Title-winning W-League outfit forge path for Victory to follow

Full story first published for SBS’ The World Game: https://theworldgame.sbs.com.au/title-winning-w-league-outfit-forge-path-for-victory-to-follow

Capping off their third successive finals appearance with an elusive W-League championship, Melbourne Victory’s past five years represent a remarkable journey – one that should inspire those inside their own building.

The contrast, quite literally, couldn’t be greater.

As Victory’s A-League side, bottom of the table, continue to trudge through what is shaping as the worst season in their history, their women’s team capped off one of the most memorable campaigns in W-League history in a fittingly bonkers manner: recording a heart-stopping, 1-0 extra-time win over Sydney FC at Jubilee Stadium.

After hurling all but the kitchen sink at Sky Blue custodian Jada Whyman for 120 minutes, a goal directly from a corner – an Olimpico – from teenage sensation Kyra Cooney-Cross delivered Victory a win that simultaneously felt deserved, but also unlikely given just how many times fate – and Whyman – had intervened at the death to deny them throughout the contest.

The goal capped off a magnificent game and magnificent season for Cooney-Cross, who has emerged from the chaotic landscape of the 2020-21 W-League season as one of Australian football’s brightest and best stars.

“I was just thinking that I didn’t want to go to penalties,” Cooney-Cross mischievously told Fox Sports post-game.

A Matildas cap in the near future is inevitable, while coach Jeff Hopkins effusively declared post-match: “She can be anything. She’s an amazing talent. I think she’s the best talent in Australian football.”

The championship is ageless wonder Lisa De Vanna’s record-equalling fifth in the W-League and Hopkins’ record-setting third – with the 56-year-old now equal with Alen Stajcic for most all-time in national league history.

A two-time title winner with Brisbane Roar, the Welshman first arrived in Melbourne ahead of the 2016-17 W-League campaign, just a year removed from the club falling from second-place to dead last following the entrance of Melbourne City and evisceration of the Victory program.

Improvements were very slow to come by in his first season at the club, another wooden spoon recorded, but a seventh-placed finish then came in 2017-18.

A breakout then arrived in 2018-19 as the club, powered by Natasha Dowie and Emily Gielnik, lifted their first-ever premiership.

A debut in the inaugural staging of the AFC Women’s Club Championship came the following year, as did a second-placed finish and another finals berth. And now, in 2020-21, the club finally broke through for just the second championship in their history.

From chumps to champs.

There isn’t, of course, an exact formula that can be moved from the W-League to the A-League.

The divergent nature of how the two competitions are run – full home-and-away v limited season, professional v semi-professional, one-club v W-League and NPLW commitments and so on – makes that impractical.

But what Victory’s women can offer their male equivalents – and indeed any team – are prevailing themes and strategies that have proven immensely effective.

Hopkins was appointed at Victory the same year that club administrators took over full operational control of the W-League side from Football Victoria.

Weaknesses were promptly identified and a clear plan was instituted. While results weren’t initially forthcoming, he was given the time to properly execute this strategy.

“I came in at quite a challenging time,” Hopkins told The New Daily in 2020.

“We kind of came in with a three-year plan to turn things around. It was tough the first year in terms of results but with the backing of the club, the environment was good and we gradually worked on putting things right that weren’t right.”

Especially pertinent to Victory’s A-League side given the hit-and-miss nature of their foreign signings in recent years and the recent departure of Dalibor Markovic to Western United, there was also a consistent presence of youthful and talented Victorian players in Hopkins’ sides.

Figures such as Melina Ayres, Lia Privitelli, MelindaJ Barbieri, Amy Jackson, Tiffany Eliadis, Maja Markovski, Polly Doran, and Cooney-Cross all spent their formative footballing years in Victoria – although the latter’s development it must be said also owes a debt to Western Sydney Wanderers, where she experienced her first regular run of starts while spending the 2019-20 season on loan.

Whereas vanquished foes Sydney FC went into the Grand Final without any foreign players, Hopkins’ willingness to leverage the local leagues meant that, alongside New Zealand internationals Annalie Longo and Claudia Bunge, his starting XI featured Argentine goalkeeper Gaby Garton and Americans Kayla Morrison and Catherine Zimmerman.

All three were technically ‘international players’, but had been recruited to the club from the Victorian NPLW or, in the case of Garton, its State Leagues.

Garton and Morrison were named in the PFA’s Team of the Season ahead of the Grand Final, while Zimmerman has quietly been one of the league’s breakout players.

Coaching in the state with the nation’s second-biggest participation base, Hopkins went looking for talent – mostly of the young variety – found it, and moulded it.

But perhaps the most relevant lesson for Victory’s A-League side – or any other observer – would appear to be the environment the team has fostered in 2020-21: players and staff consistently speaking about how the prevailing atmosphere amongst this now-championship winning side is the best they’ve ever experienced.

It was a spirit that was rediscovered and reforged as they bounced back from a 6-0 hammering at the hands of Brisbane Roar just weeks into the regular season and allowed them to rebound from a disappointing defeat to the Harboursiders on the final day of the regular season.

“We work for each other,” veteran figure Amy Jackson said ahead of the W-League finals.

“Even if you’re not having a good day, there’s someone next to you that will help you and guide you through it. I feel very supported at the club. Both on and off the field the club has helped me a lot this year and last year.

“I came back solely because of Jeff last year, but this year I think we’ve created an even better culture than previous years.

“Throughout this year, the culture, it’s the best I’ve ever been a part of. In the sense that everyone backs each other, everyone’s there for each other.

“You’d go and have coffee with any of my teammates outside of football – which is a very rare thing.”

Indeed, there’s still a lot that Victory still need to do for their W-League side – as is the case throughout the competition, there is a constant need for improved resourcing and better conditions – but it’s clear that there’s also a lot they can take from them beyond simply W-League success.

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