Darren Crocker celebrates during North Melbourne's preliminary final against Adelaide on November 26, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

IN WHAT has been an incredibly tough half-decade for North Melbourne, the club's AFLW side has been a shining light.

The men's side last featured in finals in 2016 (and a Grand Final in 1999), while the women's team has regularly played at the pointy end of the season, culminating in this year's upcoming Grand Final appearance.

"I just spoke to (president) Sonja Hood and (CEO) Jen Watt about that, I think it's tremendous for the whole club. It has been a bit of a struggle, but the club know the direction we're going in," coach Darren Crocker said after the preliminary final victory over Adelaide.

"As far as the women's program, we get unbelievable support, the club are highly invested in our women's program. 

"As you can see, the support with our men's playing group here, 'Clarko' and Todd (coach Alastair Clarkson and head of footy Todd Viney), they're invested in it, and we're also invested in the direction of the men's program as well."


Crocker, the man in charge of leading the women's team, is the bridge across the club.

AFL.com.au spent a day in the inner sanctum at North Melbourne two weeks ago, following the qualifying final win, and sat down with the man himself.

North Melbourne has broken through the mental barrier in 2023. Picture: AFL Media

Extract from 'North stars: The quiet achievers behind the Roos' resurgence'

Upon walking into North Melbourne's headquarters on Arden Street, the first thing that catches the eye is the trophy cabinet on the right-hand wall.

Four cups, all with different logos – two different VFL emblems, the AFL Centenary edition, and an old-school AFL badge – while the wall behind lists each team and their coach.

Two from Ron Barassi, two from Denis Pagan.

And listed in the forward pocket in the 1996 premiership team, is D. Crocker.

Darren Crocker receives his premiership medal after North Melbourne won the 1996 Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

The North Melbourne coach spent 13 years on the AFL list, between 1985-1998, and after coaching stints at Port Melbourne and Richmond, returned to Arden Street as an assistant coach in 2004.

He's never left.

Crocker has coached 15 AFL men's games in his own right over the years, acting as caretaker after the departure of Dani Laidley in 2009, and filling in at other points when required due to senior coach illness.

The AFLW program has challenged the father-of-four in a different way, overlaying a high-performance environment on a part-time program.

The weekly day in at the club has changed things, and quickly.

Crocker himself takes some one-on-one player feedback meetings, trying to gradually get across the entire playing group.

Darren Crocker and North Melbourne players celebrate win during round 10, 2015. Picture: AFL Photos

"Prior to that, we really had to prioritise what was important. Personally, I've got a strong philosophy around developing – each day isn't a day to get older, it's a day to get better," Crocker said.

"I used to encourage the coaches not to spend too much time in offices, to get out onto the park. But now where it's evolved is that we can actually do a little bit of both, we can go through vision and get the players to try and translate it out at training, areas that are their weapons – never forget those – but also areas for growth they can actually work on to get better.

"I think if you look at the improvement in our younger players, and how quickly they've improved – Taylah Gatt in her second season, last year she was trying to combine year 12 and trying to have an impact on AFLW.

"Now, without year 12, she's at uni, but her growth, Bella Eddey, Alice O'Loughlin, Tess Craven. I look at Jaz 'Ferg' coming from VFLW and how much she's improved. It's player-driven, absolutely, but from a program perspective, holding up our end of the bargain and providing resources for them to actually improve."

He agrees that the Adelaide game was evident of a turning point within the group, reached the week prior in the loss to Melbourne.

"I saw a game that was closer to what we talk about being a North game, closer to our identity, in that game. We did so much right in order to win that game, and then we didn't come away with that result," Crocker said.

"After that game, I just felt they were so disappointed in losing that game, which was right within our grasp, that I was hoping there would be a strong steely resolve that came out of it.

"I think there has been. Whether you call it belief or a resolve, I think they really got the belief that if we do play to our identity, to our team image, then we can match it with the best. They were devastated after that game."

Will Crocker – the player turned men's coach turned women's coach – be just the third man to lead a North Melbourne senior side to a flag?

Lulu Pullar and Eliza Shannon chat with Darren Crocker after a win during round three, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

"I just feel like our program is such a good program, has such good people – high performance, coaching, medical, operational, then to the playing group. I was really fortunate to have played in a flag myself, in '96, and I know how wonderful it is for people to get that reward for effort," he said.

"I know the work people put in, it's a part-time program for a lot who come. I would just love for them to experience what I've experienced as a player.

"Little bit selfishly, I'd love to experience it as a coach, I've never experienced winning a premiership as a coach in the elite level, I have at junior level. I think it would just be wonderful.

"For this current group, it would be an unbelievable legacy to leave. There's a huge photo of the AFL men's premiership team of '75 downstairs.

"Geez, how good would it be if this group could emulate that?"