Nicole Stratford had just returned from England, where she had been watching the Football Ferns play as a supporter, when she received the phone call from coach Tom Sermanni.
The 30-year-old Auckland police officer, who has never been involved in a Football Ferns squad nor played professional football, was informed that key defender Meikayla Moore had ruptured her Achilles on the eve of the Women’s World Cup and she was the player Sermanni wanted to bring in as the replacement.
Still battling jet lag from her trip to the UK, Stratford, a defender from Glenfield Rovers who was recently brought into the Future Ferns Domestic Programme, immediately organised extended leave from work and was soon making her way to France in what she described as “unusual” circumstances.
“I pretty much just gave my sergeant a call as soon as I found out and I was on a plane not too much later. It was pretty smooth sailing,” an elated Stratford told Stuff after arriving in Le Havre.
“I really feel for Mouse [Moore] because she’s put a lot of work in to get to where she’s at prior to the World Cup. But I’m excited for the opportunity and feel really fortunate to take it up.
“It’s funny because two days prior I had just flown back from the UK. I was actually over here watching a couple of the matches and so I was jet lagged and asleep when Tom called. I had just gone for a couple of weeks for a holiday because my partner is British so we just timed it so we would watch a couple of matches against England and Wales.”
Stratford’s first involvement with the Football Ferns came via the warm-up prior to their 1-0 defeat against the Netherlands, a game decided on a heartbreaking goal from substitute Jill Roord in stoppage time.
She said it was a surreal experience to be a part of.
“I had flown in the day before and then I was kitted up on the bench for the first match,” she said.
“It was an unreal experience being involved and being on the bench. New Zealand is really pushing for better things on the world stage and I think that was one of those games where we really showed the world that we are ready to compete, and I was really humbled to be a part of that.
“It’s really good to be in this environment, it’s quite unfamiliar so I’m just settling in and seeing how things work, but training at this level and being involved is a really positive experience. I didn’t think I would be in any position close to this even in a year’s time. You set goals for yourself but you sort of have to wait for things to fall your way a bit.”
Stratford played alongside senior Football Ferns players Abby Erceg, Ria Pervical, Annalie Longo, Katie Duncan and Victoria Esson at the Under-20 World Cup in 2008. That was the only time she has represented New Zealand.
But despite plugging away in the club scene for the last decade, she never gave up the dream of playing for the Football Ferns and made a conscious effort to give it one last crack during the most recent National Women’s League season, where she played for Northern Lights.
From there she was invited to join the Future Ferns Development Programme, where a group of the New Zealand’s most talented domestic players train and play together, and she clearly caught the eye of Sermanni.
“I probably went more into a casual career and stayed playing National Women’s League but I wasn’t overly confident in my ability to get to this level. Then just over the last year I decided to try push it,” she said.
“My first involvement was at the camp at the start of the year and then I got involved in the development programme that they run in Auckland and I’ve been using that to develop and get a little bit better with the hope of getting myself in position to be available for the Olympics next year.
“That sort of was my goal, this wasn’t on my radar as much but I’m just trying to improve as quickly as possible to put my hand up.”
The Football Ferns take on Canada in their second Group E match on Sunday morning (NZT).