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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Joey Lynch

Melbourne Victory’s character endures with Casey Dumont at its heart

Casey Dumont is awarded the player of the match after Melbourne Victory’s A-League Women grand final win over Sydney FC.
Casey Dumont is awarded the player of the match after Melbourne Victory’s A-League Women grand final win over Sydney FC. Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

You could not have asked for a better illustration of the resilience and willingness to rise to the occasion that has defined Melbourne Victory’s unlikely journey to back-to-back A-League Women’s titles.

In the 76th minute of Victory’s smash-and-grab win over Sydney FC in Sunday’s grand final, Charlize Rule launched herself at another Sydney corner. The teenager could not find the equaliser, but she did find Casey Dumont: crashing into the Victory goalkeeper’s ribs and sending her crashing to the turf. Trainers immediately rushed onto the field and on the sideline, back-up goalkeeper Melissa Maizels sprung to her feet.

Despite working to come into the season in the best shape of her life, that Dumont was even out there at that point was a minor miracle. Following a 3-1 loss to Adelaide a month prior she was taken to hospital with a suspected broken leg – only to start eight days later. She spent much of the week preceding Sunday’s final bed-bound with illness. Further, Maizels had already been roused from the bench on a number of occasions as Dumont struggled to continue.

But now, with Sydney throwing themselves at Victory with every drop of vile and venom in their veins, her day appeared over. So impressive was her performance to that point, Victory’s title hopes, despite them still holding onto the lead, felt as if they would leave with her.

Yet, much as her team has done throughout this season, Dumont persisted. “I wasn’t worried because I knew she’d get up,” Victory boss Jeff Hopkins said post-game.

Indeed, nearly an hour later, Dumont sat alongside a coach who has believed in her more than most in her footballing journey as a player of the game and a champion. Unrestrained happiness radiated off her; agony and uncontainable joy from a player who refused to be cowed.

A more fitting encapsulation of Victory’s season could not be written. They were underdogs on Sunday. They were on the road. Sydney were rolling. But they won anyway.

They won despite losing their captain, on-field bedrock and irreplaceable leader Kayla Morrison to an ACL less than 45 minutes into the campaign. After Covid ripped through their ranks. In the face of a fixture that forced their semi-professional players to play seven games in 23 days. In spite of limping into the finals on goal difference.

Nonetheless, once said finals began, this team found a way. A group of players that had been there before and got the (championship winner) T-shirt stood up to be counted under the bright lights of finals football. Three times they went on the road (admittedly one was against Melbourne City) and three times they downed more favoured opposition. A dressing room culture in which its players demand excellence from each other while simultaneously being their own biggest supporter group found the right balance to succeed with no second chances. And a beloved coach, now the most successful in Australian women’s national league history, was there to help them believe, even when they didn’t.

Perhaps what makes Victory’s crown even more appropriate is that, allegorically, their season can be held up as a microcosm of the ALW’s, their triumphant conclusion able to provide operators the Australian Professional Leagues inspiration for the months ahead.

Much like Victory, great things were expected from ALW at the commencement of 2021-22 and there was significant goodwill, only for things to go wrong pretty quickly.

A combination of Covid and apocalyptic weather played havoc with the fixture, pushing players, coaches and supporters to their wit’s end. Demands that the league begin the process of professionalising and introducing a full home and away became furious and deafening. League-wide complaints surrounding the new broadcaster festered and continued angst surrounding the familiar bugbears of fan culture and doubleheaders lingered. Questions began to be asked if the momentum of 2023 was already being squandered.

With the momentum of a stirring, and much-needed, finals campaign to work with, this is the landscape the APL will need to navigate in perhaps the biggest off-seasons in ALW history. Touting the improvements that will come from being able to stage a full season without Covid, APL managing director Danny Townsend has gone on the record saying that a roadmap to professionalism will be delivered this offseason and that further investment to capture the halo effect of the looming World Cup will be delivered. Clarification will also need to arrive, soon, on the status of Western United and Central Coast Mariners’ entry for 2022-23, which was announced as an intention at the start of 2021-22 but still yet to be officially confirmed.

In the end, after one of the most challenging seasons ever, it was fitting that it was the side that turned resilience into an art form that won it all. The job of the APL is now to make sure nobody needs to win it that way again.

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