Steph Catley | In my own words

When I think about it, everything in my life was building towards me joining Arsenal. It sounds cheesy but it’s true – so let me explain.

I started playing football when I was about five years old, in my front yard with my brother and two or three boys from around my neighbourhood in Melbourne. We played two-on-two every night and, as the only girl, it was my job to make sure I was as good as them, as fast as them and as strong as them right from the start. 

I would always follow my brother around so when he eventually joined our local club in East Bentleigh, naturally I went with him. He’d be out there training while I’d be running up and down the sidelines, showing off in front of the parents and shouting, ‘Look at what I can do, I can do it better than the boys’.

So I think eventually they got pretty fed up of me and threw me in with the boys to see how I got on. I started in an age group or two down from my brother but I felt right at home because I’d played so much against my brother and his friends in our front yard. I don't even think I knew the rules properly, I was just running around like a headless chook, but I remember feeling like this was exactly where I needed to be. 

A young Steph takes her first foray into football

From that day, I was hooked. I’d go home, put on an EPL shirt, kick a ball in the yard and pretend I was trialling for Arsenal or whoever it was at the time – I didn’t have a team, I just loved David Beckham back then!

I always had a ball at my feet, and the feeling of getting better at something and seeing the results of it became an obsession for me. I even had these little circuits around the house that would drive my mum absolutely insane: play a one-two with the couch, sprint through the kitchen, cut back, run up the hallway, through the bed like a nutmeg - there were so many different paths and circuits that I had just in case it was raining outside.

I used to do that a lot and when I think back to that now, although I didn’t realise it at the time, I think all of that extra time just kicking a ball on my own helped to develop my touch and my dribbling. But then as I got older, I realised that the stuff I needed to work on was a bit harder to do on my own.

Luckily for me I had a friend, Charlee West, who loved to play as much as I did. I actually met her at National Training Centre level. NTCs are in every state in Australia, and it's the state representative team of nationally-identified players. So I met her there when we were around 14 and we clicked straight away. 

Steph (centre) with Charlee (left) when they were younger

She was the only other player on that team that actually lived close to me in the south east of Melbourne, so we would always meet up outside of football just to hang out but mostly to do a lot of extra training. 

My favourite thing about Charlee is that I could text her at any point in the day saying that I was heading out to train and regardless of what she was doing, she'd be there in five minutes. She'd come and train with me and would push me as well, even when I had begun to play for the Matildas and she was playing for a local team or wasn’t playing at all. 

I remember on Christmas Eve a few years back, the national team had given us running programmes to do over the small break we’d been given. I had to do four lots of four-minute sprints around the local oval. It was pouring with rain, borderline hailing, the field was muddy and, just to reiterate the point, it was Christmas Eve. I texted Charlee to tell her I was heading out to run, and she replied: ‘Rain, hail or cyclone’ and with that I knew she was in. 

I can remember that day so clearly because as I was running and she was there right next to me pushing herself. I was just like, 'This girl is one of a kind'. She's just got this amazing mentality of wanting to always better herself. She was there to help me but she was also there to make herself better in any aspect she could as well, whether that was fitness or football, or just getting out to do something that would be challenging. 

Steph with Charlee more recently

It just makes football training so much easier, doing that extra session when you've got someone there with you. For it to be one of your best friends, someone you enjoy spending time with, is so much better. I really am so unbelievably grateful for her friendship back then and her friendship always. Without her, I wouldn't have been able to do it, let alone make my senior debut at 15.

Let me tell you, that was a crazy time. We were in the NTC programme and there were two age groups, with the older age group morphing into Melbourne Victory in the W-League season. I was with the younger group and during that year, our coach went into the NTC/Melbourne Victory role, so he promoted some of the younger girls.

I was one of those players, so I'd end up training sometimes twice a night. The second session would be with the older players and professionals. These training sessions and experiences are what prepared me to be ready at 15 to go into the W-League. I was training that whole year with them when I was 14, so by the time I made that step, the coach knew I was ready and I felt ready because I'd been playing with these players the year before. 

I had a great time with Victory, learning from incredible players such as Jess Fishlock, Jodie Taylor and Lauren Barnes, and was with them for the first five years of my senior career, but then it felt like time for a change. I had been at the top of my career in Australia. I was in the national team and playing well, playing consistently, doing well in the W-League and had a few Young Player of the Year awards, Player of the Year awards, and was feeling pretty good about how my career was tracking. 

Then, I got an offer from Portland Thorns. I’d always wanted to play in America so I thought it would be the perfect next step, but it actually turned out to be one of the toughest moments in my career. It became a little-fish-in-a-big-pond scenario. I just felt so small. 

Steph visits Providence Park, Portland, for the very first time

That Portland team was stacked with the best players in the world at that time, like Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, Christine Sinclair, Vero Boquete and Nadine Angerer just to name a few. I was by far the youngest player and walked into that dressing room not having achieved very much at all.

But one of the biggest turning points in my career came during a game in Washington that season when the coach took me off at half-time. 

