Matt Ross: The former school teacher and bus driver coaching at a home World Cup
Like any edition of football's biggest tournament, the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup is full of incredible stories and journeys of players, coaches, and administrators who have overcome significant obstacles to make the big time. South Korea's assistant coach, Australian Matt Ross, is no different. Front Page Football recently spoke to Ross about his inspirational journey from being a bus driver and school teacher to forging a successful coaching career.
South Korea's assistant coach, Australian Matt Ross. (Keepup)
Matt Ross, in short, is a linesman-turned-teacher-turned-bus driver-turned-coach. He was born and raised in the Hunter region and is a Newcastle native. After a brief amateur playing career, Ross decided to go into refereeing when he was 13 and eventually worked his way up through the ranks to become a linesman in the National Soccer League (NSL).
When Ross was overlooked to officiate at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, he lost his passion for the profession. He briefly returned to playing before an ACL injury ruled out further progress in on-field activities. Amid all the football involvement, Ross was studying to become a teacher and in 2000, earned his Graduate Diploma in Education from the University of Newcastle.
But his desire to be involved in football in some capacity remained strong. While working as a teacher full-time, Ross decided to pursue coaching part-time. He began in the Northern Territory – where he was teaching at the time – working as a youth coach in the Football Northern Territory system.
Ross didn’t take long to realise coaching was his true passion. He and his wife, a teacher, took a huge risk in 2011 when they sacrificed their full-time work, sold their car, and rented out their apartment to fund Ross’ dreams of finding a coaching gig abroad. But that process was long and arduous.
The couple travelled to Germany, and with Ross not speaking the language nor having the CV or qualifications to boot, he didn’t even receive a response from the clubs he offered his services. In a previous interview with Keepup, Ross said he had gone from coaching at the boy’s nationals at Coffs Harbour in 2011 to not getting back into the profession until July 2013. While attempting to find full-time work, Ross became the bus driver at the Frankfurt school where his wife worked.
Eventually, Bundesliga women’s side FFC Frankfurt (now Eintracht Frankfurt) took a punt on Ross, and they and many sides since did not regret hiring him. The Australian now works as the assistant coach of South Korea’s women’s team, a post he has held since December 2019. It was difficult for Ross to reflect on his journey, especially as it culminated in the full circle moment of coaching at a home World Cup.
“It still doesn’t resonate with me. It seems like it was two separate lives. So the school teacher just seems like it was a different guy,” Ross told FPF.
“The pandemic opened up a lot of free time to reflect on that journey more…the gravity of it hit me, you’ve come from there to where you are now, and now to be at a World Cup, in Australia, it’s difficult to put into words.”
The nature of the journey is undoubtedly one of a kind. But it was not so bemusing for someone with a strong teaching background to forge a coaching career, particularly with how transferrable the skills are across both professions. Ross opened up further about using his teaching background to aid his coaching development.
“I think when I started coaching, I just treated it like a classroom that was on the pitch. The way to communicate, the way to design a session was the same as a lesson plan,” he said.
“Early on, my coaching points, I didn’t have any. I was an amateur player, but I was a teacher, and now you’re coaching a team. So I didn’t really know what I was talking about, but I think I could sell it, sell some basic concepts in a way that was engaging for the players.
“In a way, I think that lack of playing experience helped me be a better coach because I had to go back and learn from first principles.”
Ross also had to start from the bottom in a coaching capacity when he first moved to Germany. His first gig with FFC Frankfurt was as an unpaid analyst, a role he had for two and a half years. While doing that role for the first team, Ross coached the club’s U20 and U17 sides for one season each. Success was immediate as Ross coached the U20s to the Hessenliga (German fourth division) title in 2014, followed by another league title with the U17s in 2015. Meanwhile, Ross was a part of the Frankfurt first team that won the German Cup in 2014 and a coveted UEFA Champions League in 2015.
Nowadays, with the heights someone like Ange Postecoglou is reaching, silverware at a youth level, and working as an analyst to the first team may not seem that impressive for an Australian coach. But everything Ross has and may continue to achieve has to be taken with the perspective of where he has come from, particularly when assessing his time in Germany; the rate at which he rose through the ranks was remarkable.
After serving as FFC Frankfurt's assistant coach for six months from July to December in 2015, Ross was thrust into the head coaching role on an interim basis, and two months later, he was made the club's Head Coach. He had the role for almost two years, almost leading the club to back-to-back Champions League titles in 2016, as they fell at the semi-final stage.
Ross during his time as FFC Frankfurt's Head Coach. (Imago)
To this day, he doesn’t forget how his professional coaching career was born, with his unemployment period between 2011 and 2013 a significant personal challenge. Such adversity prepared him to be mentally strong for the coaching world, which he believes is imperative.
