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Melbourne Victory W-League head coach Jeff Hopkins: “There are so many positive things happening in the game right now”

Hopkins spoke to Soccerscene about success in a season upended by the pandemic and the future of the W-League and women's football in Australia.

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.

Jamie Harnwell driving the game forward in Western Australia

Jamie Harnwell is Perth Glory’s record appearance holder, with 256 games across three decades. Now Chief Football Officer for Football West, he spoke to Soccerscene about the changes from the NSL to the A-League, the challenges of running a football federation, and his favourite footballing moments throughout his career.

So firstly, what’s the biggest challenges facing Football West at the moment?

Harnwell: I think it’s interesting. Football West is in a really good position, being very fortunate with COVID over here and able to get out and play. The challenges are more for our clubs I suppose, and then Football West supporting them. Facilities are always a challenge for every sport, but certainly for football. We need to make sure there are enough grounds and space for people to play, but also aspects like lighting, adequate change rooms, and those sorts of things are suitable for clubs. We have a number of them almost putting up the closed sign because they have too many players and not enough space for them to play.

The other challenge for Football West and the clubs is the increase in governance requirements. We are basically a volunteer sport in many ways. And the increasing legalities and issues across that for volunteers to deal with can be difficult. So it’s time that we at Football West need to be able to support our clubs, make sure they’re adhering to good practice, and doing the right things so that they can continue to grow.

How has professional football in Australia improved since you first debuted with Perth Glory in the late 90s?

Harnwell: I think it’s actually professional football now. You know when I first started playing, I think there was ourselves and maybe Carlton who were actual full-time professional clubs. The rest were part-time as people were still working during the day, going to training at night, and trying to juggle the two. So certainly the transition into the A-League and full-time professionalism for all clubs has been huge, and just the continued increased coverage and media around the game has made us much more accessible. It’s easier to see and has a much better chance of building that supporter base across the game here in Australia.

What areas do you think the game can continue to improve on going forward into the future?

Harnwell: There’s always talent development and making sure that we stay on pace with best practices and what’s happening in other parts of the world. We are a smaller nation in the grand scheme of things in football, so we need to be smart about how we approach those sorts of things and make sure we get bang for our buck for everything that we do. The other thing is we need to try and increase the commercialism of the game and make sure that we continue to get funds into the game that can assist in the youth development that can help in costs for clubs and all those types of things. So that’s the way I know Football Australia is working hard on it. They’re starting to bring more and more partners into the game. But if you look at the mega machines like AFL, then we probably still have some way to go in that.

How can football win across young athletes into joining the sport over others?

Harnwell:
I think we’re really lucky as a game. I can’t speak for other states, I suppose – but the numbers here at Football West in Western Australia just continue to grow year in year out. We are a very attractive game for parents to pick for young boys and girls. It’s a very easy game to choose and very easy to play and train. So we’re certainly well-positioned in that respect – making sure that our clubs provide positive environments that they enjoy what they do. There isn’t the overarching focus on just winning games, but more a longer-term development based approach that will make sure talented young players will stay in football rather than going across to other codes.

On a personal level, what is your most memorable footballing memory?

Harnwell: There’s probably a few, I suppose for myself as a player – it would have been the first NSL Championship that we won. We’d had a couple of cracks at it before and sort of fell away in the Grand Final. So that first win in 2003 was huge, and really got the monkey off our back, and managing to score in that game with the massive crowd was fantastic. But I’m also a Manchester United fan, so the treble was pretty good as well. So I don’t know which one ranks better for me!

Football Coaches Australia presents ‘The Football Coaching Life Podcast’ S2 Ep 8 with Gary Cole interviewing Jeff Hopkins

Jeff Hopkins

Jeff Hopkins is currently the W-League Championship winning Head Coach of Melbourne Victory.

Jeff was born in Wales and played over 400 games for both club and country. He started in Fulham’s Academy before playing over 200 games in the first team before heading to Crystal Palace and Reading. Jeff also played for Wales at U21 and Senior level.

His coaching career began by working with young players in the UK, where he started his coaching licences before heading to Gippsland Falcons as a player and then for a year as Head Coach.

As a former professional player Jeff, like so many of us, thought he had a good grasp of football until he began his coaching journey and learned he didn’t know, what he didn’t know!

With over 20 years’ experience as coach at youth, assistant and head coach level Jeff is very aware of the changes he has made to his coaching over the journey. He has a number of premierships and championships to his name with Queensland and Brisbane Roar Women and both a Premiership and Championship with Melbourne Victory, which he is very proud of, but he also finds a great deal of satisfaction in seeing his players and teams grow and develop.

Jeff was honest and open discussing his journey and believes that finding a mentor in the beginning would have helped him make fewer mistakes on his journey. In fact, in answering the ‘one piece of wisdom’ question he had two pieces for developing coaches! Firstly, find a mentor early on in your coaching career and secondly keep growing and learning as a coach and create a learning environment for your players.

Please join Gary Cole in sharing Jeff Hopkins’ Football Coaching Life.

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