Magnificent mini Matildas Active

One night in Townsville and the world’s your oyster! The beautiful North Queensland coast welcomed international women’s football to its fantastic new stadium and showed the locals and those from near and far just what we’re in for during the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Welcoming venues, hot and sunny conditions and a fabulous live site to go with top flight sport, what a day!

This was a special treat organised by Michelle for the ‘festival of 50’ that started the day before on my birthday. We’d talked about heading to Townsville when it was first announced and we just went ahead and booked it one morning on a whim, working out the logistics as we went on. So, with bags packed and an early 4am start, we were parked up in the offsite airport parking at 5pm and walked into a scene of utter chaos at Terminal 2. Staff shortages meant there was a sea of people, all queuing in different directions, but after a while it was clear that we’d be ushered forward to catch our flight as time ticked on and everything went smoothly, getting to the gate just in time.

Arrival in Townsville confirmed the great decision to dress lightly, the beautiful morning sunshine a stark contrast to the shitty Sydney weather that we left behind.

There were plenty of adverts on posters and doors about tonight’s game, and clearly the local population had known all about this game since it was announced last month. A quick stroll around the town ended when we spied a Socceroos shirt on the wall of the Australian Hotel through the open windows. That meant breakfast beers and we met up with fellow fans Greg Werner and The Ladies League who had come in on the same early flight.

After checking in to our accomodation and taking in the views of the city, it was time for a spot of lunch in a trendy alleyway in town, and we then headed back to the Australian Hotel for the pre-match meet up. The pub wasn’t as full as it could have been, but that was due to the live site taking place nearby, and that’s where we headed for the early evening pre-game session. Eskimo Joe rocked the stage and there was a lively football theme with freebies given away, along with some good tunes from the past. Night had fallen and after one more quick refreshment back at the Australian, we were back on the march to the stadium.

The stadium is impressive. It looms on the skyline and the walk along the river takes you right into the main entrance. The colour scheme of the seats is Macarthur FC, and it looks fresh and new. Entry was simple, and we had maybe 20 minutes before the game kicked off. The crowd was swelling, and it looked as though at least the lower sections of the sides and the rest of the Active area were filling up fast.

The Active area was at the end of the stadium where we came in, and it had an enormous screen behind it, so we had to turn around to see any replays during the evening. An area towards the back had been claimed by the good people of the Matildas Active Support; there was confusion amongst the locals who didn’t understand what Active support was and one person in particular made a point of questioning why she couldn’t sit in her reserved seat. Luckily by the start of the game, she had embraced it and was clapping along with the chants of the so-called ‘cheer squad’.

Fireworks and fire blasters welcomed the teams, the welcome to country was performed and the anthems were well received. The Matildas had a strong starting line-up, which was quite a surprise given the opposition. Mini Gorry was given the midfield lynchpin role on her return to Matildas action and the game got underway at a frantic pace only to be held up by an early injury to a NZ player that killed the initial momentum. Still, the game was only a few minutes old when Hayley Raso was set clear at the far end and should have buried the one-on-one with the keeper; Kyah Simon leapt high at the far post for a free header, but was horribly off target, and then followed it up with a shot that was cleared off the line. When Clare Polkinghorne had a header brilliantly saved, it felt as though the Matildas were only moments from an opening goal. Emily Van Egmond seemed completely clear for a free header soon after which was again saved – it was relentless.

So what a shock it was when a long ball was played up the New Zealand left and the winger shaped to cross on the half volley, but pulled off the most incredible goal right in front of us. It looked in as it left her boot and it had a touch of Papiss Cisse against Chelsea, bending into the top corner. I don’t applaud an opponent’s goal very often, but this was something else, whether she meant it or not. The Matildas didn’t seem fazed at all – after all it was one-way traffic and surely the pressure would tell. Sam Kerr somehow missed a tap in at the far post, hands were on heads. A goal down at the break, there was total bemusement in the stadium. Surely football wouldn’t take a massive backwards step in North Queensland. Time for a walk around to take in the rest of this majesic structure.

There was a presentation but I didn’t hear the details, the outdoor corporate boxes had a good selection of pies, the indoor corporate venue was deserted. There was just enough time to walk all the way around the inside of the stadium, a set up very similar to CommBank Stadium at Parramatta and loads of bars and dining options churning out the usual fare. It wasn’t until I got back to the Active Area, after walking past every bar in the stadium, that I realised it was my shout. The game got underway again, and an expectant crowd was on their feet straight away as Raso burst through for another 1-on-1 against the keeper, this time opting not to pass to the unmarked Sam Kerr at the far post and wasting the chance again.

