Steph Catley and Tony Gustavsson spoke with the press after the CommBank Matildas 1-0 victory over the Republic of Ireland on Thursday night.
Catley, who filled in as captain after Sam Kerr’s late calf injury that has ruled her out of the opening two fixtures of the World Cup, spoke first.
“First of all, it’s incredible to get the win,” the left-back said.
“I think this has been the longest build up to a game in my entire life. Obviously there was a lot of pressure for this team going in and you know, we knew Ireland were going to be a massive, massive task and absolutely were – I thought they were fantastic. They played to their strengths really really well, but I’m really proud of the team for handling it.”
The absence of Sam Kerr was a hot topic, and the stand-in captain was immediately faced with a question about how the team succeeded without their star striker.
“Obviously losing a player like Sam, probably the best player in the world, and just for her as a person, we were completely heartbroken,” Catley answered.
“We had to gather ourselves pretty quickly. But I think we used her spirit and the fact that she wasn’t able to be out there with us to help push us on.
“She’s our spiritual leader and whatever role she plays in the next however long will be massive.”
Catley also referenced Kerr’s involvement in team talks throughout the match and praised her influence as a leader, even if that is forced to be off the pitch.
The 29-year-old scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot. She was asked what went through her head as she stepped up to the task in front of a record crowd of over 75,000 at a home World Cup.
“I just try and look at it as another set piece, and I really enjoy set pieces,” she explained.
“I kind of pick a spot and hit it where I want to hit it and I try to block out the crowd as much I can, take a breath, focus, and keep my mind pretty clear. But it was obviously a big occasion, so when it hit the back of the net I was pretty relieved.”
She finished the press conference by praising the Republic of Ireland’s strategy and their success in stifling the Australian attack.
Coach Tony Gustavsson was up next. He started with his general thoughts on the match.
“We knew this was going to be a very, very tough opening game,” he began.
“We’ve seen Ireland against top teams before, they’re extremely difficult to break down and they fight. They’re really, really committed in their defensive actions.”
He explained that his team’s best spell was in the first ten minutes or so after half time. The first half in front of a record crowd was always going to produce nerves, and the final 15 minutes were spent frantically defending a relentless Irish press.
Similar to Catley, Gustavsson faced countless questions on the absence of Kerr and her fitness going forward for the tournament. He admitted that in the MD-1 press conference yesterday, both himself and Kerr knew that she would not be able to take part in the match, but did not yet know the extent of her injury. He and his staff were updated at 9.30pm last night.
He explained that he did not talk about the issue out of respect for Kerr, and also to catch the Republic of Ireland off guard.
“In terms of emotionally, as you all understand, it’s obviously devastating for the players,” he continued, but praised his team for their ability to focus at training on Wednesday after seeing their captain injured.
Gustavsson agreed that the CommBank Matildas attacking play at times resorted to long balls and was not at its fluent best. However, he argued that credit needed to be attributed to Ireland’s formation and defensive block for the difficulties that his side faced.
“I don’t want to overanalyse this in the sense that – was the absence of Sam the key reason [for breakdowns in attack], or was it Ireland’s defending?” he asked in response.
“We knew it was going to be a tough one no matter what. We’ve seen that especially when Sweden and the US played them, they also struggled getting in behind and creating chances, but… we know we can do better in attack.”
He later explained that, once the game is analysed, much of it will be parked for later – the future group stage games against Nigeria and Canada will present very different tactical challenges.
Despite it not being the perfect game, Gustavsson emphasised the importance of three points and a win at the World Cup.
“I’m very, very happy to get three points in the opening game at the World Cup, and get a win, and get that done. First thing is done and we’re very happy in that sense,” he said.
“We knew it might be one of those games where we just needed to find a way to win. I’ve been around in tournament football for long enough to know that sometimes it is those games where we just need to grind to find a way to win. That showed some maturity in this team.
“To be able to do so with five debutantes [at a World Cup] that may have been nervous and shaky and getting in their heads, but they were in the moment that was right in front of them and I’m really happy about that.”
He ended with thanking the fans for their record turnout at Stadium Australia.
“That 75th minute when we were under the gun, and we have 75,000 behind us to carry us through those moments,” he said.
“15 minutes – that was massive. I’ve said it takes 23, but that was the 24th player in the stands tonight. So thanks.”