OAKLEIGH Chargers defender/midfielder Amber Micallef quintessentially lives and breathes football. It is her “coffee in the morning” that keeps her focused. The talented teenager earned an AFL Women’s Draft Combine invite and spoke to Draft Central about her hopes and dreams of playing at the elite level.
“The reason why I kept playing AFL is because of the passion of it,” she said. “I wake up to it every day and it’s sort of like a job for me. “I wake up and I have a passion for, I love for it. And I guess it gives me that drive and that optimism that I see in everyday life. “In a way, it’s like my coffee in the morning. “If I go out and kick a footy or play a game of footy, it just brings my hopes up a little bit.”
Micallef is one of those aspiring AFL Women’s footballers who tasted footy as a child, but then took a different path – in this case, basketball – before returning to the sport she loved once a pathway, and more opportunities opened up.
“I never really had that luxury like a couple of the girls, how they’ve been playing for a long time,” Micallef said. “I did Auskick when I was about five for about a season. “Then I got asked to play five games for Bulleen Bullants in the YJFL competition. “And then after those five games, I played basketball for 10 years. “There was no footy in that.”
Fast forward to her high school days, and a chance conversation steered her back to the oblong-shaped ball sport.
“When I was in Year 8, my friends said ‘hey, we’re gonna do school footy, are you interested?’. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll give it a shot’, and from school footy we all loved it, even though most of my friends came from basketball like me. “Then we had this new club, coming up with Beverley Hills. They were going to start a new girls competition, and a couple of my friends were thinking about it and asked to me to join.”
Micallef did just that, and while it was a little different at first, Micallef was familiar with kicking the footy from her junior days and had the fitness and athleticism to match it with others thanks to not only her basketball, but her cross country and athletics as well. What really won her over however, was the community spirit and team atmosphere.
“I love it how it’s a team sport,” Micallef said. “And you know, we train twice a week. “We spend a lot of time with each other and really get to know each other on a personal level. “So I love the competition of it too. “I love how you could play anywhere on the ground if you want to, how you can tackle people, you can run and it’s also a really good for fitness, too. “But more so. I just love the community of it. I love the vibe of it, too.”
Her pathway into Oakleigh was a little more conventional, invited to play at the Chargers in the Under 15s development program. Playing as a midfielder then, Micallef was expecting to make the transition into the NAB League Under 18s side in the same role, but then there was a change.
“I got asked to play in the backline, and I was really unsure because I never really played any defensive work, or played in the backline in general,” Micallef said. “Oakleigh trained me up for about four years and I’ve been playing in the backline and a little bit of in the midfield this year, too, “Which was really cool.”
Micallef was a fast learner and soon she earned a spot in the Vic Metro Under 16s team, following up from representing her state in the Under 15s School Sports Victoria (SSV) side. She described the feeling of running out on GMHBA Stadium against Vic Country as an “awesome experience” and visibly noticed the rise in skill level from both sides compared to her local competition and even NAB League.
Her pathway to follow her dream was tracking nicely as she was putting together consistent performances for Oakleigh each week, playing nine games in her middle-age season, and then averaging a career-high 14 disposals per game in her two games in 2020. Then it all came to a grinding halt. The season was postponed due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. At first, Micallef said she was not too worried, expecting it to return at some stage, before the realisation hit her following the official cancellation in July.
“Well, at the start, I really didn’t believe that it was gonna get cancelled,” Micallef said. “I guess I was always optimistic. “So when it first got called off, I was like, ‘Oh, it’ll come back in a week’ and then a week led to ‘It’ll come back in a month’ or ‘come back in a few months’. “I never really expected it to get called off. “When it got cancelled, that’s when I realised ‘Oh, it’s really not coming back’.
Immediately the natural leader tried to get around her teammates and keep the positivity going and make sure everyone was in the best form of their lives with other opportunities – such as the AFL Women’s Draft Combine – still a possibility.
“I’ve always been training through that,” Micallef said. I always went around the girls saying, ‘you know, you always got to have high hopes, keep on training, you never know what opportunity will come up’, but yeah, it was a bit devastating to hear that the whole competition got called off. “Everyone was in the same boat, so it’s like you control what you control, and you can see how you want to see it.”
Micallef rates her tackling, stoppage work and vision as her greatest strengths, particularly capable of playing behind the ball or through the midfield when required. She is looking to tweak some of her fundamental skills such as her opposite foot kicking, contested marking and fitness, which is what she has done over the break. But for her, it was not being able to play out the season which had promised so much after Oakleigh recorded back-to-back massive wins over Murray Bushrangers and Tasmania Devils prior to the season ending.
“Oakleigh this year was probably the most memorable for me, even though it was only two games,” Micallef said. “We went to Wangaratta in Round 1 against Murray Bushrangers. “By that first game, that first win, I could see, out of all the training stuff that we did a couple of bonding sessions that we did, I think that one hit home for a lot of us and we sort of had a feeling ‘you know what? We actually might win this this season’.
“It was just a really good feeling. “And then going into Tasmania, I’ll say it was one of my favourite games to play. “Even just representing Oakleigh against Tasmania was a great feeling, and I could see a lot of the girls would be the same highlights for them.”
Micallef has always been an analyser of sport, watching others intently to try and learn everything she can about being the best possible player she can be in football. Whether it is teammates or opponents, she always wants to be the best and thrives on learning off others to reach their levels.
“I’ll say my journey of football I never really had an athlete or a celebrity I looked up to. It was more so my teammates on the field, especially when I started in junior level,” Micallef said. “I used to play against Ellie McKenzie a lot, and she used to dominate, as she still does now. “But I used to look up to her and say, ‘why can’t I do that? Why can’t I do what she’s been doing?’ “And then especially going into Oakleigh Chargers, you have Nicola Xenos, Gemma Lagioia, even Mimi Hill. “They’re just amazing players and I’m just like, ‘why can’t I do what they can to do?’ “What they’re doing now, I want to be the best, like them.”
So how exactly does Micallef try and emulate those she wants to match at the level?
“I try to train as much as I can, especially with Mimi,” Micallef said. “I like to watch back on vision and see how each of them play. “So when we went played against Northern Knights, I watch how Ellie McKenzie moved. “Or, Mimi at training, like try to see through her eyes what she sees on the field. “So I always tried to create what they’re doing and always improve on what I need to improve, to be like them.”
As a Rising Star for Marcellin Eagles, and then finishing second overall in the YJFL Division 2 League Best and Fairest and Team of the Year, Micallef’s goal for 2020 was to build confidence. Along with spending more time in the midfield, Micallef just wanted to play the best football she could. As well as watching Tayla Harris and her beloved Blues in the AFL and AFL Women’s for enjoyment, Micallef keeps a sharp eye on how the defenders play to see if she can implement any strategies into her own game.
As for her own personal football memory, it was the Round 1 game this year, but more so for the off-field result rather than the on-field one, though that was the icing on the cake as well.
“Playing in Wangaratta, my nan came along, she lives in Corowa, which is in New South Wales, so she barely comes to watch my games,” Micallef said. “It was just really nice for her to come to that game in particular and actually see me in the midfield and me kicking the ball to my teammates getting goals and overall I was just really happy with the game. “I think she saw I was happy, and it made me happy that she was happy.”
Now Micallef is edging closer to fulfilling her dream to reach the elite level. If she is able to achieve that, then it will be something special, but also seen as a job half done as she looks to always improve.
“It will mean all the hard work that I put in, all the blood, sweat and tears and all the people around these you supported me will finally pay off,” she said. “It’s not totally finished, I’ll always want to improve on stuff and improve on my game. “But I think it would be an absolute dream.”