In the latest in our Midweek Dub series of player and coach interviews from the A-League Women, Canberra United star Grace Maher speaks exclusively to Kieran Yap (15/11/22).
Above: Grace Maher in action for Canberra United at Western Sydney Wanderers last season. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.
It only took five minutes and a few touches to change the result. Canberra United were two goals down when Grace Maher stepped up to take an 87th-minute free kick from almost 25 yards.
After the match, she modestly gave some of the credit for the goal of the round to the wind. But the technique to hit it so accurately was second only to the composure to take on the shot. The ball spun viciously into the net to give the home team a lifeline and keep their season alive.
In injury time, it was another moment of class by the Canberra number 10. Maher’s corner kick had been blocked and it look like the chance had gone. When the ball bounced back to her, she took one tough to round the defender. The next saw the ball fizzed in between the defence and the goalkeeper. Holly Caspers was on hand to net the dramatic equaliser.
This is Grace Maher at her very best, and something that A-League Women fans are becoming accustomed to. Whether it is scoring with a 40-yard rocket on the run or a full 90 minutes of quick incisive passes, she is one of the league’s most watchable playmakers.
“I’ve always been very level-headed even if we’ve only got a few minutes left,” Maher told Impetus of her composure on the field.
“My thought process and my composure stay exactly the same as the first minute.
“If you train the way you play then those things that you are doing on the training park you will start to see on the field.
“Set pieces are a unique part of the game. I don’t think they were appreciated until the last 10 years or so.
“When I was growing up I remember, when we had corners at under 10’s level or younger if a girl from my team couldn’t get it into the box it was really annoying, so I thought ‘I’ll do it,’ and it just developed like that.”Grace Maher on how she began her superb corner-taking.
“I was left-footed as well, in the youth national teams it was also a real key component for me. You can change games with different angles.
“As I grew up doing that I got better at it. There’s a lot of decision-making that goes into it, but that’s at training, so when you step up onto the field, you know exactly what you’re going to do.”
Maher is a player of brilliant contrasts. She never looks rushed but keeps the game moving quickly, she is powerful, but precise and has had an ideal preparation for the upcoming season, despite not playing a competitive match since March 2022.
While most A-League women players have finished up NPLW seasons or campaigns in Europe or the U.S, Maher has taken a different approach. She sharpened her skills and match fitness while training with Under 17 and Under 18 men’s teams in Canberra.
“I definitely wish it (the off-season) was a little bit shorter, no more than two to three months would be great. But since covid every year in the off-season has been a little bit different for me.
“This year I took the opportunity to go do what I did when I was younger and train with the boys. I’ve always really enjoyed that and thought that it helps me reach my potential.
“I was able to keep fit and that allowed me a little bit of free time to coach at my junior club. I’m on the committee there and I coach the under-11 girls’ team, I helped with the social media and everything to do with football there.
“I’ve also been doing study and was working with Capital Football, helping with the upcoming season, and doing a little bit of work behind the scenes for the Canberra region of football.
“It is a different game, there are pro’s to doing both. You have to be quicker. It really helps me work on my game defensively. They’re quicker so you have to be smarter, so it really works on decision-making.
“I play on limited touches and my passing range is what gets me out of things as opposed to just charging past. The guys are great, and the coaches are great so it’s just a really fun challenging environment and that’s what I need when I’m not playing games.”
Coaching the girls’ junior team was a rewarding experience for Maher, she says that she feels privileged to do it and that it makes her heart full to see them develop as players and fans of the sport.
“They were amazing,” she says of her team. “I saw huge growth in them from the start of the season to the end. What I was most proud of was their attitude and ability to support each other. They wanted to win but they looked after each other first.
“They loved their football. I got them into watching the Euros and following the Champions League. They’ve been learning about football not just playing it.
“It’s opened their eyes to what they could be if they want to follow a career in football. I think that’s important for the next generation because when I was coming up the w-league was present and that was the goal, but we didn’t have this global reach. You had to attend games you didn’t get to watch highlights.”
Starting the season with momentum
Canberra United started the 2021/22 season slowly. Like many clubs in the A-League Women, there is a high turnover of players. Although they had much of the core group that took them to the semi-finals the previous year, it took some time for the side to gel.
Maher says this is something that the team and new manager Njegosh Popovich have worked on rectifying for the new season.
“We’ve gone straight into games,” is how she describes the pre-season. “We’re working on our relationship between us as players before there’s too much information coming through the coaching staff. It’s really like, ‘lets see what we are as players.’
“It’s how we speak about picking teams based on who’s in form, it’s seeing what form’s work, what formations and players are gelling well. “A lot of our training is through gameplay, repetitive high-speed balls in and that’s fantastic for myself who has spent a lot of the off-season doing a lot of that off-field conditioning.
“I’ve already been able to link up well with new players, but in particular it’s been really enjoyable to be back with Michelle (Heyman), Nikki (Flannery) we have played for so long together and that connection hasn’t been lost it just had to be found again.”
Canberra have a number of exciting additions, Grace Jale, Grace Taranto, and Ellie Brush are just three that are tipped to make a big impact. But one of the biggest names to return is star attacker Nikki Flannery. The winger had a sensational 2020/21 season, but missed the last campaign with an ACL injury. Maher says her comeback is a huge boost for the club.
