By Jonno Ross
Writer for NZ Football Foundation
She has been to two World Cups for New Zealand, has joined the Wellington Phoenix women’s team, she’s still at high school, and she’s just 17 years old.
Introducing New Zealand football’s wonderkid, Milly Clegg.
It has been a whirlwind of a year for Milly Clegg. She started the year playing football for her Mount Albert Grammar School, and for club side Auckland United in the Lotto NRFL Women’s Premier League.
By December, she had won the Kate Sheppard Cup with Auckland United, been to a FIFA U-20 World Cup, a FIFA U-17 World Cup, finished her high school exams, and moved to Wellington for a contract with the Wellington Phoenix women’s team in the A-League.
Main photo: Milly Clegg celebrates a goal with her New Zealand teammates.
How did all this happen in such a short amount of time? Let’s start from the beginning.
Clegg started playing football at five years old. Because her elder brother played football, they would have kickabouts in the backyard, like many other Kiwi families. Her first club was Ellerslie AFC, where she stayed for six years, and she was good enough to play in the boys’ teams.
Clegg moved to play for Buckland’s Beach for three years. Again, she was capable enough to kick it with the ‘lads’ and turn out for the boys under 17’s team.
Between her club football, Clegg played in the Mount Albert Grammar first XI from year 9 (Form 3).
Reaching high levels of sporting performance should come as no surprise to those who know the Clegg family.
Interview: In this interview (above), Kylie Clegg provides advice for young players.
Milly Clegg: From a family of high sporting achievers
Sport is in her DNA. Clegg’s mother, Kylie Clegg (nee Foy), was a New Zealand international hockey player, who represented her nation at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, where the Black Sticks finished 6th.
So, why didn’t Milly play hockey? It was not for the want of trying.
“Mum actually tried to get me and my older brother into hockey, and we did it for about half a season, but we decided we didn’t like it.
“Mum did not mind that though; she didn’t mind that I wanted to play football, because my uncle (mum’s brother) played football too.”
Clegg’s uncle, Mark Foy, was a former All White. He represented New Zealand at the 1996 Olympic qualifying tournament, where he scored five goals. He went on to get three more caps for New Zealand.
With the right family genes, and a passion for football, it would not be long before her talent was noticed.
At her first secondary schools’ tournament in Napier in 2019, Clegg won the Golden Boot award which caught the attention of New ZealandU-17 coach Leon Birnie.
Birnie invited Clegg to a national training camp, where she did well, and she was selected for the World Cup qualifiers. Due to COVID disruption, the qualifiers were put on hold.
Clegg continued to impress at more national tournaments, such as the Napier U-19 tournaments, and the Western Springs U-17 tournament, where she picked up more awards, including MVP and Golden Boot awards.
In early 2021, Clegg played for her Buckland’s Beach boys’ team in a friendly game against the Future Ferns Development Programme (known as the ‘FFDP’) squad, which was being run by Gemma Lewis, then the Phoenix women’s coach and U-20 national coach. Her assistant was Natalie Lawrence, now the head coach for the Phoenix women.
Having made a name for herself with her tournament performances and awards, Clegg was invited into the FFDP and New Zealand U-17 camp where she continued to impress, and in August 2022, was invited to go on the U-20s tour of Australia.
Now part of the national system, and performing consistently well, Clegg was selected to go to the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Costa Rica. Unfortunately, New Zealand did not make it through their group, losing to Germany, and drawing with Mexico and with Columbia, a 2-2 result in which Clegg scored her first international goal.
A few weeks later, Clegg was at the U-17 World Cup in India. Again, New Zealand struggled, losing all three group games against Chile, Nigeria, and Germany, but the two goals that New Zealand could muster, were scored by Clegg, a player on the rise.
“I would say the biggest goal I have scored, would be in the under 20’s World Cup this year in Costa Rica, where we drew 2-2 against Columbia. I would have to say that would be my favourite goal to date.”
After the U-20 World Cup in Costa Rica, Phoenix coach Natalie Lawrence came calling.
“After the under 20’s World Cup, Natalie and Gemma had a talk with my family and I and discussed how everything was going to work in terms of joining the Phoenix, and I was super keen to join, so at the end of the day it was a pretty easy decision for me to make the decision to move down to Wellington.”
Clegg was now officially a Wellington Phoenix player. Just 17, and in the space of less than 12 months, Clegg had gone from school football and playing for her local club, to being a full age-group international for two different age groups at two different World Cups and had joined a professional franchise in the Wellington Phoenix.
For a ‘normal’ person, that would be a lot to take in but Clegg is focused and taking it all in her stride.
” It’s been a really exciting year, and very crazy. Nothing that I expected at all, and it all happened really quickly. But I’m just taking it day by day at the moment, working hard at every training and keeping a level head. I’m also watching the more experienced players around me and trying to learn off them.”
As well as football, Clegg has had to fit in her schoolwork and end-of-year exams too.
” It’s been quite hard, really. I’ve been so busy this year. I haven’t had too much time to study, which makes it harder, but I’ve just been trying to use my time wisely and study when I can. In terms of my exams, Nat (the coach) has been really good with me. I have had to miss two training sessions because of exams, but she’s been super supportive of that. Thankfully, my exams are now finished, and that feels like a massive weight off my shoulders.”
Clegg’s family have played a big role in her football career, especially benefitting from her mum’s experience in high-level sport.
“She is a great resource to have because she has so much good advice for me. If I ever need help, she has always got the answers because she has been there. She’s been a professional athlete, so she knows the ins and outs.
“My brothers and my dad have also been great resources to have, especially my dad — he played at quite a high level, playing cricket. My brothers have been a great resource to me, just playing in the backyard together, doing shooting drills and one-v-one’s all the time really helped me.”
Clegg is already enjoying her time at the Wellington Phoenix, especially playing beside players a level up on club level.
Asking Clegg who is the best player she’s played alongside, she couldn’t single out a single player, instead, she says:
”I would say all of the Ferns players.”
So what is next for Milly Clegg?
”I just want to keep trying really hard, and I want to take advantage of the amazing opportunity I have at the Phoenix. I want to train hard in every session and get as much gametime as I can. I also want to stay in the mix with New Zealand football and get selected for the under 20’s, but my main goal is to keep training hard and hopefully the rest will follow.”
With the world at her feet, and so much success at an early age, Clegg is a player to follow.
This story has been republished with permission from the NZ Football Foundation’s website >>>>
NZFF and Friends of Football writer Jonno Ross is a former New Zealand U-20 goalkeeper who is the team manager for Mount Albert Ponsonby. He supports the All Whites, the Football Ferns, the Wellington Phoenix and Arsenal.
Learn more about Jonno Ross here >>>>