The stars who create magic moments on the biggest stage

For some players, preparation for football’s biggest moments can be boiled down to the little things: a pasta sauce cooked to a family recipe the night before, the same breakfast on game day, a calming walk in the morning, a quiet space to meditate and breathe as kick-off draws nearer.

Some will look around the dressing room and give grand, lofty speeches, reminding their team-mates of the passion and drive that brought them here, from that first ball kicked in pre-season to the final whistle of the final game.

Whether a veteran or a rookie, there’s nothing quite like a grand final to tickle the nerves. One moment in these 90 minutes can define a season, even a career. Who crumbles under pressure and who meets it head-on usually determines the winner.

The anxieties can overwhelm and cripple, or they can inspire greatness and create history. The best players – those for whom winning becomes part of their DNA – know how to embrace the nerves of a big game; to box it up and keep it handy, drawing upon it when they need to.

“When I was younger, before games I would get nervous a lot earlier,” said Matildas vice-captain Steph Catley, who scored the winning goal in the 2019/20 final for Melbourne City against Sydney FC.

“The night before I would be a bundle of nerves, thinking about the game, playing it in my head over and over again, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that you can’t actually play the game before the game actually arrives.

“One of the things I’ve learned to do coming into big games, especially, is to keep things the same. Most of it is around food and water intake, so if I’m at home, for instance, before the grand final, I’ll always have my mum’s Bolognese. I’d usually go down to her house and make sure I had it if I was living [nearby], or I’d cook her exact Bolognese and have that.

“And I am obsessed with Hydralyte tablets, so I always have one of those right before bed and then one on the way to the game always as well.”

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Finding your best routine comes from experience, through trial-and-error. For younger players – many of whom will play in a W-League grand final for the first time this Sunday – they can only hope they don’t let their nerves get the better of them.

“I don’t think I fully understood what was happening, to be honest,” says former Canberra United forward Ashleigh Sykes, who was just 16 when she played in the 2009 Grand Final against Brisbane Roar. “I probably went in with a little bit of ‘ignorance is bliss’ sort of attitude.

“I was still finishing school in Dubbo [at the time], so there was a lot of travel backwards and forwards between Dubbo to Canberra for training, and then also to head up to Brisbane for the game. I think it’s safe to say that the players [will] prepare for the game a lot differently this year than what they did in 2008!

“It’s grand final week, and no matter what people say about trying to treat it the same as any other game week, it’s just not the same. There’s a lot more interest and a lot more hype.

“I do remember it being a big deal and slightly different, no matter how you tried to take it.”

Sykes and Canberra United lost that day, but they’d go on to win two Championships in 2011/12 and 2015/16. In 2012, in particular, Sykes had the sort of day players dream about, scoring a goal and setting up another in Canberra’s 3-2 defeat of Brisbane Roar. 

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The way Sykes describes it, the moment was almost spiritual; an illustration of the idea that your best football comes when you stop thinking and simply let yourself be in the moment.

“When the game’s going your way and things for yourself as an individual are working, you kind of get into that flow state where you’re not thinking about what you’re doing, it’s just happening,” she said.

“Sometimes in football, scoring goals is really easy, and that was one of those moments: just tap it in. I think that game in particular went past pretty quickly, just riding the wave and the flow. It was an incredible feeling to get a goal and play a role in the result, as well as winning.”

Lisa De Vanna knows that feeling. Her career has been studded with great moments, including winning four W-League Championships. The Matildas’ greatest ever goal-scorer will lead Melbourne Victory’s charge against Sydney FC on Sunday, and knows exactly how players can own the key moments – because they’ve worked so hard to create them in the first place.

“Before we even get to these moments, I try to instill culture and mentality [in her teammates], and I demand all these things from pre-season, just for these moments – so they know that when their time comes, they’ll be ready for it,” she said.

“With the big moments, you know you've only got one chance. You don't have second chances in finals and for some reason I tend to rise to those occasions.

“It takes time and a lot of work to teach [a team] to believe in themselves. It isn't just one week, it's been a very long time with the coaching staff and the leadership group, identifying what the culture is and what we stand for.”

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But it’s the hours and minutes before kick-off that can be the most stressful of all.

“There’ll be some nerves out there this weekend for some of the younger players,” said Sykes. “I worked out in my career that what worked for me was to stay as calm as possible, because I was already going to be very excited.

“So I’d do meditations before the game, breathing exercises. I didn’t really need that much hype-up music in the change-room. Later on my career, I worked out it was better for me to sit outside the change-room if it was really loud, find a quiet space and save my nervous energy for the field rather than use it all beforehand.”

Last season, it was Catley who seized the moment, scoring the one and only goal in City’s grand-final win over Sydney FC in the eerie, pandemic-induced silence of AAMI Park – with just a handful of family and friends allowed in.

“I remember getting the ball in the box and I actually heard my brother yell from the stands – because nobody was there, so I could hear him yell – and he literally just yelled, ‘shoot!’” she recalls.

“The way that I play, I usually would have looked for a cut-back; I just wouldn’t have shot. [But] just hearing him say ‘shoot,’ I was like, ‘alright!’ and put my foot through it and just hit it as hard as I could.

“It wasn’t the best shot, but it was a bit of luck that Aubrey Bledsoe, who’s an incredible keeper, she sort of fumbled it over the line. That just happens sometimes in football.

“I think, in those big occasions, you can almost try to do too much yourself and think that you need to be by far the best player on the park.

“I would just say relax and enjoy the moment. Try not to get overwhelmed by the occasion and just enjoy the football and being there with your teammates because it is a really special moment and just being involved in it is something to be proud of.”