Wendy Sharpe owns a small handful of New Zealand playing shirts that represent a Football Ferns career spanning 16 years.
It’s not like she’s given away any of the uniform she wore in her 53 appearances.
“In those days, we had to give a lot of the shirts back afterwards,” she says. “And some of those games we played in the men’s kit.”
But at home in Katikati, Sharpe has the shirt she wore as a naïve 16-year-old in her debut against Australia in 1980. She had to return the kit she wore in her last game, also against the Matildas, in 1995.
She also has a blazer, a goblet and a cap presented to her on playing 50 games for New Zealand – becoming the second Football Fern, behind her friend and team-mate Maureen Jacobson, to reach the milestone.
But there’s a bit of contention around just how many caps Sharpe has to her name. Records show she made 53 appearances for her country, but around the turn of the millennium, six of those games were taken from her tally of internationals because they weren’t official FIFA-sanctioned games.
Other Football Ferns playing at that time also had alterations to their cap tallies (some of those games were against Taiwan B and Hawaii).
“I’m still not happy about it,” Sharpe says.
“I know I earned 50 caps – our games were few and far between, so it took me 16 years to get them, where it would take four years today. So they can’t deny me that honour.
“Officially it’s documented these caps have been taken off us. But I’m not accepting that. I played these games and they are still on my personal tally.”
Sharpe admits she had to battle to earn those caps, too.
She was an absolute scoring weapon for the Football Ferns – and still holds records almost 30 years after her last international. Her swag of 34 international goals stood as the highest by a New Zealand woman until 2012, when it was surpassed by Amber Hearn (who scored 54 times in 125 games).
Sharpe still holds the best scoring rate for a Football Fern (with over 10 caps) at 0.7 goals a game.
But she admits she was never a very skilled or technical footballer – growing up playing rugby in all-boys teams before she was introduced to soccer at 15.
“I wasn’t gifted with really good football skills, so I had to fight hard to keep my place in the team. I was raw, I had a big ticker, I’d run all day, and I’d score goals,” she says.
A double international – she also played touch for New Zealand – Sharpe was a trailblazer in another sense.
She was unknowingly pregnant with her first child when she scored eight goals to help New Zealand win the Oceania Women’s Nations Cup, and qualify for the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991.
It meant she missed being part of that World Cup, but quickly returned to her best – playing in the national tournament three months after daughter Chanelle was born.
“I was still breastfeeding, so Mum came to the games as my nanny, and I’d come off at halftime, top the baby up and run back on again. All the players accepted that’s what I had to do, and it was fine,” Sharpe recalls.
“I got the New Zealand player’s player of the year that year. Chanelle was six months old when I took her to the awards night in Wellington.”
In 1994, Sharpe was a single mum of two girls under two – and still playing international football. “Brittany was nine months old when I stopped breastfeeding so I could tour India,” she says. Her parents were a huge help.
“I think I was one of the first Football Ferns to play with virtually new-born babies. I don’t think you could do it today with football at international level,” Sharpe says. “Players are still at their peak of their careers overseas in their 30s. They’re making a living out of it – we weren’t paid to play back then.”
Today, the roles have been reversed.
Sharpe is now on the sideline, helping to coach Chanelle and the Waihi women’s football team. She’s been coaching Chanelle’s kids – Blake (10) and eight-year-old twins Ivy and Ella – since they were pre-schoolers.
She usually works weekends in her job at the Radius Lexham Park rest home in Katikati, but she’d swap out her Saturdays in winter to watch or coach from the sidelines. “I did it because of my love of football,” she says. “It’s all voluntary.”
But this year Sharpe, turning 60 next month, has decided to tour the world again. “I got my first trip overseas in 1980 and then it was all I wanted to do – play for my country and see the rest of the world,” she says.
She’ll be home when the FIFA World Cup is played here in July and August, but she’s not certain she’ll be at the games. But if she goes, she’ll wear a new Football Ferns jersey – organised by former Ferns Wendi Henderson and Kim Nye – with her unique number on the back. Football Fern #25.
As a girl growing up in the Auckland suburb of Penrose, Sharpe first ran with an oval ball.
“I played rugby for Mt Wellington boys and I think I was the first girl registered in New Zealand to play rugby,” she says.
“Dad was a league man. And I was a real tomboy, blessed to be above average at every sport I played.”
While league clubs turned her away, the Mt Wellington Rugby Club welcomed her. “I won trophies in my first two years,” she says. “I was blessed with pace and good reflexes. And I had no fear.”