“It’s mentally, obviously, really, really tough. I finished my pro license last year in UEFA. One of the first lectures we did, one of the first stats is something crazy like 85% of coaches in their first job, after they get sacked, never get a second job. That was like slide one,” Ross said.
“It’s ruthless; it’s cutthroat. You lose three or four games, you’re gone. So mentally, you’ve got to be really strong but also realise it is part of the job.”
Ross added more on how he copes with the profession's demands, explaining how his mind focuses on the task at hand. After all, taking the path he did and having a teaching background almost perfectly prepped him for the all-consuming nature and open-minded headspace required in the coaching game.
“I made sure I had teaching as a plan B, just that safety net, that I never wanted to go back to,” Ross said.
“A lot of people, they ask me what drives me. I’ve got a pull factor to learn as much as possible and experience as much as I can in football.
“But there’s a big pushback to that; I have to succeed because I don’t want to go back to teaching.
“Whenever I feel, ‘Oh, should I analyse this opponent for the next eight hours, or should I just take the rest of the day off?’ That triggers, and I go, ‘No, stay on it, stay diligent because you don’t want to lose what you’ve got.’
“I started as a teacher, so everything was a bonus. To go to Germany and work as a video analyst in the women’s Bundesliga, I was blown away. Then the next job to be coaching German fourth division, was amazing. So everything has been amazing, amazing, amazing.”
Ross (bottom row, furthest left) and the rest of the FFC Frankfurt squad celebrate their 2015 UEFA Champions League triumph. (Sportmetropole Berlin)
The Women’s World Cup may not have started on the right note from a South Korean perspective. But it truly is another improbable experience for Ross. The tournament represents a significant moment for all Australians involved in the game at the top level, and he is no different. Reflecting on his childhood experiences, the 44-year-old detailed why the next month means so much to him.
“It’s difficult because I’m in the Korean bubble. So even a lot of the Matildas hype, I haven’t seen,” Ross said.
“But of course, I know it’s going to be a huge event, and as an Australian, part of me, coming here with the Korean team, wants the players to see what Australia’s like. The Aussie part of me wants them to have a really great experience in my country.
“It’s a different feeling for me, and I think also for the Matildas, women’s football, and football in Australia.
“Even as a kid growing up with the NSL, I always wanted it to do well and to be bigger. I’m from Newcastle, so [the] Newcastle Jets, they had a few years there where the crowds were big, and the atmosphere was great. But I remember the days of the (Newcastle) Breakers.”
Through his nationality, Ross was always associated with the Australian game. But his roots in Australian football stem from his early days officiating and supporting the NSL.
Hailing from a moment when football had so much to give yet didn’t quite reach its goals; this tournament represents the opportunity for Ross and many of his era to see the Australian game etch closer to the vision they desired.
For someone who has not worked in Australian circles for a long time, Ross' reasons for his passion for football in the country were touching. But they were also a stark reminder of why supporters of Australian football should tread carefully about what might follow the eyeballs and hype on football over the next month.
“I’ve always wanted Australia to recognise how beautiful football is. I wanted the NSL to do well,” Ross said.
“I went to the first game [for] Carlton Soccer Club, 1997. So I was in Melbourne, and I went to the game, and I wanted Carlton to be huge, and I had no reason; I mean, I’m from Newcastle. I remember I turned up, and there was maybe 2000 people there.
“I think a year and a half later they were dead and buried, Collingwood started, and they were gone, and all these false starts that Australian football’s had.”
Thus, it was only natural to ask Ross his take on whether the next month will genuinely impact the world game in Australia. He intriguingly pivoted towards the Matildas as the key to unlocking football’s potential.
“The Matildas have to do really well; I think they have to win it,” he said.
“The fans want to see great football, so politics is secondary. So all these other things that we talk about with equal pay [are] all valid topics, but the Matildas have to win.
“We like to be underdogs; that’s the Aussie way. Now they’ve talked the kind of game where we don’t fear the US; we don’t fear England. Ok, go and beat them.”
Such a mentality from the Matildas certainly wasn’t being exuded 18 months ago, particularly after Ross’ South Korea knocked them out of the Asian Cup in January last year. Colin Bell’s side went on to narrowly lose the final to China at that tournament, whilst their start to the World Cup on Tuesday at Sydney Football Stadium wasn’t ideal, overwhelmed by a rampant Colombia side in their Group H opener. They will now look to rectify their campaign against Morocco in Adelaide on Sunday.
