"Nothing prepared me for the Matildas v Republic of Ireland match"

We knew it was coming for what felt like forever but it still arrived so quickly. A World Cup on home soil is something we’ve always dreamed about. Something we’ve hoped for but perhaps never truly imagined would happen.

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No matter how many times we’ve heard it over the past few months, the fact that the first game against Ireland sold out, still felt like a dream.

We’ve heard about the impact that hosting a World Cup on home soil could have on the future of women’s football in Australia, and how it can inspire the next generation, but the magnitude of actually watching the games themselves somehow managed to slip my mind.

I thought I was prepared for the atmosphere, I knew it was the World Cup after all. I knew it was going to be an intense game and that the Republic of Ireland was ready for a battle.

I thought my expectations were high and I thought I was ready to experience my first World Cup live. I wasn’t. It somehow still manage to exceed any of my pre-conceived ideas of what experiencing a World Cup would be like.

It’s not like this was my first time seeing the Matildas play live, and I had just watched them win against France last Friday at a sold-out Marvel Stadium from my couch. I thought that was excitement, but nothing could’ve prepared me for the feeling of being there. The nerves and goosebumps I felt as I looked around the stadium and watched 75,784 fans flood in.

I thought I was ready to see the young girls and boys wearing Matildas' kits with ‘Kerr’ on their backs running around outside the stadium hours before kick-off. I thought I was ready for the whole stadium to stand for the Australian national anthem.

I thought I was ready for the screaming crowd when Steph Catley stepped up and expertly put away the penalty at the start of the second half to put us 1-0 up. And I thought I was ready for the emotion on her face as she ran to the crowd pounding the Australian crest with pride, being swarmed by teammates. I thought I was ready for all of it, but I was far from it.

Thankfully the Matildas were ready for the both of us. 

And they had to be ready, just hours prior to kick-off captain Sam Kerr was cruelly ruled out of the opening two matches after picking up a calf strain on the eve of the opener. Leaving the Matildas to take on the 22nd world-ranked, Republic of Ireland without their leader and star striker.

A rush of anxiety swept through me when it was revealed that Kerr wouldn’t be stepping out on the pitch just over an hour before kick-off. How are we supposed to win this thing now?

Perhaps previously the Matildas may have struggled to adapt to the physical loss of a regular starter and the emotional loss of someone loved by her teammates on the eve of what was supposed to be her tournament. But overcoming adversity is something this Australian team has gotten used to and become known for, and they looked to use losing their skipper as even more motivation.

"Obviously losing a player like Sam, probably the best player in the world, and just for her as a person, we were completely heartbroken,” Vice-Captain Steph Catley said.

"We had to really gather ourselves pretty quickly, but we used her spirit and used the fact that she wasn't able to be out there with us, to help us push on and to all add a bit to what we already bring and that's what it's gonna take for as long as she misses.”

However, Sam Kerr isn’t just someone you can just simply replace, in fact, you can’t replace her, instead Tony Gustavsson looked to rearrange and rely upon some of the other leaders of his team to step up to the challenge of winning the game without her.

With seven Matildas in the starting 11 playing in their first World Cup, it was clear that Gustavsson has complete trust and faith in the players he’s chosen to go up against the world’s best. Embracing the next woman-up mentality and remaining focussed on the bigger challenge ahead.

It was Mary Fowler whom Gustavsson trusted to come in with the handy placement ready to go and make her World Cup debut after not appearing in the 2019 World Cup in France.

It did mean that they did need to re-adjust from their now familiar 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 formation with the goalscorer from Friday night’s friendly win fitting in at the top of the midfield triangle, looking to link up with now solo striker Caitlin Foord.

For the majority of the game, Foord was outnumbered by green shirts and looked to rotate with both wide players in Cortnee Vine and Hayley Raso to escape the isolating nature of being the central striker without Kerr alongside her. Still, the trio struggled to create the same chances that they could’ve with Kerr out there, lacking the same fast dynamic movement in the final third.

Ireland wasn’t making it any easier for them showcasing their physicality from the first whistle, determined and willing to fight the entire game. They clattered into the Aussies with several crunching tackles, looking to impose themselves in the game and make their presence known.

But the Matildas stood strong, they stuck to their game plan and showed the Irish that they weren’t going to be pushed around. Still, the Aussies struggled to create any clear-cut chances at goal.

Then enter Steph Catley.

Known for her non-stop run down the left side of the field, beautiful inswinging left-footed set pieces and mitigating any opponent that dares to line up next to her, Catley has quietly gone about her business with no fuss like any great defender does, since she debuted for the Matildas at just 18.

So it may have surprised some when she was the one who thrived on the extra responsibility thrust upon her, stepping into the captain’s armband and stepping up as the penalty taker.

However, I grew up in Victoria, I watched Catley in her teens Captain Melbourne Victory. I saw her put her hand up to take penalties back then and I saw her play better the tougher things got. So when I saw her grab the ball and place it on the penalty spot with all the pressure of the whole of Australia on her shoulders, not for one second did I think she was missing.

She didn’t disappoint —rarely ever does— calmly stepping back through her routine and expertly putting the ball in the back of the net with a near-unsavable shot from the spot, just like I’ve seen her do before.

Matildas v Nigeria by Tiffany Williams
Steph Catley celebrating after scoring against Ireland. Photo: Tiffany Williams / Football Australia

Speaking post-match it didn’t surprise her either. In fact, she woke up the morning of the game with a strong feeling that she’d be taking a penalty, and just as she’d been practicing for weeks in case she was needed, she knew she was ready to go.

"When [the penalty] happened, I just tried to relax… I just picked a spot, kept thinking about it, took a deep breath, and hit it where I wanted to hit it,” she said.

“I knew I was on pens tonight. I'm second in line to take pens if Sam, for whatever reason, doesn't want to take it. But obviously with her out tonight, I did know I was going to take the pen.”

The Arsenal full-back was relieved to come away with the three very important points after an admittedly scrappy performance.

"It's been such a big lead-up and I think we had a lot of adrenaline, so at times there were moments where we were working through that,” Catley said.

"This is the biggest moment of a lot of our careers; we expected some nervy, sloppy moments and we had them. But to get over the line, to keep a clean sheet, to fight the way we did, I think that sets us up really well.