‘Ayres to the throne’: grand finalists epitomise W-League’s strength in depth

Melina Ayres could have taken on the shot herself. As the Melbourne Victory forward spun away from Brisbane Roar defender Winonah Heatley, her natural striker’s instincts kicked in; her leg coiled backwards in preparation for a shot on goal.

But she didn’t. Instead, seeing teammate Lisa De Vanna in a better position, Ayres interrupted her own impulses and calmly poked the ball one channel further along, setting up the veteran winger to score the first of Victory’s six goals in Sunday afternoon’s first W-League semi-final.

It was reminiscent of Kyah Simon’s assist for Emily van Egmond’s crucial equaliser against China in the Matildas’ AFC Olympic qualifiers just over a year ago; a personal restraint and a rapid assessment of probabilities that are the sign of a more holistic, developed footballing IQ.

It was not the kind of decision in front of goal that Ayres has been known for – the Ayres of the long-range lobs and vicious, viral strikes. But this has not been a typical Melina Ayres season. It has not been a typical Melbourne Victory season, either, and given they have qualified for their first W-League championship final since 2014, it seems like the circumstances that forced their hand in the off-season may have, ironically, become their trump card.

Like many W-League clubs, Victory experienced considerable squad turn-over during the winter. The Melbourne club carried over just seven players from last season, losing crucial figures like Matildas Laura Brock and Jenna McCormick, internationals Emily Menges, Hayley Hanson and Darian Jenkins, as well as club captain and leading striker Natasha Dowie, whose central role at Victory had resulted in the club being nicknamed “Dowie FC” in recent years.

Also like other clubs, the pandemic meant Victory were forced to improvise when it came to finding suitable replacements. While the recruitment of recognisable names like Lisa De Vanna and Kyra Cooney-Cross grabbed the headlines, though, it has been the lesser-known players – Claudia Bunge and Kayla Morrison, Polly Doran and MelindaJ Barbieri, Catherine Zimmerman and Amy Jackson – who have not just replaced the departed stars, but are arguably outshining them.

Twenty-one-year-old Ayres, for example, now has more goals (eight) after her less-publicised hat-trick against Brisbane than Dowie scored in her final Victory season (seven). Bunge and Morrison, both of whom are in their first W-League stint, have worked with Doran, Beard and new goalkeeper Gaby Garton to concede the same number of goals as Victory did last season with three international-level players anchoring them (14). The team overall has scored one more goal than last year (25) due, in part, to their more unpredictable and multi-pronged attacking system in place of the single-striker model of old.

The same can be said for Sydney FC, too, who qualified for their fourth consecutive grand final after defeating Canberra United on Monday night. Having lost over half their regular starting XI in Caitlin Foord, Alanna Kennedy, Chloe Logarzo, Veronica Latsko, Sofia Huerta and Aubrey Bledsoe, the Sky Blues’ replacement policy was also to look inwards; to lean more heavily on players like Princess Ibini, Mackenzie Hawkesby, Ally Green, Taylor Ray and Natalie Tobin while also plucking diamonds like Cortnee Vine, Clare Wheeler, Rachel Lowe and Charlotte McLean from the rough of less successful sides. That each of Sydney’s three goals against Canberra at the weekend came from this previously-unheralded crop speaks to a type of faith being repaid; the shiny underside to the coronavirus coin.

In that sense, it is perhaps of no surprise that the two semi-finalists who are the most multi-dimensional and balanced in this way – as opposed to overly reliant on one or two key players – have made it to Sunday’s final. The most telling contrast was with the two sides who missed out, with both Brisbane and Canberra experiencing the last-minute losses of their most valuable (and most relied-upon) players – Emily Gielnik, Clare Polkinghorne and Michelle Heyman – and looking far less threatening as a result.

Sydney head coach Ante Juric said as much post-match: “I thought [Brisbane] were quite poor yesterday, maybe because, at the last second, they lost those players. But we’ve not been relying on one particular player – I believe in everyone. Whoever comes in, it’s a bit of a system more than individuals doing something.

“The media hasn’t really spoken about [our situation]: one, we’re all youngsters. Two, we’ve lost two centre-back starters. Then you lost Cortnee Vine, and a lot of people probably think she’s a key player – and she is – but we’ve got other players who can step up and do the job.”

Both Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory, then, are worthy grand finalists in a W-League season that has been defined by transition and transformation. They are two sides whose squads illustrate the depth and breadth of the talent available and emerging in Australia, whose coaches have best prepared for and adapted to their circumstances, and whose largely unacknowledged players have been given opportunities that they – after proving themselves worthy and capable of it – will now surely keep.