Leigh Wardell is a football person, through and through.
“It's really hard for me to imagine not having some involvement in football.” the former Westfield Matilda admitted.
The game has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember.
Her father was a coach with Sydney Prague and going to the football with him when she was little was a regular occurrence.
When she wasn’t at football grounds, she was playing the game.
“I'd play in the backyard with my brother. I'd play with the kids at school. I’d play with the boys on the sideline at my brother's games. Every second week, I'd be round at the local oval, and I'd be there in the morning all the way through the day.”
Wardell in full flight (Photo: Supplied)
As she got older, the football got a bit more formal than garbage cans and street side kickabouts.
“There was no in between football. To get in the national team in those days you had to play in your club team, then you had to play in your rep team, then you had to play in your state team.
“So you can imagine you're playing in three teams. They all train on a regular basis, the club team and the rep team would play on a regular basis. And then your state team training was to prepare you for the nationals.”
Wardell played in 12 national championships for New South Wales and from this she became a feature in the national team.
She made her unofficial debut as part of an Australia team that played in Taiwan in 1978.
It was just a totally new world. Something that none of us had ever experienced, and probably a lot of female footballers around the world had never experienced.”
Wardell was traveling abroad for the first time while doing her HSC. Though study wasn’t high on her list of priorities.
“My mum packed my bag for me and when I got to Taiwan and opened it up, I took all my clothes out, put them in drawers, hung them up. And there were study books in the bottom of my bag. And I'm like, what? What are these things? I'll file them under B. B for bin.”
That team was the first truly national team to travel abroad. However, they played against club and representative sides from around the world.
“I honestly don't remember the first game in Taiwan that I played in. Before the first game we participated in an opening ceremony that was like being at the Olympics. There were lots of people in the crowd, it was something that we weren't used to at all.”
Australia finished eighth out of 13 teams, recording wins against teams from Austria and Thailand.
Her official debut came in 1979 in Australia’s first ‘A’ international match against New Zealand at Seymour Shaw Park.
“The only reason why I knew where that football field was was because it was near my grandma's house.” she remembered.
Similarly, she can’t recall too much of the action on the pitch. The enormity of the moment has revealed itself more recently.
I've done a lot of firsts. But you don't sort of think of it like that until you get past it. I was just lucky enough to be born at the time that I was born to be a part of it.”
The theme of being first continued throughout her playing career.
Leigh Wardell (third from the right) with some of her 1979 teammates and the Westfield Matildas (Photo: Getty Images)
She was a part of the Australian squad which took part in the first Oceania Cup in 1983.
She also played a part in the first FIFA Women’s Invitational Tournament - the precursor to the current FIFA Women’s World Cup.
A centre forward who moved further down the pitch as her career progressed, she played in 14 ‘A’ international games and scored four goals across a decade.
Like many players, she transitioned from taking charge on the pitch to the sidelines in coaching positions.
1988 Australian Women's National Football Team. Wardell is second from the right on the bottom row. (Credit: Moya Dodd)
She’s been an assistant coach with the Westfield Matildas but most of her post playing career work has been in and around NSW. She has held roles at FNSW, the New South Wales Institute of Sport, Marconi, and has been at North Western Sydney Koalas since the early 2000s.
Her story mirrors that of her dad’s in many ways. Both have been embedded in New South Wales football.
“My area of interest is development. My skill set is best suited to that. And that would have come from my dad who went from being a team coach to being a development coach, which is what I've done.”
Wardell with her former captain Julie Dolan. Both are members of the FFA Hall of Fame (Photo: Getty Images)
Being surrounded by football meant she was constantly absorbing knowledge almost by osmosis.
But this alone wasn't enough. Her strong work ethic that began as a player and an undeniable love for the game has held her in good stead.
In a lot of ways, Wardell was ahead of her time.
“I always thought the world, the football world, for girls was exactly the same as the boys. And I kind of found out that it wasn't as I went through it.”
But now thanks to her pioneering on the field and her dedication to development and the players of tomorrow, the world has caught up to her.