With the official announcement of the successful A-League expansion bids imminent, NICK CREELY sat down with renowned soccer writer and Team 11 project officer Matt Windley about life, his career as a journalist and the south-east’s A-League dreams…..
Berwick local Matt Windley is a man of ambition.
Once he has his mind set on something, he won’t stop until he does it. It’s been a trait of his for as long as he can remember.
It’s held him in good stead as one of the finest soccer journalists in the country, and now as the project officer for Team 11 – the official A-League bid for the south-east of Melbourne.
His body of work across a stellar career spanning a decade as a sports journalist with the Herald Sun earned him an immense reputation. Put simply, Matt Windley’s byline was a precious commodity for soccer fans.
In March of this year, things changed. Windley decided to take up a life-altering offer, and delve into somewhat unfamiliar territory– leave the job he grew up in and take up a full-time position as the man behind the south-east’s bid to bring in one of two new A-League teams to the national competition in the 2019/20 season.
He admits that 2018 has been a “crazy” experience and one he wouldn’t change, and a time that has brought him out of his comfort zone.
But he now can only sit back and wait for the announcement, which is expected on 31 October or sometime after depending on a number of factors.
“I went through a really stressful period, and not just with work but also in my personal life, having my second child, and with the deadline approaching, it was absolutely crazy,” he said.
“In the last few weeks, I’ve just had this sense of calm, in a strange way. I feel like I probably should be getting more stressed, and it’s not that I don’t care.
“I wanted to do everything possible to get this bid over the line, and personally, I feel like I’ve done that. I know councils and investors feel the same way.”
With Team 11 potentially the first-ever professional sporting team to represent the Casey, Cardinia and Greater Dandenong region, Windley said it was a no-brainer to take up a position within his local community.
“It’s just such an exciting opportunity, and because I’m local, you can draw a triangle from my house, Dandenong Stadium and the Casey Fields base,” he said.
“This is my community, and because I know the impact it will have on the community and on the A-League – a league I’m so passionate about – it was a no brainer for me to want to help out.
“And the moment definitely came for me personally when the expansion process officially started, and when the FFA fired the shotgun in March, that was the time for me to take a punt.
“At the end of the day, some people need to do that – investors need to put their hands in their pockets, councils need to put some manpower and time to making this happen, and they’ve stepped up.
“And for me personally, it was my time to step up. Hopefully it gets the green light.”
Through all the council, investor and government meetings and local club visits, Team 11 can’t do much more.
Windley said that if the result – despite his confidence – doesn’t go their way in the coming weeks, his ambition would ensure he doesn’t give up.
“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about what would happen if it didn’t get up,” he said.
“There’s a lot of commentary about failed bids and what happens to them if they don’t get in – for me, I don’t think anything’s off the table, if we get the red light in the coming weeks or months, my passion to seeing this get off the ground doesn’t just go away.
“I think we all know that 12 teams is not where the A-League stops, there will be 14, 16 teams in the future. Could we be one of those teams? Will there be a national second division one day? Could we play in that?
“There’s no shortage of options to see this happen, but it may just be another path to take.”
Windley said that the community has welcomed the bid with open arms, and firmly believes the region deserves its place in the national league.
One night in particular springs to mind through all the cold, harsh winter nights spent at local football clubs talking to youngsters and club presidents that reminds him of what this bid has meant to not only the community, but also himself.
“The first thing that comes to mind was a night at Casey Fields back in mid-August, I sort of poured my heart out to 30 or 35 local club presidents about the toll that this bid has taken on me, and obviously my personal circumstances as well,” he said.
“I hadn’t been able to get out to as many local clubs as I would have liked, and to see the responses from them, and for them to come together and have a meeting of minds all in the one place materialize in six days was really nice.
“We had about 40 clubs from across the region come together – we had people from as far as Moe and Sale, Mornington, Knox and even down to Chelsea-Aspendale come down, and we got some really great social media content.
