Slowly but surely, the stage is being set.
Tuesday’s partial release of the 2020/21 W-League fixtures has given shape to a season that, in a country still grappling with COVID-19, may not have existed at all. But with squads now in pre-season and the first handful of rounds pencilled into our calendars, a whole library of new narratives is beginning to emerge.
1. The most open W-League season yet?
When the trickle of Australians heading to Europe turned into a flood earlier this year, many W-League fans were worried that the competition they left behind could lack the X-factor that has made it one of the most exciting women’s sports leagues in the country.
However, 2020/21 could see quite the opposite happen.
Over the past few years, the W-League has become a battle between Matildas-heavy teams, with trophies often favouring the clubs that have amassed the highest number of international-level players (be they Matildas or imports).
But with international travel largely moribund, COVID-19 might be a blessing in disguise, leading to one of the most open and competitive seasons yet. Clubs that would usually overstock their sides with senior players have had to dig far deeper into their domestic player pool, resulting in a player landscape that is far more democratic and evenly distributed than in seasons past.
It's true that some clubs have yet to show their full hand in announcing squad lists, but there’s no doubt the competition that will be faced by the “big four” clubs of Sydney FC, City, Victory and Western Sydney this season looks potentially greater than ever. The 2020/21 campaign could see a much more even – and therefore much more entertaining – fight to the finish-line.
2. Four new head coaches looking to make their mark
The W-League hasn’t just seen major changes on the field this year – it’s happened off the field, too. Four clubs will enter the 2020/21 season with new Australian head coaches, all of them itching to make an impact.
After promoting Ivan Karlović to the Head of Women’s Football, Adelaide United have given the nod to his assistant, Adrian Stenta, to take over the W-League side. Having shadowed Karlović for the past two seasons, off the back of two more as head coach of Adelaide’s Youth Reserves sides, Stenta now has his first shot at leading a senior squad. His familiarity with the Reds’ core group of returning players could be his trump card given the league’s short pre-season and player rotations elsewhere.
Further west, Perth Glory have recruited up-and-coming coach Alexander Epakis to take over from club legend Bobby Despotovski, who recently stepped down after five seasons. Epakis arrives in Perth after a highly successful period as head coach of Sydney University in the NSW NPLW competition, winning three consecutive
Premierships with a group of young, hungry players. He could be just the right fit for Perth’s post-Sam Kerr rebuilding phase.
Canberra, meanwhile, have recruited the most experienced head coach of the new bunch: Vicki Linton. This will be Linton’s second season leading a W-League side, having spent two seasons with Melbourne Victory in the early 2010s. Linton also has national team coaching experience, working as head coach of the Junior Matildas and assistant coach of the senior Matildas. Her experience will no doubt come in handy in leading Canberra out of their poorest run of form in their history.
Finally, after Newcastle Jets head coach Craig Deans was recruited to the A-League side, his assistant Ashley Wilson has been confirmed as the head coach to take the W-League team forward. Like Stenta, Wilson comes into the top job after spending a significant period with a similar crop of players for the past five seasons, while also having her finger on the pulse of the local Northern NSW talent pool, standing her in good stead ahead of a campaign in which all clubs will be leaning heavily on domestic players.
3. Generation Next of Australian goalkeepers
With five of last season’s first-choice goalkeepers not returning to the W-League this season due to injury, travel restrictions or club commitments elsewhere, the 2020/21 campaign will see a bunch of fresh faces given an opportunity to impress.
Indeed, some of the most active player movement in the off-season has been in the goalkeeping department: Jada Mathyssen-Whyman has traded Western Sydney for cross-town rivals Sydney FC, Morgan Aquino has moved from Perth to Brisbane, Sarah Willacy has made the leap from Adelaide to the Wanderers, Young Matilda Annalee Grove has swapped Canberra for Perth, and senior Matilda Teagan Micah will trek across Melbourne from Victory to City.
Excitingly, of the goalkeepers that have been announced so far, just two – Willacy and Sian Fryer-McLaren – are over the age of 25. Four are younger than 21. This new generation of Australian glove-women now have their biggest chance yet to not only secure starting positions in the W-League, but also put themselves – if they desire it – on international radars for both club and country.
4. Can Canberra United recapture their old spirit?
Since the W-League’s inception in 2008, Canberra United have been the model of success both on and off the field. They were the first club to win the Premiership-Championship double in 2011/12, while also becoming the first club to win the league three times.
Canberra consistently attracted some of the biggest crowds to their fortress of McKellar Park, losing just nine times at home in their first nine seasons and missing finals just once in almost ten years.
Canberra also became known as a greenhouse of talent – producing national team players, developing one of the country’s first girls’ academies, and providing head and assistant coach opportunities to multiple women.
However, Canberra has lost its shine in recent years: its last trophy came in 2016/17, which was also the last time the club finished in the top four. Vicki Linton is now tasked with returning the only stand-alone women’s club in the league to its former glories.
While they won’t be returning to Fortress McKellar this season due to COVID-19, the club is still intent on going back to the future, recruiting a number of stars from past seasons including Michelle Heyman, Kendall Fletcher, Nicki Flannery and Grace Maher to try and recapture what they'd lost. Complemented by a number of emerging local talents, this could be Canberra’s chance to reassert itself as a giant of the Australian women’s game.