Clare Hunt: Overcoming challenges and learning on and off the pitch

This week’s Midweek Dub player interview saw Western Sydney Wanderers captain Clare Hunt, newly calledup by the Matildas, sit down for an in-depth chat with Impetus’ Kris Goman. The pair discuss Hunt’s earliest days playing in rural Grenfell, her ongoing studies, career aims, and why it’s so important to inspire the next generation (15/2/23).

Above: Clare Hunt (centre) – a focal point of the Western Sydney Wanderers team. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

Impetus’ Kris Goman caught up with Claire Hunt from the Western Sydney Wanderers two weeks ago, just days before the announcement of her selection for the Cup of Nations Matildas squad.

This is a longer format interview where we were afforded the luxury of a half-hour chat rather than a brief press conference and were able to dive into the personality, thoughts, and aspirations of the Wanderers’ captain.

While it feels a little like she’s just burst onto the scene, she’s been around a while and was a former Young Matilda, prior to a bad run of injuries that has kept her from fulfilling her potential like contemporaries Ellie Carpenter and Clare Wheeler.

So grab a cuppa, sit back and enjoy the read and get to know Clare Hunt a lot better.

Kris Goman (KG): Do you want to just briefly run me through your football career to date?

Clare Hunt (CH): It’s been a very unorthodox one. I started playing when I was about five. I played a lot of junior football. I grew up in Grenfell, which is a little rural town, about five hours west of Sydney, and spent my first seventeen years there and a lot of my junior football required lots of travel to either Canberra or Sydney, so I did a lot of stuff with the Canberra United Academy and got my first A League Women’s gig with Canberra when I was sixteen.

I did a lot of travelling either to Canberra or to Sydney. Some Young Matildas camps were in Sydney so I would travel for that but most of the time I stayed at home on the farm with mum and dad until I finished school and then I moved to Sydney when I was 17.

I played with Sydney University and did Young Matildas that year and then I think pretty much from 2017 I was cursed with lots of terrible injuries. I suffered an ACL at the start of 2018 and then battled with injuries through 2019, 2020, and 2021, and then had a good run at Wanderers last year and then this is my second year at Wanderers this year.

Above: Grenfell – Clare Hunt’s home town. Photo: Tourism Grenfell.

KG: I was wondering if you grew up in Canberra or what, so Grenfell. That’s obviously a small little town. What sort of a farm is it?

CH: Dad runs the farm so we have lambs, some crops as well and then mum’s a teacher back home.

KG: Oh wow, so with a small school like that how did you sort of get recognised? Is that just sort of coming up through Regional and District competitions or was it club football or through school?

CH: I think the biggest pathway for NSW Country kids is actually representing NSW Country at football nationals. So with football personally for me, that was my biggest pathway. When you’re 11, 12, 13 that was your avenue to kind of be identified for Junior Matildas then Young Matildas and the girls that you see in the A-League now kind of went through that pathway.

I used to play Ellie Carpenter back in the day. Jada Whyman came through that pathway. Eliza Ammendolia came through that pathway and is now playing in the States, so they are the girls that I kind of grew up with in country areas that I used to play with that are now playing A-League or have experience overseas.

KG: Yeah, that reminded me a bit of Ellie Carpenter coming from Cowra and travelling miles and miles and miles constantly. So you did your Bachelor of Science at Sydney Uni while playing for Canberra? How on earth did you manage that with travel and general logistics and stuff?

CH: The University was pretty lenient in terms of giving me an opportunity to do most things online when I could and then try and make up my practicals when I could. But it was also the nature of when the season started, so it started quite late in October – November, and uni finishes around then. So there was a lot of coordination from the head coach down in Canberra who at that time was both Heather Garriock and then later on, Vicki Linton.

It’s just coordinating with your coach, you know, “Hey I need to be at uni on this day” or “I need lenience to go sit this exam” or stuff like that. And I remember finishing off my degree, I sat an exam online in Canberra right before I trained so it was a bit chaotic, but it gave me an opportunity to do both.

KG: Very good and now you’re studying Doctor of Physiotherapy, so is that a PhD, or is it to be a physiotherapist doctor sort of thing?

CH: It’s like it’s an extended Masters. It’s not necessarily a PhD, yeah I would say an extended masters with a research project in the third year. So as a three-year masters which is slightly longer than usual, but they integrate more clinical placement hours and a greater research component at the end of the degree. So yeah, I’ve started that one, and I mean I’m still at the start of it I suppose. So in first year still.

