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Lydia Williams interview: Keeper of the Matildas’ magic keys – Sounds like team spirit to Australia’s number one

Houston Dash

 

The sunniest of personalities, the last warrior at the defensive gates and an eternal team DJ, Australia goalkeeper Lydia Williams has been at the heart of the anthem-worthy moments for the Matildas in recent times, adding a few more notes of nostalgia to her life’s playlist.

As the Australian women’s national team have continually gained ground on those looking out from the top branches of the international game, the names who have helped them to put down markers in their history and clamber ever closer to the world’s elite have gone down alongside their achievements. In the past year and a half, keeper Lydia Williams has been right there amongst it all as the Aussies have showcased their collective and individual talent and resolve to an increasing global audience at the FIFA Women’s World Cup and Olympic tournament.

The Houston Dash stopper came through at a time when national team greats like Cheryl Salisbury, Joey Peters and Di Alagich were still competing, while she also worked for a decade alongside recently-retired and revered former captain Melissa Barbieri, as the two supported and pushed each other while vying for the starting spot between the posts. While she would never take her position for granted, the 28-year-old has solidified her number one role since the retirement of ‘Bubs’, just like ex-Matildas boss Tom Sermanni once said she would.

With the team currently sitting at an all-time high of sixth in the FIFA rankings, the Katanning-born keeper is performing at a level that makes her, without too much argument, one of the best there is. Her performance during this year’s Rio Olympics, which included a 90th-minute save at full stretch from Andressa Alves and a shootout stop from Marta in the quarter-final with hosts Brazil, was the latest evidence on the big stage.

Those kinds of moments are split-seconds proudly and safely frozen in time, and although the team were crestfallen at the defeat, they’d strode on again in hearts and minds back home and much further afield off the back of a 2015 World Cup that saw them beat Brazil in their first knockout win at a major competition. The Matildas are a team bonded by so many factors, fundamental and fun, and Lydia is in no doubt that music sits very prominently in there.

“Every tour or historic moment, the song of that time becomes our theme tune. Whenever we hear it again we just look at each other and we’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh!’

“We’ll just freak out or we’ll send each other Snapchats about it. For the Olympic qualifiers in Asia, it was ‘Our Love’ by Nico & Vinz; that’s our theme song.

“For the Olympics, it was probably ‘False Alarm’ (Matoma and Becky Hill).”

The emotions were still swirling long after the last Olympic action in Belo Horizonte and there has been no let-up for Lydia this year, with her currently in the middle of Melbourne City’s bid for back-to-back W-League Championships. The City Football Group-backed club debuted last season and this October they became the first team she has joined back home since she had become synonymous with Canberra United.

Also playing in Sweden for Piteå IF, Lydia has cemented her standing as one of the women’s game’s most reliable last lines of defence since first arriving in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) with Western New York Flash in 2014. Despite her travels, it is still the sounds of home that soothe the senses like no other.

“I do kind of like the Australian music; electro/pop, that kind of stuff. Flume – he’s Aussie – his kind of genre is my go-to.

“I guess I like a cross between dance and more chill vocals, so I wouldn’t know what genre you’d call that! Right now, I’m into Alex Da Kid ‘Not Easy’, some Jonas Blue, Gavin James – his remixes are really cool.

“I’m into Rüfüs at the moment and Steph (Catley) and one of the other girls got me into Ziggy Alberts. Alessia Cara, too, but the team song at the moment is ‘Walk With Me’ – Cosmo’s Midnight.”

Half-American on her mother’s side, Lydia’s father was an indigenous tribal elder and would visit remote communities while she was growing up. The red plains of Australia’s ‘gold-mining capital’, Kalgoorlie, were where she would throw an Aussie Rules ball around during a childhood spent playing outside with the other kids, getting used to the rough and tumble and developing a robustness that she thinks has helped her hugely in her career.

That fearless element certainly comes in handy when staring down approaching strikers, although off the field, her geniality radiates. Whether she’s preparing for a game and wanting to be in touch with her thoughts before she arrives at the stadium, or basking in the kind of open-air ambience Australia is known for, there’s a V.I.P. seat or two saved for a beat and vocal.