“We had some really great ideas thrown around, that local clubs brought back to their own club, so that’s been the highlight for me – it was great to see people that don’t necessarily know each other come together for one night was really special.
“This bid has a real chance to unite a whole region in a footballing sense.”
But does he feel pride at all of his achievements in putting together the bid – regardless of whether they are successful or not?
“I’ve grown as a person, no doubt – I’ve done things I’ve never done before, like dealing with governments, councils and multi-millionaire investors, so there’s that element to it,” he said.
“Do I feel a sense of pride? It’s probably too early yet – if it gets up, 100 per cent, if it doesn’t, well it’ll probably be more intense disappointment to get that close.”
That drive and ambition – something that has been ingrained in Windley since a child – once brought him to great heights, as a sports journalist in the Herald Sun. That’s something he does feel immense pride in recalling.
“I’ve known since I was five that I wanted to be a sports journo at the Herald Sun, and when I put my mind to something, I just do it,” he said.
“I read the paper from back to front, and I kept my stats from when I was playing cricket, footy or rugby, I used to do all that nerdy stuff.
“During high school (at De La Salle in Malvern) I always picked my subjects to correlate with that – I didn’t do math’s or science in Year 9, I did the legal studies, literature, that sort of stuff.”
Windley did some work placement with the Herald Sun – and was completely mesmerized by the sounds, experiences and intensity of the newsroom. He simply had to live out his boyhood dream.
“I applied for a cadetship in Year 10, I thought I was going to get it, and I didn’t clearly – I knew if I applied again in Year 11 I’d get knocked back, but then they’d know my name,” he said.
“I applied again in Year 12, got it, and advanced through the stages.
“(I) came back from schoolies on the Gold Coast for one of my interviews still wearing my pink wristband to get back into the overage stuff because I flew back up that same day. They didn’t take me on as a cadet, but luckily they did make me a full-time editorial assistant and the rest is history.”
It didn’t take long for Windley to make an impression – within a year he was on the sports desk, working alongside some of the most renowned sports writers in the country. Soon enough, he became one of those renowned writers he grew up admiring.
“I did small articles, answered phones, got coffees, sorted through emails and faxes, really cool, old school stuff like that. I wrote a few articles in my time and moved into sport, and started at 19,” he said.
“I was a massive fan of Mike Sheahan, and worked with him for a long time, and Damien Barrett was really good for me, and still is to be fair.
“He’s (Barrett) really giving with his time, gentle and humble, someone I have a lot of time for.
“Mike’s door was always open, he was never too busy for anyone.”
And Sheahan gave him a piece of advice early on in his career, something that’s stuck with him not only professionally, but also personally.
“He said, “you work to live, not live to work”, and it’s something I’ve sort of lived by,” he said.
“You’ve always got to remember what’s important (family), and that’s outside the bubble of being a sports journo.”
While he doesn’t rule out a return to the Herald Sun if Team 11’s bid is unsuccessful, he said the memories and lessons learnt will hold in good stead with whatever comes next.
“I grew up in the place, I got a girlfriend, engaged, married, and had a kid – I owe a lot to the place, I loved it,” he said.
“More than writing great stories, I enjoyed the people – I really did love it and look back with an immense amount of pride with the stories I wrote and friends I made.
“Hopefully we get this license with the A-League, and I can take a lot of lessons I learnt from those guys and take it into this next walk of life.”
As Windley waits in anticipation at what the future holds for Team 11’s bid and for soccer in the region, he admits, at the back of his mind, he is thinking of what it means for his family, wife Ash and children Evie and Ollie.
“Primarily, we have to think about ourselves long term – the councils have been fantastic giving me a sense of security, and they’ll make sure I’m not left out in the lurch,” he said.
“I’ll obviously be on the lookout for a new job if this doesn’t happen – we have to think about worst case scenario, it’d be different if I was 25, single and with no kids, it wouldn’t matter.
“But we’ll see what happens.”