Above: Calm and poised in possession. Clare Hunt. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

KG: So how does that fit now with playing football professionally in terms of having enough time to dedicate to study while still trying to be professional in terms of football because the season is a bit longer now too.

CH: Yeah, yeah. Well I haven’t hit that road yet so I’ll let you know in about six weeks. I was quite lucky, the degree started in July and at that moment, I think the week before, I suffered my fibula fracture so honestly, it gave me an opportunity to go and do something and go upskill while I was in rehabilitation for my ankle. So for me it was easier to manage because I was in a rehab phase.

However, now that I’m not in that phase anymore and Uni’s about to kick off, I’m really intrigued to how I’m going to manage it, or whether it is manageable, but I just, I think at this point in my life, I really want to give most to football, but also have study in my back pocket. And obviously, if football is continuing well and something needs to give, then obviously I want to pursue football to the best of my capacity whilst I’m fit. And whilst I’m young. And then if things fall apart then I always have something to fall back on.

I think that’s something I learnt quite young. When you’re pretty sprightly, you’re, you know, gonna get to the top really quick and then you suffer serious injury and it puts you out for 12 to 20 months (with complications). It’s quite difficult so you always have to have a backup plan. But I think for me, that’s something that I do enjoy and I can do on the side while I’m playing football.

KG: Yeah, so on that. In fact, it was almost a year exactly, wasn’t it, that you had the season-ending injury.

CH: I dislocated my shoulder. In the game against Adelaide. We played at Marconi and I dislocated my shoulder quite badly and tore my labrum so I needed a total reconstruction of my shoulder. Then I had rehab for that, for I suppose, six months up until June. I had about a month where I was feeling really, really good. And then I had no luck with the ankle.

So 2022 was a bit of a tough year for me in terms of just trying to, you know, find momentum after coming off what was a good start to the A-League Women season and just to be fronted with two fairly, you know, strenuous or long rehabs. After what I had already been through in terms of rehab prior to that in 2020, 2021, 2019 – all of it.

KG: So what were they? They were ACLs, weren’t they? Or at least one of them?

CH: Yeah so I had my ACL in 2018 at the start and then between mid-2018 to 2020 I had issues with my other knee where my femur had an issue so I had to have some screws put in to solve that. So it was a bony issue that was affecting obviously my knee.

Um, so then that carried on through three operations and issues with rehab. I couldn’t quite solve the issue and was always in quite a bit of pain, so that put me in and out so I would play a few games, then fall into trouble. We’d do a full rehab and then ultimately come unstuck a month to three months down the track so it felt like such as stop-start relationship with football. Because I would, you know, find some momentum, find some form, and then I’d be back at square one and I think to be put back at square one almost four, five, six times in a row is quite frustrating.

Above: Clare Hunt battles against Melbourne City earlier this season. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

But I think for me, I knew why I was doing it. I always have the drive to do it. I wanted to try and play football at the top level and I always had a passion for it, so the rehab was never easy, but it was also not difficult because I knew what was waiting for me on the other side, so yeah.

KG: Impressive. Is that what’s driven you to study physiotherapy and are you able to fix yourself now? Or you’ve only just started so maybe not?

CH: Yeah, I’m barely qualified to fix myself. But I think it’s given me a great passion in terms of understanding the ability that you can have as a physiotherapist to help an individual, whether they be an athlete or not, in terms of taking them through a programme to get them from a state of full injury or inability to do what they want to do and then you guide them through to almost take them to beyond what they were before they had the injury. So it is a very strenuous process.

It’s a very mentally draining process and it’s also physically a gruelling process, but to have experienced that myself and have an interest in, I suppose, the human body and anatomy and how amazing it is for it to work. After you know such physical trauma, I think that’s really, really, really cool. So to help people through that, I think it’s given me a passion outside football that I probably had before I got injured, but I think it’s been really like fuelled by that because I now understand it so much better and it gives me an opportunity to share that with other people as well. So yeah, it’s amazing.

KG: It’s amazing, yeah, I can relate. I’ve done my ACL twice and broken the same knee so yeah, I haven’t quite probably been there to the same extent but I do understand the pain, that’s for sure.

CH: Yeah, yeah.