“It's not good enough,” he told me. “You just have to be better.” 

It probably doesn’t sound like much, something that happens to everyone at some stage in their career, but listen, I'd never been taken off before in my entire life. I'd never been told that I wasn’t good enough either, so it took me down a couple of pegs. I wasn't sure how to handle it at first as I was so young, away from home and didn't have many close friends in the team at that point. 

I struggled with it for a few days and spoke to lots of people at home. The turning point was when I came off the phone with my brother and thought, ‘Hang on, this is what I came here to do. I want to get better and I want to learn. So I can’t sit here and sulk’. So I accepted the criticism, put my head down and trained as hard as I could to earn my place back in the team.

Steph celebrates with Tobin Heath (via @stephcatley on IG)

I eventually got my opportunity a couple of games later. I came off the bench and set up two goals. I then worked hard every day to stay in the team for the rest of the year. And thinking back now it was probably my most successful season in the NWSL and honestly, being told I wasn’t good enough was the moment that made me. 

So I came back to Australia full of confidence after that, first with Victory where I worked with Joe Montemurro for the first time and then with Melbourne City, who had just been established in 2015. 

I don't think I'd ever had a coach who looked at the game the way Joe did. Women's football has come on a long way compared to what it was like back then, so at the time it took a while for us to pick up his ideas and the style of football he wanted to implement.  

For me, it was exciting to have someone come in and see how far he thought women's football could go and the kind of football that he believed we were capable of playing. You could definitely see the beginning of his playing style developing with our Victory team in 2014/15. 

Montemurro during his Melbourne City days

Then with the team at City he put together, the ideas, patterns and style of football that he believes in really began to flourish. I think he really thrived at City and felt he had the support of the club there to recruit how he wanted to, and also implement exactly what he had in his head and the way he wanted to play. That was pretty cool watching him grow in that sense. 

Joe was a key factor behind why I loved my time at Melbourne City, but there was another reason too – and this one joined the club about halfway through my first year. 

I remember at that time there were about four or five boys in the men’s team with the exact same haircut. You know the one, dark hair swept over to the side with a shaved line in the parting? That’s the one, all with beards as well. 

They all differed in height but because we didn’t have much to do with the men’s team that year, I truly never knew who was who! Anyway, one day I get this message on Instagram from this account, @dbouzanis43.

“Thanks for the custard pie at Chadstone Shopping Centre,” it read.

I recognised the name and knew that he was a City player, but really only replied because I had no idea what he was talking about and was slightly offended that he was calling me out. It turned out I’d just walked straight past him with my headphones at the shopping centre that day. To this day, I still argue that if he was the one that saw me, isn’t he the one that dished out the custard pie? I think he was just too shy to say hello! So that’s how Dean and I started talking, and that’s how he got me hook, line and sinker.

Steph and Dean

We’ve been together for four years now and throughout that whole time we’ve done a long-distance relationship in a sense. I’d go to America, he’d play in the A-League but then would come to the States for a month in his off-season and then go home again. I’d then come home to play in the W-League for three months and we’d have that time together before I left again. 

It’s always been tough because we’ve never been able to settle down and live together but I think our relationship is so strong because we both have an understanding of the sacrifices you have to make in your personal life to be a professional footballer.

But then… sometimes things just work out for the best, don’t they? I’d been in contact with Joe while I was in America and he’d tried to get me to come over a couple of times, but I was still enjoying my time in the States. I’d actually been looking at the Women’s Super League for a while and when I finished in Orlando, I thought that was me done in the NWSL.

I wanted to experience Europe but then when I went home to play in the W-League along with a few of the Reign players (and many of my closest friends), they convinced me to go back to America for another stint. So I played those final two years there and had a blast, and in that time the WSL got to a point where it was getting so much more competitive and professional.

Steph waves goodbye to Reign FC

For me, it was also getting to the stage where it was becoming impossible to maintain the NWSL to W-League switch every year without having a break or an off-season. My body was struggling to handle it and I think a few others were in the same boat because we’d get to national team camps and be exhausted. I knew I needed the routine of a pre-season, season and then off-season – and that’s when Joe got in touch again.

So we had a few conversations and I explored some other options in Europe too – a couple of clubs in Spain and France – but Dean was desperate for me to join Arsenal and experience life in England. He’d played in England before for Liverpool, Accrington Stanley, Oldham Athletic and Carlisle United and he would always tell me about how England is the home of football. 

“Supporters in England are just at another level,” he’d say when he’d come to watch me in America. 

He would always talk about the passion that English fans had for the game, that they’d wake up on a Sunday morning and have all this excitement for all of the games ahead. He'd always told me that I needed to experience it and I could only do that by playing here, so when the opportunity came along, of course he wanted me to come here.

A young Dean shakes hands with future England Lionesses head coach Phil Neville during his Oldham days

So Joe wanted me here, I loved the way the team was playing and Dean was keen too. But there was one more thing drawing me to north London. Remember how I said everything in my life had built towards me joining Arsenal? Well it all started with one man: my grandpa, George.

