Hayley Raso is back in Australia for the first time in a long time. “Seventeen months,” she clarifies. Her native country’s strict Covid-19 border restrictions had shut out the rest of the world and the Manchester City winger with it.
Now she is finally ensconced in Sydney, and yet still separated from family, this time courtesy of Queensland’s unbending border closure which stopped them travelling from the Gold Coast to watch the Matildas’ two-match friendly series with the United States. “Only my dad can come,” she says, “because he lives in northern New South Wales.”
So Raso on Saturday made in her first international appearance since the Tokyo 2020 Olympics – a chastening 3-0 loss to the world champions – while her mum, grandma and siblings watched on television in the manner they do the Women’s Super League at silly hours of the southern-hemisphere night.
Just like her return home, the minutes off the bench had been a while coming. If 17 months is a long time in life, two months can feel a lifetime in football. Raso had barely signed for City from Everton when she injured a shoulder, effectively ruling the 27-year-old out for the first portion of the club’s so-far sodden season.
“I’m only just coming back in so it’s been a little bit of a rusty start finding my feet,” she says. “But I’ve done that now.”
She has indeed, to the tune of two goals and an assist in City’s 5-0 rout of Aston Villa before the international window, a result which at least momentarily relieves the pressure on the manager, Gareth Taylor. Even so, last season’s second-placed finish now seems the stuff of fantasy.
“I think he’s a very good coach,” Raso says. “He’s getting the best out of the players and going through a little bit of a rough patch at the moment, but I’m certain that will clear itself up. The win was nice, and I hope we can continue in that direction.”
Raso is not a huge talker; there’s a quiet durability about the Brisbane product which has served her well during more challenging periods.
The big one occurred in 2018 when she fractured three vertebrae while playing for the NWSL side Portland Thorns. Over a long stay in hospital she relearned to walk, then played for Australia at the 2019 World Cup.
Well before that, though, she was the youngest of three siblings brought up by a single mother providing round-the-clock care for her oldest brother. “Jordan is intellectually disabled,” Raso says, adding it can be difficult to keep in touch with him while overseas. “I don’t speak to him that much unless he’s with my dad or my mum.”
Jordan visits family often from the group home he moved into some years ago, though Raso concedes the complications associated with his condition have been tough on him and her whole family.
Her other brother Lachlan, the final piece of the childhood backyard football triumvirate and now a civil engineer, was born with congenital heart disease and in 2015 underwent open-heart surgery. At the time Raso was in the US on contract with Washington Spirit and wanted to come home; Lachlan convinced her to stay so he could watch her play while he recovered.
“The whole concept of the book – and 50% of the profit of the sales are going to HeartKids – that’s for him and for my family,” she says. The “book” is of the children’s variety, an in-vogue project for professional footballers but also one which generally offers nuggets of truth about their subjects. Raso’s is called Hayley’s Ribbon, a story which goes like this: “Football gave Hayley freedom when she could relax and play. She felt her shyness hold her back and wished it would go away.”
And so on and so forth, until nan introduces “the magic of the ribbon”, a shimmering symbol of on-field strength and enlightenment. In real life nan’s name is Patricia, and she matches ribbons to each and every one of Raso’s kits. For the Matildas they are yellow, for City sky blue. The gesture is so simple it practically feels pure.
“I kind of am known for it now and it’s become my trademark,” she says. “I rang my grandma and told her about it and read her some of it. She was crying; it was so sweet.”
Raso, at least on the field, is not so sweet. On the ball she is aggressive, unafraid to take on opponents – as a teenager she lost her front teeth in a head-on collision while playing touch football – and more often than not emerges the victor.
“I’d like to say that I’ve developed since being in the UK as the standard is so high,” she says. “Training week in, week out with some of the best players in the world at City will only help.”
The two-year contract means Raso, who will likely earn her 58th cap against the USA in Newcastle on Tuesday, will continue to play alongside a decent chunk of the England team and her Australia teammate Alanna Kennedy.
“It’s a massive club and a place I want to be,” she says. “I want to be competing for trophies and playing Champions League football … what I like about European football is that you have a proper season and then breaks. When I played in the NWSL and in the W-League I was just going back to back to back and never giving my body a rest.”
Get to know the players in England’s top-flight better with our WSL player in focus series. Read all our interviews here.