KG: OK, so on to the Wanderers. After a slow start, the Wanderers have now become giant killers of the comp and are moving up the leaderboard. So what do you put this down to?

CH: I think it’s down to a few things. We made a formation change that I think really gave everyone on the pitch an opportunity to kind of express themselves in a way that was conducive to the team. We found more goal-scoring success in that new formation. We signed Sarina Bolden, who bought such a positive, vibrant, hardworking energy. So I think for us as a squad, that was a bit of a relief to see a goal scorer join the club and have a bit of faith in her to do her job. But also, we weren’t bad before that point.

We had gone down, I think, one nil, three times in the first five games and we also had a draw. So for me, I don’t think we necessarily got smashed on the park. I think we just missed opportunities in front of goal that we should have, I suppose, completed. But also, you know, leaked goals – that I suppose, great goals from an opposition team or they might be a penalty, or they might be us losing a bit of focus in a certain point of the match, but we only were conceding one or two goals in those games. It’s not like we were getting blown out of the park, so I think for us that has been turning point as well.

KG: Yes. So I could see the euphoria on the team after beating Melbourne City 2-0 and then beating undefeated Western United 2-1 as well. What sort of a boost did that give the team?

Above: Clare Hunt (14) celebrating as Western Sydney Wanderers’ season continues to get better and better. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

CH: It was it was a good confidence boost for us. I think we knew it was coming. We would always say before each game like this is gonna be it. This is gonna be the game where we find that ability to manage a game and come out on top, and I think for us, against City, if you look at the stats, we didn’t have a lot of the ball. We didn’t, you know, look threatening all the time, but the times that we did look threatening and the times that we did transition into a counterattack, we took our opportunities, and when we were defending, we’re a tight unit and kept City scoreless and Western United to one goal for a team that has the ability to score five goals during a game. So for us that was a huge confidence boost to know that we can beat top teams in the league, but it also gave us an opportunity to kind of truly express ourselves and our style of play.

KG: So do you see the Wanderers making the finals this year?

CH: I can’t see why we can’t. I think we need to obviously win the next few games. I think that’s quite important for us. So January’s been a really, really solid month for us with, I think, three wins and a draw. So we need to just take that momentum into February and if we can get some success early to mid-Feb and get some points, I think if we have a few wins that will take us to mid-table maybe. So if we can stay around that mid-table and just continue to creep up with some good results. Yeah, there’s no reason why we can’t make finals.

KG: You’re already mid-table, so it’s sort of almost there.

CH: Yeah, so only a little more.

KG: It’s almost goal difference, and it’s almost just like one or two points difference. It’s very close actually and particularly in the middle, so it’s interesting.

Okay, so you’re only 23, aren’t you?

CH: Yeah.

KG: You seem wise beyond your years, to be honest. You were selected as the captain this year. Now you’re not overly vocal on the field or not from where I sit. I can’t really hear you that much, but then again it would be hard to be heard over Jordyn Bloomer. Ha, ha. How do you define your leadership style?

CH: Oh, I would like to improve on my communication on the pitch and that’s something I’ve tried to work towards and I feel like I’m not exceptionally quiet. But I’m also not exceptionally loud so a lot of the guidance I give might be, you know, simple instructions or, you know, small comments that assist players in small aspects of the game. So I feel like for me, that’s potentially the best way that I communicate with players around me, where as you have your Jordyn Bloomer, your Sham Khamis, and other girls on the pitch, are really, really, really loud, so and they’re exceptional at what they do in terms of driving the team, in terms of positional setup and stuff like that. So they’re exceptionally good at their job and obviously for me, that’s something I really need to, I suppose, improve on if I want to continue my footballing development.

Above: Captain of Western Sydney Wanderers. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

In terms of my leadership, I think a lot of the leading I do is probably unseen to a lot of spectators or fans because it happens throughout the week. It happens when we’re at training when we’re not at training. The way I conduct myself, everything I do, I try to act as professionally as I can and provide support to team members in ways that it probably doesn’t necessarily get noticed all the time, but yeah, it just gives me an opportunity to lead by example and show others what the expectation is at the club, and it’s up to the players to kind of identify that and go, okay, if that’s the set expectation, then that’s what I need to do to behave as a professional and I’ll try and do that in order to, I suppose, lift the professionalism, but also build rapport with players as well.

