“The girls didn’t even think I was real,” says Hayley Raso with a laugh when recounting her long-awaited meeting with her Everton teammates. The Australia winger was recruited in January having agreed a six-month deal but her arrival on Merseyside was delayed first by an international camp then by surgery on a broken nose.
Now, though, she is readying herself, alongside the players who had started to doubt she would ever show up, for Everton’s first Wembley cup final on Sundayand their attempt to win the FA Cup for the first time since 2010.
The 26-year-old had landed in the UK in March, only to turn around after four days when the pandemic took hold and the suspension of the Women’s Super League season meant her contract was over before it had begun. It was a strange time, she says, and involved Raso signing a contract extension before she had played a game.
The wait heaped pressure on her debut, a 4-0 defeat of Bristol City, 233 days after she joined the club. “I actually just wanted to get through the game and for it be done because I was feeling a little bit cursed at that point,” she says with a grin. “So just getting that game out of the way was a good feeling , and then I was really looking forward to rolling with the team.”
Her initiation, singing Living on a Prayer, was less anticipated. “I was honestly thinking about it the days before,” she says, cringing. “I didn’t like it at all. I get so embarrassed.”
With the humiliation out of the way, Raso has had an immediate impact in the WSL, scoring twice and recording one assist in Everton’s five games. Her form has mirrored that of her club, who are unbeaten in the league and have won two ties to reach the rescheduled final. Everton had to get past the WSL champions, Chelsea, in the quarter-finals and remain the only team to have defeated them since restart.
There was “no banter” with Chelsea’s Australia striker Sam Kerr, who joined the WSL in the same window. “I think she was a little bit frustrated by it, so I didn’t really say too much to her. She wished wish me luck for the final, which was nice, but it’s always tough after a loss. I can imagine how she felt.”
It has been routine for Australia internationals to share their time between the W-League in Australia and the NWSL in the United States, with the leagues playing back to back. However, Kerr, Raso and Bristol City’s Chloe Logarzo broke the mould in January. Now, every player in the latest Matildas squad plays in Europe, with nine in England.
The pandemic and the uncertainty it has caused in the US played a part but the change was more conscious. “We saw a rise in the European teams and how well they performed at the World Cup,” Raso says. “Us Aussies ended the World Cup sooner than we had imagined. So I guess we were on a similar page in thinking European football was where the game was growing and recognising that if we were to come over here and test ourselves in these environments that we’d develop on a personal level, which would then help benefit our national team.”
On Sunday Everton will again be the underdogs when they play the holders and two-times winners, Manchester City. Raso, who has won the W-League in Australia with Brisbane Roar and Canberra United and the NWSL with Portland Thorns, knows what it takes to win trophies but she does not feel the need to push her experience to the fore.
“Everybody knows they need to step up and be at the top of their game to perform in a game like this one,” she says. “Other people, other fans, other teams, maybe don’t expect us to win. For me, coming into a new team, I don’t know much else and I’m gunning to win games. I see the group that we’ve got together, that Willie Kirk’s put together, how ambitious he is as a coach and how well we’ve been training, so for us it’s just kind of standard.”
She says she feels honoured to be getting ready for Wembley so early in her career in England and not having a crowd there “will be a little disappointing but it doesn’t change how big the game is”.
For Raso, who is also a paramedic, every moment like Sunday’s final means more. In 2018 the forward collided with Washington Spirit’s goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe fracturing three of Raso’s vertebrae. Initially unable to move and believing she would never play again, Raso returned to the pitch, having relearned how to walk, after six months, scoring on her return for the Matildas against New Zealand in March 2019.
“Going from a back injury and being at one of the lowest points in my life, I’ve learned not to take football or anything for granted,” she says. “I cherish every game I get to play and every training session I get to do, because I know how easily it could have all been taken away from me. So to think about going to Wembley and playing in a cup final is just the cherry on the cake.”