A year ago, Adelaide United left the field victorious but ended the season disappointed. After their best season to date they had missed the finals by a goal difference of one. In 2022, The Reds have finished the season in third place and about to play a knockout game for the first time in their 14-year history.
“It means so much,” said Chelsie Dawber to Kick360.
“I’m so happy that we made finals. I don’t think it’s quite set in yet, to be honest.
“I’m sure I can speak for the entire team when I say we’re so excited to be playing in finals.
“We don’t want to just make the numbers up, we want to go there with the intention to win and I think if we play with that belief and that determination that we have been playing in the past few weeks then we can go out and win it.”
Like many of her teammates, Dawber has been in incredible form this season. She hit double figures with two games left to play, and formed a prolific and at times frightening partnership with English striker Fiona Worts.
Dawber is an Adelaide local. She has been with the Reds since 2017 and is part of a core group of players that has slowly improved each season. She has always been a player with exciting potential but in the 2021/22 season she has evolved into one of the most dangerous forwards in the A-league Women’s.
Her record of 10 goals and three assists have helped make Adelaide the second most deadly side in the league. Her growling highlights reel makes her one of the most watchable players.
“I think I’ve always known I could reach my current level,” she said.
“I just needed to be injury free and have consistent minutes, which I think I got last season.
“Then this year I’ve just continued to build on my performance each week and the goals and assists have been coming as a result.
“I think just time, not being injured and having fun with my friends had probably been the biggest factor for me.”
Adelaide United’s rise has been a project many years in the making. It is still a young team and a core group of players have grown up playing together.
“I think I’ve played with Matilda (Mcnamara) , Izzy (Hodgson) Nano (Sasaki), and Dylan (Holmes) for the past 4-5 years at (NPLW side) Adelaide City,” reflects Dawber.
“I think it makes that Adelaide United environment a much more comfortable and familiar environment.
“To be able to bring in those other girls who I’ve either played with when I was young or played against it makes us a lot more tight knit.
“It’s definitely a benefit for us playing in little old Adelaide.”
“It’s been a work in progress for a long time”
Adelaide United are one of the most attacking sides in Australian football. Their 33 goals is second only to Sydney FC and their 8-2 thrashing of Brisbane Roar included a record equalling five goals to Fiona Worts.
That style of relentless attacking football is made possible by the back four and goalkeeper.
Like Dawber, Matilda McNamara has been outstanding in her position. The centre back is part of a unit that has conceded just 17 times for the season.
“It’s been a work in progress for a long time,” says the star defender.
“Ever since I’ve been part of this squad, we’ve really been pushing to make finals and trying to change the program here so it becomes a bit more of a normality for the club.
“We’re glad we’ve finally done it. Hopefully that becomes a bit more of the norm here and not just a one off this year.”
McNamara made her debut in 2015, but took a break to concentrate on school and university. She re-joined in 2019 and has grown into one of the best central defenders in the A-League women.
She was impressive in their last campaign but has grown into a more complete player this season. After the heartbreak of last season, she says the team was eager to secure their ticket to the top four against Melbourne Victory in the penultimate round.
The players put supporters’ nerves to rest with a 3-0 win over Melbourne Victory. McNamara says the match was good preparation for what lays ahead.
“I think because it was the inaugural Pride Round last week, it already felt like quite a big week.
“There was a lot of media and a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes as a club. So, it did feel not just like an average game.
“It was good in that sense…everyone was really excited to get out there.
“We put in a pretty good performance so in the end we were very happy with it.
“We all were very aware that if we won we were going to make finals.
“We were all very determined in our ability that we were going to be able to do that. It wasn’t stressing us out too much.”
Adelaide started the season slowly as they gradually welcomed new and returning players into the squad. A 5-1 loss to Melbourne Victory in round one sounded alarm bells but confidence remained high internally.
“I don’t think we put too much pressure on the fact that we lost the first two” reflects Dawber.
‘It just took a few weeks to settle as a team and that showed later in the season when we were playing at our best.
“I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential.”
“It wasn’t the ideal start but reflecting on it we knew we got the play Victory again and there’s no point dwelling on it for too long.
“That wasn’t going to help us in getting to where we wanted to be
“I think we just needed a couple more weeks to gel together.”
A key factor in the side’s turnaround was the return of Dylan Holmes to the midfield. The former captain added drive and creativity and allowed playmaker Emily Condon to run rampant.
The other factor was McNamara’s partner at Centre Back, Kayla Sharples.
“Once we were able to play a few games together we were able to gel together as pairing,” Mcnamara says of the American.
“I enjoy playing next to her.