“Definitely – I can’t have a road trip or be in the car without music. Whenever I’m going to or from a game I have headphones in.

“I guess any time in the Aussie summer at the beach, someone brings the speakers. At the gym, I love working out to music as well.

“The only time I don’t like it being on is when I’m training or playing; that’s when I like to fully focus.”

One of the chief protectors in the Matildas’ backline for many of Lydia’s early years with the team was Thea Slatyer, who has led an incredible life as a bodyguard, DJ and international footballer along the way. The former defender played weddings, birthdays and even Sydney nightclubs, but said on here in July 2013 that her teammates were the hardest audience!

There have been many who have had an input into the pregame mix since the distinguished ex-Sydney FC player, as Lydia details.

“She definitely was one. I think I’ve definitely had a bit of a role!

“Some of them will search for a song and we put it on the playlist for next time. It’s more of an open door with the music.

“Collette McCallum was up there. Laura Alleway, she sings and she’ll take the boombox on the bus so if the girls don’t have headphones they can listen to it.

“I think everyone will listen to it in their rooms as well.”

Named recently as the 2016 Women’s Footballer of the Year at Australia’s PFA Players’ Awards, Lydia had also previously won it in 2012. She is one of the numerous Aussies to grace the NWSL since 2013, like Orlando Pride’s Laura Alleway, Lisa De Vanna and Steph Catley, the latter of whom alerted her to a goalkeeping spot opening up at Melbourne City with last year’s first choice Brianna Davey heading for the AFL.

The club’s facilities have received acclaim on social media recently as the players have been able to work within the kind of environment that all W-League teams have long deserved, with the natural wish that such a platform will be accessible to all sooner rather than later. At City, 20-year-old left-sider Catley is captain, as she was at Melbourne Victory, and after Lydia used to get a second-hand glimpse into the setup from her, she was sold on the idea of sampling it herself.

“I room with Steph (for Australia) and hearing how she’d speak about the club, seeing the way they went out and performed, the people they got to play for them, it was like, ‘Wow, that’s legit.’ It was inspiring and when I had the chance to be part of it, I thought, ‘Yep, I want some of that.’”

 

Lydia (right) with Matildas and Melbourne City teammate Steph Catley.

 

Along with a returning player/assistant coach in Wales and Seattle Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock, City also have Seattle’s defender Lauren Barnes and forward Beverly Yanez, as well as FC Kansas City midfielder Erika Tymrak to make quite an NWSL loan contingent. That also includes Lydia of course, who has played every game so far in this ninth season of the W-League, beginning with a clean sheet on her debut in the 1-0 win at home to Newcastle Jets.

There was also the notable 3-0 derby win over Melbourne Victory, and after seven games, Joe Montemurro’s side have won four as they continue to produce impressively attractive play, although with an extra edge of ruthlessness still being sought. Having won all 12 regular-season fixtures last season before beating Brisbane Roar in the semi-final shootout and Sydney 4-1 in the Grand Final, the three losses this time have represented a slight jolt of reality.

Regardless, they’ve added a new level to the competition both on and off the field since they came in and are still a frontrunner this season. From the squad, the aforementioned Tymrak, Yanez, Barnes, Fishlock and Catley have all surfed the waves of music/teammate talk and their own personal path on here in recent years.

Still with the Victory at the time, Steph Catley mentioned her signature track to cover, and if Lydia had to do one with any teammates of her choice, she’d be the first to hear about it, along with a certain World Cup winner from the Dash.

“Steph Catley is pretty good with ‘The Show Goes On’ (Lupe Fiasco). We’d do that and she’d obviously take the lead!

“‘Rumour Mill’ (Rudimental featuring Anne-Marie and Will Heard) is another one. Morgan Brian’s not bad at busting out a song but she gets her words mixed up!

“With Morgan, I’d say Jess Glynne ‘Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself’ would be the one we’d do.”

Lydia always likes to have fun when either of those two are around, with both ending up on the receiving end of her scares on frequent occasions! As Houston’s Brazilians Poliana and Andressinha saw when she got them to gently help their midfield Morgan off her feet in training, Lydia has that great mix of being not just a full-blooded competitor who’ll go all the way for her team, but someone who lives for the lighter side of everyday life.

