Mackenzie Hawkesby still can not quite believe she’s here.
We’re sitting at the headquarters of Football Australia in Sydney on a clear, crisp morning in early June. The 22-year-old is wearing a sky blue Matildas polo, still with its fold marks and fresh-from-the-box smell. The bright green logo of “Australia” catches the light as she looks out across the harbor.
She shakes her head slightly in disbelief.
“This is honestly a dream come true,” she says.
It’s a bit of a cliché line for footballers these days, but when you listen to Hawkesby’s story, you believe every word of it; you begin to understand just how powerful a dream can be.
Because Mackenzie Hawkesby’s story is not typical. Her journey does not go smoothly from A to B, like that of most prodigious footballers.
Instead, it’s been more of a maze that has taken her mostly backwards or sideways over the course of her career.
“My story is a little bit different,” she says.
“I was playing at Figtree and I was playing with the boys until I was in under-12s because we did not have a girls’ league at all [in Wollongong]. And then I moved to the Illawarra Stingrays, and from there I moved to the NSW Institute.
“I’ve been traveling up to Sydney my whole life. I haven’t played much in the national teams; I’ve only been called up to the under-20s once. I was never really in the frame for anything.
“I went to the Wanderers, I was signed but I did not play. And I’ve sort of just been in and around the league. I was lost. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get a W-League contract again. It felt like it was all over before it really began. “
By the time she was in her late teens, Hawkesby was already a footballing journeywoman, jumping from club to club with a slowly dwindling hope that she would reach the future she had always imagined for herself: representing the Matildas.
But after spending a season in reserve-grade with Sydney University, it finally happened. Sydney Olympic – an emerging giant of the Australian women’s club game – came knocking.
Or, more specifically, Olympic technical director and Sydney FC head coach Ante Juric did.
“I was lucky enough to see [Hawkesby] at the NSW Institute when I was with [Football Australia]”Juric, who previously worked with the Junior Matildas, told ABC Sport.
“I remember her bombing on, I remember her motor, I remember her fight and her creativity, and just thinking, ‘gee, this girl is good’. I’d had her name written down on a piece of paper, but no- one selected her; no-one else picked her up.
“And then a couple of years later, I saw her again randomly and was like, ‘why aren’t you playing W-League?’. So I brought her in.
“I’m so proud because she came from nowhere, but has taken the league by storm.”
Sitting here now, Hawkesby tears up realizing the importance of that sliding-doors moment.
Since meeting Juric and joining Sydney FC in 2019, she’s gone from a fringe player whose dreams were fading to one of the country’s most exciting young footballers.
“When I came to Sydney, everything changed,” Hawkesby says.
“Ante took a chance on me, and in the last three years, I’ve blossomed in ways I never thought I would.
“I get emotional when I talk about it because you do not really get many coaches who really believe in you, especially when you’re young and have come from nowhere. I hope I’ve been able to pay him back.
“It was the best decision I ever made. It really ignited something in my football when, before that, I was totally lost. It honestly changed my life.”
It’s changed the league, too. Last season, Hawkesby – the self-described “late-bloomer” – played every available minute for Sydney FC and led the league in assists (10), crosses (102) and chances created (47), while also contributing five goals herself.
Alongside fellow Matildas debutant Taylor Ray, Hawkesby filled the shoes of departed captain and idol Teresa Polias to become the inexhaustible central engine of the premiership-winning club, as well as the league’s most creative player: the regista who pulled their central strings and dictated the direction and rhythms of play.
Her stellar season also saw her win the club’s player of the year award earlier this month.
Now, she is on the verge of making her Matildas debut on Sunday morning against European heavyweights Spain – led by Ballon D’Or winner and Barcelona captain Alexia Putellas – followed by Portugal later in the week.
She has taken the road less traveled to get there, but is all the more mature, well-rounded, and humble for it.
“I almost fell to the floor,” she says, remembering the moment she got the email from head coach Tony Gustavsson.
“I wanted this my whole life. I think I knew I had it in me to become the player that I am now, but it’s still such a shock.
“The last three years… I’ve worked really, really hard. I’ve tried to not only put the effort into soccer but into myself and into those around me.
“My family has contributed to a lot of that. I have to leave the house at least two hours before a session. For morning sessions, I have to crash at someone’s house [nearby]. I’ve had to catch trains up and back to Sydney, getting home at 10 o’clock at night, then up again the next day.
“It’s been a whirlwind, I’m not gonna lie. But at the end of it all, I’m here. This is my dream. Everything I’ve been through is worth it.”