Clare Wheeler: Prospect of home World Cup yet to sink in

Impetus’ Jonathan Tay joined the Matildas media conference with Everton star Clare Wheeler (14/2/23).

Above: Clare Wheeler in action previously for Australia. Photo: Football Australia.

Even with the World Cup less than six months away, for Clare Wheeler, the prospect of having the biggest tournament in football come down under hasn’t quite hit home.

“No, not to me; it feels like a whirlwind. I think I’ll have to be there to believe it – I don’t even think when I’m there it’s going to sink in,” the Australian midfielder remarked. “After the fact it’s going to be like, ‘wow, that happened’. I think to have a home World Cup will just be so different; it’s an opportunity that doesn’t come round for every player; with every camp, I’m just thankful to be there.”

The Matildas are back on home soil for the Cup of Nations, playing hosts to Spain, Jamaica, and the Czechia. All sides will face each other, with matches played across Gosford, Newcastle, and Sydney from 16-22 February. With the World Cup just around the corner, Australia are using this series of fixtures as key preparation in the build-up to the July tournament.

Above: Clare Wheeler is thrilled to be part of the squad playing close to family on the Central Coast. Image: Football Australia.

“I’m so excited, I’ve got so much family on the Central Coast and in Newcastle; it’s going to be good to see them,” Coffs Harbour-born Wheeler said. “Sometimes it still catches me off-guard; starting at Adamstown Rosebud, and now to be back there and to actually have the pleasure of meeting some of the girls that play out there which is really special to see. I’m super excited to go back there and put the national team jersey on.

“This tournament is going to really replicate for us the group stage of the World Cup: we have a top-10 nation in Spain, we have a team in Jamaica who are very physical and strong – they’re going to replicate Nigeria for us – and then Czechia as well. It’s going to have that physical aspect for us to back up within two or three days; I think that’s going to be good preparation for the whole team.”

Having not played a part in the past two international windows, partly due to injury, Wheeler has seen fellow central midfielders Katrina Gorry and Kyra Cooney-Cross thrive, the pair spurring the Matildas onto four straight wins. 25-year-old Wheeler is hoping to earn minutes this series, and showcase her worth to the national side.

“For me personally, it’s crucial for me to show Tony what I can do. I’ve been trying to put myself in the most competitive environment to be the best national team player I can be. Now it’s time to show in the final sprint, I’ve got to put everything on the table.

“[Katrina] Gorry and Kyra [Cooney-Cross], they’ve gotten some really good results in the Denmark, Sweden, and Thailand games, they’ve been doing really well. The conversations I’ve had have been around being the best midfielder I can be, how I can add playing forward to my game, creating chances, and also some more versatility; obviously having a variety of positions does help. The last six months has been in and out with a bit of injury for me. So now coming back into it, it’s just [about] playing consistently again, at Everton as well, and hopefully building from there.

Above: Clare Wheeler (third from left) pictured with her fellow Australians Angie Beard, Alison Forman, Alex Huynh and Indiah-Paige Riley during her time at Fortuna Hjørring. Photo: Fortuna Hjørring.

“It’s a good problem to have for the team; if there’s a lot of competition it’s a good thing. Everyone’s great and wants the best for the team: at the end of the day, when the green and gold win a game, I’m happy. Obviously, I want to be the best player I can be, and if I’m doing the right things each day, I know that will happen.”

The Everton midfielder also touched on her mate Clare Hunt’s first call-up for Australia, with the Western Sydney Wanderers defender impressing in this season’s A-League. Wheeler noted the value that it shows the domestic women’s competition provides, but that to take that next step, as she herself has, a move abroad may be necessary.

“Clare [Hunt] has been a close friend for many years, we went to Sydney Uni together, and did Young Matildas together, so I’ve known her for a long, long time. I know the challenges and adversity she’s faced, with multiple big injuries back-to-back. So for her to have the A-League as that stepping stone to get back into football is great, and she’s been able to find her way back. I’m really happy for her to have the opportunity.

“I think the A-League is great for all that, especially for younger players coming through. And for those players [where] their league, like America, isn’t on at that time [of the year], like for Alex Chidiac, it does have that place. But it obviously isn’t full-time yet – that’s a big limitation for players.

“At this time two years ago, I was working in a bank and just decided to play for Sydney FC; that all came down to choosing to pursue football, and do that in a full-time capacity. So now that I’m here, and signed a two-and-a-half-year contract with Everton, it’s completely different.

Above: Clare Wheeler (left) in action for Everton against Chelsea. Photo: BBC.

“I was hesitant to go overseas. There were things around Covid and also you’re so far away from your family, and the nature of our work – you can’t just drop and go home. But I’ve gained things going overseas, and playing against people from a variety of different countries week-in and week-out, playing different styles of football in Denmark and here in England, and challenging yourself. I think I debuted in the A-League Women when I was 15, so doing that for several years, it’s only a good thing to put yourself in a new environment, to see how you go. It’s not only made me a better footballer, but given me more confidence; I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Wheeler acknowledged the rapid trajectory she’s been on, having played at three different clubs within three seasons, in what is considered to be progressively more challenging leagues. She reflected positively on the journey it’s been, and the ideal position it’s put her in for her career right now.

“Having a longer contract – for anyone, it puts them at ease. I think the last two years have been crazy; this is my third club. Taking that next step continuously, I’m happy that I’m here in this environment, to actually put some roots down and get comfortable and competitive in this league and in England.”

“The level – it’s huge. Going from the A-League Women to here; basically everyone in the team is a national team player, it’s just that next step. Being in the most competitive environment you can be, sets you up the best I think.

“At Everton, I’m really having to fight every week for minutes; it’s what the national team is like. It’s very performance-based, the best of the best. And that’s what I need to be able to deal with, and have the confidence and mentality to keep going. Everton is exactly where I need to be – it’s in a league that’s incredibly competitive, where anyone can beat anyone on the day.”

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