Believe it or not, there is even a music link in her pranks.

“To be honest, Steph has been singing/humming the Pink Panther theme three times when I’ve scared her, so I don’t know if that’s a legit song or not!”

We now see her at Melbourne City, but for so many years it was Canberra’s goal Lydia guarded. Once with the Australian Institute of Sport football program, she went all the way to the W-League Grand Final in its inaugural season of 2008/09, losing out to Queensland Roar that time but winning it in January 2012 against Brisbane Roar, as they were now named. That success came via a 3-2 win, with Michelle Heyman bagging two and Ashleigh Sykes adding another for Jitka Klimková’s team.

In 2013/14, they were regular-season winners and ultimately semi-finalists under Liesbeth Migchelsen, while it was also the year Lydia captured the players in the locker room showcasing their vocal and drum-roll harmony to John Farnham’s ‘You’re the Voice’! Having last played there post-2015 World Cup, she has continued her progress over in Texas with the Dash, and although it never really needs it in Houston, she has been helping bring the heat.

“I was the DJ! If there was a song the girls wanted, I’d play it, but it was mostly the kind of stuff people could relax to and have a dance or sing.

“If there’s a song I like I’ll jump up and down and sing along. At the Flash, I did a lot of it as well; whatever was hot on the charts I’d put it on.

“It helped having Sam Kerr there for a bit of the Aussie flair.”

In the second of Lydia’s three World Cups to date, Germany 2011, she came in for the second game of the group. It was the 3-2 win over Equatorial Guinea – yes, the game where opposing defender Bruna caught the ball in the box and play continued after she dropped it.

The Matildas reached the last eight of that tournament, and when Lydia was back in the W-League a few months later, she said being in those German stadiums where the volume was raised in front of crowds of 15-27,000 helped her learn to be more vocal in her own game. She also light-heartedly referred to singing loudly in the car as another valuable training technique!

Has she ever had to show off those skills when she was the new kid on the block at any of her teams?

“No, thank goodness! It’s been more washing boots and stuff like that!”

As a dual citizen of Australia and America, Lydia doesn’t take up an international spot on her team in the NWSL, with her mother, Diana, originally from Oklahoma. The NWSL actually wasn’t her first experience of the pro game in the States, with a stint as a youngster at Chicago Red Stars back in the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) era.

That multi-national 2009 team included Brazilian forward Cristiane, who notably embraced her in a show of friendship and sportsmanship after the penalty shootout between their teams at the Olympics in August. Magical on her day, Lydia also remembers the Paris Saint-Germain player coming along to get lost in the music with her and some fellow Red Stars at Grant Park once upon a time, with Snoop Dogg, The Killers and Kings of Leon among the acts on the bill.

“I’ve been to quite a few (live shows and festivals). I went to Lollapalooza in Chicago in 2009 and convinced a few of the girls on the team to come.

“I had a three-day pass – I don’t know how wise that was! I think it was Cristiane, Heather Garriock, Megan Rapinoe, maybe two more.

“In Australia, we used to have Stereosonic and Future Music Festival. I’ve seen Beyonce and she was amazing, so I wouldn’t mind seeing her again.

“Going back, Michael Jackson would have been phenomenal to see.”

While working as a missionary in Western Australia, Lydia’s mother met her father, Ron. Known for his generosity and love for meeting, helping and supporting people, he wanted to share and pass on the elements of the indigenous culture he was so proud of to his daughter. He passed before she first lined up for the national team, but a tattoo on her wrist of her Aboriginal middle name, Yilkari, is just one way she is reminded every day of where she comes from.

She had started playing football at eight, mainly though her school team, and she used to like it in midfield. Also a basketball, futsal and tee-ball player who took part in athletics and gymnastics, she switched soccer stations when her mum got offered a job in Canberra, as she had the choice of joining a fourth-tier team in midfield or a top-tier one as a keeper.

Saving a penalty in a game, her coach made sure she stayed in that very position, and she also pulled off a spot-kick stop against a rival team in the Kanga Cup, the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest junior football tournament. There was plenty of team ethic back in those days in her listening choices, as she recalls her first ever CD.

