Liberty A-League season preview: Canberra United

The Green Machine’s engine roars back into life as the new campaign offers a talent-laden Canberra United the chance to accelerate into title contention.

A three-season run without finals football came to an end last season off the back of Michelle Heyman’s brilliant individual campaign – but the reigning Julie Dolan Medalist has attacking reinforcements by her side in 2021/22. Under head coach Vicki Linton, this Canberra side will be fun to watch.

Major ins: Ashleigh Sykes, Allira Toby, Ally Haran

Major outs: Paige Satchell, Jessikah Nash, Bianca Galic

Head coach: Vicki Linton

Liberty A-League record: 33 games, 15 wins, eight draws, 10 losses

Linton took over from Heather Garriock as Canberra United head coach ahead of the 2020/21 season and proceeded to take the Green Machine back to the post-season for the first time since 2016/17. 

The Canberra boss has an impressive resume which includes roles as CommBank Matildas assistant coach, Junior Matildas head coach and Melbourne Victory head coach, who she guided to consecutive finals campaigns between 2010-12. 

United flourished under Linton last season, losing just three of 13 games including a semifinal defeat to Sydney FC in which an injured Heyman did not feature. Canberra fans will hope Linton can take the team one step further this season.

Georgia Yeoman-Dale’s Predicted XI

Paramount+/Channel 10 football expert Georgia Yeoman-Dale gives her verdict on the Canberra United squad.

Strengths: “There’s so much speed up top with Ashleigh Sykes, Allira Toby and Heyman, and pace off the bench as well with Hayley Taylor-Young who can come in, and Holly Caspers who is really quick too.”

Weaknesses: “It’s a new-look squad in Canberra, with only seven players returning from last year. Apart from defensive recruit Ally Haran it is quite a young defensive outfit which will need get up to speed fast to avoid getting exposed. 

Key player: “They’ve got so much strength up top, you’ve got so many different people to lean on there, but a very young backline will be led by Haran.

“She’s going to need to be running that backline with her experience.  It’s a given Canberra will score goals, but it’s not a given they’ll keep clean sheets- that’s where Haran’s importance will come into play.” 

Verdict: “They’re good, they’re strong. There’s strength across the park and speed to bring off the bench, and will contend for one of the four finals series spots.”

Can’t take your eyes off: Michelle Heyman

Canberra’s attacking firecracker had a season to behold in 2020/21 and is showing no signs of slowing down ahead of the new campaign. 

The 33-year-old CommBank Matildas legend came out of retirement to become a dominant force in her comeback season, scoring ten goals to blast the Green Machine back into the top four. 

A frightening turn of pace helps Heyman break the shackles of opposing defenders, and she lets her clinical finishing do the rest. All ten of Heyman’s goals in 2020/21 came from open play, with nine of ten coming off her lethal right boot. The United striker is a constant threat as long as she stays on the park – which both Canberra fans and neutral observers will hope she manages to do all season long.

Heyman speeds into attack during the 2020/21 W-League season

Reasons to be cheerful: The return of Ashleigh Sykes is one of the feel-good stories of the off-season. The club’s all-time appearance record holder announced her return to the club after retiring in 2018 at 26 years of age, following in Heyman’s footsteps to reignite her career in Canberra colours.

The striker’s late arrival to the United squad adds to the significant firepower of both Heyman and Allira Toby, who joined from Sydney FC in the off-season. Together the three forwards provide the kind of experience no other side league-wide would possess in the final third. Goals, and lots of them, are an inevitability if this attacking trio can find their groove.

…and reasons to be fearful: Jessika Nash and Bianca Galic made their way to Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers respectively in the off-season, leaving Canberra devoid of two of their brightest young talents. 

Nash earned one of three nominations for Young Footballer of the Year last season after becoming a mainstay in Canberra’s defence at just 16 years of age, whilst 22-year-old Bianca Galic established herself as an integral performer in the heart of midfield. The two young stars will be sorely missed in the United lineup through the 2021/22 season.

Bianca Galic left Canberra in the off-season, favouring a move to the Wanderers

Fans’ eye: John Madelly

Why we believe:  After many years in the football wilderness, the W-League was formed and Canberra United emerged. This was an opportunity to once again be involved in a national competition. So here we are.

There’s a group of four of us who always have the same seats every year. It’s a great atmosphere, we turn up usually up to an hour before kick-off. It becomes a social occasion for us. I doubt if I’ve missed a match at home.

Who we believe:  It has to be Michelle Heyman, and I don’t think other players in the squad would dispute that. We are fortunate enough in Canberra to have Michelle Heyman leading the attack, the Liberty A-League top scorer.

She’s innovative, she’s skilful, she’s a leader, she’s approachable, and she’s just a wonderful footballer. We’ve been lucky to have her in Canberra for so many years.

The magic of matchday is: anticipating what the team sheet is going to look like and what formation they’re going to be playing as there are many players vying for more than one place. There’s talk about how we assess each of the players, who we think is going to feed Michelle to bang them all in the net; all sorts of conversations take place before the match kick-off.

The exuberance and exhilaration of your team scoring a goal, or the misery of going a goal down and needing to catch up, there’s all these emotions you go through during the game. If you walk away with a big smile on your face because your team has won, beautiful. If they’ve lost you think ‘there’s another one next week, and they’ve got to win next week no matter what happens’ – and so the emotions go.

Every supporter must go through the same emotions. I’m not unique in that, although I think some walk away and shrug the shoulders and say ‘never mind’. I get home, sit down, and send an email to my mate to say ‘on second thought, I think this and that..’ it becomes more than just a 90-minute event once every fortnight.

If I could change anything about the club… Personally I would like a return to McKellar Park.  Most of the matches have been played at McKellar Park in Belconnen – a beautiful playing surface and a very intimate ground. The players’ race is halfway along the grandstand, and we had seats close to the aisle to see the players come out. We got to know the players, we would wave and say g’day and they would wave back and smile. It’s emotional involvement.

But at Viking Park the footballers come out from the far end of the stand, there’s very little interaction with the fans. There just isn’t the intimacy of a smaller ground. I feel more connected to the players at McKellar Park, and the grandstand is a bit closer to the touchline, you can almost see the sweat on the brow as players go racing down the wing. 


By Tom Smithies and Matt Comito

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Wellington Phoenix: can the exuberance of youth help Wellington make a fast start?

Western Sydney Wanderers: Can coach Cannuli inspire a postseason charge?