Melbourne City and Australian international Jenna McCormick is one of Australia’s finest female athletes. She is a true example of someone who did #ChooseToChallenge, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day. Jenna won Australian Rules Football grand finals in front of huge crowds whilst also playing in the W-League and since switching full-time to football has become a Matilda and one of the country’s best defenders. For our #MidweekDub series, Ben Gilby spoke to Jenna about her incredible career in sport, a tough time in Spain and a big three years for the women’s game in Australia.
Jenna McCormick is one of those sports stars that you just have to afford huge respect to and say “wow”. Winning two Australian Rules Football Grand Finals with Adelaide Crows in three years in front of huge crowds as well as playing W-League football is amazing in itself. Then, moving solely to a football career and playing for your country with a home World Cup also on the horizon is something else.
I began by asking Jenna about her time playing both sports to a high level and what it was like as an athlete: “Being at Adelaide Crows was great for my AFL (Aussie Rules) as I only ever had short period of time with them after W-League seasons to touch up my craft to be able to play the games of the season. So, their support and time spent in developing my AFL skills was crucial to my AFL success.”
“I was lucky that the seasons only over lapped by a week in my three years doing both. I missed (AFL) pre-season every year as this was when the W-League was still on. The AFL semi-finals I played in all those three years was on the same weekend as the W-League’s Round one so I always missed that first game of the soccer season and turned around the following couple of days, would move home and then be kicking a different shaped ball the following weekend!”
Jenna’s time playing AFL for Adelaide Crows was hugely successful with the competition pulling in big crowds. “The 2017 Grand Final was special in its own right, as it was the AFL’s very first women’s season where history was being made every single day during that season. So, to come out premiers at the end of the season really was special, knowing we were in the history books forever. 2019 was different, and in my opinion – better. We had played in our first semi-final to get there which to me meant the Grand Final meant we deserved to be there and earned our spot. Another history making game saw that Grand Final being the first one at Adelaide Oval and at the time, it was the biggest attendance for a stand-alone female sport match – 53,000+ people. To describe the feeling playing in front of that many people and winning, I can’t find the words. I know it’s cliché to say, and I have other experiences I say the same about, but it’s a day I will never forget.
At the end of that 2019 season, Jenna made the decision to focus solely on football. Whilst AFL is the sport with the biggest spectator numbers in Australia, it is football that offers the real international opportunities: “The main reason I stepped away from AFL was be to able to represent Australia playing football, to go to World Cups and Olympic Games and continue my career in Europe. I never really had such clear precise visions and goals, but after arguably my best season with Brisbane Roar in 2019, I had this strong desire and urge and most importantly belief to play football at international level and represent my country. It was the first time I really actually believed I could compete and do well at that level. So that in turn assisted my decision to step away from AFL and achieve those goals.”
It didn’t take long for Jenna’s full time switch to the round ball game to result in an international call up for the Matildas and she made her debut in November 2019 against Chile. Prior to the kick off, a hugely symbolic photo was taken of Jenna during the national anthem – one of the most powerful pictures in women’s sport.
“It’s another day I’ll certainly never forget. There aren’t many of those days, so this one was for obvious reasons, very important to me. The photo encapsulates so much of the day and what it meant to me. In that moment, I was trying to calm my nerves and sing the national anthem with so much pride knowing that being able to finally sing it was a representation of my journey to that exact moment in time. All the sacrifices my parents and siblings made for me to play sport, and the sacrifices, blood, sweat and tears I had made to get myself to that point, and the pure gratefulness of being blessed with the life I have to represent my country playing football.”
There is also something about the Matildas that makes them such a special team. Football is way down the pecking order when it comes to media attention in Australia with Aussie Rules, Rugby League, Cricket and Rugby Union claiming the column inches, but the women’s national side have captured the nation in a way that very few teams in any sport have anywhere. Their openness and active communication with supporters and their incredible stories all contribute to the esteem in which they are held. The extent of this connection with the Australian public is not really appreciated here in England. I asked Jenna if she could try and put her finger on why this was:
“This is probably a tricky one to sum up, but I’ll give it a go. The Matildas have captured the nation’s sporting hearts over the last five to ten years with outstanding players coming through the ranks and the team putting in some terrific performances over top-quality opponents. When you watch the Matildas play you see so much heart and the ‘never say die’ attitude that has stuck with the team for a long time now. Since The Matildas put their name on the country’s sporting map, we’ve seen a huge rise in participation in girl’s football which has then in turn led to this amazing group of women inspiring the entirety of that next generation young footballers which we just absolutely love to see and I personally just love to be a part of.”