“I’m pretty sure it was the Spice Girls or The Corrs. It was around that time in the 90s when Girl Power was becoming a huge thing.

“It was probably the Spice Girls I listened to most growing up because they had all the hits and I had five good friends, so we danced around and pretended to be them a lot!”

Making her start with the Matildas just a handful of years after she first went in goal, the Spice Girls were a definite part of Lydia’s childhood, although admittedly pretty far removed from the music of her paternal heritage.

“I guess being indigenous they use the didgeridoo and tapping sticks a lot; songs where you get a beat going, traditional dances. I think music definitely means a lot but you probably wouldn’t find it on too many CDs!”

In Brazil this year, Lydia was left somewhat speechless when she met 2000 Sydney Olympics star and 400m gold medallist Cathy Freeman, her sporting hero. At the Deadly Awards, which honoured Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander achievements in music, sport, entertainment and community, Lydia won the 2006 Female Sportsperson of the Year accolade, just as Freeman had done.

She has had the best of both worlds from her heritage, as well as a kind of social connection to the outdoors and sense of adventure and exploration that is pretty amazing. Although Australia was where the majority of it played out, there would be special occasions spent Stateside.

“My parents would go to different communities when I had school, so I got put with family friends. That forced me to be independent when I was young and I think helped me when it came to leaving home.

“We went to the U.S. a little bit; Christmas a few times and that let me experience a white Christmas, so that was kind of cool. Looking back at photos now, I think we spent the 4th of July there quite a bit.”

With the desert as her early years’ backdrop, Lydia’s affection for animals was nurtured in Kalgoorlie and eventually saw her working as a zoo tour guide and training to be a zoo keeper at Canberra’s National Zoo and Aquarium. She used to travel as part of her course to Taronga Zoo in Sydney, feeding the lions and tigers, while today her dog Ralph gets a lot of the love when she’s home.

“Totally love animals; I’ve always had a dog or two or some other random animal! I actually had two pet kangaroos growing up; we rescued them out in the desert when their mum got hit by a car.

“We would always check their pouches to see if they had any joeys and twice they did, so we had them in our back yard hopping around everywhere.”

 

 

In what has been an increasingly impressive career to date, Lydia has got to know so many players who’ve brought their cultural nuances and personal traits to the party, as herself and others from around the world have all come together in pursuit of a common goal and love for the game. Getting to see alternative sides to the competitors we know on the field from top leagues and tournaments is one of the privileges players get to enjoy through a life spent in the sport.

Each player’s path is unique and it is probably safe to suggest none had a childhood quite like Lydia’s. With that background behind her, she remembers the start of her overseas club journey and how it changed her.

“With Chicago, it was my first time really living away from home and the first time I was thought of as a professional. I was only 20 – I was still a baby – and even though I didn’t play I learned a lot about myself.

“Sweden gave me that taste of playing abroad. In Chicago, I was so excited, but I didn’t know anyone and Heather Garriock took me under her wing.

“In Sweden, Jennifer Nobis, an American player (now a CrossFit competitor), we knew each other and she helped me transition. Probably after the 2012 season in Australia, before I went to Sweden, it felt like that was where I got consistent and I realised, ‘I’m actually doing well,’ and having a team really interested in me was a big thing.”

Part of the 2006 runners-up and 2008 fourth-place squad, Lydia was in the Matildas group that came home from China with its first AFC Asian Cup in 2010. Also a winner at the 2008 AFF Championship in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, the fact she played at a third World Cup last year was remarkable considering where she was less than a year before.

In July 2014, ten minutes into Western New York’s home game with Washington Spirit, Lydia caught a corner from Diana Matheson before falling awkwardly. Although she got straight back up and rolled the ball out to continue play, something was clearly wrong.

She would be able to walk off the field but it was a second ACL rupture, after she’d suffered the same fate during her time in Sweden. Her return in time to play in Canada was astonishingly impressive but she remembers how far off that possibility seemed at first.

“When I did my knee for the second time in Western New York, it was ten months from the World Cup. In Australia, we put things on the conservative side and so it was like, ‘Okay, it’s ten months, it could be 12 months.’

“In my head, I was thinking ‘What do I do? It’s over.’

