It’s been a long, winding road to the lights of A-League Women’s football for former Essendon Royals junior Francesca Iermano, but it was worth the wait.
Iermano was named in the starting XI for Melbourne Victory and played a big part in its 1-0 win over Western Sydney Wanderers in the A-League Women’s clash on Sunday.
Signed as an injury replacement barely one month ago, Iermano said the speed from signing to starting came as a bit of a shock but was one that was welcomed with immense emotion.
“We were at the hotel and about to go on our team walk when [Victory coach] Jeff [Hopkins] called me over, and I was honestly thinking, “Did I do something wrong, did I not bring something?’,” Iermano told www.essendonroyals.com.au of the moment her coach invited her over to break the news to her.
“He said that he was going to start me!
“We’re still in the middle of COVID, so I still had my mask on and all Jeff would’ve seen was my eyes, but my jaw had just dropped. There were just no words coming out.
“It’s what football is about. It’s so unexpected and you never know when something can pop up. Every emotion possible came out.”
However, it would be a discredit to Iermano to describe this moment as one of chance.
For the 21-year-old attacker, a debut in the top-flight of Australian football was a long time coming and the product of years of dedication, hard work and conviction.
“With women’s soccer, especially in Australia, players are debuting so young,” she said.
“So it does play on your mind sometimes, and you think should I be at a certain point by 18 or 19.
“So it was literally just telling myself to keep going because I knew that I had the ability. You have to take out all external factors and just keep pushing.
“I felt like I had a massive point to prove, not to anyone else but to myself, to prove to myself that I could do what I knew I could do.”
The Royals formed a small part of Iermano’s incredible journey to the Victory starting line-up, but Iermano said that whilst she only spent the one year at Ormond Park, it was a foundational experience that helped spur her forward.
Arriving at the Royals in 2013, Iermano found herself playing under-18 football at the age of 13.
“I could never forget that year,” she said.
“I was up against all these older girls who had gone through puberty and I was this four-foot something 13-year-old, but it was such a good group of girls.”
More than just a great group of girls, it was a group of great players, too, with the team taking out the under-18 state title under the guidance of coaches Simon Stratus and Ned Rajic.
“We wanted that title so much and we just felt like we had a big point to prove,” she said.
“For me, it set the standard of what a football environment should be.
“The coaches, Simon and Ned, used to do individual work with me, and Royals as a club just really cared. You could feel it.
“I was very young, but I was exposed to these 17, 18, 19-year-old girls who taught me a lot about leadership and set a standard for me to achieve when I was older.
“If you don’t have a good environment off the field, you’ll see the gaps on the field, and we had a great group.
“We just loved football so much and everyone was excited for training and the games. Royals were such a big part for me, it doesn’t matter if it was one year or not.”
At the end of the season, Iermano’s performances had helped to earn an opportunity with the National Training Centre.
Whilst for many players it would have been an easy call, she admitted it was a gut-wrenching decision to leave the Royals after just one year.
“I had so much trouble leaving Royals, I was supposed to be there for a second season but I got the call-up to represent Victoria,” she said.
“I loved it there so much.”
The Royals made such an impression on Iermano that when her friend and current Royals senior player, Cat Ioannidis, mentioned she might be moving to the club, she gave an instant endorsement.
“When she told me she was looking at moving on from NPL football, she mentioned a couple of clubs and one of them was Royals and I just said, ‘yep, Royals!’,” she said.
“It’s a great club, you’ll have a lot of fun and there’s not much more you’d want from a club.”
Since leaving the Royals, Iermano’s career has blossomed from the foundations set at Ormond Park.
Transitioning through the NTC to the Emerging Matildas before stints at Bulleen Lions and FV Emerging, as well as a train-on position with Melbourne City, Iermano is a living, breathing example to young players of the persistence needed to achieve the goal of playing professional football.
Her message to younger players is simple.
“You need to surround yourself with people who keep you accountable,” she said.
“And you need to stop worrying about other people’s journey. Focus on yourself, do the right things and continue to train.”
Iermano said that whilst the path to the big leagues may appear linear, there are a number of ways to make it work.
“It can be so hard as a minor to have this massive dream and it doesn’t work out the way you want to or work out to the timeframe you give yourself,” she said.
“I’m all for having a plan, but it can’t be set in stone, or you can’t think you’re done because you’re not playing A-Leagues at 17 or because you’re not signed by this club at that age.
“It’s a crazy journey and you can’t compare yours to someone else.
“For a lot of people, it’s not linear. Good on those who do have that linear journey, but realistically you need to be prepared for the roadblocks and obstacles that come up.”
With a first Victory appearance under her belt in typical Ierano fashion, her next goal is simple.
“I just have to keep working hard and train to my full potential,” she said.
“Professional football is a whole different ball game, so I just have to keep working.”
Iermano joins fellow former Royal Polly Doran at the club, and both will be preparing for their upcoming Big Blue against Sydney FC at AAMI Park.