Football

How Roodie got her football mojo back

Football Fern Katie Rood's career has had its ups and downs, but she may have found her happy place - as a vegan and environmentalist at the only club in the world to pay women and men equally. 

It’s striking what Football Ferns forward Katie Rood’s career to date illuminates about how women’s football has developed over the last decade - and how it could evolve in the future.

There’s the progressive nature of the club she plays for, Lewes FC. They play in England’s FA Women's Super League 2, or Women’s Championship, the second tier of women’s football in England, which has a mix of semi and fully professional teams.

The Sussex club made headlines in 2017 when they became the first (and, so far, only) professional or semi-professional football club in the world to pay its men’s and women’s teams equally.

The club is also unusual in that both its men’s and women’s first teams play their home matches on the club’s number one pitch, ‘The Dripping Pan’ - a former priory dating back (at least in recorded history) to the early 18th century.

Rood - known as 'Roodie' - first heard of Lewes and wanted to play for them when they released their Equality FC video.

There was a hitch, though. “I looked them up and they were in the third division,” the 27-year-old forward says.

“But since then they obviously got into the championship and they've got a new coach [Fran Alonso] and a new identity. And they're really pushing that on the football stuff as well as all the important stuff off it.”

There’s also the pathway Rood’s professional football career has taken. The Northlander didn’t make her Football Ferns debut until 2017 (despite being in and around training squads since 2010) and didn’t sign her first professional contract until she was 24.

The delayed start testifies that the challenges footballers face in the early stages of their careers are magnified in the women’s game.

Picking up injuries that are commonplace for young players (a stress fracture in her foot ruled her out of contention for a place at the 2010 U-20 World Cup and then the 2011 World Cup in Germany) coupled with the unstable, fragmented nature of the women’s professional game.

In 2012, for example, she had a brief stint at the now defunct Lincoln Ladies, after a club director, who happened to be one of her former coaches in New Zealand, got in touch. At the time the club featured former England captain and current Manchester United manager Casey Stoney, and current Matilda Laura Brock (née Alleway).

And while the football’s technical standard was a step up from what she was used to, her experience at the club was also a world away from what she envisaged.

“I thought it would be a lot more professional than it was - we trained three times a week,” Rood recalls.

“The club could just get away with so much - like I didn't get paid a cent while I was over there, and there was no safeguarding of the players back then, or regulations for the club to stick to.”

Rood made just one appearance for the side, leaving after picking up a knee injury. But her time in the East Midlands gave her a glimpse of the standard she hoped to play at one day.

Her return to New Zealand saw her re-join club team Glenfield Rovers, a time which she credits as the biggest influence on her development as a player.

From 2013 to 2017, she became the record goal-scorer in the Kate Sheppard Cup (New Zealand’s pinnacle national club competition for women’s football) with 37 goals. Rovers also lifted the trophy in 2011, 2014 and 2015, and she won the Maia Jackman Trophy for MVP in the 2014 final. She’s also a three-time winner of the National Women’s League with the Northern Football Federation (now the Northern Lights) - this season’s defeated NWL grand finalists.

Rood also became a vegan during this time, despite being a self-confessed “dairy addict”.

She’s one of an increasing number in football, with proponents including fellow Football Fern Erin Naylor and USA striker Alex Morgan. In the men’s game, English fourth-tier side Forest Green Rovers is believed to be the world’s first (and possibly only) vegan professional football club.

Katie Rood (right) playing for Lewes, contests the ball with Manchester United's Katie Zelem. Photo: Getty Images.

After watching the Earthlings documentary, Rood’s decision to become vegan was twofold: the environmental impact of agriculture and her role in contributing to it as a consumer - “I learnt about the environmental issues and I felt I can't call myself an environmentalist and continue to pay for that stuff” - and the impact of the industry on animal welfare.

The benefits, she says, proved to be more than just for her conscience. She found that a fortnight after making the switch, instead of feeling “depleted or sick”, she was recovering from games faster, had more energy and wasn’t picking up the niggly injuries she used to.

