When Dylan Holmes was announced as captain of Adelaide United’s W-League team ahead of the 2020-21 season, the club posted two photos on their social media channels to mark the occasion.
The first was of a young Holmes, dressed in an Adelaide jersey and standing on a football at a club fan day in 2007. The second photo was of an older Holmes, dressed in Adelaide’s jersey and standing on a football – the leader of that same club 13 years later.
Those photos were not just a wholesome reminder of the pivotal role football clubs can play in our lives; they were also a neat metaphor for the long-term women’s football project that is starting to bear fruit at Adelaide United.
Before the arrival of Ivan Karlović as head coach in 2017, Adelaide’s W-League program was in chaos. The club had cycled through four head coaches in the space of three years, including one who lasted less than a month. They held the record for the joint-biggest loss three seasons in a row, as well as the longest winless streak of 34 games between 2008 and 2011. They were one of just two clubs to have never qualified for finals.
More than that, though, Adelaide United did not seem to have an identity; a style, a philosophy, something the community could see themselves in. In fact, there were not many South Australians in the Adelaide squad at all. When Karlović took over, his most senior local players – Emma Checker and Jenna McCormick – were 20 and 21 years old; so few had the opportunities been for South Australian players to embed themselves in the club that was meant to represent them.
“It’s almost like a missing generation here in South Australian football,” Karlović told Guardian Australia last year. “You look at Sydney FC and they have the likes of Teresa Polias, who’s been there forever and a day. Newcastle have got their backbone, and so does Brisbane. We’re missing that. We have to try and create that. You can’t buy experience and just plug it into them. It takes time.”
Karlović, then, was tasked with not just a rebuild but also a rebrand; a laying down of new foundations which, like the A-League side, prioritised young, homegrown players. As expected, it took time. Debuts were handed out to players in their mid-teens. Results waxed and waned. But three years on, it is those players – Holmes, Georgia Campagnale, Emily Condon, Isobel Hodgson, Matilda McNamara, Chelsie Dawber and Charlotte Grant – who, now in their early 20s and with several seasons under their belts, are taking Adelaide to new, possibly historic heights.
Adelaide did not just provide young local players with more opportunities, though. The club also drove change from within, including creating a new women’s football committee as well as a head of women’s football role – the first for an A-League affiliated club – which Karlović has now filled. There, he is given the time and the resources to focus exclusively on the W-League program, from improving training facilities to organising friendlies, player signings, uniforms, food, and fielding questions and feedback from the players themselves – allowing them to finally be heard.
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. After their 2-1 win over title-contenders Canberra United on Sunday night, Adelaide have now recorded their best start to a W-League campaign: 13 points from their opening seven games, including four wins and a draw. It is fitting that such a moment came against Canberra, the club whose on-field dominance in the 2010s was facilitated by raising the off-field standards for their players.
In this respect – and compared with the investment in women’s club football around the world – it should come as no surprise that the same is finally happening in Adelaide. Although they remain the only club to never make finals, they enter the second half of the season in third and look likelier than ever to break that drought.
“I think the investment in us at such a young age is now starting to pay off,” Holmes said. “We feel like we’re established W-League players at this point and that we deserve to be here. We can actually compete and stand out at this level now.
“With Ivan coming in over the last three years, it’s given the program a bit of stability – for a while, it was just so chop and change, it was hard to get anything going. But because he knows us so well and he’s worked with us very closely, he knows what we want and what we should get in terms of standards and resources.
“Especially for W-League clubs that have men’s programs that have been fairly longstanding, I think it’s nice to have somebody in there rooting for us and really trying to drive a bit of change and improve the standards. Whatever club you go to, there’s always going to be room for improvement.
“This is very much our team and we need to make it what we want to make of it. There’s a big desire for us to write history for the club. We’ve grown up seeing it struggle – a lot of us have lived through it – and I think we’re all really driven to try and change that. It’s been building for a few years, but we definitely want to make some history.”