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A-League Grand Final: 50-50 challenge

Australian A-League

Australia's W-League going from strength to strength a decade after inauguration

A date etched into the history books of Australian football, Oct. 25, 2008, marked the dawn of a new era in the women's game, as the inaugural season of the W-League kicked off.

Queensland Roar (now Brisbane Roar) went on to win the double and the coach of that side, Jeff Hopkins, remembers it as a special time.

"There was a real excitement around the place. Everything was new, the players, the staff -- everyone around the club was buzzing," Hopkins told ESPN. "We had some really quality players so it was a great time to be coaching that side, the season built up to a fantastic finish with the premiership and then winning the Grand Final."

On the opening day in Perth, at what was then known as Members Equity Stadium, Sydney FC's Leena Khamis pulled on her boots, nervous about appearing in the new league -- the first women's domestic league match to be televised around the country.

The nerves clearly abated quickly -- within just six minutes, the then-22-year-old would score the first goal of the W-League era and a mere two minutes later, the second, in a 4-0 win for Sydney.

"The first one was off a corner, I got a touch on it at the near post -- goal!" she told ESPN.

"The second one was a header, also off a Heather [Garriock] corner, one from each side, yeah there are some things you never forget".

Alen Stajcic was Khamis' coach at Sydney FC in that first season and he too has a perfect recollection of those goals.

From Beirut where he is watching the Young Matildas as part of his current role as head coach of the senior national team, Stajcic told ESPN: "I recall training on the banks of the Swan River the day before that first match and we started practicing set pieces and corners.

"We had Leena making a near post run, which she hated and complained about the whole session. She thought, as the dominant aerial player in our team, she should attack far post.

"The next day both those first two goals came from that run in that position. Funnily enough she never complained about that run ever again and there's not a day goes by where I wouldn't remind her about that Swan River session."

While Khamis was a standout that day, some would also recall that a 15-year-old Sam Kerr came off the bench for the Glory in her W-League debut.

Who could have predicted that a decade later the coach on the visitor's bench would have the reins of Australia's national side the Matildas, with Kerr as the star attraction.

Only Stajcic had an inkling.

"I had seen Sam play two years prior to that at national titles and yes we all believed she had potential to be one of our future stars," he said.

"At the time though, we had a great pool of potential of which Sam was one. Sally Shipard, Catherine Cannuli, Kylie Ledbrook, Leah Blayney, Elise Kellond-Knight, Tameka Butt, Collette McCallum, Emily Van Egmond, among others, were an excellent pool of players."

With Sydney FC, Stajcic had a home at an A-League club that was one of the only ones at that time to fully integrate the women's program under the umbrella of the men's club -- however even that was not enough for him to keep all the star talent on his radar.

"The difficulty on the other hand was that I had been head coach of the NSWIS Program for five years until that point and head coach of the NSW Sapphires in the old competition," he said.

"We had become a very strong state in terms of national team representation. The FFA, at the time, believed that a full strength Sydney team would clearly be too strong for the league, and would lead to a domination that would not be healthy in terms of seeing the W-League and clubs around the country grow.

"So a decision was made to split our NSWIS Pool of players into two teams -- Sydney FC and Central Coast Mariners -- and that [then-Matildas coach] Tom Sermanni would decide on the split of players, not individual W-League coaches.

"This occurred in years one and two, and certainly had a massive impact on our team in those years, especially when it came down to depth and injuries, which unfortunately we had with Sarah Walsh and Heather Garriock missing almost the entire season one."

Hopkins, who is now in charge of the Melbourne Victory W-League side, was able to retain his core group of national team players at the time, but said initiatives were put in place to make sure players with potential were all given the chance to get valuable minutes with clubs all around the country.

"We had a good link with the Queensland Academy of Sport and a lot of the Matildas were based in Queensland so we weren't as affected, but we had a lot of good younger players and it was a conscious decision to loan them out to give them experience," he said.

"Players like Laura Alleway, Katrina Gorry -- we could see their potential."

Times have changed and with the introduction of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, women's football in Australia has never been in a better place. The competition for signatures of domestic players is now fierce, and a host of quality internationals are clamouring to be part of the W-League.

On Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018, it will be 10 years to the day since the league began, and there's a sense of deja vu for the inaugural golden boot winner Khamis, as she once more prepares for a season opener -- albeit in the red and black of crosstown rivals the Western Sydney Wanderers after 94 appearances for the Sky Blues.

"Whatever colours I'm wearing, I play with passion and pride," Khamis said "This is a big new challenge and the derby makes it even better for the season opener, it's two quality teams and I'm really looking forward to it.

"Over the years, we've seen the introduction of Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne City which brought more hype and great support to our league.

"The A-League clubs have taken the W-League teams on board, women's football is no longer segregated and the quality on the field is so much better. It used to be the same two or three teams that would challenge and now, this season, I can't pick you a top four."


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