When Melbourne Victory signed Melina Ayres to a three-year contract in 2020, a new benchmark was set for W-League contracts.
The striker responded with a career-best season, a dominant performance in the semi-final thrashing of Brisbane Roar, and ended the season as Victory’s leading scorer.
Coach Jeff Hopkins says it is the start of a strategy that will see more players committed to the club for consecutive seasons.
“It’s definitely something we believe in, I’m lucky that the club backs my judgment as well to say ‘let’s get these players locked into multi-year deals.’ ”
Hopkins praised the vision of the club, their faith in him, and the player for how she responded.
“A lot of it comes from the club wanting to build a successful, and sustainable team,” says the reigning W-League Coach Of The Year.
“In the past the way things have been, you kind of play your season, and wherever you finish, top three or bottom three you have to then build another team the following year.
“It really makes it hard to build on what you’ve achieved the previous season when you never know what players you’ll have back.
“What we decided to do was to sit down and try over the next few years to lock down the players that want to be at Melbourne Victory and the players we want to be at Victory as well.
“Obviously Melina was one of those players, she’s one that we saw as a future leader at the club. Someone that wanted to play at the club and someone with the talent that we’d like to keep around the club.”
The challenge for every W-League player and coach is the annual recruitment drive to build a new squad.
Most teams do have returning players such as Brisbane Roar’s ever-reliable Matildas and Adelaide brigade of loyal young guns but it has historically been a struggle to plan too far ahead.
Hopkins says the improvement in the league off-field had helped.
“The conditions in the league and the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) has been a year-to-year thing.
“We don’t know from one year to another what the minimum wage is going to be…Now there seems to be a bit more stability in the league.”
Hopkins feels that investment in the players is beneficial for both parties, he can plan long term and the players can concentrate on football.
“When the player has security they feel like they can focus on their development…It’s mutually beneficial for the club and the player…we can then plan for the future and not just go from season to season.”
Victory endeavour to sign more senior players to long-term deals where Hopkins perceives off-field stability as the key to success.
“There’s the role of our more senior players as well… one to give us what they give us on the field, but also to help bring those younger players through and just to mentor and guide.
“Getting that sustainable success is all about. It’s not all about the younger players or older players. It’s almost like a conveyer belt of players coming through and everyone’s helping each other.”
Melbourne young guns such as Ayres and Kyra Cooney-Cross grabbed the headlines after impressive seasons where Hopkins points out the positive influence senior players had on the squad and this is what he wants to replicate yearly.
“Lisa (De Vanna) was a really good example, for what she brings on the field you’d sign her for that anyway but she’s very good with the younger players as a role model, she gets around them. She’s good with advice to the young players.
“Someone like Amy Jackson as well, a good experienced player is good at mentoring the younger girls around her as well as bringing her great experience on the field.
“As people grow around those players they take their mantle in the club they do the same for the players below them as well.”
Ayres continued her development in 2021 but her season repaid the faith shown in her by Victory and Hopkins.
A hat-trick in the semi-final against Brisbane was the culmination of a consistent campaign, her first leading the line as the nominal center forward in Navy blue.
“She’s progressed well each year, she’s maybe been a little bit in the shadow of Natasha Dowie in the past but this year…I always had the confidence she could step in and take over that mantle… Maybe the fact that we were offering a three-year deal backed up what I was trying to say to her.
“You look at the real good goal scorers, they’re instinctive, she reacted really well, maybe four or five goals were tap-ins, she was always the first on the spot when the ball came in.”
Hopkins expects that with Victory’s support, keeping the core of the team together will result in more on-field joy.
“(In the past) You finish one season and you look at the bit of paper in front of you and it’s an empty sheet and you have to recruit 18-20 players from scratch.
“The day after the Grand Final we were recruiting players and trying to get players re-signed. Next year we’ll definitely have the core of the side (already) re-signed.
“It makes things a lot simpler for me I can just go and target three to four key players to bring in and knowing if I add those players to the team we had the previous season we’ll be equally as strong if not stronger.”