Ahead of Adelaide United's Pride games, A-League Women's head coach Adrian Stenta was asked about finals. How would Adelaide feel if finally the team broke through for their first finals appearance in the history of the women's competition?
"It would mean a lot," Stenta replied. "And probably the biggest thing is that everyone would just stop talking about it, which is what we're really after."
His response wasn't surprising. Stenta has been at the helm for two years as well as being a part of the club in an assistant role for two seasons. During that time, it's a question that has started many an A-League Women's season: Will the Reds make finals?
In Stenta's first season in charge, Adelaide went closer than they ever had before, missing out on finals by a single slither of goal difference. While last season's efforts alone would be enough to prompt a question about finals, it isn't the only reason why it is constantly brought up. Nor is it why there is so much fascination around Adelaide's fortunes.
Indeed, the question itself is a mark of progress because for so long Adelaide weren't just missing finals, they were holding up the rest of the league, taking up residence at the foot of the table. Yes, Wellington Phoenix only won two games this season and in 2020-21 Perth Glory only managed a lone point all campaign. But Adelaide's poor seasons were epic in proportions. The team was bottom in the inaugural season back in 2008-09 and would occupy that space in four of the first five seasons.
On top of finishing last, the Reds went winless in two consecutive seasons from 2009 to 2011. Unsurprisingly, they hold the record for longest winless (34) and longest losing (19) streaks in the league. It took them seven seasons to hit double figures in the wins column. The 2018-19 season was the first time they had won more than three games in a season. Before this season, every club that had played ALW had made finals once, even the two-season Central Coast Mariners. Except Adelaide. Long story short, it wasn't easy being red.
And that's why there's been such a fascination with the Reds and finals. And why, when they did defeat Melbourne Victory 3-0 in the Pride game to secure their spot in the top four, excitement was mixed with relief. Particularly for those players who weren't at their first Reds' rodeo. While she wasn't on the park that afternoon but is in line to return for the semi-final, Emily Condon knows all too well how tough the road has been to this point after signing her first contract with the team for the 2013-14 season.
"I recently turned 15 when I made my debut into the United squad. And obviously, people wouldn't understand but the club has, it's come such a long way," she told ESPN in the week leading up to the Pride games. With 83 games and counting under her belt, Condon has not only witnessed the lows but has been a key part of Adelaide's ascent.
"It would honestly be a massive relief as in I've been at this club for nine seasons now. And obviously, whenever you play, you want to make the finals, you want to be playing in the grand final, you want to win overall, and just to have that first little bit of history for this club, finally, it's just would be a huge relief."
Condon also represents a core of South Australian women, most of whom have played multiple seasons in red. This year in particular this cohort has shone. Whether that be Chelsie Dawber up front with 10 goals, Condon in the middle of the park, the returning Dylan Holmes who spent last offseason in Sweden, or the unrelated Hodgsons at left and right back, Emily and Isabel.
"A lot of the core group has stayed the same and I think just understanding how one another play and knowing their strengths and weaknesses. And coming down to the real basic things of how they move on the park and where they're going to make their runs and just knowing that, knowing your teammates, I think this year it's clicking."
The South Australian core has been complemented by those who have been plying their trade in SA's state leagues, such as Japan international Nanako Sasaki and English striker and golden boot winner Fiona Worts, as well as a sprinkling of interstate and overseas talent. American defender Kayla Sharples has been on loan from Chicago Red Stars and has proven to be a calming presence in the heart of defence. Behind her, Newcastle-born goalkeeper Annalee Grove has grown into the season becoming quite the impressive shot stopper; a far cry from the player who began the season with multiple clangers.
And rounding out the front three has been Paige Hayward. She arrived in Adelaide from Sydney via Houston and Vienna, opting to go down the college route before making her ALW debut this season. While she doesn't carry the Adelaide folklore like Condon, the desire to get this team to finals exists just as strongly.
"I think it would be an amazing feeling and as a team that we are, I think we deserve it. But it's going to take hard work. And it would just be amazing for myself as well as everyone to know that they've achieved and push themselves to their limit," she told ESPN.
So now on Sunday afternoon, Adelaide United will do something they've never done before. Eleven women donning the Red will walk out into the sunshine of a semi-final. Melbourne Victory await them. While Victory have plenty of finals experience and have enjoyed their first significant break in three weeks, the Reds will enter this game feeling confident in their own abilities. With one piece of history already ticked off for United, the team won't be content on simply making finals. The whole team's focus will undoubtedly be on the game ahead of them and a date with Melbourne City next week. But for the players who have been around the traps for a little while now, there is sure to be a moment of reflection at just how far this team has come.
"I've always played for Adelaide United, I haven't gone elsewhere. I always think that making finals, or being successful for my hometown team is going to mean a lot more to me than moving to a club interstate that are gonna win every game or are guaranteed to make finals. Or even to win the grand final," Condon explained. "I think having put in the hard work and things like that to get the win for my home club is going to just mean a lot more." And it won't just mean a lot to the current group of players.
Following their finals confirmation, Dylan Holmes wrote on Instagram: "Making finals is not just us, it's every single player, coach and staff member through the history of this club that have paved the way for us to achieve this."
"This moment is for every single woman who has worn this jersey, every single coach that's built this program and every person that's supported us along the way. We couldn't have done this without every single one of you. We can't wait to make you all proud!"
And if the Instagram comments were anything to go by, Reds of the past were indeed proud. There was inaugural goalkeeper Sian McLaren who returned for a second stint last season. There was Charli Grant who decided to not play this season to stay in Europe after three seasons with Adelaide. And there was Rachael Quigley, a long-time servant of the club and its all-time leading goal scorer.
After seasons of languishing at the bottom of the table and just missing out, the question around the Reds now morphs from can they make finals to can they win in finals?