Perth Stars Continuing Their Rise At Heidelberg United

Isabella Wallhead and Tijan McKenna are two of the brightest teenage stars from Western Australian (WA) football. To extend their experience ahead of another season at Perth Glory in the A-League Women, they have travelled across to play NPLW football in Victoria with Heidelberg United. Impetus’ Kieran Yap spoke to both Isabella and Tijan about their experiences in moving across the country to play. (23/6/22).

Above: Isabella Wallhead in action for Heidelberg United this season. Photo: Gold Leaf Creative.

After impressive starts to their A-League Women’s careers, some of Perth Glory’s best rising stars needed a new environment to develop their football. Due to efforts between the players, their managers, clubs, and new teammates, they have found that in Victoria’s NPLW.

In a boost for the state competition, midfielder Tijan McKenna (17) and defender Isabella Wallhead (19) joined Heidelberg United. It has been a win-win for the club and two of the country’s most versatile and promising young players.

Heidelberg have enjoyed a strong start to the season. With just over half the games played, they had only lost four games, each of those coming by a single goal. McKenna and Wallhead have joined a side aiming for silverware and have been regular starters since arriving in Victoria.  

For Wallhead, changing clubs, states, and leagues was a step she felt would help her in the long term.

“I had a few discussions with Dean (Georgio) my manager, about how we felt I needed to get out of my comfort zone in Perth and move somewhere where I don’t particularly know many people,” she told Impetus.  

“I felt that I would grow both as a player and as a person with the move and I can already see that coming into effect. It’s not easy moving away from my family but it was a move that was needed to help me best prepare for future opportunities.”

Living away from the comforts and securities of home has not been without challenges. Wallhead says that although she misses family and friends, she has embraced this step.

“Some of the better aspects of living away from home is becoming more responsible, independent and accountable with my actions and decisions. Another positive is becoming part of an amazing community of people and players at Heidelberg. I’m really enjoying Melbourne. I’ve been really lucky with my move.

Above: Isabella Wallhead in possession for Heidelberg United. Photo: Gold Leaf Creative.

“I’ve been treated so well by Heidelberg, and my host family is absolutely amazing. I wasn’t expecting it to be this cold though,” she laughs.

She may have struggled with Victoria’s eclectic weather, but on the field, she has taken no time to find her groove. Wallhead has appeared in every game of the season so far, starting in each round except the first. Her ability and performances have made her a key part of Johno Clemente’s side as they challenge for multiple trophies.

“Mindset is a massive thing,” she says of her ability to adapt quickly to new surroundings. “I went into the NPL Victoria season quite nervous. However, I told myself I have nothing to lose and to just play my style of football to the best of my ability.

“I also had the support of Heidelberg with their warm welcome and I was able to slot in quite easily. My teammates are honestly amazing. The camaraderie is truly special and I believe we will do very well this season.”

That camaraderie and quality at ‘The Bergers’ was on full display in an epic Nike FC Cup clash against Preston. One of the best games of the season saw Heidelberg win 6-3 in extra time in a see-sawing game that had everything including a dramatically timed power failure.

Wallhead was in the thick of the action in a game that lacked nothing, with a crucial early clearance. It was her first extra-time win as a senior footballer and one of her on-field highlights since moving to Melbourne.

“What a game to be part of,” she reflects. “The atmosphere was absolutely hectic! So many people came down to watch the rivalry game. There was singing, chanting, and the Heidelberg junior girls came down and made signs and banners.

“I still need to learn the words to the Heidelberg chant, but everyone coming on the field and huddling around each after the massive 6-3 extra-time win was crazy, it was something I’d never experienced.”

Above: Isabella Wallhead in action for Perth Glory against Melbourne City’s Rhali Dobson during the 2020/21 season. Photo: Tom McCarthy.

Wallhead’s form has been attracting the right kinds of attention. In May, she was selected for the Young Matildas training camp. It served as vindication for a courageous decision to come to Victoria this season, and reward for the ability she has shown.

