The latest PFA Post reveals match minutes played by female professional footballers aged between 18-24 rose by 38% during the 2020/21 W-League season.

Driven by a range of external factors – including the COVID-19 pandemic and the exodus of national team players to European club football – the increase halts the previous decline in match minutes available to the 18-24 cohort evidenced over the last three W-League seasons.

The data has been compiled from the PFA’s annual W-League Report, which explores and analyses industry trends, independent research and player feedback to assess the working conditions within the W-League. The full report will be released later this month.

The data highlights a strong and sudden demographic shift in the W-League where young players in the 18-24 age group have overtaken the 25-29 age group in terms of match minutes played – reversing a five year trend of declining match minutes in the 18-24 age bracket as the league matured.

⤵️ Key Takeaways

  • Minutes played in the 25-29 age bracket dropped 44% this season
  • Minutes played in the 18-24 age bracket rose 38% this season
  • Minutes played in the 30+ bracket rose 11%
  • The average age in the league was 23.7 (23.1 last year)
  • Players had an average of 4.3 season in W-League experience this season (4.2 last year)
  • A reduction in foreign players led to more opportunities for young Australian players, with 38% fewer foreign players in the league this year (23 down from 37).

Focus on Youth Match Minutes

To personify the data and gauge how big a role the youth demographic played, the PFA narrowed the dataset to players aged 22 and under who played at least 900 match minutes for the season and compared this figure over the league’s history.

This season had 26 players meet this threshold, the second highest ever after the 2012/13 season, which had 31 players. In the 2012/13 season, a host of teenage Matildas emerged through the W-League competition, including 17-year-olds Caitlin Foord, Alanna Kennedy, 18-year-old Steph Catley 19-year-old Sam Kerr.

2020/21 W-League Season
Player Team Age* Minutes Played Appearances
Ally Green Sydney FC 22 1,272 14
Elizabeth Anton Perth Glory 22 1,080 12
Matilda McNamara Adelaide United 22 1,080 12
Clare Wheeler Sydney FC 22 1,023 12
Emily Condon Adelaide United 22 1,027 12
Claudia  Bunge Melbourne Victory 21 1,290 14
Nickoletta Flannery Canberra United 21 1,123 13
Melina Ayres Melbourne Victory 21 1,235 14
Grace Maher Canberra United 21 1,108 13
Remy Siemsen Sydney FC 21 1,121 14
Danika Matos Western Sydney Wanderers 21 924 11
Jada Whyman Sydney FC 21 1,290 14
Deborah-Anne de la Harpe Perth Glory 20 1,028 12
Princess Ibini-Isei Sydney FC 20 1,155 14
Charlotte Mclean Sydney FC 20 1,228 14
Winonah Heatley Brisbane Roar 19 1,151 13
Tori Tumeth Melbourne City 19 985 12
Tessa Tamplin Newcastle Jets 19 1,018 12
Leah Davidson Melbourne City 19 1,076 12
Laura Hughes Canberra United 19 1,084 13
Polly Doran Melbourne Victory 19 1,172 14
Kyra Cooney-Cross Melbourne Victory 18 1,260 14
Hana Lowry Perth Glory 17 1,006 12
Emma Ilijoski Canberra United 17 900 10
Jamilla Rankin Brisbane Roar 17 1,121 13
Jessika Nash Canberra United 16 1,168 13

Of these 26 players, four players played the maximum number of regular season minutes, with Matilda McNamara, Elizabeth Anton, Claudia Bunge and Jada Whyman playing 1,080 minutes across the 12 rounds. Bunge and Whyman also played every minute of the finals series, totalling 1,290 minutes across the season.

Canberra United’s 16-year-old Jessika Nash was the youngest player, playing 1,168 minutes, followed by a trio of 17-year-olds which included Brisbane Roar’s Jamilla Rankin (1,121), Perth Glory’s Hana Lowry (1,006), and Canberra United’s Emma Illijoski.

Of those in this age group, Princess Ibini (6) and Emily Condon (1) have received Matildas caps.

