Tanya Oxtoby has come a long way from remote Western Australia to becoming manager of Bristol City in England’s Women’s Super League (WSL), and the player-turned-coach wouldn’t have it any other way.
Oxtoby has been head coach of City for the past two-and-a-half years.
In that time, she has won two Manager of the Month awards and led the club to sixth place in her first season in charge and 10th last season.
Oxtoby grew up in the tiny Pilbara mining town of Wickham, which is located 1572 kilometres north of Perth and has a population of under 3000.
She made her way from the bush to go on to a professional playing career, then coaching, and is now a qualified sports psychologist who also serves as an assistant coach with the England Under-19s women’s national team.
“When you start to reflect a little bit you think 'god, that’s my journey and where I’ve come from',” she said.
“I’m so proud of my heritage, my Aboriginal heritage and where I grew up and my family connections - to be the girl from the bush who’s come over to Bristol to work in one of the best leagues in the world… It’s crazy to think that’s been my path.
“I’m so, so grateful that I get to work in this league and work in an environment that every single day where you get to try and help people reach their hopes and dreams, that’s amazing.
"To be where I am now from where I came from, it’s definitely a bit surreal I think.”
A proud Indigenous woman, Oxtoby believes we need to make sure the pathway is there for Indigenous kids to tap into in the beautiful game.
“There seems to be a lot more thought going into how to increase participation within the Indigenous community and give them the opportunity to be able to really excel at football,” she said.
“I think that’s really important. Look, there’s so much talent out there, no matter what background they’re from. Let’s tap into all of it.
"We want every single young female to be playing football and everyone should have the opportunity to be able to do that.
“There seems to be a real conscious effort now that football for females is as accessible as possible, and that is so, so important.
"In particular in remote and regional areas, we need to make sure that football is visible, is an option and is a pathway.
“I’m really lucky my mum and dad pushed me to move from where I was to open up doors. We need to make sure those barriers aren't there for kids in regional areas, and there’s a clear pathway for them to reach their potential and chase their dreams.
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Oxtoby played in the old Women’s National Soccer League as a defender, and went on to captain Perth Glory in the W-League.
In 2012 she had a spell with Doncaster Rovers Belles in the UK and then managed Nottingham Forest. Following a stint as an assistant coach with the Glory back in her home state, and with the Young Matildas, she returned to England in 2016 as an assistant with Notts County Ladies and then Birmingham City.
Oxtoby joined Bristol City in 2018 and has witnessed first-hand the rise of the WSL and English women’s football in general, with an increase of Aussie talent flooding into the UK in the past nine months.
“I think it’s fantastic for the Matildas and for Australia with Australian footballers over here playing,” she said.
“It’s so great to see the girls here playing in the WSL across a number of different clubs. I think that’s great for the home World Cup to have the girls playing week-in-week-out at this level, it’s brilliant.
“It makes me really happy to see we’ve got so many amazing Aussies over here now. And then when you look at the infrastructure and all of the things behind the scenes for the league to be what it is – the commercial sponsorship, the media coverage.
“From a club point of view, making sure all clubs are meeting requirements and the support that goes with that – it shows just how far the women’s game has come.
"I think at this point in time it’s the best league for women’s football in terms of its competitiveness and holistically with the support it gives its players to reach their potential.
“I’m just really grateful I can get a chance to be involved in that because it’s certainly what I dreamt of as a player, to have all of that in place. Hopefully our national team will benefit from that at the World Cup as well.”
The Vixens have two Matildas of their own in their ranks, in the shape of midfielders Chloe Logarzo and Ella Mastrantonio.
“It was something we’ve worked really hard on,” Oxtoby admitted. “When I first came in we weren’t in a position to bring in some international players, there’s visa requirements that go with that, we as a club weren’t in a position to do that and it’s something I worked really hard with the board to make sure we were in a place to attract those types of players.
“Chloe and Ella are reaping the benefits of that, which is fantastic. Fingers crossed we can continue to build on that as a club.”
Last week Oxtoby went on maternity leave, with former West Ham coach Matt Beard taking the reins temporarily at Bristol City.
The Australian, who contracted the Coronavirus late last year and is expecting to give birth in March, may be the first head coach in professional football to ever go on maternity leave.
FIFA only approved new maternity cover regulations aiming at protecting women footballers in December.
“Maternity has probably come a little bit sooner than I initially planned,” she said. “But given what’s going on over here at the moment, the priorities have to be with the baby and make sure we’re both safe. I’ve already had COVID once so certainly don’t want to go through that experience again.
“You add in the pressures and stress of the day to day stuff going on at the moment at the club, it’s just the right decision in the current environment. [Also] It shows how far the game’s come, the women’s game, to be in the position to do what we’re doing at the moment with Matt coming in and me taking a step back.
“It’s a credit to the sport that we’re at that point and hopefully in the future it will just be the norm. We’ll see.”
Oxtoby's Vixens are fighting hard to stay in the WSL this season, and have one of the smallest budgets in the competition.
After 11 matches of the 2020-2021 campaign City has yet to win a game, and are bottom of the ladder with two points.
It has been a difficult season so far for the club, with COVID-19 raging across the UK along with dealing with a crippling injury list, but Oxtoby is confident her resilient team will keep battling against relegation all the way to safety.
“It’s been tough,” the 38-year-old told The World Game. “I think everybody is really pleased we’re back playing with what’s going over at the moment with COVID.
"So we’re pretty privileged to be back playing the game that we love. But it’s been tough, I’m not going to lie.
“It’s a totally different world at the moment in terms of the protocols and the way that we operate. Obviously our results in the league haven’t been what we would want them to be at this point but we’d had a tough start to the season with injuries.
“So hopefully we can turn the corner and the girls can pick it up for the second part of the season… [but] that’s what this group’s about. You look at what they’ve been through this season already, some of the hurdles that have been thrown their way and they don’t crack.
“They stay together and they fight. I’d said a few times there’s two key points for us for the second part of the season and that’s keeping everyone fit and healthy, so we’ve got a full squad to pick from because we are a really small club.
“We’ve got one of the lowest budgets in the league, we're one of the smallest clubs in the league, and we need to keep everyone fit and healthy. And also we need a bit of confidence and I think our victory on Wednesday in the Continental Cup went a long way towards that.
“The girls will continue to fight all the way through. We’ve been in this position before so we know exactly what it takes to get ourselves out.
“We did it last year and I’ve got no doubt that we’ll do it again this year."