Ellie Carpenter is one of the brightest sporting prospects in Australia.
Watching her play it’s easy to forget she just celebrated her 16th birthday. Her finesse, natural ability and confidence on the ball, like many of Australia’s best female footballers, far exceeds her years.
Much has been written since her debut. It’s the quintessential good news story; ‘Kid from the country makes it in the big smoke.’
But as with many sports stars originating from the country, her emergence is no coincidence.
Just pure graft by the “unit” as Ellie’s mum Belinda affectionately calls them. And ultimately it required a move from Cowra to Sydney.
But it’s paid off with the football careers of both Ellie and her brother Jeremy flourishing.
For Jeremy, football took him from Cowra to Japan and to Portugal to ply his trade improving both technical ability and football discipline.
For Ellie, after finally cracking the NSW PSSA team, her emergence continued with selection for the Australian Under 17’s and then the Under 20’s in the Asian Qualifiers in Malaysia, Vietnam and China.
Then came the call from Norm Boardman and Ellie’s debut W-League season with the Western Sydney Wanderers.
Ellie’s biggest supporter, number one fan and arguably the greatest reason for her continued success, Belinda made the trip to Japan to surprise her daughter as she realised one of her biggest dreams; debuting for the Matildas.
When I ask Belinda how she felt, standing at the summit of countless hours, kilometres, sacrifice, tears and good times watching her daughter take the field she simply tells me, “I was thinking, do your thing.”
Setting the foundations
Products of two PE teachers, Ellie and Jeremy were exposed to a smorgasbord of sports, excelling at pretty much everything they turned to. There was "never any chance they were going to be indoor children," Belinda laughs.
Like many young female footballers Ellie was exposed to brash football realities early on when she was forced to learn that in a male dominated game, success is not always celebrated.
“When she was eight Ellie was part of an Under 8’s girls’ team who dominated the Cowra competition causing complaints to be made about elitist attitudes and unfairness. The actual key to this girls’ team being able to mix it with the boys was the amount of time that was invested in them.”
“They were a cohesive group, they had matching ribbons and socks and new jerseys. They trained three times a week because they wanted to succeed, it was a mentality and a culture that was being introduced at a young age.”
“After it was decided that the Under 8’s team would not be able to continue together, we decided to take Ellie and Jeremy outside of the town to play."
And there began the kilometres and kilometres and years of round trips.
They traveled to Young three times per week to train with a Football NSW development squad, a 140km round trip.
As their love for the game grew so did their desire to become more proficient. Researching for more technical coaching we found Coerver coaching in Canberra.
“Whilst continuing to train in Young and play for Lachlan Lions we also travelled to Canberra two nights per week as well as one weekend day to participate in the Coerver program. This was a 400km round trip that would see us leave Cowra at 4pm to be in Canberra by 6pm. The kids would train there, eat dinner and do homework in the car and be back in Cowra by around 11pm. They did this for just over two years.”
At this point some quick math brings the Carpenters odometer to 1,620km per week and that’s before you factor in representative games on their one not-so-free day of the week between Parkes, Dubbo, Orange and Bathurst.
While Belinda assures me traveling and being patient had become the Carpenters norm the strain of football commitments would take an even bigger toll once Jeremy and Ellie were selected to play for the Western NSW Football P22 squads in Sydney. As the only girl in a trial of 70 boys the 7 hour round trips were well worth the exposure to next level competition and coaching proving pivotal to their football development.
After an entire year of commuting between home in Cowra and opportunity in Sydney, Jeremy was selected for a spot at Westfields Sports High and as she had always done, against the male dominated grain, Ellie worked hard to follow in her brother’s footsteps.
“When Jeremy relocated to Sydney, Ellie was fortunate enough to be included in the Met West boy’s squad. They were the most inclusive group of parents and players supporting the girl from the country and treating her so unbelievably well. She loved the challenge and worked hard under the eye of Tim Wilson.”
“By then Westfields Sport High had encouraged Ellie to trial for a spot in their primary program in partnership with King Park primary school.
"When we accepted Ellie left her friends, her home and her father to pursue excellence in football.”
Ellie and Jeremy struggled with the transition from big fish in a little pond to little fish in an ocean. “They used it to drive them”, this is Belinda personified, taking something scary, something difficult and turning it into a motivator.
“They started with things like trying to win the school cross country and be competitive in athletics. To come down here and try to mix it in such a strong region as Sydney South West was a test. I told them eventually you’ll get to the top of that pool if you persevere.”
The reality of making such a drastic sacrifice to give your children every chance at the life they work so hard for took a much deeper toll on Belinda, “The hardest thing for me was losing my identity. I resigned from my job, left behind my day to day friends and family, then separation and the end of my marriage.”
“We were naïve. We had coached and volunteered at every school in the town and thought that people coached for the same reasons as us. We realised quickly that people weren’t all in it for the same reasons, which came as a shock. We had to learn to become more resilient, none of us were made like this.”
I find it hard to believe as she adds, “we’re not as nice as we used to be!”
No Plan B
For Ellie and Jeremy there is no Plan B. To have one is an excuse.
"We have chosen to sacrifice a social life, certain relationships and friendships and also financial security for Ellie and Jeremy to be the best they can be in the sport of football. Right or wrong this is what it is," Belinda said.
"They have learned that unfairness and disappointment are reality. They’ve learned that to achieve at a high level you have to be respectful enough to listen and learn but not respectful enough to step aside.”
“You have to be determined but at the same time be grateful for the chances you are given. You need talent, work ethic and opportunity to make it and it takes a team of great people to help. From the medical team, to the coaches, to the sponsors, to the supporters, to the few advisers that we trust.”
Speaking about how far Ellie has come in so little time we both agree that a common description of Ellie is being ‘mature beyond her years’. That maturity is not too far separated from the formula to Ellie’s success; understanding and accepting realities.
Belinda tells me Ellie’s greatest reward from the game is meeting young girls with big dreams, a tremendous canvas for future Matildas and a testament to the wonderful person Ellie is becoming
“You get out what you put in. You cannot have a victim mentality. If something isn’t working then it is up to us to change direction. No one owes us anything. Just because you work hard doesn’t mean you’re entitled to it," Belinda said.
Ellie's love for the game - and Belinda's - her hunger to break barriers, unbridled enthusiasm and invaluable spirit is a catalyst for the growth of women’s football.
And more earned moments.