🗓️ The emergence of the ‘Golden Generation’ of Matildas (2012/13)

Compared to the most recent season, the 2012/13 season produced the highest (31) number of players within the 22 and under cohort to reach the 900 minutes threshold. 

15 players from that group played for the Matildas and between them have earned 602 caps for the National Team. Six of them – Alanna Kennedy (90), Caitlin Foord (86), Katrina Gorry (79), Kyah Simon (93), Sam Kerr (90), and Steph Catley (83) have over 75 caps.

After the 2012/13 season, several players moved to the newly established National Women’s Soccer League, which emerged after the ‘Women’s Professional Soccer’ league folded. This was the first time that many of these players – who went on to represent the Matildas, had the opportunity to build a full-time calendar of football, complementing their W-League season with contracts in the NWSL. 

Player Team Age* Minutes Played Appearances Matildas Caps
Teresa Polias Sydney FC 22 1,260 14 12
Gulcan Koca Melbourne Victory 22 1,100 13
Gema Simon Newcastle Jets 22 1,080 12 11
Abby Erceg Adelaide United 22 1,080 12
Samantha Spackman Western Sydney Wanderers 21 919 11
Liz Milne Perth Glory 21 1,094 12
Kyah Simon Sydney FC 21 990 11 93
Sarah McLaughlin Adelaide United 21 900 10
Enza Barilla Melbourne Victory 21 1,226 14
Alesha Clifford Western Sydney Wanderers 21 957 11
Bronwyn Studman Perth Glory 20 1,077 12
Nicole Begg Sykes Canberra United 20 1,080 12
Marianna Tabain Perth Glory 20 1,144 13
Vedrana Popovic Brisbane Roar 20 1,120 13 2
Jennifer Bisset Canberra United 20 1,000 12
Katrina Gorry Brisbane Roar 20 973 11 79
Erika Elze Brisbane Roar 19 1,170 13
Samantha Kerr Sydney FC 19 986 12 90
Rebekah Stott Melbourne Victory 19 1,290 14
Hannah Brewer Newcastle Jets 19 1,080 12 3
Alexandra Huynh Western Sydney Wanderers 18 924 12 1
Stephanie Catley Melbourne Victory 18 1,110 12 83
Mackenzie Arnold Canberra United 18 900 10 25
Ann Mayo Adelaide United 18 1,080 12
Eliza Campbell Newcastle Jets 17 1,080 12 2
Alanna Kennedy Sydney FC 17 989 12 90
Brianna Davey Melbourne Victory 17 1,110 12 18
Caitlin Foord Sydney FC 17 962 12 86
Emma Checker Adelaide United 16 900 10 7
Jessica Waterhouse Adelaide United 15 900 10
Elizabeth Ralston Sydney FC 15 1,123 14

📝 Summary

While the average age in the W-League did not skew younger or older, there was a redistribution of match time gifting young players a lions’ share of match minutes, helping them gain vital first-team experience.

As the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup approaches, the focus has intensified on Australian football’s legacy both for the game and the players, with a particular spotlight on the opportunity for younger players to springboard from the W-League into the national team.

With the number of minutes played by young footballers a key factor in their development, the more opportunity afforded to young players, the more talent within the league is provided with valuable first-team exposure and opportunities to progress along the talent pathway.

Given the emergence of young talent during the 2020/21 season, the simple solution could be to ensure all nine W-League clubs promote and play young players more regularly. 

However, that is not a strategy in and of itself, particularly given the emergence of players in the under 22 cohort increasing can be explained by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and exodus of Matildas to Europe.

It is evident that we can’t simply rely on opportunism. Instead, we must find a strategic solution that allows for a genuine 12-month proposition to increase the match minutes available to our elite and youth players. This must sit alongside the immediate expansion of the W-League competition to include more matches and more teams.

Following the release of the W-League 2020/21 Report, the PFA will also socialise Project 2023, a football legacy paper centred on the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which explores the opportunities for the W-League to use the opportunity of 2023 to advance women’s domestic football.

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