Grace Maher has signed on with Canberra United for the 2021-22 W-League season. (Photo: Professional Footballers Australia)

She's gone from a rising star teenager to a club leader, and now Grace Maher is aiming to guide Canberra to another finals series in 2021-22.

Canberra United midfielder Grace Maher has signed on for the club that she forged her W-League career at.

Maher is one of just three players still remaining at the club from their 2014 championship, alongside Michelle Heyman and Chantel Jones (assuming she takes up her goalkeeping coach post once again).

She helped earn the honour as a 15-year-old, but now finds herself as a young leader of the club.

It’s been a seven year career that’s seen Maher grow and develop as a player and person rapidly and profoundly. She recently played a key role in helping establish the league’s landmark five year collective bargaining agreement.

On field though, Maher’s goals are the same as anyone.

She’s no longer be the teenage prodigy, surrounded by the likes of Emma Ilijoski and Laura Hughes, the side’s new rising stars. Finding herself in a position of heightened responsibility, Maher desperately wants to add another trophy to the Canberra United cabinet.

“Unfortunately, I’ve been in a lot more semi-finals that I’ve lost than I’ve won,” Maher told media on Tuesday.

“It’s heartbreaking… we had nearly 75 per cent of the team [who’d] never played finals football before [last season]. Even experienced W-League players who haven’t played finals football can tell you it’s a different game.

“The old saying is ‘it’s finals football, anything can happen.’ We definitely know that’s the case, and I think with a little bit more experience this year after last year’s defeat, we’ll know what we’re expecting going into [finals].

“We’ve got to get ourselves in that position first, and that starts with round one.”

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With a young, inexperienced squad in 2020-21, United’s biggest priority needed to be both re-signing and adding veterans to the squad.

Maher and star striker Heyman were excellent first steps, while the new signing of former Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar striker Allira Toby has added an extra kick to the front end.

Despite the presence of Heyman, United were the worst scoring finals team last season with just 21 goals in the season proper.

Michelle Heyman scored 10 goals in 12 appearances in 2020-21. (Photo: Canberra United)

Though it may be defence that might prove to be the bigger issue for the team in green. Teenage sensation Jessika Nash has departed for Sydney FC, while Clare Hunt is now calling the Wanderers home.

Despite only five players being signed so far, Maher is looking forward to what’s next to come for the Canberra squad.

“It’s great to see, and possibly see in the next couple of weeks, some of the returning players and local players, and some really good friends as well,” she said.

“I think we built something really special last year, and I think the players that are going to come in… are just going to build on that and complement what we have.

“It’s really exciting. I can’t wait to see the final squad and I can wait to get on field with them and meet everyone in person. There is always such a buzz when it comes to W-League.”

The off-season challenges

With Canberra still in lockdown until Friday, September 17 at least, the challenges have come thick and fast for Canberra United.

Like their comrades in New South Wales, the players haven’t yet been able to train properly together since the start of August outside of gym sessions, as Maher describes.

“It’s been tricky, in a way,” she said.

“Now that Canberra’s doing well on a COVID front, we’re looking to get more of us [together] for 2v3s, or 2v2s heading into nearly a month before pre-season.

“We’re all desperate to be able to play and get out and play with more than five people. We can lift heavy in gym and get a good base heading into pre-season.”

When the NPL New South Wales season was still alive, Maher was fortunate enough to play 11 games with APIA Leichhardt alongside the likes of star W-League opponents in Rhianna Pollicina and Lisa De Vanna. She also scored three goals.

Maher celebrates a goal for APIA Leichhardt. (Photo: NPL NSW/Dan Ullman)

However, the season couldn’t reach a conclusion, the last game played on Sunday, June 20 ahead of the state’s ongoing lockdown.

It’s another roadbump for Maher and all other NSW/ACT based footballers, but not one that’s insurmountable.

“It’s really difficult… 12 rounds were played,” she said.

“I don’t think I’ve played a 90 minute game since June. It’s really difficult. You see why so many players have headed overseas, especially our senior national team players. There’s a full calendar year of football nearly.

“To get that match fitness is not something you can by training by yourself. It’s definitely going to be hard, but… there’s a huge W-League contingent in NPL NSW, and that’s where most teams were affected. Canberra managed to get a fair few of their games out.

“It’ll be difficult, but there’ll be a lot of us in the same boat. One of the positives is that we have a structured build up into pre-season, that is usually rare when we’re playing and then just jumping straight into another season.

“There’s some good things about it, but it’ll definitely be tough.”

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