Nicola Williams during her time at AC Milan. (Pictures: Nicola Williams; Design: Madeline Irwin)

When you least expect it, priceless opportunities suddenly appear. Currently plying her trade in European football, a young and aspiring coach captured one of those chances back home in Australia 15 years ago, where her career would take full flight.

Born in England and raised down under, Nicola Williams was just 26 years years of age when she courageously took a leap of faith to start her managerial career at Perth Glory in the inaugural W-League season, leading to the path of the national youth team set up at various levels which ultimately had Europe come calling.

With the FIFA Women’s World Cup set to kick off in over a week, the Australian coaching product shared her perspective on the development of the Matildas, overall thoughts on the tournament, and the differences between women’s football in Europe and Australia.

Speaking exclusively to The Inner Sanctum, Williams opened up on her fascinating journey from the bottom all the way to the summit.

“That start at Perth Glory it was early and I was still playing, so I had to make that decision to move into coaching,” Williams told The Inner Sanctum.

“From there I worked with the national team which was a really good experience with Tom Sermanni [former Matildas coach] who had a very open door policy and invited coaches to the national training centre.

“I then worked with the U20s [Australia women’s] for a number of years which was a tough qualifying process in Asia but a great experience. A lot of those players came through from the U13s, U14s, and U17s national teams with the likes of Alanna Kennedy, Sam Kerr, and Caitlin Foord.

“I guess after that I was looking for a full-time football job and there’s not many in Australia which made me look abroad and start searching for other opportunities. One came up for Trinidad and Tobago for the head coach of the women’s U20s which I took on.”

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Those valuable encounters became the stepping stone for an even greater venture in Europe shortly after.

Taking on the challenge and throwing herself into the deep end in the Italian Serie A Women’s and the Women’s Super League in England, Williams explained her motives as well as being involved in one of the biggest clubs in world football.

“I got a gig with Lazio in Italy and then a brief spell last year with Leicester City because I’ve always wanted to go back into English football. Just recently I signed with London City Lionesses as an assistant in the Championship [second division] over in England,” she said.

“[Before that] I took on the role of assistant at AC Milan which was the first year that the women’s team started so everyone was new in their roles. I would go and watch the men’s training session at Milanello [main training centre] and see how the coaches set up which was a very good experience.”

The growth and popularity of women’s football continues to boom at a level never seen before in Australia. Football is already the most participated sport in the country, and the upcoming World Cup will only further enhance the interest and exposure for young girls and boys coming through.

Reaching this point didn’t happen overnight, and Williams was in the thick of it during her time with the youth national teams to witness the foundations laid down first-hand.

“The system worked very well back then. We had the national training centre which wasn’t age capped, so it was the best players training together,” she said.

“The top overaged players played with the top players underage in the one team for training, so the national training centre helped with the development of those younger players.

“Coaches were also aligned with the national team head coach which the players would be looked at and selected to go into camps that were held regularly, so the scouting work was really good.”

For over a decade now, the Matildas have maintained steady progress, consistently hovering just in and out of the top 10 in the world rankings.

The USA has always set the benchmark and proven to be the team to beat, but despite Australia being ranked 10th in the world, other top European nations are improving rapidly with the likes of Spain, England, Italy and 2019 World Cup finalists The Netherlands all increasing investment and infrastructure to provide a platform for women’s football to prosper.

With that in mind, does that pose a concern for Australian football moving forward?

“I think the gap is enhancing because now football in Europe is all year round so you’re playing a lot more games with regular competition,” Williams said.

“They are doing a big job in investing and starting academies from five years old, so that’s where they’re producing local players. There has to be a certain number of Italian and English players [in their league] for example and they’re really focusing on development.

“Unfortunately in Australia, the clubs aren’t invested in that and that’s where we’re getting left behind which is why the top Australian players have all had to move overseas.”

In terms of the magnitude of the tournament, the World Cup will be the biggest sporting event to grace Australian soil since the 2000 Olympics.

Williams understands just how important the upcoming four weeks will be for Australian football to progress in the right direction.

“It will be huge. It’s great for Australian football and women’s sport which it’s obviously going to be dominating the headlines and be well-followed as heaps of tickets have already been sold so that buzz is just going to be incredible,” she said.

“What has to happen afterwards is hopefully a boost in girls and players saying ‘I want to play’ or ‘this is my dream’ so Australia has to be then able to house them.

“We’re going to have the interest, momentum, and marketing but we then have to offer the service like England has done with their infrastructure and development pathways so there have to be doors open and it’s got to be easily accessible for girls to join and play.”

From an Australian perspective, all eyes will be on the Matildas as they aim to inspire a nation and create long-lasting memories that will have an astronomical impact on current and future generations.

Despite the gap starting to widen, Williams believes that Australia has every chance of progressing deep in the tournament and making a statement.

“The Matildas have had an interesting couple of years, but [in] the last six months they’ve picked up some amazing results. They’ve shown they have what it takes on the big stage and they have something special,” she said.

“It’s going to be a matter of really digging in and it’s not going to be easy.

“After the group stage, it’s all about game management and a bit of luck, but they have more of a strategised game plan with some quick counter-attacking players to get the ball in behind which I think is their main strength.”

One player who is sure to attract much of the spotlight is Chelsea superstar Sam Kerr, preparing to take part in her fourth World Cup and second as captain.

Accepting the responsibility of coaching Perth Glory in their very first campaign in 2008/09, Williams managed a young 15-year-old Kerr and she recollected her first impressions of the bright raw talent.

“Everyone can see the journey that she’s been through and the stages of her life, but she was a real fighter who always had that mentality of never giving up and she always wanted to prove that,” she said.

“She gave players in the team confidence so it wasn’t just about her pulling off something brilliant which she’s always had that x-factor to do, but she was also about encouraging those around her to do the same.

“Early on she was actually a shy player, but as she’s developed she’s much more comfortable managing the big stage.”

Having achieved so much already both in European football and international duty from the bench, would Williams ever consider coming back to Australia to coach if the opportunity arose?

“Yes absolutely. I know the league is always growing and there’s more of a full-time professional environment so I would be open to coaching within a league system or a national team,” she said.

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