Kyra Cooney-Cross glances nervously into the barrel of the camera. The headphones she has been given are comically large, cupping her ears like woollen muffs as the chill of winter descends over Jubilee Stadium in Sydney.
She allows herself to crack a small grin as her teammate and mentor, Lisa De Vanna, ghosts in behind her, tapping her protégé on the shoulder before drifting away into the night. Cooney-Cross turns to the microphone and takes a settling breath, feeling the eyes of the world upon her. Her voice is soft and bare as she answers the questions from the broadcast hosts; her brief, nervous sentences caught on the wind.
It is only now, watching her blink into the bright lights of stardom, you are reminded that Cooney-Cross is still just a teenager. You would not have guessed it if you had simply focused on her on-field abilities this season; a player with the pace, strength, balance and technique of a footballer twice her age.
Indeed, if there is a player whose story encapsulates the 2020/21 season more broadly, it is that of Cooney-Cross. Three years ago, when Melbourne Victory last lifted a W-League trophy, Cooney-Cross played just 152 minutes. Three of her appearances were off the bench – a sprinkle of minutes towards the end of games – and just a single start, when she was substituted.
The following season, she was loaned to Western Sydney Wanderers – a club in the midst of their own identity crisis – seeking a patient hand; a chance to prove what she knew she could do.
In Sunday night’s 2020/21 grand final against Sydney FC, Cooney-Cross did just that. Not only did the 19-year old start her 14th consecutive game for the club that had barely given her a glimpse a few years ago, but she also scored perhaps the most memorable W-League finals goal in the competition’s history: a sweeping, curling ‘Olimpico’ corner in the desperate moments of extra-time.
The head coach Jeff Hopkins, who guided Victory to that Premiership three seasons ago when Cooney-Cross was on the periphery, had not spoken much of the returnee as she slowly emerged as one of the current campaign’s standout performers. But after proving herself capable of grasping the big moments, as well as consistently working to create them game after game this season, the usually-reserved Hopkins did not hesitate.
“She’s been definitely in our top two or three players this year,” he said. “And for a girl her age, who is still developing, she has been amazing. And she has got better and better as the season has gone on. She can be anything. She’s an amazing talent. I think she’s the best talent in Australian football.”
From a young player kept on the fringes of W-League football to one of its poster-children in the space of a single season, Cooney-Cross’s trajectory mirrors that of so many other players who have emerged from the shadows of internationals and senior Matildas this season and, rather than shrivelling up, have flourished in the sun.
Many of them took to the field on Sunday for both Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC: Princess Ibini-Isei, Polly Doran, Ally Green, Angela Beard, Clare Wheeler, Melina Ayres, Charlotte McLean, Claudia Bunge, Natalie Tobin, MelindaJ Barbieri.
Indeed, that Cooney-Cross wonder-goal was matched only by the performance of Sydney FC goalkeeper and player of the match Jada Mathyssen-Whyman, who returned to regular W-League football this season after also finding herself out in the wilderness for a number of years, is a testament to the new story this W-League season has begun to write.
Six months ago, as the pandemic shut international borders and Australia’s top playing talent was snapped up by overseas clubs, many were in doubt that the W-League would go ahead – or, if it did, whether its lesser-known players could fill the boots of those who had left them behind. But true to its long history of resilience and persistence, not only has the competition survived, it has thrived.
And that thriving has come from deep within, driven by a generational changing of the seasons as players like De Vanna, Teresa Polias, Clare Polkinghorne, Gema Simon, Michelle Heyman and many other elder stateswomen pass the torch on to those who will carry the sport into its next women-driven era.
What began, then, as a season filled with doubt about the future of the Australian women’s game has ended as one of the most inspiring and memorable seasons to date. And as Cooney-Cross removes her headphones and sprints across the field to join De Vanna and her other teammates as they celebrate their second W-League Championship win, we are reminded once again that the 2020/21 season will be remembered not so much for what was lost, but for what was found.