The hard-won lessons that revitalised Emma Checker and Melbourne City

As her side prepares to face Sydney FC with a spot in the A-League Women grand final on the line, Melbourne City captain and fringe Matilda Emma Checker believes her side’s successful campaign was forged in the disappointment of the season prior.

Hit hardest by the changing dynamics of women’s football that saw an exodus of Matildas head to Europe’s year-round leagues, City experienced a spectacular fall from grace in 2020-21: crashing from an undefeated premiership and championship-winning campaign to a seventh-place finish that saw them end the season nine points adrift of the playoffs.

Though eventually able to recruit a side loaded up with individually talented players such as Jenna McCormick, Alex Chidiac, and Chinatsu Kira, these figures’ late arrivals and quarantined disrupted seasons robbed Rado Vidošić’s side of any chance of proper cohesion and, combined with their repeated inability to land an out-and-out striker, resulted in a season that failed to ever look like firing.

With Sydney and Melbourne Victory expected to maintain a duopoly atop the league in 2021-22, expectations in many circles were low for a City side that, again, had undergone another significant reformation.

Checker in Matildas training in late 2021
Image Credit: Ann Odong/Football Australia

Kira, Chidiac, McCormick, Teagan Micah, and Noor Eckhoff were all amongst those headed for the exit, replaced by the at the time unheralded likes of Holly McNamara, Winonah Heatley, and Rhianna Pollicina. They joined a core of Checker, Hannah Wilkinson in her first ALW season, and a returning from cancer Rebekah Stott.

First-choice goalkeeper Sally James then went down with an injury before round one, forcing 42-year-old Melissa Barbieri to step into the undisputed number one role for the first time since the 2015/2016 season.

But making a mockery of any apprehension, the four-time ALW champions clicked into place as the season went on and, buoyed by McNamara becoming one of the best talents in the competition in what was her first professional season, went on a run that saw them finish second on the table.

Indeed, had they not slipped up and lost to Brisbane Roar in their third-last game while absent influential figures McNamara, Wilkinson, and Stott, they would have been hosting this week as premiers.

“The reality of football is that it’s harder to stay at the top, it’s not an easy place to be,” Checker said on Thursday.

“We’ve had a lot of success since we came into the league and I think the reality is that we did have a poor season last year– but it gave us a lot of learning opportunities.

“Rado worked really hard and the club and staff worked hard in the offseason to make sure that this season we had a really good group of girls, good footballers and good people.

“But also, maybe we needed that season to fine-tune things we hadn’t been exposed to before. Whilst it was disappointing, it has really driven us for something more this year.

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“For me, I feel really pleased with my season. I think the biggest thing for me was becoming a better leader.

“Stepping up in that space and becoming more consistent in my own performances.

“There are always things that you want to do better and I definitely have things, looking back at performances, that I would change. But for me, it was how I can be the best person for this team with so much new personnel, again.

“There’s obviously a high turnover but this year my biggest challenge to myself was how I can bring this group together in a way where we do get back to the top and have success again.

“Obviously, it’s not because of me that that’s happened but I’d like to think that I’ve done everything I possibly can to be a part of that.”

City will now face the Sky Blues on Friday evening at Jubilee Stadium with a place in the grand final on the line.

A change in the format of the finals this year, though, means that the loser won’t go straight home as would have been the case in years gone by but will, instead, face off with the winner of Adelaide United and Victory’s battle of third against fourth – the winner of that game facing Friday’s winner in the decider.

Sans McNamara as she recovers from an ACL injury, City will enter the contest as the decided underdogs: Sydney running out a lineup featuring three Matildas in Cortnee Vine, Princess Ibini and Remy Siemsen up front with a Chilean international in María José Rojas to back them up.

But if Checker’s apprehensive, she’s got a pretty good poker face.

“We’re stoked. We can’t wait,” she said.

“This is the biggest challenge yet.

“We respect the quality of [Sydney’s] frontline and they’ve shown throughout the season that they are a powerhouse. That’s not something that we’re shying away from but on the flip side of that, we’re very confident that we can match that kind of quality.

“We showed in our previous encounter that we can [a 2-1 City win at AAMI Park that was Sydney’s only defeat this season].

“They’re coming in full strength. We’re missing Holly but other than that looking really strong. It will be a big challenge for both teams and I’m confident we’ll have the quality to match what they have upfront.

“[The new finals format is] a really positive shift. It’s always been harsh that the top team can get knocked out in a semifinal and then have no hope of the grand final.

“In saying that, we’re going to play it as if it is a knockout because we want that extra week and we want a home grand final. We’ll throw everything at them and it is nice having in the back of your mind that there is that second chance but our goal is to not need it.”

Enjoying Joey’s coverage of Australian sport? Your support helps keep it possible.
You’re seeing this advert because this is an unpaid, self-published piece.

You can support his ongoing work by buying him a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/joeylynchy 

Header Image Credit: Melbourne City

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