USWNT legend Mia Hamm put it best: “it is more difficult to stay on top than getting there.” After a perfect record in 2020, all eyes were on Deakin this season. Nik Brozinic’s side showed up and dominated the competition week in week out.
Bar TV Sports Commentator Jeremy Magan reviews the season that made the Canberra Croatia trophy cabinet a little tighter.
The first job for Nik Brozinic in 2021 was to find ways to improve a squad already full of talents. The coach solved what could have been the only issue for Deakin, depth. After losing Grace Field, Canberra Croatia added Jenny Bisset, Olivia Fogarty and Chantel Jones: three players with a wealth of experience that would all prove crucial during the season. Bisset positioned herself in front of the defence and was both a relentless defending midfielder and the first involved in the build-up. It allowed Jamie Berkely and Krista Hagen to get more creative and play higher up on the field. The two midfielders filled up their stat sheets with seven goals each. Chantel Jones mainly came off the bench, finding her way in the back of the net six times. The 1m80 striker used her game vision, her technique and her strength to exhaust defences who already had to deal with Brittany Palombi and Grace Gill since kick-off. The last signing of the summer, Olivia Fogarty, really played her part in the starting 11, gelling instantly with the rest of the squad, thanks to her countless run and relentless activity on and off the ball. The forward also showed her composure in front of goals, tallying nine units by the end of the season.
The season did not start the best way for Canberra Croatia. The first official game ended in a loss 3-1 to Belconnen United in the Charity Shield. Two weeks later, Palombi had to work her magic in the dying moments of the first regular season game to save a point at home against Canberra United Academy. What followed however was almost unchallenged domination, both in the league and Federation Cup. The latter for the Deakin based team was not a walk in the park: they had to go through the Academy (5-2) and the Blue Devils (2-0) before meeting an in-form West Canberra team in the final. The cagey affair was only decided in the last 15 minutes, the combined work of Brittany Palombi and Chantel Jones offered their side their first trophy of the year (4-1).
The silverware had an added savour for Nik Brozinic and his troops, who were keen to bounce back after suffering their first loss in almost two years in regular season the week prior, 3-1 to Canberra United Academy. The match, played at Hawker, saw goalkeeper Chloe Lincoln frustrating Grace Gill and her teammates with world-class save after world-class save for the whole 90 minutes. “She is the future at her position!”, reacted the experienced captain after the game. It was the only slip for Canberra Croatia this season: Four points lost to the Academy in their first two meetings. 2021 was otherwise perfect: 15 wins out of 17 games, 77 goals scored (23 for Brittany Palombi alone!), 14 conceded, and two dominating 3-1 victory against title rivals Belconnen United.
These impressive results were deserved for a squad who delivered all season. Nik Brozinic stayed true to his 433 week-in week-out, with Ally Hinson, improved and more reassuring, between the sticks. Amy McLachlan’s injury early meant the two centre-backs would be Rhiannon Fensom and Cecilija Matic. The physical pair would leave no space, on the ground or in the air, to the competitions’ best forwards. At left back, the underrated Alice Churchill celebrated her 200th NPLW game with Canberra Croatia this season, an incredible feat. The rise of her counterpart Renée Junna was just as astonishing: the young right back combined speed, excellent positioning and even a goal to Brozinic’s team. In the starting line-up for game two, she never let go of her spot. The three midfielders, Bisset, Hagen and Berkeley, were simply unmatched in the competition. Their work rate, their ability to alternate short passes and balls behind the defence, possession football and more direct moments, was one of the keys to Deakin’s success. Upfront, the threats were many: to Palombi’s 23 goals, Gill added 14 in 14 games, Fogarty nine and Jones six. The complicity of the four forwards did a lot of damage in the 16-yard boxes around the Canberra fields.
Reflecting on 2021, Grace Gill is full of praises. “It was a year the girls could be proud of, our most consistent and rewarding season in terms of being able to produce results”.
The added depth made a difference for the Canberra Croatia stalwart. “We added Jenny Bisset, Renee Junna, Liv Forgarty, Chantel Jones… the competitiveness of the group pushed everyone to be a little bit better across all the games.” Gill enjoyed the season on a personal level as well. “I was able to manage the load a bit more, to take a step back and really observe the girls playing.” Usually more of a playmaker, the number 9 really embraced her striker role in 2021. “It is not my best position, but I worked really hard to be my best in it, watching other football games, seeing how number 9s operate coming to the goal and looking to be that target striker, but also finding myself facing the frame of the goal and putting shots away. Although I have been playing this game for years, trying to hone that number 9 role has been a massive learning curve for me.”
The champions’ captain also had some kind words for her coach this past three seasons. “Nik, as a coach, with the results and what he has produced over the last few years, has to be massively commended. Winning last year, and this year, be it a few games short, are results that are really special. It is a huge commitment, and we have a lot of gratitude for the work that Nik has done and the time he has put in the squad, and I think the results speak for that.”
The champions of 2021, just like in 2020, were a constellation of talented players working tirelessly towards a common goal, a recipe that will always bring success. It will take something special for them be stopped in 2022. The Canberra Croatia dynasty is here to stay.