“She’s also a really great person off the pitch and I think it helps us go from strength to strength and I really think we’re starting to hit our form at the best time of the season.”
Up the other end of the field, the partnership of Dawber and Worts have gathered the highlights and headlines. They both were part of the squad last season, but rarely played together due to injuries.
They form a mobile, unpredictable attack. Either can be found dropping deep or drifting wide. Defences are pulled apart by quick movement and aggressive passing or dribbling.
“I think ‘Stents’ (Adrian Stenta) has always given the front three and even the 10’s free reign to do what we want if we’re scoring goals,” says Dawber.
“I think Fi and I have just taken that in our stride.
“It’s not something we practise but we know where the other is to up scraps if one shoots or crosses the ball in.
“We definitely work well together. Last year we didn’t play many games together, because I was injured, or she was injured so I think this season is the flow on effect from what we didn’t get to see last year.”
“Each player knows their role”
“When they’re on fire up the front it’s beautiful to watch,” says goalkeeper Annalee Grove.
“Each player knows their role. Even though we are quite and attacking team we are organized defensively at times.
“The backline that we’ve got this season has really helped. We’ve got the two Hodgson’s and Matilda who have been playing together for quite a while.”
Grove is the youngest of The Reds’ rising stars. At just 20 years old has stepped into the role of first choice keeper. After a difficult first game, she has steadily improved week on week.
Given Adelaide’s direct attacking tactics, a strong, confident goalkeeper is essential and Grove has produced some eye catching displays.
“I knew the spot was up for contention,” she says of her elevation to the top spot.
“Miranda’s a very good keeper and we push each other.
“I guess having that little bit of experience at W-League level helped me to pick up that number one spot this year.
“I started off a little bit shaky at the start of the season, but I really found my feet and gained confidence in the past few games.”
Goalkeeper is an unforgiving position, like any role on the field the players need to learn on the job, unlike others there is no room for error.
“You learn as you play,” says Grove
“There’s a lot that you can only really pick up through playing games.
“Being a goalkeeper has a lot of responsibility.
“Being able to confidently talk to your players and direct them where to be, I’ve learned a lot about that in the last few games this season.
“Getting a few games under my belt and it being a consistent thing has really helped.
“Hopefully with a few more seasons to come I can go to the next level.”
Despite the challenges of being a goalkeeper, it is a role that Grove loves. She has to regularly face off against the much feared attack in training and admits that she occasionally tries to make it hard for them, but “there’s definitely times they’re just way too good.”
The camaraderie is something that binds the defence together. Grove enjoys making the seemingly impossible saves, but also loves the support that comes in their third of the pitch.
“They can go into that tackle knowing I have their back,” she says of the quartet.
It’s an aspect of the game that Matilda McNamara also enjoys. Although she has chipped in with a few goals an assists herself, stopping the opposition is what she loves about the game.
“Going forward and scoring as much fun as it is, it’s not how I see my role in the team.
“I’ve always really enjoyed defending and it’s probably where I can help the team the most.
“I really enjoy being a centre back for what it is. Somebody who’s job it is to stop goals and give it to someone else to do all the brilliant things.”
“We expect the best from each other, always”
Adelaide United may have achieved an historic season, and developed some new stars to the game. But for the players, making finals is just the start of their ambitions.
As one of the form teams of the competition, they can no longer be considered underdogs. Dawber is ready to embrace what lays ahead.
“I think, we’ve always said that the pressure we put on ourselves as s team is going to be fasr greater than the pressure from outside.
“We expect the very best from each other always.
“We know what we can do and what we’re capable of and we’ll put the pressure on ourselves to achieve success.”
Grove’s perspective from the last line has given her confidence in the side for the next month of football.
“I think we really play well together at the moment and we read each other and know how each other plays. We’ve built confidence from that and it shows in the results that we’ve been getting.
“The communications between lines has been really good.
“We’ve been killing it upfront but when we need to be, we’re disciplined in defence.
“I think, a lot of our players have grown into building more confidence on the pitch. We are quite a young side, but we’ve got a lot of experience.”
This finals series is simultaneously the start of a new phase for this Adelaide United squad. It also signals a generation of players starting to arrive at their potential.
Players like Condon, Holmes, Isabel Hodgson, Dawber and McNamara have been working towards this moment for years.
Achieving it with their hometown team makes it all the more rewarding.
“It feels great,” says McNamara
“We’ve had so much talent come through, but it hasn’t really translated with the A-League Women’s, I’m really glad that it finally has.
“Winning anything or making finals with your hometown team feels ten times better.
“It really feels like we’ve built something, and the staff have built something over the years to make us achieve our success.”