Sarah Walsh interview: Matildas great swaps route to goal for journey to sweet surrender
The last notes of Westfield Matildas striker Sarah Walsh’s career have now played out, and with her place alongside the elite of women’s football in Australia beyond dispute she is finding there are new depths to herself to be explored.
The Australian women’s national team is in fine shape and although even the biggest Matildas fan could not legitimately say they are World Cup challengers at present, the outlook for the years to come offers tremendous optimism. The youngsters continue to impress and their prospects have certainly been helped by the two World Cup quarter-final appearances in succession. The 2007 tournament was a true landmark for the team and the women’s game in the country as the Matildas reached the last eight on the big stage for the first time. Perceptions altered with that achievement and Sarah Walsh was right there amongst it all.
A W-League winner with Sydney FC in 2009, Sarah said farewell to her on-field role with the Matildas last September at the age of 29. Her goal in the 6-2 defeat to Olympic Gold medallists the USA in Colorado had given them a 2-1 lead and it meant Sarah retired with 32 goals from 71 international caps. The Matildas have enjoyed some terrific moments in recent years and there has always been a soundtrack to accompany the team on their journey. Ex-defender and huge favourite Thea Slatyer was the most recent Matilda on here and alongside her incredible story has been a true affinity with music. Sarah recalls Thea’s DJing as well as a midfield mainstay in the national side for so long who it appears may not be quite as assured with her playlist awareness!
“I have so many memories. One that stands out is the 2006 Asia Cup when we qualified for the World Cup for the first time through Asia and the team’s unofficial song was Eminem (featuring Nate Dogg) ‘Shake That’.
“We could always rely on Thea to provide the team with the most up-to-date music going around at the time, sometimes the musically-challenged Heather Garriock would yell out: “Oh I love this song, is it Britney Spears’ new song?” ”No Heather, it’s Kylie Minogue’s old song.”
“No matter how bad of a dancer you were, everyone was up giving it a go. I have been known to be an erratic dancer, I blame the ADD.”
When Sarah called time on her career she did so with only the legendary Cheryl Salisbury ahead of her for Matildas goals, with 38. It was less than a decade ago when a 21-year-old Sarah, who by then had already had to contend with multiple reconstructions of her knee, announced her arrival on the international scene by getting on the scoresheet against New Zealand in Brisbane in 2004. Adrian Santrac was the coach at the time, just ahead of Tom Sermanni’s era in charge, and it is certainly fair to say that the infrastructure of Australian women’s football has improved immeasurably since.
A former Sky Blue FC and Saint Louis Athletica player in Women’s Professional Soccer, Sarah is still a long way from true veteran stakes in footballers’ age terms but the music the younger Matildas opted for in her later days with the team left her adding a few years on in her mind!
“Well towards the end the kids started taking over the speakers in change rooms as us oldies couldn’t be bothered or were too busy with other things. Teigan Allen put a few things on that just had to be turned off.
“I’m sure it was something very popular at the time but the lyrics were a little repulsive… showing my age!”
Sarah’s pace always managed to present something to think about for opposition players, although moving onto the wing left her wondering why she was doing more running instead of less as she got older! She got the first goal of the 2007 World Cup for the Matildas en route to reaching the quarter-final, netting in the 4-1 win over Ghana in Hangzhou. A successful team has various meaningful elements and something that is undeniable about the Matildas is how they have that collective quality but decidedly individual personalities and perspectives. Sarah is a fitting example – integral to the team dynamic but with clear personal traits that differentiate her, illustrated through the role of songs in her match preparation and her life.
“I don’t discriminate when it comes to music, I could be into dance all the way to Mariah Carey. My all-time favourite artist is Sarah McLachlan, sometimes I would listen to her on the bus pre-game.
“I was a little different to teammates in that respect as I did not need to be ‘pumped-up’ for games, I needed to settle down, weird I know. It wouldn’t stop me having a dance in the change rooms before the game though.
“The bus ride was my time to sit and reflect on what I would like to do in the game ahead, visualise myself doing it in my mind. I wouldn’t say music is overly important to me, I don’t really get a lot of time to chill out and listen to it, but when I do I appreciate the effect it has on me in terms of relaxing me and allowing me to zone out.”
The deep and sensual vocals of Canadian songstress Sarah McLachlan are the preferred choice for former Western Sydney Wanderers captain Sarah but the first record she ever bought, a 1995 album from an American band, draws back the curtain a little on her taste once upon a time.
“Everclear – ‘Sparkle and Fade’. I was a little grunge in my high school years, well, I thought I was.”
As Sydney FC won their first W-League in 2009, Sarah scored in the 3-0 semi-final victory over Canberra United before grabbing one in the Grand Final as Brisbane Roar were beaten 3-2. A Matildas moment that will remain in the memory was the two goals she got in the Estadio Azteca against Mexico in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Rising to the fore was always something Sarah did extremely well on the field but did she ever take the initiative in front of her teammates with vocal harmonies?
“I don’t recall having to sing or anything like that. I do recall carrying the balls and equipment onto the bus for years!”
Also a 2010 AFC Women’s Asian Cup winner, the magnitude of what Sarah and the rest of the 2007 World Cup quarter-finalist Matildas achieved in terms of what it did for the women’s game in Australia took some time to register. It is little surprise then which match in her career Sarah would choose to go back to and live again.
