From a long awaited chance at A-League football to a well timed return from a knee injury, things are looking up for Stacey Papadopoulos, and for Western United.
Stacey Papadopoulos has experience in big games. The Western United fullback was part of Calder United’s all conquering squad in 2022. That side has made up the core of Western United’s inaugural squad, and spirits are high as they chase a Grand Final spot.
“Everyone is super excited,” Papadopoulos tells Kick360.
“It’s our first year in the league, so we’re super stoked that we were able to finish in the top four.
“Obviously we just missed out on first, but we’re still very proud and very happy with how far we went, and we’ve still got a little bit to go.”
The 26 year old is a familiar name in Victorian football. The Calder United star was among their best players in a squad that won the Nike FC Cup, and the NPLW premiership in 2022. Her weaving runs and dangerous dribbling helped defeat the Bulleen Lions in the Grand Final and secure a third trophy for the season.
However, despite a career spent on the winners list, this has been her first real season in the A-League Women. Like many of her A-League Women teammates, It has been a long time coming, but the quality of her performances are no surprise.
“I didn’t think it was really going to happen to be honest,” says Papadopoulos.
“I was playing NPL for so many years, I went to Europe and played a couple of seasons there and then I came back and it was basically when Calder and Western United were linking up.
“I saw that I could get my foot in the door. There were a couple of years when I was in and out of squads for a long time, and this year presented itself really well for me. I was able to get an opportunity and snag it.
“I feel like it’s happened at the right time in my life and career. I’ve done a lot of growing and maturing as a player and as a person and feel like this is how it was always supposed to be.
“I’m happy with the way everything turned out in the end.”
And why wouldn’t she be? Western United have been one of the competition’s most consistent and impressive sides this season. Seven players of the matchday squad in Round 20 were from the NPLW side, and the additional recruits have all been outstanding contributors.
Western United are not merely Calder United in a new division. They have their own identity and change their style of play at times, but that continuity has been fertile ground for success.
“A lot of us have been playing with each other for years,” says Papadopoulos.
“It’s really special that I’m able to do it with a bunch of my best friends.
“It just feels really natural, and I think that shows on the pitch on gameday. It’s awesome, I get to hang out with my best mates every day.
“The A-League’s a higher level. It’s quicker, faster, stronger. Instead of playing teams within Vic, you’re obviously playing teams all over the country.
“You don’t really know what you’re up against each week. But it’s quite exciting and fun.
“I felt like we all slotted in pretty well. It felt like we had a lot of talented players at Calder that were just waiting for the opportunity like me.”
Papadopoulos’ role has changed slightly this season. The crafty winger that tormented the NPLW has shifted to fullback. It was a move that appeared similar to Alana Cerne’s rebranding as a centre back, after starring in midfield in the state league. It was a move that Papadopoulos was ready to embrace.
“Last year I was playing more as a winger, but my first ever season at Calder in 2016 I transitioned to full back.”
“We kind of worked it out, me and Mark (Torcaso), so I have played fullback before this season and really loved it. In Europe that was my position.
“Fullback if my position. I really love playing there, I like being able to help out on defence and attack and I’m able to do that a lot more fluidly as a wing back.
“It’s just something I’m super comfortable with. I love receiving the ball in deeper positions on the field and I like being able to run at my opponents.”
That ability to carry the ball upfield to unlock defences, while helping Western United maintain theirs, has made Papadopoulos a popular player amongst the leagues newest fan base.
Although the season has been an overall positive experience, there has been challenges. An incredible Round Three win against Adelaide United was marred by a nasty looking concussion to Papadopoulos. In January she suffered a knee injury to her MCL which meant another stint on the sidelines.
“The concussion was a bit wild,” she says of the worrying looking fall.
“That’s never happened to me before.
“The club doctorr even said that they’ve never seen something like that happen in a soccer game.
“I came back pretty well, I was very lucky that I didn’t have any symptoms at all. I was able to come back within 10 days.
“With the MCL, that was biggest blow this season.
“I missed out on eight weeks, so that was a bit of a struggle, mentally to get through that.
“I feel like I was just really lucky with the timing. If it happened any later I don’t think I would be back for finals.
“You’ve got to take silver linings with some of it. I’m just really happy I’m able to stick it out for finals and the last couple of games of the season.”
Despite a potential premiership on the line, Western United were cautious against rushing her back to the field. She has returned just in time to help her club reach a Grand Final and cap off a historic first season.
Although Western United had early aims for a top four position, that was an ambition than other teams shared, and they were the league’s newest side. It remains a remarkable achievement for their first campaign.
Winning habits from a successful NPLW season helped, recruits with trophy winning experienced aided further, and the return of Stacy Papadopoulos from injury could give Western United the edge they need to take the final step.
“I remember there being talk at the start of the year that we wanted ti push for top four. I was like ‘we’re a new team’ and I was a bit worried.
“Once we started playing, honestly I felt it in the pre-season, we looked really strong.
“We had some practise games against Victory and Melbourne City.
“We got two wins out of those and we were undefeated in pre-season.
“I kind of felt that it was going to be a really good year from then.
“The chemistry in the group was really good. It was a bit surreal but as the season went on and we started getting more and more wins I realised “oh we’re actually doing this.”
It’s awesome that we’ve been able to do what we set out to do.
“At the end of the day a lot of us girls are competitors. We’ve been playing with each other for many years and Calder has obviously built a really strong program over the years.
“We all have winning mentalities. We never want to go into a game and think about a draw or a loss. Getting the three points is the only thing that’s on our minds. I think that’s the strongest part of what’s carried over from Calder.
“All of the recruits we’ve brought in, everyone has a winning mentality. I think that’s the most important thing.”
Western United take on Sydney FC on Sunday at Allianz Stadium.