball is out of bounds and for any significant delay in play". In the humidity of the Gold Coast, that placed quite a drain on all players concerned. To this day Goddard is relieved that with the ball down the Lions' end, there was no last gasp mark or free-kick to send the contest into extra time - luck, as ever, played some part.

"If a free-kick had been given in that last seven seconds and they'd kicked a goal and we'd gone into extra time, both teams were really dead on their feet and I don't know how we were going to manage that," she said. "I think by that stage we were down to only three on the bench and a lot of cramp as well.

"I loved everything the AFL did with the competition, they put on a terrific first season and they're really measured when they try to make changes to a game. They wanted to extend the quarters just to ensure the integrity of the game, and that was the right thing to do so we didn't have any rushed boundary line plays or tactical disadvantages for any one side, so that was the right thing to do. I think that's going to come in for the whole season for season two."

For now, though, Goddard will be at Adelaide Oval watching intently as the men try for a second flag in the one year. She spoke to Don Pyke when they crossed paths before the round 23 fixture between Adelaide and West Coast, bringing with her the effervescence and positivity that has been a hallmark of all her work at the club thus far. That, too, is valuable in the world of professional sport - a reminder of how fortunate all participants are to be doing it.

"That just stems from the fact that I'm a female in football," Goddard said. "Therefore this is the first time I've received any kind of monetary compensation for being involved in football. Growing up when you didn't have quite as many opportunities as some of the males in football. I was quite grateful to have an opportunity, the Crows really took a risk in hiring me, I'm just a girl from Canberra who coached a bit of footy on the side.

"Sure I've been involved in footy all my life, but that's a big risk to take when you look at it. But they hired me because I was the best person for the job, not because I was female. I just wanted a chance. My whole life I just wanted a chance to work in football. I knew that if I got a chance I'd be good at it. I just wanted a chance and that's what happened."

For the Crows' men, the chance of a lifetime arrives on Thursday night.