Six days ago, Tony Gustavsson expressed his desire to “hold down the expectations” of what Mary Fowler can produce in a Matildas kit.
But after her game-breaking display in a 3-0 win over Chinese Taipei on Wednesday night, the CommBank Matildas head coach sat down in the same chair at HBF Park, and was asked the very same question that was posed after victory over Iran: what can Australia can expect from the 20-year-old in the years to come?
This time he responded with a smile: “How am I going to keep the expectations down on that now?”
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Less than an hour beforehand at HBF Park, the 20-year-old had collected a sweeping ball out to the left wing, cut onto her favoured right foot and rifled a strike into the top-right corner of Chinese Taipei’s net; the visiting side had been resolute through an hour of play in Perth, but Fowler’s moment of pure quality ripped the game out of her opponent’s clutches.
Across three Olympic qualifiers in Perth, it felt as though the Manchester City phenom had come of age.
Her star had risen through a stellar World Cup campaign, but this was something different; the recent success of her deployment out wide at City had sparked a change in her Matildas role, and the classy finish against Chinese Taipei was the crowning moment of a stellar international window.
The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup had bred nation-wide excitement for what the Matildas might go on to achieve – and try as he might, Gustavsson conceded he may no longer be able to keep expectations in check when it comes to what Fowler will contribute to the cause moving forward.
“The funny thing is – and I think (many) players have said it before – what we see in training, when she pulls off that goal tonight is what we see in training every day,” he said.
“Left foot, right foot, inside of the foot, laces, clipped balls, anything. Quick decision-making.
“She knows exactly where the goalkeeper is, and her finishing is one of a kind. I think Sam (Kerr) has said it before: she’s one of the best finishers she’s ever played with.
“But one of the reasons Mary can just be Mary is because the other players around her, experienced players like Steph (Catley) and Caitlin (Foord) on the left side and even Alanna (Kennedy) allow her to just be Mary, and then adjust to that. So she can play free from fear and just enjoy the game.
“That’s what I want her to keep doing, no matter what happens, in terms of expectations or headlines. Just be Mary.”
The Matildas rolled through Olympic qualifying in Perth without conceding a goal, scoring 13 and picking up maximum points in three fixtures against Iran, the Philippines and Chinese Taipei.
A rolling theme throughout the international window was Fowler and Foord’s interchanging roles at number 10 and providing width on the left of the attack.
Fowler spent the majority of her time out wide in Perth, a move Gustavsson elected to make based off her form at City where, just four games into the Women’s Super League season, Fowler has already surpassed the 165 league minutes she accrued at her club last season.
One Matilda in a unique position to speak to her transformation is Alanna Kennedy – a teammate at City who supports Australia’s build-up down Fowler’s wing as the left-sided centre-back.
While Gustavsson encourages Fowler to “just be Mary”, Kennedy elects to use a different moniker when describing her club and international teammate.
“Mary is an incredible talent,” Kennedy said after victory over Chinese Taipei.
“We call her ‘star girl’ because that’s exactly what she is. It’s nice to see her getting the opportunity at club level as well off the back of a really good World Cup.
“At City we have some incredible players in her position so to see her starting over them is really good – but she deserves that. She’s played her way into the team and stayed there since. A player like her can win games for you. And I guess she did (that) tonight.”
Fowler scored two goals across three Olympic qualifiers in Perth, helping the Matildas top Group A and seal a place in the final round of qualifiers in the Asian Football Confederation.
She’s relished the change in her role since returning to the Matildas camp for the first time since the World Cup ended in August.
“Since the start of the season (at City) I’ve been playing on the left wing, and I’ve enjoyed it out there,” Fowler said.
“It’s worked quite well at club being able to attack a lot more in that sense, so being able to try it out here has been nice as well, and it’s worked quite well. I think the link-up with (Catley) and (Foord) quite naturally.
“It’s been fun, and I’ve been lucky to get the chance to do that… to move around quite a bit it’s very unpredictable, it allows us to play our game and have fun out there.”
Australia will now face Group C runner-up and best second-placed team Uzbekistan in a two-legged play-off for a spot at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games; the first leg will be away from home on February 24, with the Matildas returning home for the second leg on February 28 on home soil.