“That Canada game in 2007. With one minute to go we thought we were on the next plane home – that one minute changed football for women in Australia.”
The scenario in Chengdu which Sarah mentions had the final group game nearing its end and Canada leading 2-1. It was to be defender Cheryl Salisbury who scored the truly priceless equaliser to send the Matildas into the quarter-final and it was so fitting for a legend like her to help shape the future of the game she had worked so hard for in her illustrious career. Like Cheryl Salisbury, Julie Murray and others with their place as Matildas icons, Sarah can watch the national team in the future and always know she helped ensure that female players in Australia are not hidden away and unheard of any longer. Sarah describes as best she can how putting on the shirt and being part of the team made her feel, as well as some of the teammates she will miss playing alongside the most.
“You really can’t put it into words, it’s just a feeling of pure fulfilment. To know what it means to your family and friends as well, to know how much satisfaction it gives so many people who had a hand in getting you there, it’s euphoric.
“Some of my closest mates were Kate McShea , Melissa Barbieri, Thea Slatyer and Heather Garriock. They basically tolerated me for eight years, I know I could be a handful sometimes with all the pranks.
“Look…I am just high energy.”
Among Sarah’s career injuries was a broken leg while with Pali Blues in the US and it is so sad when greats of the game are disrupted in this way. However, what an endorsement of her character it is that she rose above such setbacks and scored and performed consistently at the top level. With retirement from the Matildas last year before a final tour of the W-League battlefield with Western Sydney Wanderers, Sarah’s number 9 shirt is now off the pitch for good.
Microfracture surgery on her right knee had previously let her play on but the year-long recovery resulted in her missing out on the 2011 World Cup. With the knee pain that followed games and three or four days before it would settle each time, Sarah made the decision to retire and London 2012 holds a strong memory as a result. Sarah’s girlfriend is someone who has done her own interview on here – US midfield star Megan Rapinoe. She won Gold with the US last summer and Sarah describes how this tournament involved a memorable meeting with her Matildas coach at the time, Tom Sermanni.
“I went to the Olympics to watch Megan play and caught up with Tommy, who was there to watch also, for lunch in Scotland. I forced myself to tell him, which finally made it real for me.
“I will never forget that moment, with him across the table eating his club sandwich and cup of tea. He had been there at the start of my career right to the very end so it was quite fitting.
“I’m pretty sure this contributed to his decision to join the US team!”
Working for a brief time alongside England legend Kelly Smith at the Boston Breakers in 2010, Sarah has featured in line-ups with plenty of accomplished talents. She had the opportunity to learn from them but what did her career overall teach her about herself?
“Football has made me very resilient. I had to endure three knee reconstructions by the age of 18, I had so many people tell me to stop playing, I was never a very good listener.
“I played on to make the national team at 21, to then stay there for the next eight years. My point is, you need to listen to yourself, you know your own capabilities, it’s very hard for someone else to know your limitations.
“With that said, you also need those people around you to get you through those hard times. Today post-football, I’m trying to be less resilient and be a little more open, something which you don’t really have time for as an athlete.
“My little nephew has really opened me up in a very big way. I’m a ball of mush for him, and my girlfriend for that matter.”
Sarah’s ventures have included studying for a marketing degree through Open Universities Australia, her role as Game Development Education Officer for Football Australia, commentating for SBS Television and Radio, being a PFA Players Executive member, and work with the Illicit Drugs in Sport Club Champions Program.
She has also been part of something very exciting that will appeal not only to those with a love for women’s football in Australia but potentially everywhere. ‘The Women’s Game’ recently had its 5th birthday and in that time creator and editor Ann Odong, assistant editor Shell Barratt, Danielle Warby (strategy and planning), Nicole Westwood (social media and game day operations), photographers Emily Mogic and Joseph Mayers, graphic designer Mary Ann Darr, and a number of others from correspondents to those who support it, have helped to create an outstanding women’s football outlet. Whether covering and discussing the game in Australia or worldwide, TWG has built up a community and Danielle from the team has been the creator, director and editor behind ‘The Women’s Game TV’. Sarah was the presenter of the pilot episode last month and naturally wholeheartedly endorses the project.
“That was a lot of fun! The next episodes will only get better, with a new host as well.
“’The Women’s Game’ are creating something very special here in Aus, I was more than happy to help out with the pilot. They really give women’s football the attention it deserves, watch this space with them.”
Although she has other areas she intends to spend time in, Sarah has said she will never leave football and will always be involved and supporting it in some way. As a kid, she used the trampoline as a goal to kick the ball against. If only she knew then that she would make it onto the biggest stages of all in the World Cup and Olympic Games. In her last match in the green and gold she finished a chance after Lisa De Vanna had delivered the cross and her former Saint Louis Athletica teammate Hope Solo in the US goal was unable to stop her. These two players make it into her fantasy 5-a-side team (requiring her to also select herself) for the regular final question and two other retired Matildas stars also get the call-up. Here is Sarah to introduce her line-up.
“Keeper, Hope (Solo) – say no more. Defender, Thea Slatyer – the enforcer, always there to make sure I had a clear run to the ball on attacking corners.
“Midfielder, Julie Murray – I just wanted her on the field. Striker, Lisa De Vanna – OK player, and we know each other’s game best.”
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