Lydia Williams' football story brought to life in children's book Saved!!!

Lydia Williams' unique childhood inspired her to write a children's book about a girl who lives in the outback and discovers a love for football. Picture: Nicole Cleary
Lydia Williams' unique childhood inspired her to write a children's book about a girl who lives in the outback and discovers a love for football. Picture: Nicole Cleary

Lydia Williams' heart sank when her family packed their life into a car and drove 3000 kilometres to Canberra.

She waved goodbye to the motorbikes, the hunting, her Australian football passion, her pet kangaroos and the red dirt of the Western Australia outback.

The shy 11-year-old girl from Kalgoorlie was moving to the big city to start a new life with her mum and dad.

The last thing she expected was to be saved by soccer, especially because she'd never played and her dad couldn't find the field for her debut game with the Tuggeranong Rosellas.

But soccer became her escape. A chance to forget about the life and friends she left behind and an opportunity to start fresh again.

It also became her passion. The sport that would propel her towards four World Cups, 81 games for the Matildas, 11 years in the W-League, contracts overseas. Now she's sharing her journey in a children's book, appropriately titled Saved!!!

"It was the worst thing in the world because I didn't know anyone," Williams said.

"Mum got a job in Canberra working at a bible college so we packed up and drove all the way across Australia.

"She joined me up in a couple of sporting teams so I could make friends. I found more of a pathway through soccer so I kind of stuck with that."

Lydia Williams' children's book Saved!!! is illustrated by Lucinda Gifford.

Lydia Williams' children's book Saved!!! is illustrated by Lucinda Gifford.

But there was a catch - goalkeeper was the only position left on the division one team.

"I didn't mind it because I grew up playing AFL which involves kicking and catching," Williams said.

"As it went on I thought 'Why aren't I rotating?' but I fell in love with it after a while.

"I was quite shy growing up so it encouraged me to be more outgoing and make friends."

Her unique childhood inspired her to write a semi-autobiographic book about a little girl called Lydia, who lives in the outback and discovers a love for football.

It's only fitting Saved!!! was released a week before the Kanga Cup, the annual tournament where she saved her first-ever penalty and kick-started her goalkeeping dream.

"My story and background is quite unique so a children's book is the perfect vessel to get it out there," Williams said.

"It's a bit of an autobiography, a little bit of fantasy and has a good message as well. It has a unique take on it to go out in the world.

"There hasn't been many female children's books written by females so that's also exciting.

"It encourages kids that no matter what their background is or what challenges are in their way, they can have fun and actually achieve something they enjoy if put their mind to it."

Williams spent her childhood running wild through the Western Australian outback. Her parents worked as missionaries with Indigenous communities in remote regions across the Gibson desert.

Eleven months of the year she'd live in Kalgoorlie and go to school like any other child. But the last month was spent travelling and living out of a camper trailer in the middle of the desert.

Matildas goalkeeper Lydia Williams grew up with two pet kangaroos. Picture: Supplied

Matildas goalkeeper Lydia Williams grew up with two pet kangaroos. Picture: Supplied

Her father, who was an Indigenous tribal elder, taught her how to hunt, camp and live off the land. He also passed on his love of Australian Rules Football, which she played barefoot with other Indigenous children on the scorching red earth.

But the demands of missionary work prevented Lydia from making long-term friendships on the road. So naturally, she raised two pet kangaroos instead.

Not only does Saved!!! resemble Williams' sporting journey but also her love of native Australian animals.

Little Lydia plays various sports with an emu, koala and kangaroo before finding her talent for goalkeeping.

"Saved!!! had to come out in a creative way," Williams said.

"It's similar to how I grew up, I don't have siblings but I had a lot of pets and loved meeting new dogs. For me it was the perfect scenario and vessel to share instead of having humans."

Williams has gone from playing sport in the desert like little Lydia, to pulling on the Matildas jersey at her fourth World Cup.

It encourages kids that no matter what their background is or what challenges are in their way, they can have fun and achieve something they enjoy if put their mind to it.

Lydia Williams

She never dreamed of representing her country until she saw Cathy Freeman tribute the Indigenous flag at the Sydney Olympic Games.

