On a perfectly still yet imperfectly brisk Tuesday night, Keilor Park Recreation Reserve is a hive of activity.
As well as a number of Keilor Park Soccer Club junior teams, Tuesday night is the night where all five of Calder United’s NPL teams arrive for training, beginning with the Under 13’s and ending with the Senior Women.
The next generation of female football stars and junior coaches in the West come together to hone their skills while parents, guardians, siblings and pets mingle over the fence, rugged up with long coats, beanies and scarves but enjoying the night as if it was in the middle of January.
That is the atmosphere that has been created at Calder United, Victoria’s leading female-only football club and one of the country’s most successful clubs at any NPL level.
In the club’s formative years, young guns like Alana Cerne and twin sisters Adriana and Melissa Taranto arrived at Calder looking up to the star players that had helped to thrust the club onto the scene. Now, they arethe role models to today’s juniors with whom they walk the same steps on a Tuesday night, becoming products of Calder United and representing the West in the Liberty A-League.
Western United’s ambition to add a Liberty A-League Women team was well-documented and the Club threw its support behind Calder United as soon as it possibly could, setting up a partnership with the NPLW Victoria outfit that is the first of its kind in the state.
Fast forwarding to less than two years after the partnership had begun and Western United was granted its Liberty A-League licence with an exhaustive list of ready-made talents poised to make the jump to the professional game.
Come day one of pre-season, the head coach and 11 of the initial 21 signed players came directly from Calder United and on 19 November, five of the starting XI and eight of the total matchday squad for Western United’s inaugural Liberty A-League match represented the success of the pathway on the big stage. Now after the completion of the season, Calder has reaped further rewards with Western’s assistant coach Helen Winterburn joining Nathan Maoirana as a head coach of the senior women.
A combined total of 120 appearances were made by nine of the 11 players, five of which made their professional debuts.
Natasha Dakic is one of those players that has felt the mutually beneficial aspects of the partnership. The 24-year-old was able to achieve a landmark moment in making her professional debut with Western United, going on to play 11 times in total across the season.
That opportunity was borne from her rapid development since joining Calder United in 2020. After COVID-19 interrupted the 2020 and 2021 campaigns, the talented centre-back dominated NPLW in 2022, winning Calder’s Best & Fairest award.
Despite the milestone moment in her career, Dakic is not content with just the 11 appearances from last season and admits the chance to return to Calder United to get minutes under her belt has been invaluable.
“It’s good being back because I’ve been playing, getting some game time in. It’s good, it’s exciting because there’s a lot of young players that are getting the opportunity to play seniors, and there’s a lot of talent that’s being shown,” she said.
Dakic is a determined young player but remains unshaken by the hard work required, cutting a relaxed figure as she speaks about her ambition in returning to play for Calder.
“Even though I didn’t play much, I was still able to be surrounded by quality and experience, so I learnt a lot from all the girls around me. I can bring that into this environment (at Calder) and teach the other girls too,” she said.
“But I’ve just got to really focus on performing consistently and getting my match fitness up, playing as many 90-minute games as I can. Not just performing in games, but also in training making sure I’m performing, and then just working with the coaching staff at Calder and Western to be able to build on my strength.
“I’m doing extra work in the gym, top up running, doing all that extra work to make sure that when pre-season starts, I’m in the best shape I can be physically. But then also I think it’s important to make sure that, mentally, I’m going in very strong as well.
I’m still learning and I’m just pushing myself every session to keep performing.
Torcaso has enjoyed his own rise in reputation in recent years, adding his first professional coaching role to a long list of accolades in NPLW Victoria.
Despite guiding Western United to the Liberty A-League Grand Final and winning the Coach of the Year award, Torcaso shuns the limelight and is often a man of few words until he is asked to speak about the players and the club that have become such meaningful parts of his life.
Having watched a number of these players develop from their early teenage years, Torcaso continues to find great comfort in watching players like Dakic return to a comfortable environment and be given the chance to remind others – and at times, themselves – just how good they are.
“I think the best thing is watching them integrate back into a group that has been special for them. The way they’ve just come back in, adjusted and then the way it’s lifted the young girls that we’ve got in our Calder team has been excellent,” he said.
“I think that helps leadership qualities of those girls who have come back. People like Tash and Cerne can come back here and actually lift their game to another level, and they become the responsible players in that team. You can see the feeling.
“That was the whole purpose of our pathway with Calder and Western, to be one, for this exact reason. Players that need time, might not have played a lot in the A-League, players that need to build some confidence up, that’s what this is for. To have that opportunity and that option is excellent and most importantly, it’s managed by myself and Helen. Our high-performance staff from Western are in connection with our high-performance staff here, so it’s great for that whole purpose to have that connection and pathway.”
It’s not just the players that are returning to play NPLW games that are benefiting from this partnership, either.
Braving the icy breeze on those Tuesday nights, Adriana Taranto has taken her own time to come and train with the group. Angie Beard, a treble-winner herself with Calder in 2019, was coming down to support the team before she headed off to the FIFA Women’s World Cup. And on the eve of that FIFA Women’s World Cup, Western United’s inaugural Liberty A-League captain and Philippines star Jaclyn Sawicki also committed herself to training.
“There were a couple of girls who were sitting there watching the senior’s train, sitting next to Angie Beard. That is something that is absolutely unique and out of the ordinary, and I’m not sure if many other clubs can do that,” Torcaso gleams.
“That hopefully inspires those players to one day want to wear our shirt at Western and it just creates a good feeling and a good buzz for the atmosphere and environment that we’ve got here.
“Jackie came here to keep herself ticking over for the World Cup. To have a player going to a World Cup that has been training with us should only inspire every one of our players.
“For me as a coach and for our other coaches, to have that luxury of having a captain of our A-League Women team, but more importantly a girl that has gone to a World Cup, is again, unique. We’re able to have these opportunities because of our partnership and relationship that we’ve got with Calder and Western.”
That all adds to the feeling that Calder United is truly as close to a professional footballing environment as it could be.
Dakic has watched this entire partnership and the development of the culture and standards at the club unfold before her since she arrived from Box Hill United and insists the impact has been obvious.
“When I came in, there was no partnership yet and I didn’t know anything about it, but Calder was always a very successful club. When they partnered, it gave a lot of girls the opportunity to be able to be a part of a professional environment,” she explained.
“There’s a lot of girls who are very talented and who are capable of playing in the A-League but never actually got the opportunity, so I think the partnership with Calder and Western has provided a great pathway.
“Even if Calder players haven’t been given contracts for Western, there are still a lot of girls who have been able to be a part of the professional environment as train-on players, so they’re still able to do that extra training and they’re surrounded by quality players, experienced players who they are constantly being able to learn from.”
Torcaso mentioned the vision for the clubs “to be one” earlier, a vision that is being acted upon to every detail. Calder continues to play in its classic white and navy home kits – though this year it features the design of Western United’s alternate A-Leagues strip – but for the first time, Calder is wearing the Green and Black stripes of Western United in away matches this season.
Coaches and players are transitioning in both directions in this affiliation and, as Dakic mentioned, young players have the opportunity to taste the professional environment and even join the Liberty A-League squad as a train-on player. Six members of Calder’s 2023 squad enjoyed this opportunity last season including captain Ava Groba and Bella Sewards, who moved to Calder this year from FV Emerging.
Dakic says it is “a good space to be able to communicate” with Torcaso and Winterburn with the same messages coming from the same set of coaches.
Torcaso is opening the door to “every single player that’s part of Western United” to come into training with Calder to “prepare themselves for the A-League season”. Emma Robers, Alyssa Dall’Oste and Julia Sardo have taken on that call in recent weeks.
With that unity setting the early foundations for the partnership between the two clubs, Torcaso is now looking ahead to creating a lasting legacy in the West.
“As long as we are creating this football factory of players that are constantly being ready for the A-League, then we’ve set ourselves a target and if that also helps the youngest player want to play football, and want to play for Calder or Western, then we want to be that club that is their destination,” he said.
I said this to our A-League players week in week out – your job is to go out there and make a young girl want to play the game. More importantly a girl from the West to want to play the game, and importantly a girl from Calder to want to where that shirt. That’s something I will stick by as long as I’m coaching, that we have that responsibility as a football family.
As far as inspiring young girls in the West goes, it’s fair to say that Western and Calder have done a good job so far. The club is looking ahead to a sixth straight NIKE F.C. Cup Final this weekend and will continue to create new role models for the next generation of female football stars.
As this community continues to grow and opportunities increase, the possibilities are becoming ever infinite for young female footballers in the West.
Dakic, Torcaso and co. will continue to use this platform to return to the Liberty A-League in even better shape next season, and Calder’s youngest prodigy’s will remain inspired by their Green and Black heroes, idols that they can share a facility with on a chilly Tuesday night thanks to Western United-Calder United alliance.