KG: So prior to your injury last year, I personally thought you were in serious contention for Matildas selection. I’m thinking the same thing again this year. Last person I thought that about was Cortnee Vine. Tony Gustavsson’s been at quite a few of the matches recently. Is making the Matildas squad an aspiration for you?

CH: It’s always been something that I’ve wanted to achieve, but has never been something that I’ve ever really expected or put pressure on myself to achieve. I think for me this year and even last year after having such a stint with injury, my goal is just to get consistent minutes, consistent performances, and do what I need to do for my team and any by-product of that is something that is like the cherry on top. It’s something that I’ve worked for, but it’s not something at the forefront of my mind that I’ve gotta do. It’s just, if I can do my job at club level, any by-product of that is something that I will accept and something that I am striving towards. But my full focus is just with my team and anything that comes with that is a bonus for me.

KG: OK and have you bought tickets for the World Cup?

CH: I have, yeah, because I have lots of friends in the soccer circle and obviously I’m an avid football fan. So yes, I have.

KG: Okay, cool, so do you watch other football leagues like the WSL or whatever? Have you got time for that?

CH: Yeah, I watch it when I can watch a full match. I love watching the WSL and seeing some of the girls that are in the Matildas or were previously in the A-League, playing over there now so it’s a really good platform to see the world and see the style of play in leagues like that. My dear friend, Clare Wheeler, is over there. I played a lot of football with her at Sydney Uni and Young Matildas as well. So I love tuning in and I love watching the girls over there.

KG: Have you got a favourite women’s team over there?

CH: I like watching Arsenal play and there’s a few of the Matildas girls over with Arsenal, but Wheels is with Everton as well, so it’s not that I have a favourite. I’m not allowed to have a favourite, but I’ll tune in and watch some of the girls play.

KG: Well, I’m a Gooner so go Arsenal! Have you got any interest in going over there and potentially playing yourself?

Above: Clare Hunt gets away from Melbourne City’s Hannah Wilkinson. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

CH: I would, I would love to. Again, it’s been a matter of opportunity and consistency of performance for me. So if I can continue just getting 90 minutes under my belt and performing in a way that, I suppose, is putting me in a position to get overseas, then obviously, that is the goal, and as I said, with the study, if an opportunity comes up like that, I’m not gonna let it slide. So for me, I would. I would love to ultimately head over to Europe or even the States or anywhere where I can further develop my football would be ideal.

KG: Fantastic. So have you got a particular female player that you look up to? Or that’s your favourite or you think is sort of well, really good?

CH: Oh, there’s a few I love. I think watching a lot of the centre backs in the WSL and seeing the different things they can add. Like obviously as an Arsenal supporter, you’d love watching Leah Williamson, her ability on the ball. So for me, it’s not that I have a favourite, but just like watching different styles of play from different players. Millie Bright from Chelsea is really physical. So you can see attributes of other players and pick apart the attributes of players that I really see their value in and try and emulate that in my game, I suppose. So yeah, I enjoy watching it and trying to, I suppose, pick apart other players and take what I can from those players.

KG: This year, who would you say in the A-League has been the hardest player to defend?

CH: I haven’t really thought about this. This is hard.

KG: Well, I hadn’t really noticed anyone running circles around you.

CH: Yeah, I feel like, I’m not quite sure on that one. I would go to say that ‘Chids’ (Alex Chidiac) makes it really difficult because she’s a ten and such a creative player that is very difficult to kind of judge or know because she has no certain pattern or certain way. She just kind of does her own thing. So when she’s a 10, you know, running at angles that you’re not used to, and you’ve got a nine running off her. I feel like Victory make it difficult for us and I feel like Victory had a lot of opportunities against us.

Again, Hannah Keane is a really, really good player on the ball as well. So yeah, I feel like, I don’t necessarily think of it as like a difficulty, but it’s an enjoyment to play against these players cause I’m testing myself so I’m never gonna go into a challenge or a competitive game thinking ohh, they’re gonna be so difficult. So I’m going with the mindset that I’m gonna be so difficult.

I think there’s a there’s a lot of quality strikers in the league and I’ve come up against that so I would go to say that yeah, there’s a few difficult ones out there. I can’t really pick though.

Above: A tough opponent – Clare Hunt tracks Melbourne Victory’s Alex Chidiac. Photo: Kris Goman for Impetus.

KG: Fair enough. You’ve been at The Wanderers for two years now. What’s the difference with the coaching styles between Cath Cannuli and Kat Smith?

