By Angela Christian-Wilkes
On Saturday afternoon, the Melbourne City FC side lifted the championship trophy for the fourth time – this time, in a quiet stadium in front of a sprinkling of friends and family – becoming the first side in the league’s history to get the premiership/championship double twice.
It was captain Steph Catley’s cross, fumbled by keeper Aubrey Bledsoe, that brought them to 1-0 in the 15th minute at AAMI Park. Although not as stunning as other some other City goals, it was all the side needed. The 1-0 steal harks back to their start to the season – here as then, a little went a long way.
A lack of intensity and attacking drive prevented Sydney from equalising the scoreline. Teresa Polias and Veronica Latsko persisted for the remainder of the match and Ellie Brush and Alanna Kennedy kept most of the close calls at bay, giving City the sternest contest they had perhaps faced this season. Sydney have lost Grand Finals against City 4-1, 2-0 and now 1-0 – a trend that presents hope for future clashes.
Ultimately it was a result that won’t have surprised many. Perhaps that’s for the best: during uncertain times there is some comfort in City’s consistency. However, the start of this season gave no clear indication as to how it would conclude. Even in the notably chaotic W-League, it felt particularly random – more like a play in two parts than one cohesive narrative. Here, I outline the key plot points (last week’s piece elaborates more on the top four finishers) but I’ll leave it to you to decide who are the heroes and who are the villains.
Part 1: Round 1 to Round 7
The presence of the Matildas in the W-League has been a big draw card in the past, playing into narratives about the accessibility of some of our most talented athletes. However, Season 12 had to contend with Australia’s poor performance at the World Cup months before as big names sought out glory and more competitive environments in Europe. Captain Sam Kerr’s mega-signing to the FAWSL’s Chelsea FC; Emily Gielnik left Melbourne Victory for Bayern Munich in the Frauen Bundesliga. Could the Dub continue to exist as a homing ground for our national players?
The first few rounds provided enough drama to distract from these existential questions. Canberra United put in a solid performance in Round 1 against Perth Glory, American import Simone Charley catching attention with a brace. Newcastle (who boldly did not sign a single international name or national team player) kept City at a 1-1 draw before losing by a penalty against Western Sydney Wanderers the week after. And perhaps the biggest story of the (first half of) the season: Wanderers began with a bang, exemplified by a 3-1 win over Brisbane Roar and their first ever derby win at 5-0.
In addition to the Wanderers loss, Brisbane were also edged out 2-3 by Victory. Unlike the cellar-dwellers of the competition, they had Matildas such as Mackenzie Arnold, Katrina Gorry and Tameka Butt, plus a band of local players returning to the fold. For a routinely competitive side, they made an unconvincing start.
City didn’t shock but also didn’t concede, whilst Victory and Sydney both struggled. At Round 7, Canberra were sitting pretty at 5th, with must-wins against the (then) current top four ahead. Perth only had a point, while Adelaide United had none.
Part 2: Round 8 to Round 14
Nothing is a given. Part 2 felt like a different competition and presented new challenges for all – apart from maybe City, who stayed top from Round 8 onwards.
Kerr’s move opened up new considerations for Australian players, seen in the December-January transfer window. Sydney’s Chloe Logarzo and Caitlin Foord left for Bristol City and Arsenal respectively. Hayley Raso departed Brisbane Roar for Everton whilst Adelaide lost young gun Mary Fowler to French club Montpellier HSC. Each omission left a gap.
International players leaving also changed the fabric of the league. Wanderers’ losing Denise O’Sullivan and Lynn Williams significantly altered their trajectory. Even the omission of injured Katie Stengel from Canberra left a gap in front of goal. The impact of these departures and teams’ inability to replace like-with-like highlights how W-League sides are positively alleviated by its internationals and its imports. For Victory this was Annalie Longo and Darian Jenkins coming into form and for the Roar this meant Rylee Baisden and Carson Pickett leading by example.
It’s not as simple as putting good players on the field together. Canberra coach Heather Garriock brought in imports from all across the globe: Norwegian Elise Thorsnes, Brazilian midfielder Camila, American defender Kaleigh Kurtz and fan favourite Charley. They also had a Matilda with Karly Roestbakken as captain. Yet the team lacked defensive discipline and the second half of the season was defined by brutal losses, including three 0-4 score-lines.
Newcastle also floundered, with many players plagued by smaller injuries. Coach Craig Deans then moved sideways to coach the A-League in Round 13. This was followed by the biggest loss of the season – 0-7 to Victory – and the Jets’ quietly dropped to the bottom of the table with only one win for the season.
Teams without big names were still able to get a foot in the door (or a ball in the goal). Perth felt like a new side as they increasingly contended for games – a compelling argument to move the league to a full home-and-away fixture. They pulled off two big upsets – a 4-2 win over Brisbane and a 3-2 win over Wanderers. Import Morgan Andrews’ had a great run and scored all seven of her golden boot goals in the second part of the season. Adelaide got some wins but also succumbed to bigger losses.
Meanwhile, Brisbane continued to bobble mid-table post Raso-gate but were still one of the strongest contenders for a final four finish. Their 5-0 thrashing of Canberra isn’t quite an upset but demonstrative of how they could have been playing all season. By their last outing – against City away – they had been caged out of the finals at 5th on the ladder.
Whilst I have done my best to summarise 57 games and nine teams, I of course have missed important names, stories and score-lines. For in-depth summaries of the final, I recommend Taryn Heddo’s piece at The Ladies League and Molly Appleton’s piece for Beyond 90.
To understand more about those who missed out, Beyond 90 put together a season review of the bottom 5 sides, written by those who know these teams best. If you’re being eaten up by what’s happening more broadly in our world of sport, Samantha Lewis wrote this at The Guardian.