‘Everything I do, I do for him’: Inside the world of the Matildas’ newest face made in the Liberty A-League

Sophie Harding is flourishing with Western Sydney Wanderers as her biggest motivator watches from above. Her own biggest critic, she speaks to aleagues.com.au about the key to her best-ever season and moving to Australia from England.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in December 2023, but has been updated following her maiden call-up the Matildas squad for this month’s Olympic Games qualifiers against Uzbekistan.

“I think about him every time I’m on the pitch and every time I leave the pitch.”

Speaking to Sophie Harding, it becomes immediately obvious why she fell in love with football and why she is where she is: Her father.

He introduced her to the game as a three-year-old in the UK, but sadly passed away two years ago.

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“Honestly, I would say you find a positive in everything and he is my massive motivator, especially this season,” the Western Sydney Wanderers star told aleagues.com.au.

“Everything I do, I do for him.”

Harding has enjoyed a breakout Liberty A-League season with nine goals in 15 matches. So, what would her dad be thinking?

“He’d be ecstatic,” she said with a smile. “He loved seeing me confident. That was his thing. He’d just constantly tell me you’re the best, just show it.

“He would still be critical. He’d have things to say for sure, when I lose the ball, what I could do better. I was never perfect in his eyes, ever. Always there was more I could do and I know that.

“But I know he’d be telling me to keep it going. Don’t let people get to you, keep your head down and stay humble. Your team will provide you with enough chances and you just need to capitalise on them.”

Growing up in England

Listening to Harding speak, you wouldn’t know she was born in England but that is the case.

Harding – a Chelsea fan in a family of Blues supporters – was born in Twickenham and relocated to Sydney as a six-year-old.

“I remember it was snowing and running out chasing an orange ball with like 20 boys. I was always like the only girl,” Harding recalled as she reflected on her first memories of football in the UK.

“Then my mum and dad were like you need better opportunities. I think they saw a lot of my family around me getting into some bad things in England – hanging on the streets and getting into trouble. They wanted something different. Just even in school, being in a healthy environment.

“Lucky I loved sport from a very young age. It’s all I ever wanted to do – to play football. I used to do athletics and then got to an age where I had to chose between the two.”

Moving to Australia required some adjustment. She went from a country where football was the number one sport to a nation where numerous sporting codes are vying for supremacy.

The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup changed things for the 24-year-old.

“It’s definitely growing after the World Cup,” she said of football.

“How much the Aussies got around (thetournament) – I never thought I would see that because I’ve never really seen Aussies be overly passionate about football.”

‘I always envied that’

As a youngster, Harding didn’t have many female idols. Being a Chelsea fan, she liked Eden Hazard and Didier Drogba. She also “obsessed” over Frank Lampard.

“I would cry”, she smiled. It was her favourite era.

But things changed in her early teenage years. Harding likened herself to a pair of Matildas forwards but it was one Australian superstar that stood out.

“I liked players like Hayley Raso and Caitlin Foord,” she said. “I’m quite similar to them but I’ve always envied Sam Kerr’s goalscoring ability.

“She makes something out of nothing all the time. I never used to be like that so I would always envy that part of her game.

“I was always more like Hayley and Caitlin, square people up, take people on and cut the ball back. Trying to incorporate those areas of my game that I’m already good at and then get better at the other areas I wasn’t so good at.”

An early-season shock and taking her game to a new level

On the eve of the 2023-24 Liberty A-League season, there was a surprise when the Wanderers and head coach Kat Smith parted ways after one campaign.

Former Socceroo Robbie Hooker took over just 10 days out from the opening round.

“It was hard,” said Harding. “With Kat, we had a way she liked to play and we started learning that two weeks out from the season. Then to come in with a coach who wanted to play differently, it was a big adjustment.

“There was a lot of frustration with the team which showed on the field – we kind of looked a bit clueless the first two rounds. Didn’t really know what we were doing. Once we put faith in the new coach and his way of playing, we’re all on the same page, it shows when we play now.

“Everyone knows what everyone is going to do. We lacked a goal on the field before but now we know what we’re building towards.”

The proof is in Western Sydney’s recent results.

The Wanderers – who are fourth and seven points behind leaders Melbourne City heading into Round 17.

Harding has been central to their improved form in 2023-24.

“I’m still very critical of myself. I have lots of things I want to work on and improve on,” she said. “Overall, as a team has been way more enjoyable, games have been way more enjoyable because we’re meshing better and understanding each other more.”

The key to her red-hot form this season?

“It would come down to two things. In the past, because I wasn’t scoring much, I didn’t see myself as a goalscorer,” Harding explained.

“On the field, I was getting myself in positions to take people on and cross the ball. Then I thought to myself, we aren’t scoring goals and I need to change it.

“I just started to think where I could get in front of goal and started backing myself more.

“Robbie helps to express myself more, play with confidence. He backs me. When people around you have faith in you, constantly behind me, it’s definitely done it for me.”

She added: “He is interesting. He is very human, which is good. A very good person and coach. He is understanding.

“He brings out the best in players through making them be confident about what they’re good at. He talks about playing to your strengths. He helps players get better at the things they’re good at it.

“When people are around you telling you you’re good, you’re definitely going to do better from it.”

It is all part of Harding silencing her doubters.

“I like to prove people wrong,” she said. “It’s just myself. Knowing what I’m capable of. There’s been times in my life where I definitely didn’t display what I’m capable of.

“Football is everything so if I’m doing well in football everything is else is good and if I’m not doing well in football, then everything else is s***.”

The World Cup and Matildas

Watching the Matildas galvanise a nation changed Harding’s outlook on a lot of things.

“I’m always English but Australia has given me so many opportunities, friends and experiences. I love being Australian,” she said.

“The World Cup was hard for me – England v Matildas. I was going for the Matildas because I know some of them but also to see the country get around them so much, I couldn’t not go for them.

“I remember one of the games at Suncorp and I was down at the local RSL watching it and it was full of thousands of men. I was like, how could I not go for the Matildas right now? This is great and it’s ultimately going to be great for me and this league.”

Harding is an Australian citizen, but she is also eligible to represent the Republic of Ireland through her grandparents and England, the nation of her birth.

She is yet to appear for Australia at any international level and while it’s not something she is thinking about, it remains a dream.

“Obviously if the opportunity came, I’d be absolutely stoked with it,” said Harding.

“After the World Cup and seeing that, I’ve always wanted to play for my country. If you’re in this league and don’t want to play for your country, there’s something wrong with you.

“If I got that chance, It would make me extremely proud.”