Far from being the amateur affair predicted when a host of Matildas headed abroad, the 2020-21 incarnation of the W-League has given us a glimpse of a promising future for women's football in Australia.
An influx of talented teens have set the league alight with names such as Hana Lowry (17), Emma Ilijoski (18), Jamilla Rankin (17), Bryleeh Henry (17), Tijan McKenna (16) and Naomi Thomas-Chinnama (16) getting valuable minutes as they set off on the same path that saw the likes of Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord and Ellie Carpenter launch their careers, while at the other end of the spectrum Lisa De Vanna (36) and Kendall Fletcher (36) proved that age is indeed just a number.
Ahead of what is set to be a closely contested Grand Final between Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory on Sunday (U.S. audiences can stream the game LIVE on ESPN+), we look at who caught our eye over the regular season.
Gaby Garton -- Melbourne Victory
American-born Argentine goalkeeper Gaby Garton had big gloves to fill, replacing an injured Casey Dumont at Melbourne Victory at the start of December. The 30-year-old stepped up with aplomb keeping seven clean sheets and chalking up 33 saves to help her side from an unlikely fifth spot on the table a month ago, into a Grand Final.
Honourable mention: Jada Whyman
Angela Beard -- Melbourne Victory
After a coronavirus-affected stint in Iceland, the left-back returned to the W-League and expertly guided her side into the finals, chalking up her 50th appearance in Navy Blue along the way. Delivering more balls into the area than any other player throughout the regular season, the Victory captain consistently dominated the left flank, creating countless opportunities with accurate passing and inch-perfect crossing, while marshalling a backline through a seven game undefeated run and a club record seven clean sheets.
The 22-year-old emerged as one of the brightest defensive talents of the season. In a resurgent Adelaide side, McNamara was outstanding with strong last-ditch tackling, good ball recovery, confidence in aerial duels and multiple crucial clearances. Stifling the forays of more experienced opposition strikers, the centre-back also created attacking threats of her own, with her accurate distribution and passing in the final third.
At just 16, this youngster stepped seamlessly into the Canberra back-line in her W-League debut season. Nash showed a maturity beyond her years, looking calm on the ball, undaunted in high pressure situations and displaying an innate ability to read the game with well-timed tackles, crucial clearances and clinical passes. Despite still being part of the youth set-up, the Junior Matildas captain looks to be a lock for the senior team in the future.
Charlotte Grant -- Adelaide United
In a league blessed with speed this season, Grant might be one of the quickest. The Young Matilda was earmarked for success as she came through the NTC program in South Australia, and now the 19-year-old is certainly delivering on that promise. In a breakout season, the young right-back grew in confidence with each appearance and was influential in spurring Adelaide to within a whisker of the playoffs.
Honourable mentions: Jamilla Rankin, Ally Green, Polly Doran, Kendall Fletcher
Clare Wheeler -- Sydney FC
A move down south to don the Sky Blue of Sydney FC has suited Wheeler perfectly with the former Young Matilda producing a number of midfield masterclasses to cement her spot in the Premiership winning side. Used more defensively at the Newcastle Jets, Wheeler has flourished in the attacking role designated by Ante Juric, scoring her first W-League goal in seven seasons, then adding two more before the start of the finals campaign. Pivotal in the centre of the park, Wheeler's dangerous crossing and ability to create chances in front of goal indicate that, at 23, she's got a whole new lease on life in the Harbour City.
Kyra Cooney-Cross -- Melbourne Victory
Returning to Melbourne Victory for the 2020-21 season, the 19-year-old looked like an established veteran, delivering on all the promise of previous seasons. Dynamic in the Victory midfield, Cooney-Cross showed control on the ball in attack, with her bursts of speed, clinical passing and attacking mindset just part of an arsenal that also saw her score a career-high five goals this season. Keeping her rivals constantly on their toes at one end, the teenager proved equally adept in Jeff Hopkins' high pressure defence, her effective tackling and crucial intercepts helping to propel the Victory into finals football once more.
The Brazilian was a standout for the Roar this season, dangerous with the ball at her feet, she caused myriad problems for opposition defences on both flanks. Stepping up from the Queensland Women's NPL, Hecher was immediately at home in the Brisbane midfield, finishing the regular season with four goals of her own, while her combination with Emily Gielnik proved to be the most dangerous in the league.
Michelle Heyman -- Canberra United
There was little doubt this season that comeback queen Heyman would pass Kerr's total at the top of the W-League all-time top scorer chart, it was just a matter of when. A refreshed Heyman put 10 balls in the back of the net this season -- four of which were match-winners and was involved in 14 of Canberra's 21 goals. Unfortunately a quad strain stopped her capping off a stellar season with well-deserved finals football.
Emily Gielnik -- Brisbane Roar
Unquestionably the most in-form striker in the league this season, Gielnik returned to the Roar from Sweden in devastating fashion, convincingly wrapping up the Golden Boot before heading back to Europe. Gielnik scored 13 goals across the regular season including an 18 minute hat trick against Adelaide United and had four assists for the Roar to total 17 goal involvements -- the most in the league.
Cortnee Vine -- Sydney FC
Following 43 appearances across Brisbane Roar, Newcastle Jets and Western Sydney Wanderers, Vine looks to have found a home on the wing at Sydney FC after a stellar season in Sky Blue. The 22-year-old's blistering pace and high work rate saw her deliver 62 balls into the area this season, score four goals and create multiple chances for the Premiership-bound Sydney side. Her pace, work rate and versatility will be missed when Sydney FC contest the title decider, after Vine suffered an MCL tear in the penultimate match of the season.