Price and Pride of being Pioneering Matilda

‘Are you prepared to pay this amount and will you be available at the above times?’

Receiving confirmation of your selection in the National Team is still a highlight for any footballer, however in the early days of touring with the Australian Women, letters would contain this one critical line, underlining the difficult choice that faced those players who began the Matildas footballing legacy.

Matildas Cap #21 Leanne Priestley still has her letter from the Australian Women’s Soccer Association (AWSA) congratulating her on selection in the national team for a proposed trip to Indonesia. It’s the post-script that contains the kicker, listing the cost per player, the dates for the 12 day tour and then those pertinent words.

Leanne Priestley letter

Being talented enough to warrant selection in the National Team Squad was just the first hurdle – skills and ability would get your name on the list but to book a seat on the plane for an overseas tour, you also had to fulfil two other key criteria: Time and Money.

Like many before and after her, Priestley learned early on what was required to achieve her football dream, doing the hard yards as a Brisbane U18’s rep player.

“I spent many weekends selling raffle tickets at petrol stations, often holding the hose as people found their loose change, or wrote out their tickets” Priestley recalls.

Little had changed by the time she achieved selection in the Senior National Team. With women’s football in its infancy, these were the “pay to play” days and often the players had to combine their love of the game with jobs to make their dreams possible. While Olympic and Commonwealth Games athletes received different treatment, Priestley was refused leave to play for Australia by her Teachers College and thus would miss out on a couple of years of touring. She somehow, still managed to complete a Bachelor of Education, Diploma in Special Education and a Master of Education whilst representing her country.

Matildas Cap #1 Julie Dolan started travelling for football in her mid teens and while she could see incremental progress being made for the women’s game during the 1980’s, she credits the support staff and their unwavering faith in the Matildas for pushing the game forward.

“It was a time when people just got things done but all the time they were fighting for better,” Dolan remembered.

“If the pitches were dusty old goat tracks, that didn’t matter. If the uniforms didn’t quite fit, that wasn’t a concern. I could give you countless examples of what all of us did just to get on the park.

“In summary though, there wasn’t fortune or fame to be had, so that wasn’t the driving influence, I was simply very fortunate to be surrounded by all these trail blazers who all loved the game and wanted better for women’s football”.

Coach Jim Selby (1978 – 1984), always believed in the chance to change the landscape for the women’s game.

“It was a pioneering time where the cycle needed to be broken to show that with better coaching and more opportunities, girls could play at a higher standard”.

In 1978, the Australian women entered the first Women’s World Invitational Tournament in Taiwan, long before the words ‘World Cup’ would enter the female footballing lexicon.

Selby and his staff would write programs for the players to work on at home and credits the players for the enthusiasm with which they embraced the plan.

“We ran the first ever camps for females with national team players and future players but when they went home, quite often we couldn’t get them for another six months or more. So we would write them programs for home training, which were personalised for strikers, midfielders, backs and so on and players would report back with their progress. They were very diligent, they wanted to do their best and worked really hard”.

Selby recalls being told once, that his future would be in jeopardy if he stayed in women’s football but as he reflects on the thrill of hearing the anthem play for that first match in Taiwan in 1978, he quips “It didn’t work out too bad!”

Upon his return from that tour, Selby was presented with a special medallion by AWSA President Elaine Watson, to recognise the significance of the event and his contribution to the game.

“She said, you should be proud of this, of what you’ve done” he remembers, “and I am, I am proud”.

Through Selby, the opportunity for players to pursue coaching careers also became a reality.

In 1981, a trip to New Zealand was planned for the senior team. Selby was already scheduled to run a coaching course at that time and would be unable to travel, so he recommended to the AWSA that Trixie Tagg take charge of the side for the upcoming trip.

“Trixie understood the players, she had been in the camp working with them – I saw it as an opportunity for ex-players to become coaches” Selby says.

AWSA took his advice and Tagg would become the first female to coach a national team, on a tour to New Zealand which remains the only one of its kind – in that every touring member was female. Cindy Heydon (Cap #6) would captain the side which won every match of that 1981 tour.

Sue Monteath (Cap #9) has many memories of tours to New Zealand, including the apartment style accommodation where players could cook and prepare their own food to save some money – this sparked an idea that would continue on tours for many years.

