W-League Grand Final Trophy. Image: @WLeague twitter

The W-League was must-watch action in 2021, despite missing some of Australian football's biggest names.

When the W-League began after an exodus of Matildas and devoid of the imported stars, many feared for the quality of the competition.

What transpired was a season as exhilarating as it was surprising.

The young players were ready

The W-League has always been a competition that provided chances to young players but this season they were not only allowed but also required to step up and take center stage.

Canberra’s 16-year-old defender Jessika Nash started every game this season. She looked composed and dependable in her debut season and has been touted as a possible future Matildas captain.

She was nominated for Young Player of The Year and received the University Of Canberra Rising Star Award.

Kyra Cooney-Cross had a dominant campaign for premiers Melbourne Victory.

Before turning 20 she has evolved from speedy attacker to a genuine star midfielder.

Her performance in the Grand Final was imperious as she created multiple chances for herself and others before netting a spectacular last minute winner.

Others were impressive if not as dominant. Western Sydney’s Sarah Hunter, Bryleeh Henry and Hana Lowry of Perth all added to their burgeoning reputations.

They were entrusted with regular starts by their coaches and all three scored braces. Their time is coming.

Princess Ibini started the season with a bang, scoring a rocket in Sydney’s opening game after stepping inside from the left and firing off her right.

In previous seasons she has often been an impact player and been behind established Matildas players in the squad but this season she became one of Sydney FC’s stars.

“No-ones playing with any fear,” said Ibini, encapsulating the feel of the league.

“The young players are just going out there and doing their thing.”

It was an opportunity for fringe and aspiring Matildas

The departures of national team players were offset by the return of some others. Greats of the league such as Lisa De Vanna and Emily Gielnik returned to enjoy stellar seasons.

Gielnik endured a patchy start but once she hit form there was no stopping her. She scored 13 goals to top the league and earn herself a return to Europe.

De Vanna was at her very best in 2021. She turned back the clock to score one of the goals of the year, dribbling half the field to score against Melbourne City.

Melbourne City had a poor season by their standards but it was not a waste. Jenna McCormick and Alex Chidiac both put troubled La Liga experiences behind them to return to form. Tegan Micah established herself as a likely Matilda’s Goalkeeper and Emma Checker played her way back into the national team.

Adelaide’s Dylan Holmes and Charlotte Grant impressed enough to earn moves to Europe. Holmes made her Matildas debut shortly after and if Grant continues to develop she should follow in her footsteps.

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In the coming weeks, Football Australia will host a training camp for domestic based players. Most of these players will have the chance to convince Tony Gustavsson that they should be on the plane to Tokyo.

However one big name stood out as a serious Olympics bolter before the season even started.

Michelle Heyman still has the magic

Round one marked the return of one of Australian football’s most natural talents. Canberra United announced the return of Michelle Heyman after a year in retirement.

Elite sport is littered with cautionary tales of failed comebacks but Heyman took no time to allay any concerns. She opened the season with a stunning hat-trick against Adelaide and eventually eclipsed Sam Kerr as the league’s all time leading scorer.

Her quest to break Kerr’s record provided fans with another plot line to follow in an already engaging season. She was a delight to watch, scoring 10 goals and providing a focal point for a young team.

She is the rarest of strikers, not only a great goal scorer but a scorer of great goals. Capable of rockets, chips, well placed curlers and from long or close range, she really did it all this season.

No strike showed what she’s about like the 94th-minute winner against Perth.

She collected the ball deep, turned and sidestepped into space.  An exchange of passes with Paige Satchell put her into space and in the dying moments of the game she calmly slid the ball home.

With the game and Canberra’s season on the line, she wanted the ball.

According to Opta Stats, she was in the top two players for all attacking measurements- ranking second in goals, shots on target, conversion rate and touches in the opposition box.

It was simply an incredible season from an elite striker.

There is some serious talent at NPL level

There always has been but in previous years W-League clubs have been attractive destinations for overseas players.

With International travel halted due to COVID, managers took chances on players plying their trade locally.

Some were familiar. Chilean Maria Rojas played for Canberra in 2018 but lit up Adelaide United after joining from Salisbury Inter. The tricky winger scored in the opening game and was a menace to defences with her control and movement in tight spaces.

Melbourne Victory’s American striker had a significant impact. Catherine Zimmerman became integral to the attack and scored a vital goal against Adelaide United.

She netted again in the Semi-Final mauling of Brisbane Roar. Signed from Calder United in the off-season, she not only looked comfortable but excelled after making the step up.

The Brazilian Mariel Hecher was a brilliant signing for Brisbane Roar. She adapted instantly, her futsal honed ball skills made her a constant threat and electrifying presence.

Grace Maher and Michelle Heyman. Image : @CanberraUnited Twitter

The sport needs to aim for full professionalism

Sydney FC flew to face Perth minus their influential captain Theresa Polias though it was not due to injury or form. It was because she had unavoidable work commitments.

When Perth Glory was unable to leave Western Australia due to border restrictions, a player bubble was not an option. The players simply did not earn enough to make it viable.

Women’s football is growing in Australia. However, there is a danger of it being left behind while Europe is increasingly offering full-time contracts.

Melbourne Victory made strides this year, signing striker Melina Ayres to a laudable three-year deal. She rewarded their faith with a career-best season.

The W-League was fantastic this season, imagine how good it would be if all of the players could make it their sole focus and not have to rush back to work.

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