Jeff Hopkins coached Melbourne Victory to the most dramatic of wins in this years W-League final – a goal directly from a corner kick, in the dying seconds of extra time.
He speaks to Soccerscene about success in a season upended by the pandemic, his storied career throughout England, Malaysia and Australia as a player, plus the future of the W-League and women’s football in Australia.
Q: It must have been an ecstatic feeling to win the final the way you did.
Hopkins: Leading into the final, the week we had before that, was the game in Sydney which was a rearranged game that ended up being a decider (for the league title). We were on a real high leading into that game, on a run of wins, to have lost that, it was an emotional rollercoaster. To get ourselves up for the weekend to go to Brisbane, win that game, and the way we won the game in the final made it even more special. Leaving it until the last seconds of the game, when everyone thought we were going into penalties and the game becomes a little bit of a lottery, so to win it as we did was amazing. The harder something is to get the more special it becomes, and it was definitely the case in that game.
Q: How did you become involved in football, and into coaching?
Hopkins: I was brought up in the UK, came from a family with two older brothers, both of who are involved in football. My older brother was a professional at Bournemouth, and my other brother came through the ranks and was a schoolboy with Plymouth, so it was in the family and the blood. I played as a professional for 17 years before coming to Australia, after a year playing in Malaysia. In my last year of playing, I played in the NSL with Gippsland Falcons and progressed into coaching from there. As I was progressing through my middle to late years in England I was very interested in coaching and got into it, and started my coaching qualifications over in the UK with a couple of UEFA badges and finished it up while I was over here. I played as a professional for 18 years so it was a natural progression for me to go into coaching.
Q: How does winning the W-League final as a coach rank up against your career achievements, which included 16 caps for Wales?
Hopkins: It’s right up there. What I am doing at the moment, and it’s something I put everything into, this year was really special. We worked with a really special group of players and in really difficult circumstances with COVID hanging over us, and the uncertainty from week to week, not knowing what is happening with playing and training. I rate what we have done this season so highly, and it’s a testament to the people who are at the club and the playing group that we got through it and won the final.
Q: How important is the expansion of the W-League?
Hopkins: I think it’s something we have been waiting for a long time and it’s a natural progression for the league. To grow the league to maybe 12 teams would be excellent, it’s something we’ve been talking about and hopefully heading towards this season. Starting to work towards a full and home and away season gives the league more credibility. I think we are heading in the right direction, I think it is important for the game in this country. Leading into 2022 there is a great opportunity for us to grow the league and the participation levels. We’ve got our place to play in that picture as well. We’ve got to be a place in that pathway for young girls to look to get to that next level, and we are part of that pathway and a stepping stone to fully professional football, representing the Matildas and playing in world cups and Olympic games. It’s important there is a credible league for young girls to come into and aspire to their level. It’s important we make the league as strong as possible.
Q: Do you think the long off-season is a detriment to the league?
Hopkins: At the moment, hopefully in time will change as the league grows, we spend more time away from the players than with them across the year and it becomes a little bit of the problem. COVID added to that problem. There were options for players to play overseas and come back and play in the W-League with good opposition. But at the moment players are limited to the NPL competitions which are improving year on year. It is a problem because we then have to monitor our players in different environments and you lose track and control of your players. Over time we can make the league longer so we have more control, but also coaching in the NPL is improving so players are getting into better environments when they aren’t with us.
Q: With the new broadcast deal, the existence of the A-League and W-League is guaranteed for the next five years. How important is the security this has created?
Hopkins: The television deals all over the world drive the football leagues, it allows clubs to get out there to the general public. There are plenty of different components of football, especially in terms of getting the fans to see the product. The TV deal is important, and it’s great we have a free-to-air component so everyone can see it. As the game grows it’s important we get our product out there in the best way possible, and as many ways as possible. I think this deal is a big step forward for the game. Everyone in the game can see that and is happy with the work that has been on this TV deal.
Q: Do you think the deal will increase the professionalism of the W-League?
Hopkins: As the game grows, and the league grows and we head towards a longer season, the environments will have to grow. There is a lot of things happening in the game now, the growth of women’s football, and the women’s World Cup is going to massive as well. Companies wanting to jump on board, sponsorship, there are so many positive things happening in the game right now. The TV deal is a part of that, and the more money that comes in the game, and the women’s side of things will allow to do a bit more, create better environments. It can only make the game better.
Q: Will the Women’s World Cup be a catalyst for the W-League to reach new heights?
Hopkins: It definitely will. There is a massive opportunity to grow the game on the female side of things as we get closer to the excitement that it will generate. If the Matildas can do well at a home World Cup it will be a massive boost for the game. Participation levels will go up, and it’s a great opportunity for us in this country to showcase women’s football, but what we are doing in the W-League is a big part of that as well. The Women’s World Cup is a massive opportunity for us, and an opportunity we are all behind and pushing in the same direction for the women’s side of the game. It isn’t just a competition that will come and go, we are going to push hard to drive the game on, and when the competition is over we are hoping we will be in a much better place.