Stott in searing form for fourth W-League title tilt
The final of the W-League will go ahead across the Tasman this weekend - albeit behind closed gates - with Football Fern Rebekah Stott gunning for her fourth championship title.
In a season disrupted by bushfires, rearranged Olympics qualifiers and now the Covid-19 pandemic, the dominance of Melbourne City in the W-League season has come as something of a constant. And with this dominance has been the form of Football Fern Rebekah Stott.
Stott has been at the centre of the league’s most miserly defence, which has conceded just five goals in 13 games (and in the process, going 729 minutes without conceding - just two minutes off the club’s own league record).
She’s picked up several player of the month nominations and made the team of the round four times this season. With a reputation for well-timed challenges, positional play suggesting a sixth sense, and a penchant for bringing the ball out of defence with a mazy run, Stott has been one of the W-League’s standout defenders.
Not that she’d necessarily see it that way, mind you.
“I think as a team we’ve been playing very well together,” she says. “It's easy for me to perform when I'm surrounded by the players that I am surrounded by, and the professionalism of the club. I think that has helped me a lot.”
Last weekend’s semifinal performance was a testament to this professionalism. The finals series was preceded by a fortnight-long FIFA international window - which saw six City players away with the Matildas for the final leg of their Olympic qualifiers in Vietnam, and Stott in Portugal for the Football Ferns’ Algarve Cup campaign.
It meant City had just a day’s preparation with its whole squad together before the match.
Evidently unperturbed, City eased past Western Sydney Wanderers, 5-1, on Sunday afternoon, with Stott herself getting in on the goals. Just before half time she was the quickest to react to a poor punch out from the Wanderers goalkeeper, lashing in her second goal of the season.
Now they're preparing to play in this weekend’s grand final - albeit behind closed doors, on an as yet undisclosed day at an undisclosed location.
Since their inaugural season in 2015, Melbourne City have effectively been ever-present in the W-League finals, winning three championships and two premierships (although a slow start last season cost them a place in the top four).
The club has a men’s A-League team and is part of the conglomerate City Football Group (including English heavyweights Manchester City, and MLS team New York City). Melbourne City’s entry to the W-League has helped to reset expectations of what a football club might look like when it fully integrates its men's and women's teams, with all their sides training at the impressive City Football Academy.
Stott has been a mainstay at the club, having previously been with the Melbourne Victory and Brisbane Roar.
Like most female footballers, Stott has travelled a lot in her bid to carve out a full-time playing career. She predominantly plays in Australia, but the W-League’s current format of 14 rounds of the regular season plus two finals rounds, isn’t enough to sustain a full calendar of football.
So after a stint in Germany for SC Sand, Stott split her time between the W-League and the NWSL in America. In the last off-season, she played for Avaldsnes IL in the Norwegian league, Toppserien.
Her time in the NWSL was marked by inconsistencies - getting traded from Seattle Reign to Sky Blue FC in New Jersey. In contrast to most leagues, where players are individually contracted to clubs, players in the NWSL are drafted and their rights traded between clubs. The players have no control over where they end up, Stott says.
“You don't have a say at all. They kind of just tell you you've been traded and then you get sent off,” she says.
“Seattle was amazing. I was playing with a few girls that were at City as well, so they kind of got me in there. It was a great experience; it was a different type of football, very physical and athletic.
“And then I got traded to Sky Blue and that was a little... different.” She says this diplomatically.
There were rumblings that all was not well at Sky Blue during the 2018 NWSL season - over substandard training facilities and accommodation arrangements, and club leadership best described as indifferent to the situation. Despite the calibre of players at the club, including multiple World Cup winner Carli Lloyd, the club finished last in the league.
“I met a lot of cool people [at Sky Blue],” says Stott, “but things were different there. In terms of professionalism, what we had… was a bit different.
“You go from one club where you've got changing rooms, facilities, get fed every day and treatment as well. And then you go to another club and you don't have an actual changing room. You don’t have facilities. You get fed maybe once or twice a week, treatment is hard to get. So it's... it's different.”
Fortunately it’s been a very different story back in Melbourne. But it’s not guaranteed that Stott will return there next season.
“I want to look to go to Europe - as in England, France, Italy, Spain, one of those leagues. But I won't be able to do that until after the Olympics because of the transfer windows,” she explains.
Europe is seen as the place to be in women’s football, as the major clubs and leagues have increased their investment in the women’s side of the game.
Whether she returns to the W-League next season or not, it shouldn’t escape notice that Stott has been the most ever-present and most successful Kiwi in the W-League.
And despite being Papamoa-born and bred, she could have ended up a Matilda.
Her family moved to the Sunshine Coast when she was young. “Mum and Dad actually came for a holiday to visit Dad's brother and then they came back and said, ‘We're moving!’ To which I was like, ‘No, I don't want to, what if…’. But that was when I was 11,” she laughs.
“I went to a soccer school here, did reps and everything, and then I got into the Queensland Academy of Sport. So five days a week I was driving down an-hour-and-a-half to training and back - I’d get out of school early, which I wasn’t too sad about!”
But while making the decision to ditch classes early for football trainings was an easy one for Stott, the question of international allegiance was less straightforward. She played for Australia’s under 17s and 20s teams, before eventually switching to New Zealand and the Football Ferns.
“It was a hard decision, it definitely was. Jodie Taylor [England striker and former Melbourne City team-mate] and Emma Kete [Football Fern], they kind of convinced me I should go [and represent the Football Ferns], that it would be a really good opportunity,” Stott says.
“For me, anyway, I need to talk to a lot of people about those kinds of decisions and see what they say, so I get all kinds of angles. And then you kind of make the decision and if it sits right, then you know you've made the right decision.
“And I'm so glad I did that, I don't regret it at all. I've had the best experiences - I’ve been to two Olympics, two World Cups. It’s been amazing.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising, given her ties to both Australia and New Zealand, that Stott has become one of the faces of the joint bid between the two countries for the 2023 World Cup. A decision on the tournament hosts is expected in June; Japan, Brazil and Columbia are the other bidders.
Stott was part of the player delegation last month when the FIFA representatives visited Sydney to inspect the facilities.
Along with 10 Matilda players, New Zealand was represented by Stott and Johanna Wood, NZ Football president - and the governing body’s first female president.
“It was just kind of shining a light on the bid and trying to promote it more - and really shining a light on women’s leadership, and how equality’s becoming such a big thing in women’s football,” Stott says.
In terms of what hosting the World Cup could mean for the growth of women’s football in New Zealand, Stott is emphatic.
“We don't have many games at home as it is,” she says. “So the fact that we would be able to have at least three games probably on home turf in front of our family and friends, and hopefully grow the game and show young footballers that there is a career in being a footballer... I think that would be huge for the country.”
Closer to hand is the question of this weekend’s grand final. It could have had an even stronger Kiwi flavour if they had met Melbourne Victory - featuring Football Fern and former Canterbury United Pride skipper Annalie Longo and former Junior Football Ferns/FFDP coach Gareth Turnbull, who joined as an assistant coach this season. But they were felled by last season’s grand final winners Sydney FC last weekend.
Despite football and other professional sports around the world shutting down their leagues around the world in the wake of Covid-19, the FFA confirmed on Monday that the final would go ahead.
And if recent history is anything to go by - City have won every grand final they’ve played in - we could be seeing Football Fern Rebekah Stott lifting her fourth W-League championship.
A sight that’s become something of a constant in an increasingly inconsistent world.