“This is our Grand Final”: underdogs Manly eager to take down University juggernaut
By Chris Curulli
Almost 12 months to the day since Manly United first kicked off pre-season, it all comes down to this.
Manly’s women’s first grade outfit have a golden opportunity at securing the club’s first piece of silverware since 2017, fittingly sending out their long-term coach Chris Williams in the process.
Last Saturday, two goals in the last ten minutes against Sydney Olympic sealed Manly’s grand final date with defending champions and back-to-back-to-back premiers Sydney University.
The Students are no stranger to the big dance, having participated in its last two iterations.
In 2018 they were denied by a dramatic Macarthur Rams winner deep into extra time, while last year they snatched the title after an action-packed game versus Northern Tigers which was decided on penalties.
Alex Epakis’ side are in formidable form to say the least, having not tasted defeated since March 2019.
Their invincible streak stands at 32 matches and Chris Williams’ side are determined to ensure that it does not reach 33.
Manly gave Uni a run for their money during the sides’ only meeting this season back in round six which ended 2-0 to the Students.
Since then they have embarked on a burgeoning run of their own; the side are now six games undefeated, with five consecutive wins, having scored 22 goals and only conceded 3 in the process.
Looking back upon August’s match at Sydney University, Manly could count themselves extremely unfortunate as they struck the woodwork early, conceded a wicked bobble off the surface, and had a late goal incorrectly ruled out.
That afternoon Remy Siemsen was withdrawn due to injury, as she was during last week’s semi-final at Peter Moore Field.
The Sydney FC striker, who backed up her W-League Golden Boot with 10 goals in the NPLW this season, faces a race against time to be fit for the Grand Final; as does captain Chloe O’Brien who has sat out the last two weeks with an ankle injury.
Manly will be hoping Siemsen can to overcome her hamstring complaint in time for Sunday’s showdown, especially considering her hat-trick heroics back in 2017.
Her tally that day included a late winner which earned Manly the championship in a 4-3 epic against Macarthur.
Since then it has been a long way back for the club, with coach Chris Williams overseeing a development season in 2019 which saw the club miss out on the finals altogether for the first time in five years.
After announcing he will step away from the role after 16 years at the club, everyone at Manly is determined to send the boss out in style and cap off what has been a monumental rebuilding project.
Personally, Williams is more focused on his players getting the job done and earning a title they deserve.
“They’ve all been amazing this season,” he reflected.
“Everyone’s had a difficult year in one way, shape or form and I think they really deserve to go and finish their season with a grand final.
“For me, it is what it is, I don’t just coach to win titles. I try and coach to help the players get better and move on in their careers, so hopefully this could give a platform to those that don’t have W-League contracts yet to hopefully put their names up in lights.
“I’m just really happy for the players, for the club and for the coaching staff. Now I want to win it for all of them.”
Reflecting on last week’s heroics against Olympic, Williams sent out the stern warning that his side are still capable of clicking up a gear.
“I think there’s always the cliche that maybe when one team makes a bit of a comeback, people say ‘they’ve played their final’,” he said.
“We know we haven’t played our final. We’ve been aiming and building towards this for a while.
“Ever since we made the last grand final we wanted to be back there – now we’re there.
“This is our grand final and we want to win, so we’re just going to give it a crack.”
Williams and his squad are not afraid of taking on the University juggernaut.
In fact, they will relish the battle against top-quality opposition.
“I think Alex (Epakis) is the best coach in the league and it’s always a good tactical battle against him,” Williams said.
“In my opinion, I think it’s the two best teams playing off. They have some nice structuring, nice processes and great players but I think we also do- it’s part of what got us there in addition to the players being who they are.
“I think in terms of a team that deserves to be there they obviously do. They’ve been the standard-bearer for the competition for the last few years.
“When I first told Tom (Hopley) I wouldn’t be coaching next season we both just said, ‘alright, let’s go out, make the grand final, and play Uni’.
“So now we’ve got what we wanted and we’re going to give it a red-hot go.”
Sunday’s grand final will kick off at 4pm at Valentine Sports Park.
Football NSW will share information later in the week regarding spectators and the COVID-19 plan at the venue.
The match will be live streamed on NPL.TV, which is now available on the iOS and Android app stores. You can catch all of the action live or on demand by signing up for free here.