Melbourne Victory's Grace Maher is preparing for her fifth W-League season, and her first away from her debut club. We discussed the move and the upcoming season.
Q: You spent four years at your debut club, and now you've moved to Victory. How are you finding the change?
A: Yeah, probably the biggest part is not necessarily on the field but off the field stuff. [It's] my first time moving out of home for an extended period. Melbourne Victory’s setup is also different compared to Canberra - the fact that they've got a men's team. It's a very big club with a lot of passionate people behind it. It’s been quite smooth, considering it all happened quite quickly, from moving down to starting preseason. It’s just been a great experience for me to see what it's like for other clubs and they've got some really good things happening down here. I'm very excited to be part of it.
Q: What drew you to Victory in particular?
A: I was weighing up all my options in terms of off the field, on the field, and for the future as well. I obviously wanted to come to a club where I would be looked at in the midfield and played in more of an attacking role. I definitely had to make some sacrifices in that sense last year in Canberra, playing in the back line, and with the Young Matildas, so that was a really big factor. I also looked at the coaches, what they were trying to do the squad and how I would fit in, [looking for] giving me a bit more free realm to express myself as a footballer.
And then lastly looking into where I can live over the summer. I've got some great friends already that are in the team from that I've met through the Young Matildas. And then, [looking for] a club that's looking to build and continue to build and be stronger. I didn't want to just go to a club and then disappear next year. I like to stay loyal. So, all of those play a big factor and Melbourne Victory was the only club that ticked off all those boxes.
Q: It seems like Victory are very much keeping that core that they already have, and Jeff Hopkins is on for his third season. Have you found there's a strong pre-existing team dynamic when you came in to join the squad and is that important to you as a player to have a strong core to a team?
A: Yeah, one hundred percent. [When] I came in to my first season at Canberra United, there were only two new members, myself and Julie De Angelis. And you could just see everyone knew each other and there was a really strong team. Everyone was for the team and supported each other and trusted each other. And as the years went on, that worked really well in our favour. Then last season we had that big turnover and I could definitely tell, you struggle in such a short season if you got a high turnover to have that really good team chemistry.
And I came [to Victory] first day preseason and obviously knew a couple of the girls previously but even the ones that I didn't know, within the end of the week [I was] making jokes with them. Not only do the girls play together but a lot of them are from Melbourne so they see each other around the park, verse each other and the team chemistry is incredible. There's a great mix between younger players' and older players' experience. It's really fun. I love being here, not only on the field but off the field hanging out with them all.
Q: It's good to hear that because a couple of seasons ago Victory had that massive turnover and had a lot of younger players.
A: It's good, especially [because] that was always the case with a big club like City coming in with the money at the time. And you could see from afar when I was at Canberra what Jeff was trying to do. He knew he had to be patient building up a squad, that if he wanted to sustain for the future he might have to cop a couple of rough seasons. And you can see we've got players that have previously played for the club coming back. That's a massive thing because it clearly means that they've enjoyed their time. That's a great sign for clubs if you get players of such a high calibre coming back.
Q: Are there any players you are particularly excited to be playing alongside?
A: I'm really looking forward to playing alongside and behind Natasha Dowie. I've come across and played her a fair few times now. She's a regular in the W-League. We're very similar in our footballing philosophy and we like the ball at our feet. I like to play clever balls, she likes to make clever runs. Already, in training, we're trying to work out each other as much as we can. I think that in previous years she's lacked a little bit of service or support and that's a real big area that, if we can get right, is gonna kill teams.
Q: You've mentioned playing in the midfield is quite important to you. In terms of personal development, what are you hoping to get out of this season?
A: I've been playing a lot of different positions as of recent and mainly down to the needs of the coaches and my left foot, often playing in the left side of defence positions. But I've always been with Canberra United, up until last season and in my youth teams a midfielder, an out and out 8 or 10. [I’m] a bit of a free-roaming player in attack and I never know what I'm going to do until the last second the ball comes. [Developing] for me [is] playing in that midfield role again so I can bring a bit more flair back into my game and a bit more excitement.
But more importantly, being back in that midfield role in junior football, my youth career, I don't think I was as defensively disciplined. You could get away with a lot more but at this high level I'm looking forward to the challenge of improving my one-on-one defending, especially in those midfield battles, where you're matched up to a player. There's some great midfielders in the league. I'm really looking forward to being able to match it defensively with some of the best players and I think that will help improve my game.
Q: How have you found being coached by Jeff so far?
A: I love it. Everyone has spoken so highly of him, before I was even at the club. And when he reached out I was super excited because for a coach to stay on for so many years and each year they're improving... The players can only speak highly of him and I've really enjoyed it so far. He's got a really good balance of coaching enough but also understanding that at this level, we've got players that are able to think for themselves and work around obstacles and figure out things and find their own style. He gives you that freedom to be able to play and it's really good.
He's pushing us really hard in preseason but also keeping in mind what the players like to do for conditioning sessions and that sort of stuff. I think that really builds a good relationship. Then off the field he's very relaxed and loves to have a good joke which is always good because it builds that player-coach relationship. There's no fearing how you play, and you know that if you work hard, then you're going to get the results and he's going to be happy.
Q: Has he laid out any long term goals for this season?
A: One of the big things we're pushing for is that Top 4. Since the introduction of Melbourne City, they've finished 9th twice, 7th last year, so slow building. This year we've got some great internationals, all our young players are starting to mature and then bringing in our interstate players... it's just an exciting time for the club. It's been building up to this season. The great thing about it is this is a real big season for us to push for that Top 4 but there's always still in the back of the mind it's not all or nothing. You got to realize that in such a short season that you can't expect it all and then just leave next year. I get a sense of that we're still building but at the same time I think that we've come far enough that we're ready for that Top 4 finish and finals football.
Q: Would you like to see the W-League turned into a full home and away season? Is that something you think should be prioritized?
A: It's hard because it goes so much further. It would be great for a full home and away, because it makes the season a little bit more... perhaps a six-month season rather than four or five months in which players are coming and going between leagues. And I think that will really help those players, [such as] seeing some of the Matildas having to sit out tournaments because they need that break before going between the two seasons.
But always at the back of my mind, and something from a player's perspective that I guess is overlooked from perhaps a fan's perspective, is the fact that if the league does become a full home and away or it does get extended out to more than half of the year then players are going to have to start making the decision of which club they play for. They probably won't be able to do that balancing act. The thing is that if they do extend this league out too early before it's not at a high enough level, you may lose some of your top Australian athletes. You won't get as many American imports coming in.
It's always something to look at and I think it's hard because for someone like myself I do want to try and go overseas. If the W-League does go to a full season, which would be great, it then becomes a decision of which country do you play for the year. I'd love to see it happen, but I think people also have to understand the reasons behind why they may be holding off a little bit. For players, it's also really hard for that switch if you're playing the NWSL, their season finishes the same time as the European league starts. For Australia, the European leagues often start just before the W-League. You can't do both either.
The W-League was originally created over the summer as a filler and it was just to get the league up and running. And now I think we've grown quicker than we were expecting. It will be interesting, but I definitely think hopefully within the next two seasons [a full home and away] happens and the introduction of another team. Then we can start to see a lot more full-time footballers.