Two minutes for five titles: Sydney FC's record-breaking A-League Women championship

MELBOURNE -- A lot can happen in two minutes. Dreams crushed and realised in a matter of seconds. The A-League Women's Grand Final was decided in the space of two minutes. Twenty-two rounds of football, three weeks of finals and 67 minutes of play in the decider all leading up to the moment.

Sydney FC coach Ante Juric used a break in play to rally his players, gathering them in a toolbox meeting on the sideline as a Melbourne City player received attention on the pitch after a knock. Over an hour of football had been played and it wasn't pretty.

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Melbourne City hoarded the possession, eventually finishing up with 72% of the ball, but rarely did anything of note with it. The Sky Blues were penned into their defensive half, seemingly stuck in a maze.

Considering these were the two best sides in the competition all year there was a hope they would turn on the quality and dazzle those in the stands and watching at home. Instead, a gritty, grinding affair played out.

City's dominance was such that the longer it drew on without reward, the more likely a Sydney FC counter-attacking, sucker-punching goal seemed. And so, as play resumed after the pause, the away side made their second substitution for the day: Shea Connors on for captain Princess Ibini.

Coming on for her 15th appearance of the season with her signature pink prewrap headband fixed firmly on her head, Connors was there to provide spark and energy.

The former Brisbane Roar striker was touted as one of Sydney's two solutions to the glut of players they lost in the offseason, especially up forward. But neither she nor former Adelaide United striker Fiona Worts got a good run this campaign with injuries hampering the pair to differing degrees.

It was clear that Connors was ready to run and press, to lead by example, hopefully triggering a second wind in her teammates who had been playing from the beginning. The plan was simple: to halt Melbourne's parade of possession and, ideally, make them pay.

The game needed to be snapped out of its rigidity. A winner would need to be forced. Not coaxed out and not built up but cracked open and freed. As the clock ticked to the 69th minute, just two minutes after Connors entered the fray, it happened.

A looping clearance from Sydney FC centre-back Charlotte McLean headed towards a duel between Rebekah Stott and Connors. Realising it would land in front of the pair, the Melbourne City captain decided to meet it while Connors retreated. Stott's header found the feet of Sydney's Shay Hollman. Crack.

Hollman quickly played the ball to her left to Indiana Dos Santos, the 16-year-old who, regardless of the result, would be heading back to school on Monday. As she received the ball Connors is pointing towards goal, just past the halfway line, lining up for a footrace against City defender Taylor Otto.

The ball from Dos Santos was perfection. It flew through the air, enjoying the space it seldom had seen all game, before bouncing into the path of the oncoming Connors. She turned on the jets when she needed to, positioning her body so she would be able to take the shot first time. The net rippled. Sydney FC were up 1-0.

It was Connors' first goal for the Sky Blues and her first goal for the season after an interrupted campaign. The joy was palpable as she rushed to the sidelines swarmed by her teammates and club staff.

But there were two sides to this moment. When City watch back the tape they'll see Stott's header and the space it was unfortunately directed to. They'll see Connors ghost behind two defenders. They'll watch the smallest moment of hesitation from Melissa Barbieri as she rushed off her line to make her bright pink presence known.

Objectively, the Connors goal only happened one way. But there are two points of view as to its ultimate meaning, as confirmed by the two coaches.

"For 99 minutes we were perfect," said Melbourne City boss Dario Vidosic. "And then for that one second, we gave the ball away."

Juric, sitting with player of the match Mackenzie Hawkesby beside him and the reflection of their collective medals creating a disco ball effect on the roof, was unsurprisingly able to have a laugh as he offered up his own version of the moment after an ugly game by his own admission.

"We're geniuses," he joked when asked about the speed with which the Connors substitution gave them what they needed. "It was set up for Shae to be honest because just one ball we needed over the top and that's what we were waiting for and that's what we got. She finished it so well."

That's the beauty and pain of sport and of this A-League Women season. It was a season of moments decided by a moment. And truthfully, there were so many points during this season where Sydney FC could have felt like the universe was not on their side.

Captain Nat Tobin's ACL injury in the opening round of the season is a spanner in the works no team wants to experience. A rejuvenation of sorts meant the team was trying to bed in several new players after seven departures in the offseason.

And while they were rewarded for their stellar 2022-23 season with Asian football, the additional matches and travel all add up. A second ACL injury, this time to Kirsty Fenton, robbed them of one of their best players all year, while fitness, form, and national team duty, meant there was no set lineup to be called on.

It was a season that demanded a gritty, determined rotating cast, all of whom would need to nail their moment. And they did. It was a season that demanded winning pretty, winning ugly, and bouncing back quickly when neither was possible. And they delivered.

Now the Sky Blues can revel in the club's record fifth championship, buoyed by the memories of a season filled with heart and guts, and prepare to do it all over again.