The 2021/22 A-League Women’s season was a milestone for the competition, with a name rebranding present and a new team entering the fray.
Wellington Phoenix has had a men’s team since 2007, and prior to this campaign, finally added a women’s side to its ranks.
But the squad wasn’t given a normal introduction to life in Australia.
In fact, the strange part wasn’t that they played in their neighbours across the Tasman, but that they lived there.
Border closures meant that Wellington’s women’s side weren’t able to play a single game in their home country, let alone their hometown.
It was a challenging season, full of surprises and many ups and downs.
But it was also a chance to make history for the Wellington squad in their first campaign in the A-League Women competition, and Barry and Knott relished the positives from the season away from New Zealand.
“I loved it so much,” said 21-year-old Barry.
“It was such a change and step up from playing in New Zealand.
“I loved living with all the girls and playing every week – I looked forward to it so much and I really miss it.”
“I really enjoyed it – it was kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity going into it,” added Knott.
“The highs were unbelievable – the first win and just stepping out onto the field and wearing that jersey was a really cool experience.”
But part of that once in a lifetime opportunity was the fact that the season was spent in a foreign country, away from families, friends and familiar environments.
The squad was isolated in Australia, forced to play its games without a proper home crowd in the most unusual, unfamiliar conditions a starting football team in Australia has ever seen.
“I’ve been living away from home for a couple of years now, so for me personally I didn’t mind too much living overseas,” said Barry.
“But I know a lot of the girls struggled and were really homesick. Playing important matches and not having any supporters or seeing familiar faces in the crowd was a challenge – I didn’t expect that to affect me as much as it did.
“I think playing in front of my parents like I always have motivates me I suppose, and I didn’t realise that until we were playing in front of crowds who aren’t supporting us.”
Meanwhile, Knott was also used to living away from home before, having played in America and England, with the midfielder’s family split between New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
However, Berry and she both found it to be challenging past the homesickness, with the lack of clarity about their futures and playing at home having a major effect on the squad.
“I think it was a big challenge to get our energy levels up for every game, especially after losing and not having time away with family and friends,” said Knott.
“It could take work to get everyone back into the mindset to play with 100% intensity, but we did do that for most games which was great and showed a lot of strength.”
“I think the hardest part was not knowing when we would be able to come back. It was all so last minute, and we didn’t know if they could come and visit, so it was a challenge.”
Meanwhile, the lack of variety in social groups also had an impact on the squad, with a lack of ability to escape from football to refresh and regroup for the next match.
“After a big loss that was tough, because usually, you’d want to talk to people outside of the team and outside of football,” said Barry.
“I think when we had a big loss and when everyone was down and we didn’t have a release that could put perspective on the situation or even just talking or seeing to my parents would be nice.
“We had a few big losses and lost a bit of motivation, and I think not having a wider support network was when it was most noticeable.
“I do think it was a positive experience but that was challenging.”
Isolation from friends and family brought the playing group and coaching staff closer, with both players saying that an advantage to come from the disadvantaged situation was the togetherness of the group and the bonds formed over the course of the season.
“It was good in a way because we kind of became each other’s families and friends because we were all we had there so we just had to lean on each other in the hard times,” said Knott.
“Whether it was a coach or a different player we always supported each other because we were all going through the same thing.
“But it was definitely hard not having the escape of going to see friends or going to see family and just having a change of scenery.”
“I think because we were all thrown in the deep end and didn’t know what to expect, at least we still had other and could relate on that level to each other,” added Barry.
“It definitely brought us closer together because we pretty much spent every second of every day together, outside of training as well.
“That was really special, and I think everyone’s made some lifelong friends that we wouldn’t have necessarily made if we were just playing normally or living in New Zealand.
“It brought us all closer because we were each other’s family.”
Another positive that came from the experience was being part of Wellington’s first-ever win in the A-League Women’s competition.
Wellington had come so close twice prior to the positive result.
Against Brisbane Roar, Alyssa Whinham scored Wellington’s second goal in the A-League Women’s competition, before Grace Jale doubled their advantage inside 25 minutes of play.
But Brisbane roared in response, winning 3-2 thanks to an 87th-minute winner from Katrina Gorry.
Wellington lost by the same margin to Perth Glory, again being undone late on.
Phoenix had led up until the 81st minute, but two goals quick-fire goals from Perth gifted them the glory, to the dismay of Wellington.
The win finally came two matches later, with Wellington prevailing 3-0 to clinch their first three points in stunning style against Canberra United.
“The first win was just amazing,” exclaimed Knott.
“We were just waiting for the last whistle to go – it was so intense! We were just waiting and hoping that we could hold onto this win, and then once the whistle blew everyone was just so emotional.
“I was tearing up a little bit, and everything just felt so worth it for that feeling of winning.”
“The win had been coming for so long and we had really been working hard on the tactics and on the way we wanted to play and it was so close.
“We weren’t expected to get a win going into it.”
Perhaps the only thing missing from that victory was the chance to share it with friends, family, and Wellington Phoenix fans.
But next season, with the hope of regulations remaining eased, Wellington could play in front of a home crowd in the A-League Women’s competition for the first time in their short history.
Both Knott and Barry have stated their intent and desire to be part of it.
“I would love to play for the Phoenix again for sure, I think it was just a cool experience the whole thing and it’s a really cool team and club with a good vision,” said Knott.
“That’s such a dream, I think it will make all the difference playing in front of friends and family in a familiar place,” said Barry.
“I haven’t played in front of my family in a professional league before so that’ll be a new thing as well but it’ll be awesome and I’m really excited.”
“I’m looking forward to that so much”.