Throughout Australian football history, specific coaches on the national side have left a significant legacy.
Think back to the genius work of Guus Hiddink to qualify the Socceroos for their first World Cup appearance in 32 years and Ange Postecoglou’s evolution to win the men’s inaugural piece of silverware.
A maiden World Cup knockout victory against Brazil eight years ago and his work with the golden generation has Alen Stajcic right up there for the Matildas.
One name who also belongs in that category is Tom Sermanni, the Matildas’ longest-serving manager of 12 years.
Born in Scotland, he would become one of Australia’s own, experiencing two stints from 1994-1997 and 2005-2012.
In an exclusive interview with The Inner Sanctum, Sermanni detailed how the journey all started down under.
“Near the end of my playing career, I got an offer to play in the old NSL (National Soccer League) with Marconi Stallions and that’s what initially brought me to Australia,” Sermanni said.
“With no intent to stay in Australia, I moved to Canberra City where the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) was based and I started to move into a player-coach role, which was then an automatic transition into coaching.
“The thing that took me to women’s football at the end of 1993 was Sydney getting the Olympics and that women’s football became an Olympic sport.
“Essentially overnight, women’s football that had no money and was kept alive by a bunch of passionate, diehard supporters suddenly got government funding which was the start of what the program is today.”
From there, that was the turning point that lured Sermanni into taking a leap of faith with the Matildas.
“The reason that I took it at that time is the scope of the job really appealed to me. It was viewed by scepticism in the men’s game, because obviously women’s football isn’t what it is today,” he said.
“We had to start from scratch where we had to put in place National Training Centre (NTC) programs, underage national teams and a senior team program. That was the first time where the players didn’t have to pay to play for their country.”
As the Matildas prepare to face Denmark in a do-or-die round of 16 clash on Monday, the Aussies will enter as favourites to progress and keep their dream alive.
Although this tournament has proven that no team should be underestimated, it underlines how far women’s football in Australia has grown and developed since it’s first World Cup in 1995.
Before the Matildas’ 4-2 and 4-1 defeats against China and the United States respectively, they made their World Cup debut against the Danes. That match also resulted in a heavy 5-0 loss, as Sermanni shed light on the experience.
“We qualified by the skin of our teeth on goal difference against New Zealand who were slight favourites against us, which showed where our program was at,” he explained.
“We were really up against it being paired with those three games (USA, China and Denmark) where we’d never been at that level before.
“To make matters worse against Denmark, we had a player sent off after 25 minutes, so the game didn’t quite work out to plan.”
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An attendance of 1,500 was recorded for that clash, 78,500 shy of the expected crowd set to support the Matildas in action on Monday night against the same opponent.
28 years on from that significant defeat, women’s football has transformed into what no one could ever imagine, but Sermanni outlined three factors that have assisted the rapid rise.
“To compare then and now is like comparing chalk and cheese, because the game has changed vastly and more importantly, the game has changed so much in Australia,” he said.
“There were a few catalysts for the change in Australia; one was when we moved to Asia because that was huge for our development.
“Secondly, the inception of the A-League Women’s (ALW) and probably the major one that’s been the foundation to get the team where it is now, was the success of the NTC programs as we continued to evolve since 1994.
“You have to remember, the team has been successful for 15 years and people think, ‘woah, look at the Matildas today’ with their profile so huge. It’s actually been building up to this moment.”
Arguably the biggest achievement under Sermanni’s reign along with the Asian Cup win 13 years ago, was reaching two World Cup quarter-finals in 2007 and 2011.
Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord, Claire Polkinghorne, Kyah Simon, Temeka Yallop, Emily Van Egmond and Lydia Williams, are the seven players that are both in the current World Cup squad under Tony Gustavsson and were also guided by Sermanni during his tenure.
Reflecting back on his time with those players, the 69-year-old has fond memories and is incredibly proud of how they have all prospered.
“Those players were very young and inexperienced at that time (2010-2012), but the great thing about those players is that they’ve been full-time professionals since that time two years after that,” he said.
“They were very young, talented players with great potential and what they’ve developed into is outstanding, and are now some of the top players in the world.”
During the most uncharted times when no one knew the direction that women’s football was headed, Sermanni was there from almost the very beginning.
Epitomising how humble he is, the former Asian Football Confederation (AFC) coach of the year does not take any credit for the Matildas’ inspiring journey.
“I don’t feel proud for me. I feel proud for having seen them from where they were to where they’ve become now and it’s a great satisfaction to see that,” Sermanni said.
“Yes, I was a figure, but it wasn’t just me. There was a system and that’s very important to understand.
“If somebody asks me, ‘how do you feel about your contribution?’ I think my biggest contribution was being fortunate enough to be there at the start developing programs, moving into Asia where there needed to be change and also being part of the group that started the ALW.”
Judging by the recent group stage, we are already realising the massive impact through general interest and record-breaking crowds.
Football has been the most participated sport in Australia for quite some time now, but what does Sermanni think the long-term effects will be once the curtain closes on the Women’s World Cup?
“That will depend on what we do next and simplistically, there are three fundamental parts to it,” he said.
“One is the participation aspect where kids are playing just for fun. There’s the competitive side including the NPL and the ALW, and also the elite part which the ALW is a part of.
“Australia needs enough fields and resources to cope with the numbers, which is the most challenging part. Competitively, it’s about getting the best coaches and facilities to produce the best opportunities to players domestically and then overseas
“But the real challenge to see continual success at the national level is that you need to start looking at development at youth groups. It’s coming back a little bit, but that’s been neglected since 2014.
“If we get all that right, the game will be flying.”
Involved with the technical support staff for Canada before being eliminated by no other than the Matildas, Sermanni is hopeful the Aussies can carry the wave of momentum.
Just how far can they go?
“There’s genuinely six or seven teams who can win the tournament,” he said.
“Brazil, Germany and Canada are out, but five teams on any given day can beat each other. We’ve already seen upsets this World Cup that nobody expected.
“Denmark will be difficult to overcome because typically the Scandinavians are very disciplined defensively. The Matildas on the other hand are much better in a free-flowing game.
“However, the Matildas are also a streak team where if they go on a run, they go on a run. I think the game against Canada has provided them with a real impetus to kick forward.
Australia face Denmark at Stadium Australia on Monday night from 8:30pm AEST.