MMTV giving the public what they want

A fun moment in the Active saw a mum come over to capo Michelle and ask if she could do “Aussie Aussie Aussie” with her boys. In a moment of weakness, she agreed and led the young supporters in a chorus of the least favourite of all sporting chants, which got some love in the stands. The security guard who bet her $20 that she’d get no response from that sleepy section of the stadium paid up! A brilliant call and response, almost blood-curdling in its delivery, fired everyone up even more. This was a marvellous effort, and the six-strong Active did their best to get a rather subdued atmosphere going.

Steph Catley’s corner went all the way through to Caitlin Foord at the far post and she smashed the ball against the bar. A great move involving Gorry and Kerr saw the ball laid into the path of Mary Fowler, and her fierce shot whistled just over. Somehow Raso didn’t connect well enough at the far post when the keeper flapped, the ball cleared off the line, and when Alanna Kennedy shot wide from inside the six yard box, there was total disbelief around the stadium. This is the beauty of football – you’ve got to take your chances, and we weren’t doing that.

When Ellie Carpenter ran the ball out of play instead of getting a cross in with a minute left on the clock, our fate was seemingly sealed. We finally saw Cortnee Vine make an appearance with ten seconds left of normal time, and the five additional minutes were welcome. Another foray by Carpenter down the right saw her pull the ball back for Emily Van Egmond to finally steer the ball home deep into injury time, despite the keeper getting a finger to it. Relief all round. There were only moments remaining. The Australian team regrouped with one thing on their mind, and were back on the attack immediately. A last gasp corner would surely be the last chance for a goal. Catley’s delivery was right into the crowded danger zone, the keeper got a touch and the ball bounced invitingly for whoever wanted it. This was right in front of us and we were in a complete frenzy as Sam Kerr reacted first and threw her head at the ball and it rifled into the net for 2-1 sending the crowd wild. What a finish to the game!

The final whistle left the New Zealand players distraught after a fantastic rearguard performance, but the home crowd was more than delighted with the finish to the game, even if the preceding 90 minutes had given everyone a bit of a reality check. We made our way down to the front to chat to the players and Football Australia officials, this part of any match day a happy occasion. The players gave the fans what they wanted, even though the management was being less forgiving – at one point a dad who had made the long journey from Mount Isa with his kids shouted out to get some love from the players who were leaving and they duly obliged, much to the tutting and frowning of their handlers. There was no linked arms celebration from the players despite attempts from the fans, which was a shame – that’s always a bonus when the team wins, but we got plenty of airtime with the superstars of Australian women’s football.

Cortnee Vine was serenaded as she joined the warm down, a rendition of “my neck, my back, my Alex Chidiac” got some laughs from the player herself, Ally Green was singled out for plenty of noise as she warmed down with the New Zealand team, it was a lovely vibe. I have to admit I used the last few moments as a chance to get photos with Australia’s number one bestselling female football novel; after all it’s a story all about a player making it to the Matildas in the World Cup on home soil. Why wouldn’t I? Strangely enough, the book still gets puzzled looks from the management of Football Australia – surely someone’s taken the time to find out more?

The players eventually made their way down the tunnel and it was time to head off into the night. It was still humid as all hell, and we retraced our steps back to the Australian Hotel for a warm down of our own and a fourth drinking session for the day. Laughs a-plenty and the Football Australia crew made an appearance too, but kept the corporate card hidden from view! Heading back to the hotel at maybe 12:30am, this had been the most epic day.

The following morning, an early bus ride to the airport saw us in the lounge with the majority of the other interstate fans from the night before, and we were back in Sydney by 12.30pm, and back in Ryde an hour later, ready to put our bags down and get ready to head up the coast to Gosford for the next round of this football frenzy birthday weekend.

Townsville, you did great. There were tenuous positives to come out of the game, but if this is what we’re gong to serve up in the World Cup next year, we’ll need to steel ourselves for some heart break in our own back yard. The post-game press conference from Tony G suggested that it was deliberate to leave the subs late and get the team to dig themselves out of the hole. I like Tony, he’s an affable guy and a real professional. But he is getting some criticism now and it’s up to him to convince the Australian public that he has the tools necessary to guide us to a successful World Cup. Let’s see what Tuesday brings in Canberra. I’m expecting a big performance and some ruthlessness from our girls. Let’s go!

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