At 12, her rugby career came to an end. “The boys were getting really big and I wasn’t allowed in the changing sheds,” Sharpe says. “My primary teacher told me it was time I started wearing dresses and playing a girls’ sport, so I took up netball.”
Then in her first year at Penrose High School, her form teacher Sally Robbins – who played football for Ellerslie – recognised her potential and invited her to play for the school’s football team.
The late Eric Pritchard, a huge supporter of the women’s game, saw Sharpe play – “in sandshoes” – and invited her to join his Mt Wellington women’s team.
A defiant but shy 15-year-old, Sharpe had to be dragged to the club by her dad – “I turned up in bare feet and jeans” – and was convinced to play for the team. That was 1979; the following year, she was playing for New Zealand.
Before she’d even turned out for Auckland (she’d go on to play 90 games and score 113 goals), Sharpe was selected to play against Australia in a three-match series.
She came on as a sub in the first game but was in the starting line-up in the second – and scored her first international goal in a 1-1 draw with the Matildas. “That opened the doors in my career,” she says.
There was one “horrid year” in her career – 1987, when her sister Trudi was killed in a car accident. Sharpe was devastated.
“I didn’t train, I put on weight, I didn’t take football seriously,” she says.
But the New Zealand team manager, Roy Cox, gave Sharpe time and space to grieve, and Cox’s wife, Barbara, captain of the Football Ferns, was like “a second mum” to her.
“I was a fiery kid and they helped me channel my aggression in the right way. They helped mould me into the person I am today,” she says. “I’ve definitely mellowed.”
Sharpe returned to play at the 1987 women’s world invitational tournament in Taiwan (a precursor to World Cups), and played a huge role in New Zealand’s 1-0 victory over the United States – still the Ferns only win over the football giants.
The US side included football legends Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers. The Ferns also beat Australia and Canada to finish second overall.
Sharpe remembers the racket playing in front of 35,000-strong Taiwanese crowds: “It was scary, especially when you met the home team.”
Around that time Sharpe also represented New Zealand in touch – playing in the national mixed team from 1988 to 1991, and also selected in the world mixed team after a tournament in Australia.
“My rugby skills came out on the touch field,” she says. “I loved the pace of it, and the mixed game was more competitive for me.”
For a few years, she was able to play both sports until their seasons overlapped. “My football tours were covered then, but I had to pay my own way with touch,” she says.
In Sydney in 1991, Sharpe scored the goal in a 1-0 victory over Australia at the Nations Cup, which ultimately sealed New Zealand’s spot at the first World Cup in China (where they finished 11th).
She’s watched the current crop of Football Ferns struggling in recent games to post a win or get the ball in the back of the net. She feels for the team.
“It’s a very different game today to my era. No one misses goals on purpose, and there’s a lot of pressure on these players who are really scrutinised now,” she says.
“You either have the instinct to score, or you haven’t. We lived on risk and instinct, making something out of nothing; we played a more physical game. The players now are more technically advanced, and so focused on structure and shape. A few games I’ve watched them they were too possession-based.”
Soon after she played her 50th football game in the New Zealand shirt, Sharpe tore her ACL in a club game for the Waihi women, ending her career.
She’s now waiting for a knee replacement. “But I still kick a ball around with the kids in the backyard, and I get out there with my boots on at trainings and show them what I expect of them,” she says.
She’s passing on her coaching knowledge to others, like the Waihi women’s team. “I’m teaching their coach now on how I run sessions,” she says. Last season she ran a Girls and Women’s event in Katikati, and she takes a select group of kids for indoor football.
She loves her work as a healthcare assistant at the rest home, working with stroke and palliative care patients.
During her football career, she had many different jobs – working at a biscuit factory when she left school at 15, then on the factory floor of a manufacturing company: “I liked the physical work”. Working for a pharmaceutical company, she got to travel with the Football Ferns on full pay – and it was the same when she worked for a company installing fire sprinklers.
A cancer scare took her off the tools, and she became a courier driver. That’s when she found out she was pregnant with Chanelle. Sharpe has three children and three grandchildren.
She’s unsure whether she will be at the World Cup games in July and August. Past Football Ferns have been offered free tickets to New Zealand’s pool games against the Philippines in Wellington, and Switzerland in Dunedin.
But she’d like to take her daughters and granddaughters to the opening game of the tournament, when the Football Ferns take on Norway on July 20 at Eden Park: “I want to sit in the stands with them, and soak it all in.”