The excitement around winning hosting rights to the 2023 World Cup put women's football and the W-League on the mainstream agenda, while the appointment of Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson was met with widespread plaudits.
The FFA have made it clear they want a coach who will rebuild our women’s football infrastructure and culture. This means the senior Matildas, but also the youth players coming through.
However, the pathway for coaches, especially financially, remains poor and undervalued in Australia according to female coaches.
“Like any job, if you want a coach to succeed and be productive, you need to look after them properly,” says Alison Whitfield, a former NPLW coach in Sydney.
“Retention of good coaches is going to be hard if not impossible if you don’t allow them to be able to provide for their livelihood, as that will always be at the back of their mind.
“The funding and money generated for 2023 needs to be invested in a proper coaching pathway. After all, the better coaches we have, the better players we will develop.”
The key area is our youth and development leagues. Australia hasn’t qualified for the last seven Women’s Youth World Cups and the NPLW system is struggling at times to produce footballers who can compete in the W-League with international stars.
This is partly due to the lack of development in our coaching stocks.
“We always look at the symptoms, but what about the cause of poor performance,” says Whitfield.
“To develop quality footballers, coaches need to be free to focus on their number one role which is coaching. If they are worried about paying the bills and getting hounded by their spouse about bringing home enough to live on, how can they channel their energy to their job?”
The W-League has a number of talented up-and-coming coaches. The average coach gets between $25-35,000 whereas an assistant would get around $10,000 for six months.
The average annual salary in Australia in 2021 is $89,000 (or $44,500 for six months) according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, while the poverty line (cost of living) sits at $22,000 per annum for a single adult and $46,500 per annum for the average family, according to The Smith Family.
During a W-League season, coaching staff work seven days a week for a total of 30 to 35 hours, which doesn’t include interstate trips. This leaves precious little time to juggle another job that can help make ends meet while also balancing family requirements.
“So essentially W-League coaches, the most important part of a football program, barely scrape together enough to be above the poverty line while on duty,” continues Whitfield.
“During the off-season, their football commitments probably make it hard to secure permanent full time employment. This is a ridiculous and unfair situation that shouldn’t happen in 2021.”
Mid-week games especially cause grief for coaches with families. The need to organise babysitters, ask their spouse to leave work early etc. puts a lot of strain on relationships.
The Western Sydney Wanderers have recently lost respected head coach Dean Heffernan from its W-League program, while his assistant Michael Beauchamp has also moved on. It is uncertain what will happen with the other assistant Catherine Cannuli and goalkeeping coach Ante Covic.
Between the four of them, they were paid around $65,000 according to insiders. While the W-League season only lasts around four months, a coach's role goes well beyond that when you factor in scouting and preparation.
The Wanderers aren't the only club facing this dilemma. Other clubs have similar issues with coaches, with a number considering walking away so they can make a decent living elsewhere and provide for their families.
As one W-League coach lamented privately, “pressure isn’t performing on the field, it’s providing for your family while pursuing your passion. My partner nearly lost her job because she had to leave work early to cover for me not being available.”
Whitfield believes a proper pathway includes remunerating coaches a fair wage so they can focus on developing their capabilities and experience without the pressure of having to find employment elsewhere.
“The major benefit of having the 2023 World Cup is the extra money that inevitably comes into the game from FIFA, the government and commercial Australia. FIFA has $1 billion to invest in the women’s game, and logically a big chunk of that should go to the countries hosting the next World Cup," she continues.
“The federal government has a significant amount of money it has set aside to spend on women’s sport. Football should put its hand out for its fair share.
“While player remuneration at the international and W-League level is important, so is the pay given to the people who work just as hard, the coaching and support staff. Much of the money generated from the World Cup needs to be invested in coaches.”
There has been a big push for more female coaches to come into the system, but a number simply cannot afford to stay too long in the game. Their livelihoods and family needs won’t allow it and many are forced out after a few years. Critics say that's hardly enough time to build their capability and reach their potential.
There are some exciting young female coaches coming through the system. Leah Blayney is touted by many as a future Matildas coach, while Ash Wilson did an admirable job at Newcastle in her first full season.
Catherine Cannuli is highly regarded in the W-League and would be one of the favourites to take over from Heffernan. Former W-League coach Belinda Wilson won a men’s NPL title in northern Queensland. There are a number of others coming through, including many in the NPLW. Vicki Linton is already established and a proven success.
While the next three years is about winning the 2023 World Cup, Whitfield believes there also has to be a greater focus on building a professional and fully functional system that invests in everyone from players, coaches, medical staff and administrators.
“There has been much talk of leaving a legacy after 2023," she says. "That should include ensuring people involved in women’s football, especially the most important ones, don’t have to live in poverty.”
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