Spotlight on Ellie Carpenter

“We need to be building OL around youngsters like Ellie Carpenter. They are our future.”

The above was posted on a thread on @OLFeminin – the official Twitter feed of Olympique Lyonnais’ women’s team towards the end of 2020. It showed how, already after just a handful of games for the side who are generally acknowledged to be one of the top women’s football teams in the world, a 21-year-old defender from the tiny New South Wales town of Cowra, almost 200 miles south-west of Sydney, was absolutely smashing it.

Carpenter has been the jewel in the crown of the next generation of Australian women footballers for a long time now. In fact, it’s a shock that she really is just 21 years old. After all, she made her international debut for the Matildas on 2nd March 2016 at the age of just fifteen against Vietnam in an Olympic Games Qualifier played in Osaka.

Ellie makes no secret of the fact that she dreamed of being a Matilda as a child. “The journey has been crazy!” she told matildas.com.au, “It’s just amazing. The biggest challenge I had was coming into the team at the age of fifteen and needing to mature and get the experience I’ve now had.”

It is that footballing journey and her family’s role in it that she greatly appreciates. Living in such a small town, hours from the major cities meant that big sacrifices had to be made as Ellie’s ability developed. “My family have made a lot of sacrifices for me, moving to Sydney and my mum quitting her job to support me and help me to get to where I am today.” That move came when Carpenter was 12 years old and enabled her to attend Westfields Sports High School.

Ellie then moved in to W-League soccer with Western Sydney Wanderers, aged fifteen with that international debut coming only seven months later. Two years later she transferred to Canberra United where she played twenty-one games and scored five goals – not bad at all for a defender.

In 2018 there was another huge milestone in Carpenter’s career when she moved to the National Women’s Soccer League with Portland Thorns, becoming both the youngest ever player in the competition and the youngest goal scorer. Two years with the Thorns included a loan spell with Melbourne City in last year’s W-League which saw her lift the championship trophy following their 1-0 win over Sydney FC in the Grand Final.

Then came the big move to France. Despite the huge step for one so young, Ellie told matildas.com.au just how positive the experience is being for her: “When the opportunity came about, I thought it was the right time for me to make the move to Europe. I wanted to be out of my comfort zone. I’ve felt uncomfortable here a lot of times already. When you are out of your comfort zone, that’s when you’re pushed and that’s what I wanted to be.”

Life in France is very different from small town Cowra, or even Portland in the USA, but Carpenter is taking it all in her stride: “I’m really loving it. I’m doing everything I can to learn the language and get among the culture. I’m settling into my apartment and training and have got a few games under my belt. I live on the east side of the river in Lyon where lots of the other girls live, so it’s quite central.

“With the language, it’s a massive barrier. In training, it’s all in French so you have to learn quickly. If you miss something, that might be such an important detail, so you really have to be switched on. We have a teacher at the club so I have French lessons three times a week so it’s pretty full-on, but you need it! I can have a conversation here and there and order something at a café which is the most important thing!”

The world class nature of the players that Ellie is surrounded by at Olympique Lyonnais – the likes of Ada Hegerberg, Wendie Renard, Delphine Cascarino, Amel Majri, Saki Kumagai and Dzsenifer Marozsan – is certainly adding to the Australian’s game: “Training is so intense. It’s another level up from what I’m used to. You have to push yourself which is important because you want to win every game. Everyone is so competitive and you can feel that on the pitch. It’s so enjoyable! I’ve learned new things and I know I’ve improved as a player already.”

Talking about her first game for Olympique Lyonnais, a friendly against PSV Eindhoven, the side that fellow Matilda Kyah Simon plays for, Carpenter said: “I didn’t feel nervous, I just played my normal game. I felt like I’d played before (for the team) if that makes sense. It feels like I’ve been playing with them forever.” Her performance that day in setting up England star Nikita Parris for one of Lyon’s four goals that afternoon confirms that she settled in perfectly from the very start.

Carpenter’s fine start with her new club was highlighted by the fact that she was nominated for the French First Division’s player of the month in September – no mean feat in a period she played her first games in the competition. Her first goal came in the third league game of the season, a 2-1 win over Bordeaux.

The Australian star earned some deserved accolades at the end of 2020 when she was voted as Olympique Lyonnais’ best signing of the year and also won the Asian Football Confederation Player of the Year Award.

Later in the season, Ellie stood out in the club’s Champions League campaign and was one of their few positives in Olympique Lyonnais failed attempt for an unprecedented sixth successive title. It was the European campaign that excited her the most: “I remember watching Lyon play in a Champions League Final when I was playing in America and sat there thinking ‘Oh, it would be so sick to play in the Champions League!’ so it’s crazy that it actually happened. It’s so exciting!”

Ben Gilby writes for Beyond90, Australia’s leading independent women’s football platform. Visit beyond90.com.au.

Photo: @TheMatildas