“We instigated a tradition to organise a progressive dinner for the team, which involved designating different rooms and hostesses for hors d’oeuvres, main meal and dessert. This was a lot of fun – a good bonding exercise and a way to explore the culinary talent (or not)”.

Monteath was selected more times than any other player in the first decade of the Matildas existence and enjoys reflecting on all her experiences, including the challenges of that first world invitational tournament after inclement weather in the region.

“The fields in Taipei seemed to have borne the brunt of the typhoon, They were completely waterlogged, I remember people with sponges and buckets trying to mop the field,” Monteath said.

“The playing conditions were atrocious – ending up on the turf – possibly gravel, was unavoidable. Many players suffered large rashes on their legs and with no medical staff, these wounds were treated with bathing and antiseptic and some players were not able to continue”.

In later years, Monteath’s parents Jan and David would travel with her teams as part of the voluntary medical staff.

“Mum travelled as the Physio with several State and National teams – and paid (financially) for this experience – as did the players. Dad, as a General Practitioner, also accompanied the Australian team to Hawaii (1983) and China (1984). During the China tournament in Xian, Dad literally stitched me up (a cut in my ankle) and treated several players with various medical issues, avoiding the Chinese hospital system which was at best, dubious, judging by what players from other teams experienced”.

Family played a significant support role for all players in these nascent years, often helping financially and in some cases practically as well.

For Michelle Sawyers(Cap #46), family was the key consideration, as she was already married and mother to a 3-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter when selected to play for Australia.

While her father wondered if the arrival of her children would signal the end of her chance for national selection, Sawyers had other ideas.

“My husband was also an athlete, he represented Queensland and Australia in wrestling, so it was a pretty busy life. I would train Monday and Wednesday, he’d train Tuesday and Thursday and between us we had constant tours, were raising two kids and paying a mortgage. Our families were great, I probably didn’t get as much housework done, but everyone was very supportive” she laughs.

Sawyers played in the 4th edition of the World Invitational Tournament in Taiwan in 1987, where Australia would play eight games in ten days. A brutal schedule in modern terms but as she recalls, rest and recovery wasn’t really a thing, you just got on with it.

“I remember in one match blocking a shot and took a blow to the kidney region,” Sawyers says.

“I had blood in my urine after that and it got darker over the next few games but I could still run around so I played. I remember I was taking Ibuprofen and asked (team-mate) Kerry Millman if that might be a side effect of it and she said ‘no’ and that I should see the doctor”.

“I saw the Canadian Doc, he examined me and said to be careful, so of course, I just didn’t say anything and played on”.

Fred Robins was head coach for this tournament, having taken the reins from Jim Selby in 1985 and he remembers how tough it was to keep a team on the pitch.

“It was difficult, very difficult” Robins recalls.

“Back then it was just me, the physio and the manager who did everything off the pitch. The first thing the manager was having to do while at times the team was really flat, was find out where we could train and when”.

Robins says he is grateful that he had been talked into coaching women by the tenacious Elaine Watson. Under consideration for the head coach role at Brisbane City at the time Watson came calling, Robins fobbed her off, saying if he was unsuccessful, he would consider taking on her women’s team.

When an internal argument saw the the Brisbane City role go unexpectedly to Tony Lowndes, Watson saw her chance and swooped, cleverly reminding Robins he would need the points from this role to maintain his coaching licence.

Elaine Watson OAM would pass away in June 2023, as Robins joined friends to reminisce about the women’s football trailblazer, he said “I have to toast the person who gave me the best enjoyment in my coaching career”.

Amongst an incredible list of achievements through a lifetime of service to football, Elaine Watson served as President of AWSA for 11 years and had the pleasure of sending many players letters confirming their national team selection.

When Kerry Millman (Cap #19) and sister Joanne (Cap #29) received those letters in 1983, they joined an elite group of national team representatives – as siblings selected together in the same Australian side.

Joanne fondly recalls the joy of playing and travelling with her sister.

“We have always been quite close and get on really well. It was just good have someone there who you could discuss things with and if one of us was down the other one could try and pick you up” she says.

“Our father died just after my fifth birthday, just before Kerry’s second birthday and being the youngest two of eight kids meant that we were very close growing up. My mum had to bring up eight kids on a war widows pension. So I do believe it was a great achievement by both of us to do what we did under the circumstances”.

Andrea (Andy) Martin (Cap #37) travelled with the Millman sisters on the 1983 tour to Hawaii. She recalls the ad hoc approach to team kit in those days.

