Kyra Cooney-Cross has become one of Australia’s top players over the last year and a key figure at the World Cup. Nick D’Urbano charts Cooney-Cross’s journey from her junior days.
It’s safe to assume that Kyra Cooney-Cross will never love doing media work, but she may have to get used to it as her profile continues its steep ascent.
Some players are just destined for the big stage and even Cooney-Cross’s inadvertent verbal slip-up in answering journalists’ questions about Sam Kerr this week just illustrates how far he has come at a precocious age.
Far more confident on the pitch, even under the bright lights of Stadium Australia in front of 75,000+ fans and millions watching across the world, Cooney-Cross took to the Matildas’ FIFA Women’s World Cup opener against Republic of Ireland last Thursday like a duck to water.
To those who have seen her rise through the ranks to become a 21-year-old international, watching her fit right in on the world stage is really no surprise.
“You just knew she was going to make it,” Ballarat City’s women’s team head coach and Cooney-Cross’ former mentor Tessa Curtain told KEEPUP.
Make it she has and then some. The years of hard work, bouncing from state-to-state as a junior and the enormous sacrifices all came full circle when she made her Women’s World Cup bow last week.
Featured image: Ballarat City and Football Victoria
Like many others, Cooney-Cross has had a long, winding journey through the highly competitive junior ranks in Australia. She’s dealt with a number of curveballs throughout her young life which could have driven her off-course.
However, her determination to succeed and make it on the highest stage won over.
Cooney-Cross was born into a football family on the Sunshine Coast. Her dad, Jai, played semi-professionally for Sunshine Coast Fire and immersed Kyra – the eldest of four daughters – into the game from a very young age.
She started playing at age five in Queensland, where she looked right at home. Her natural footballing ability stood out immediately to those closest to her.
“When she first started, at five or six years old, she was outdoing the boys, and that’s who she competed with,” her dad Jai told Optus Sport.
“She wanted to be the best – she didn’t care if she was a girl, she just considered herself an equal.
“We’d be camping somewhere and she’d want to play with the boys, who didn’t think much of it, and I’m kinda thinking to myself, Oh yeah, just you boys wait. Then they’d see her play and they’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah she’s on our team’.
“The passing range she has now, the things she sees? They are things she’s had since she was a kid, and you can’t teach that kind of stuff – they just came naturally to her.”
However, Cooney-Cross’ destiny laid elsewhere, as her family made their way from the Sunshine Coast, to Alice Springs and then to Victorian regional centres: Ballarat and eventually – Torquay.
She attended six schools in four states, and faced all the obstacles associated with moving from town-to-town, meeting new friends, joining a myriad of new football clubs – all coupled with her parents’ marriage breaking down.
But football remained her key focus.
When Cooney-Cross arrived down south, she joined Ballarat City – one of the largest football clubs in regional Victoria – working under the tutelage of Curtain.
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Cooney-Cross’ former coach recalled to KEEPUP her first memories meeting the future Matilda: “She was a quiet girl, she took a little bit to sort of warm up, but, she’s also pretty cheeky so she was a lot of fun.
“I played in the senior team too, So when she trained with the seniors, I got to train with her and yeah, I think quiet but cheeky is probably a good way to describe her when she was young.”
Curtain saw Cooney-Cross’ talent immediately, saying she had the ‘full package’ in her kit-bag.
The dribbling, speed and smarts were all further honed on the training fields of Ballarat for the best part of three years. At one of the homes of Victoria’s gold rush in the 1850s, Curtain had found precious metal.
“She was so, so talented, so skilful,” Curtain recalled.
“She was playing in an Under 16 comp when she was 12 and she trained for our seniors as well and even though she was obviously smaller, just her skill and her speed, it didn’t matter.
“She was just awesome to watch, from our sort of juniors all the way up to the seniors. You just love to watch her.”
Curtain wasn’t the only one who believed she had what it took to reach the very top either.
Cooney-Cross’ journey was documented through ABC’s documentary – KICK! – along with a host of aspiring young players including Sofia Sakalis, Alana Jancevski, Paige Zois, Nia Stamatopoulos and Miette Giogio.
Her intro in episode one was almost prophetic: “When it comes to a footballer who has the x-factor and the ability to go all the way to the top then Kyra Cooney-Cross comes to mind.
During the time of filming, she had moved into Football Victoria’s NTC program and earned a Junior and Young Matildas call-up in the process – playing at the 2017 U16 AFC Championship for the former.
At NTC, she played alongside Sakalis, who has now become a key player for Perth Glory.
“She played as a winger and attacking midfielder at the tournament, she and Sofia Sakalis formed a great partnership in the midfield which helped Victoria win the championship that year,” FV Girls Talent Development Manager Annick Fokchak told Football Victoria’s website.
“As coaches then, we knew that she would be identified for the Junior Matildas and then into the Young Matildas, and the rest as they say is history. It’s all credit to her hard work and drive to become the player she is now.”
