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Football and uncertainty: finding comfort in disruption

Excitement over the current W-League season is peppered with uncertainty. Football expert Angela Christian-Wilkes shares what it’s like to be a fan during the disruption.

This season of the W-League was always going to be different. COVID-19 stemmed the flow of experienced imports; core Matildas left for Europe; the 2023 World Cup shimmers on the horizon. The league would have to change. It needed to look different.

And of course, COVID-19 has taught us all to expect the unexpected. The break out in NSW a week out from Round One left many of us dreading a dub-free summer. Thankfully, broadcasters, clubs, and players quickly adapted. Bubbles formed so that games could go ahead within the confines of closed borders. Unfortunately, fixtures now work on a week-to-week basis, but it’s a small price to pay as a pundit. 

The immense efforts behind the scenes are not being taken for granted, as confirmed by the incredible turnout at Melbourne games. Fans have driven out to the dub-urbs en masse, parked in side streets and overflow paddocks. We’ve stood in long lines outside and scanned ourselves in, nervously checking the time (it takes so long to find a park!). Maybe we bought a potato cake – a remedy for pre-game nerves – and searched for a cool spot, only to see that the grandstand is full and there’s no shade left. We’ve settled in the sun, accepted that we’re never getting rid of our farm girl tans, and finally turned our attention to the football. We can relax–we are at the dub.

The privilege of seeing the league go ahead has been made all the more special by the football itself. The broader changes to the structure of the league have reinvigorated the product. It’s been good. Really good. 

Emerging young players have contributed to this buzz. In turn, the league’s future as an out-and-out development pathway becomes increasingly plainer – and that’s not a bad thing. In these first five rounds, young players have proved themselves at every club. Debuts have studded the opening rounds, and starting 11s are changing as players both new and old compete to make line-ups. Names who have previously added depth–Kyra Cooney-Cross, Princess Ibini, Matilda McNamara—now have the opportunity to step up and become integral to their teams’ success. 

Another new characteristic to the league is the addition of young New Zealand players like Melbourne Victory’s Claudia Bunge and Perth Glory’s Lily Alfeld. These connections are made none-the-more interesting given Australia will share a World Cup with our international neighbour in two and a half years. Local recruitment has been strong too, with a number of experienced veterans finally getting their time to shine after years playing in the National Premier League. 

Related—Securing the Women’s World Cup: emotions running high

A personal favourite storyline this year has been the flourishing of familiar faces. Alex Chidiac and Jenna McCormick signed to Melbourne City after learning that Europe–specifically Spain–is not always the career boost it’s cut out to be. Emily Gielnik and Katrina Gorry rejoin Brisbane Roar after strong seasons in Scandinavia. Gorry in particular is reclaiming her previous status as a Matildas gun after a difficult few years. A personal highlight for me has been Michelle Heyman’s coming out of retirement to play for Canberra United and seeing her rediscover her love for football.

Moving beyond individual players, the competition across the ladder is making for one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory. There are no clear winners here. At the time of writing, Sydney FC are at the top of the ladder but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them knocked off that perch. Adelaide United are currently equal top and are playing smart, crisp football that could see them through to the finals for the first time ever. Meanwhile, Canberra United are reaping the benefits of Vicki Linton’s astute recruitment, all the while keeping fans on their toes with their habit of scoring late. The most stacked squad on paper, Brisbane Roar, struggled to dominate and got four out of four draws. That was until Round 5’s unstoppable 6-0 win over Melbourne Victory.

Snapping at the heels of the top four are Newcastle Jets. Under coach Ash Wilson, the Jets have visibly improved and are looking to avenge last season’s wooden spoon. Not far behind are Victory, showing glimpses of brilliance – and of the opposite. Last season’s darlings, Melbourne City, are still reckoning with the loss of last years’ high-calibre talent. But if history is anything to go off of, doubting City would be a rookie error. 

Just as there are no clear winners, there are no clear losers either. Western Sydney Wanderers haven’t had any luck playing against their cross-city rivals but still have a win to their name. Since their late start, Perth Glory have agitated opposition, grabbing points with their plucky attitude and work ethic: their position at the bottom of the table doesn’t seem reflective of their quality. 

While uncertainty off the pitch is an unfortunate truth, uncertainty on the pitch is a different story. As a fan, it’s a wonderful position to be in, to know that anything could happen. As the season’s rocky start showed, this could be temporary. It’s precarious and that makes it incredibly precious. But for now? We can relax. We are at the dub.

Angela Christian-Wilkes is a football expert, and appears on The Far Post podcast.

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