Whilst Emma Checker and her Melbourne City teammates may now be preparing to fight for a place in the A-League Women Grand Final, it was only a year ago that the team was battling to avoid the very real possibility of a first wooden spoon.
A late revival and subsequent seventh-placed finish, secured on the back of a trio of ‘six-pointer’ wins against the two teams below them, was reflective of the potential that the group possessed despite things not always coming together for them.
The season as a whole – on the back of an undefeated, double-winning campaign the year prior – understandably made for a testing first year as City skipper for Checker.
“I think last year really challenged me as a Captain to be honest,” Checker said.
“Coming off such a big success (in 2019/20) and then to be under the pressure of what we went through last year; it was difficult and it’s hard not to blame yourself for some of that.”
The campaign mightn’t have made for an ideal start to life as Captain in just her second season with the Club, but it certainly became a motivating factor for Checker and her City teammates heading into Season 2021/22 – their chance at a fresh start.
“I think for the girls that were here last year, obviously there was a lot of disappointment with how it ended up, so that naturally gives you additional motivation coming into this year,” she said.
“Even going back again for the ones that went from being part of an undefeated season, winning the double, to last year’s disappointment, we instantly wanted to be back at the top.”
And back on top – literally – the team soon became thanks to a strong 21/22 campaign, even, at one point, having the opportunity to secure a third Premiership until mounting injuries and absences proved too much of a hurdle to overcome late in the season.
Their achievements throughout the campaign, perhaps best highlighted by a 5-1 Melbourne Derby win and a massive 2-1 win over eventual Premiership winners Sydney FC, likely came as a surprise to many observers, with the team far exceeding most pre-season expectations placed on Rado Vidosic’s side. For Checker, it’s just one reason among many that makes the achievements of her team so validating.
“There is definitely that added satisfaction in knowing that we were tipped to finish in the bottom part of the table and now we’re here playing off for a place in the Grand Final.”
Asked to identify some of the biggest factors behind the dramatic improvement, the City skipper lauded the team’s adaptability and eagerness to improve.
“I think there’s a number of big differences and I think the biggest one is that we learned the style of play a lot quicker and I think we adjusted to the City way as a group at a really impressive speed.
“It’s a hard system to understand for new players coming in and I think that the girls this year went into it head on and they put a lot of time into ensuring they knew the way they needed to play.”
There’s also, she contends, a second major factor at play: Trust.
“Just that knowing that everyone in the change room is bringing their best selves to the field is really important,” Checker said, “You can trust that your teammates are coming into the game having done everything right.
“We trust that we’re there for each other and when it gets hard, we’re still there for each other.”
That trust would have undoubtedly developed in part due to around a third of the squad is comprised of players returning from previous seasons. The great news for City fans is that the benefits of that trust will only compound in Season 2022/23; eight players, including Checker, are already signed to multi-year contracts that will see them at the Club next year.
As Checker notes, this helps to bypass the issue that many revitalised squads face in regard to taking around half a season to start gelling.
“Knowing that we can now essentially skip that phase is really important,” she said.
“It’s also really going to help us that a lot of the girls play together in Sydney, so they’re going to be continuing on building their relationships on the field and even if the style of play is different, there’s still an understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
“Coming into next season, that will definitely carry over.”
Whilst Vidosic’s side will be unflinching in their pursuit of a fifth Championship, the team’s drastic improvement this season has shown that there is already plenty to be proud of.
Accordingly, whether or not it is Melbourne City – led by Checker – that lifts the trophy on the final day of this season, fans can already be optimistic that, with so much young talent and an influential leader already re-signed for next season, they have a team that will continue to make them proud.