Cooney-Cross’ time at NTC required 90-minute trips to Melbourne from her home on Victoria’s surf coast. At times, her single mother Jessica would complete the three hour round-trip five times a week to help a teenaged Cooney-Cross realise her footballing dreams – all while juggling her own occupational therapy studies and seeking employment.
The sacrifice and hard work paid off, as Cooney-Cross’ performances caught the eye of clubs and national youth sides.
Melbourne Victory were the ones who came calling and at age 15, Cooney-Cross signed her first professional contract in 2017. In her first season, she was thrown in the deep end by coach Jeff Hopkins, featuring in all 12 of Victory’s matches and scoring two goals along the way.
In her initial stint at the club, she played alongside Grace Maher, who witnessed her make strides into the professional game – before eventually becoming her midfield counterpart after departing.
“She’s an awesome girl, she’s a funny character,” Maher said on Dub at the Cup.
“Probably not the first person in the media to go to to ask questions but she has blossomed into this player that has become a mature player and such a reliable player at such a young age.
“And she’s also come from this journey of being an attacking player, an individual player to now being a six and someone who’s really the gel of the team.
“I’ve watched her grow and I’ve just been so impressed with how she’s gone.”
However, in their one season together, Cooney-Cross fell out of favour at Victory and opted to move to Western Sydney the following year, in order to not only get back to playing regular football, but regain her self confidence.
Around the same time, Cooney-Cross had successfully navigated the challenges of having to relocate to Sydney solo, in order to train with the Future Matildas program in 2018 and went on completed her studies at Westfield Sports High.
She was also on the periphery of the national team, having been selected as a standby player for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup – despite never playing for the Matildas – and was dominating at Young Matildas level.
However, she needed a fresh start elsewhere at club level.
Cooney-Cross thrived at Wanderland, putting together a breakout season, scoring four goals and tallying three assists – playing alongside the likes of O’Sullivan, USWNT international Lynn Williams and Amy Harrison.
But after a single season, Cooney-Cross returned to Victory ahead of the 2020-21 Liberty A-League campaign – reuniting with Hopkins.
It was in her second tenure where Cooney-Cross emerged as a genuine star of the competition, playing as both a central midfielder and in her more natural position out wide.
Her memorable goal in the 2021 A-League Women’s Grand Final lives long in Australian football folklore, where her ‘Olimpico’ in the dying moments of extra time helped Victory to an upset win over Sydney FC.
The following year she played an integral role in helping Victory go back-to-back, as they once again beat the Sky Blues on their home deck in the decider. Her one-two punch with national teammate Alex Chidiac was one of the most devastating in the competition.
Cooney-Cross’s two seasons at the ‘Vuck’ put her firmly on Gustavsson’s radar, earning a debut call-up in 2021 and a spot in their squad for the Tokyo Olympics where she played largely off the bench.
Since then, she’s risen through the depth chart and staked her claim in not only a highly competitive race for a squad berth – but a starting position. In fact, she’s one of the first names on the team sheet, forging a brilliant partnership with midfield maestro Gorry.
The man who signed her, not once, but twice – Hopkins – played an enormous role in her development into the player she is now.
Days after her star showing in the Matildas’ win over England in April, Hopkins’ face lit-up when asked by KEEPUP about his thoughts on Cooney-Cross’ development and seeing her flourish on the big stage against some of the best the world has to offer.
“To see some of the young players that have been here at the club like, great to see Kyra. She was in her element, slide tackling, but also just the way that she’s developed,” he said.
“Since she’s gone over to Europe, she’s taken another big step forward and yeah, it’s really great to see players like that, just developing and thriving in their new environments.”
Cooney-Cross has since traded the navy blue and white chevron of Victory for the green-and-white stripes of Hammarby in Sweden, where she’s now played for the last two seasons. She is almost certainly set to fall on the radar of some of Europe’s elite at this World Cup – if she hasn’t already.
For Curtain, she can’t help but feel a sense of pride seeing Cooney-Cross become the player she is now, having seen the hard work she has put in over the years to reach the very top of international football.
“I can’t take much credit to be honest, but I’m super proud,” she said.
“Just really proud to to know her. It’s incredible just to have met her and to have played a little role.
“I’ve still got a bit to do with her. I chat to her every now and seeing her progress from when she was 12, here in Ballarat, going to Melbourne, Sweden as well and then getting picked (for the World Cup).
“It’s just amazing. She’s so worked so hard for it.”
And she hopes her example can help pave the way and inspire many other youngsters coming through the ranks back home in Ballarat to reach for the stars.
“I think it’s inspiring for our young ones, even just to sort of push themselves,” she said.
“Hopefully this (the World Cup) gets more kids playing, participation hopefully increases and keeps girls and women in the game as well… however far they want to go.
“I think it would definitely inspire some of our juniors.”
As for her ceiling?
“You don’t know what the future holds, but you can just see her hopefully getting better,” Curtain said.
“I think because she was so good from an early age and she is still so young. It’s just really exciting to think how much better she’s gonna get.
“I feel like the sky is the limit.”