“There’s a really lovely feeling to the squad. everyone are really genuine people and down to earth. That just makes training more enjoyable because you’re all putting in but we’re all friends off the field.
“The return of my best friend is so exciting for the team because she’s loved in Canberra, she’s a hard worker. No one would have wished on her what she went through last year and missing the league.”Grace Maher on the return from injury of Nikki Flannery.
“I’m sure she’ll find her stride throughout the season, and I’m sure you’ll see a more exciting Nikki Flannery. Off the field she’s a real personality, she’s light-hearted and known to have a joke about herself.
“It’s great for the team on the park and off it too.”
From legendary ball kid to star midfielder
Maher is an entertaining and essential player at the club that has regularly been competitive. Canberra United are the only A-League Women’s side without a men’s club attached, but that potential disadvantage is also a strength. There is a reason that players like her and league legend Michelle Heyman continue to return.
“I have to put it down to the fans and the culture that the club has and the relationship between the players, the staff, and the community that we have in Canberra,” says Maher
“Obviously we’re very fortunate that we are the only professional football team in Canberra, so we feel that love. The Canberra football community has given me so much.
“My first W-League contract at 15…there’s this real sense of loyalty. I think we’re very loyal players. I love playing here.
“My family are here and there’s no better feeling after games, getting that support from everyone, friends, family, and people who have become friends through their following of Canberra United.”
Maher has spent seasons away. One at Melbourne Victory and another in Iceland with KR Women’s Football. But the lure of the club she supported as a child remained. She grew up idolising players like Sally Shipard and Caitlin Munoz. The latter eventually became a teammate and mentor, although they first met under unusual and now almost mythical circumstances when Maher was a 13-year-old ball kid.
“To this day we say it was Caitlin Munoz who missed the goal that broke my wrist,” she recalls.
“My mum is quite well known in the football community here, she organized to get me along to a signing session. It was where I got my cast signed.
“It was actually the day of my debut with Canberra United in 2014 that we were warming up at McKellar Park and Catherine Brown said, ‘do you guys remember that ball kid who broke her arm at training?’
“I was sitting there going ‘oh my god, no one knows it me.’
Maher offered to bring the cast in as proof. It’s an item that she still cherishes, although the star midfielder remains a cautionary tale around the club.
“It’s a story that’s also told to ball girls that you don’t need to be a hero to stop a shot, wait for the ball the bounce, then go get it.”
Maher is now a senior player at her hometown club. She emulates her heroes in the Canberra United midfield and plays with a calmness that belies the constant danger that she presents to the opposition.
There have been many factors in how she has developed as a player.
“I look now at the similarities in personalities with my parents. I first noticed that my dad is very analytical and calm and that’s completely in my game. And then my mum has a little bit more grunt and isn’t afraid to get stuck in so that’s been coming through as well.
“Growing up I was a big fan of futsal. I played that until I came into A-League Women, which was a summer sport, so I had to stop that. Close ball work, ball mastery is something that I’ve always been working on.”
Although her defensive abilities have improved throughout her career, it is as a midfield conductor where Maher does her best work, and where fans love to see her.
“I’ve always just loved the fact that you can pull strings on the field,” she says.
“Play smarter not harder.”
An eye on the broader future
If you were to judge her by her passing game, you might assume Grace Maher can see slightly into the future. Off the field, she is somebody with an attentive eye on it and where the game is headed.
When the PFA announced a new collective bargaining agreement and minimum wage, it was Maher who made the public statement. It’s a role she enjoys.
“I’m naturally a confident person that always going to fight for things I believe in, things that not only affect me but the people I care about and my teammates.
“That role fell naturally to me. It’s not the easiest to have to stand up to clubs and call things out.
“As my dad used to say, the most profitable isn’t what’s best for the players sometimes you need two parties to fight so you get that fairness and happy medium that you’re starting to see in the women’s game with minimum wages and working conditions.
“It’s really amazing to see where its grown in the eight or nine seasons I’ve been a part of the league and if was a 15-year-old walking in now it’d be pretty surreal.”
One of the most significant advances in Australian women’s football is the extension of the season. although it is not a full home and away campaign yet, the longer calendar is something players and fans are happy about.
Maher sees the league as more unpredictable, and that more sides will have a chance to get into the title race.
“What’s going to be cool to see this year is with an extended season, there’s going to be a little bit more fairness in the competition.
“You’ll see that the table changes as opposed to those front runners going and winning the league.
“There’s a lot of unknown, teams have swapped around so much and new players have emerged and older ones have come out of retirement. With that unknown, it’s really exciting.”
For Canberra United in particular, Maher says that they expect to be competitive in every match. They have the talent to beat anybody on their day, and are striving for consistency.
“We don’t rely on individuals, we’re just a strong team where no matter what the result, the opposition will walk off the feeling ‘that was hard, we do not want to play that again, especially at McKellar Park.
“I think we have some really talented players and if we can work towards what makes Canberra United Canberra United then we’ll hit the ground running and cause an upset or two.”