“Travel to Hawaii meant meeting the team at Sydney airport. I truly don’t remember a travelling uniform, we shared wet weather jackets and didn’t get to keep ANYTHING” Martin says.

For the New Zealand trip she recounts a totally different approach, yet still so far from the slick outfits evident today.

“We all met in Sydney where we went to headquarters and were given a horrible green jacket and pants combo. Mine was too short in the leg and we let the hem down as much as possible but it was awful. We had to take our own yellow shirt to go with it and the instructions were: no pattern and pastel. Not one shirt matched!!”.

Conditions on the early tours continued to vary widely but proved to be unforgettable bonding experiences for the players as they adapted to new and interesting cultures.

Renaye Iserief (Cap #26) recalls the experience of being monitored by government officials while on tour in Xi’an, China .

“One came and took our passports which was a bit nervy and confronting as there was no exit date from the tournament and we would wait to be told when we could leave” she said.

“One night, they brought the passports back around 2am and then we got a knock on the door saying ‘pack your bags, we’re on an early flight'”.

The accommodations themselves in those days elicited some strong memories as Sue Monteath remembers.

“We were accommodated at the Xian Institute of Sport – a pretty ordinary facility with dormitory style rooms. We were given hot water in a jug each morning for the day. We put the bins in the hall way at night to avoid rats running round”.

Jo Millman also recalls the lengths players went to do deal with the nocturnal rodent activity.

“We had rats in our rooms so we had to take off doonas and blankets to cover up the grills where the rats were coming in. You could hear the rats scratching trying to get in. Not much sleep was had during that trip”

However what resonated most with players from their tours to China was the sheer volume of fans that would turn up to watch them play.

“Playing in front of thousands of people was just amazing” says Millman.

“The fans were terrific as they just loved Australians. I can remember that Rose who was our tall centre back was just adored by the Chinese. I guess they didn’t get to see too many tall blond women in that part of the country.”

Rose Van Bruinessen (cap #10) laughs as she recalls the facilities not being built for someone of her height.

“The bed was 5 foot long and the shower would hit me in the middle of my back but the trip was so memorable, we laughed a lot”.

1988 Matildas China

A tour to China at the end of the ’80’s is also part of the special memories for Matildas (Cap #17) Theresa Deas (Jones) who would become the first female Goalkeeper inducted into the Football Australia Hall of Fame. Unusually for a Keeper, the experience stands out as a highlight, despite a drubbing at the hands of their hosts.

“I don’t love this memory because of the seven goals that went past but because of the 50,000 people in the stands. Most people rode their bikes there and even though they beat us 7-0, everyone came up for autographs and it was so lovely to be appreciated like that!”

Deas was part of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 Trophy Tour recently when the silverware made it’s way to Phillip Island. During the event she was able to share some memories with CommBank Young Matilda Sofia Sakalis, and was struck by the similarities in what this new generation of players is experiencing.

“It’s all about the friendships and that’s exactly the same as it was for me – it’s the enduring power that football has”.

West Australian Sandra Brentnall (Cap #3) was destined to be a goal scorer after her father put a ball at her feet as soon as she could walk. She would score Australia’s first ever goal in an A international (in the opening match of the 1979 series played at Seymour Shaw Park in Sydney) and a year later would again make history, netting the first hat-trick by a female Australian international, in a 3-2 win over New Zealand in Christchurch.

She pauses to reflect on what football meant to her and her cohort.

“Back then all we did was play this great game as much as possible and with passion to win, to play good football and to play as a team, I thrived, we all did and we just loved it” Brentnall said.

“As far as being pioneers of the game, you don’t think of that, it is only once you have retired and the historians of the game come in and tell you, that you realise ‘Wow, we really did put this game on the map’ and place a great stepping stone for many to come after us”.

Connie Selby (Byrnes) who captained the team at that first World Invitational Tournament back in 1978, shares this sentiment.

“I never thought about it when we played, I never thought about creating history – it was just about getting out there and playing and enjoying the game – though we hated to lose!”

To ask Julie Dolan, what she would go back and tell the young girl who would make pamphlets/flyers and walk the streets putting the flyers into letterboxes to let people know there was an international match occurring?


“Know that with all the people around you working tirelessly to get women’s football on the map, the Matildas and women’s football can’t do anything but succeed”.

/Public Release. View in full here.