In the same way that it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team of coaches to develop a footballer.
And while much of the focus of the 2020/21 W-League season has been on the rise of the next generation of Matildas players, the league has also become a crucial platform for the female coaches who are helping them get there.
One W-League club that has played a key role in developing women coaches in Australia is Canberra United.
As the only stand-alone women’s football club in the country — with no A-League/men’s affiliate — United have become a leader in the women’s sport space, not only producing a number of current and former national team players but also in making a concerted effort to hire and support women coaches when many other Australian football clubs did not.
Five of the last seven head coaches who have led Canberra United have been women, making up half of the league’s total female coaches across its 13-year history.
For current head coach Vicki Linton, this proud history was an important part of her decision to come on board with the club this season.
“Their history, and therefore their strategy of appointing female coaches, said something to me,” Linton says.
“How they’ve actually conducted themselves as a club, and the way they’ve gone about things; in the early years, they were the benchmark.
“They’ve always been very good at the environment they create and the club they want to be.”
In fact, Canberra United have made even more history in the coaching department this season, becoming the first club in Australian professional football to have an all-female coaching staff.
Linton played a part in that, but says it wasn’t to make a statement — it’s simply that Australia is producing quality women coaches who have earned their opportunities, and she is in a position to provide them with one.
“It wasn’t something that, when I was appointed, I was like, ‘this is what I’m going to do,'” Linton says.
“I just started looking for the best people for the job and the people I wanted to work with.
“It’s a different dynamic, but at the end of the day, every dynamic is different — male or female. Even though I’m proud that we’ve got an all-female staff, that, to me, doesn’t matter.
W-League a solid start
The W-League has become an important stepping-stone for women coaches in other ways, too.
Linton is one of three female coaches, including Melissa Andreatta and Rae Dower, who transitioned from the league into roles with Football Australia.
And while three of the last four senior Matildas head coaches have been men, including newly-appointed Swede Tony Gustavsson, it’s hoped that an Australian woman will be appointed as his successor.
Further, the W-League also opens doors to coaching jobs overseas.
Like Linton, who took up a job with US Soccer after her initial stint in Australia, former Perth Glory head coach Nicola Williams spent time as assistant with the Trinidad & Tabago women’s national team as well as Italian giants AC Milan. And she’s just secured an assistant coaching position at Italian club Lazio.
Last year, former Brisbane Roar head coach Belinda Wilson was appointed to FIFA’s Women’s Football Division as a Senior Technical Development Manager.
One new coach embracing the opportunities provided by the W-League is Newcastle Jets boss, Ashley Wilson.
After spending five seasons as assistant under former coach Craig Deans, the Newcastle local stepped into the top job towards the end of last season following Deans’ move to the A-League.
This, she says, was her first big goal — and she’s not about to hurry towards the next one.
“I just want to be the best possible coach I can be,” Wilson says.
“I want to gain more experience. In terms of W-League, that was the first milestone. For me, I’m focusing on that — I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
“I know that, as a coach, you have to continue to build your craft. I’m not about counting my chickens before they hatch, I’m more about where my goals sit now and working to make sure I achieve them.
“Right now, I want to make the Newcastle W-League team the best possible team it can be. I want to build myself as a coach within this role.
“And if, along the way, people look at what I’m doing and see potential there for high levels, then of course I’m more than open to opportunities that are thrown my way.”
Coaching falls behind as rest of women’s game grows
Even though both Linton and Wilson entered coaching at different times and in different states, their paths have been similar.
Each has had to weave together a patchwork of various coaching roles — sometimes with work in other industries — to make ends meet.
This is where coaching still falls behind while the rest of the women’s game continues to grow in Australia.
While salaries and conditions for W-League players have improved over the past decade, Linton says the same hasn’t happened for the league’s coaches.
“If I wasn’t doing this, I would be overseas because there are only a few full-time jobs in Australia,” she says.
“I coached in the W-League eight years ago. Coming back to it now, things have changed a lot on the players’ side, but they haven’t that much for coaches.
“If our goal is to develop more coaches and more women coaches, we need the opportunity to work in a full-time environment — for head coaches and assistants.
For Wilson, the lack of a wider structural support system affects how much time she can dedicate to her coaching.
Alongside her role at the Newcastle Jets, Wilson also works as a high school PE teacher.
“Coaching overseas is something that I’ve thought about, but it’s a balance thing for me,” she says.
“I’m focused on W-League and I absolutely love the Newcastle Jets and working with this team. But I also have that other element in the back of my head around school: teaching is quite a stable job and coaching is not so much.
“It would be amazing if [full-time coaching] could happen. If I had all the answers around numbers and being able to get the players and the coaches paid more in the women’s game, I’d probably be involved a lot more.
“If I see it, in my lifetime, where you can be a full-time professional female coach, that’d be brilliant. It’s got to start somewhere, and people have got to lay the foundations and pave the way and hopefully in the future it is something that’s a reality for a few more coaches in the female game.”
Female-only courses paving the way
Fortunately, the work has already begun to support and promote more women in coaching with state and national federations increasing female-only coaching courses and licenses.
Wilson recognises the importance of those programs, having come through some of them herself.
“It can be done,” she says.
“I was fortunate, my C-License and my first course on the advanced pathway was a women’s-only course.
“Definitely, for me at that initial level, having that opportunity to be in a female-only environment was something that eased me into it. And I can imagine there would be a lot of younger or newer [female] coaches coming in who are a little bit daunted by all-male courses.
“It has to start somewhere, and if more girls feel comfortable getting into it and taking those first steps, then it’s only a positive thing.”
For Linton, encouraging and retaining women coaches in Australia requires not just more opportunities at the education level, but also throughout the rest of the pyramid.
The W-League, as well as the state-based National Premier Leagues below it, play a crucial role as a platform for aspiring women coaches.
The old cliche that “you can’t be what you can’t see” applies to the women on the sideline as much as it does to the women on the field.
“Any development, any growth — whether you’re talking about players or coaches — you need numbers, you need a pathway, you need opportunity, and you need coaching and development,” she says.
“I will continue to be a mentor to the people and the coaches that I work with and give opportunities through the academy and through the W-League.”