If not for Joe Montemurro’s inter-Melbourne switch in 2015, Steph Catley may very well have been an all-time Victory legend by now.
When the current Arsenal Women’s manager departed Victory for City, the former side were left disorganised, coachless and completely unprepared for the impending 2015/16 season even a week out from their intended preseason commencement date.
With City having targeted Victory captain Catley from the get-go as a player for their inaugural squad, Montemurro invited the then 21-year-old to tour the facilities at the City Football Academy, an eye-opening experience which Catley describes as a decisive moment:
“At the time – and still – it was miles ahead of anything I’d seen in the W-League.”
Four seasons and three W-League championships later, Catley endures as one of the most beloved players at the club following a period of unprecedented success for Melbourne City.
That success, however, dried up in 2019 when the squad finished outside of finals qualification spots for the first time ever, with that failure bringing with it the need for a first real re-evaluation of the squad, recruitment policies and tactics.
If you followed City’s 2018/19 W-League campaign, you’ll know that after another characteristically slow start, brought about mostly by injuries and late-arriving players from the NWSL, the squad left their run of winning form all too late, eventually missing out on finals qualification on goal difference alone.
“It was a tough one”, Catley says, “We’d really been building and we got to that point (their 2-0 win over eventual premiers Sydney in the last round) and everything just felt so good and it was too late.
“It was our best game of the season and we were finally clicking.
“That made it really hard as well; not only that we hadn’t made finals but that we could have gone on and won again that year.”
Having taken over the captaincy from Lisa De Vanna from the 2016/17 season onwards, Catley’s leadership, loyalty and tireless work-rate has seen the now 26-year-old arguably become one of the club’s greatest-ever players.
Despite her still relatively young age, the fullback has grown into a mature leader who has become a model of professionalism and who continues to nurture the young talent at the club.
“I like to have really close individual relationships and learn about other players in the team so I know what can help them,” she says, “I’m not the kind of leader who’s going to go in at half-time and scream at everyone.”
Something which shapes a significant portion of Catley’s personal life is her long-term, high-profile relationship with fellow-City player, Dean Bouzanis.
With Catley jetting between Australia and the U.S. every year and Bouzanis coming off the back of a year-long loan stint in the Netherlands, there are some obvious challenges that come with being in that type of often long-distance relationship.
“We both know we’re in stages of our career where we need to be doing whatever we can to get the most out of our careers," she explains, “It takes the understanding that only a footballer can have.”
She's very thankful, however, that they play in different positions; when asked about how the dynamic shifts when one of them is in good form whilst the other might be struggling a little, she explains that the different roles help to “mix things up a little bit” and to avoid any potential tension.
“If we were both left-backs it’d be kind of annoying,” she laughs, “We’d both just be judgemental of eachother.”
She appreciates his attendance at her games when he’s able to, as well as the feedback she receives from someone who she knows will be honest and someone who she can trust.
“It’s nice to have,” she concludes.
The conversation turns to her international career, and to her recent World Cup campaign with the Matildas in 2019.
Widely-tipped to surpass the tournament progression of any Australian side that had gone before, fans back home couldn’t help but feel a niggling sense of disappointment after the Matildas’ quarter-final exit at the hands of Norway, who were without their star striker (and inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or-winner) Ada Hegerberg.
The level of expectation placed upon them was something that Catley explains they hadn’t experienced before:
“We’d gone into previous World Cups and major tournaments with that underdog tag,” she says, “And we really loved that tag and we’re trying to get past that mentality now.”
Her comment that the team had grown somewhat fond of the underdog tag really caught me off-guard as an observer to the conversation. It's a confession that I'd perhaps not expected to hear from the mouth of an elite athlete who's grown to adopt an ultra-professional mentality over the course of her career. Writing it down amongst other notes from the interview, I circled the statement several times and considered what it meant for our national women’s team.
It felt as though it indicated a changing of winds that they'd have to adapt to; that things weren’t going to be the same for the Matildas for much longer; that the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France was a momentous chance for Australia to make its mark on the footballing landscape.
Thus, Catley's response to whether she considered the outcome achieved by the team a success was a little more predictable:
“I would say probably not,” she started, “I think the players that we have right now you’d say [comprise] a golden generation and that World Cup we felt really primed for so I can’t say it was a success.”
The 2019 edition of the world’s premier international football tournament represented an opportunity for the now-wiser and more matured Catley to take in the experience more than she was able to at her first in Canada, 2015.
“The first one (World Cup) feels like a little bit of whirlwind,” the Matilda explains, “I think I was just so caught up in the moment and I think back now and wish I’d taken in a little more of that one.”
She admits that during the World Cup experience in 2019 she made more of an effort to take everything in, but that the incredible location made the event all the more special:
“I think the fact that it was in more of a footballing country just made it incredible. The stadiums, the streets, everyone’s interested in it. I think that was the really cool part about it.
“It really felt like a World Cup.”
This feature article is part of a series in tandem with Talking City's Beyond Football podcast series. Listen to the full interview in the first episode of Beyond Football here: