The professionalisation of women’s sport – particularly the football codes – is still in its relative infancy, and the younger players making their mark have a chance to set records for longevity and appearances that may take a long time to be broken.
At the forefront of the younger cohort is Matildas defender Alanna Kennedy, the central defender who plays for Orlando in the US women’s league and Melbourne City in Australia’s W-League.
Although the Western Sydney-born Kennedy is still only 22, she has played 57 times for her country – an astonishing statistic for one so young.
Kennedy was given her chance as a teenager, and has grasped it with both hands: given luck with injury, fitness and form, there is no knowing how many appearances she might rack up if she continues to play for another decade.
“I was lucky enough to be brought in when I was about 17, when I debuted under Tom Sermanni [the former Matildas coach who is her club coach now at Orlando].”
Kennedy believes that the Australian pathway – developing players and giving them a chance at the highest level if they are good enough despite their age – is a reason for the Matildas’ rapid improvement in the international standings.
Already this year they have won the Tournament of Nations, defeating powerhouses USA, Japan and Brazil, and repeated the exercise in September when Brazil toured here for two more games, with the Australians winning both.
They entertain China in two matches next week – on Wednesday at AAMI Park and then next Sunday at Geelong – and will be favourites to win those, too.
“I think it’s a good philosophy we have, to bring in young players when they are young and still learning. We had a good group of girls who have grown together,” Kennedy says.
“I think we have been building for the last few years, especially with players coming through. We have a lot of young players who have been in the team for a long time and are growing into their roles … it’s been a timing thing as well as a change in the culture and a belief in ourselves.
“We now have an understanding that we can compete at the highest level. Our mentality is strong, we take care of each other, being a family on and off the field.
“I think that emphasis was there when Tom was in charge, but ‘Staj’ [coach Alen Stajcic] has encouraged it. I think ‘Staj’ is very similar with the philosophy. He made it something to focus on, not just our footballing ability and what we do on the field, but what we do off the field as well, the way we carry ourselves … that’s a huge part of our success, being a real team.
“Our average age is a lot younger than most but we are now seeing the benefits of giving youngsters a chance. Hopefully we will get some more younger players in now, and they will be the core of the Matildas going on.”
With increased investment in girls’ junior level soccer and far greater opportunities than in the past there is now a cohort of young players who are not code hoppers but specialists. In the past, athletes switched between soccer, cricket, basketball, netball, rugby or Australian Rules depending on the season.
Now they get the chance to make the sport a full-time career, playing in the US or Europe as well as Australia in the off-season.
Kennedy is a prime example. She dabbled with track and field as a youngster, but concentrated on soccer from her early teens.
“I went back and forth between soccer and athletics at a young age, but around 12 or 13 I gave up athletics, and just followed soccer. I have been playing football since I was four or five,” she says.
“I used to be a high jumper and I competed in state tournaments and also the Pacific School games when I was younger. If I wasn’t a soccer player I would definitely be a high jumper, but that’s the choice I made.”
At 177 centimetres, Kennedy is one of the taller players, hence her role at the heart of defence. But it wasn’t always that way.
“I haven’t always played at the back. I was a midfielder when I was younger, even up front before that. Up to the time I debuted with the Matildas I was a midfielder but then I started to get thrown in the back every now and then, probably because of my height,” she says.
“Over in Orlando I play in the midfield. I wasn’t naturally a defender, but physically I am suited there.
“It took me a while to get used to it … I like being on the ball, but I enjoy being a crucial part of the team now and I think the central defender role is a crucial part. In its own different way, I enjoy it. The way our teams want to play out from the back is a help for me as it suits my footballing ability.”
Not surprisingly, she rates this year with the Matildas as an international career highlight: “Winning the international cup, the Tournament of Nations, the belief that generated, then consecutive wins over Brazil and in Newcastle where we had record-breaking crowds.”
The more international exposure the Australian players get, the better they will be, she says.
“I think Sam Kerr is a perfect example of that. She has always been an unbelievable athlete and a great player, but I think her level of football in the past two years has increased immensely and I think that has been instilled by the hard work she has done,” says Kennedy.
“Studying and playing overseas has been a help, understanding how different teams and countries play football and gaining experience from there and bringing it back to our national team has been very good for us.
“I am with Orlando in the US now, this year was my second year, last year I was part of Western New York Flash. We actually won the championship, but I got a trade in the off-season to Orlando and I have loved my time in there.
“It’s great to be able to play against such high quality opposition and with and against great players every week. l think you can always learn from playing more games, but the US league in particular for me, the physicality and the experience of the players there definitely helps me grow.”