Fixing the Fixtures: the changes that saved the W-League season

The fixture updates alerts came thick and fast this season. Image @Wleague twitter

The W-League was an on-field triumph this year. Off-field a team of administrative stars worked tirelessly to navigate COVID restrictions and constantly reorganize the fixtures. Together they ensure the women’s football season was not only possible but safely completed.

Following the release of the full season calendar in November of 2020 fans began to get excited. After the effect 2020 had on other sports, the return of the W-League was something to celebrate.

Hours before the scheduled December 27 start, a COVID outbreak in Sydney threatened to delay the league or worse.

The Herculean task of ensuring the national competition would continue fell to Australian Professional Leagues Commissioner Greg O’Rourke just as separation from Football Australia was being finalized.

“This Season has been incredibly difficult to plan, due to the ongoing COVID uncertainty,” reflects O’Rourke.

“I recall an urgent meeting on Christmas day after the Northern Beaches Outbreak. We again had meetings on Boxing Day and had to shuffle the fixtures around.

“One fixture change had a domino effect. When factoring in borders and COVID protocols, venue availability and other fixtures.

“The APL is owned by the clubs so we were all in this together. So ultimately we had the same aim of getting the season delivered successfully.”

Complicating the issue for organizers was that each state had different border regulations, quarantine rules, and varying levels of lockdown. As we all experienced, circumstances could change rapidly.

“It’s difficult to have contingencies for every scenario,” O’Rourke said, “but we had a very experienced team and we had all taken a great deal from the previous season which had left us prepared for almost every eventuality.”

The nature of the competition and the geographic size of Australia, a players bubble was never really a possibility.

Many players are semi-professional and some still in High School underlining the emergence of the league’s exciting youngsters.

For the youngest players and those with responsibilities outside of football living on the road was not feasible.  Without a “bubble option” the APL just had to be flexible.

More W-League News:

A Year In Review With Ally Green Part 1

What Did We Learn From The W-League Season?

Fixing the Fixture

Three members of the Compliance and Operations committee team were tasked with creating the draw. Commissioner Greg O’Rourke and Deputy Commissioner Tracey Scott were ultimately responsible for the process.

“We work closely with clubs, venues, and other stakeholders to make everything run as smoothly as possible,” says O’Rourke. “Most people don’t see the machinations behind the draw because there are so many moving parts.”

Fans will remember that the fixtures were released in small two or three-week chunks. For supporters checking the updated listings suddenly became as routine as checking the lineups.

A typical fixture update that fans became quickly accustomed to. Image Twitter @Wleague

Melbourne City was originally scheduled to play against Canberra and Perth. That was changed to eventually produce back-to-back Melbourne derbies against Victory.

Four fixture updates were officially released in the first eight weeks. Small changes continued occurring right up until Round 14.

This was on top of the normal difficulties that occur every season. Extreme wet weather forced a postponement between Sydney FC and Victory. Melbourne City was forced to change a game at short notice to an empty AAMI Park.

With so many unknown factors it was the best way to approach the season.

It may have become routine for many fans but for Perth Glory, it was very much a waiting game. It was not until round three before they could play their first competitive match. The strict West Australia border restrictions posed a potential problem.

“At least twice we encountered huge challenges with Perth Glory finishing the season,” says O’Rourke. “Quite Simply we thought we would run out of runway….we had to be agile. Perth Glory players and staff deserve a lot of credit.”

All In It Together

The nature of the year meant that all clubs, players and administrators were working toward the same goal.

“W-League clubs understood that if they were asked to do something, we had worked through all the options and (they) were really accommodating,”

“It was more challenging than the A-League draw at times, despite the shorter season and left some strange draw patterns but that was unavoidable. It was all about keeping the players safe and getting the right outcome for players, clubs, and fans as much as possible.”

An unprecedented task faced them but when O’Rourke reflects on the year, he says that it was hardest at the beginning.

“Every challenge was unique, but considering the amount of planning that had gone into the start of the season and the fact that it (COVID news) was breaking Christmas Day, less than 72 hours before kickoff… The Northern Beaches outbreak at the start was hugely challenging.”

By the time the Grand Final had been decided by virtually the last kick, O’Rouke was justifiably delighted at what the league had achieved.

“I am extremely proud of my team and with the leadership of Tracey Scott,” he emphasizes.

O’Rourke is quick to praise everybody involved, highlighting the “agility and hard work of the operations team, plus the understanding of the W-League players and clubs.”

The best football teams are adaptable and able to change tactics and formation when needed. This year, off-field every club, coach, and player were. Essentially, so too were those who helped make the season possible.

The flexibility of the fixture and the work behind it saved women’s football this year. Hopefully, it does not need to happen again, but we know they are up to it.

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