"I realised Australian women had an outlet for representing their country, especially Indigenous women too," Williams said.

"That was kind of the big light-bulb moment when I thought 'oh wow, this is cool' and wanted to do that as well."

Williams became a member of the Young Matildas four years later and made her debut in the senior national team at just 17-years-old.

Even then, Williams couldn't comprehend the significance of representing Australia. She was just taking it one step at a time.

"I never really set out to make the national team for Australia," Williams admitted.

"I just wanted to be the best I could be and have fun along the way. Growing up I was a bit naive, [making the national team] wasn't overwhelming at all because it was just something new.

"It wasn't until the first tour with the Young Matildas and getting my first cap that it became a big deal and something I wanted to continue with.

"I realised how big of a deal it was to represent your country and it's not just playing for fun anymore."

RELATED CONTENT:

Women's football in Australia has evolved enormously since Williams made her international debut 14 years ago.

With the likes of Sam Kerr, Lisa de Vanna and Clare Polkinghorne as teammates, the goalkeeper has witnessed the rise of the golden generation of Matildas.

They've truly captured the heart of the nation and more than half-a-million viewers tuned in to watch their World Cup opener against Italy last month.

Williams believes the Matildas' willingness to share experiences with the public has made them an accessible team for Australia to support.

"It's incredible. Everyone in the national team isn't shy of opening up and sharing their experience with the public, Williams said.

"We're relatable as a team but in general, women's sport is going amazing in Australia with AFL, the Big Bash, netball and now rugby.

"Australia is a sporting nation and it's nice that women have an opportunity to compete in the sport they love and not just the ones that are available to them."

Williams never imagined she'd pull on the gloves at her fourth World Cup, let alone become Australia's first-choice goalkeeper.

I realised how big of a deal it was to represent your country and it's not just playing for fun anymore.

Lydia Williams

The 31-year-old is considered one of the greatest shot-stoppers in the world and has no intentions of slowing down despite a history of severe injuries.

The goalkeeper's career nearly came to an abrupt end five years ago after she tore her anterior cruciate ligament for the second time while playing in the United States. She underwent her second knee reconstruction in two years but managed to return to the Matildas just nine months later.

"I'm happy that I made it, I wouldn't have believed it but I'm still going and healthy as I can be," Williams said.

It's also fitting Saved!!! has been released ahead of NAIDOC week as Williams strives to champion the Indigenous community on and off the field.

"I'd like to think and hope that I'm a role model for the Indigenous community," Williams said.

"It wasn't very common when I was growing up but now a lot of people know I'm Indigenous."

Williams believes the recognition and celebration of Australian Indigenous people is the first step towards "creating a wonderful nation".

This year's NAIDOC theme 'Voice. Treaty. Truth. Let's work together for a shared future' acknowledges the need for an enhance role in decision-making for Indigenous people in Australian democracy.

It's also dedicated to celebrating the culture and achievements of Indigenous people throughout Australia.

"There's a lot of talent and pride with Aboriginal people and culture," Williams said.

"Having a week to celebrate that is amazing and hopefully it inspires more Indigenous people to get out there and strive to do something they love or achieve what they can. I'm just so proud to be a part of it."

Which is exactly what Saved!!! strives to achieve.

Williams wants to inspire Indigenous children to dream big, chase their goals and grow confidence, and what better way to do that than a children's book?

Just like Williams' dream of representing Australia was sparked by Freeman, she hopes Indigenous children can identify with little Lydia playing football under the scorching summer sun.

"There's a lot of talent within Indigenous people in sport," Williams said.

"Just look at AFL and rugby, how many Indigenous talents are there who have the x-factor?

"The more it gets celebrated then the more Indigenous people get out there playing. You never know, you could find your next Lydia Williams or Adam Goodes out there."

Williams is back in the United States playing for Seattle Reign with fellow Matildas Steph Catley and Elise Kellond-Knight in the National Women's Soccer League.

She signed a season long loan with Melbourne City in the W-League last year and is yet to confirm her plans for 2020.

  • Saved!!! by Lydia Williams and illustrated by Lucinda Gifford, is published by Allen & Unwin (RRP $19.99)