The Matildas are going into a massive three year period with the Olympic Games, the Asian Championships and a home World Cup. The period has started with the appointment of Tony Gustavsson as head coach.
“I was thrilled to see the announcement of Tony in the new Head Coach role. I knew a little bit about Tony’s success with the US Women’s National Team and got into some of my own research about his career and what he has achieved so far to which I was impressed! It was great to finally get to chat with him over Zoom a couple of months ago to get to know him a bit better and ask some burning questions I had on my mind and I left the meeting so inspired and so excited for what can be achieved with The Matildas and I think everyone should be excited knowing he will take the team to another level.”
The current period up until 2023 is unquestionably the biggest in the history of Australian women’s football, but it is one that has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic: “Yeah, definitely a huge three years, but at this point it looks like it still could be a complicated few years with coronavirus still lingering, but the most important thing for the group is to get the connections back and get into camp as much as we can to build and develop as a group. We haven’t been able to do so during the last twelve months because of the situation of the world and so we have missed out on quite a bit of valuable time together. So, we are hoping in the near future we can resume some national team camp normality.”
We now turned our attention to club football. Jenna’s time in the W-League has seen her play for home state side Adelaide United plus Brisbane Roar, Canberra United, Melbourne Victory and now Melbourne City. Jenna additionally spent time in Scandinavia with Stjarnan and Medkila. I wondered how her experiences at those clubs compared: “Haha, it sounds like a lot of teams hearing you say that! Really when I look back, the teams I’ve played for have been the stepping stones I’ve needed at the time. Every experience gave me what I needed to get at that present moment, and I only know that looking back now. I’ve always been one to walk through doors – take opportunities – when they present themselves and I believe that has really shaped the person I have become today and taught me valuable lessons on and off the pitch.”
After the 2019/20 W-League season, Jenna was given the opportunity to move to Spain and play for Real Betis. An overseas move is tough enough at the best of times, but in the middle of a global pandemic, even harder.
“My time in Seville was shorter than expected and a lot more difficult than expected. I had numerous challenges that I faced head on as I normally do, however some barriers were too thick to knock down and I found myself with a decision to make with regards to what’s best for me moving forward into 2021 with the Olympics and that was for me to return home to Australia and find my confidence and mental well-being again by playing games and being at a club that I knew was going to support and nurture me.”
That club was Melbourne City, the reigning W-League champions and Jenna joined them just before the start of the current campaign. Things at the club have been difficult as they lost so many of last season’s key players to FAWSL clubs in England and it’s been a transitional time for the Sky Blues.
“Oh look it obviously hasn’t been great nor the success we would’ve liked but we all knew coming into this season it would be a very different looking Melbourne City that we are used to seeing dominate the league. The team saw ten of its eleven starters in the Grand Final and I think only retained three of its total squad. So obviously that’s a huge cut in experience and talent and a lot of new and younger girls coming in. It’s taken us time to really improve at training too which I see in parts of our game but not consistently enough for the success we would have liked up until this point.”
It is not just Melbourne City that have been impacted by the loss of international players overseas. The whole competition itself has a very different look to it this season, as Jenna highlights.
“I’m absolutely loving seeing some of our up and coming Aussie talent get good game time and a chance to play at this level. The future of the league only has one direction and that should be to make it a full year long season. That really should be the priority. Having a longer season brings a little more security to players knowing their movements for the next year, we can also start signing longer term contracts and it should also start attracting more foreign talent to the league. This also would allow Australian players to stay and compete in this great country and not be exposed to some of the average conditions that are on display in Europe that are most of the time masked by the “big lights” going overseas.”
Jenna’s last comments are hugely important – the grass is not always greener in Europe. The W-League this season has been an absolute joy to watch simply because of the incredible young talent on display. With experienced and inspirational characters such as Jenna McCormick behind these talented teenagers, the competition is going to blossom further.
Jenna’s story and achievements are worthy of celebration – she is an incredible sportsperson and someone who should be the role model of any youngster – girl or boy.
Impetus’ coverage of Australian Women’s Football is supported by The Chicken Salt Co. They are offering every Impetus reader 5% off all orders of Chicken Salt from their website. Go to https://www.chickensalt.co.uk/?mate=impetus and place your order – 5% will automatically be taken off of the cost. The coupon code is impetus.