FIFA Women's World Cup 2023: Ex-Matildas boss Darby discusses "ideal" semi-final blockbuster
Rarely in Australian football are its followers in a position to lead a moment impacting so many nationwide. Ahead of the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup semi-final against England at Stadium Australia, we thought it especially fitting to delve back into the archives and speak with a trailblazing English manager who took the Australia National Women's soccer team - what they were known as at the time - through its first attempt to qualify for the World Cup in 1991. That man is Steven Darby, and this is his story.
A youth player with Tranmere Rovers who went on to be a pundit in Asia, and a football coach through the Asia-Pacific, Darby was at one point contacted by a pair of Tasmanians in the late 1970s who were looking to have him at their club, the Devonport Strikers.
"I got a phone call from Tasmania, well actually it was a telegram, that is how long ago this was, when it said, 'Do you want to come to Tasmania', I thought it was in Africa, then realised it was Tassie and not Tanzania," Darby told Front Page Football.
Darby further described his initial Australian experience and how his presence can still be felt at the club today, despite nearly half a century since he left as their coach.
"They (the Tasmanians) had been on the English coaching courses and were sent out to look for player managers; I was recommended to Devonport in Tassie," Darby added.
"A wonderful club that I am still in contact with to this day; even though it's over 43 years ago since I went to coach there, I'm still in contact with my players even though some are now grandads, and I will never have any regrets going there."
After Devonport, Darby had a few stints at various domestic and international teams across the Eastern Hemisphere, taking his career to a modest level of success and, more importantly, reputation.
He was later asked to coach at an invitational tournament in Asia, which got the ball rolling towards his eventual appointment as the head coach of the Australian Women's National soccer team.
The Australian National Women's team ahead of the 1989 OFC Championship. (Football Australia archives)
The matter of equality in sport and football then was something Darby acknowledged that took him to another level of respect for the growth of the women's game.
"I had always taken the view that she is as good as he. I don't care if someone is male or female, black or white, gay or straight, it was irrelevant to me; they are all footballers," Darby said.
Equally crucial to the equality aspect was the struggle the Australian squads went through due to the infrastructural differences of the era and undoubtedly the lack of investment, which was nowhere to be seen, ultimately distracting from the duties the full-time coach needed to carry out.
"I was particularly lucky being around some really fine players on the initial 80s tour; Julie Dolan, what a fine player she was, and although they were these incredible players, I quickly realised they had to pay their own way to go to tournaments; it always struck me as immoral," Darby said.
"I could tell you these girls were superb athletes and professionals in every way; the only thing is they weren't being paid. They were dedicated and hardworking, but a lot of my time was spent trying to get the kits for them, trying to raise money, and I wasn't really paid either."
The women's game always had its suitors, though, and Darby did not take it for granted and is still thankful for it today.
"We were lucky in that there were always people there to support the women's game, even within the NSL, and dare I use the term wog mafia, a club like Marconi; they were extremely helpful. Sydney Olympic also had a strong women's team," he explained.
Focusing on the more modern context, though, an enthused Darby described his excitement about the Matildas ahead of a World Cup semi-final and how meaningful the impact of a positive result may yield for the game going forward.
"What I think the Matildas are doing, and I don't know if it is going to last, is it has raised massive awareness within this World Cup, inside England and Europe, of the Australian game and what it can be," Darby added.
"Now [there's] big awareness anyway with the Lionesses doing a similar thing on home soil, and knowing what the Matildas had ahead of them; this game on that context would have been the ideal Final.
"England, as well as Australia, will stop to watch this game; it is all about this different client base the game has been able to attract. You still have idiots saying, 'Well, they can't play, and they can't do this and that', but I use the example of Tom Sermanni (another ex-Matildas coach); he said that the great players, even someone like Marta in Brazil, were far better players than he ever could have been."
So what does Darby expect from the match?
"My head says England, but my heart says the Matildas, just because they have one or two many top class pros within the team, and England might not have a Sam Kerr, but for the moment, Australia hasn't either (a fully fit one), and I don't know if this balances things out. I think England's class shines through, and they win it 1-0 or 2-1," he said.
Another important footnote in Darby's legacy was his time in the administrative arm of the game, specifically within other member states surrounding Australia.
It was in the 1990s that Darby was also more involved in the administrative side with the Australian Soccer Federation, gaining a fair amount of influence both in Australia and throughout its then confederation in Oceania.
"So I was working for the ASF, the Australian Soccer Federation, and as a result of this job, I was an OFC (Oceania Football Confederation) FIFA instructor, so I would go out to places like Fiji to run the senior coaching courses there and also work with the youth teams," he explained.
Ultimately a legacy of his impact in the game, and something Darby speaks massively to, as many others before and after him have done, is the modern OFC and how it should become a part of the Asian Football umbrella through the existence of a sub-confederation, similarly to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
"I think, putting my political hat on, my logic would be that many places in Oceania deserve to be a sub-section of the AFC, as, in the same vein, Bhutan, Nepal, [and] Macau play their way through from smaller ranked opponents in their sub-section," he said.
Speaking on the diplomacy aspect of such a move, Darby maintains that OFC member states would bring something of value to the AFC.
"At the moment, it's one nation, one vote (on FIFA matters), so the influence of Fiji or Vanuatu means as much as it does in Iran or China, or India, and the reality is, if that got these votes, the next FIFA President could be from Asia and that brings coaching camps, away trips, and other such incentives for those nations," he added.
As for Darby's ongoing influence, he has a lingering legacy and respect from many down under. Back in England now and forever indebted to Australia for the opportunities it provided him, Darby described that he will always hold the Australian game close. But he says he is not the one who should be celebrated for his achievements with the national team.
"So I was sent a ticket for the opening game against Ireland; I honestly feel, though, that the legacy and the program of the Matildas Alumni is solely for the players. For me and other coaches and administrators, it was a job. For those girls, it was their passion, and the concept of the Alumni is for them," Darby said.
READ MORE WOMEN'S WORLD CUP CONTENT ON FPF
MATILDAS WC HISTORY: The Matildas' moment: The World Cup history shaping a quarterfinal for the ages
Matildas Alumni in Sydney for the second of Australia's two-match series against Canada last year. (Football Australia Facebook)
But the Alumni is the exact honour that has made Darby so beloved and such a great chat. He will tell you more than anyone that the women's game, although worthy of sympathy for its plight, had never really been about the broader social goal, any more than it was about the trailblazing women who fought for their country and never received the benefits.
The honour of the Matildas jersey, past and present, is solely for those who played the game. It's a desirable trait that will forever define Darby and his team's legacy.
Click here to read more of FPF's coverage of the Matildas!