By Joey Lynch
The bottle-throwing that marred Sunday’s W-League Melbourne Derby was an ugly incident that will spark conversations around the W-League, but it was doubly unfortunate in that it has stolen attention from what was an otherwise fantastic advertisement for its new era.
As women’s football and the W-League continues to grow, there will inevitably be discussions around culture. These won’t just be in conversations around club and playing culture, though, but also in the stands.
Sunday’s ignoble incident, in which bottles were thrown onto the field and abuse hurled at Melbourne City goalkeeper Teagan Micah, has already started another round of these talks.
Moving onto Adelaide! pic.twitter.com/0WboMJxCXz
— Teagan Micah (@TeaganMicah) January 17, 2021
“It’s definitely not what we want to see,” Victory boss Jeff Hopkins said after the game. “Hopefully we’ll deal with that as a club and make sure that doesn’t happen again. It’s not a good look at all.”
“We love to see supporters and it’s great to have them, but to throw things at a goalkeeper is not the right way to deal with the situation,” City boss Rado Vidošić agreed. “[Micah] was a little bit shaken but the referee was excellent. These games are televised in America, China…. and it does not paint a very good picture overseas.”
Already, the perpetrators of the ugly display have been widely condemned but, with headlines such as “Spectators hurl abuse, bottles” and “Derby Disgrace” already rolling out across the mainstream and establishing a dominant narrative; the cultural discussions that are to come are of critical import.
Statement ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/JqjFvzzA8u
— The PFA (@thepfa) January 17, 2021
But it’s not the intention of this piece to add another voice to those already emerging.
Instead, it seeks to recognise the players, staff and fans that didn’t make fools of themselves at Epping Stadium and acknowledge that Sunday’s game was one of the best contests in Melbourne Derby history.
Packing in twists and turns and stuffed with narratives as far as the eye can see, it was a game that deserved a celebration that a rogue element now seems set to rob it of.
Harriet Withers first @WLeague goal is a derby winner! Nothing sweeter!
— Melbourne City FC (@MelbourneCity) January 17, 2021
Even before a ball had been kicked, the prevailing narrative of W-League history had been flipped and high-powered, big-spending City, almost unthinkably in years gone by, were the underdogs against a heavily favoured Victory side.
The latter started brightly and appeared capable of staging a repeat of last week’s 6-0 scoreline, only for fringe Matilda midfielder Alex Chidiac – one of several Australian representatives that have bucked trends and returned to Australia to jump-start their Matildas’ cases – to conjure something out of nothing, stun the crowd and make it 1-0 to City in the 22nd minute.
Three minutes later an unfortunate own-goal from Victory’s Claudia Bunge made it 2-0 to City and, all of a sudden, the unlikely underdogs were all over their dark blue rivals and looking nothing like the side that had copped 6-0 hiding a week earlier.
Yet, whatever Hopkins said in the rooms at halftime worked, as all of a sudden the emotion of the game was inverted and it was Victory, desperate to avoid defeat, playing an aggressive, direct brand of football on their way to two quickfire goals and all the contest’s momentum.
And what goals they were: MelindaJ Barbieri and Catherine Zimmerman’s strikes of sufficient quality to stand out in any highlight reel in any league around the world.
The first was a pinpoint free-kick that floated sumptuously into the back of the net and the second – from an American NPLW standout finally being given a chance to shine in the top-flight thanks to a COVID-19-enforced dearth of international recruits – a turning thunderbolt launched from outside the box that gave Micah no chance.
— Victory W-League (@victorywleague) January 17, 2021
Victory was pushing hard and the air in the stands was thick with anticipation but unlike last week, when they folded and conceded four goals in the final 20 minutes, City didn’t break.
Despite the loss of defender Jenna McCormick to a head knock in the 73rd minute and wounded Matildas’ defender Emma Checker seeing her first minutes of the season as a second-half substitute, City doggedly maintained their composure, and rode some great Micah goalkeeping, to keep their foes at bay.
And just when it appeared as though they were on the verge of being overrun, they forced a turnover and sprang forward in transition in the 86th minute; working the ball to Harriet Withers – an NPLW player given a chance to start at City because of the league’s rapidly changing demographics – to find the winner and her first-ever W-League goal.
The work of Vidošić also shone. Just seven days after his side suffered the worst defeat in the club’s history, the 59-year-old was able to pick them up off the canvas, brush them off and institute amongst them a fresh tactical approach that delivered a win over the same opposition.
Ultimately, the contest at Epping Stadium should have gone down as one of the best advertisements for the league it possibly could have asked for.
It demonstrates that even without the likes of Sam Kerr, Ellie Carpenter or Caitlin Foord, the league is still capable of producing contests that could provide equal amounts tension, brilliance and emotion.
It featured a well-attended terrace that, though overshadowed by an unruly minority, produced a strong and engaging atmosphere.
It set up intriguing storylines for the weeks ahead: what can we expect from Chidiac when she gets up to full speed? Can Victory win without the injured Lisa De Vanna? How good can City be when their Matildas and internationals find fitness and chemistry? How does Victory respond to losing to a team they just beat 6-0? Does City have a shot of playing finals? Are Victory legitimate title contenders?
Most importantly, aside from the bottle-throwing cloud, it was entertaining and it was fun.
And in a way, that somehow makes the distraction provided by the bottle-throwers even more shameful.