Matildas close shave in Canberra

A second football trip in five days, and another new check-in app for the phone as we headed interstate to the nation’s capital to support Australia’s favourite sporting team in another clash with close neighbours and friendly rivals New Zealand. The Matildas got the job done early in this one, and went on cruise control, even affording their visitors a goal to make the score line much less emphatic.

As always, regardless of the time of day, getting on the road midweek is a rush. We were in the car by 1pm and after filling up with liquid gold, we were on the way south, following the route we would normally take for Kogarah Oval. Sydney FC were playing tonight, but instead we took the M5 away fom that den of misery, and a road that would take us directly to the A.C.T.. Lake George was looking splendid with water in it for the first time I’d seen for a while, and we rolled into the hotel car park just after 4pm.

A short walk to King O’Malleys Irish Pub saw us pass a number of green and gold clad fans heading in the other direction to catch a shuttle bus to the stadium. Time then for only a single big drink and we headed off to catch the bus, which we’d known nothing about previously. The journey to GIO stadium seemed to take forever – the stadium really is out of town, and this was exacerbated by a long snaking line of traffic when we finally got within sight of the floodlights. It was obvious that a lot of people were going to miss the start of the game – we were already anxiously looking a our watches as we sat in the gridlock for an uncomfortably long while.

We were quickly off the bus and through the gate as soon as we arrived, and then up to the Matildas Active end at the far end of the stadium.

The stadium was showing a lot of empty seats that would eventually fill as people arrived; we ventured to one of the many food outlets to secure some dinner and a drink and joined the throng in the Active area to lend our voices. Thankfully there were more people willing to shout and sing than there were last week, and this was further aided when the Canberra youth crew joined to sing their way through the game.

The Active were in full voice, the megaphone was out, the drum booming around the stadium and it was a great atmosphere to start the evening with, and more would join when the singing got louder and louder. The scene was set, and the players emerged to a huge roar. We got an absolutely beautiful rendition of the NZ anthem, followed by Advance Australia Fair that was sung loudly by everyone else. Despite all the conjecture following Friday night’s escape act, the team was almost the same, with Kyah Simon the only change, Caitlin Foord coming in.

The action hots up as the Matildas press

There are plenty of places you can watch the action online, but in summary, Australia were excellent in the first half. Hayley Raso missed a good chance early on, shooting straight at the keeper, but the first goal wasn’t far away, a corner from Steph Catley met perfectly by Sam Kerr to head home emphatically up the far end of the field. NZ had a blow early on when Sydney FC’s Paige Satchell had to go off, and from then on Australia were motoring. I remember Chris Waddle scoring a cracker years ago in similar fashion to the second goal, some invention and a ricochet allowing Raso to pick her spot with an accurate finish inside the post from outside the box. When Kerr raced away onto Emily Van Egmond’s pass, there was no doubt about the finish and the Matildas had a three goal advantage.

Just as the first half was looking like a walk in the park, New Zealand scored. There had already been some good moments for the Kiwis, but a glorious pass sent strong forward Hannah Wilkinson trough and she finished eventually to make it 3-1. That was the last action of the first half. Time for a wander to see what the stadium has to offer.

Queues for beer and food were fairly manageable, but people mainly wanted coffee and fairy floss of all things, the lines for both as fierce as the lines to get to the stadium earlier in the night. This is a great venue, lots of facilities and well run. I was back in place for the start of the second half, and what was to come was truly a memorable half of football both on and off the park.

Foord hit the bar two minutes after the restart, right in front of us, and that sent the Active area wild again. Some of the young Matildas, including Sydney FC’s Sarah Hunter and Charlie Rule, came to join the singing. They both had a go on the megaphone, and were loving it as much as the Active fans. Australia had tons of opportunities to increase their lead, Kerr somehow heading wide when presented a free header. Alex Chidiac came on to great acclaim, and her first touch was a cheeky back heel to set Ellie Carpenter away. The crowd were loving it, and the singing continued. A well executed Mexican wave had the whole stadium excited and Alanna Kennedy’s smashed face raised a laugh when she saw it on the big screen after a big hit. All the while, a second goal from the away team would have brought the nerves, and they did create good positions but to no avail. The game was over, Australia had the win, Tony G was happy, as were the majority of the crowd after a thoroughly entertaining contest.

As always, the Matildas didn’t feel it necessary to celebrate the win by acknowledging the Active support or linking arms in line, and after a long delay, Aivi Luik was placed on a seat and Rebekah Stott cut off her lovely long locks as part of a fundraiser. Losing the pigtails made her look like Keira Knightley from Bend It Like Beckham, but the clippers came out to give her a proper short cut. “Aivi shave it off, shave it off, Aivi shave it off,” sung the fans and then “Buzz Cut Aivi eh oh oh oh” – it was a fun moment for everyone. The ground crew started the process of removing the lines and all trace of the round ball game before our eyes.

The players then started to roam around the stadium and they took the time to get around everyone until their management started to shoo them back towards the changing rooms for their ice baths. Football royalty Julie Dolan joined in and was happy to pose for a few photos. We moved to the tunnel area to see the last of the stragglers, with the management team getting a bit tetchy as they tried to reel in the last of the players.

The security team were also getting edgy as we made our way out of the stadium, keen to get us to the other side of the gate. They finally did, but a small group of youngsters was continuing the fun by calling for their heroes to get off the bus and come and say hello. Happily there were a few that did, again the management being the baddies and almost having to drag the players back to the bus. The crowds had gone by now, as well as any chance of a shuttle back, so we caught a ride share back to the centre of town and to the casino for a nightcap. A decent crowd of Active support and writers from the Female Football Writers festival from earlier in the day were there and we headed back to the hotel some time after 1am.

The next morning was a slow one and we were back on the road by 10am, stopping at the Big Merino before driving back into the rain and a gloomy Sydney Wednesday afternoon.

This had been a lot of fun. Football tourism done well, and the Matildas helped make this a fantastic event. Of course, the doubts about our chances in next year’s World Cup remain, but some of the football in the first half was very easy on the eye. In Tony we trust! Onwards toward 2023 and beyond.

I’ll finish off with a few photos of Matildas players and fans getting their hands on Anna Black – This Girl Can Play. Thanks to everyone who showed an interest. It’s high time you got your copy of Australia’s number one best selling female football fiction.

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