Nine seconds into Sydney FC’s game against Newcastle on Sunday afternoon, veteran Jets striker Tara Andrews registered the game’s first shot on target. Seventeen seconds later, young Sydney forward Remy Siemsen zipped a cross through Newcastle’s penalty area that teammate Clare Wheeler, who had made a run from deep in midfield, just missed. In less than a minute, the Jets were up the other end, on the attack again.
This chaotic start to round six’s final match was exacerbated by elements largely beyond the players’ control, particularly Cromer Park’s bouncy synthetic pitch – the only non-grass pitch being used this season – which had been made slicker still by a weekend’s worth of rain. All the players could do was adjust and adapt to things in the moment: the subtle differences in ball speed and spin, the way the wind caught or carried a pass just too close or just too far.
These opening few breathless moments seemed to epitomise the 2020-21 W-League season more broadly: an unpredictability brought about by the events of the wider world, which the league’s main actors have had to shape and re-shape themselves around as the world continues to change.
The fact that the league has reached its notional halfway point with some teams having played half their allotted games while others have only played a quarter speaks to this unpredictability. And as if to prove the point, Western Australia has announced an immediate five-day lockdown, likely upending the next round’s worth of games, too.
These wider chaotic forces have meant that, perhaps more than ever, consistency is key for W-League sides trying to weather them. Indeed, it is a kind of long-term consistency that is being rewarded as the current season stumbles towards its second half. At the conclusion of round six, the ladder reflects the clubs that have, in one way or another, prioritised multi-season squad consistency over the past three campaigns.
Sydney FC, who enter round seven at the top of the table, are one of just two clubs to have carried 10 or more players from last season into their current one, as well as eight or more from the season prior (2018-19). The other club to do so is Adelaide United, who have retained 11 of last year’s squad and 12 from the year before that. The Reds, as it happens, enter the midway point of the current season in fourth spot and are playing the kind of football that makes them likely to stay there.
Behind Sydney and Adelaide on the squad consistency chart is Brisbane Roar, who have kept nine players from last season and currently sit third. Only second-placed Canberra United appear to be the anomaly here with just five carry-over players – however, considering the return of veterans such as Michelle Heyman, Kendall Fletcher, Chantel Jones and Grace Maher after a few seasons elsewhere, as well as the promotion of train-on and academy products, United’s position on the ladder through this prism starts to make sense.
This theory filters down the rest of the ladder, too, with Melbourne Victory and Newcastle Jets, who are separated by just one point, separated by just one carry-over player too (seven v eight). Further down, Melbourne City have retained just four players, while Western Sydney have six. Perth, with eight, are similarly anomalous to Canberra, but their own last-minute appointments and pre-season difficulties add an extra chaotic dimension to the three games they have managed to play so far.
Even in a season as unpredictable as this one, there are still some conclusions and themes that we can tentatively start to draw. Just as Sydney FC controlled the controllables on that unfamiliar, greasy pitch in Manly to eventually (and predictably) come away 2-0 winners, so too are clubs who have controlled what they can – namely, the stability of their squads in the W-League’s uncertain off-season – now starting to reap the benefits of their commitment. Conversely, clubs that have experienced larger turnovers are struggling to keep up.
And while it is too early to predict who will take out the premiership trophy, there would be a neat kind of poetry if Sydney FC were to do it. Although they have been the most consistent side in the W-League, having finished in the top four every season since the league began, it has been 10 years since they called themselves premiers. That was, coincidentally, the first season that Teresa Polias joined the club; a player who has since become synonymous with stability, reaching her historic 150-game milestone earlier this month while ushering in the next generation of Sky Blue stars.
But if this W-League season has taught us anything, it is that we must expect chaos. For all the trends and themes that the first half has presented, there is no knowing whether the second half will confirm or deny them. That is its only – and most exciting – guarantee.