Redemption for Kat Smith on the eve of A-League Women finals

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It's a cold Tuesday morning out at Western United's newly constructed training facility in Tarneit and an open training session for the club's women's side has just concluded. Kat Smith smiles as she leans over the fence to receive a takeaway cup from her assistant Chelsea Noonan. The pair are taking advantage of the coffee tent their employer has organised for the day; in the brisk conditions, Smith's soy chai latte undoubtedly hits the spot just that little bit more than normal.

On Saturday, Smith will be in the dugout as United welcome the Newcastle Jets for an A-League Women's elimination final. After falling to Sydney FC in last year's decider, there's a sense of steely determination among the group to go one better this time. A feeling this is where they belong.

"The fun and games are over. We want to push, we want to be in the Grand Final, we want to win something," midfielder Melissa Taranto tells ESPN.

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"I'm confident that we're going to be able to finish the story that we were at the start of the season," United's Australia international Chloe Logarzo adds.

Western United can't be said to be coming in at full strength. The side suffered defeat in three of their last four games of the regular season and, along the way, lost Logarzo to a hip injury, midfield metronome Adriana Taranto to an ACL, and talismanic striker Hannah Keane to a ruptured patellar tendon. Needing a point against the Central Coast Mariners in the final week of the season to secure a home final, Kiara De Domizio, in just her third A-League Womens game, starred with an 81st-minute equaliser.

"Challenges," Smith calls them. Tests of a squad whose depth she is adamant she trusts to perform and execute a game-plan that can be followed by any member regardless of age or experience.

Fortunately for Smith, she could text someone during this testing period for advice on never stopping: Tottenham Hotspur boss Ange Postecoglou. The two had worked together at Football Federation Victoria when Postecoglou was starting the V-Elite program, establishing a rapport that would see Smith allowed to observe sessions when he was Socceroos boss, and receive mentorship through programs such as the AIS National Generation 2032 Coach Program. So, when Smith was dealing with an availability crisis, she sought Postecoglou's advice.

"Injuries happen in football. Challenges always happen. Poor results happen. Good results happen. Great moments happen," Smith explains. "But we keep pushing in terms of what elements of luck we can control. And that's the preparation for these challenges.

"We've always had these fleeting moments and interactions. [Postecoglou] is just a great human, and we can have those conversations. He's so gracious with his time and gives back to the coaches in the game here."

Really, it's remarkable that Smith is even at Western United, preparing to lead them into the finals. It was just 10 days out from the start of the season that the Western Sydney Wanderers released a media release stating: "The Wanderers have confirmed the departure of Liberty A-League head coach Kat Smith effective immediately."

Just 15 words on the eve of what would have been her second season in charge, putting Smith out of a job with her next move not readily apparent. All the other A-League Women clubs were settled, but she still had bills to pay. Smith began making calls around the league looking for opportunities, as well as overseas through contacts made throughout her career and in programs such as FIFA's Coach Mentorship Programme, where she'd visited Spain as the mentee of Athletic Club coach Iraia Iturregi.

"It came as a shock," she says. "What was really disappointing is not having the opportunity to finish off a project that was started 12 months earlier. There was a long offseason where things could be addressed and planning was well underway. And just before the season kicked off, a decision was made.

"I'm not the first and I won't be the last person to be in a position that loses their job because of how volatile our industry is.

"What it did reaffirm is my love and passion for the game. To now look back, it reaffirms and validates my beliefs in myself, my beliefs on football, and how I believe I can bring a football club to a position to be challenging for premierships and championships."

Losing one's job is never easy, but it was especially challenging for Smith. For more than a decade, she had juggled her coaching career, which had seen her log various stints across the local, NPL, national, and international levels, alongside a teaching job in Melbourne. That was until she'd landed her first full-time appointment as an A-League coach with the Wanderers.

"I'd always factored my football around the stability of a job in education," Smith says. "But with the Women's World Cup on the horizon, from that point, it was: 'Okay there's got to be this growth and opportunity to invest in the women's game' where I was looking to ply my trade and take up the opportunities of full-time employment."

But, then, a lifeline. The reigning A-League Women coach of the year, Mark Torcaso, made the decision to step away from Western United. He had been juggling commitments in Tarneit with his new position as coach of the Philippines women's national team but now the Philippine association was pushing for him to make a greater commitment; an opportunity with a rising nation that he and United knew he needed to pursue. Simultaneously, assistant Helen Winterburn was moving to New South Wales to pursue an opportunity in Gosford.

Smith had previously worked at United with the club's developmental squad when it first received a women's licence, and was familiar with its strong contingent of NPLW players from her time with Geelong Galaxy and Alamein in the Victorian leagues. She was seen as being able to come in without missing a beat by those in charge and now, with her exit from the Wanderers, was in the right place, at the right time, to fill their sudden void.

Smith was the first, and only, candidate the club spoke to.

"For us, that opportunity opened up and it was an easy decision for us to appoint her into that role," United football general manager Mal Impiombato tells ESPN. "Kat was a perfect person to come in and fill that gap for us and she's done an enormous job -- but it's what we probably anticipated and expected."

Still, arriving at any club midseason is never easy. After ending 2022-23 as Grand Finalists, a stuttering start saw United win just a single game across their opening month of the season. When Torcaso, who had helped build the team every step of the way, left, the loss of this anchor easily could have sent things into a tailspin. It probably should have. But it didn't.

"It's a testament to Kat," Logarzo smiles. "Her ability to come in and give us confidence and have a game plan. Embracing it from the start.

"Mark did an incredible job in the first season and I think this club is all about being able to develop players and coaches at the same time. I think it's incredible for his role to be able to progress and move on and for us, that meant that it made space for another coach and I think it was really good for us at that time. It's incredible the way that the girls embraced everything that Kat made us believe in and I think it's no shock for us to be in the finals."

Between Smith's first game in charge and their home defeat against Newcastle in the first A-League game staged in Tarneit, United have averaged 2.15 goals per game -- more than double what they averaged prior -- and just 1.3 goals conceded. They went from eighth to first on the table, before finally finishing third. The Wanderers, meanwhile, failed to make the finals.

"The most valuable thing I did was have a conversation with the leadership group," Smith says. "Grace [Maher], Chloe [Logarzo], and Jacci [Jaclyn Sawicki].

"They're very experienced footballers, and they're very mature people. They were very clear on what they felt collectively was needed in the group. It's one thing understanding what the people you're leading need in certain moments and I think through those conversations, I was able to establish some clarity around what we're going to achieve now."

The conversation that Smith had with the leadership group soon became a regular occurrence, meeting on Mondays to establish not just an avenue for Smith to deliver messages but, crucially, for information to come the other way that was subsequently acted on.

"This is the first time I've had an open-ended conversation with a coach where they're receptive to it," Logarzo says. "Most of the time it's coaches down and I think that the one thing that I enjoy about Kat is that she's open-minded to having conversations with players and wanting to understand more about the playing group. That's opened up the trust in her as a coach and between coaches and players."

It's been a tumultuous six months, but Smith remains philosophical on the eve of the finals.

"What I learned from my time at Western Sydney is that time is finite," she said, looking out over the Ironbark Field training surface. "You've got to embed your philosophy, and your beliefs early to make an impact.

"We plant seeds that perhaps we don't get to stand under the shade of those trees when they're fully grown. Wherever I go and whatever opportunity I have in football, it's not based on time, it's based on instilling something that can be evolved."