Sydney FC midfielder Taylor Ray suffered her third ACL tear just one day after her Matildas debut. Now she’s back pulling the strings for the Sky Blues – and has an inspirational story to tell our current crop of stars struck by the dreaded injury.
Their stories are so similar it’s uncanny; two of Australia’s brightest and best young footballers who, just days after major Matildas opportunities, were struck by a third anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury.
The first is Holly McNamara, the Melbourne City winger who earned a national team recall just last week off the back of an electric start to the 2023-24 Liberty A-League season.
The next day, the 20-year-old went down in the box in the motion of scoring a match-winning goal for City against Newcastle Jets, and this week her worst fears were confirmed: a third ACL tear in six years, and another season forced on the sidelines.
The second player is Taylor Ray.
Sydney FC’s 22-year-old talent overcame two ACL tears to debut for the Matildas against Spain in June of 2022. The next day, a contact injury in training led to the disastrous reality of Ray rupturing an ACL for the third time.
Only now is the Ray back into the swing of a football career which, at the time of her third significant injury, she feared could be over.
“Going over to Spain and being called up into the Matildas was obviously a lifelong dream,” Ray tells aleagues.com.au. “You work so hard to get the opportunity, and debuting that Saturday was such a surreal feeling. It makes you finally feel proud of yourself.
“I’m quite hard on myself. When I did my first and second ACL injuries I felt like I had let my family down; because I’m from North Queensland, I uprooted my life to Sydney and came here with a purpose.
“So when I lost football, which is a big part of who I am as a person, I honestly thought: ‘I’ve let people down again’.
“When I finally made my Matildas debut I was so ecstatic and so happy that I could finally be proud of myself, and to my family who had made all these sacrifices to get me there. It was amazing, right?
“Then, the next day came around.”
As Ray looks back on her third ACL tear, suffered just hours after her Matildas debut, she tells the story with four people in mind.
Natalie Tobin, Grace Kuilamu, Chelsea Blissett and Holly McNamara. The four players who have suffered ACL tears just five rounds into this Liberty A-League season.
“It was a contact injury,” recalls Ray.
“Honestly, I knew straight away. The feeling, the motion of the knee collapsing inwards. The pop sound, and then straight away, screaming and excruciating pain. I was yelling out: ‘I just want to go home’.
“My teammates all knew I had done two ACLs prior, Princess Ibini was there for my first and second ACL, so she’s witnessed all three. For my best friends to see me in so much pain and yelling out: ‘Why me again?’ For them, that’s an emotional experience. And of course for me, I knew what I had done. You just know. And the hardest bit is thinking: ‘I’m in a different country, I can’t even call my mum and dad because of the time difference’.
“All the things going through your head were probably going through Holly’s head: ‘What did I do wrong before training that maybe led to this? Did I plant my foot in a weird position for it to happen?’ For me, it was a contact injury. It’s better knowing it was contact than non-contact because it means it’s not purely just on you and the biomechanics of your body.
“No words can explain that feeling, going from one of the best moments of your career to the worst moment of your career.
“You know you’re going to be out for 12 months, and that’s the hardest bit to digest: that I can’t play the sport that makes me who I am. You start to think: Who am I, without football? That’s what the journey of an ACL is about.
“A lot of people didn’t expect me to come back. After the first few days, I was tossing up if it was even worth me coming back.
“But then I thought: there’s no way I’m not returning. If someone says I can’t do something, I’m going to do the opposite. Challenge accepted. That’s why I can say my mentality is so strong and I’m so resilient in that way.
“I have a mindset right now that if it’s going to happen, it f****** will, so I’m going into my career with no fear anymore.”
Then, Ray casts her mind back to 2019, and her second ACL tear suffered in her teens.
At that time, she was a member of the Future Matildas, which operated in the off-season of the Liberty A-League to provide an environment for international stars of the future to continue their development.
Ray spent her days there rehabilitating her knee alongside a fellow Future Matilda going through the very same. Unbeknownst to either of them, it was just the first chapter of their intertwined story.
“When I did my second ACL rehabilitation process, Holly McNamara, believe it or not, was going through her first,” Ray said.
“We gave a bit of guidance to one another on that journey back then. To see she’s now done three like I have is so sad to see, and also Chelsea Blissett who is one of my good friends as well through being in Future Matildas together.
