Karen Menzies: "I cried the first time I went on the field and I had that Australian shirt on"

For Karen Menzies it wasn’t about being first; although she was the first Indigenous woman to represent Australia in an “A” international.

It wasn’t about being a pioneer; although at cap no. 30 she is one of the earliest Westfield Matildas. 

For the Novocastrian, it was about the football. 

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“For me, I was always drawn to playing football,” Menzies told matildas.com.au.  “I fell completely, absolutely and utterly in love.”

I fell in love with everything about the sport; the competition, everything about being part of the team and being in a group where everybody's whole focus was the same goal.” 

When you hear Menzies’ story what stands out is the determination, love, loss and continual re-invention. 

The loss started early.  Before she was even a year old Menzies was taken from her Aboriginal mother and placed into foster care under the Assimilation Policy. 

“[My] Anglo Scottish parents were wonderful people and had a great childhood,” she said.  However, things went a bit pear shaped when I was 13 and I was transferred to an institution in Newcastle.”

Menzies had always been entranced by football, playing socially in primary school and in her backyard, and on the very day of arriving at the group home, it was football that was familiar again in a strange new world.

“When they rattled off soccer as one of the sports girls could play, I just lit up,” she remembered.   “Within a couple of hours, I was at an U13s soccer field.” 

I didn't even know whose clothes I had or whose soccer boots I had, because I know I arrived in the institution with pretty much nothing, but being out on the field was all that mattered.”

“There's no question that soccer, football became a saviour for me.  Even though I was in an institution that was fairly low-key institution, and the houseparents were completely friendly, warm, supportive and understanding. But I was still in an institution and it was still a very different environment than where I'd grown up with.”

Karen Menzies as a young footballer
Karen Menzies as a young footballer (Photo: Supplied)

A natural athlete who had also enjoyed playing cricket, water polo and touch football, with one of the houseparents as her club football coach, Menzies athletic ability was soon nurtured and developed to be something more. 

By the following year, the spritely teen was representing Northern NSW in the open age team as a 14-year-old, alongside a player who would become a long-time friend and fellow national team player, Renaye Iserief. 

Menzies would go on to represent Northern NSW for the next 15 years and towards the end would eventually captain the team to a national title.    

The national championships meant not only an opportunity to challenge herself against the best players in the country, but also to be under the close scrutiny of the national selectors. 

For a wide-eyed player in just her second year of competitive football, the championships were an entry to a world that she had never seen before.  A glimpse at players who would become legendary names in Australian women’s football and eventually her teammates. 

As skilful as she was on the ball, Menzies was equally skilled in her thinking.  Enamoured with the intellectual side of football, the tactics and the chess match that occurred over 90 minutes, she became a real student of the game.

“I know it's often referred to as a beautiful game. It’s requires a level of skill and knowledge that means that you are always learning, it’s never boring.”

One of my strengths was the ability to read the game.  Learning to understand and anticipate, it gives it a whole other dimension; a whole other feel about what you're doing.”

“I was lucky enough to be able to read the game.  Maybe, not always lucky enough to respond as quickly as I needed to stop what I knew was going to happen,” she laughed. 

Those talents were finally recognised seven years after her first national championships with selection to the Australian national team coming in 1983. 

Karen Menzies with the national team
Karen Menzies with the national team (Photo: Supplied)

Although a seasoned player at 21, when she received her first Australian jersey, Menzies reverted to the awestruck 14-year-old at her first national titles. 

“I cried the first time I went on the field and I had that Australian shirt on,” she remembered.  “I was looking down at the Australian crest and thinking, ‘oh my goodness, I'm here’.”

That wasn't the first time that I ever cried when I played for Australia.  It was probably on average every time, or at least every second time.” 

Menzies would play for the national team seven times from 1983 – 1989 and while there aren’t as many images or videos of her time playing, the midfielder would go on to leave an indelible mark on Australian women’s football as an equally talented coach. 

In a familiar tale in women’s football, knee injuries would cut her playing career short but in her late 20s, the Novocastrian found a love for coaching.  

As she returned to the game on the sidelines, Menzies would go on to nurture the early talents of FFA Hall of Famers Cheryl Salisbury, Sunni Hughes, Alison Forman and another Indigenous player, Bridgette Starr. 

Today the unwitting pioneer is proud to see other Indigenous women follow in her footsteps in the senior and youth national teams.  Players like Lydia Williams, Kyah Simon, Gemma Simon, Jada Whyman, Shay Evans, Kaylene Janssen and Starr. 

Williams and Simon
Lydia Williams and Kyah Simon (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Proud to see all Indigenous women’s teams like the NT Yapas taking part in the Darwin Women’s Premier League for the first time.  For Menzies, Indigenous representation in the national teams is more than just about football. 

I think it's about recognising the worth of Indigenous people. First and foremost, that's absolutely essential.”

“It's really important that our nation values Indigenous people.” 

Karen Menzies is currently an academic at the University of Newcastle and has just completed her PhD in the field of child protection, with her efforts aimed at shaping brighter futures for children.  The world has changed significantly since she once played and, so has football.  

I didn’t, in a million years, think women’s football would be as popular or that it would get to this point and have such a following.”

“Pre-COVID, I would see 5 and 6-year-old girls on Saturday mornings, at local shopping centre, with their football boots still on because they've just played a game.”

“I know for me I would have killed for that to happen when I was that age; to be able to be that free.  It's just brilliant that that's the case.” 

While Karen Menzies’ football career seems a lifetime ago, and she jokes that she is “old enough to be Ellie Carpenter’s grandmother”, her mark on women’s football is still very much present today.