I won’t stop fighting for my players – they’re human beings

Becoming an A-Leagues head coach tests you in ways you can’t imagine – but it’s a job I’ve always dreamed of, writes Western Sydney Wanderers coach and former Matildas star Catherine Cannuli for KEEPUP.

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was pick up the phone a few weeks ago and tell some players that their time at the Wanderers was over. Players who I have coached, players who I have become friends with, players whose characters I have come to know well.

But that’s the challenge of becoming a head coach – there are, it feels like, a million parts to the job, and all of them test you. There are hard decisions to make, often quite quickly, training programs to schedule, a whole season to plan. Above all there are the human beings to consider, the players and coaches who look to a head coach for direction.

And truly – I wouldn’t change any of it. This is something that I’ve wanted for a long time. Everyone knows what Western Sydney Wanderers and this team means to me. To be able to lead them on and off the pitch is an amazing feeling – to provide them with an environment where they can be the best version of themselves. I won’t stop fighting for them to make sure they can be the best possible footballers.

It is a very different role to being assistant coach under Dean Heffernan, as I was for four years. As an assistant, you’re the one that’s keeping everything together and helping players, especially the younger ones, with their journeys.

That’s why those phone calls as I reshaped the squad were so hard but for me, it was all about being transparent, upfront and honest. The sooner they knew, the longer time they had to find another club; as human beings, it was important to treat them right.

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Cannuli succeeded Dean Heffernan as Wanderers A-League Women head coach

For any business, its people are its biggest asset, but in a football club that is writ large. Which is why the culture that you set is the basis of everything; creating an environment where players feel supported and listened to, but also pushed to be the best they can be.

Above all it’s founded on respect between the individuals who make up my team. Respect is a two-way process – it’s normal to expect the younger players to respect the older ones in a dressing room but the reverse has to be true as well.

That’s why the leadership group I created includes the captain and senior players, but also a younger player who some of her junior teammates may feel more comfortable approaching. It’s meant to be a cross-section of the dressing room, so that every player feels included and valued – from No 1 to No 23, each will play a role as the season unfolds. Each one has to buy in to my plans, and understand what the end goal is. If I get that right, my life becomes a great deal easier.

I think I’m very lucky here with the girls that I have in the dressing room – a few of those older girls like Erica Halloway and Caitlin Cooper have been around for a very long time, they know what our culture is all about. But with a few new players coming in, you have to be explicit so that everyone sees the direction.

A few weeks ago we held a goal achievement workshop to define what we want to achieve as a group. You can say it’s easy to set those goals, but it’s about how you’re going to achieve them, the background and the sheer hard work.

Yes, we want to play finals football, yes we want to win the grand final, but for me actions speak louder than words. Players have to be clear on their role in making those dreams come true, they have to drive the standards and make sure the person next to them is giving 100%.

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Catherine Cannuli will rely on senior players such as Caitlin Cooper.

Of course, my dreams of becoming a head coach didn’t feature it coming true in the middle of a global pandemic. Zoom meetings will never be a substitute for planning in a group, but like everyone we have been forced to adapt.

Most of all we were counting the days until we could get the players on the pitch, especially after the start of the season was delayed because of the border closures – with a knock-on effect on when we started our pre-season.

Mentally I could see that was tough for the players, and yet – in some ways – we can take a positive from the delay as we were able to add a week to pre-season. These girls haven’t been in a team environment for 16 weeks and haven’t played a game of football in that time.

So it’s important for us to make sure that their bodies are conditioned and we have been able to make sure we haven’t pushed them too hard too soon, when normally you don’t really have much of a choice.

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Catherine Cannuli playing for the Wanderers in 2014.

We also have one fantastic advantage, one that none of us must ever take for granted. When you walk into the Wanderers Football Park, when you see the pristine pitches with the perfect white lines and the gym all lined up… well, if you don’t feel like a professional footballer then, you never will.

We have everything we need here, from the ice baths and the gym to every supplement under the sun. The resources are there to train, to play, to recover and improve.

It’s an important thing to feel, especially for the girls who are managing other commitments. For months my staff have worked around the clock to support the players during lockdown, we made sure that the girls were prepared mentally and physically coming into day one on the pitch.

The truth is that if you want to be a footballer and play in the W-League then training is non-negotiable. We give the players their schedules a month in advance, which is why COVID was such an interesting curve ball.

But actually they came back in better shape than I had dared hope for, and the joy of training again has driven us to make up for lost time. We still have more than a month to go, but those goals we defined can start to come into view.

I know the expectation on us, because I know the expectation on me. The Wanderers are a big club, and with that comes the demands to do well. This team hasn’t yet tasted real success, and the whole family – club, players, fans – crave it.

But I think the most pressure is from myself. Having got to this point, the last thing I will settle for is just to be part of the competition. I played to be a winner, and now that I’ve got to the role I have wanted for so long, why would I coach any differently?