DURING a chaotic W-League season for the Jets, a strong performance from defensive midfielder Clare Wheeler was one of the few constants for coach Craig Deans.
And while Wheeler doesn’t expect that to lead to a call up to the Matildas in the short-term, Deans believes the 21-year-old would not be out of place.
Wheeler was the Jets’ inaugural Cheryl Salisbury Medal winner last year for her consistent dedication on and off the pitch.
With player of the year Tori Huster not returning this campaign and season-ending injuries to stars Emily Van Egmond, Katie Stengel, Taylor Smith and Larissa Crummer, Wheeler stood tall in 2018-19 for the Jets, who missed the finals by just three points and won three of their last four games.
The Adamstown junior played all but four minutes of Newcastle’s season and was consistently among their best, along with American goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom.
“Clare has been here the whole time I’ve been coaching, and she’s always been an important player for us,” Deans said.
“This year she’s been more noticeable because she’s been the constant in midfield with all the injuries around her, but she’s got a lot of work and improvement to do, which she’s the first to acknowledge.
“She works hard at training, and just her work ethic and attitude, she just does her job and there’s no fuss from her. There's no ups and downs. She’s very consistent and she’s been very good this year.
“No one can outwork or outrun her, and if she does lose the ball, she usually wins it back quickly.”
With sacked Matildas coach Alen Stajcic yet to be replaced, uncertainty hangs over the national squad for the World Cup. Wheeler has represented Australia at age level and has only enhanced her chances of a senior call-up this season.
“Clare’s been in the under 20s national team the whole time she was eligible, she has five years of W-League experience and she’s been one of our best this season,” Deans said.
“If she was in a team where she had much more experienced players around her, people who have the qualities she’s working towards, I think she could be very effective.
“She wouldn’t be out of her depth too far to go into a [Matildas] camp or to go into that environment.”
Wheeler wanted to build her attacking game this season but injuries around her limited the chances to go forward. She was hoping to push her claims for the Matildas next season.
“I think there’s a lot I need to work on before I can genuinely say I should be in there,” Wheeler said.
“I’d love the opportunity to be in that situation. This year I was working on a few things and with that, when you work more on yourself, those things will come.
“I wouldn’t say [Matildas selection] is at the forefront of my mind but it's definitely the overarching goal for me.”
For now, Wheeler will focus on completing her commerce degree at Sydney University, who she will play for in the NPL NSW Women’s competition.
She was pleased with her efforts this W-League season but keen to improve again.
“Obviously with Tori not being there, that’s one challenge, then with all the injuries we’ve had, that was a completely different challenge in itself,” she said.
“Losing Emily and then Crummer, it was like someone had a sniper somewhere in the grandstand. You didn’t know who was going to be next.
“Every season you learn something and this season I can walk away definitely knowing I learnt a few things. At the beginning of the season I thought I could be more attacking and get forward more a lot more, but with the injuries I had to adapt and change the way I wanted to play, I guess.
“Looking at the season, obviously getting two assists this season, one for Tessa [Tamplin] and one for Teigs [Collister] in the Adelaide game, that’s really good. I don’t think I had many assists in my previous four W-League seasons. That’s a positive.
“But at the end of the day, I’m a defensive midfielder and I guess I look more at my interceptions and completed passes, and all those things. This season I was getting on the ball more and keeping the ball and obviously I want to improve that, but comparing this to last, it was definitely just game time and composure.”
Like Wheeler, many of the Jets’ young talent rose to the occasion this season amid the injuries to key players.
“It’s great to reflect on the youth that’s coming up,” she said.
“You have some girls who had their first W-League season, like Tessa, Renee [Pountney] and Teigan, and they are taking that opportunity and doing really well.
“Other players like myself, Libby [Copus-Brown], Cortnee [Vine], we’ve had a few seasons and we’re more composed on the ball.
“Cortnee scored her first goal and she finished the leading goalscorer for our team. It shows that with time comes experience and with experience comes composure.
“We got dealt the hand we did and we did the best we could with it. There’s plenty of positives from it and we can’t reflect on it poorly, but we can definitely learn from it.”