She was in her first W-League season, replacing two senior Australian internationals and up against some of the best attackers in the country.
After years of waiting, she was now facing the likes of Emily Gielnik, Tameka Yallop and Katrina Gorry in her sides first game of the season.
Melbourne Victory’s Kayla Morrison not only seized her chance but thrived. She may have begun the campaign as a rookie but she ended it with a Grand Final win, a Victory Medal, and the vote of her teammates to win Player’s Player of the Year.
Morrison’s rise was no overnight success story, she has been a strong presence in the NPLW Victoria for years, but in 2021 she was given an opportunity at the top level.
“I had been aiming for W-League for 2 seasons before I got in and I kept running into dead ends” says Morrison.
“The stars never really aligned for me, so I decided maybe my best move was to get some experience overseas. Maybe that was something they were looking for and something that would put a star next to my name.”
After a period with Swedish club Morön Bollklubb she began contacting clubs to gauge interest.
In Melbourne Victory she found the perfect home for her talents.
“He (Victory coach Jeff Hopkins) was one of the later ones to contacts me, but once he did it felt like it was going to be a really good fit.
“I wanted to be in Melbourne and I knew the environment Victory had was going to be just as professional but a little bit more family orientated.
“I knew that Jeff was a centre-back when he was playing and I really wanted to play under a coach that could teach me something about being a defender, so that was really huge for me.”
The results were almost instantly successful, a 0-0 draw against a star-studded Brisbane Roar was evidence that the new partnership with Claudia Bunge would work. Victory recorded five wins by a single goal and eight cleans sheets for the season, including the Grand Final against Sydney.
Though it looked easy to fans, Morrison says she was worried to begin with.
“I was nervous when I actually got there because I’ve got to back it up now and show that they didn’t make a mistake in taking a chance with me.
“I was really looking forward to playing with everybody, I had played against Angie Beard, Polly Dorn and Mindy Barbieri, that was exciting to play with them.
“I was nervous to play with Lisa (De Vanna) and even to play with Kyra (Cooney-Cross), I know one’s older and one’s younger but you don’t want to let those people down.
“Its good to be a little bit nervous, it just keeps you that much more focused.”
While the goals flowed at the other end of the pitch, the Melbourne defense was impressive throughout, especially considering that the back four was newly assembled.
“I didn’t know Claudia going into this season, I was hoping we would hit it off. It was just flawless, we got along so well …we were super compatible together, I just miss her now.”
Back On The Old Stomping Ground
Now marshaling the defense for Bulleen Lions in the NPLW Victoria, Morrison says her attitude has slightly changed after W-League success.
“We have 4-5 W-League players on our team, so going into this season, with this new team and this new coach it’s extremely serious. We just won the W-League, why are we allowing ourselves to lose any games?
“Not only playing wise but commitment wise, there’s not reason not to be doing the extras because the schedule is a little bit lighter than it is in W-League
“You want to keep that standard high for this team, one, so you can win this league and two so you can be ready to go back to the W-League again”
The new senior coach of Bulleen is ex-player Caitlin Friend. In her first season as manager, she has Bulleen in fourth position but on a winning streak of five games and the best defensive record after seven rounds.
Bulleen’s recent results speak for themselves and Friend has been able to attract interest from quality players looking to join.
“We have been really lucky to get a lot of w league player interest. I think it helps that I used to play with a lot of these girls…they’ve been playing and training in the summer that is an advantage in itself, because a lot of these girls haven’t been playing in a year or trained hard in a year due to the 2020 COVID restrictions in Victoria
“We’ve had a big chunk of our squad that have been playing and training at an elite level.”
Morrison is joined at Bulleen by her Victory teammates, Lia Privitelli , goalkeeper Gaby Garton and Tyla-Jay Vlajnic of Melbourne City.
If not for the NPLW rules limiting clubs to four W-League players, Bulleen could easily have an even stronger squad.
Friend says her biggest challenge has been transitioning from teammate to coach and navigating the hardships of COVID lockdowns.
“We were getting into some really good form, we’ve been pretty consistent, you work towards something and you have a goal in four weeks times and everything you do it toward that goal and then a shutdown for two weeks really sets you back and kills that momentum.”
Despite these difficulties, she is thriving in her new role, “Coaching is my calling, I really enjoy coaching senior football.”
The common denominator between the strong Bulleen defence and the W-League champions is Morrison but also Garton. The Argentine international was vital to Victory’s success and Friend is delighted to have her at the Lions.
“We needed a goalkeeper and Garton was a player that came into the Victory squad she exceeded everybody’s expectations.
“Keepers are hard to find, I think that most youth keepers that have some natural ability are going to AFL, to get Gaby Garton into the squad who is probably the best in victoria, we’re very lucky.”
Back as captain of Bulleen, Morrison is also thrilled with her current team. Victory may have had Angie Beard and Pollie Doran on the flanks, but Morrison is quick to point out that, “both the backlines are stacked with amazing players.”
Morrison’s playing style remains the same any level, she’s a committed defender with great timing and fearlessness in the tackle but as a senior player in the NPL she says she’s more vocal on the pitch.
“I’m constantly talking, constantly yelling…I wish I could take the way I act and lead at Bulleen into my victory season, hopefully next year that’s something I can work on.”
It is those last words that will be music to Victory fan’s ears, “next year.”
If Victory re-signs Morrison as expected they will have secured a major lynchpin of their success, the officially recognized best player of the season and one of the most impactful W-League discoveries of 2021.
Images Supplied: Melbourne Victory/Bulleen Lions