An Active groove for the Tillies

Our beloved Matildas, the darlings of Australian sport, wrapped up the 2023 Cup of Nations with a trio of worldies to give the whole country hope for a good showing at this year’s Women’s World Cup. A far from convincing first-half was interrupted by a Mini Gorry super-strike, and a half-time pep talk brought the best out of the team, a feint from Alex Chidiac that caused Go Karts on the nearby track to swerve led to an emphatic second, and Caitlain Foord rounded off the scoring in style with a long-range effort from a classy move. A terrific night on the terraces in Newcastle was capped off with a Jamaican capo, some spiritual assistance from a monk and plenty of laughs with the players as they offloaded socks and shinpads to eager young fans after the game.

The weather was going to play its part for this one; a massive deluge the previous evening and heavy black clouds spelled trouble, and it was with hope in our hearts that we left the Northern Suburbs just before 4pm with our visiting Perth Glory and Matildas fan Jo in tow and drove into the rain as we entered Newcastle at 5.30pm. The area had copped a battering over the last 24 hours and there was water everywhere. A pit stop at the Sunnyside Tavern was de rigeur, the Matildas Active already a few beers in and in fine fettle. A quick dinner and a schooner to loosen the vocal chords, and we were off back to McDonald Jones Stadium, along the treacherous canalside and through the legendary corridor of uncertainty in between the gym and the mini golf.

Great to see people working together to work out a way to get to the stadium without submerging their shoes in the new lake that had taken over this main pedestrian access point.

We arrived at a busy stadium forecourt, the merchandise stall outside was quite bare, and there were no activations of any kind probably due to the crazy weather, but we entered the stadium and found the indoor merch stall had the coveted pride hats. A pit stop, half expecting to be stopped from entering with drinks to the Hill by the security guards as per New Year’s day here, but the rules were different today and we assembled with the Matildas Active crew and eventually found our place just in front of the drums, dead centre and with the traditional obscured active fan view with the cross bar in our line of sight. It just seems normal these days to watch a game through the net, and it adds a dimension that the watching fan at home could not appreciate.

The clouds were ominously black over the south end of the stadium, and whilst the eastern stand was filling up nicely, the western side was looking sparsely populated – luckily that one would be hidden from the cameras. Unconvincing daylight fireworks greeted the appearance of the players to the field, the welcome to country was well done; the Jamaican national anthem was not the funky number that we’d hoped for but we had a stirring Advance Australia Fair and the crowd were suitably pumped up after that.

The drums started, the chants were underway, the teams lined up ready to go and there was expectation in the air of a confident performance against a perceived weaker football nation. The opening exchanges suggested that wouldn’t be the case though, and the recalled Larissa Crummer and Courtney Nevin did little to enhance their reputations on the right of a stuttering Matildas team, in front of what must have been a concerned Tony Gustavsson. Nevin in particular looked like a player devoid of confidence, at one point almost providing a replay of her start against the USA in that ill-fated friendly game 18 months ago. Jamaica took advantage and made headway down their left, although Mackenzie Arnold wasn’t particularly threatened even when she had to get down to smother a shot low down midway through the half.

The game came to life when Cortnee Vine raced down the left, Kyra Cooney-Cross picked up the pieces and fed the buzzing Mini Gorry, and she was urged to shoot, our view from the other end giving no indication how far out she really was. She caught the shot perfectly, the ball spinning away from the outstretched hand of the keeper and the net rippled, a 25-yard screamer to get us started. What a goal, what a deserving goal scorer, and that marked the 10th goal of the Cup of Nations scored at the opposite end to the Active fans. A chant was being formulated for the second half to encourage goals at our end.

Steph Catley and Clare Polkinghorne then got themselves in trouble, bashing into each other after a handy clearance, and both were on the floor requiring treatment for some time. Jamaica ended the half strongly, and a sloppy giveaway up the field saw Matildas exposed in the centre of midfield, and an incisive through-ball led to a one-on-one with Arnold, who won the duel and deflected the shot away with her foot, a real let-off for Australia. This was below-par compared with the sumptuous feast served up in Sunday’s first half against Spain, but the crowd was content to be in the lead going into the break.

