Newcastle’s newest leader, both as a co-captain and as the team’s potential new midfield general, is aiming to prove everyone wrong this W-League season.
Coming into their 2019/20 campaign, Craig Deans’ local-flavoured side has already been written off by many fans, and pundits have been marking a black line through the Jets since Emily van Egmond first announced she would be heading south.
Clare Wheeler, who already boasts 56 appearances for the Jets at just 21 and has represented the developing Matildas ten times, has a big task ahead of her as she looks to fill Emily’s boots. She feels like she and the team are more than up to the task.
“I think people look at our team sheet and think we’re young and we don’t have any internationals,” the two-time Cheryl Salisbury medallist said.
“I’m most looking forward to playing with a bunch of girls this year who want to go out there and prove the people wrong. The attitude there is to keep doing better, to keep working hard and really embody that hard-working ethic in the Hunter.”
Wheeler returns to the W-League alongside new Newcastle recruits Nicki Flannery and Annabel Martin, with whom she won the minor premiership, championship, and club championship with Sydney University in the NPLW NSW.
That three-pronged chemistry, as well as Wheeler’s embedded experience with much of the rest of Deans’ playing roster this year, will be key, the midfield star said.
“Being around the girls like Nicki Flannery and Annabel [Martin], for them coming from Sydney Uni to the Jets as well carries that chemistry, you don’t start from scratch,” she said. “It definitely gives you confidence.”
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The 21-year-old also revealed she’s been thinking a lot about what it means to lead since being bestowed a captaincy role alongside Cassidy Davis and Gema Simon for the upcoming season.
Every time she thinks about what binds the squad together, and how she can tap into that, she said thinks about Newcastle’s horror campaign in 2013/14. The team won just a single game, and finished dead last. They were awarded the spoon for their efforts.
Many of the ladies still wear the red and blue today, however, and Wheeler said she believes the experiences of that gruelling campaign – the worst the club has ever experienced in the W-League – has bound them together.
“That season was definitely a season that made me realise what it was like to cherish a win and what it’s like to deal with losses,” she told the Herald when speaking about that ill-fated campaign. She was just 15 years old that season.
“We finished the year on a point. But this year is definitely not the same. A lot of us who were there then are 21, 22 now, so it has a different vibe this year and we’re definitely not going to have a repeat of that year.”
And on a personal level, Wheeler is looking forward to proving she has what it takes to become Newcastle’s midfield dynamo. The club lost Van Egmond, as well as Chicago superstar Arin Wright, and Clare is the name to replace them.
“Missing Arin and Emily is huge. They’re really great footballers and I wish them both luck,” the Jets star said of her departed midfield compatriots.
“However, for this year it’s more just keeping the ball, keeping it simple and us keeping possession. I think that’s something we lacked last year – someone that would keep the ball and keep things consistent, so this year I’ll just be looking to do that.”
Finally, Wheeler reminded Newcastle fans – a group she thinks is the “best in the W-League” – that the ladies in red and blue would love their support from minute one of Round 1, all the way to the finals.
“Two years ago, the men weren’t even picked to make the finals and they made the grand final. A lot is done based on attitude and if we create the right attitude and stick with it then we can do what we can do,” she said.
“Newcastle is never shy for being the underdogs, so I don’t think it’s something we’ve never dealt with before. We’re one of the most supported teams, we definitely get 1,000 or more people to our games every week which is humbling and I can’t wait.”
Wheeler and Newcastle begin their step into the next generation when they face Melbourne this weekend at No.2 Sportsground this Sunday. Kick-off is at 6pm.