CH: I think this year we’ve probably had more of an ability to have a formation shift. I think the 4-3-3 initially wasn’t working for us, so we found a shift there and I think that that was a catalyst for us to start scoring more goals and opening up play for ourselves. So since then we had a draw against Phoenix and then we started to have some wins against City and Western United. So the fact that we had that in our back pocket and we could, you know kind of shift formation.

That gave us an opportunity to start being more dominant defensively but also have transitional attacks that assisted us in having goal-scoring opportunities. So I think for us the ability to have tactical changes and having the personnel that can pick up on those changes and change within a week and have that flexibility. I think, this year, maybe that’s what is a    difference between this year and last, is that I think we have the person to kind of go ahead and make changes and have players on the park that can adjust to those changes or even adjust their conditions during their game to allow us to do that. So I would say that’s the biggest difference.

KG: Now, you seem to really love kids. I’ve seen you give away boots twice, jerseys – a little jersey to a little kid, like after every match. What’s the story there?

CH: I’ve worked with a lot of kids. I did a bit of work as a learning support officer, so I love spending time with kids, helping kids learn, and giving them the opportunity to kind of go and express themselves and, I suppose, just enjoy what they’re doing and how they’re learning. I suppose for me at that age, I think if I had an experience like that, because I don’t remember having an experience like that, but I feel like for me, that would be a really cool thing to have as a kid. So giving away a jersey, it’s pretty easy for the club to organise a new jersey for me, so if there’s something that I can do, if I can give one of the supporters or one of the Wanderers kids who come out and who are doing the balls at one of the games.

I think I bumped into a young girl who I had coached during an Academy football week somewhere and I remembered her face and I was like, “Ohh, I’ve gotta give you a jersey” or I got introduced to one of the girls that our assistant coach had spent some time with and said she’s a really up and coming footballer. Even just a small gesture can be quite a powerful moment for someone who’s interested in the game and it gives them an opportunity to know that they can connect with players. I think that’s quite an important thing and to know that there’s something out there for them and that they can chase that goal too. And it’s also, I suppose, setting an example that you can be personable with players within the league and players can be, I suppose, role models for kids like that as well.

KG: Yeah it’s awesome, I mean look, I see the expression on their faces after you walk away and it’s just unbelievable.

Above: Clare Hunt with a young fan after a Western Sydney Wanderers match. The Wanderers skipper believes the importance of giving back to the next generation is a priority. Photo: Kris Homan for Impetus.

CH: Yeah.

KG: It’s really nice, yeah. One of my favourite things is there’s a picture of Leah Williamson as a kid with Kelly Smith, the captain of the English Women’s team and Leah Williamson’s a mascot. And then you know, it’s like however many years later and Leah’s the captain of England. When you see that, your heart swells. It’s just amazing and it’s so cool.

So of the young ones on the team. Who do you think’s got the biggest future?

CH: Ohh, that’s tough. That puts me in a tough position. I’m going to say I’m not gonna pinpoint it on one, but I’d go to say at least three to four of our young ones have really, really bright futures ahead of them, and even girls who aren’t necessarily getting game time at this level yet. Like we’ve got some 15 and 16-year-olds that are coming on for cameos or getting 90 minutes. And regardless of the game time they’re playing, sometimes I wish the fans could see them at training.

These girls have unbelievable skills, so I think the biggest job for the club now is kind of retaining those players and giving them opportunities now to showcase what girls of Western Sydney can do. A lot of those girls have already been identified for junior national team setup, so I can only speak exceptionally highly of all the young ones we have in this squad. Even girls that are training on with us who are not contracted have some immense talents so it’s amazing to kind of be in that environment and be with players that are younger than you, but at a skill level that’s unbelievable for their age. Sometimes I forget how young they are, so yeah, all of them have bright futures for sure.

KG: Yeah oh, look watching people like (Alexia) Apostolakis for example, she is getting a lot of game time and, I mean she’s really young and you know she was only getting a few minutes last season but to see her on the whole time now and she’s ripping it up, absolutely ripping up. It’s amazing. So it is good to see those young guys going so well. So that’s cool.

OK, I have now run out of questions and I’ll actually let you get back to it. But I really enjoyed this chat and I really appreciated your time.

CH: My pleasure. Thank you.

Artwork: Charlotte Stacey, founder of On Her Side.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: