Matildas patience pays dividends

With the FIFA Women’s World Cup only five months away, Australia hosted its first international fixtures for the national team in 2023, the first a match-up against a relatively unknown quantity in the country formerly known as the Czech Republic. With Spain having dispatched Jamaica in the opening game of the Cup of Nations, it was Australia’s turn in the evening game, and they passed the test, overcoming a shaky first half to put the visitors to the sword in the second period. The scoreline perhaps flattered the hosts at Central Coast Stadium, but the sight of four goals flying in against a European nation, two of them to Hayley Raso, was a sight for sore eyes.

Unsure of what the work day was looking like, we eventually left our base in the Northern Suburbs of Sydney at 4.30pm and were fortunate with the traffic on the way up, the evening rush hour in full swing but the NorthConnex tunnel doing its job to slice a big chunk off the travel time. We were parked up next to the marvellous Hotel Gosford not long after 5.30pm and the Matildas Active crew were in da house getting excited for the first of the three-game Cuppa Nations. Beers flowed, the food was great, and we were the last of the fans to leave, making sure that we had enough time to make the short walk and get through security to the Active end. The angular Cup of Nations trophy was proudly on show outside the main entrance to the Industree Stadium as we walked in, there were other activations, but time wasn’t on our side.

The Active crew were in the usual spot down at the front behind the goal, in Mariners territory, and when we arrived the chants started and the beat of the drum got the crowd woken up and ready to cheer on the mighty Matildas.

The players were soon out onto the field to line up for the national anthems, the Czech anthem a slow and uninspiring background-music piece that was well respected, the Aussie anthem sung with gusto as always, and the players dispersed to get their team photo. With goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold restored to the team, warming up in the goal in front of us, the Czech team must have won the toss and the teams switched ends, Arnold and her coach not realising until the Czech players muscled in on her goal and she was forced out.

The Matildas team was a beautiful mix of sprightly youth and tenacious experience, and if this was close to the starting line-up for the first game of the World Cup, there would be no complaints. Cortnee Vine and Katrina Gorry gave the team an A-League women’s flavour, but this was a team full of international superstars, and we were so lucky to be able to see them up close in such a picturesque setting by the water in Gosford. No sauce bottles in sight, but there was a wonderful sunset with the palm trees as silhouettes.

The Matildas were on the front foot early in the game, Sam Kerr bundled off the ball as she looked to control a through ball, a half-hearted appeal for a penalty waved away by the referee. The Czech players were tall and physical, and they were difficult to shake off the ball; from one such moment of strength, the ball was only partially cleared and the shot from distance was deflected, Arnold diving full length to push the ball around the post for a corner. It was the Matildas though who were winning the majority of the corners, the delivery leaving a lot to be desired, the ball too short on a number of occasions and dealt with easily by the tall Czech defence.

Czechia had a glorious chance when a route one ball was headed on, catching Steph Catley on her heels, and the striker had a one-on-one with Arnold but her attempt to lift the ball over the Aussie keeper was poor and the save was straightforward. That was a wake-up call, and the Matildas could easily have been a goal behind.

Up the other end, Australia broke smartly and had players over, but the ball from Raso to Vine was way too close to the goalkeeper, a glorious opportunity passed up. Catley then delivered a swinging cross from the left that Raso headed meekly towards goal, the ball hitting her head rather than her meeting it, and it whistled past the post, drawing a big roar from the crowd, some of who thought it was in.

Goalless at the break, the second half was moments old when good work by Gorry set Kerr away and she played in Raso to run on goal. She hesitated and let the Czech defender close in, but her shot deflected kindly off the outstretched boot of the defender and wrong-footed the goalkeeper for the opening goal. In typical fashion, after a whole half, the first goal would come at the far end, where the players only had the palm trees to celebrate with.

Ten minutes later it was two, from a corner. Catley’s deep cross was headed back across by fresh substitute Clare Hunt, who had done extremely well to reach the header in the first place, and there was Raso in front of goal to flick the ball across the keeper and into the net for two. This was more like it!

The persistence of newly arrived sub and crowd favourite Alex Chidiac, starting a flowing move before arriving at the edge of the box to shoot on goal, saw her fire in a great shot that may have hit a hand; the ball fell perfectly for Kerr though and she slammed home a third goal to give the Matildas breathing space. That spared the referee from having to make any decision at all.

The scoring was wrapped up with ten minutes left to play when Chidiac’s corner was helped on by Raso and there was Clare Polkinghorne, playing in her record breaking 152nd game for the Matildas, to guide the ball into the net, the central defensive lynch-pin mobbed by her teammates.

The Active end had been in the mood all game, and the chants continued, Polks getting her own special 1-5-2 chant for her number of appearances, Max the Mariner leading the chants away and commandeering a drum to help rouse the sleepy Central Coast locals, who were determined to sing cricket anthems or Mariners tunes. The sight of the Mariners faithful doing a Viking clap at the end of the game was priceless though, and with a bit more willingness to join the actual Active fans, this could have been a marvellous Active bay. In the end though, numbers were low and the urge of the rest of the bay around the small pocket at the front was to sit down and silently watch the game unfold on the field. I can’t help thinking that we need some kind of practice, similar to the Qatar active fans at the recent men’s World Cup, who were magnificent and had clearly been preparing for the event for months to get a great atmosphere going, but full credit to those on drums and megaphone tonight for bringing a positive vibe to the Active bay.

A few minutes of injury time, of which there had been some to tend to a few Czech players throughout the game, and the match was over. The players huddled in the centre of the park, perhaps another Tony G psychology session, as the Active fans packed up the flags; the players then moved over to the area next to the subs bench to begin the post-match positive PR. The warning from the PA was that there would be a strict 15 minutes only for player interaction, and that caused a frenzy in the youngsters in the crowd who simply had to get a signature or a selfie.

Tony G walked around the edge of the field solo to applaud the fans; he is clearly loving life at the moment and received warm applause. The players started to spread out more, and we had Tameka Yallop, Lydia Williams and eventually Alex Chidiac at our end signing shirts and making memories. It was relaxed and the way it should be – no doubt Sydney will be nothing like this, it rarely is. The mood was happy as the players made their way into the tunnel, stadium security politely shooing people away to the exits, out into the darkness of Gosford.

Many thanks to Lyds for being the next player to get her hands on Anna Black – This Girl Can Play. Hopefully I can get the full set of Matildas players before too long!

And how’s this for a photo of the active, our favourite Matildas star Alex Chidiac player turning photographer to capture one of her final moments in Australia before heading off on another US adventure. My neck, my back, my Alex Chidiac was the loudest chant of the night.

Tonight’s game was a good opportunity for Tony Gustavsson to assess his team selection ahead of the big test on Sunday against Spain. He would have been concerned at the loose passing in the first half and the ease with which Czechia outmuscled the Matildas players at times. The route-one flick-on that should have led to a goal for the visitors would have been scored by any striker from the big teams, and the delivery from corners was unusually short in the first half. But there was some delightful football mixed in with it, proper flowing intelligent football. Charlie Grant continues to impress, and there is vision from the back that we can use to our advantage against the more established teams. The Matildas aren’t afraid of a tackle too; if anything warms up a crowd, it’s a solid challenge that wins the ball, and we had a lot of that from Mini and Chids.

The journey back to Sydney was swift, only an hour on the road after tracing our steps back to the pub, and we now await the big game against highly-rated Spain on Sunday. It will be a rush for us, with club football happening in the afternoon, but we’ll be there to cheer on our girls. See you all there. Bring your voices and let’s get the Active bay rocking.

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