One last tea with Tom

In a frank and open interview, former Westfield Matildas coach Tom Sermanni gives his opinion on the state of women’s football before taking over the US national team.

In a frank and open interview, former Westfield Matildas coach Tom Sermanni gives his opinion on the state of women’s football before taking over the US national team.

Tom, being signed as the head coach of the United States women-s national team is, in women-s football terms, the equivalent of being appointed to coach say, Brazil, in the men-s game – it shows huge respect for your talent. What are your thoughts on the job ahead?
I hadn-t thought of it that way (laughs). I try and think of it as just another football job. I realise the size and profile of this job is bigger, but it contains the same elements: managing a group of players/staff, coaching a squad and trying to make the team and the players better, as well as putting your own stamp and philosophy on the program.

The difference this time is that normally you take over a team in turmoil or not going well. The US is already no.1, so I-m not going to need to change an awful lot. Looking ahead though, there needs to be a bit more competition within the squad and players on the fringe need to put pressure on the more established players

You-ve lived in the States before (as assistant coach of San Jose Cyber Rays and then coach of New York Power); what are you most looking forward to?
Big breakfasts in diners… Huge ones! Also some of the quirks such as the advertisements for medical products and drugs that list all the side effects, which usually include death! Seriously though, while I-ve had complete job satisfaction here, there comes a point when you feel that it-s time for change, to ensure you don-t lose your edge. So essentially I-m looking forward to a new challenge.

What will you look back on as your biggest achievement?
I feel that my no.1 was keeping our program competitive from 2008 to 2011 when our budgets were severely constricted and at a time when some of our immediate opponents were increasing their investment. The introduction of the W-League and the fine work done in our state programs and the utilisation of our funds prudently helped us through this time

The other, more obvious highlights were the 2006 Asian Cup and the 2007 World Cup. These tournaments were the foundation for a change of philosophy in our program. The success at these tournaments was the catalyst in transforming the team from one that aimed to be competitive and tried not to lose to one that expected to play attacking football and win matches. Now, the team and the young/new players coming into the squad automatically have this winning mindset and expectation.

How about disappointments?
The biggest was undoubtedly the failure to qualify for London 2012 – and in particular that fact that North Korea weren-t banned from that tournament. That a team who recorded six positive drug tests at the 2011 World Cup (only five weeks before Olympic Qualifiers) and were subsequently banned by FIFA from the 2015 World Cup could be allowed to take part in the 2012 Olympics still baffles me.

The lack of any action in particular by WADA and the IOC was particularly disappointing and perplexing, especially as those organisations portray themselves as ones who have no tolerance with drug taking athletes.

It was also somewhat intriguing that these Olympic Qualifiers (played in China) were the only official AFC event we-ve participated in, across all age groups, where there was absolutely no drug testing. Strange.

You leave the women-s game in Australia in a great place. Of course, there is always room for improvement. Any suggestions?
I think there is a far greater acceptance of women-s football than there-s ever been within the football community. However it could still be better promoted and utilised.

Every other football code in Australia would kill to have 25 per cent of its registered participants as females and would really exploit that point of difference. We still underestimate the value of women-s football.

The W-League is a classic example of this. Most A-League clubs would perceive their W-League counterparts as an expense and financial opponent to the men-s team rather than a potential asset. Yet with a little bit of forward thinking and initiative the W-League teams could be valuable additions to the A-League clubs and the game domestically.

I-m sure if AFL had a similar scenario, their women-s teams would be seen as enormous vehicles to promote the game.

The next critical frontline is development investment. The current state of our senior Matildas is a healthy one (apart from our present injury toll). However we are in danger in falling substantially behind our competitors in the area of development and this has the potential to hurt us in the not too distant future. With the loss of support from the state sports institutes, our program funding has declined when it needs to be increased.

We-re competing against countries (such as Japan, England, Sweden, France and China) that will always have greater resources than we do. Our geographical location and size of country also pose unique problems for us. So we have to plan on how we can do things as efficiently and economically as possible. As well as this however we do need to commit resources. Essentially our elite female development should mirror that of our male elite development programs.

The Matildas did not finish on quite the high you-ve experienced before, what do you put that down to?
There are always stages in our national team development when results fluctuate. This is more pronounced in a “down year” like 2012 when there are no major tournaments. What happens in these years is that the team goes through a degree of rebuilding and the preparation for matches is often limited.

Our current squad is also quite inexperienced in both international football terms as well as age. For example in our recent games against the US, only four players in that squad out of 20 had played in or against the US.

We have also been severely impacted this year by injuries to a significant number of players (against the US we were missing Lydia Williams, Casey Dumont, Melissa Barbieri, Heather Garriock, Sally Shipard, Loz Colthorpe, Kim Carroll, Elise Kellond-Knight, Ellyse Perry, Aivi Luik, Tameka Butt, Leena Khamis)

The international competition is now so tight, good preparation is essential. Between the top five Asian countries at the Olympic qualifiers, teams either drew or there was only one goal between them. We lost two games by one goal against Japan and North Korea and that knocked us out of the qualifiers by two points.

I believe the key for the Matildas going forward is to plan out a program working backwards from the 2015 World Cup. I hope and trust that Hesterine (de Reus, new Westfield Matildas coach) is given the time, patience and program necessary to succeed in Canada (finishing just behind the US of course!).

Any advice for your successor?
Learn to play cards, it-s a critical part of the staff culture! I-m expecting Hesterine to keep up the mantle as cards champion that I have held from 2005 – 2012 inclusive. Fortunately the rest of the staff are very ordinary players so I-m anticipating her success…

Really though, it-s not my place to give advice but I just hope she loves the job as much as I have, and I-m sure she-ll enjoy working with a group of motivated, talented and ambitious players.

Finally, it-s almost 30 years since you moved here from Scotland to play for Marconi Stallions, what will you miss about life in Australia?
I-ve really enjoyed being part of the football community in this country and extremely privileged to be involved in the game for many years.

I-ve had a nomadic coaching career, but the last 8 years is the most settled I-ve felt and where I believe all aspects of the game have made great progress. I-ll miss living in Sydney, my friends and work colleagues, being on the road with the Matlidas, watching the W-League and A-League and working and being part of the football community (including the media of course!). So yes I-ll miss many things… but I-ll be back!
Tom, we will all miss you. Good luck and Godspeed!