Part two of our sit down with retiring A-League Women’s great Emma Checker delves into her overseas career, life after football, the future of women’s football in Australia and her work with the PFA. The first part of the Q&A is available now! Watch the full feature below
How important was your development off the pitch to ensure you were ready to make the decision to retire? “It’s been something that I’ve definitely prioritised. I think I’d be lying if I said when I was a young player that it was at the front of my mind. “I think it’s tough in a sport like football where you feel like you have to give everything solely to football to achieve the highest level, but what I realised was that the balance of actually having something else amplified my success on the field as well because it meant that I had something else to think about and another space to take my mind to and the trigger for that change was when I tore my ACL when I was quite young. “I was 19 and it was a little bit of a wake up call, in a sense because I think you’d like to think that you’re invincible and you’re going to just go all the way and very few people do… That was a turning point and I didn’t go to university at that point. I just studied certificates in fitness and did work as a personal trainer. But as time went on, I decided that I really did need something more so that was when I started doing a business degree and it was a slow grind. It took me seven years to finish a three year course, but the plan was always that I timed finishing that in line with when I would need it and I did so. “Having that was one of the best decisions I ever made and I think it’s something I always encourage younger players to do is remember that things can change overnight. You might sign a big contract, but you never know what injuries can happen or what happens in life and so I think it’s always important, regardless of the level that you’re at, to have a backup plan and have something on the side.” Do you give the younger players advice and are they receptive to it? “To an extent, but when I was young, if I’d had an older player tell me ‘make sure you study’ and I’d be like ‘alright, whatever, you’re at the end of your career’. “I think there’s mixed responses. I think there’s some that have to work it out for themselves and I get that because I was one of those people, so I’m cautious not to criticise them because I understand how hard it is to try and understand why it’s necessary. “But I think the great thing is now that they’re being encouraged by others, including coaches, that there is an importance. It’s hard for school kids in the elite environments because often training clashes with school so I think the biggest thing is actually just encouraging those girls to stick out and understand why it’s so important to put time into that side of their life.” You have been a vocal advocate for the A-League Women’s competition – extending the season, creating more opportunities, full-time professionalism and full time pay. Why are you so passionate about the competition and seeing it succeed? “I think we underestimate how important the league is and we forget now just because so many of the Matildas are playing abroad, but every single one of them came through the league and not that long ago. “And so, this league is not only a stepping stone or a pathway to overseas but also the national team. I think, for us to maintain a strong position as a country on the world stage. We have to maintain a strong position with our league and there’s always going to be players that do go overseas because it’s now hard to compete with the likes of England and the US has always been a powerhouse and there’s so many other strong leagues in Sweden or wherever it may be. “But not all players do want to go abroad and you look there’s plenty of examples like Cortnee Vine or someone who’s achieving great success in the national team but loves playing at home and there’s going to be more players like that and on the flip side, there’ll be players that would love to come home and play if the league was set up in a way that accommodated for that. “So I think not only is it beneficial to the current players, but it’s in terms of providing the best possible pathway to girls achieving everything they can we need to offer that.”
How has your time playing in Australia differed from playing overseas? “Pretty mixed, to be honest. “South Korea was my first experience overseas and that was tough to put it lightly, but an incredible experience. Culturally, very different. The whole team lived together, ate every meal together, went on a bus to every training together. Would that work here? No, of course it wouldn’t. But that worked for them and I played for a team that won seven straight championships. So being exposed to their starting lineup, which was basically the whole South Korean national team… it was a pretty incredible experience because it targeted areas of my game that I’d never been exposed to.I think that was an eye opening experience, but a great one. “France again, very different. I think their gap from top to bottom in terms of resourcing and clubs… it’s a pretty big gap and I think that’s something we don’t give ourselves enough credit for here, is that the gap is much more than what it is in some leagues like that and it’s easy to look at the likes of PSG and Lyon and assume that the whole league is like that, but it’s not and for me my move there was challenging in a different way just because I was so used to at the time, the resourcing of Melbourne City and it was a rude shock to get something that felt less than NPL [level] when I got there. But at the same time, they were all great experiences because you always take something different from them. “Sweden being my most recent one, I love Sweden and I think again, their gap is smaller from top to bottom and they do what they can resource wise but again, it showed me that we need to give ourselves more credit because we’re not far off the mark because they’re a highly regarded league. “Yes, they’ve got incredible players, but our bottom end of resourcing is still pretty good compared to countries like that, who are sitting in top tier leagues. So I think for me, every experience I’ve had overseas when I’ve come back to Australia has made me appreciate what we do well, and I think a lot of credit has to go to the likes of the PFA because what they’ve fought for our league here is huge and it’s it’s not like that everywhere. So what we do have here is something to be celebrated and that’s why we have to continue to grow.” The PFA – tell us about the impact they’ve had on your career? “The PFA have been a huge part of my career and I think I can speak on behalf of almost every player in saying that their contribution to what we have now has been immense. “They do a lot of hard yards that people don’t see and people forget the CBA is in place because of them and the minimum standards that we have raised and now experienced because of fighting on their behalf and what they’ve done. “So for me, I put a lot of what we have down to them and I’ve seen firsthand how hard those people work and I’m grateful that I experienced actually working at the PFA because it showed me just how how hard they work for us to have what we do, and without them, we don’t continue to grow and that’s why you see a lot of leagues overseas stagnate or deal with greater difficulties than what we have. “Because we do have the benefit of knowing that we’ve got