“For five years I had just been injured. I’d pick up a minor injury or a semi-severe injury every season that would keep me out for three to four weeks. So I never had that consistency of playing every season,” Rood says.

“Up until very recently, it was the first time that I'd been out for more than two weeks in the last four years. I think so much of that stems from the diet. I was just able to recover so much quicker, which meant that I could gym harder, I could run further. I was mentally clearer.”

Her entry to the professional game came with the help of her time with the domestic Football Ferns Development Programme (FFDP), which was designed to bridge the gap between New Zealand’s domestic game and professional club environments.

“They were collecting footage, which I think was the biggest thing for me,” she says. “Over all the years I’d been playing, I didn't have a lot of footage. And then I had consistent footage from games in a short period of time. And they helped me put together a video which somehow found its way to Europe.”

Specifically, the footage found its way to Italian giants Juventus. She signed for the club’s inaugural women’s team in 2017, and the side went on to win the Scudetto (Italian league).

By signing for Juventus, Rood showed how it’s possible for New Zealand-based players to go on to carve out a professional career without playing for the Football Ferns.

“I hadn't really considered that I could have a career in football without making the New Zealand team,” she says.

“If you go back five years, you pretty much had to represent a country like New Zealand to be able to get the recognition to be even given a trial. I think it shows how much the game has grown.”

Katie Rood (right) celebrates winning the 2018 Serie A Women final with her Juventus team-mates: Photo: Getty Images. 

But just as she found that playing for the national team wasn’t a necessity for playing professionally, Rood conversely found that playing professionally hasn’t guaranteed game time for the Football Ferns - despite signing for Bristol Rovers in 2018, then going to current club Lewes FC on loan at the start of this year in order to maximise game time.

While she won her first Ferns cap shortly after signing for Juventus, against international powerhouse the USA in September 2017, she was “bitterly disappointed” not to make the Football Ferns squad for this year’s World Cup.

“I thought I was tracking well to be selected as I had scored a few for New Zealand and I was doing the same at club level,” she says. “To finally get so close and be cut at the last phase was heart-breaking and hard to process. I was on standby in case anyone got injured, so I was still holding onto the dream right up until 24 hours before the first match.”

It also meant some time reassessing what having a career in football meant to her.

“It took some time to get back to it, but playing for Lewes helped remind me that football’s so much more than just results and major tournaments,” she says.

“I went to women’s groups and spoke about how becoming a Lewes FC owner and coming to watch our games is a way to combat sexism and promote equality. I talked to schools about my journey and watched the kids’ eyes light up as I spoke about the things I’m passionate about.

“Eventually I realised that I’m valued here at this club and in this community, and I can use football as a vehicle to connect and engage with people.”

And engage she has done. During the World Cup, Rood appeared on the UK’s Channel 5 talking about the progression of women’s football in England.  She's also a keen YouTuber, making regular videos on her Roodie Roo channel.  

Last week she was a speaker in Madrid at ‘Force: Football’s Response to the Climate Emergency’, a parallel event to COP25. Being at Lewes FC has enabled her to pursue her passions for environmentalism and social justice.

“The biggest thing I’ve learnt from this is that it’s really hard to play at your best when you’re in an environment you can’t flourish in,” she says.  

“The pay, the facilities, the prestige - it’s all secondary to me now. I want to feel content and confident and I’ve found that here at Lewes. They invest time and belief in me and it enables me to give my best back to the team and the wider community.”

The early signs are that this is also helping Rood rediscover her mojo on the pitch.

The week before the Football Ferns assembled for their final 2019 hit-out in China - where Rood was recalled into the squad - she scored a screamer against Chelsea. Pouncing on a mis-controlled ball from England defender Millie Bright, she bombed down the left wing and curled a shot past a helpless Carly Telford.

Finding her form and confidence again, the forward is set on her next challenges.

“I still have the Olympic dream etched firmly in my mind - it’s been there as long as I can remember,” Rood says. “And although I believe I can contribute to the team and I’m going to keep working hard over here, I’m not going to hang my sense of worth on whether I’m selected or not.”

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