Let me start this by saying my grandpa’s probably the most placid and sweetest man in the entire world, so he would always let me come to my own conclusions. But he really loves Arsenal and he always has.  

He was born and raised in London but moved to Australia with my grandma for work. When I was growing up, he would tell us about Arsenal and check the results, telling us who scored the goals – he’s just a massive Gooner.

He and my grandma are both 97 now, so when I explained that I would be playing in England, they were sad that I wouldn’t see them for a long time. But were also so proud and excited for me. So when it came to picking a club, their faces lit up when I mentioned Arsenal.

Steph with her grandpa - and lifelong Gooner - George

I’d already made my decision by then, but the idea that I could give an Arsenal shirt to my grandpa and tell him that I was going to play for his club just added to it and to be honest, it choked me up a little bit. I was so excited to tell them when I had officially signed and it put the biggest smile on my grandpa’s face, he was so happy. 

But then with me at Arsenal, what would Dean and I do? Maybe he could stay in Australia and come to see me for short periods like we’d done before, but could we really do that for two or three years? That definitely looked quite difficult but I was willing for him to do whatever he needed to do in his career. After all, football’s a short career so you just have to go for it while you can and we both understand that.

Well as it turned out, Dean’s agent had also been looking around Europe and with Dean being a football tragic, he always wanted to return to England. The Sutton United coach was really keen to get him over and because the situation in Australia was pretty uncertain with COVID-19, he jumped at the opportunity. 

For anyone who’s never seen Dean play, he’s a goalkeeper but I think he fancies himself as more of a No 9. He’s got unbelievable feet and his distribution is incredible. Actually, during lockdown we were training together every day and I can tell you now that he didn’t have the gloves on for a single session – it was pure football!

The closest Dean came to wearing gloves during their training sessions

But it's handy because he wants to go into coaching in the future, so he can actually put on really good sessions. If I ever say that I want to work on one thing or another, he'll set up something really cool and dynamic and then is obviously able to join in. It works out really, really well but there's always a bit of a competitive dynamic there as well when there are games involved. It's good fun.

And now, for the first time in our entire relationship, we can live together, train together and play football in England. See what I mean? Perfect. 

Well, almost perfect – England’s taken a bit of getting used to! Coming over, it was really different in terms of getting settled. In America, most teams have complexes where you roll in and there’s an apartment ready for you. Here, it’s quite difficult to find your own place and that’s been a new experience for me, but luckily Caitlin Foord had already been here for a while and was really helpful in helping me set up. 

Coming to a new team can be challenging if you don't know someone, but I've known Caitlin since I was 13 or 14 when we were playing in the national youth championships. Back then she played for New South Wales and I played for Victoria. I remember her pretty clearly from those tournaments because she was just rapid and would wear this big thick headband.

Steph and Caitlin go head-to-head in a Matildas training session

I think she got best player of that tournament back then and she was just developing so fast. She was better than everyone back then and probably still is now! I remember meeting her in an under-17 national team camp after that, she was very softly spoken and barely said a word. But then if she was around the right people, she could be a little bit of a ratbag as well and was really funny and cheeky.

Then of course there’s Lydia, who joined about a week after me. The first year I came into the national team, she'd done her ACL so I didn't actually meet her until a year or so after I'd been involved in the national team, but from day one we just clicked. She was wild and spontaneous and funny, so we just got on straight away. I guess you could say we're just as weird as each other!

Steph and Lydia during their Reign days

As for the other girls, there are so many different types of personalities. The Dutch girls have a dry sense of humour, it's more in line with dark humour and sarcasm which I really like. With the Scots you've got Jen who is the purest soul you’ll ever meet, Lisa who is so out there, funny and genuine, but then you've got Kim who's still very funny but is a bit quieter and just really down to earth. 

Kim, by the way, is incredible. I think the entire world doesn’t fully appreciate just how good she is. I've played with some of the best players in the world over the years and for me, she's just the most consistent in everything she does.

It's every little action that makes a difference on the field. She's impossible to tackle. I've tried multiple times in training and you think you're getting a foot in but then she just bumps you off the ball. She's so strong, so smart, can use her body, she's fast when she's dribbling, she's deceptive with the Kimmy Shimmy, and she's just reliable - that's the main thing. 

You know that when she's on the field you're going to get 100 per cent from her always. That's something that hasn't surprised me because I knew her from my first year at City. But I’ve been on the sidelines a lot recently with a calf injury, so it has really given me another perspective when watching games and I think it's something which really goes under the radar. 

Like all of us, Steph's a big fan of #CaptainLittle

So right now, my main priority is to get back on the field, healthy and to be a consistent contributor for this team. Every footballer would be lying if they said they didn't want to win silverware, so that’s a big goal of mine as well and I think this team is so capable of winning so many different things.

As for my grandpa, I think he’d just want me to be happy. He’d just want me to enjoy playing for the team that he loves and find the ultimate happiness while doing it. He’s the ultimate softie, so he’d be happy with that.

Like I said before, it sounds cheesy but it’s true!

Steph Catley

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