“It was a bit of a surprise,” she says of the call-up. “I haven’t been to a camp since the start of 2021 so to be selected for a camp after moving to Melbourne was a big pat on the back for the hard work I’ve put in trying to play my best football and to be seen.”

Not everything in Melbourne has been unfamiliar to the rising star of the NPLW. She is joined at Heidelberg United by fellow Perth Glory prodigy Tijan McKenna.

The midfielder has made an instant impression with a goal against FV Emerging and started three of her first four games at the club. For Wallhead, the prospect of linking up with her Glory teammate was an exciting one.

“When I found out Tijan McKenna was transferring to Heidelberg from South Melbourne I was beyond keen to play with her again. I think it’s only fitting to be sharing the pitch with her as we’ve been on such a big journey together already. So why not continue it as we navigate this opportunity together in Melbourne?”

McKenna is another of Perth Glory’s fast-rising stars. She made her A-League Women debut in the 2020/21 season as a 16-year-old. That season was a tough one for The Glory in terms of results, but players like Wallhead and McKenna grasped the opportunity and built reputations as players to watch.

The reality of playing professional football while completing High School has not been easy. However, McKenna believes it has helped her development on and off the field. She is completing Year 12 online during the season, and embracing that challenge.

“Being in school and playing for Glory has been eventful,” she says. “It’s enjoyable having all my friends support at school and at games. It can get a bit tough juggling training and games whilst still staying on top of my school work.

Above: Tijan McKenna in possession for Heidelberg United against South Melbourne this season in the NPLW Victoria. Photo: Gold Leaf Creative.

“Throughout the years of State teams, Junior Matildas, and Glory I’ve learnt how to manage both lifestyles and still find time for myself, which I think is a very important thing to do.

“Finding time for myself has kept me mentally healthy as it’s good to take time to enjoy hanging out with friends and resting my body. “I moved over here for the football, knowing it was going to be better for me. I knew moving away from home was always going to be hard but it’s something that had to be done in order for me to develop and grow in stature.

“I’ve met some incredible loving people since my move which has already made me feel like I’m at home. Definitely doing my own washing was a hard one but I know what I’m doing now!”

Like her older sister, Melbourne City midfielder Leticia, Tijan McKenna has long been touted as a potential star of the game. As a Junior Matilda, she was part of the group that travelled to Vanuatu to represent Australia.

“Having the opportunity to have been a part of the Junior Matildas is something I’ll forever be grateful for,” she says of the experience. “Being surrounded by some of the best players in our country was truly incredible in itself, I built new lifelong friendships and made some unforgettable memories along the way. 

“Looking back on it, being away with the national team taught me so much in such a short time. I learnt new life skills and stepped out of my comfort zone. Being in different countries, trying new foods, acclimatising to weather changes and so much more. It was a life lesson and an amazing experience.

“Whilst being a part of the Junior Matildas, as a player I developed and became a strong-minded individual on and off the pitch. Dealing with missing out on playing or not as much game time really opened my eyes.

“I became more determined and pushed myself. I learnt that you always need to be 100% dedicated to any task you’re given whether you like it or not. You’ll only make it if you put your heart and soul into it, but you just have to make sure you enjoy every part along the way.”

Above: Alert, and looking to create – Tijan McKenna in a familiar pose to those who have seen her develop in Western Australia. Photo: Gold Leaf Creative.

McKenna is a creative, versatile midfielder with an eye for goal. Her composure and ball control has allowed her to compete in the A-League Women and NPLW against much more experienced players.

She was aware that Perth Glory required their players to be in high-intensity environments during the off-season. As one of Victoria’s powerhouse clubs, Heidelberg was a good destination. Even so, when the decision was made, it was still somewhat unexpected. 

“When I first got the call from Dean (Georgio, agent), it came as a big surprise as it wasn’t something I had in mind.

“However the thought process was about moving to a state where football was of higher value than the WA NPL and I just fell in love with the idea of moving across and playing football. Everything happened really quickly almost at breakneck speed.

