Matildas’ Newcastle love-in

A swift opportunity to restore some pride after the dismantling on Saturday, the Matildas rode their luck and cashed in some more to sneak a draw in front of an adoring crowd in Newcastle. This was as wholesome a footballing experience as you can get, and everyone in attendance enjoyed the evening’s entertainment.

To get to Newcastle, we would need some logistics and good timing. Michelle, Siobhan and Carla were at the Smith household at 2.30pm and we had a 3pm pick up for Aurelia at school in Pennant Hills on the way north. An early Christmas present of a very hard-to-get Australia playing shirt was a good way to start the journey, Siobhan’s bag of delights gave us a culinary journey up the motorway, and we looked over to the other side to see the M1 closed and the police redirecting all vehicles onto the Old Pacific Highway. The Triple J inspired playlist had us in Newcastle in no time, and the signs led us to the McDonald Jones Stadium and ultimately the Sunnyside Tavern.

Dinner at the newly refurbished pub was great, there was a function for former Matildas and Matildas fans and we bumped into luminaries such as Leigh Wardell, Rose Van Bruinessen and Janine Riddington, as well as the fountain of Matildas history, Greg Werner, and the future of coaching Lucas. A documentary was in the process of being filmed and Greg and his family were interviewed as we dined.

The weather had turned while we were in the pub, but cleared up for our mini-march to the stadium. The approach to the stadium and the car park were soaking. A slick surface in perfect temperatures would surely make for a fine football match as we negotiated an obstacle course between the mini-golf and the gym.

The concourse in front of the stadium was busy; Newcastle does these things very well to engage the fans. CommBank were there although I’m not sure what they were doing, the Matildas merch stand was doing a roaring trade (despite having no shirts!) and the Newcastle Jets men’s team was there to sign autographs while the supporters wondered where the women’s team was.

With plenty of time before kick off, and some of us busting for the facilities after the walk from the pub, the massive queue to get in was a little disconcerting. It didn’t look so bad in the first photo, but the second one tells the story. The excuse of vax checks and checking in didn’t really cut it – there was simply not enough gates to cope with everyone arriving well in advance. The line moved pretty quickly to be fair and we were in our seats almost on halfway, with a moat underneath that meant bags were destined to get soaked. Michelle avoided a ticket fiasco and joined the Active support at the far end by the bigger of the two scoreboards.

The stadium was filling up fast, the players were cheered as their names were read out to a blast of fire, the referees were gong through their warm ups and the lucky girl in Raso ribbons who brought the ball to the pedestal on our side of the field summed up the happiness that was in plentiful supply. We watched as one of the Matildas staff got shirty with a USA player for encroaching on the Aussie half of the field during a keeper warm up, while the ball girl on the near side was ushered away from her position before the fireworks cracked into life, and rightly so.

What followed was a short sharp firework display that made everyone jump and filled the stand with smoke. It was like a derby game in Greece or Turkey as the field completely disappeared from view and the fans were enveloped in a thick fog. The Socceroos fans would have been watching on through narrowed eyes, Football Australia pulling out the stops for this display while the equivalent at the last men’s game in Parramatta was self-funded. The battle for equality has maybe swung the other way as we approach 2023!

A Wiggles-free national anthem was stirring, but didn’t stir the Matildas into action. Within five minutes some sloppy defending allowed a simple finish from six yards and we were back in the same situation as Saturday’s game. You can read all about the game, and watch the highlights at your leisure, which you would have done already. The defence had a torrid time, trying their best to play out from the back but simply giving the ball back to the US, and a header from close range should have made it two soon after. Kyra Cooney-Cross then wowed the crowd with a cheeky effort from the edge of the box that bounced and was touched onto the post by the excellent USA keeper.

The second half was more of the same, the visitors somehow missing a simple finish from the right, although the angle was tight, and Lydia Williams had to be alert to foil another. Just as Sam Kerr’s efforts were looking to be unrewarded, a series of tackles warmed up the crowd, Steph Catley with a last ditch tackle, the excellent Clare Wheeler with some tenacious work, and the ball broke up field where Kerr laid the ball to Kyah Simon to shoot. The deflection was severe, the keeper wrong-footed and the Matildas had their goal. The stadium erupted and Simon had her redemption. There was time for the US to snatch a winner, but a clear offside halted the celebrations. The game was over, and the real celebrations could commence.

After a while, the Matildas did a lap of honour, followed by the USWNT, who were warmly applauded. The few US fans were richly rewarded with shirts and gifts. A handful of players came to meet the young crowd who had camped out at the front of the stands all the way around the stadium before retreating to the area containing their friends and family. In a superb twist though, the patient fans didn’t go home disappointed as the majority of the players started to make their way around the stadium. Sam Kerr was mobbed, as was Mary Fowler, and all the players got a lot of love from their adoring fans.

We made it to the Active area where Michelle had been pressing the flesh with the players and the fabulous Ladies League. It had gone 11pm and we were still in the stadium, still two hours from home on a school night. The gates were closing and the post-match report had been done by the TLL, time for one last photo in this marvellous stadium before the lights went out.

The journey back was easy with no traffic, and we arrived back at 1am for a handful of hours sleep before school and work. What a cracker of a day though! An appropriately sized stadium, approachable Matildas, friendly hospitality from everyone in Newcastle and an absorbing game of football. Bring on the Asian Cup.

I can now sleep safely in the knowledge that I have my fourth book, Anna Black – This Girl Can Play, in the hands of a real-life Matildas player. Emily Gielnik accepted the gift on her 50th cap, and we also pictured our Sam with the book. Two photos that you will see on social media on almost a daily basis in the lead up to Christmas!

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