Composed midfielder Elise Mamanu-Gray once came close to hanging up her football boots for good but will be delighted she didn’t as a debut appearance for the Football Ferns now beckons.
The potential of the 26-year-old was noticed at a young age and she was very much in the frame to represent her country on home soil at the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2008. But she suffered heartbreak when she missed out on a place in the final squad and was left with a sense of déjà vu two years later.
This time, she was again on the verge of starring for New Zealand at a World Cup as part of the U-20 national team set up but once more did not make the cut for the main event in Germany in 2010. The double dose of disappointment hit Mamanu-Gray hard and left her contemplating her future in the game.
“It was quite hard to take,” she admitted.
“It was a moment where I had to decide if I wanted to keep pushing on or if football wasn’t really my thing. But it definitely made me more determined, I wasn’t quite sure of the path I was going to take but I knew I wanted to keep playing and make the Ferns. I didn’t know if that would be in the short-term or long-term but it’s always been my motivation and my drive,” she added.
“Having the support of my family really helped me through that time, they were really wonderful about it and were supportive of any decision I made, which made it a lot easier. I grew a lot through the experience and I think that’s helped me off the pitch but also on it.”
Coming back from those earlier disappointments also made her call-up to the Football Ferns, which finally came for this month’s two-match tour of Thailand, all the more sweet.
“It’s all been worth it,” she said. “Not knowing I was on the radar and then hearing that news gave me a lot of pride and it was very humbling to get that after so many years and having that disappointment early on.”
Despite being out of the international scene for so long, the Southern United skipper never gave up hope of wearing the silver fern again but admits there were times when it seemed like that would not be a possibility.
“I’ve always held onto that hope and it’s always been a dream. But obviously it was such a long time between the U-20 campaign and now that there were moments when maybe I had other focuses and priorities,” she says.
“But it was always in the back of my mind and something I was slowly working towards. I was always conscious I wanted to achieve that so to finally do it is wonderful.”
After missing out on the U-20 World Cup, Mamanu-Gray rediscovered her passion for football on a college scholarship in the United States and later found herself in Australia starring for Melbourne club Heidelberg United. She was lured back to her home town of Dunedin by Southern coach Terry Parle and has played a key role as the previous strugglers have confounded expectations by earning a place in the National Women’s League play-offs.
She is looking forward to returning to help her side secure what would be a maiden title but, having worked so hard to get her Football Ferns opportunity, there is no danger of her not being fully focused on the task at hand in Thailand.
“I feel a lot of gratitude for being here and, with this being my first tour, I want to soak it all up. The main part is having that experience and figuring out what I need to improve and how I can fit into the team,” she said.
“A lot of these players are ones I’ve looked up to throughout my footballing career and I think they’re doing a great thing for women’s football. Just to be training alongside them is really wonderful. But I want to solidify my place in the squad and going professional would definitely be my next step.”
Football Ferns Match Schedule
Thailand vs New Zealand
Saturday 25 November, 5pm (11pm NZT)
PAT Stadium, Bangkok
Thailand vs New Zealand
Tuesday 28 November, 5pm (11pm NZT)
SCG Stadium, Bangkok