them in our corner and we’re fortunate that we can lean on them whenever we need because not all of the player unions are like that overseas.” How have you found your various roles with the PFA – both as a player delegate and also as a staff member? “[It] was really interesting. I think that was the first time that I was exposed to the work that was done behind the scenes. “I think a lot of the time as a play. You just see the outcomes rather than the process to actually achieving them. So being a delegate was a great eye opener an opportunity to and just to contribute to the decision making and direction of the league and I think it’s a really important role, making sure that we have the players involved in decision making and again, it’s something that PFA do really well is making sure players are always at the forefront of decisions and guiding where we’re heading and then being on the other side when I did work at the PFA it was yeah, it was a really interesting role. “It wasn’t a player facing role. I was doing mainly events and partnerships. But it was just interesting to see the opposite side and how the day to day runnings do happen because it’s easy to just assume that the outcome was an easy box tick, but often in football, and I’m sure in sport in general, it’s pretty tough to get those things across the line. “So even though my role wasn’t specifically working on those things, it was really great to have a deeper appreciation for what’s done.” What about your full time role now? What did you learn from just working within the PFA to help you adjust to this position? “Definitely. If I hadn’t had that role, it would have been a really difficult adjustment for me. “Working in an office… for footballers, it’s a big change. Sitting in front of a screen and dealing with corporate workers it’s a very different world and so, my exposure at the PFA especially with the partnership side of things and dealing in a more formal way and just understanding how to communicate differently with different stakeholders really guided me in this new role. “While the roles are very different, it’s definitely the skills are transferable and I’m very grateful that I was able to bring that across with me.” What are the biggest challenges for Australian women’s players in football? How have they differed from when you started, to where they are now? “I think the short answer is it’s [the challenges have] definitely changed and I think a big one was and this is not league specific, but I think it was a turning point in terms of football in Australia was when we went on strike with the Matildas, and that was a tough period to be and a tough call to make. “I was a young player and I was worried that if I stood by that, that I would put my position in the team at risk, but I’ve always been a firm believer that if you stand for something, you’ve got to stand strong. And that was a decision I made and I’m glad I stood by the girls through that because I think it was a pivotal turning point, not just for the national team, but also the direction of the league and when I look back to when I first started, in camps and in the league for that matter, there was no guaranteed pay. “You kind of just did it because you loved it and I think we still throw that around saying we do it because we love it. But we do that now, but we also get remunerated for what we do. And I think now it’s we talk about it as employment rather than just having a kick around and that’s kind of what it felt like initially in the league 13 to 15 years ago. It was everyone came in after work after school, you’d train at six o’clock at night because no one could train in the morning because you couldn’t take time off work and it was you travel in and out on game day. “We even flew to Perth the morning of the game, so that was kind of what we were dealing with, like it was underfunded, under resourced, but at the same time, that was at the time, the best we could do. “Even facilities like I remember playing on some just mud paddocks like it was just crazy. It was artificial. There was really no measure of standards and you’ll look at now where we’ve come to it’s just completely changed and that takes a lot of hard work and a lot of people have had to contribute to getting the league and the national teams to where they are now. So I think for me just seeing that evolution and being part of key moments like the strike has been a really important part of my career.”
What about the future of women’s football in Australia? Where does it go from here? “The exciting thing is we’ve now set the new benchmark… I don’t think you can ever go backwards with change like this and the success of the Matildas has helped show everyone why we need this growth and honestly, just how good we really are. “I think for a long time, people didn’t fully buy into the quality of what we have here and what we’re capable of achieving and I think that achievement just for even the community more broadly and in terms of having a backing for progressing things moving forward, has positioned us really well. I think there’s always been worry that if we over invest that there won’t be a return but when if the return is winning a World Cup, I think it’s pretty worthwhile.” Any final message or shoutouts? “One thing that I will actually shout out and that I will forever be grateful for was a personal experience of mine when I was in France. “I had a pretty tough time without diving too deep into the details of it. I really needed to get out. I had an injury and I wasn’t being medically looked after appropriately and I’d signed a two year contract. “They weren’t willing to mutually terminate at the time, even though they weren’t meeting my medical needs and it was at the peak of COVID where the next flight out at the time was three months after I was wanting to leave. So I was monitoring flights every single day and just trying to work out how the hell I could honestly get out of there and just rehab because I had no support at all. “I had a stress fracture in my leg. I wasn’t even given crutches, no painkillers, nothing just dropped back at my apartment and basically left there and it was a rock bottom moment for me and I knew that to leave I had to get the mutual termination. “But then once I got back, I had a lot of issues and unresolved financial problems with the club and what the PFA did to help me with that was something that I will never forget and I think and [PFA Head of Legal] Ange (Collins) deserves a lot of credit for what she does. “I don’t know many leagues in the world that have players able to just lean on the you know, the legal abilities of someone like her and that yeah, that for me again was another reason why I value the PFA. “I’ve personally experienced what they can do and without her and at the time, the other members of the legal team, I wouldn’t have been able to resolve that alone. So I think it’s stories like that and there’s plenty of players that have stories of where the PFA who personally helped them. But this is why we all have to buy into supporting what they’re doing as well because without player commitment and buy in, they can’t get across the line, what we need. “So it’s an interesting cycle in that sense that we have to support them, for them to support us but it’s so important and I think a lot of players wait for a personal experience to understand why it’s necessary, but I think most people can speak to a teammate and hear a firsthand story to understand why it’s so necessary.”