Kat Smith taking charge of a training session. (Photo: Western United Football Club; Design by Theo Dimou)

Optimists insist that everything happens for a reason after one door unexpectedly closes – and that’s proven to be the case for Kat Smith, who departed the Western Sydney Wanderers one week before the season commenced in what was a complete shock.

A new door opened, however, as Western United welcomed the former Melbourne Victory assistant with open arms as their new manager after round six of the 2023/24 campaign.

Having initially worked within the development squad of Western’s women, she became the first female coach to lead the club in its short history to fashion a full circle moment.

Since then, nine wins in 12 matches have suddenly propelled the club to the summit of the Liberty A-League standings to become the new team to fear in the completion.

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Western United’s success thus far is a testament to Smith’s admirable hard work and perseverance over the years to deservedly start reaping the rewards.

In an exclusive interview with The Inner Sanctum, Smith detailed her eventful journey to the top of Australian football.

“I played the game and was part of some pathway programs which were all connected to either institutes or the federation,” Smith told The Inner Sanctum.

“Transitioning out from my playing days I was a senior player with a lot of young players coming through. I demonstrated those leadership qualities and always had a huge appreciation for the technical and tactical side of the game.

“Having that more strategic analytic brain I think transitioned into coaching for that want and desire to help others and give back to the game.

“What that meant was having the right support around me and knowing what steps I needed to take, and that started with a FIFA all-women’s C-license back in 2009 and from there progressing through to B and A licensing (before) given the role I had at the time with Melbourne Victory made me eligible for the pro license in 2019.

“That enabled the accreditation process and a lot of the learning has come from being involved in club land as a technical director, head coach, age group coach, and working four years at Football Federation Victoria (FFV) as it was named then.

“You get insight and have so many interactions with people who have buckets of knowledge and experience, so I always see myself as a life-long learner which has enabled me to deliver results in the positions I’ve held.”

Shockwaves spread across the competition when Smith was dismissed by the Western Sydney Wanderers only 10 days out before the season’s commencement.

The former assistant and analyst of the Young Matildas opened up on the surprising verdict and how she has bounced back from adversity.

“It was unexpected (and I was) very shocked,” Smith admitted. “I think there was a lot of confusion and I’m happy to share that as to understanding why, and if I stayed in that place to make sense of it then I don’t think I would be able to move past it.

“There were people at the club who made a decision which in their eyes they thought needed to be a change. Whether or not that’s a fruitful decision for them, only time will tell, but I’ve moved past it.

“I’m grateful for Western United to see that I’ve got a level of expertise and that I can bring that to the club and work with the current group of players.

“Anyone incoming or outgoing is in a difficult position anyway – there was a squad that I built at Western Sydney, there’s a squad that I’ve inherited at Western United. I’m not the first nor won’t be the last, so that speaks more to the standards of operation within the industry, but I’ve fallen on my feet pretty well.”

When asked if anything in particular stood out that required tweaking, Smith was in awe of the culture around the club, but implementing a brand of football to combat the strengths within the squad was a top priority.

“In retrospect to Western United’s performances last season with the personnel that they had, there were some aspects of their game style that were circulated around specific players,” she said.

“The core essence of the group with their capability and leadership qualities haven’t changed, but it was just about realigning the game style with the players that were available at the time, rather than think ‘it worked last season, it should work again.’

“That was the message of having the opportunity to speak to the leadership group, and there was some great quality added during the off-season with the likes of Grace Maher and also Chloe Logarzo being fully fit helped change the dynamic.

“The experience I gained in the previous year with Western Sydney was understanding how I can get the best out of what I’ve got and there’s an element of being able to do that at Western United.”

Before Smith’s entrance, Western United conceded 10 goals in the first six rounds. 12 matches later, the club have conceded 14 goals and hasn’t shipped in more than one goal in nine of those occasions.

An array of formations utilised such as the 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, and 3-5-2 has forced the defensive line to quickly adjust to new systems when called upon.

Clearly pouring energy into the defensive side of the ball at training, the 2018 Female Coach of the Year is a firm believer in laying the foundations at the back.

“It’s provided us with stability in our playing style as well as our personnel,” Smith admitted.

“The attention to detail in defence has built this belief within the squad around playing different formations, so there’s more buy-in and clarity around everyone’s roles and responsibilities.

“Players building into form is a massive help and it will also come down to the contrasting styles of football. We’re very possession-based and there are probably two-thirds of the league who are more attacking and transitional-minded.

“Western United have now had a core group of players for a while who are familiar with one another which develops cohesion throughout time.”

After missing the majority of the 2023/24 season, nine goals and three assists across 17 games this campaign has reminded the competition that Chloe Logarzo is a force to be reckoned with.

The 29-year-old has rediscovered her best football to not only help her own game but it’s brought the best out of the teammates around her such as last week’s hat-trick hero Hannah Keane.

Fundamentally vital to Western United’s chances of claiming silverware, it’s not just Logarzo’s ability on the pitch that is impressive according to Smith.

“There’s no doubt that Chloe has extraordinary talent and possesses absolute quality in terms of her leadership and willingness to share her experiences in national team setups and clubs overseas,” she said.

“Above all, Chloe is a very humble person. Whilst she’s had all those experiences, there’s not that ego that comes with perhaps being better than everyone else.

“Don’t get me wrong, she does have an x-factor so I’m not discrediting her talent in any way, but Chloe’s ability to produce performances right now comes down to three key areas: she’s got the belief in what we’re doing, clarity in her roles and responsibilities, and she’s physically capable on the pitch.

“We’re trying to get every player on that level to perform both individually and collectively as a team which will put us in good stead moving forward.”

Now four points clear of second-placed Melbourne City, last season’s runners-up have quickly gone from the hunter to the hunted.

Despite playing themselves into form and having all the confidence in the world, Smith is wary of over complacency and the importance of maintaining the same intensity each week.

“We’ve spoken about no matter how much you want it or how much you think you deserve something, that’s not how sport works,” said Smith.

“We’re really focused on ourselves and our preparation. We’ve spoken over the past couple of weeks about continuing to develop and enhance our game to evolve as a team and as individuals.

“From here it’s about what we can control and that means we’re definitely going to keep our boots on the ground and heads out of the clouds.”

Many often forget that the Western United women’s side is only in its second season having reached the Grand Final in their debut year and now sit top of the summit with four matches remaining before finals.

The sky is the limit, and the foreseeable future for Smith both from a club and personal level remains admirably ambitious.

“The game is certainly growing in the female space. I think being involved in the female game and being a female coach, there are good opportunities on the horizon regardless of hiring or firing – it’s an industry where time and effort are truly compensated and rewarded.

“Western United’s journey is a very exciting one and I’m glad I arrived when I did with a chance to move into a new home. A great platform is in place to grow the club and the brand to be part of many players’ individual experiences.

“In terms of my personal ambitions with Western United, I want to continue to be involved and not just produce a flashy one-off finals appearance – this is about creating long-term success and stability at the club.”

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