Nicola Williams sees future of A-League Women headed ‘in the right direction’ after Phoenix appointments

WHEN a young, determined Nicola Williams was in need of a female role model coaching in football, she had to leave Australia to find one. 

Even in 2008, when Williams became the first ever female head coach of the formerly named W-League - taking over as Perth Glory boss as a 26-year-old in the league’s inaugural campaign - she was the only female head coach in the league. 

In the next season, Williams’ departure meant there were no women in the top roles at any club around the W-League; no figures for females intent on coaching in the nation’s top flight to look to for inspiration.

In 2021 there are four: Vicki Linton (Canberra United), Ash Wilson (Newcastle Jets), Catherine Cannuli (Western Sydney Wanderers) and Gemma Lewis, who will take charge of Wellington Phoenix in the club’s maiden A-League season. 

As the Phoenix enter the league for the very first time in 2021/22, Central Coast and Western United wait in the wings to take the contingent to 12 teams before the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, set to be shared on Australian and New Zealand soil. 

Lewis spoke this week about the value of visibility, how having more women appointed to top coaching roles inspires others to follow, and Williams understands exactly that point.

“I think it’s fantastic that now we’ve got more numbers in the league,” Williams told this website.

“(Now) it’s a matter of keeping them. Like it’s been mentioned, to be able to see female coaches it opens up (the chance for females) to say ‘it’s a career I can go for’. I think that we’re still fighting to make a full-time job out of it that can be your career, because we’re not quite there in Australia yet. Hence why I had to go overseas (in 2013).

“It’s getting better. That will help the numbers, and other females want to get involved in coaching when they see it is possible to get into those positions and run a competitive team.

“It shows there’s a career pathway there for women, that once you finish either playing, or once you get involved in the sport and are passionate about it, there is this avenue and it can become a career, it can become your job, and you put your passion into that. There’s an opportunity there to continue in the game and not leave the game.”

Williams has occupied many roles in football since her time at the Glory, including assistant coaching roles at international level with Trinidad and Tobago, and Italian clubs AC Milan and S.S Lazio, where she helped the latter to the Serie B title in 2021.

READ: Wellington Phoenix appoint Lewis as first A-League Women’s Head Coach
MORE: Lewis says all-female Phoenix coaching staff a “massive” step for visibility in football

Williams (right) helped former Lazio head coach Carolina Morace guide the Italians out of Serie B into the top flight of Italian football last season
Williams (right) helped former S.S  Lazio head coach Carolina Morace guide the Italians out of Serie B into the top flight of Italian football last season

But before it all began Williams was just like any other Australian with ambition to coach, eager to see how female coaches in the game operate as an example to follow in her own career path.

Williams was unable to find that role model in Australia. Instead, with the help of mentor and former Matildas head coach Tom Sermanni in a scholarship program, the ambitious young coach jetted overseas in search of female coaches who could light the path to follow in her first steps into a coaching career.

“The first thing I said to Tom Sermanni is, ‘I want to see a female coach, I need to see a female coach’. I’ve had sport teachers and I was a sport teacher, (I’ve seen) hockey coaches and netball coaches, I’ve seen a lot of those females working in there space, let’s say in the sports that were more accepting to having female coaches at that time. But I didn’t have one (in football).

“I went overseas to the U.S and spent a couple of weeks with Emma Hayes at Chicago Red Stars; there were a couple of Aussies there, Heather Garriock was playing there with Lydia Williams in goals. 

"At the same time there was a national team camp in Los Angeles with the women’s national team, so I went and joined the trip together. Again, using contacts with Tom Sermanni, he got me into the women’s national team, so I stayed there with Pia Sundhage as the coach, and Hege Riise who took on the England Women’s Olympic team just recently.

“I got to see other female coaches, then I was like ‘I definitely want to do this, and can do this’. That excited me, that was a good experience.

“I was lucky, that was the only way I did (get to see female coaches). By doing that, it gave me that boost to say ‘I’m going back to Australia, and i’m going to do this, and I want to be the next women’s head coach’.”

With Wellington - the first of three planned expansion sides - competing in the A-League Women for the first time in 2021/22, the league is set to see the creation of more coaching roles in the near future which Williams is eager to see women contend for, as the exponential development of the league takes place as part of a game constantly growing in significance on the global stage. 

“I think we’ve taken a number of steps with women’s coaching organisations,” she said. “But also the Australian coaching network getting involved, delivering courses, holding forums, having discussions about coaching, women’s coaches and players, and the growth of the game.

“Across all spectrums they have education sessions about a lot of things, so all of that awareness is very helpful. I think in that sense there has been steps taken forward."