“One minute I’m discussing the idea then the next, I’m packing my bags and hopping on a plane for my journey. There is something exciting about not knowing what’s going to happen next, and this opportunity fits every aspect of that. I was looking for a new chapter and this couldn’t have come at a better time.”

It was a similarly unanticipated turn of events for Wallhead. She says that playing outside of WA had always been in the back of her mind, but that she had not expected to do it at this age.

“After returning from the Perth Glory hub in Sydney I received a call from Dean saying he had an opportunity in Melbourne for me that he thought would be good for my football and for me personally to grow in stature.

“The offer was too good to pass so about a week and a half after the call I packed my things and moved over.

Above: Tijan McKenna gets away for Perth Glory against Adelaide United in 2020/21. Photo: Tom McCarthy.

“I believe it was a good decision to come and play in the Victorian NPL, there are so many talented players, A-League players, and ex-A-League players that I’m constantly learning from. I believe it’s good preparation for the upcoming A-League Women season getting to play against some top players.”

Victoria’s NPLW is filled with players on the cusp of or returning from the A-League Women. In addition to Wallhead and McKenna, Perth Glory has three other stars across the league. Sofia Sakalis, Alana Jancevski, and Claudia Mihocic are with Box Hill United, Bulleen Lions FC, and South Melbourne respectively.

“Playing against (A-League) teammates is always enjoyable, win, lose or draw as we’re all good mates,” says McKenna. “I love the fact that we bring out our competitive best in each other because to some degree we are all competing for positions at Glory.”

It is not a completely unfamiliar feeling for McKenna. Her older sister Leticia has spent the entirety of Tijan’s senior Perth Glory career at other clubs. “It’s defiantly way more fun playing against Leticia,” she laughs. “It brings out a sister rivalry and fires me up more wanting to beat her. I find it entertaining watching my parents try to support both of us without favouring one.”

Along with that naturally competitive nature, Tijan considers Leticia to be one of her role models. She says she has always looked up to her as a footballer and a person.

“She’s been my inspiration. She’s dealt with a lot of setbacks in her career, but she’s come out on top every time. She’s creative and incredibly hardworking. From when we were young, we’ve helped each other grow as people and as players and I wouldn’t change that for the world.”

Above: Tijan McKenna looks to get away for Heidelberg United against South Melbourne in the NPLW Victoria this season. Photo: Gold Leaf Creative.

Isabella Wallhead is now an established A-League player and a star at Heidelberg United. Her career trajectory is of no surprise to those who have watched her at Glory where she has learned from some of the best players in Australia.

“I’ve always looked up to Sam Kerr and I was lucky enough to train with her in the 2018/19 A-League season. I learnt a lot that season getting to mark the best female footballer in the world, definitely improved me as a player and I’m so grateful I got that opportunity.

“Another player I look up to greatly is Tash Rigby. I’m beyond privileged to have her as my captain, she brings so much energy and enthusiasm to the squad both on and off the pitch. Her work ethic on the pitch is admirable, she never stops and gives absolutely everything 100%.”

Tijan McKenna and Isabella Wallhead are both part of the future of Australian football. They have both taken the step to move out of their comfort zone to help reach their potential as players and people. With team success a strong possibility and individual improvement already apparent, the move east has been rewarding on and off-field.

“I’m loving Melbourne so far and everything it has to bring,” says McKenna. “The standard of football is great, meeting new people and trying new things has been wonderful. I also am grateful to my host family who really put a lot of time into making me feel comfortable whilst in Melbourne.”

Like her fellow traveller, she has but one complaint. “The only thing that is holding Melbourne back from being perfect is the freezing weather, I can never get used to it.”

Isabella Wallhead and Tijan Mckenna might joke about feeling the freeze in Victoria, but on the field, they have started the season on fire. Both have committed their A-League future to Perth Glory, but they are also making a significant impact at Heidelberg United.

Artwork: Graphics by PW.

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