Matildas great Cheryl Salisbury collects PFA's Alex Tobin Medal in Newcastle

Australian footballers have paid tribute to the nation’s greatest Matilda, Cheryl Salisbury, two days before the current generation play to a bumper crowd at McDonald Jones Stadium.

Salisbury, who holds the record for Australian caps at 151, received the Alex Tobin Medal at the Professional Footballers Australia Players’ Awards at Merewether Surfhouse on Sunday night. Craig Johnston, Johnny Warren and Mark Viduka are among past recipients of the players' highest honour, which is not awarded every year.

Sam Kerr won the PFA Women’s Footballer of the Year award, Aaron Mooy claimed the men’s gong, and Alex Gersbach and Alex Chidiac earned the equivalent honours for young players.

“I’m very proud to be the first female to win the award and to receive it in my home town with my family and friends with me was a privilege," Salisbury said. “After being out of the sport for close to 10 years, to be recognised by the current generation is a phenomenal thing.”

The centre back will be at Tuesday’s game between the Matlidas and Brazil in Newcastle as the team ride a new wave of popularity after their recent Tournament of Nations triumph. They offered more proof of their rising status by beating Brazil 2-1 in front of 17,000 fans at Penrith on Saturday night.

For Salisbury, it is a bittersweet moment as women’s football receives the kind of support and recognition her generation craved. 

“The Newcastle game is going to be amazing,” she told the Newcastle Herald.

“We’ve got such a good breeding ground. Matildas who went through my era, there was myself, Bridgette Starr, Michelle Prouten, Amber Neilson, Lauren Colthorpe, Katie Gill.

“Newcastle has a big history of women’s football, so to bring it to Newcastle on the back of a sellout in Penrith, I think it’s going to be huge.”

Salisbury played in an era when female stars would get changed on the bus because there were no dressing rooms for women, and her national teammates would tape over worn boots because they had no sponsors. But she is conscious that, despite recent improvements in pay and conditions in Australia and overseas, elite female players are still light years behind their male counterparts. 

“Do I wish I was 16, 17? Absolutely. There’s a lot of challenges along the way to try and play and support yourself. Yes, you can work and play, but you need to find an employer willing to give you five or six months off at the drop of a hat.”

The world No.6 Matildas beat the USA for the first time, Japan and Brazil at the Tournament of Nations.

“Everyone loves a winning team, but I think the girls have started to put those together back-to-back,” Salisbury said.

The modern Matildas had done a “great job” of carrying on the work of promoting the women’s game.

“They’ve proved at the weekend they can sell out a stadium. It just never got really tried before.

“I don’t think people put in enough effort and belief.”