“No one understands what that is like unless you’ve done one. It was just having someone else there who was doing your exercises and drills. At the end of each session, we’d ask how we were both feeling. She’d come up to me and ask: ‘Does this feel normal? It feels really stiff today, is that a normal side effect after surgery?’ And I’d reply: ‘Yes, it’s very normal’.
“Things came up unexpectedly whether it was swelling in the knee, or pain – if you’ve had a hamstring graft you might get pain in your hamstring and want to know if it’s normal. It’s just communication about what you’re feeling, how it’s feeling and if it’s normal or not. To have one another through the Future Matildas program was very beneficial not only physically but for the emotional and mental side for both of us.”
Their shared history is what made watching McNamara go down clutching her right knee against the Jets on Sunday all the more excruciating.
Just like Ray, who fell to the floor in Matildas training, screaming: ‘Why me again?’ With the instant knowing of the injury that transpired – you could see the very same in McNamara’s reaction: the pain, the tears, the knowing.
Ray hopes that when the initial shock of a third ACL tear has passed, McNamara will pick up the phone and lean on her for support.
“It’s actually such a coincidence that our stories are similar in that aspect,” Ray says. “I didn’t really put the two together.
“I messaged Holly (after the injury). But I just remember how overwhelming it was to receive hundreds of messages, so many phone calls, Instagram DM’s, people wanting to show their support. But you’re not in that emotional state to handle it.
“So I’m just letting it settle a bit, then I’ll reach out to them and have a chat and see if they want to talk about it, to rant or whatever it is.
“There are always a lot of questions that come up: what have I done wrong? I’ve done everything right from recovery to gym programs, to warming up properly and cooling down, so what is making this injury reoccur?
“But the biggest quote I go by is: trust in the process. That’s something I’ve told Holly and a lot of people through ACL journeys. You’ve just got to trust the process. But it’s also a time to reflect on strengths and weaknesses outside of football and see what there is out there.
“If you’re working on yourself and other areas of your life, that’s bringing you to a better development phase on the field too. You become a better person and a better player.
“I’ve been with Sydney FC for seven seasons now, and under (head coach) Ante Juric this entire time. Not once has he said he’s not going to sign me because of the injury risk.
“He told me as soon as I did it the third time: ‘You don’t have to stress. You’re already signed for next season, I can’t wait to see you back. You’re such a big part of this team and one of the biggest losses I’ve ever had to face before a season starts, but I know your work rate and you’ll come back better than before’.
“Generally, I do think when you do an ACL, you come back better. Yes, it takes time, but that’s the process. If you have that understanding – like what I’m trying to provide these girls going through it right now – you just have to trust it. If not physically straight away, it’s definitely going to be emotionally and mentally.”
Inspired to help any females going through their own ACL recovery journeys, Ray became an ambassador for Medibank’s ‘ACL United’ campaign in 2022.
She joined A-Leagues stars Kayla Morrison, Casey Dumont, international football stars Janine Beckie and Nadia Nadim, as well as icons such as Australian basketball great Lauren Jackson and AFLW legend Erin Phillips as one of the many faces of an initiative designed to raise vital awareness for an injury that females are up to five times more likely to suffer than men.
Medibank labelled it “the team nobody wants to join”.
Ray describes it as the injury nobody wants to talk about.
She hopes the prevalence of ACL tears early in the season doesn’t lead to the Australian football world shying away from addressing the significant problem at hand.
“I think it really needs to be spoken about more,” she says.
“We’re trying to not speak about ACL injuries because people are so scared of them, but the more people who know about it, the more we can try and get awareness, funding and research into this.
“We are losing some of the best players in Australia because of it. So how can we minimise that?
“We need to speak about it. I hope one day Holly speaks about her journey, because the more we speak about it the more it helps people. Younger people have reached out to me and said: ‘Your journey helped me’. That is so inspiring and touched my heart. I just want people to be able to speak about it openly, and not be scared. Yes, unfortunately, it’s common but the more we speak about it the better.”
Ray and Sydney FC are next in action in the Liberty A-League against Melbourne City on Sunday, November 26 at Sydney Olympic Park Athletic Centre.
Sydney FC v Melbourne City
Liberty A-League Round Six
Sunday 26th November 2023
Sydney Olympic Park Athletic Centre, Sydney, NSW
Kick Off: 4pm AEDT
Gates Open: 3pm AEDT
Broadcast Live: Paramount+ & 10Play
Tickets: Click Here