Ross has been with South Korea for over three and a half years now, and he opened up about what he and Bell have learnt about women’s football in Asia during their time with the Taegeuk Ladies.
“Asian football on the women’s side, it’s a funny one, maybe like the men as well; it takes time for those new ideas that have probably come from Europe or South America, it takes time to get picked up in Asia,” Ross said.
“A lot of the coaches in Asia [are] very traditional, very old school, very reluctant to change. Even we find, as national team coaches that get the majority of the squad from the domestic league, it’s a complete change we have to make with the players' mentality. They’re used to playing slow, sideways, backwards because that’s how they’re coached; that’s all the coaches did when they were playing in the 80s and 90s.
“I mean, we’ve got players here technically that, we don’t have to hide behind anybody in the world in terms of technique. It’s that tactical development, also the fitness, that you see.”
Ross with South Korean veteran Kim Hye-ri. (Women's Soccer Coaching)
Ross added more about the physical aspect, indicating how it could decide who takes home women’s football’s biggest trophy in 2023.
“If you went back and watched now, probably the 2015 World Cup, it would just be like watching a different game. That lag is still there, trying to catch up in power and fitness,” he said.
“Australia’s got that advantage that yes, you’re in Asia, but stature wise, speed wise, you’ve got different kind of athletes than the Asian athletes.
“I think you’ll find the top nations will be all about speed, power, pressing, mentality, which again is why the US has dominated because they tick all those boxes.”
So will Australia be one of those top nations? Given he and his coaching staff bettered Tony Gustavsson’s Matildas at the Asian Cup, Ross knows a thing or two about them. Gustavsson has consistently reiterated how his main job has been to build depth into the side over the past two years, an aspect very much under the microscope with injury issues that include none other than Sam Kerr.
Ross believes the depth has improved, and he also reflected on the fateful meeting between the two nations in January 2022.
“He’s (Gustavsson) used those last two years or so to bring up some of the youngsters like Mary Fowler, [who] has really become a different level player,” Ross said.
“There’s more depth, and what that does is that creates more competition in the team.
“Now you’ve got some younger ones that now have got some caps, [you’ve] got playing at good clubs overseas, the whole level of the team has risen.
“That was the thing in the Asian Cup. We knew we had to be at our best and hope for the off day from the Matildas, which we got. The number of chances they missed, they could have been 5-0 up before we even knew what was going on.
“If ever the Matildas are going to win a competition, it’s this one.”
Ross at the 2022 Asian Cup. (Keepup)
One player in the Matildas squad who will undoubtedly be eyeing the major prize is experienced midfielder Emily van Egmond, who is now at her fourth World Cup. In a surreal turn of events, van Egmond, a Newcastle native, briefly worked under Ross’ guidance in Germany during her stint at FFC Frankfurt.
Ross recalled his time working with the 30-year-old in Germany, praising the attitude and drive he witnessed whilst bemoaning how the state of women’s football at that time limited the career progression of a talent like van Egmond.
“She was always just an honest hard worker. You could always rely on her, always trust her,” he said.
“One of those players [where] you always knew she would make it.
“She was coming up through that era where they would play in Europe for a bit, and you come back to the W-League and go to the States; you’re sort of making a career, winter summer.
“She’s paved the way for this next generation of Matildas, like Mary Fowler; stay at Man City for the next x amount of years and be world-class.
“I enjoyed working with her, and it was just mad to have the Frankfurt club, and there’s an Aussie coach and an Aussie player.”
It was mad, particularly in an era where Australian players and coaches were overlooked on a much grander scale. It’s more incredible that it coincidentally was two Newcastle natives at the Frankfurt club. What may be classed as more of a coincidence is the Australian influence on this tournament. Whether through the several A-League Women-based players involved, others who have had a stint at an Australian club, or in the coaching game, Australia, quite fittingly, seems to have its fingerprints all over this World Cup.
One of Ross’ compatriots also flying the flag for Australian coaches in Asia is Alen Stajcic, and it’s safe to say he’s doing a job that has exceeded expectations. Stajcic has taken the Philippines to their first World Cup and then guided them to an emotional maiden victory against New Zealand. Add in an incredible Asian Cup semi-final run last year and a climb in the rankings to 46th in the world, and you would be hard-pressed to find what the 49-year-old has done wrong.
Alen Stajcic celebrates after guiding the Philippines to a historic victory over New Zealand. (EPA Images)
Ross first met Stajcic face-to-face in the gym of a hotel in India. As you would expect, he had nothing but praise for the incredible job the former Matildas coach is doing with the Filipinas.
“I just said the same to him that I’ll say to you know; he’s done a brilliant job because coaching is all about maximising what you’ve got, and he’s done that better than 99% of coaches,” Ross said.
“First point was the scouting. So he’s looked in the colleges, the US, the citizenship thing. So that’s also intelligent to find what you’ve got available and maximize it.
“Too often, you see former players come into coaching with no real background, or they haven’t gone through the hard years that Staj has done.
“He can adapt to everything; players, culture, men’s, women’s, because he’s the real deal.
“I think they could be a potential dark horse to upset somebody.”
But in football, more success means more interest and Stajcic’s name was recently liked with the vacant Perth Glory job in the A-League Men. Ross indicated that even being linked to such a move validates his work in the Philippines.
“For me, that’s the sign of the quality of his work that ten years ago, a women’s coach, it was rare that a men’s club would say, ‘Oh, look at the job he’s done here. We can see that working,” he added.
Ross’ South Korea halted Stajcic and the Philippines at the Asian Cup, triumphing 2-0 in the semi-finals. Such a fixture in the years prior might have been a walkover for the South Koreans. But Ross explained how their coaching staff had to change the mentality of their side not to become complacent against a Philippines side that is notoriously difficult to break down – a known trait of any Stajcic team.
“Our players have been around for a long time, so they knew the Philippines pre-Staj, and they thought this is going to be a doddle; this could be five or six or seven nil. We said, ‘No, this coach has come in, there’s a structure, the players all believe it, they’re all disciplined,” he said.
Ross, Stajcic, and Joe Montemurro are just some of the Australian coaches involved at the top level of the women’s game. On the men’s side, Australian coaches are gaining more traction abroad, and perceptions are changing. But you can only imagine the stigma associated with someone like Ross ten years ago, particularly in a country like Germany. He recalled the initial feelings expressed towards him and agreed there is a negative perception Australian coaches have to overcome.
“I felt it in Germany when I first arrived,” Ross said.
“The first thing was, you haven’t got anything for UEFA, plus you’re Australian, so basically, what do you know about football? You can’t know anything.
“So other coaches can get a foot in the door somewhere based on playing CV or nationality or that kind of thing.
“Australians have to fight against that a little bit. I think we’ve had a good export of like fitness coaches or strength and conditioning, we’ve got a good reputation in that area.
“But now you’re starting to see; there are others popping up.
“I think Ange will be the one that just blows it out of the water.”
It isn’t easy to discuss any Australian coach abroad without mentioning Ange Postecoglou and the stunning example he continues to set. Ross may be in his “Korean bubble”, but it doesn’t prevent him from hearing all the doubters the new Tottenham manager continues to attract at the top level. Doubters, he continues to silence.
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“I listen to talkSPORT, and the backlash against, what is this guy? For one, he’s Australian, and he’s come from Scotland, so what could he possibly do with Spurs?” Ross said.
“It’ll just take one to prove everyone wrong. There are plenty of good quality coaches. I think Kevin Muscat can be the next one you think could do it.”
Ross further explained his thoughts on Postecoglou and how he continues to soar as a manager. Without being prompted, he ironically compared the ‘Angeball’ style with that of Postecoglou’s predecessor Antonio Conte, hinting the striking difference in philosophy could help his countryman achieve success and quickly.
“I think the biggest thing that is a selling point for him (Ange) is, as a player, you want to do it. ‘Yeah, I’ll press for you, run for you, give me the ball, I’ll attack.’ As a player, that’s an easy sell,” Ross said.
“The opposite, I’d say, is Conte at Spurs. Sit back in a back five, two hours of training sessions of tactical work, eleven against zero, squeeze across there, etcetera, etcetera, then we’ll counter, give it to Sonny (Heung-Min Son), give it to Harry (Kane), and see what happens. That’s a harder sell.
“So Ange’s model, it’s a great way to play, great philosophy, and I think players want to do it.
“For me, it all works together that he can do it quicker than maybe most people think.”
Time will tell whether Postecoglou can continue to blaze a trail for Australian coaches abroad. Should he succeed at Tottenham, it will help Matt Ross and the rest of Australia’s overseas contingent increase their skin in the game.
But Ross has no time to waste right now, with South Korea in a tricky spot following their opening defeat at the Women’s World Cup. A good performance against Morocco is imperative.
Such expectation brings pressure. But Ross has repeatedly proven that pressure is a privilege, not a burden. He thrives on it. Helping instil the same mental strength into the South Korean squad, which he found overcoming substantial rejection in the coaching game, wouldn’t harm their fortunes.
Even if his side doesn’t progress and falters at the first hurdle, Matt Ross, who used to drive a school bus in Germany, can now say he has coached at a FIFA World Cup. That alone is worth celebrating.
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