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Before the World Cup, Mary Fowler seemingly couldn’t buy a start for Manchester City. The 20-year-old signed for the English Women’s Super League side in June last year only to spend the next 12 months not quite finding her place in Gareth Taylor’s team.
Then came that tournament, and that pass. That through ball from the halfway line that split Denmark’s defence and invited Caitlin Foord to score the Matildas’ opening goal en route to the quarter-finals. The headlines said there was something about Mary.
There still is. Four games into the WSL season, Fowler has already played almost double the league minutes she had in the entirety of the 2022-23 campaign. Part of it was her World Cup output. Part of it was the drive she said sitting on City’s bench had given her.
But part of it was also evident in Thursday’s 2-0 Olympic qualifying win over Iran in Perth. When Fowler was introduced after 65 minutes, Tony Gustavsson deployed the forward on the wing, to mimic the positional tweak Taylor had implemented at club level.
It worked a treat 15 minutes into her shift when, roaming on the left side, Steph Catley found her for a one-two before crossing for Sam Kerr’s goal.
“Credit to City for this, they’ve used Mary [more] as a wide forward this season and she’s been outstanding in the league,” Gustavsson said. “We said, ‘Let’s try her [in the role] in our environment as well’, and Mary’s performance in those minutes on the left side were just mind-blowingly good. I think she was [the] best, just so good.
Mary Fowler on the ball against Iran.Credit: Getty
“Actually, I saw the spark in her eyes when she was told to come in on the wide areas today. She had enjoyed it in City as well, and for us it’s perfect. It gives us different tools in different positions. And Cait [Foord] can also play with Sam up there and out wide and now we have different tools in different games that we can use.
“We always knew that Mary had a special ability as a footballer. Her technique and her vision is unique – had been from day one when I worked with her.”
Gustavsson said Fowler, who was also part of Ante Milicic’s 2019 World Cup squad as a 16-year-old but did not play, had worked tirelessly on improving her off-the-ball movement, building a physicality beyond her years and learning to combine her innate technical ability with speed.
“She’s also so humble, to say ‘I still have a lot to learn, I want to get better every day’,” he said. “But I also want to hold down the expectations as well, because she shouldn’t be the one who has to carry this team or take responsibility in that sense.
Amy Sayer caps a strong performance with a post-match fan selfie.Credit: Getty
“She should be this young player that is the spark and do her thing. And then some of the other experienced players can carry the pressure, and Mary goes out and just does her thing.”
Gustavsson was also full of praise for Ellie Carpenter, who scored Australia’s opening goal on a lively night at HBF Park, but made a point of singling out two players who did not get a chance to play at the World Cup.
One was the “outstanding” Clare Wheeler, who signed a permanent deal with Everton in the off-season and controlled the Matildas’ midfield in a manner that would have the already-excellent incumbent pairing of Katrina Gorry and Kyra Cooney-Cross paying attention.
Clare Wheeler shone in midfield.Credit: Getty
“It’s a huge compliment,” said the 25-year-old, who hails from Coffs Harbour. “Every opportunity is something I want to invest in. For each camp, it’s just to do my best. Whatever’s needed from me on the field, I’ll do the best I can.”
The other was 21-year-old attacker Amy Sayer, who narrowly missed out on Gustavsson’s final World Cup squad but has since signed with Swedish top-flight outfit Kristianstads DFF and could have scored a couple of times during the second half.
“This is the first time I’ve come into camp as a professional player rather than just an amateur,” Sayer said.
“After just missing out on the World Cup … I really wanted to be a part of that.”
The Matildas need to beat the Philippines on Sunday at Optus Stadium and Taiwan on Wednesday at HBF Park to guarantee progression to the third and final phase of Paris 2024 qualifying in February.
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