The close-up of Sam Kerr, hunched over and bristling in the corner of the Matildas bench at full-time, said it all. This was not the way Australia’s skipper would have wanted to celebrate her 100th national team cap: a 3-2 loss to the Republic of Ireland. It is not a game she will want to remember.
Still basking in the afterglow of their historic Tokyo Olympics campaign, it was assumed the Matildas would easily sweep aside their 33rd-ranked opponents, themselves trying to stem the bleeding of seven consecutive defeats.
But things were not quite as straightforward as that. Australia came into the match without eight of their recent Olympians – a consequence of injury, load management and retirement. Twelve of the 24 players called up to face Ireland had fewer than 10 caps, while six had none at all.
The match itself reflected this loss of the Matildas’ core players. From the start they looked lethargic, unfamiliar, rusty. They conceded their first goal to Ireland in just the third minute; a curling free kick by Lucy Quinn dipping up and over a static yellow wall. They struggled to connect passes, to play out of Ireland’s high press, to react quickly to lost possession or a contested ball, to create meaningful goal-scoring chances.
“I do think we were off from the whistle,” Matildas boss Tony Gustavsson said afterwards. “I even said it a couple of minutes into the game: we’re late, we’re late to everything.
“We had 50% passing accuracy in the final third. That means every second pass we gave the ball away in the final third. Then the crossing accuracy was 20%, [which] means two out of 10 crosses made it to the target. So it’s not that we didn’t create enough opportunities to create chances, but we didn’t create enough chances because we gave the ball away. The amount of technical mistakes I think must be some kind of record since I came on board.
“We felt really motivated going into the game because there’s been a lot of focus on Sam Kerr’s 100th game, and we said we wanted to leave our captain with a memory for her life. She’s going to remember this game for the rest of her life; we wanted to leave our captain with positive memories.
“But it didn’t look like that tonight. We didn’t look energised and passionate the way I’m used to seeing this team, and that’s not okay.”
The reason for Kerr’s post-match malaise was clear. However, despite the performance, there are some reasons this otherwise-forgettable game ought to be hung over the mantlepiece of her memory. Two of them came, just as it did for a 15-year old Kerr 100 caps ago, in the form of the team’s youngest players.
“Mary Fowler’s first half was just world-class,” Gustavsson said of Australia’s sole goal-scorer. “Oh my. She is so good out there, on and off the ball. The way she sets players up, her movement, just floating out there. She’s one v three at times and she just slides out of those pressure moments. Her finishing – we know she’s brilliant with both her right and left foot.
“The other one that is really positive was Kyra Cooney-Cross. I think she played very maturely tonight; she didn’t look like a young, inexperienced player. She looked like a very, very experienced player, especially when she played that six role and kind of glued our team together with changing the point, winning balls. I think she gave away the ball once in the whole first half. So two individual performances that were stand-outs.”
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This is what happens when you are a player like Kerr, notching a milestone like this: you are there to witness the comings and goings of generations. The retirements of Laura Brock and Aivi Luik after Tokyo, and question marks around the fitness of veteranssuch as Elise Kellond-Knight, has seen the door thrown open to whoever chooses to walk through it.
In addition to Fowler, Cooney-Cross and Courtney Nevin, opportunities were also handed out to three more emerging stars on Wednesday: Clare Wheeler, Charlotte Grant, and Angie Beard. On the final whistle, almost half of Australia’s squad had 10 caps or fewer, all under the age of 25.
There is something poetic in this new wave of players arriving in the same week that Australia celebrates the 100th anniversary of its first recorded women’s football match. Kerr’s personal centenary mirrors the long history that has seen her become one of football’s newest pioneers; a pivot point between the past and the future. That, then, is where Kerr’s memory of this game ought to rest: standing at the threshold as the next 100 – be they caps or years – warmly beckons.