Half time was fun; two Jamaican fans came to sing a bit of Bob Marley in the Active area, the merry Matildas monk was bopping away and everyone sang along. A group of magnificently-mulleted kids assembled at the front behind the goals and started to sing too, an amusing rendition of a previously unheard “Aussie Sausages” chant piercing the air. This was just part of the marvellous randomness that accompanies a Matildas Active area, and the players appeared, the field still full of subs doing their half-time warm-ups. What had Sammy Kerr said to her team this half-time?

It did the trick, whatever was said, and with fan favourites Alex Chidiac and Charlotte Grant on at half time, the game stepped up a notch. It was Chids who notched the second goal, the first Cup of Nations goal scored in front of the Active fans, and it was a thing of beauty. The lead-up saw Grant feed Gorry, and her pass was deflected into the path of Chidiac, but her presence of mind to let the ball run across her body, sending two Jamaican defenders to the ground, was the mark of a genius and she smashed the ball into the net with glee. Cue bedlam behind the goal, “my neck, my back, my Alex Chidiac” ringing around the stadium once the blaring music and garbled PA announcements had finished. Superb stuff.

Midway through the second half it was three, and this was as decisive an attack as we had seen. Caitlin Foord picked up the ball and advanced, playing the short pass into the feet of Kerr. The one-two wasn’t instant but Kerr laid it off after a touch, and Foord let rip from outside the box with a stunning finish, curling away from the keeper and in off the post for a spectacular goal. The extended “Go Matildas Allez” chant took a pause as Caitlin Foord’s song got an airing: “She’s green, she’s gold…”

The Matildas should have had another too, with ten minutes or so left on the clock; Vine looked to race into the box after a sweeping move with Kerr, but the Jamaican captain Allyson Swaby stumbled and fell in slow motion onto the ball, avoiding the handball until the ball rolled agonisingly into her arm. There was confusion as the ball slipped out and Caitlain Foord had a clear shot at goal from close range, but her shot was beaten away and we all shouted for a penalty. It was a clear one, but to be fair the referee would have been on the blind side, and we should have scored anyway. All the fans were turned around to watch the one working big screen, and the players were pointing at it in frustration.

There was a late, great save by Arnold to continue to enhance her reputation, diving full length to push away a shot after a rampaging run through the centre. The game was over by now, and we sang through the last five minutes of the game without really concentrating on what was happening on the field. The final whistle was met with a roar and that was the cue for all the youngsters to race to the fence with their merchandise, pens and mobile phones. The players did a mini lap of honour, albeit maintaining a distance from the fence, and the celebrations started as they congregated to await the trophy presentation.

Tony G stayed away from the pack, pacing around like he didn’t know what to do with himself, until he was collared by the media, the trophy presentation was done, and the players started to drift towards the fans, Sam Kerr racing to find the holder of a sign on half way on the far side of the field and start her victorious lap of the fence.

Newcastle never fails to deliver on the fan interaction front; it might be that it’s usually a weekday game and late so there are fewer people, or more likely because it is so super-friendly up here. The players obviously love it, and every fan usually gets to speak with at least one or two of their stars; it is truly lovely.

I was on the hunt for more ambush marketing for my female football World Cup novel, Anna Black – This Girl Can Play, and the players all obliged. Honestly, why Football Australia don’t embrace this book as one of their own, I have no idea. Cortnee Vine was wondering where she’d seen it before, and as the players were being ushered back to the tunnel, the shinpads and socks were being offloaded to kids – that’s a strange thing to request as a twelve-year-old – Amy Sayer’s socks.

Proper photo bombers, love your work!

We were the last group to leave the Hill and the stadium was almost empty apart from friends, family and dignitaries on the western side, and we made our way out of the stadium back to the car that was parked behind the stand where the buses were getting ready to take the players back to their hotels. The second-most capped Matildas player Cheryl Salisbury obliged with a photo, which was a nice touch – she’s had plenty of love since Clare Polkinghorne took the crown last week. She proclaimed herself not much of a reader, but I’m sure she can find time for one book this year!

Cheryl Salisbury, meet Texi Smith

The journey home was quick; we were home by 11.45pm, ready to face a big Thursday at work. This had been another wonderful event following the Matildas, the appetite was there for more, and we’d been treated to three cracking goals. The World Cup can’t come quickly enough, but there’s still a long way to go before then, and a lot of momentum to build within the Australian public. This is going to be massive!

One thought on “An Active groove for the Tillies

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: