Understated midfielder Aivi Luik is on the verge of becoming part of elite company this season as the 31 year old aims for her third W-League championship on Sunday.
Even without the championship, the 2017 W-League grand final already sees her part of elite company with her fourth grand final appearance in seven W-League seasons.
As an anchor midfielder, she has been invaluable for City’s side, contributing to both their exciting forward line and their solid defensive wall. She has worked diligently in the centre of the park, dropping back whilst also slotting into their waves of attack.
TWG caught up before the big match to talk grand final feelings, her job this season and the development of her teammates.
TWG: The first thing is congratulations on getting to the grand final. That’s an enormous achievement and hopefully the team is super happy and proud. On top of that, personally this is your fourth grand final in the W-League. In terms of how you prepare for it mentally, does it change? Does it get any easier? Do you treat them any differently to a normal game?
Aivi Luik: I guess it doesn’t get treated like a normal game because it’s the grand final! Automatically, you’re more pumped, you’re more excited, you want to make sure you do the right thing even more than normal. Yeah, you just want to make sure you put everything out there on the field so when you come off the field – whether you win or lose – you can be happy and proud. But at the end of the day, you want to win.
We’re doing everything in our hands that we can. After the semi-final, we recovered really well. The past few days have gone really well just to get our bodies back in shape and ready for the weekend.
TWG: Any key thoughts you had coming out from the semi-final? It must have been a tough match.
AL: Oh yeah, it definitely was. The first half – the first twenty, thirty minutes – I thought we dominated. I thought we did really well. We came out with a flying start which this season has proven to be a bit difficult for us, for some reason. I was really happy. The feeling on the field was great – we were buzzing. The communication was really great and we were finding pockets. Then that kind of switched a little bit before half time.
Going into the second half, there was a period of time where we were stuck in our own half. But every one of the players out there and every one of the players on the pitch and the coaching staff – we just pushed through.
We just kept pushing and pushing and pushing, [we] never gave up and never lost hope. And I’m so glad we won for that reason.
It was a bit of a dog fight in the end and we pushed through. It’s going to give us a lot of the confidence going into the final this weekend.
TWG: Coming out of that with a win in extra time at 1-0, has that changed your approach to the final in any way?
AL: No, not really. Monday and Tuesday we just really took care of recovery. We used the leg pumps, we had massage, we had physio. We did all that to make sure we’re as right as we could be.
To be fair, going into the semi-final we did the same thing. Our recovery this season has generally been really good. We feel like we’re back on track and our legs are back underneath us – raring to go!
TWG: Looking at a couple of the players out there, you’ve got Laura Alleway, who in 2011 was on the bench for the Sydney/Brisbane grand final. How has it been seeing her come through the W-League over the years and see her become such a crucial player for City’s defence?
AL: It’s been amazing! We have been playing football in Australia for years together – we’ve played in two teams, Brisbane and now here at Melbourne City, and the national team too.
Her confidence has just [grown] since she was young to now… She’s always had a bit of confidence but, for example, on the weekend, if the ball was played over my head (especially in extra time) I was just hoping and praying someone would be there to clear it.
And literally, without a doubt, I would turn around and more often not she [would’ve cleared it]. She was not only there to win the ball, she was this big presence. And it gives all us girls confidence on the field too, knowing that she’s back there. Everyone’s seen her tackle! She’s a very strong player. She’s smart and she’s playing good two touch football. I couldn’t be happier for her.
TWG: In terms of the younger players, you’ve had Jacynta Galabadaarchchi who’s had some game time and Melina Ayres up front. How do you think having an experienced mid-section with players such as yourself, Jess Fishlock and Marianna Tabain helps develop these younger players?
AL: I think for the most part, during training they’re really good at taking things on board. They bring spontaneity to the game. They’re young, and being forwards they like to do their own thing and be creative. We need that.
When they’re not quite doing what they should do, or haven’t opened up their body right, or their run hasn’t been bent the right way, whatever it is, we’re there to help them and try to make them better. They’ve been great in taking all that information on board.
TWG: Do you think your role has changed from the start or the middle of the season? Where do you think you fit in for the final? Do you just continue what you’ve been doing or will there be different instructions?
AL: I think my role stayed fairly much the same. Given the formation we play, I’ve been a bit more defensive than I’d probably like to be. But I’m going to do whatever I need to do to get us over the line. I’m happy to be more defensive and protect the back two.
Taking the grand final into consideration, I don’t think it’s going to change how I’m going to play. We just have to be aware that we’re coming up against the likes of Sam Kerr and Rosie Sutton. My first priority is to protect the back and if anything, we’ll just push them to round to the outside of the pitch.
TWG: Looking beyond the W-League a little bit, you’ve played in a range of leagues overseas. How does the W-League experience – and particularly grand finals – compare to those? And what are your hopes for the season ahead, for both yourself and Season 10?
AL: I’m in talks with a couple of teams right now but I won’t be heading off anywhere until least early March. One of my best friend has her wedding and because of football I just haven’t had the chance to go to any weddings! I’ll be going off on a bit of a hen’s weekend to relax, and then her wedding, then looking to head overseas in our off season.
Looking into season 10, it’s a bit tough to think about right now, so I’ll probably have to get back to you on that one! Always hoping for another grand final and another win but I can’t really think about that right now. That’s always the goal, whichever team I play for. I love that the W-League, in comparison to other leagues overseas, has play offs. A lot of them don’t.
The seasons end on a premiership, whoever has the most points. I guess that’s a more fair way of saying who was the best team over the whole period, but I love finals. There’s nothing more exciting, to be honest. I love that the W-League does it and I wish more leagues overseas did it.
TWG: One final question for you: do you think Melbourne City have had a stand out game this season, and what do you have to do to replicate that for the final?
AL: It was when we played Victory for the first time, so our first derby with them. Right from the warm up, you could tell. Ask any player, when you step out onto the pitch for the warm up there’s always a feeling. If the warm up is good and everyone’s buzzing and happy and focused and executing, generally that flows into the game.
I remember that game – we had a good warm up. Everyone was super excited, we were ready.
We went out there and we just played that football we were known for playing last year: one-two touch, switching the play, finding the pockets, finishing. I remember stepping off the field and thinking “we’re back. I’m really happy and I’m really excited. This is us.”
Throughout the season, there’s been bits of that, but we’ve probably not been as consistent in doing that as last year and of course not finishing our chances. So if we can replicate that game – if we can have a good warm up, be really focused and driven to win – I think the grand final is ours!