Why Sydney FC are claiming homegrown advantage in the Grand Final
IT was Sydney FC midfielder Rachel Lowe who stirred the pot, asking why her side were getting little credit for winning the Premier’s Plate – and reaching the grand final – with an all-Australian team.
For years the successful teams in the Westfield W-League have been dominated by imports and star Matildas, but the Sky Blues have done it with a homegrown side with an average age of 22.
Lowe’s words won’t be lost on an older Melbourne Victory squad studded with two Americans, a Canadian and an Argentine goalkeeper, plus a pair of New Zealand internationals.
But behind it is actually a story of how you put a squad together in a pandemic, two very different strategies with the Westfield W-League title at stake.
For Sydney, the coronavirus fall-out accentuated a strategy begun a year earlier.
“I’ve thought about this for a while,” said head coach Ante Juric. “When we won the Grand Final in 2019, I reflected on how our Matildas players and our imports dominated.
“I was asking myself, why can’t we win with a team of Australian youngsters? Last year we had a couple of imports but this year I started looking to fill the roster with Australian talent.
“The club backed me – I told (CEO) Danny Townsend, and he was fully supportive. To be fair, if we hadn’t been able to sign good Australian talent then we might have had to look at some imports, but in fact it became a selling point when I was talking to players – this idea that we wanted to create a homegrown squad and see if we could be successful.
“The age factor was less important but it so happened that the best local talent was around that 20 or 21 age.”
Victory coach Jeff Hopkins was rebuilding in a different way, having lost Australian players to overseas clubs, to rival Westfield W-League sides and to retirement, as well as realising that his four visa players could not return due to the block on overseas travel.
“We started to use a network of coaches to find out who was in the country or would be coming back, and we also saw the fruit of work you put in outside the season in knowing who’s doing well in the NPL,” Hopkins said.
“There was some luck involved, such as (Argentine international goalkeeper) Gaby Garton having come here to work at Victoria University.
“The hard thing was that Victoria was the only state where the women’s NPL didn’t happen last year. We knew the local players wouldn’t have had any game time for a long time.
“So we got an exemption (from lockdown restrictions) for them to play games in the seven weeks before pre-season to get them some football. The first week we couldn’t get them off the field, they’d missed it so much.”
That pent-up passion may well have been one of the drivers in getting Victory’s hastily assembled squad all the way to the grand final.
“Certainly one of the most pleasing things has been the realisation of how much these players are invested in each other,” said Hopkins. “They like each other, they like spending time with each other, and clearly they like playing football with each other.”
To overcome the final hurdle, though, they will have to best a team that has already shown its resolve.
“In every game where we’ve needed to step up, we have done,” said Juric of his Sydney squad. “We lost badly to Brisbane and they reacted superbly; we had to prove ourselves against Victory last week and in the semifinal, and that’s exactly what happened.
“A lot of these players have been through big games with the national teams, and they’re pretty relaxed.”
Westfield W-League Grand Final 2020/21
Sydney FC v Melbourne Victory
Sunday, 11 April 2021
Venue: Netstrata Jubilee Stadium
Kick-off: 4.05pm AEST
Broadcast: FOX Sports, ABC TV
Streaming: Kayo Sports, My Football Live App
Tickets available from 9am AEST on Tuesday, 6 April from finals.w-league.com.au
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