Sydney FC captain Teresa Polias is more familiar than most with the ebbs and flows of women’s football in Australia. Now in her tenth season with the Sky Blues, and her sixth as their skipper, the former Matilda reflects on the changes she’s seen and what she hopes for the future of the game.
Ten years ago today, 20-year-old Teresa Polias walked out onto a pitch in suburban Brisbane to take part in her first W-League game for Sydney FC.
The match report from that day’s game – a 4-2 win over Brisbane Roar, who Sydney defeated in the grand final the previous year – is a smorgasbord of famous names: Heather Garriock, Kyah Simon, Clare Polkinghorne, Kim Carroll, Caitlin Foord, Kylie Ledbrook.
The report doesn’t mention Polias, even though she made her debut and played the full 90 minutes.
But she doesn’t mind. The quiet achiever tag is something Polias is proud of, and which has come to characterise both midfielder’s understated, metronomic playing style as well as her leadership in what is now her tenth season with the club.
Since joining the side in 2010, the Sky Blues have become the most successful club in W-League history, qualifying for finals in every season since the league’s inception in 2008.
Polias has captained them through six of those, winning two Championships and becoming the league’s record appearance holder, all the while working full-time as a primary school teacher.
It all could have been so different, though – both for Polias and for the club she will lead into the 2020-21 season.
“What I do remember about the early years was the desire to be part of Sydney FC,” Polias told SBS – The World Game. “It sounds so strange to say now that, in the first two seasons, I was actually with the [Central Coast] Mariners.
“But we didn’t choose what team we played for [then]; the Sydney-based players all just got split up. There was no control over where we went. Back then, it was a little bit of an experimental league: we had a big base of Sydney players and behind closed doors, the coaches all got together and negotiated who went where.
“A bit of a funny story was that after Matildas camp, Tom Sermanni [former Matildas head coach] lived in my area and offered me a lift home. So I went with him and he spilled the beans, he said: ‘oh, how do you feel about joining Sydney?’
“And at that point, we hadn’t heard, so I was like, ‘I haven’t heard anything but I’m over the moon!’ But the crazy bit was that the negotiations weren’t over and in a last-minute meeting, I’d been traded. I don’t know who, I don’t know why, but I’d been traded and ended up at the Mariners.
“At the time, I didn’t mind; I just wanted to be involved, whether at Sydney or the Mariners. I was young and happy to be involved in this exciting new league. It’s what I wanted to do so I went for it.”
When the Mariners folded in 2010 due to lack of funding, their players – including Michelle Heyman, Kendall Fletcher, Caitlin Foord and Renee Rollason – were redistributed to other clubs.
Through the luck of the draw, Polias found herself at the club she’d had her heart set on from the beginning. She still looks back on those early years with fondness and gratitude.
“Being younger then, I was so lucky to play amongst the players I had around me. They’re what made me," Polias says.
"When I look back, I probably took it for granted then, but we’ve always had such a strong squad; the calibre of players has always been tremendous.
“Had it not been for your [Kylie] Ledbrooks, Leena Khamises, [Danielle] Brogans, Heather Garriocks, Lisa Gilberts… I learned an incredible amount from those players. And Alen Stajcic as well, I had him for a very long time.
“Just looking back, when I think of the W-League and what it was for me, it’s about the journey and how much I learned.
"Those years are what made me who I am today – having those players around me. I’m grateful for having been lucky enough to play with the calibre of players I have.”
A decade on, the roles have reversed: Polias, now 30, will lead a squad with an average age of just 22 into the league’s thirteenth season.
She hopes she can be for them what those veteran players were for her in her early years, and believes that the young women she’s mentoring now need to grasp the opportunity created by the exodus of senior players to Europe with both hands.
“I would hope that young players look at me in some way and say, ‘I like that about T and I want to be like that.’ I don’t know, you’d have to ask them. You’d hope that you can be that sort of role model for them as well.
“The league’s a bit different now; it’s taking on a new sort of characteristic. I think it’s exciting; it gives a lot of young players the opportunities they’d been waiting for.
“A lot of people are heading over [to Europe] to achieve things that they want to achieve, and that’s totally fine. But I think it’s a positive thing for us as a nation because if you look at our youth performances for the last decade, we want that to improve. It starts at youth level.
“Players getting regular games at a high level, that’s what they need. Some of these players have been in and out of squads over multiple seasons and they should be playing, but it’s just the case that they’ve been waiting in line because someone else was there.
"So I think it’s really good for those players; it’s now their time to show what they’ve got, to step up and fill that spot.”
Having been involved in the W-League since the start and playing her off-season football in the NSW National Premier League – most recently for Sydney Olympic FC – Polias knows better than most the importance of regular, competitive game-time in producing the next generation of stars.
“In terms of the W-League, we need a longer season,” she said.
“If you look at the W-League schedule, people that haven’t seen it before would probably gasp. It’s ridiculous. There’s not enough games; I’ve said it time and again.
“We’ve got a World Cup on home soil and every single young player in the league should be aiming to be on that list.
"The most important thing – you can train however you like and how much you like – but the thing that gets you better is game-time. A longer season is going to give players that.
“The evolution of teams [over a longer season]; it changes the whole dynamic. It really opens up the league to every team.
"You’ve seen in the W-League, towards the end of the season, teams that aren’t looking like they’re going to make finals slip into it. Teams gather momentum and chemistry.
"Twelve games is just not enough, that’s something I really strongly argue for.”
As for her own game, Polias is taking each season as it comes. Her characteristically quiet modesty comes to the fore again when I ask her about retirement plans.
“I’m not a selfish person,” she said. “When my time comes, I’ll put my hand up and I’ll step away. The moment [the club] say, ‘look, T, we’re wanting to go in this direction,’ I’ll gladly put up my hand and step aside for the next generation coming through.
“This year, I had a chat with the club and Ante [Juric] and everyone sees me in their plans, so I’m there again.
"Given that it’s a bit of a transformation, I think we do need a bit of experience with the new look of the league.
"I’ve always had people snapping at my heels and that’s okay. The body’s coping well, and I love the game, so at the moment I’m going around again and I’ll assess it season to season.
“No matter what, I’m always going to support the club and be involved in some shape or form.
"The club means so much to me. They adore me and I adore them and I’d be happy to be involved in any way [after retiring], especially if it means that our W-League team continues to achieve. I’d really love to stay on board.”