Inaugural assistant Natalie Lawrence is stepping up to take over as head coach of the Wellington Phoenix for the upcoming Liberty A-League season.
Lawrence is replacing Gemma Lewis, who is returning home to Wales to take up an exciting new role.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to take charge of the Phoenix and one that I can’t wait to start,” Lawrence said.
“Having been part of the team last year and seeing them grow, to now be able to bring the team back to New Zealand and play games in Wellington, which I definitely consider to be my Kiwi home, is incredibly exciting.”
Lawrence moved to New Zealand 11 years ago, having started her coaching career in her native England.
“As soon as I got to Wellington in 2011 I was like “I should have been born here, this is definitely my home’.
“Being able to walk out with the team in that first game at Sky Stadium is going to be something special for me personally and all the players involved, whether they were involved last season or not. It’s going to be outrageous.
“The World Cup’s just around the corner, women’s football is buzzing here and around the world and to be part of it at this level of the game in what I consider my home away from home is something you kind of dream of.”
On top of serving as Lewis’ assistant at the Phoenix, Junior Football Ferns and the Future Ferns Domestic Programme (FFDP) over the past two years, Lawrence boasts extensive head coaching experience.
She worked for Capital Football from 2012-2015, coaching Capital in the national women’s league before moving to Vancouver to lead the Whitecaps’ women’s academy programme. Lawrence returned to her home away from home in 2018 when she became the first female head coach of a men’s national league side when she took charge of Team Wellington’s youth team.
“I have been Gemma’s assistant in quite a lot of projects but how we work together is really collaborative.
“We work together so closely on everything and I think that will really help me going into this role, as well as the heading coaching experience I’ve had previously.”
Natalie Lawrence will move to Wellington next week, with her first task to appoint her assistant coach.
“Gemma will be massively missed amongst the staff and the players, and we’ll try and do her proud this season,” Lawrence said. “But we’re really excited for what she’s going to be doing in Wales.”
Gemma Lewis has been appointed the senior pathway manager for women’s football at the Welsh FA, who are also giving Lewis the opportunity to study for her UEFA Pro Licence.
“Being able to work in women’s football in Europe right now is huge and the opportunity to do my pro licence as well is something that was a big pull for me,” Lewis said.
“The cherry on the cake is I get to return home. I’ve been away from Wales for nine years.
“The opportunity to do all that and go home and spend a bit more time with my family all rolled into a package that was too hard to turn down.”
But the former Welsh international will leave New Zealand with a heavy heart.
“As much as I talk about going home, I’ve spent a third of my life in New Zealand. It’s difficult to leave. New Zealand has turned into my second home.
“I would have loved to do a second season with the Phoenix, but the timing didn’t really work out.”
Lewis will still take a keen interest in the team’s progress.
“The team that is being built is one that I’m really excited to watch and see how they get on.
“Nat stepping into the head coaching position is a really good decision. From all of my work with her and seeing how good she is with the players, I’m really excited to watch a season with her in charge and see what stamp she puts on the team.”
Wellington Phoenix general manager David Dome has thanked Lewis for her contribution to the club.
“Gemma will forever be our first women’s head coach,” Dome said.
“She did an incredible job putting a team together at short notice for our inaugural A-League women’s season and ensured they were competitive on the field while playing the entirety of their season in Australia.
“Gemma has a great opportunity to develop further as a coach in Wales and she leaves with our best wishes.”
The Phoenix are convinced Lawrence is the ideal person to take over the reins.
“Nat came across really well when we interviewed her. Her beliefs align with what we want to achieve as a team and a club,” Dome said.
“We have no doubt she can step up into the head coaching role and we look forward to seeing what the team can achieve under her leadership.”
Natalie Lawrence’s first game in charge of the Phoenix will be revealed at a later date, when the draw is announced for the 2022-23 Liberty A-League season.