“I had two or three days to cry. I remember Abby (Wambach) taking me aside and telling me, ‘You’ll be fine. You’re gonna make it back for the World Cup.’

“I had no time to have any doubts about it.”

As mentioned, Lydia’s outlook owes in no small part to her childhood and she has been out into the indigenous community to coach during her career. With her Melbourne City teammates recently, she went out to help run clinics, but who in her role inspired her on the field when she was growing up?

When given the option of any goalkeeper she’d want to train with and get some one-on-one time with and tips from, it didn’t take long to answer.

“(Peter) Schmeichel – he’s my favourite. You see pictures of some of the saves he made and his eyes are open when the ball’s two metres away being blasted.

“He was an inspiration to me.”

As the Matildas put Brazil out of the World Cup in Moncton, Lydia’s fingertip save from Formiga was as noteworthy as Kyah Simon adjusting to put her finish into the far corner after Lisa De Vanna’s effort was fumbled. This year in Brazil, she made 18 saves, which was a tally that stood as the highest of any NWSL keeper at the tournament.

There are fine details that will live longest in her memory from the Olympics and they go hand in hand with those from 2015.

“With the World Cup, it was the feeling when we beat Brazil for the first time; I don’t think anyone in the team had felt that before in an arena. In Rio, the sound of the Brazilian anthem when all the Brazilians were singing it.

“There were 60,000 there and it was overwhelming how loud it was. I was a bit overwhelmed at how powerful the crowd was but it made me hungrier to beat them – ‘let’s show them what we have.’”

 

Houston Dash

 

A former Young Matildas captain, Lydia went to the 2006 FIFA Under-20 World Championship in Russia, where the Aussies beat New Zealand 3-0 in the group phase. In that game in St. Petersburg, one of the scorers was Sally Shipard, a player Lydia shares a certain funny memory with, as she and a few others pranked some of the older Matildas with a scary phone call while the team was in America.

With the ‘victims’ of the call discussing it the next morning, the perpetrators revealed it was them, only to find that they didn’t see the funny side and responded with the silent treatment for a few hours! Whether it’s football or pranks, you live and learn, so what are the biggest lessons Lydia would pick out from her life in the game up to now?

“I think it’s taught me to be resilient. Injuries are terrible and can end careers but the beauty of soccer is that it has both aspects, where you can come back from it.

“It’s scary but it’s quite unique. It’s a physical game but it also becomes a mental game.

“I would say (to my younger self) be patient; I probably jumped to conclusions at times. Seeing the game and how everyone wants to do well and how people support each other – when we had the strike and the players in America were supporting us – it’s something really great.”

A fan of thriller books, Lydia also enjoys reading the devotions and other excerpts from the Bible her mum sends her. One of her tattoos reads: ‘True character is measured by the strength of your desire, the size of your dream and how you handle adversity along the way.’

Earlier in her career, Lydia paid to play, and now she is one of the group at the top level bringing about change for the better. It is hard for anyone who has been in the game for a significant amount of time to pinpoint a select few who have impacted on them, but especially for Lydia.

Even beyond teammates, her career has been the springboard for vacations and adventures spent with so many of the game’s characters from all over the world. For this regular closer, it is about just one little sample of those players coming together in a fantasy 5-a-side scenario.

The interviewee is asked to imagine four teammates from any time in their career to play alongside them in this small-sided game. They are not asked for a ‘best four’, so their selections can be made for any reasons at all, with fun a particular factor as Lydia was put on the spot here.

“I would probably say Steph Catley (defender) because we get along really well. She’s a good player and friend.

“Morgan Brian (midfielder) – also quite a good friend and I nutmeg her from time to time! It usually just ends up with us both on the floor laughing.

“Collette McCallum (midfielder) – we’re good friends and she has a brilliant soccer mind. She just does what she wants and gets away with it!

“I’d probably say Abby (Wambach) or Sam Kerr – both would score for fun. The way Abby motivated the U.S. team when we played them was incredible.

“She’d be like, ‘Come on, we’ll find a way to score’ – and then they would. You’re like, ‘How does that happen?!’

“I’d put her in even just to draw other players around her and create space. I think that team would spend more time laughing than playing!”

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