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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Pagonis

Michele Lastella: Developing tomorrow's South Australian Matildas

Tony Gustavsson's Matildas squad for the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup included two South Australians. The Football South Australia National Talent Centre program is a crucial development path for young female footballers in the state. Head Coach Michele Lastella spoke to Front Page Football about what the program is delivering.

Michele Lastella coaching the FSA NTC Senior Women in the 2023 WNPL season. (Adam Butler/80kms)

Working as a development coach has its unique challenges, but for FSA NTC Women's Head Coach Michele Lastella, the joys of the job are worth it. When asked to reflect on when he felt the impact of his work, Lastella cited a moment that occurred on the field but many that came off it, too.

"I think Charli (Grant) scoring a goal against England; I rang Michael Matricciani because we were working together when he was the Head Coach when Charli was in her final year with us. Then she won Young Footballer of the Year; I want that for a lot of our girls," Lastella shared with FPF.

"It is also when you speak to the girls in college (in the USA) and see how much they are loving their football and how much they learned not just about football, but about life and how they manage being away from family and those sort of things. It is about developing the person as much as it is the player; if you develop the person, then the player should come; if you are in a good mental space, then you are going to perform better."

Being tasked with heading the state's elite girls' development program is challenging, and success is defined differently than most other coaching roles. When development is the end goal, Lastella and his coaching team are judged on how their players progress first, with results second.

"Our job is to get girls in the Junior Matildas and the Young Matildas; that’s how we are measured, or getting girls into Adelaide United, that’s the objective. Yeah, you want the girls to perform because if they’re performing, then the results are going to come; that’s how I think about it," Lastella said.

"I just want them to play a particular brand and learn their roles so when they go into those environments, they are more comfortable and ready to go. It is all about getting them ready."

FSA NTC goalkeeper Libby Davy being farewelled after deciding to continue her football career in the US college system. (Adam Butler/80kms)

Over the years, Lastella has seen his footballers take many different paths in the football world. Some have opted to take a chance in the American college system, others went to Europe, and some have continued their careers domestically at different levels. Given the need to thrive in diverse environments, Lastella shared his belief of what a footballer progressing from the FSA NTC Women's program should look like.

"I want a player that is comfortable on the ball, brave in possession, someone that attracts pressure and tries to play through the pressure; that’s the way I think about it. Everyone has a different way of playing, so if you can develop a player holistically, they have a better chance at being successful and having a good career," he said.

"I’ve always had the idea that if you are following a process and you are trying to perform at your best, then if the results come, they come. But at least you know that you have followed that process and you have performed the best you can. If you are just focusing on the outcome, then you are not focused [on] where things go wrong or how you can improve."

Women's NPL clubs tend to train two nights a week. However, the players selected for the NTC program commit to a doubled training load of four nights. Regardless of where they end up after their time at the NTC, the players benefit from increased attention in an environment where their development is paramount.

Lastella approximates that around 60% of players in the WNPL SA competition and 85-90% of the current Adelaide United A-League Women's squad have been involved in the NTC set-up at one stage, proving the program's importance. While seeing the program he spearheads make ripples in South Australian football, Lastella's end goal is to produce players who are deemed good enough to represent their country, and this area is one showing promising signs of improvement recently.

South Australian Matilda Charli Grant (left) featuring for the FSA NTC side in 2018, when Lastella was serving as Michael Matricciani's Assistant Coach. (Adam Butler/80kms)

Charli Grant (21), Alex Chidiac (24), and Matilda McNamara (24) have all been called up by Tony Gustavsson to represent Australia. The South Australian trio, all having participated in the NTC program, are an example of the next generation of talent unearthing from the state as women's football continues to rise to prominence. Lastella believes that in the coming years, the numbers will only grow.

"Nothing gives us more pleasure than seeing players operate at a top level. Look at Charli Grant, for example, playing in a World Cup and playing in Sweden; you look at Ella Tonkin, who went to the Under 20s World Cup in Costa Rica last year," Lastella shared.

"Those are the sort of things we look for. How many girls do we have at the Under 20s camps? How many girls are currently training with Leah Blayney at the Future Matildas program in Sydney? We have four there at the moment, and we have not had that many ever! We have four girls training with the Future Matildas in Ella Tonkin, Emilia Murray, Zoe Tolland, and Katie Bowler. That is what gives me happiness, seeing our girls progressing down those avenues.

"I think with a few more years; you will see some of those players knocking on the door. Clare Hunt is evidence that you don’t need to be playing overseas straight away to get a look in with the Matildas, and it is evident that if you are doing really well in the A-League, you are going to get a chance. Cortnee Vine is another example."

Despite the development focus, the FSA NTC Women's side has combined that with outstanding results, with Lastella's side ending their regular season second on the ladder and currently finding themselves one game away from a Grand Final. Due to player turnover, which is the nature of the program, Lastella and his coaching team promoted nine players from their Reserves side. Despite the coach expecting a year of mixed results and lessons learned, his side has performed above and beyond expectations.

"If you were to ask me a bit earlier in the year, I was a bit concerned, to be honest. But they have performed really well, and we have a quality group of young players. But the same thing will happen again this year, as we have to release seven to eight players again. I try and get them to just focus on football and not about who is watching or worrying about the results and things like that," Lastella said.

"I truly believe that playing a good brand of football and following that process should lead to results. Then you can pinpoint improving, and that is what it is all about."

South Australian women's football is providing encouraging signs of development. Lastella's role as FSA NTC Head Coach extends to being Adrian Stenta's Assistant Coach for Adelaide United in the A-League Women, supporting the program in utilising the state's best talent. Despite seeing multiple young players enter the A-League program, Lastella believes the absence of an A-League Women's youth team presents a development hole the Lady Reds' coaching staff must carefully manage when introducing young players to the professional game.

"The hardest thing with our NTC program and Adelaide United is that we don’t actually have a youth team; the NTC is almost the youth team, so there is almost a gap in between. That is one of the hardest things, and some players make the jump really well; Em Hodgson, Charli Grant, made the jump really well; Millsy (Emilia Murray) made the jump, but she was also a train-on player for a little bit," he added.

"Stents and I try to give the players a bit of a dose to see how they respond in that environment. But at the end of the day, my opinion is that if you are good enough, you will get looked at, and you will make the squad. The APL is introducing some Youth Development contracts this year, which will help with the process; it is not easy to manage an A-League squad, but it is helpful knowing all the players coming through, and all the players in our NPL too."



The FSA NTC side celebrate progression in the WNPL SA Finals Series after defeating Adelaide City on penalties. (Adam Butler/80kms)

The success of the FIFA Women's World Cup will only accelerate the interest in the women's game in Australia and the Matildas. Lastella believes the next generation of prospective footballers now have their idols.

"I think the best thing is that young girls are looking at their idols now. You heard Marta talking about not having an idol; everyone knows who Sam Kerr is," Lastella shared.

"It is not starting football at 10 or 11 but at four or five, and starting to enjoy playing, that is the most important bit because if you are enjoying something and having fun, you are more likely to continue it. For me, that is one of the most important things when looking at the World Cup. Everyone seemed to be enjoying what the Matildas gave us; they have inspired a nation, and I am confident they have inspired some young girls to start playing."

This projected spike in interest will hopefully see the talent pool of young girls expand even further. With the opportunity to train with Football South Australia's National Talent Centre, the state can continue to produce more of tomorrow's Matildas for years to come.

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