Ash Riddell runs out onto the ground ahead of round three, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

ASH RIDDELL likes to live life in just the same way she plays.

The hard-running North Melbourne midfielder is always busy, always doing something, and is loath to sit still.

"I struggle with downtime; I like to keep busy. My partner, he always says 'a bored Ash is a bad Ash'," Riddell told

Riddell teaches a grade 5/6 class four days a week (dropping down from five for the first time this season), is a member of North Melbourne's leadership group, and when she gets some time away from school and footy, loves dining out or planning holidays with partner Vinnie.

It feels like the 27-year-old is just part of the AFLW furniture, having been an inaugural Roo since the club's first year in 2019. She's a two-time All-Australian and took out North Melbourne's best and fairest in season six.

Ash Riddell runs to greet fans after a win during round two, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

But if not for a single phone call which kicked Riddell's football pathway into gear, she would likely be working her way through the basketball coaching ranks.

She had played footy as a junior with the Eltham Panthers in Melbourne's outer north-east, switching to basketball when there were no youth girls' teams.

At 159cm, Riddell was "a bit too short" to progress beyond representative basketball, and switched her attention to coaching at just 15, initially working with younger kids and then following them through the age divisions.

Riddell returned to footy at 21 at the behest of friends, playing a local season with Fitzroy-ACU in the VAFA, before receiving a mystery voicemail.

While many are reluctant to actually listen to a voicemail after a missed call, Riddell was shocked to find a message from a VFLW coach, who was looking after Diamond Creek for the 2017 season.

His name? Scott Gowans.

Scott Gowans addresses his North Melbourne players during round one, 2020. Picture: AFL Photos

"I think he's been he's been so important. I wouldn't have even thought about joining the VFLW side if he didn't make that phone call for me to come down Diamond Creek, I was happy playing socially and just hanging out with friends at the club," Riddell said.

"I didn't even think that that was an opportunity, or even that might have the ability to play at that level. He had enormous faith in me throughout my whole journey and I'll be forever grateful for him with the faith that he showed in me to get me here."

Riddell was overlooked in both the 2016 and 2017 AFLW Drafts. She had minimal expectations the first time around, but left shattered after the second.

"The end of 2017, I'd had a pretty good year with Diamond Creek, made the VFLW team of the year – which I was surprised by, given I was new to the system – and I had interviews with all the Melbourne clubs," she said.

"I got invited to the draft and was the only one in the room who didn't get picked up.

"At the time, I was devastated and didn't know where to go, but it was only three days later that Scott called me, having just landed the North Melbourne gig.

"He said if I just kept working hard, come and play VFLW at Melbourne Uni, that they might have an opportunity to pick me up as a free agent. That spurred me on, I couldn't drown my sorrows too long post-draft because another opportunity had popped up."

Jasmine Garner, Ash Riddell and Tahlia Randall sing the song after the elimination final between North Melbourne and Geelong on November 5, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

She knocked back an offer to join Gowans in Sydney for season seven, the fiercely competitive player having an eye on success and North Melbourne's steady steps towards a potential first Grand Final.

"We definitely thought about it. My partner's from New South Wales, all his family's there, in both Tamworth and Sydney. So, we were considering it, but it just got down to the point that I've got some really good mates at North Melbourne," she said.

"As much as I really loved Scott as a coach, I really love 'Crock' (Darren Crocker) too and I love what he brings to our program.

"We've been fortunate. I think we've made finals every year except one, and I love being in the successful program. I love winning. I love that feeling at the end of the game, and celebrating with the teammates.

"North Melbourne had shown enormous faith in me, and it was an easy decision to repay that faith with them."

When it comes to the day-to-day grind of the season, Riddell has created a good routine in conjunction with her work, focusing on compartmentalising to help direct her full attention to the task at hand.

While many are keen to be as close to full-time as possible, Riddell says she needs balance to thrive and not get too fixated on football.

"I'm a footy nut, I love analysing the game, but I'd be too absorbed if we did it all the time. When I was younger and finding my way in AFLW, I was really absorbed in watching and analysing every other team, but as I've got older, it's become more about how I can help my teammates," she said.

"It's a 40-minute drive between school and footy, so I might call someone – Kane Garner (teammate Jasmine's younger brother and team water boy at training) sometimes call me on the way, and we'll have a chat.

"I'll always go to the club and have a coffee straightaway, as soon as I get here, and that gets me into that footy focus. It's a double espresso to get me through.

"I think I just love turning up after a day at work. I love coming to the club and seeing my mates, to be perfectly honest. For me, maybe because I have my teaching, I don't feel like this is a job yet. I still feel like I'm having fun, I'm seeing my mates, I'm playing sport and keeping fit."

Riddell is arguably the fittest player in North Melbourne's squad (with a fellow teammate nominating both the midfielder and defender Nicole Bresnehan), so it's no surprise staying active is a big part of her life, thriving on playing and training in a group.

"I think even if I wasn't playing football, I'd be doing some sort of running or in the gym. I just I love the escape that fitness provides me, especially after a long day of work. I really enjoy the feeling after a really hard slog or a really hard session, as much as it's gruelling at the time," she said.

"That's what we did a really good job of in the off-season – obviously was a longer offseason compared to two seasons in one last year. That motivation was probably hard for some, and I think we did a really good job of trying to bring everyone together and do 'run clubs'.

"Jas, Jenna (Bruton) and I are quite close, so we tried to get it up and going. Taylah Gatt, she's an absolute superstar and is one of our players who is totally engaged. We had a few recruits that came in, Liz (McGrath), Lulu (Pullar) who kept those standards really high. Kate Shierlaw, I think she's 34 now, but she still turned up to all our run clubs and got involved.

"We'd run 10 or 11kms close to the start of pre-season, but we made a pact to always play an AFL sevens game at the end of it. People walking around the oval would have thought we were taking it way too seriously, but we just enjoyed that part at the end, because it gets tedious running around an oval."

A lot has changed since Riddell was a Collingwood-mad kid, commentating her own kicks in the backyard and pretending to be various men's Magpies players.

When she's on yard duty at school, there's nearly an even split in boys and girls playing with the footy, and the boys think it's normal that Riddell plays the game.

North Melbourne will be looking for its first win over perennially top-ranked Brisbane on Sunday. The Roos have always been a step off the very top sides, but have been steadily closing the gap on the big three of the Lions, Melbourne and Adelaide.

"Having that success with teammates is what drives us the most. A lot of the girls would say something similar. We just love getting round each other, and I think on our list, we've had a lot of players stay when they've had a lot of other offers," she said.

"We've had that common goal and want to win it all – not only for the club, but win it because we admire each other and know how much work we've done to get to that point. But we've still got a long way to go and there's a lot of other good sides as well."