Sarah Hunter knows how to deliver in big games. When Kick360 last spoke to the Sydney FC midfielder, she was a new signing, had just finished school and was a rising star of the A-League Women. Two seasons on, she has won two premierships and represented Australia on the international stage at two tournaments.
The 19-year-old was an important contributor in her first season in sky blue. She scored a towering extra time header in the Semi-Final against Melbourne City, and helped fill the boots of Clare Wheeler throughout 2021/22.
This season, she has become an extremely consistent, and impactful player across the whole season. Hunter has been a fixture in many pundits team of the season. Her versatility, vision and skill have made her a crucial part of Ante Juric’s dominant squad.
Achieving that level of consistency is part of the natural progression of young footballers, but it has been a focus of Hunters over the last two seasons.
“That’s definitely something I’ve built on from last year,” she said to Kick360.
“That mental aspect of being able to have consistency in performances.
“It’s something that Ante has touched on during this season… just being able to work hard and still put in a performance that’s going to help the team.
“This year I’ve taken a step back and tried to not put as much pressure on myself and gone into each game trying to have fun.
“I think maybe last year I was a bit more anxious the whole week and trying to hype myself up the whole week to be able to play the game.
“This year, being relaxed, knowing my role and being able to execute that and help the team.”
Hunter’s role has shifted throughout the season, depending on the rest of Sydney FC’s midfield. She has been deployed as an attacking or creative midfielder when Shay Hollman is screening the defence. the combination with Mackenzie Hawkesby has been deadly, and the pair combined for 10 goals and three assists over the season.
In recent games, Hunter has moved into a deeper position. Her playmaking skills are still on full display. An instant, perfect through ball for Cortnee Vine in the premiership sealer against Newcastle was the most recent reminder of what she can do, but she has added defensive steel to her creative game.
“I love both,” she says of the two positions.
“I came into the team as a higher midfield role, and I love that. I love getting forward and being able to impact the scoresheet or assist.
“Those two positions are very hard working, you do a lot of meters and it’s about dominating that midfield which is what a lot of our success is built on.
“I really enjoy it. I think it’s a position that you need to play and learn about.
“It’s a lot of thinking. More than the physical it’s a very mental position.
“You need to get that experience in it. I’ve watched a lot of games and focussed on players in that position to learn what they do.
“I also love the defensive side of it and learning how to defend in the box as well.
“Doing some tackles that save goals as well, It is a great feeling which I hadn’t really experienced a lot in younger years.”
Those defensive skills were evident in the penultimate game against Perth Glory. It was a must win match for both sides, and momentum shifted throughout the match. With Glory striker Hannah Blake about the pull the trigger at point blank range to take the lead, Hunter intervened with a perfect tackle. Sydney would go on to win 4-2.
She says the off-field bond and family culture at the club help in those moments.
“When you’ve got Jada (Whyman) or Charlotte (Mclean) or Nat (Tobin) behind you, you’re going to run back because they’re such great people off the pitch.”
Hunter’s feats at Sydney FC have been impressive, but it was almost a year ago in Costa Rica where she stepped onto the world stage.
Infront of 30,000 screaming local fans, The Young Matildas played the host nation, and with Australia a goal behind, it was down to Hunter to level the scores from the penalty spot. The goal set Australia on the path for a 3-1 win, but beyond the games themselves, the tournament was an unforgettable and important experience.
“It feels like it was just a few weeks ago but it’s been almost a year now, so its gone pretty quick.
“I’ve got so many great memories of that night but also that whole tournament.
“I think the whole group learned so much, how to be professional, how to prepare for tournaments against really top sides. I have great memories with friends but also with football.
“I have my jersey hanging up in my bedroom, that I look at and think back to that night.
“I think it helps being in those pressure situations and learning how to deal with crowd or nerves. It definitely makes you better for it.”
Hunter was also part of the Australian Under 23 side that competed in the AFF Championships, after a tough start, Australia dominated the final three games, scoring 14 times and conceding once against senior opposition. It was another instructive experience for the group.
“Being in a national team setup and being able to learn from Charli Grant and all those players, and learn how the Senior Matildas go about it and prepare themselves for games, that was really good to learn.
“Obviously Mel Andreatta was the coach as well, so getting to see how the senior Matildas operate was a really big learning for me and the younger girls.”
The immediate future is just as exciting as the past. Sydney FC enter this season’s finals series as firm favorites and the form side of the competition. Hunter is taking nothing for granted however and knows that they will have to fight for the Championship. They will first have to overcome Western United, and the tests only get tougher. She waves away any suggestion that the stars are aligning for Sydney FC.
“Obviously in the finals, anything can happen.
“We’ve had a bit of an up and down season this year. Last year we came hot out of the blocks and had a few slip ups toward the end of the season (in the semi we were down 2-0).
“This year we didn’t start that great which is a bit different, but we’ve been building steadily throughout the season.
“We’ve just come off three big wins to win the premiership as well, so I think we’ll gain a lot of confidence from that.
“I know the hurt of losing a Grand Final, and most of the girls know that double or triple, so we all know what we must do and it’s not going to be handed to us.
“Having a few losses throughout the season, we know that we’re not going to win it if we don’t show up.”
Sydney FC start their finals campaign against Western United on Sunday afternoon.