When it comes to Australian coaches, you could be forgiven for instantly thinking of the Arnold’s, Popovic’s, Muscat’s and Montemurro’s of the world.
All of them have experienced incredible success, but the one glaring factor missing from that impressive list is that it’s devoid of any female coaches.
Cue former Matildas midfielder and Head Coach of the Young Matildas and Future Matildas programs - Leah Blayney.
Blayney, who earned 16 caps for the green and gold from 2004 to 2006, was born and raised in Katoomba and admits she had a “fairly humble upbringing” in what she describes as a “sport madhouse.”
“My dad's a big AFL and rugby league fan. My mum played junior level hockey as a youngster, so our house was always filled with various sporting opportunities as kids - we did karate, cross country.”
“As a youngster, my mum would tell me that she'd find the dress hanging over the fence and I'd be running around in my singlet and my tights playing different sports with the boys in the neighbourhood and the other girls in the neighbourhood.”
Blayney’s official introduction to the beautiful game eventually came courtesy of her two younger brothers who played, and after joining the local team Wentworth Falls, she discovered her passion for football couldn’t be ignored.
“I went to training one day with my brother and I just loved the game. I fell in love with it.”
“I was quite talented at a range of sports but there was just something about football that, it kept me in my spare time finding a wall to pass a ball against and going back to it.”
“I was fortunate to meet Julie Murray at 13 and I just looked up to her so much as a pioneer of the game and knew that I wanted to try and make an impact in football like she did. I was in awe.”
At just 12 years of age, Blayney’s football journey would see her pack her bags and leave the picturesque surrounds of the Blue Mountains to attend Westfield Sports High for two years.
Making her debut for the Australian senior national team at just 16, all of this would put Blayney in good stead ahead of her move to the United States in 2007, where she joined the Central Connecticut Blue Devils after being successfully scouted while she was representing Australia at the Youth World Cup in Russia.
“Some college scouts had seen me playing there and contacted me if I wanted to come over and visit a few campuses and I had a ball.”
“I went over and visited a few schools and I experienced the college life - the opportunity over there at that time with the facilities and to combine education with my football, I always felt like that was something important.”
Blayney’s overseas career spanned across the US college system and the former American Women’s Professional Soccer League, where she worked under “football legend” Tony DiCicco at the Boston Breakers before turning to Sweden.
“In my experience, it was with Eskilstuna United that’s definitely helped shape who I have become as a coach, but also as a person.”
But it would be her former coach, DiCicco who would have the biggest influence on her playing career and ultimately inspire her to consider coaching after she worked in summer camp clinics that were led by him.
“I did a lot of coaching in college to make a bit of cash - when you're on college scholarship and you're not able to work, you do those things and I actually really enjoyed it.”
"I would come home and go, ‘oh I want to do another private’ and try and fit it around my training schedule, because at the time didn't know how rewarding it was.”
During her stint in Sweden, Blayney sustained a serious ankle injury which saw her return to Australia for surgery and make the heartbreaking decision to call time on her playing career at just 23.
“It ended up that my injury was too severe, that I couldn't go back to playing football, which was a daunting thing.”
“I always had that plan B, that teaching degree so I was able to pick up straight into Westfield Sports High School where Trevor Morgan actually gave me my first job.”
“As a former student and an injured athlete, it was something I'm forever grateful and in debt to the school and the programme for how they supported me and continue to support me today.”
“I helped out with a local McArthur Rams under 14 girls team and that actually then became my coaching gig. Then people would ask me to be engaged in other things like state teams and I just said yes, because it was enjoyable. I didn't really know that I was going to build a career out of coaching.”
In July last year, Blayney was announced as the new Head Coach of both the Young Matildas and the Future Matildas program, replacing Gary van Egmond.
It was a just reward after plying her trade as the assistant coach with the Young Matildas for three years and amassing experience as the second assistant with the Matildas, in addition to stints with Western Sydney Wanderers and Football NSW.
From Blayney’s perspective, one of the most rewarding aspects of her coaching role comes from helping to facilitate a player’s development but she’s also equally excited by the tactical side of the game.
“I've actually been very fortunate that FFA have sent me to the last FIFA Women's World Cup as an analyst, a scout for the Matildas, as well as two Algarve Cups and the Rio Olympics.”
“I've been afforded some really good opportunities in the analysis space, which I feel is hands-on experience to help develop my own coaching in the tactical domain.”
Blayney’s passion for learning is what led her down the path of finding an unlikely ally in Tony Popovic, after she began observing his training sessions from afar while he was head coach at Western Sydney Wanderers.
“I took on a role as an assistant coach with the W-League side at Western Sydney some years ago and we'd train very, very early in the morning. I'd finish training and I used to go hang out on the fence and just watch the A-League train and that was initially probably the first six months of my apprenticeship with Tony Popovic.” Blayney says laughing.
“It was a really good opportunity for me to see the standards he set and the team environment that he set, which was a very strong one, and it was one that I admired. I used to watch guys like Scotty Jamieson training and just leaving everything on the pitch for this guy and it intrigued me.”
“So after about six months of slowly creeping from the car park to the fence, he actually invited me onto the training pitch one day.”
It wasn’t until one of the goalkeeping coaches gave Popovic the heads-up who Blayney was, that he invited her to be apart of the training sessions.
“He said, ‘I've seen you putting in the time, you’re welcome to come closer so you can hear what I'm saying.”
“It's been important in my coaching career, too, to have that acceptance of somebody like him to be around the environment.”
“For the next six months then, when I finished training, I'd jump the fence and I'd be around the environment. Hayden Fox was there and just some really good people that made me feel like I was a part of it to a degree.”
"I'll never forget the feeling to be a part of that group and knowing that they trusted having me in that environment. I'm in debt to the time and the influence. He's [Popovic] probably not so aware [of the influence] that he's had on me in football, but it's certainly something that I take with me.”
It comes as no surprise then, that another key figure Blayney takes great inspiration from is former assistant to Tony Popovic and brief coach of the Matildas, Ante Milicic.
"I learnt so much from him and his staff - that was an incredible experience. He was an incredible operator. He's somebody who holds people to a high standard from every member of his staff.”
“I actually went away to a tournament and had a tough time and he was one of the first people to ask me to get a coffee when I returned - it was something that was uplifting.”
“I talk about these men in my career who have been influential like Popa and Ante - there are truly supportive men of up and coming women and female coaches. It's true life. It's excellent.”
When it comes to Blayney, Milicic, currently eyeing off his maiden A-League coaching role with newcomers Macarthur FC, was impressed with how eager she was to learn while she was embedded within the Matildas set-up.
"When you're in camp and you see the coaches behaviour for an extended period of time - you see how they interact with the staff and the players and her standards were high daily."
"She's got a big, big appetite to learn and she just wants to get better every day. I was super impressed with the way she conducted herself. She's doing a challenging role but it's one that she looks forward to and she always remains positive.”
For now, there is so much positivity on the horizon for women’s football with Australia and New Zealand securing hosting rights for the FIFA World Cup in 2023.
The announcement that former USA assistant Tony Gustavsson would take on the top job was met with rave reviews by the football community and came with welcome news that Leah Blayney will be given the chance to be apart of the Matildas coaching staff once again.
As it stands, Blayney has plans to make the Future Matildas program “one of the top youth development programs in the world” but when it comes to the future, the 34 year-old has so much more in her sights.
"I'm certainly highly ambitious in that one day that I really would like to lead our country out and sing that national anthem as the head coach of the Matildas - that's something I aspire to and will be a pivotal moment in my career when I get there.”
“For now, I remain so supportive to whoever is in the senior coaching role.”